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It was very necessary for the early church to stand against doctrinal errors, such as Arianism and Sabellianism but, in the doing so, some chose to state a creed (the Athanasian Creed), rather than simply make reference to original scripture and it could be argued that the Athanasian Creed came to be regarded as 'scripture'.

Since the seventeenth century the Westminster Confession (and in its other forms, the Savoy Declaration and similar) has become the so-called 'subordinate standard' by which serious Christians (who acknowledge doctrinal issues and acknowledge the necessity of taking a stand on them) state their doctrine.

But is it the case, over the past few centuries, that the Westminster Confession has, in fact, become 'The Standard' and that the scripture has been relegated to a subordinate place ?

The Free Presbyterian website argues :

When a Confession corresponds to Scripture as an account of the Church’s understanding of what the truth of God is, it is quite out of place to suggest that requiring allegiance to the Confession is interfering with allegiance to the Word of God. For those who recognise the authority of God’s Word as the revelation of His will in every matter, a Confession of Faith is not a substitute for Scripture but a necessary expression and summary of what Scripture teaches.

FP Church.org

The Free Church of Scotland states :

Ever since the earliest days of the church, Christians have laid out their beliefs in brief ‘creeds’ or ’confessions’ in an attempt to summarise essential Christian truths and to guard the church from error. These statements are always secondary to the Bible but they are enormously helpful. A full summary of our teaching is found in the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Free Church of Scotland.org

The Church of Scotland goes even further :

The full Confession of Faith was agreed upon by the Assembly of Divines at Westminster and examined and approved in 1647 by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and ratified by Acts of Parliament in 1649 and 1690.

Church of Scotland.org

[Note the word "ratified"...OED 'To confirm or validate (an act, agreement, gift, etc.) by giving formal consent, approval, or sanction.']


So the first requires my 'allegiance' to the WC.

The second say that 'a full summary of their teaching is within it' (thus, they have not added to their teaching for three hundred and seventy years).

And the third advise me that the British Government have 'ratified' it.

Has, indeed, the Westminster Confession been accepted as 'The Standard' in the Protestant assemblies, to which the text of scripture must take a subordinate place ?

  • 2
    This seems like a rant disguised as a question. Obviously no reformed person is going to admit that they're subordinating scripture to the WCF, even if in practice that might be accurate. Nor can there really be any meaningful discussion leading on from your anecdotes. We can't know whether such a person who responds to your questions with the WCF is doing so because they thought you were asking what reformed people believe rather than how it's supported, or because they assumed you'd check the WCF's scripture references, or because they're bad at the process of theological discussion, etc. – curiousdannii Jul 2 '18 at 9:28
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    Given the WCF itself holds Scripture as the only rule of faith and practice, I struggle to see how someone could be logically consistent and claim to hold the WCF above Scripture. – Birdie Jul 2 '18 at 11:10
  • @curiousdannii I fully accept your argument. I have therefore deleted my personal experience and added (and will add more if I can) references to online statements. – Nigel J Jul 2 '18 at 12:43
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    The quotes are better than anecdotes, but I don't think they amount at all to scripture being subordinate. But that's something that can be handled in answers. – curiousdannii Jul 2 '18 at 13:49
  • Though it's a great question (I believe the answer is "yes"), this site is about what what Christian denominations and groups believe, not what people believe about Christian denominations and groups. – Lee Woofenden Jul 3 '18 at 16:00
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There is a particular problem with using the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) to either defend, or attack, doctrinal positions. It is that the Westminster Assembly (in the mid 1600s), and I quote:

“…was rather reluctant to include texts and only added them after the catechism had been completed. In other words, the original catechism was not prepared from a narrow, improper proof-texting of Scripture but from an overall consideration of Scripture. In written work based on the catechism it will be a worthwhile exercise to write out the texts and underline those parts which specially relate to the catechism answer.” Learning the Christian Faith – The Shorter Catechism for Today, Rowland S Ward, p4 (New Melbourne Press, 2009)

This means that catechisms based on the WCF provide lots of scripture references to be examined, so that you would find the scriptural points in support of the beliefs stated there, in abundance, while the WCF might appear to be rather short on scriptural verses. Is it possible that the quote you were given, that “Adam was created righteous,” never came from the WCF but from expanded notes in a catechism? I have searched for it from I to VII in the WCF. If, however, that phrase does occur in the WCF, the reference would be helpful. The doctrine of righteousness is certainly crucial to a correct understanding and appreciation of the gospel, yet some people would equate Adam being ‘righteous’ with his being created ‘perfect’ – without sin at the outset. To debate that is legitimate, yet to accuse someone of heresy for showing from the Bible why they disagree with the claim that Adam was created righteous is unreasonable.

