The American Presbyterian churches have a long history of confessional revision. Most modified the WCF chapter on the civil magistrate after the American Revolution in order to remove Erastian elements that were deemed incompatible with the emerging separation of church and state in the American context. Then over the years various major and minor changes were introduced by the mainline Presbyterian churches.
The story has been pretty much the same in some of the smaller Presbyterian bodies. Take my own church (the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, the confessional history of which I have treated here) as an example. After the initial revisions regarding the civil magistrate in 1799, the confessional standards of the church remained essentially unchanged for a century and a half. Then in the mid-20th century the ARPC began to introduce significant modifications. In 1959 it added two chapters (“Of the Gospel,” and “Of the Holy Spirit”), which had earlier been added to the WCF by the PCUSA (in 1903) and the PCUS (in 1942). Another consistent theme during this period was the progressive removal of language deemed offensive to Roman Catholics, including the infamous reference in chap. 25 to the Pope as the “antichrist” and “son of perdition.” Even the reference in WCF chap. 24 to the laws of affinity in marriage was changed, such that a man now may marry his deceased wife’s sister!
Of course, what has emerged from this extended revision process is something rather different from the historical document known as the “Westminster Confession of Faith” of 1647. An alternative approach was taken by the Baptists, who had the good sense to rename their versions of the document—here I’m speaking of the Second London Confession of 1677 and the Philadelphia Confession of 1742, both of which were based on the Westminster but incorporate Baptist distinctives.
Because the Westminster Standards address so many theological and praxis issues, the list of friction points and hence potential changes is extensive. An example of this is the Larger Catechism’s extensive explanation of the Fifth Commandment in terms of one’s responsibilities to superiors, inferiors, and equals (WLC, QQ. 123-133). This language meant certain things in the context of the British class system of the seventeenth century, and it does not translate easily or without remainder into our own much more egalitarian cultural context. The usual approach to such problems has been twofold. First, the church has engaged in what I have elsewhere called “implicit revision,” in which the confessional language is quietly and tacitly reinterpreted. Second, in instances where the letter of the confessional documents grates too much on contemporary sensibilities the church engages in explicit and formal revision processes, either though textual changes or declaratory statements.
To be sure, the impulse for formal confessional revisions stems from the laudable conviction that people should mean what they affirm, and from the sense that confessional documents should function as subordinate standards or rules of faith. But there is a problem here. While some today believe that the answer to doctrinal declension is “confessionalism,” the overwhelming lesson of history is that confessions do not effectively enforce orthodoxy. Rather, they express and help to codify a doctrinal sensibility that already exists and they serve as an important educational resource in passing that doctrinal consensus along to the next generation. In other words, confessions are wonderful things, but “confessionalism” is a problem. In fact, “confessionalism” in this sense of heteronomous authority is a theological cul-de-sac, and an irony here is that some today view the Westminster Confession as authoritative ways that stand in tension with the Confession itself: “All synods or councils since the apostles’ time, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice [emphasis added], but to be used as an help in both” (WCF 31.4). Perhaps some of the stouter “confessionalists” among us should seek to revise WCF 31.4 before they proceed further with their programme.
A somewhat different set of questions emerges in connection with the use of the Apostles’ Creed. After the early development of this western creed out of the ancient Roman church’s regula fidei, or “rule of faith, the text has in large measure stood the test of time. Two elements of the Creed have, however, proven to be problematic for some conservative Presbyterians—the phrases “he descended into hell” and “holy Catholic Church.” The latter issue is easier. The substitution of words like “universal” for “Catholic” may be something less than felicitous but it does not substantially change the meaning. This alteration may appeal to those who would rather capitulate to naïve anti-Catholicism than instruct it, but I personally don’t think it is a good idea to concede a perfectly good and useful theological term to Rome. The Reformers agreed, and firmly maintained that their churches possessed the mark of catholicity.
