John Dick on what it means to be “Confessional”

What does it mean to be a Professor in a Seminary/College that subscribes to the Westminster Confession of Faith?  What does it mean to be a Presbyter in a Church which subscribes to the Westminster Confession of Faith?  John Dick explains:

He who holds the office that I have undertaken [Professor of Theology], must deliver a particular system [of doctrine], because it is the system of the church which has appointed him, and because he believes it to be true.  He must say also, that if you will be ministers of that church, you must adopt her creed, because she allows no other to be taught to the people.  But further than that he has no right to proceed … He calls upon you to inquire for yourselves, with earnest prayer for divine illumination, and to embrace the truth wherever you may find it.
John Dick, Lectures on Theology (4 vols.; repr., Stoke on Trent: Tentmaker, 2004) 1:15.

Now let’s unpack what he is saying:

  • Firstly, in a setting where professors subscribe to the Westminster Standards they “must” deliver the doctrine contained in them.  It is a sacred duty – no wiggle room allowed.
  • Secondly, someone should only be a professor in such an institution if “he believes it [the Westminster Standards] to be true”.  As soon as that ceases to be the case a professor can no longer fulfil his duty honourably.  W.G.T Shedd is very helpful at this point, “There may be honest heresy but not honest dishonesty. A heretic who acknowledges that he is such, is a better man than he who pretends to be orthodox while subscribing to a creed which he dislikes, and which he saps under pretence of improving it and adapting it to the times. The honest heretic leaves the Church with which he no longer agrees; but the insincere subscriber remains within it in order to carry out his plan of demoralization.” (Shedd, Calvinism Pure and Mixed, 152).  [NB: I’m not equating disagreement with any element of the WCoF as heresy!]
  • Thirdly, candidates for the ministry need to understand the duty of pastors in denominations which subscribe to confessions.  To be a pastor in a confessional denomination you must be prepared to “accept her creed” as the truth of Scripture and you must be able to teach congregations doctrine consistent with the confessional standards.
  • Fourthly, confessionalism does not ride roughshod over people’s consciences.  If, after being instructed about the doctrinal position of a church, you come to disagree with it, then, fine (albeit sad).  Scripture must be followed.  The entry to ministry in a confessional church is closed but that is better than going against conscience.

This all seems fairly straightforward to me and yet, as anyone who reads church history knows, terribly difficult to put into practice!

I know none of the above is related to the free offer but I am doing a case study of the meaning of a confessional document so posting on the implications of confessions for church life is related to my studies.  I’ll try and write something on the free offer in the course of next week – I nearly posted something on the Marrowmen and “preparationism” but got stuck halfway through.  I hope to get unstuck soon.

PS I wouldn’t necessarily say John Dick perfectly lived out the sentiments above.

10 Responses to “John Dick on what it means to be “Confessional””

  1. J.R. Polk Says:

    This is a timely post considering the conversations taking place on various blogs regarding Westminster Seminary here in Philadelphia. As former Ruling Elder who has recently resigned over my session’s lack of confessional integrity, I think articles like yours are badly needed. We need to be reminded that at one time you could actually get a pretty good idea about what a church stood for by looking at their confessional standards. As far as I am able to see, those days are over.

  2. On Being A Confessional Seminary Prof « Heidelblog Says:

    […] April 12, 2008 in Uncategorized At James Durham thesis […]

  3. GLW Johnson Says:

    I made this very same observation in reference (in my chapter of the recent book that I edited on Warfield )to Shedd’s quote- and I am confident he was referring to his colleague at Union, C.A. Briggs.

  4. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Pastor Johnson

    The Warfield book has been on my wish list for some time – hopefully I will get it soon. It makes sense that Shedd’s comment would be a reference to Briggs.

    JR Polk

    Thanks for your encouraging comments.


  5. David A Booth Says:

    There is one tricky point. Since we all agree that Confessions are, in principle, reformable by the Church if that would bring them into greater conformity to the Scriptures – how does this actually take place?