For any Creed or Confession to be elevated to the ultimate authority for Christians, is heresy! More likely, some Christians just find the format easier to direct others to than picking up a Bible for themselves and going through relevant passages with another person. Perhaps they hope that by citing a Creed or a Confession, they will stop further debate. Unfortunately, that does give the unfortunate impression of basing one’s beliefs upon a Creed or a Confession, rather than by personal conviction from the scriptures. Here is the stance that these supporters of the WCF take on scripture, creeds, and ‘subordination’.

“Westminster Standards: confessional statements and catechisms developed and written by the Westminster Assembly in England during the years 1643-48. These standards include the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Westminster Larger Catechism, and the Westminster Shorter Catechism. These documents are the doctrinal standards (subordinate to Scripture) in Presbyterian churches throughout the world.” Pilgrim Theology, Michael Horton, p 473 (Zondervan, 2011)

Re. the WCF I.9 – “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture, (which is not manifold, but one) it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.” “…We have already seen (I, 1-2) that Roman Catholicism and other false religions join in the denial that the Bible is God’s complete revelation. They have in common the denial of the sufficiency of Scripture (against which, remember II Tim. 3:15-17). These religions also share another characteristic, namely, the denial that the Bible is capable of being understood without any necessary reference to any outside interpreter… As Dr. Cornelius Van Til reminds us, ‘No human interpreter needs come between the Scriptures and those to whom it comes.’ This view is opposed to clericalism… Again, this Reformed stand does not mean that every portion is equally easy to be understood. What it means is ‘that with ordinary intelligence any person can obtain’ from the Word of God itself ‘the main point of the things he needs to know’ (Van Til, Intro. To Systematic Theology, p 140). This doctrine can, of course, be abused. It is abused by those who cry ‘no creed but Christ!’ and then ignore the great creeds of the Church. In an odd way this itself is a denial of the clarity of Scripture, for it proceeds upon the assumption that in all history no one before us has been able to see the truth contained in God’s Word. It is precisely because we believe that the Bible is plain that we value the creeds. Hence, the creeds are evidence that the Bible is clear. The creeds represent the consensus of many, who therein testified that they plainly saw the same great truth revealed in the Bible. This does not mean that the creeds are ever on a par with the Bible. They must always be kept subordinate to the word of Scripture. They cannot be regarded as infallible. That attribute belongs to God’s Word alone.” pp. 18-19 of The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes by G.I. Williamson (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1964).

Any Christian professing to uphold the Bible as that infallible standard, above all others, may usefully point to some Creeds or Confessions but will do damage if they infer that that is their ultimate standard, or authority.

Sadly, today, there are many Protestant denominations that no longer claim to take the Bible as their ultimate standard and authority, but that should not be the case in any Reformed groups, especially not those that accept the WCF.

  • The debate over Adam being created righteous might also be about the question of double imputation - some reformed people believe Jesus takes away our sin and gives us his righteousness, while some believe they are one thing. I think my Presbyterian WCF lecturer doesn't believe in double imputation, but I think he said his was the minority position these days. I can't remember what the WCF says to the question, if anything at all. – curiousdannii Jul 2 '18 at 10:33
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    Have edited my post to add the ref, thanks. As for the example mentioned in the question and my mention of it in my answer, I'm not concerned about what some people in Reformed circles might say about double imputation. The concern I have is that the Bible be properly used to point people to Christ; showing from it that we have no righteousness in ourselves is key to explaining the gospel, but no debate about double imputation is ever needed to help sinners trust only in Christ! – Anne Jul 2 '18 at 11:47
  • @Anne Chapter 4, Section 2 of the WC states : After God had made all other creatures, he created man, male and female,d with reasonable and immortal souls,e endued with knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness, after his own image (Note : The WC does not explain what it means by 'endued'.) – Nigel J Jul 3 '18 at 16:33
  • @Nigel J Glad for the ref. Key to understanding is knowing how Adam was ‘endowed’ with righteousness due to being made ‘in the image of God’. I found this explanation in a Study Class book on the WCF under IV, 2. “But what is meant by ‘the image of God’? …man (in the totality of his physical-spiritual being) IS (rather than merely contains) the image of God… man’s capacity to exercise lordship over the earth as God’s image bearer was as physical as it was spiritual. And we believe that man was originally an image of the triune God in that he was a prophet, priest, and king. As there is in God – Anne Jul 3 '18 at 18:20
  • three persons in one essence, so in Adam’s person there was an endowed capacity of knowledge, holiness and righteousness. As a prophet man was endowed with the physical senses and mental ability to learn the truth. As a priest he possessed the sensibility and desire to worship God in true holiness. As a king he possessed the physical and mental power and ability to subject in righteousness all things to the purpose and will of God… in sinless man there was a reflection of this.” I make no comment on the veracity of this line of thought, but just state it for your consideration. – Anne Jul 3 '18 at 18:21
4

