Grace Presbyterian Church

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Sermon: The Confessions: Westminster Standards – The Last Word?

Grace Presbyterian Church

July 22, 2018, Pentecost 9B

Hebrews 10:19-25

The Confessions:

Westminster Standards – The Last Word?

It is possible that, for a certain generation of Presbyterians, the confessional statements we reach today contain the most famous or widely-recognized words in their religious upbringing. Contained in this set of three documents collectively known as the Westminster Standards are two different catechisms, Shorter and Larger, both of which start with the same question-and-answer introduction (with slight variation; this is the Shorter Catechism form):

Q: What is the chief end of man?

A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

For those generations of Presbyterians for whom the Westminster Shorter Catechism was a principal means of instruction in the faith, that Q&A is probably a reflex, something that triggers an automatic reaction. So formative is it that even one of the churches Julia and I used to attend had as its motto or slogan a slightly altered version of that answer, claiming that to “glorify God and to enjoy God forever” was the purpose and calling of that church.

One hears echoes in that formulation of the reading from Hebrews just read, with its invocation of confidence in the “great high priest” that allows us to approach with a true heart, a cleansed conscience, and a sure confession of our hope. Indeed, the tenor of the Westminster Confession (the principal confessional statement, accompanied by the Shorter and Larger catechisms) is one in which assurance of God’s sovereignty, the work of the Holy Spirit in our reading and interpreting of scripture, and the glorification of God through our obedience shine through, when read with fresh eyes.

Unfortunately, through two different accidents of history, it has been impossible for many in the Reformed tradition to read the Westminster Standards with anything like “fresh eyes.” Both the circumstances of their creation and the particular condition of their adoption in this country have caused these confessional and catechetical statements to take on meanings far from what their content would suggest. With the possible exception of the Apostles’ Creed, no confessional statement has “hardened” more in its use in the church than the Westminster Standards.

The period in which these statements were written coincided with the approach and ultimately fighting of the English Civil War, in which the English monarchy was deposed and Oliver Cromwell established as ruler of England. Those English Protestants who had hoped first for a Presbyterian-style governance of the Church of England, then for an establishment of such a governance in a monarchy-free England, were disappointed in both cases. Cromwell refused any church establishment under his protectorate, and the restored monarchy also restored the governance of bishops and monarchy that had characterized the Church of England before the war. Thus a document that had been hoped for as a confessional statement unifying England and Presbyterian Scotland was instead adopted by the latter but largely ignored in the former. The Scottish embrace of the document, even over and above the Scots Confession, did lead to its widespread acceptance and installation among English-speaking Reformed churches, however. Perhaps more distressingly, it was the last such statement to be adopted in those churches, and remains the last one even today in some cases, as if somehow time had stopped for the church in 1660.

This widespread adoption included the Presbyterian churches that took root in the United States, as well as the first Presbyterian seminary to be founded in this country, in Princeton, NJ. (My alma mater was founded later that same year, 1812.) In the hands of the “Princeton theology,” the Westminster Standards became the basis for a strict literalism and even fundamentalism of biblical interpretation and scholarship that has had repercussions throughout not just Presbyterian but all of Protestant theology in this country for two centuries. The confidence in a sovereign God expressed by the confession curdled into a theological code of enforcement, supplanting faith inspired by the Holy Spirit with human-induced certainty.

Take the confession’s statements on scripture. Repeatedly the confession ties our confidence to the Word of God – speaking not only of scripture but of Christ, identified in scripture as “the Word” (John 1:1). To speak of the Word of God is to speak both of “the Word” – Christ – and the scripture that unfolds “the Word” to us, in the thought of the confession. That written Word, however, is not authority all of its own, or independent of any other; as is stated in the confession’s Chapter I (6.006 in the Book of Confessions), “…we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word…” (emphasis mine). The Bible, read without the illumination of the Holy Spirit, is far too often more damaging than edifying or enlightening.

And yet this has happened across the years many times, often under the unwise interpretation of this confession. Its talk of the “authority” of scripture, devoid of any mention of the Holy Spirit’s role in that authority, became the means for enforcing a biblical literalism the scriptures themselves want nothing to do with. For example, where the Westminster divines wanted nothing to do with reading the Bible as a science textbook, as we might say, the confession’s later defenders attempted to use it to advocate exactly that – insisting on its “reliability” on all things, even those it does not directly address.

Such later interpretations or uses of this confession make sense only if (a) you consider yourself an infallible interpreter of scripture, and/or (b) you believe the Holy Spirit is dead. Personally, I believe neither.

With the confession itself came not one, but two catechisms, the Shorter Catechism conceived as an aid for younger Christians and the Larger Catechism as an aid for pastors. The Shorter Catechism, which was intended to be memorized, contained 107 question-and-answer pairs plus the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Apostles’ Creed; the Larger Catechism included 196 Q&A pairs, with those three elements woven into the document. This complex of three documents, written for that hoped-for church unification in England and Scotland in the mid-seventeenth century, ended up being a fixed star in that Reformed tradition – the only recognized confession in those traditions, particularly in the United States, for about four hundred years, not even edited or revised before the twentieth century.

This is a problem. Confessions are human documents, intended as a supplement to or an aid in the study of scripture under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. Their authority, such as it is, is both provisional andtemporary– subject to revision and correction – because they are precisely human documents, subject to the fallen and sinful nature of humanity and to the fallenness of the churches or the societies that produce them. As the Westminster Confession itself notes, “all synods or councils since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith and practice, but to be used as a help in both.” (BoC6.175) To reduce any confession, even Westminster, to a fixed, inviolable rule is to misinterpret their very nature and purpose. Again, the Holy Spirit is not dead.

Next week we move to the first of four twentieth-century statements found in our Book of Confessions. These statements are hardly meant as replacements to Westminster and earlier confessions; on the contrary, the newer declarations and confessions draw deliberately upon these historical documents to bring the witness of the church to bear on a world in crisis, continuing their witness while recognizing the prompting and urging of the Holy Spirit – still living, still prompting – in the face of particular threats to the integrity of the church and the world, still calling us to go forward in confidence – not certainty, but confidence – because we know we have that “great high priest” of which Hebrews speaks.

These historical confessions, in short, remain an important word to the church, an aid and guide to us even today, but they are not the final word. To quote the Henry Longfellow poem turned into a Christmas carol, “God is not dead, nor does he sleep.” The Spirit still moves, still agitates, and still challenges the church even today. With such an unending power of inspiration and enlightenment, no confession, not even Westminster, can ever claim to be the last word.

For the unquenchable inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Thanks be to God. Amen.


Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #39, Great Is Thy Faithfulness; #45, I to the Hills Will Lift My Eyes; #840, When Peace Like a River; #846, Fight the Good Fight

(Note: take a look at who published that American edition in the featured image…)

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