The first time someone asked me if I went to a confessional church, I stared at him blankly. “Well,” I stammered, “I know that we have a priest at Lutheran churches, but I kind of thought confession booths were just for Catholics?”
It turns out, “Confessional” has a separate meaning. It can also mean that a church subscribes to a certain creed not found in the Bible. Usually, this creed was written by a certain denomination within the past 500 years, the major exception being the Nicene Creed, which dates to the fourth century. Other common confessions include the Westminster Confession (1647 A.D.), Heidelberg Catechism (1576 A.D.), and the Waldensian Confession (1655 A.D.).
In my circles, it’s the Westminister Confession (and accompanying catechism) that has the most dogmatic supporters. It’s not so much that I disagree with the Westminister Catechism; it’s more that I disagree with giving it such a lofty position in theology. A lot of reformed church websites actually state “We subscribe to the Bible and the Westminister Catechism,” and they will quote it like they quote Bible verses.
Jesus harshly criticized the Pharisees for putting the word of men equal to the Word of God. In Matthew 5:19, He said, “in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'" When I push the issue, a catechism’s supporters will always insist that they don’t view it on the same level as the Bible, but when they respond to my biblical arguments using it instead of Scripture, how else can I interpret their responses? It’s an impossible paradox to get past. Unless you accept that something becomes holy through church tradition (which the reformers shutter at), there’s no half-way point at which something is semi-inspired. I would find quoting my blog to be just as persuasive as quoting a catechism.
Catechisms are not inspired; they contain errors, or at least things not stated in Scripture. For instance, the Westminister Catechism refers to Sunday as the Lord’s Day, whereas the only place the term appears in Scripture is Revelations 1:10, where John is most likely referring to Judgment Day. Nowhere in all of Revelation does John ever mention the first day of the week. Yet in theological discussions, I have had people argue that Sunday is the only day when church can be held, because the catechism says so. This strikes me as particularly dangerous – placing tradition much higher than it should be, especially when compared to Bible verses like Romans 14:5. Even John Calvin, generally closely associated with the Westminister Catechism, said that, “I do not cling so to the number seven as to bring the Church under bondage to it, nor do I condemn churches for holding their meetings on other solemn days, provided they guard against superstition” (INSTITUTES OF THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION - CHAPTER 8).
There are other strange ironies. Many of my Reformed Presbyterian friends will only sing Psalms (and usually without instruments) because it is the only “Biblical” way to worship God, but at the same time, they revere the Westminister Catechism to the point where they often mention it in the same sentence as the Bible. How can it be that singing traditional hymns is non-scriptural, but the catechism is ok? These churches also tend to revere the works of Martin Luther tremendously – again, he was a great man of faith, but he had his own set of problems and certainly hasn’t achieved canonical status.
Although supporters will often point to the great age of a confession (still very short compared to the history of Christianity), modern confessionals are still produced, such as the “Chicago Statement on biblical Inerrancy.” Rather than “becoming holy” due to centuries of tradition and reverence, or a nostalgic belief that Christians of a certain era were better than now, it was written in an airport hotel in 1978. Hardly anyone has ever heard of it. To me this brings up the obvious question: if someone wrote the Westminster Confession today, would anybody really care about it even enough to read it?
I prefer to view the Westminister Catechism, and all confessionals, in the same way that I would view the sermons of a great preacher or a timeless hymn. They’re great to study, and reading or singing them leads to a deeper appreciation of church history. Ultimately, however, they are still just the works of frail human beings.What is your opinion of confessionals? Have you ever attended a confessional church? How were the confessionals used?