Events & News Archive
Presbyterian Beliefs and Me - Our Confessions
The definition for "Confession" is generally associated with a formal statement admitting that one is guilty of a crime. However in a Christian tradition a confession is a statement of our belief of the essential religious doctrine. To confess means to affirm, declare or acknowledge what one believes is true. There is a distinction between confession as an act of Christian faith and a confession as a document of Christian faith.
All Christians are by definition people who confess their faith – (Jesus is Lord). On the other hand, a confession of faith is an officially adopted statement that spells out the church's understanding of the meaning and implications of one's belief. Some call them the creeds, symbols, declarations of faith, statement of belief, articles of faith etc. Presbyterian and reformed churches are not the only churches with confessional standards.
Throughout the history of the Christian church, churches have written confessions of faith in response to internal dangers and external threats that distort the truth and the integrity of the church. The earliest confession of the New Testament church is "Jesus is Lord", so as Christians we confess not what but in whom we believe. In general the affirmation of the church's faith covers our response to God, the Christian community and the world.
Some Christians claim that we do not need man-made documents, all we need is the Bible. Their slogan is: "No Book but the Bible, no creed but Christ". A confession is more than a personal declaration of faith. It is an officially adopted statement of what a community of Christian believe in common.
Creeds and confessions have been used as acts of worship in the church's liturgy. They are also intended as polemical defence of true Christian faith and life against internal and external attacks as a means of preserving the authenticity and purity of faith. They are also used for the education of church leaders and members in the right interpretation of Scripture and church tradition to guard against personal opinions and desires. The Presbyterian Church in Singapore sought to preserve the purity and unity of the church by requiring our ministers and church officers to accept the teachings of its confessions in order to be ordained.
Confessions address the issues, problems, dangers and opportunities of a given historical situation. The irony is that in the course of church history and also in our time, the confessions are limited by the normative orientation of their particular time, thought forms and cultural patterns. Despite all good intentions, they have united the Christian community and also divided the churches with conflicting views of what Christian faith and life are all about. What is important for us 21st century Christians is to acknowledge the fact that our confessions not only emphasize what Christians believe but also how Christians live.
The Presbyterian Church in Singapore subscribes to the Apostles' Creed – a very brief summary of the Christian faith and the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Larger and shorter Catechisms – containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures as our secondary standards (The bible itself being the only infallible rule of faith and practice). As Presbyterians of the 21st century, we cannot expect one right answer to every theological and ethical question. We need to make room for variety within the fundamental unity of the church in dealing with divergences among the confessions. We need to trust the Holy Spirit as it enables the church to hear the Word of God in every new time and situation.
The Presbyterian churches in Singapore embrace the Apostles' Creed as our confession of faith. We recite the Creed at least once a month to affirm our faith before we partake of the Holy Communion. While many churches may have given up on reciting such creeds on the assumption that people would just recite them mindlessly like they do the national pledge, which defeats the purpose. The Apostles' Creed was not written or approved by a single church council at one specific time. In other words, it was not set from its beginning, but fluid – it took shape gradually from about A.D. 200 to 750. Today, we question one very suspicious clause, which we may sometimes wonder whether it is heretical! It is the clause "he [Jesus] descended into hell." What does it mean? Is it Scriptural?
Keith L. Johnson, a Protestant theologian at Wheaton College (Illinois) wrote that Presbyterian and Reformed Protestants, among others, agree with Augustine that the descent was not literal. Rather, it expresses the depth of Jesus' hellish sufferings and triumph through the reality of death. The Westminster Larger Catechism states that Jesus continued "in the state of the dead and under the power of death till the third day." The first mention of the descent in the Western Church occurs in the writings of Rufinus of Aquileia, who included it in his baptismal creed in A.D. 390. The clause did not appear again in any version of the Creed until A.D. 650. Even for Rufinus, he did not mean that Christ descended into hell but simply that he was buried. When he said that "he descended into hell", he meant "he descended into the grave".
Old translations of the Apostles Creed use hell to translate the Greek word hades, but nowadays we have a completely unbiblical belief that when we die, we just zip right off into reward or punishment, without waiting for the resurrection or the judgment. So for us, the word hell has come to mean a realm of eternal punishment and the old translations of the Apostles Creed no longer make sense—after all, why would Jesus go to hell in the modern sense of the word? Modern translations of the Apostles Creed say that Jesus descended to the dead. That is a more accurate translation of the word hades. It says that Jesus really did die, He didn't fake it.
"...was crucified, dead and buried; he descended into hell" (which also means "he was buried")? Calvin says that "Christ's descent into hell" refers to the fact that he was not only died a bodily death but that "it was expedient at the same time for him to undergo the severity of God's vengeance, to appease his wrath and satisfy his judgment."
In any case, both evangelical and liturgical churches were desiring to know our biblical roots, our common heritage with believers throughout the world and in all times. So what constitutes our oneness as Christians? If asked, can we express clearly and succinctly in our own words a declaration of our faith? Hence a statement like the Apostles' Creed came into being, to fill a particular need – to give an outline of what Christians commonly believe.
The Westminster Assembly (July 1643 – February 1649) was called by the Parliament of over 150 Christian leaders to reform the Church of England. Though the reform did not alter the Church of England it produced the Confession of Faith, the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. Both remain as standards of Presbyterianism in the English speaking world.
Many have said that the Confession is archaic and needs to be changed, but modern translations are now available. What is important is that at the time of writing, the compilers believed it was an accurate summary of what the scripture taught on certain matters of faith and practice. What was then true in the 17th century should be also true today for God's Word does not change. What we can do in the 21st century is suggest supplementary notes in areas that the Confession does not cover.
The Confession was presented in a question-and-answer format and designed to prepare children and adult converts for baptism and participation in the fellowship of believers. Our local congregations should seriously look at using the Westminster Confession as teaching instruments of the church. While confessional standards are subordinate to Scripture, they are nevertheless standards. They are not lightly drawn up or subscribed to, nor may they be ignored or dismissed. The Presbyterian Church in Singapore is prepared to counsel or even discipline leaders who seriously reject the faith expressed in the confessions.
Bear in mind that we are a church that is always reforming (sempter reformata) and to be a truly confessional church in the reformed tradition, every aspect of our life must be informed and shaped by the understanding of Christian faith and life expressed in our belief.
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