The entire line of reasoning you're following, from the quotes themselves to your re-statements of what the quotes mean to your final conclusion, takes some alogical jumps that end in a flat-out contradiction. The contradiction becomes plain if you start with the first quote:

When a Confession corresponds to Scripture as an account of the Church’s understanding of what the truth of God is, it is quite out of place to suggest that requiring allegiance to the Confession is interfering with allegiance to the Word of God. For those who recognise the authority of God’s Word as the revelation of His will in every matter, a Confession of Faith is not a substitute for Scripture but a necessary expression and summary of what Scripture teaches.

You'll note I added emphasis in different places than you did, to call out certain points of the quote:

  1. Confessions, to even have the importance they're ascribing in the first place, must correspond to Scripture. Scripture is the standard; the confession is subordinate.
  2. The intended audience for a confession is people who agree that God's Word, i.e. Scripture, is the final authority. These people won't be and can't be 'snookered' into treating the confession as a substitute for Scripture because they know better.

But despite these clear declarations restricting a confession to a subordinate position, you're calling out and focusing only on a single word -- "allegiance" -- and then proceed to ask,

Has, indeed, the Westminster Confession been accepted as 'The Standard' in the Protestant assemblies, to which the text of scripture must take a subordinate place ?

Given the full context of the quote, the answer is clearly No. The only way to conclude otherwise is by severely distorting and misinterpreting the wording. (The written word is much like a live person in that regard: torture it, and it'll say whatever you want it to.)

EDIT: This, by the by, is why confessions are created in the first place. It is far too easy for a well-meaning individual to go off the deep end with a wild misinterpretation of a statement in Scripture. It is easier still for this to happen with an individual who has a questionable agenda and wants to "prove" that the Bible backs it up. Confessions thwart these problems by providing a defensible, grounded interpretation of biblical teaching, and putting the burden of proof on the stumblers and cranks to defend their own assertions with the same rigor.

  • Your input and point of view are valued but I have one question for your consideration. What happens when a confession or creed is actually wrong in its own interpretation of scripture, and then allegiance is required to that statement in order for believers to be permitted fellowship ? As has happened with the WC. – Nigel J Jul 5 '18 at 12:00
  • @NigelJ, in such a case (presuming it's happened; in this article at least you haven't called out any wrong interpretations), the WC would then nullify itself by the self-imposed requirement that a confession must correspond to scripture. – JDM-GBG Jul 12 '18 at 22:26
2

Circumstances where a Subordinate Standard takes precedence over Scripture.

For some issues, in limited contexts, a Subordinate Standard is seen as more appropriate and authoritative, to the matter at hand, than Scripture.

Many denominations and individuals accept the Holy Scriptures as the source of all doctrine and the supreme rule in all matters of faith and morals. However, they do not all agree on the correct understanding of the Scriptures.

Most denominations have some form of secondary doctrinal standard and will be able to show how its various points of doctrine are derived from, and in accordance with, Scripture. Baptist churches usually subscribe to some standard which precludes infant baptism, and other churches usually have some standard which allows, or mandates, infant baptism. Both sides claim scriptural support for their view.

In a discussion as to whether infant baptism is right or wrong then arguments direct from the Bible would be used. Nothing in a particular Subordinate Standard is, of itself, relevant to that question. However, if a Baptist minister were to preach from the pulpit that babies should be baptised, and if he were to baptise one, that is a different matter. He might seek to justify infant baptism from the Bible in the same way that his Presbyterian and Anglican colleagues do; but that would be beside the point. As minister of a Baptist Church, his duty is to preach, by word and example, the particular understanding of Scripture which has been adopted in his denomination. The point at issue, his suitability for office, can only be decided by reference to the Subordinate Statement of his denomination.

Both believe that the Bible is authoritative but cannot agree on what the Bible teaches.

Questions of ultimate truth cannot be settled by a subordinate standard, but questions of what a particular denomination considers "heresy", or unacceptable, can.

