As discussed in a prior post, a regular feature of worship services at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church is a congregational recitation of an Affirmation of Faith.
One of the sources of such affirmations is the collection of creeds and confessions in The Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) [PCUSA]. These documents state the PCUSA’s and individual members’ “faith and bear . . . witness to God’s grace in Jesus Christ.” (Book of Order § F-2.01.)
“In these statements the church declares to its members and to the world who and what it is, what it believes, and what it resolves to do. These statements identify the church as a community of people known by its convictions as well as by its actions. They guide the church in its study and interpretation of the Scriptures; they summarize the essence of Reformed Christian tradition; they direct the church in maintaining sound doctrines; they equip the church for its work of proclamation. They serve to strengthen personal commitment and the life and witness of the community of believers.” (Id.)
“These confessional statements are subordinate standards in the church, subject to the authority of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, as the Scriptures bear witness to him.” (Id. § F-2.02.)
Central to the Reformed tradition in these statements “is the affirmation of the majesty, holiness, and providence of God who in Christ and by the power of the Spirit creates, sustains, rules, and redeems the world in the freedom of sovereign righteousness and love.” (Id. § F-2.05.) The following “other great themes of the Reformed tradition” shine forth in these statements:
- “The election of the people of God for service as well as for salvation;
- Covenant life marked by a disciplined concern for order in the church according to the Word of God;
- A faithful stewardship that shuns ostentation and seeks proper use of the gifts of God’s creation; and
- The recognition of the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny, which calls the people of God to work for the transformation of society by seeking justice and living in obedience to the Word of God.” (Id.)
The current Book of Confessions contains the following confessions and statements of faith;
- The Nicene Creed, which was adopted by the first ecumenical council in Nicaea (Isnik in today’s Turkey) in 325.
- The Apostles’ Creed, which first appeared in a letter from a council in Milan to the Pope in 390, but which had antecedents.
- The Scots Confession, which was written in 1560 by six leaders of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland.
- The Heidelberg Catechism, which was written by the theological faculty of the University of Heidelberg in 1563 at the request of Frederick III, the Elector of the Palatinate.
- The Second Helvetic Confession, which was written in 1561 by Heinrich Bullinger, a Swiss Protestant theologian.
- The Westminster Confession of Faith, which was written in 1647 by the Westminster Assembly of the Church of England.
- The [Westminster] Shorter Catechism, which also was written in 1647 by the Westminster Assembly of the Church of England,
- The [Westminster] Larger Catechism, which also was written in 1647 by the Westminster Assembly of the Church of England,
- The Theological Declaration of Barmen, which was written in 1934 by theologian Karl Barth and other leaders of the German Confessing Church who were opposed to Hitler.
- The Confession of 1967, which was adopted in 1967 as a modern statement of the faith by one of the churches that merged into the PCUSA.
- A Brief Statement of Faith—Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which was adopted in 1983 by the PCUSA.
Moreover, the Book of Confessions is never closed, never completely in the past. Additional confessions can be added although “the process for changing the confessions of the church is deliberately demanding, requiring a high degree of consensus across the church. Yet the church, in obedience to Jesus Christ, is open to the reform of its standards of doctrine. . . . The church affirms . . . , “The church reformed, always to be reformed according to the Word of God in the power of the Spirit.” (Book of Order § F-2.02.)
The PCUSA currently is considering adding the 1986 Confession of Belhar by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa. It emerged as a witness of Christian faith against the sins of racism and focuses on major themes of unity, reconciliation, and justice.
The Confession of Belhar was approved by the General Assembly of the PCUSA in 2010 and recommended to the presbyteries for their vote. Inclusion in the Book of Confessions requires a vote of two-thirds of the presbyteries and a subsequent adoption by another session of the General Assembly. The initial vote on this recommendation failed to obtain the necessary 116 votes of the presbyteries by only eight votes. Therefore, as of now, it has not been included.
For me, these confessions are evidence of God’s interventions into history, which is never finished. They arise in particular historical circumstances and reflect the concerns of those circumstances. They are never complete expositions of God and Christ, who are beyond complete human understanding and declarations. Moreover, most of these confessions are the work of assemblies, like legislatures, and thus include compromises like legislative compromises.