This is a further instalment in a series on the vows of Presbyterian ministers and elders.
For the earlier articles see https://ap.org.au/category/ministry/
No creed but the Bible?
You may have heard people say: “No creed but the Bible”, or “Creeds divide but Jesus unites”. Words like this imply that creeds and confessions are harmful or at least unnecessary. Isn’t the Bible sufficient to guide the beliefs and actions of a church?
The first vow of Presbyterian Church of Australia (PCA) officebearers has a strong commitment to Scripture as the supreme standard of the church (see https://ap.org.au/2021/09/07/the-vows-of-office-scripture/). Why then does the church also require a strong commitment to its doctrinal standard? Here are the relevant words:
(ii) Do you own and accept the Westminster Confession of Faith, as amended by the General Assembly, and read in the light of the Declaratory Statement contained in the Basis of Union adopted by this Church on the 24th day of July, 1901, as an exhibition of the sense in which you understand the Holy Scriptures, and as a confession of your faith; and do you engage firmly and constantly to adhere thereto, and to the utmost of your power to assert, maintain and defend the same?
Why have creeds and confessions?
Creeds and confessions, along with catechisms are succinct summaries of a church’s beliefs. The Bible has some such summaries (eg: Deut 6:4-5; 1 Cor 15:3-5; Col 1:15-20).
Historically, churches have developed documents such as the early Apostles and Nicene Creeds and the 17th century Westminster Confession of Faith. Modern equivalents can be found in the summaries of key beliefs on church websites.
Creeds and confession have some valuable uses:
- A help in Bible interpretation: a good creed or confession is derived from the Bible and provides an orderly roadmap for Bible readers.
- A teaching aid: creeds, confessions and especially catechisms, have been well-used to instruct new converts and the children of believing families.
- A signpost of what we believe in this church: a potential new member of a church can be directed to its creed or confession to know what a church stands for.
- A fence: a creed or confession indicates the boundaries of orthodox belief in a church.
- A point of unity: an agreed summary of key beliefs can help establish gospel partnerships between churches and other Christian bodies.
- A guide for officeholders: the PCA doctrinal statement indicates the convictions that officebearers are expected to have. This is useful in screening potential leaders and in assessing possible false teaching. A coming book on the 1993 trial of Dr Peter Cameron considers an example of this use (see Principle and Principal, eds, P. F. Cooper and D. A. Burke, Eider Books, due March 2022).
The Presbyterian doctrinal standard
The above quoted vow gives a three-part description of the PCA doctrinal standards. It includes:
- The Westminster Confession of Faith… : the Confession adopted by the Church of Scotland and Presbyterian churches globally.
- … as amended by the General Assembly … : The PCA amended the Confession to allow non-ordained people (home missionaries) to administer the sacraments (1916) and to clarify the bounds of marriage (1928).
- … and read in the light of the Declaratory Statement contained in the Basis of Union adopted by this Church on the 24th day of July 1901. The Declaratory Statement (found in the 1901 Basis of Union) gives the PCA’s understanding of some matters in the Confession.
Space forbids discussion of the PCA doctrinal standard here. Interested people are referred to the book Read in the Light (eds, P. F. Cooper and D. A. Burke, Eider Books, 2019, and available through: https://eiderbooks.wordpress.com).
Own and accept
The final part of this PCA vow involves a strong personal commitment by office-bearers to own and accept the doctrinal standard … as an exhibition of the sense in which you understand the Holy Scriptures, and as a confession of your faith and do you engage firmly and constantly to adhere thereto, and to the utmost of your power to assert, maintain and defend the same?
These words go beyond passive acquiescence to the standards. They are similar to the charge that Timothy “guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (2 Tim 1:14). PCA officebearers are to embrace the standards in their heart as a summary of how they understand the faith. They are to hold to the standards themselves, and to try and persuade others likewise. Those taking vows of office do well to examine their heart before God for this commitment (Eccles 5:1-7). For its part, the church needs care to ensure that those taking the vows understand what they are promising about its doctrinal standards.
Of course, it is one thing to have a sound doctrinal standard and another to use it. The various courts of the PCA have not always done this well. If history is any guide, it is an area for constant alertness.
The Confession, the Bible and the gospel
The PCA states that Scripture is its supreme standard. By referring to the Confession as the “subordinate standard” the church clarifies that the supreme judge in any disagreements is “the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture” (WCF 1.X).
Equally clear is the Declaratory Statement’s affirmation of essential faith in the “objective, supernatural and historic facts” of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and his gift of the Spirit. This echoes the gospel summary in 1 Cor 15:3-5. The Scripture is the supreme standard for the PCA’s doctrine, and the gospel is its heart.
– David Burke