The degree of assent which denominations require to Subordinate Statements varies. The main Presbyterian denominations in Scotland , including the national Church, require some form of assent to the Westminster Confession from ministers and elders (both of whom are ordained) but not directly from all communicant members. Some denominations may be stricter. Some may tolerate dissent. It may be acceptable for a minister to disagree with some things more than others, or to express divergent views in private, or with knowledgeable parishioners, which would not be acceptable addressed to a meeting of teenagers. Each denomination has its own rules and culture.

Has, indeed, the Westminster Confession been accepted as 'The Standard' in the Protestant assemblies, to which the text of scripture must take a subordinate place?

From 1711 until the early 20th century ministers in the Church of Scotland were asked the following question at ordination:

Do you sincerely own and believe the whole doctrine of the Confession of Faith, approven by the General Assemblies of this National Church, and ratified by law, in the year 1690, and frequently confirmed by divers Acts of Parliament since that time, to be the truths of God, contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments; and do you own the whole doctrine therein contained as the confession of your faith ?

An affirmative response was required.

The Free Church of Scotland still uses a very similar form of this question, though it says approven by the General Assemblies of this Church, rather than the National Church, and has no reference to law or parliament. However, since the early 20th century, the Church of Scotland has used this:

Do you believe the fundamental doctrines of the Christian Faith contained in the Confession of Faith of this Church?

and there is a preamble, spoken by the Moderator, which seems to give a somewhat qualified endorsement of the WCF

The Church of Scotland acknowledges the Word of God, which is contained in the Old and New Testaments to be the supreme rule of faith and life. It holds as its subordinate standard the Westminster Confession of Faith, recognising liberty of opinion on such points of doctrine as do not enter into the substance of the faith and claiming the right, in dependence on the promised guidance of the Holy Spirit, to formulate, interpret or modify its subordinate standards, always in agreement with the Word of God and the fundamental doctrines of the Christian Faith contained in the said Confession.

There is a considerable degree of wriggle-rom built into this, as it is not clear what exactly are fundamental doctrines constituting the substance of the faith, and what aspects of the WCF are subject to liberty of conscience.

In the 1970s there was an attempt to downgrade the Westminster Confession from Subordinate Standard to Historic Statement with this amendment:

The Church of Scotland acknowledges the Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed as Declarations of the Faith of the Universal Church. It is guided by the Scots Confession and the Westminster Confession as historic statements of the Faith of the Reformed Church.

To be approved this had to be passed by three successive annual General Assemblies, and in the two intervening years by two thirds of the Presbyteries, of which there were then 61. It did pass in 1972 and 1973 and was in each case approved by more than two thirds of the presbyteries. However the 1974 General Assembly voted to depart from the matter until an alternative Confession of Faith was available. This left the WCF intact as the subordinate standard of the C of S.

In 1986 General Assembly passed an act dissociating itself from certain aspects of the WCF, including the identification of the Pope as the Antichrist. However they did not alter the Subordinate Standard. The C of S is thus in the unusual position of repudiating aspects of its own Confession.

This year, 2018, an overtury from the Presbytery of Melrose and Peebles was accepted urging the Theological Commission to consider the Westminster Confession in the light of developments of Reformed and ecumenical theology since 1646. They are to report back to the General Assembly in 2020 and it is possible that there might then be an attempt to downgrade the WCF.

Meanwhile, South of the Border, a similar thing happened in the Church of England. The Westminster Confession has no official standing in England, rather the doctrine of the Church is in the 39 Articles and the Book of Common Prayer. Here too the ordination promise has been watered down. The preface refers to the C of E as "led by the Holy Spirit has borne witness to Christian Truth in its historic formularies, the 39 Articles. The ordinand must then say:

I do so affirm and declare my belief in the Faith which is revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the Catholic Creeds and to which the historic formularies of the Church of England bear witness,

This is a watering down, adopted in the 1970s, of a much stronger endorsement previously required. Any change in the Church of England's standards of the 39 Articles and the Book of Common Prayer would require an Act of Parliament. Nevertheless they are widely ignored.

In the twentieth century only one C of E minister was sacked for heresy, on the grounds he was an atheist, Actually he denied this, claiming that he did believe in God, and that one of the things he believed about Him was that He did not exist.

To summarise, north or south of the border, there is nothing to suggest that churchmen take their doctrinal standards more seriously than Scripture.

  • 'More authoritative ... than scripture.' So the answer to my original question is 'yes'. – Nigel J Jul 7 '18 at 1:25
  • @Nigel Only in limited contexts, just like how your country/state's criminal code is more authoritative than Leviticus for determining how criminals are to be judged. The supreme authority always remains God and his written word. – curiousdannii Jul 7 '18 at 13:00

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