The Status of Creeds and Confessions Today

The creeds and confessions of the churches played an important role in the past in helping to define the evolving Christian tradition. They were developed in a time when it was believed that truth could be expressed in the form of absolute statements and, further, that the absolute truths possessed by Christians were guaranteed since they had been received by divine revelation.

In the last two centuries, ever since the time of Schleiermacher in fact, theologians have been abandoning that view of divine revelation.  This move has radically changed, if not actually rendered obsolete, the role once played by confessions and creeds. Contemporary statements of faith can play a useful role in promoting understanding, and clarifying issues, but they must always be recognized as temporary and limited in scope and role. They must never be appealed to as standards.

A further reason why the role of creeds and confessions has changed so radically is that theologians have learned in the last two centuries to make a clear distinction between faith and belief. When Jesus said, ‘Your faith has made you whole’, he was not referring to beliefs but to that person’s attitude of trust. Just as our beliefs change and mature during the course of our lives, so the beliefs commonly held in the twenty-first century are of necessity different from those held in the first century or in the sixteenth century. That is why the Westminster Confession has become so severely dated as to be outmoded.

The Westminster documents have been an embarrassment to the church since the late 19th century. (Who wants to own a document that denounces other churches as “synagogues of Satan” and declares the Pope to be “that antichrist, that man of sin and son of perdition”?) It was only by passing the Declaratory Act in the late 19th century that ordained clergy could retain their integrity, for this Act gave ministers and elders freedom of opinion on matters not central to the Christian faith. What was deemed to be central was left to the Assembly to decide in any particular instance.

When charges of doctrinal error were laid against me in 1967, my accusers never appealed to the Westminster documents. Indeed, if they had done so in such a public trial as that became, the church would have made itself the laughing stock of the country to be found appealing to a standard drawn up in 1648!

So the current move by the church to have a look at its subordinate standards is both commendable and long overdue. But the proposed Kupu Whakapono (Confession of Faith) and accompanying commentary is quite unsatisfactory, either as an addition to, or as a replacement of, the Westminster documents. Apart from the few references to New Zealand this could have been written any time between 1600 and 1800. It fails to express the faith in 21st century terms. (Do we really look forward to the return of Christ and a new heaven and earth now that we find ourselves living within the cultural context of our space-time universe?) The reason why the new document fails is that it has ignored completely the creative theological exploration of the last two centuries.

Yes, it is biblical and that is partly its trouble. It completely ignores the revolution in our understanding of the Bible that has been brought about by our biblical scholars in the last two centuries. The Bible can no longer be appealed to as ‘the eternal Word of God in written form’ and hence be treated as absolute and infallible in every statement it makes. The Bible is still to be highly valued for what it is – an irreplaceable set of documents that enable us to understand the deeds and beliefs of our spiritual ancestors. The Bible remains a valuable resource, but it can no longer be appealed to as an absolute standard of what Christians should believe in the twenty-first century. To treat it as such is to turn the Bible into an idol. The Bible is a set of ancient documents written by fallible humans in a cultural context very different from our own. These have to be interpreted if they are to be made relevant to our time, and this is just what our theologians and biblical scholars are endeavouring to do.  But their efforts are not at all reflected in the Kupu Whakapono.

What has been too little recognized is that the Creeds and Confessions of the past, though intended to be unitive, turned out to be divisive. In the long run they were sectarian in character, setting one group against another.  The Nicene Creed cut off the Nestorians and the Coptics from the Catholic or Universal church. The addition of the Filioque clause to the Nicene Creed helped to make permanent the growing division between the Latin church of the West and the Greek church of the East. In the end the Westminster Confession also became sectarian in effect even though, paradoxically, the whole purpose of the Westminster Assembly was to find a way of uniting the churches of England, Scotland, and Wales.

In the light of the above the move to adopt the Kupu Whakapono (Confession of Faith) must be judged a backward step in time. The commentary attached to it runs completely counter to all theology since Schleiermacher. Its sectarian and anti-ecumenical character manifests a complete reversal of the forward-looking direction in which the Presbyterian church of New Zealand was moving in the first three-quarters of the 20th century.

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