Wednesday, June 25, 2008

What do we mean when we say that a confession is a "subordinate standard"?

A helpful comment by R. A. Finlayson:
A Confession is referred to as a Church's 'subordinate standard' because it is in very fact subordinate to the Scriptures, the fountainhead of all revealed truth. This subordination, however, does not affect its authority in matters of faith, but rather serves to emphasise the fact that it is derived from Scripture.

When a Confession is accepted, therefore, it is accepted as in accordance with the truth of Scripture, and we profess that we have examined both the Scripture and the Confession and that we have found them in agreement.

For that reason we cannot appeal from the Confession to Scripture in a way of repudiating the Confession, without thereby withdrawing our subscription to it as agreeable to the Scripture and the Confession of our Faith.

To set aside its doctrine in favour of some other interpretation of Scripture is manifestly to abandon the Confession altogether.
"The Significance of the Westminster Confession" in Reformed Theological Writings, p. 231-2


Elnwood said...

"This subordination does not affect its authority in matters of faith."

Doesn't that contradict what the WCF declares? The WCF reads, "All synods or councils, since the apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both."

How can Finlayson that the Confession is authoritative in matters of faith when the Confession itself says it may have erred, and that it is not to be made the rule of faith or practice?

Marcus said...

Hi Martin,

interesting post. The question it leaves me with is does this mean that I have to agree with everything in a confession or nothing? That to disagree with parts of it is to say "I don't think this, as a whole, has a subordinate authority?"

For example, I might want to wholeheartedly commend much of the Westminster Confession but disagree completely with its statement affirming the baptism of infants. Does my disagreement make the confession as a whole a scripturally useless document for me?

I think I want to contend that a creed has to be accessible to a piecemeal treatment, and that denying one part of it by no means suggests that the rest doesn't come with subordinate authority.

Hope you are wel, BTW.

Martin Downes said...

Hi Marcus,

Thanks for dropping by. It would be good to catch up some time.

It helps to make some distinctions about the use of confessions.

If a church, or denomination, requires that an ordained minister subscribe to the WCF then this voluntary subscription is clearly binding. If you can no longer subscribe to the confession then the honest thing to do is to resign your post. Of course there is some variation as to how subscription is understood (strict and system being two). Denominations have ways of handling these matters without making the confession a wax nose (like the Auburn affirmation did in 1924). The WCF is after all a churchly document. Even strict subscriptionists have ways to ammend the confession, if they think it is in error, and that through the channels of presbyteries and the general assembly.

This is obviously very different to an individual, or even an independent church, seeking to make use of the WCF/WSC for its fine teaching value or for devotional use. But I do think that you would have to be a high Calvinist in your theology to want to use it anyway.

Martin Downes said...


The section that you quoted, WCF 31:4 (and WCF 1:10) should be read togther with the preceding point (31:3):

III. It belongeth to synods and councils, ministerially, to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of his Church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same: which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission, not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God, appointed thereunto in his Word.

The following statement in the Confession, that you quoted, is clearly not meant to undo this. The role of councils and synods involves more than the writing of a confession of faith. Robert Shaw has a helpful observation on this in his exposition of the Confession:

"Although Papists maintain that infallibility is lodged somewhere in the Church, they are not agreed among themselves whether it resides in the Pope, or in a general council, or in both united. It is here affirmed that all councils may err. Councils being composed of men, every one of whom is fallible, they must also be liable to error when collected together. It is also asserted that many of them have erred; and this is sufficiently evident from the fact, that different general councils have made decrees directly opposite to each other. In the Arian controversy, several councils decreed in opposition to that of Nice. The Eutychian heresy was approved in the second Council of Ephesus, and soon after condemned in the Council of Chalcedon. The worship of images was condemned in the Council of Constantinople, and was approved in the second Nicene Council, and again condemned at Francfort. Finally, the authority of councils was declared, at Constance and Basil, to be superior to that of the Pope; but this decision was reversed in the Lateran."