The Biblical Basis of the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms

As a member of a local confessional Presbyterian church and coming from my background as an Independent Baptist, I can’t help but notice how easy it is to confirm the common accusation that “Presbyterians often seem to cite the Confession more readily than they do the Bible.” As I listen to teaching (that of no one in particular, and this is not restricted to my own congregation), I often find myself listening to it as if I were a Baptist who was hearing this presentation for the first time. It doesn’t take long before all the biblicist defenses go up. A Reformed teacher will teach a vital biblical truth and then they will cite the Westminster Standards or something from the Three Forms of Unity (click on the “Creeds, Etc.” link at the top of this webpage for more information on these Reformed doctrinal standards). The response a self-respecting biblicist is trained to make to a presentation like this is, “That’s nice, now what does the Bible say about it?” or, more boldly, they might declare, “I don’t care what your confession or catechism says, what does the Bible say?”

It occurs to me that if Presbyterians and those of other confessional Reformed denominations want to persuade those from outside their tradition, like Baptists, to believe that what Reformed confessions and catechisms teach is based on the Bible, then perhaps it would be time well spent to express their biblically based confessional statements by first disclosing what the Bible says and working from this to showing how what the confession or catechism says is solidly based on what the Bible says.

After all, a “Confession” is not intended to be a rival for the Bible, but an expression of what Reformed churches believe the Bible teaches. To use the word “Confession” alone does not necessarily communicate this ultimate point to those from outside the tradition. That’s why when I personally explain things related to the Confession of Faith, I will put the word “Confession” in a sentence that attempts to fully express what a Confession of Faith is. For example, “This biblical truth (whatever it may be) is worded this way, or that way, in the Confession of what Reformed churches believe best summarizes the teaching of the Bible.”

Now I realize there are many good Reformed teachers who are careful to base their arguments on Scripture, but the stereotype that the Reformed in general have a bad habit of quoting the confession more than they do the Bible is grounded in verifiable reality. I love hearing an explanation of what the Confession teaches, but then, I have already gotten over the hurdle of being persuaded that what the Confession teaches is what the Bible teaches, although not infallibly, of course.

For this reason, I have decided to engage in a little exercise for a while, which I will share with my readers. In the spirit of how I would like to hear the teaching of the Reformed confessions and catechisms expressed, I’m simply going to take the Scripture Proofs cited for almost any given phrase in the Westminster Larger Catechism (which my church currently happens to being going through), summarize the point being highlighted in the verses, cite the verses themselves, then explain that this is the reason the Catechism reads the way it reads.

Sound like fun? I hope you’ll join me! In the following post, I will give this treatment to the first clause in Question and Answer #73 of the Westminster Larger Catechism.



3 responses

  1. Sounds like real fun to me John! Now get with it! 🙂

    Now, to corroborate what you just wrote, and very succinct mind you, I offer this one verse:

    Php 4:9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me–practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

    1. Learned:
    2. Received:
    3. Heard:
    4. Seen:

    This seems to me to be saying in just 24 English words or just 20 Greeks what you just took many many more words to say!

    But, hey, this is your blog and you can use as many words as you believe is necessary to say the same thing as the Apostle Paul said there! 🙂

  2. Yes, Michael, and we know Paul was pretty good at citing the Bible to demonstrate the basis of his own teaching, wasn’t he? Speaking of which, Paul, being an apostle, actually had the kind of authority which critics of Reformed confessionalists say they give to the Reformed confessions.

    As Paul’s confrontation with Peter in Galatians shows, an apostle only has authority as long as his doctrine and practice are consistent with the Bible (cf. Galatians 2:14). Same goes for the Reformed confessions. Apostles could be corrected when their doctrine and/or practice were not based on the Bible, and so can Reformed confessions. The fact that they haven’t been changed for so long, having been scrutinzed almost yearly by synods and general assemblies for hundreds of years, is a testimony to how successful these standards have been in expressing what Reformed Christians believe the Bible teaches.

    1. I must amend my words slightly. When I said the confessions “haven’t been changed for so long,” I should have said, “they have been changed so infrequently.”

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