So, what use are confessions? They are official, ecclesiastical summaries of the faith on certain key points. What good is the United States constitution? Much in every way, if we will follow it. They provide guidance to ministers, elders, deacons, and members. The confessions provide us with agreed language on the key points of the Christian faith and life. Those who unite to confessional Reformed churches subscribe them as true summaries of the faith.
A correspondent writes to the HB to ask, in effect, if confessions are not infallible, what good are they? He asks,
Westminster Confession 31:4 seems to be problematic, since it says all synods…have erred or may err, and thus are not to be made a rule of faith. Wouldn’t this logically mean the Westminster Assembly cannot be made a rule of faith, e.g., the WCF? The only prooftext it gives is from three passages that don’t explicitly speak of Councils (in the future) liable to error.
In every question there is an implied premise or two. I find two here, one implied and a second explicit: 1) There must be an extra-canonical “rule of faith;” 2) that Protestants make confessions a “rule of faith.” There is also an equivocation here on what is the “rule of faith.” Let us be clear. For confessional Protestants, there is only one inerrant, infallible, final, rule of faith (regula fidei): Holy Scripture. Only Scripture is necessarily inerrant and infallible. The Westminster Confession itself says that the sixty-six books of holy Scripture alone are “given by inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and life” (WCF 1.2). In 1561 the Reformed Churches confessed: “Therefore we reject with all our hearts whatever does not agree with this infallible rule…” (Belgic Confession art. 7). “”in all controversies of religion,” the church is to appeal to the Scriptures in their original languages, namely the Hebrew (and Aramaic) Scriptures of the Old Testament and the Greek Scriptures of the New Testament (WCF 1.8). The Scriptures are their own final interpreter. Again, in the Westminster Confession we confess:
The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly (1.9).
Further, in case the above is not sufficiently clear, the divines added:
The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture (1.10).
Explicit here in the Reformed confessions is the doctrine that the Scriptures are sufficiently clear (perspicuitas) for the Christian faith and the Christian life. The confessions themselves acknowledge that all things in Scripture are “not alike plain in themselvess” (WCF 1.7) but what must be known for salvation and for the Christian life can be known from Scripture.
So, for the Reformed, the sufficient, perspicuous, self-authenticating, self-interpreting Scriptures alone are incorrigible. In Scripture we trust implicitly. Church councils are corrigible. Popes and councils err. In primary sense, there is no other “rule of faith” except Scripture. Confessions are framed and adopted by the visible church as subordinate or secondary standards. We confess what we do because we believe it to be biblical. Confessions are ecclesiastically sanctioned interpretations of Scripture on those issues judged to be of sufficient importance for the church to speak to them.