The affirmation of Christ’s descent into hell is more complicated. The scriptural basis for the notion of a literal visit to hell is open to question (passages such as Luke 23:43 and 1 Peter 3:18-20 are often cited in support of it). As those who have studied the issue know, the clause in question is a somewhat later addition to the Creed. Moreover, the statement has been subject to various interpretations. In the early and medieval church the notion was closely connected with the “harrowing of hell,” as Christ was thought to have paid a triumphant visit to hell in order to release souls held in bondage by the devil. The traditional Roman Catholic view holds that the “descent into hell” is a descent into limbus patrum, the place of the dead where Old Testament saints were awaiting the conclusion of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross. The Westminster Confession and Catechisms interpret it as a matter of “continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day” (LC, Q. 50). Calvin and the Heidelberg Catechism interpret it as a metaphor for the spiritual sufferings of the passion (see Calvin, Institutes, II.16.8-12; HC Q. 44). The Lutheran Church has historically held that Christ went to hell in order to complete and seal his conquest of the devil (see Tappert, Book of Concord, 492). All this leads to an understandable measure of uncertainty regarding what is actually being confessed.
Because of these issues, it is not uncommon for conservative Presbyterian churches, particularly in the American South, to omit the descent into hell. Apparently this is not a recent development. A former student recently alerted me (thanks Scott Cook) to some correspondence by J. Gresham Machen during the First World War in which the Old Princetonian complained about the omission of the descent into hell as a “mutilation of the creed.”
Again, however, there are problems. This omission is inevitably going to be jarring to many in the congregation (I, for one, find it mildly annoying). Moreover, simply to omit the descent into hell is to miss a rich teaching opportunity to discuss (as the history of interpretation shows) the multi-faceted redemptive work of Jesus Christ on the cross. In addition, the decision of individual pastors or sessions to omit the statement raises the question of ecclesiastical authority in a fundamental way. If we really believe in the connectional principle, as opposed to the “every tub on its own bottom” ecclesiology of American baptistic Evangelicalism, does a particular church (small “c”) have the right to change the Creed of the Church?
At this point we must recall that creeds and confessions are non-inspired, human, fallible historical documents, and that they belong to the church. The practical implications of all this are important. First, these documents must be interpreted in terms of their original historical context, the history of interpretation, and their meaning for today. Moreover, such interpretation is not only inevitable but desirable and necessary. It is precisely the task of the church to determine what these confessional documents mean for us today. When such documents cease to be interpreted they cease to be living and vital influences in the life of the church. One great problem today is that much discussion of creeds and confessions sounds more like exercises in historical preservation than real application to the contemporary ministry needs of the church of the truths of Scripture enshrined in the confessions. Finally, we should not expect such historically conditioned and fallible documents to correspond with complete and pedantic precision to what the church believes at a particular time. A certain amount of slippage is inevitable, but that difference need not and should not be invidious and subversive of the doctrinal integrity of the church.
Here some basic common sense is needful. One factor that has historically made this hermeneutical approach to creeds and confessions work pretty well is the recognition that there are first-order doctrines in which general agreement is essential, second-order beliefs where discussion in the broader Christian community is inevitable but where agreement within particular communions is often needed, and third-order or tertiary beliefs where there is considerable room for diversity. Or, to use Calvin’s helpful terminology as ably explicated in PCA minister David Bowen’s Vanderbilt dissertation, there are things “essential,” “important,” and “indifferent.” We rightly and even instinctively prioritize these different levels of belief, and our approach to the role of confessions in the life of the church should take this into account (in fact, “system subscription” in Presbyterian circles was a way of dealing with this interpretive dynamic).
A significant problem today for confessional appropriation is the fact that some in the conservative Reformed community seem to think that nearly everything in the Confession (at least the things they happen to be particularly exercised about) is a first-order matter. We rightly sense that the great truths of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Atonement are first order matters, and that the Standards of the Church give us enormous help as we read Scripture on these matters. On the other hand, we should realize that confessional debates over tertiary matters such as whether a man can marry his dead wife’s sister are probably not a particularly good use of the church’s time, especially as the Confession’s original statement on this is, in the words of the Confession itself, “not to be made the rule of faith or practice.”
As an historical theologian I am inclined to think that the historicality of creeds and confessions should be respected wherever possible. For example, while I don’t think it is particularly helpful to refer to the current Pope Francis I as the “antichrist” and “son of perdition,” I do think it is useful to be reminded why such apocalyptic language was meaningful to our forbears in the Reformation period. The alternative, it seems to me, is a never-ending series of confessional tweakings and modifications, most of which do not amount to much, and some of which subvert the theological coherence of the documents. Moreover, such tinkerings in the interests of the tyranny of the present also often rob these documents of their historical character and charm.
In short, let’s stop monkeying with the creeds!