Thursday, 17 December 2009

Reformed Confessions - What Are They?

I'll give a very brief overview – but if you want an overview far better than mine, you should take a look at Joel Beeke's book, Living for God's Glory1, and his chapter, Confessing the Faith. Thirteen pages; easy and enjoyable reading.

1. A Summary of the Confessions:

A short study of the Reformation era will prove to you that Calvinists were absolutely, 100% committed to writing and using confessions2. Between 1523 and 1675, 25 major confessions were written, meaning that on average, every 6 years a confession was produced3. But let's name some of the more significant ones.

1.1 From the Continent

We will start by naming The Three Forms of Unity: The Belgic Confession (1561), The Heidelberg Catechism (1563),The Canons of Dort (1618-1619). Perhaps the one we know something about is the Canons of Dort, written at the Synod of Dort and more accurately called: The Judgement of the Synod of Dort on the Five Main Points of Doctrine in Dispute in the Netherlands4. What was happening? Arminianism was rising. Forty-three of Jacob Arminius' followers presented their heretical views to the States General (Parliament) of the Netherlands. Controversy... Controversy that nearly led to civil war5. Something had to be done. Dort was the answer.

Also from the Continent we should mention The 2nd Helvetic Confession, which was written by Henry Bullinger in 1566, and which had great international influence. The statement in this confession I personally find so helpful is what it says on preaching. “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God. Wherefore when this word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed.” Also, we should make mention of The Augsburg Confession, which was the Lutheran Confession.

1.2 The English Speaking World

The most well known confessions from the English Speaking World are The Westminster Standards: The Westminster Confession of Faith, The Shorter Catechism and the Larger Catechism. These were written over a period of 5 years, from 1643-1647, during the English Civil War, by the Westminster divines. Committee work took place in the afternoons and plenary discussion took place on the floor of the assembly in the mornings6. The Shorter Catechism, of course, includes the much loved question 1: “What is the chief end of man? A: Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever.”

Of course there are others from the English Speaking World. The 1689 Baptist Confession, the Savoy Declaration – but the Westminster Standards had a great influence on these and all that followed.

2. Something to Notice about the Reformed Confessions

Now, you will notice something as you read through these confessions: (i) They are doctrinal. They were written by men with “disciplined, theological minds”7. They state very clearly what the church believes and what the church does not believe. (ii) They are pastoral. They were written by men with “deep pastoral and preaching experience”8. As Beeke says, speaking about the Westminster Confession, but applicable to all, “It is an outstanding expression of classical Reformed theology framed for the needs of the people of God.”9 They were not written, shelved away, and then only brought out when a heretic came along. They were written and then made living documents in the life of the church, for the instruction of the sheep and the evangelism of souls.

3. The Contents of the Reformed Confessions

So what were the contents of these confessions? Turn to Acts 2:42. It reads, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching...” (ESV). Also, let us read Titus 1:9. Speaking of qualifications for eldership, it says, “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” We read here of “the apostles' teaching”, “the trustworthy word as taught” and “sound doctrine”. But, what is “the apostles' teaching”? What is “the trustworthy word as taught”? What is “sound doctrine”? We say straight away, “It's what the Bible teaches.”Yes, but what does the Bible teach? That is what the Reformers sought to summarise in the Confessions. They sought rediscover and clearly state the apostles' teaching, the trustworthy word as taught, sound doctrine. They recognised that Scripture was the supreme authority, that it possesses intrinsic authority, because it is the Word of God. But how is Scripture to be read and how is it to be applied in the Church? What does it teach? What does it tell us to be? The Reformers wrote the Confessions to answer these questions10. The contents of the Reformed Confessions clearly state for us the “apostles' teaching, the “trustworthy word as taught”, “sound doctrine”.

So, when you come to a Reformed Confession, such as the Westminster Confession, you open it up, you come to chapter one and you read: “Of the Holy Scripture”. What does the Scripture say about Scripture? Chapter one of the Westminster Confession will tell you. You move on to chapters 2-6. What does the Scripture say about God, his decrees, creation, providence? These chapters will tell you. And on it goes, expounding who man is, the covenant of grace, the work of Christ, and the application of redemption. Attention is also given to what the Bible says on law and liberty, the doctrine of the church, the sacraments and the last things.

1See Bibliography
2Beeke, p. 19
3R. Scott Clark, p. 159
4Beeke, p. 24
5Beeke, p. 25
6Beeke, p. 27
7Beeke, p. 28
8Beeke, p. 28
9Italics mine
10R. Scott Clark, p. 159