Don’t just argue by reference to historic confessions

I’m all for decent confessions of faith. There are several historic ones that have served the church well, particularly within the reformed tradition. There is absolutely nothing wrong with systematising Biblical teaching and, to all intents and purposes, saying ‘here I stand’.

But I have noticed something of a trend that is less great. Namely, arguing a for a position, not from scripture, but from an historic confession. It is particularly wont amongst my Presbyterian brethren, whose arguments are almost exclusively filtered through the Westminster Confession of Faith. But, in the interests of balance and truth, it is by no means confined to Presbyterians. I’ve met plenty of Baptists who do the same, usually with a handwaving reference to 1689.

Now I’m sure many of those who land hard on the historic confessions would be the first to make clear that these are merely fair summaries of the Biblical data. They would want to argue that they are arguing from scripture but the confessions offer a helpful shorthand and summary of the points being made. There is often a secondary appeal to ‘tradition in its right place’. That’s just a distinctly Reformed way of saying we don’t make tradition our final authority, that belongs to scripture alone, but we do give due weight to the historic view of the church as instructive.

To be frank, I am all for ‘tradition in its right place’. I just fear that sometimes it’s not kept in its right place and the views of [insert Reformer] or [insert confession] start to trump any argument simply because it’s what [insert Reformer] or [insert confession] happens to say, with little reference to the Biblical data at all. My real concern here, then, is that when we always make our arguments through the prism of a particular confession, or worse when we repeatedly argue without reference to scripture but only to a confession, we subtly raise church tradition to a level that is on a par – or even superior to – scripture itself.

Now, I’m totally down with ‘man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever’ (I know, not a confession per se, but you get the point). But if I’m arguing that is fair summary of scripture, when asked the question ‘what does scripture say about the purpose of life?’, I’d much rather hear some explanation of the truths in Isaiah 43 and 1 Corinthians 10:31. After all, the power of the confession or catechism is simply that it accurately expounds the text of scripture. They do try to make it easy for you by adding the texts from which they draw their statements.

Just to be clear, there is nothing wrong with quoting a confession or catechism as a summary of scripture. I can particularly see value in doing so in a sermon where they helpfully summarise the point being made from the text. But when making a case for a particular doctrine the question ought to be ‘what does scripture say about this?’, not ‘what has the church historically said about it?’ (at least, the latter must be the secondary and subservient question if we think it bears answering at all).

But I have noticed a tendency to effectively answer the question ‘what does scripture say?’ with an answer that effectively explains what the Westminster Confession of Faith or Second London Baptist Confession happens to say. Those things may be helpful, even clarifying, but it does bear saying they are not scripture. No matter how right we think they are – and they often are right – they aren’t the Bible. I don’t think I’m saying anything particularly radical when I say we ought to explain what scripture says with scripture. If somebody asks, ‘what does the Bible say about this?’ it does seem right to answer with reference to what the Bible actually says.

I’d have thought this point so obvious as it doesn’t need saying. But I have noticed such a tendency not to abide by it that it obviously needs saying. When we only reference confessions and catechisms, and not scripture, we essentially imply that these are more authoritative than scripture itself or, at the very least, are the true keys that unlock the meaning of scripture, raising it to the level of Biblical prophecy that most who hold tightly to them would want to deny remained after the apostles. In either case, it’s not great.

Let us make our doctrinal case with reference to the Bible. If we think a confession or catechism helpfully summarises a scriptural teaching, make your case from scripture and then back it up as an interpretation shared by your confession of choice. Just please, let’s stop making arguments with reference to confessions alone.