January 09, 2013
Westminster Chief Administrative Officer, Steven J. Carter, continues his updates on life at the Seminary. This is the fourth in a series on what makes Westminster distinct.
Confessional commitment is perhaps the most obvious distinctive of Westminster. The Seminary takes its name from the confession of faith presented to the English Parliament on April 29, 1647.
In his 1986 Movie, Hannah and Her Sisters, Woody Allen plays Mickey Sachs, a lost soul in Manhattan who, in his desperate search for meaning, is willing to give the Roman Catholic Church a try:
FATHER FLYNN: (pacing behind his desk and gesturing) I understand. But why did you make the decision to choose the Catholic faith?
The movie cuts to Mickey's face. He's very neat in a tie, sweater, and sports jacket.
MICKEY: (gesturing) Tch. Well, y-you know...first of all, because it's a very beautiful religion. It's very well structured. Now I'm talking now, incidentally, about the-the, uh, against-school-prayer, pro-abortion, anti-nuclear wing.1
Notice that Mickey assumes he can taste the religious flavors he finds palatable and pass by the ones he doesn’t. At the same time, he hungers for a religion that applies some discipline over an adherent – something “very well structured.” He’s right to identify structure as something missing for most people today, and this is where Westminster’s stand on the Confession is so relevant. Commitment to a creed opens the door to a counter-culture that is a thrilling alternative to the monotony of the relativism that is pervasive, tired, and by this time in our history, dull.
A creed is a rock on which to stand. It clearly says what is true and, whether explicitly or implicitly, what is false. Who knew that distinguishing truth from error could expand the mind rather than narrow it? The truth of the creed, insofar as it reflects the teaching of Scripture, is unchanging and universal. This too is a breath of fresh air to those who have always been told that “truth” is trendy and personal – no larger than the self and no more lasting than the shelf life of the clothes people want to buy.
As to his sense of the beauty of Catholicism, my guess is Mickey Sachs was thinking either of the art and architecture the Church has preserved over the centuries, or perhaps the formality of its ceremonies. Again, I think he’s on to something here in voicing the yearning of a lost soul. But we would direct him not to the outward things of the church but to the truth it has received from the mind of God as the source of ultimate beauty, as Geerhardus Vos describes this truth: “Revelation is the light of this new world which God has called into being. The light needs the reality and the reality needs the light to produce the vision of the beautiful creation of his grace.”2 By summarizing the truth revealed by God for our redemption, the creeds are tools that help us grasp something eternally beautiful.
But some within the church would object that all you need is the Bible to provide the structure and display the beauty of God’s truth. In a book that expresses very well one of Westminster’s distinctives, Carl Trueman deals with the claim that the church should have no creed but the Bible. While that sentiment is commendable in that it seems to give priority to the Bible, it is deeply misguided. All Christian churches and organizations have their own idea of what system of truth is taught in the Bible. The question is not whether such an idea exists but whether it’s documented and openly available for public scrutiny.3
Another charge is that attachment to creeds and confessions either evidences or contributes to spiritual decline. The truth is, far from being a symptom of religious exhaustion, the great creeds and confessions were generated out of an overflow of intellectual energy and contentious passion. This is how John Murray describes the age of the reformation: “It was an age of ardent and polemic faith and the framing of creeds was the natural result.”4 And Murray contends spiritual decline is more likely found in aversion to the creed: “The flabby sentimentality so widespread is not hospitable to the rigor and vigor of a document like the Confession.”5
Over centuries, the church has struggled to gain a comprehensive understanding of the Bible. The great confessions and creeds give us access to that hard-won understanding. It guards against the folly of inventing Christian doctrine from the ground up every few years; a practice that is more likely to produce a cult than an advance of the historic Christian faith.
Whether it’s Mickey Sachs, lost in Manhattan, or an evangelical Christian who senses the need for a world-view based on Scripture, what they’re looking for can be found in the system of doctrine taught in the Westminster Confession of Faith:
No creed of the Christian Church is comparable to that of Westminster in respect of the skill with which the fruits of fifteen centuries of Christian thought have been preserved, and at the same time examined anew and clarified in the light of that fuller understanding of God’s Word which the Holy Spirit has imparted.6
2The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline, Geerhardus Vos, www.bsmi.org/download/vos/BiblicalTheology.pdf, p. 6.
3 The Creedal Imperative, Carl R. Trueman (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), p. 15.
4John Murray, The Calvin Forum, volume 9 (1944).
5The Importance and Relevance of the Westminster Confession of Faith, Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol 1: The Claims of Truth, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1976), p. 321.
6 Murray, p. 317.
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