    If as soon as a man disagrees with the Confession he has to resign from his office, the only men in a position to reform the Confession are those who, by definition, believe that it doesn’t need to be reformed. Doesn’t such a system actually make the Confessions irreformable in practice?

  6. Donald John MacLean Says:

    You raise an important question. I don’t think it actually makes Confession’s irreformable – John Dick’s denomination actually did amend the Westminster Confession of Faith to remove the commitment to the establishment principle. I think from memory what Dick did was declare his exception to this element of the confession prior to ordination. The Church then decided that he was able to proceed to ordination. The key point being that the decision rested explicitly with the church.

    Also churches also have the option to declare their understanding of the confession (not always identical to the original intent). For instance the 1843 Free Church of Scotland declared that it’s understanding of the WCoF was such that it “disowned persecuting principles”. This is why “adopting intent” is important along with “original intent”.

    I think the overarching question here is personal and denominational honesty. We cant take vows with mental reservations, we must be honest. If we come to disagree with part of the confession, if it is no longer the confession of our faith, then to me it seems necessary to express that to the Church so that a) the church is clear what I believe and b) the Church can be clear on what presbyters have to believe as qualifications for office. Once we have taken our view to the church the church can either be a) persuaded of our view and set in motion steps to amend the confession b) be unpersuaded of our view but accept that it should not be a bar to office and then take steps to make that particular position a matter of indifference c) reject the view and accept resignation/not proceed to ordination etc.

    I think confessions also function as public declarations of what the Church believes/confesses as the truth of scripture. Hence it is important that the confession squares with what the church actually believes. So, if the church is persuaded that a position is a matter of indifference, for me, it should be removed from the confession. I’m not a big fan of granting “exceptions” to confessional documents as per the American system. Once exceptions are granted to a doctrine in the confession then it is better off being removed – unless the confession still stands as the boundary marker of public teaching i.e. “exceptions” are not allowed to be taught.

    Was any of this helpful?

  7. David Silversides Says:

    Donald John,

    1. Whilst accepting that Confessions are subordinate to Scripture, it is not attributing infallibility to a Confession to say that all office-bearers must subscribe completely to it – thus expressing their conviction that in their fallible judgement this fallible document is in complete agreement with the infallible Word.

    2. It is true that a Church must always follow Scripture, even if it means a change in its Confession, but if it does so, then those claiming ‘New Light’ must acknowledge that they are no longer the denomination they once were and all funds, property and name belong to those who still adhere to ‘Old Light’ (even if a minority) since it was on the basis of the unmodified Confession as the church’s position that funds etc. were given in the past. To retain such funds while changing the constitutional position of the church is dishonest. It may be that where there are no ‘Old Lights’ then the funds etc. should go to whatever body is closest to it, since everything has to belong to somebody.

    If people claim to have advanced beyond the original Confession, they must have the courage of their convictions and make the sacrifices necessary to follow the alledged new light they claim to have received. ‘Entryism’, by which the number of people not holding to some point(s) in the Confession of a denomination are slowly built up numerically until they can then vote down Confessional doctrine(s) in their supreme court is a dishonest menace.

    Would you agree with the above?

    Every blessing,

    David Silversides

  8. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Dear Rev. Silversides

    Point 1 – Yes I agree entirely. I’m not sure if I have quoted this on the blog before but I think Shedd makes an important point regarding scripture and confessions:

    “Some advocates of revision object to this decision of the Assembly to make Calvinism a test of revision, and demand that Scripture be the test. Of course Scripture is the only infallible rule of faith. But this particular way of appealing to Scripture is specious and fallacious. In the first place, it assumes that Calvinism is not Scriptural, an assumption which the Presbyterian Church has never granted. This Church does not accept the alternative – the Bible or Calvinism – presented in this appeal. Its watchword, is The Bible and Calvinism. Secondly, this kind of appeal to Scripture is only an appeal to Scripture as the reviser understands it. ‘Scripture’ properly means the interpretation of Scripture; that is the contents of Scripture as reached by human investigation and exegesis. Creeds, like commentaries, are Scripture studied and explained, and not the mere abstract and unexplained book as it lies on the counter of the Bible House. The infallible Word of God is expounded by the fallible mind of man… But every interpreter claims to have understood the Scriptures correctly, and, consequently, claims that his creed is Scriptural, and if so, that it is the infallible truth of God… By the ‘Bible’ these parties… mean their understanding of the Bible. There is no such thing as that abstract Scripture to which the revisionist of whom we are speaking appeals; that is, Scripture apart from any and all interpretation of it. When, therefore, the advocate of revision demands that the Westminster Confession be ‘conformed to Scripture’, he means conformation to Scripture as he and those like him read and explain it. It is impossible to make abstract Scripture the rule of faith for either an individual or a denomination. No Christian body has ever subscribed to the Bible merely as a printed book. A person who should write his name on the blank leaf of the Bible and say that his doctrinal belief was between the covers, would convey no definite information as to his creed. He might be a Socinian, or a Calvinist, or anywhere between these two extremes.” (Calvinism Pure & Mixed, 145-7)

    Point 2 – I generally agree – especially on the issue of “entryism”. Indeed this is “a dishonest menace.” However, I think we need to leave room for the possibility of confessional growth while remaining the same church. For instance, the Scottish church developing from the Scots confession to the Westminster Confession while remaining the Church of Scotland? Also, say, if the WCoF was amended to perhaps be more explicit on the imputation of the active obedience of Christ or if a Presbyterian church elevated the Sum of Saving Knowledge to confessional status to affirm the Covenant of Redemption they should be able to so this while remaining the same church?

    The issue of property and a dissenting minority (e.g. 1900 FCoS) is complex. It seems clear that if a dissenting minority wished to retain the old confession then property/funds etc should go with them if this change to the confession was contrary to the beliefs of the original confession e.g. inerrancy of scripture. However it would not necessarily be so clear if an addition is made to the confession e.g. covenant of redemption?

    These are just some thoughts and I would value your guidance as to whether they are correct or not.

    On a related point how does the WCoF function in the Reformed Presbyterian Church or Ireland? I think there a “testimony” which sits alongside the Confession and has equal status? Is this always in line with the Confession or can it contradict it and take precedence?

    Every blessing,
    Donald John

  9. David Silversides Says:

    Donald John,

    Many thanks for your thoughtful response and the Shedd is superb. I am happy with the idea of confessional growth. Care would need to be excercised, however, that what is being added – unless vital to the welfare of the church and carelessly ommitted from previous formulations – does not exclude sound and honest subscribers of the original document(s) who cannot now accept what has been introduced. In other words, only where rectifying a serious defficiency in the original document should it be imposed as a test of continuing as an office-bearer in the church.

    Also, such growth has to be limited. There were matters that the Westminster Assembly could have agreed on but which they deliberately did not include in the Confession and other matters on which they could have got a large majority, but deliberately did not pin down in the Standards since not necessary to church union. There should be scope for ‘consensus statements’ by a church court – non-binding, but reflecting the general consensus and for the instruction of the church.

    The RP ordination vows make specific reference to the Confession and Catechisms as the confession of one’s faith. The Testimony should not contradict and cannot take precedence over the Westminster Standards. The Testimony is meant to be a practical exposition of aspects of the Confessional Standards. The plus side is that it means the position of the church on, say, exclusive psalmody, is readily verifiable without reference to various historical acts etc. The danger, as I see it, is that the Testimony changes from time to time and whilst it should contain nothing that is not implied in the Standards, there is always the possibility of phrases being introduced that someone already in office cannot accept. My preference would be for a short fixed testimony containing certain permanent RP principles (worship, state, covenanting etc.) and the rest be a concensus testimony of the church’s belief, but not binding on every office-bearer in all details.

    Warm Christian greetings,

    David Silversides

  10. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Dear Rev Silversides

    Many thanks for your comments. The caveats you outline above in relation to (hypothetical) scope for confessional growth are very helpful and I would be in agreement with them.

    Thanks also for explaining the function of the RP testimony.

    Every blessing
    Donald John

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