Saturday, October 16, 2010

Why Do Presbyterians Use a Confession of Faith?

The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming book A Presbyterian Primer for Curious Christians.  It is a rough draft and subject to change.
The Reformed tradition is strongly creedal compared to today's non-reformed churches. This means that Reformed churches and denominations believe that it is appropriate to summarize the message of the Bible in the form of Statements of Faith. These are also known as Creeds or Confessions. These creeds are usually very old, testifying that they have been widely accepted and relied upon for centuries. They are important to Reformed Churches for several reasons:

  1. They are used as teaching tools to instruct church members concerning what the Bible teaches. 
  2. They are used as a standard of fellowship and agreement among churches and denominations. Churches that agree with a certain Statement of Faith generally know that their beliefs are similar and compatible. 
  3. They are used as a standard to protect the teaching of the church from the changing whims of culture and popular belief. 
Objections to Creeds 

Some object to the use of creeds claiming, "No Creed but the Bible." However, this objection fails to acknowledge that all Christians, churches, and denominations constantly state their faith by drawing conclusions from, summarizing, and preaching what is contained within the Bible. Unless one is willing to preach using only the words of Scripture and nothing else (in other words, to simply read the Bible aloud), one cannot avoid creating informal statements of faith every time one preaches. Even most modern, non-creedal churches include in their constitutions a brief Statement of Faith. They therefore have no grounds to deny creedal churches a more formal, lengthy, and time-honored Statement of Faith. Whether a church includes a brief summary of beliefs in a constitution, or summarizes Scripture through preaching and teaching, or relies upon the more extensive, time-tested creeds of the larger, older Church, all churches utilize Statements of Faith in some form or another.

The Westminster Confession of Faith

There are several widely-used Reformed creeds. For Presbyterians, the most important is the Westminster Confession of Faith, produced in the 1600's by dozens of godly scholars and preachers whose only desire was to accurately describe the teaching of Scripture for the glory of God and the preservation of his Truth. These scholars also produced the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms. A Catechism is a set of questions and answers used to teach doctrine. Perhaps the most famous catechism question is the first in the Shorter Catechism:
Q. What is the chief end of man? 
A. To glorify God and enjoy him forever. 
There are many other respected Reformed creeds that are very similar to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Baptist readers might be interested to know that the Baptists used one for several centuries (The London Baptist Confession of 1689). As a testimony to the importance and propriety of the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Baptists copied it nearly word for word, changing only those things necessary to distinguish themselves from the Presbyterians. This Baptist confession testifies to the simple fact that the Baptists were originally Reformed. It was not until the 1800's and beyond that the Baptists forsook their heritage by denying and, in many cases, even standing against the Reformed Faith. Thankfully, some rare Baptist churches, usually known as Reformed Baptists, continue to affirm this historic creed.

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