To this day, Christian Churches, especially in the Reformation tradition, use a powerful tool for “maintaining the form of sound words” and for spreading the gospel to the world—their confessional documents. The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century represented a major rupture in the medieval church, one in which more than one-third of Europe had to go back to the “drawing board” to formulate their testimony to the rest of the world.
That drawing board was Holy Scripture, which consecrated pastor-scholars searched out on the basis of a fresh knowledge of the original languages, and also on the basis of a commitment to traditional Augustinianism and the church fathers. Hence, they saw themselves as true (or Reformed) catholics, not primarily a new denominational grouping, although they did wind up in new denominational connections owing to the fierce resistance of the Roman Catholic hierarchy to any serious reform.
It was necessary to define themselves in light of Roman Catholic charges that they had left the true church and were following heretical teachings. They carried out this task as churches with careful and prayerful exegetical work through the entirety of Scripture in order to state coherently the major lines of its teaching on both doctrine and duty. Several synods in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries fulfilled this task with solid grounding on the Word of God written and in line with the traditional creeds of the first five centuries of Christian history.
The results of their work were developed over time (from the first Reformed confessions in the 1520s and 1530s to the Westminster Confession of Faith in the 1640s). These standards solidly appealed to the clear teaching of Holy Scripture. The Bible was their touchstone. Indeed, the framers of the Scots Confession of 1560 stated that if anyone could show them that they were out of accord with Scripture, they would be willing to change. While always respecting the historical church, they clearly stated that Scripture must have the final word, for, in the words of the Westminster Confession, “The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error” (25.5).
Out of this crucible of controversy came several confessions that, with general brevity and clarity, express the main thrust of the teachings of Holy Scripture on salvation and holy living. Because of their biblical teaching, they have the value of guiding us as much today as they did our forefathers centuries ago. It is a mercy for the church today not to have to reinvent the wheel. Through the creeds and confessions, we abide in the health and safety of “the communion of the saints.”
This doctrinal continuity runs contrary to the relativism of our Western secularized culture, according to which “ancient truth is uncouth.” This relativism suggests that instead of ancient truth, one must feverishly follow the latest fads of the ever-changing intelligentsia. Furthermore, the aggressive relativism of our culture has not stopped at the doors of the church. To refer appreciatively to the confessional standards causes the raising of eyebrows, and, in some cases, open protest in not a few evangelical (and Reformed) congregations and denominations.
Many evangelicals, in order to avoid the clear teachings of these confessions (which are based on the supernatural claims of the Bible) and not offend the reigning relativism of our culture (which, at the end of the day, is anti-supernatural), employ a sort of “nominalistic” interpretation of the standards. A “nominalistic” interpretation means avoiding the plain teaching of these biblically based confessions by formally subscribing to them while employing clever and painful endeavors to make them say something else; something that will be less offensive to the secular culture.
One instance is how theistic evolutionists engage in a sort of “Jesuit casuistry” to force the first three chapters of Genesis to say precisely what they preclude—that there was sin before the fall of Adam and that life gradually developed by chance.
A great value of the Westminster Confession’s teaching on creation, for example, is that in following it, we are not prey to changing paradigms of philosophical science (which is not the same thing as empirical or operational science, which, in my view, is fully compatible with the teachings of Genesis). Here the standards can help us greatly (if we abide in them realistically, rather than nominalistically evading their meaning): they plainly tell the church what the Bible has always said on creation rather than leading us on a wild goose chase of post-Enlightenment philosophies. They help the church to see that approaches such as theistic evolution come not from the Bible but from somewhere else, and need to be identified as such. Their valuable testimony helps us to continue to stand on a solid biblical foundation, which, though offensive to the secular world, is the place where we find intellectual coherence of truth in the context of Word and Spirit, which is life-giving and transformational for all of thought and culture.