Shouldn’t it be obvious?

Though every church website has a section telling you what they believe, shouldn’t it be obvious? Aren’t there certain things a church has to believe to be a church? You’d think so, but a dizzying variety of groups claim to be the church, all professing different beliefs.

Some assure you they’re so broad that they aren’t sure about anything except that they’re not sure about anything and that anyone who is sure about anything is sure to be wrong.

Others want you to know that they alone remain on the rock, which has become so narrow that there’s only space for themselves, and, worryingly, it’s shrinking all the time, so some of them may even fall off.

Having assumed that all churches would believe in God, Jesus Christ, and salvation for all who believe, you could be forgiven for feeling despair. One thing is sure, we all believe something. Even to claim not to believe is a creed of sorts.

As far as we’re concerned, the church’s convictions were settled long ago. Our job is to restate them. Given the competing claims of various groups to be the church that might sound like a tricky task, but thankfully it’s not so bad. That’s because throughout history there have always been people who departed from the church’s teaching while claiming to be still part of it.

When that happened, the church met in councils and assemblies to restate what the church believed in the face of such challenges. That’s why we have various creeds and confessions, stretching right back to the early centuries of Christianity.

Our convictions are stated in a confession that is catholic, Reformed, and biblical, and which states the historic convictions of the Church of Scotland–The Westminster Confession of Faith. That’s why we hold to it. But what do we mean by catholic, Reformed, and biblical?

Catholic

When we say our confession is catholic, that doesn’t mean we have a bishop enthroned in St Peter’s. When the men who wrote the Westminster Confession of Faith gathered in Westminster Abbey, they weren’t intent on coming up with anything new. Parliament had instructed them to revise The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England.

The minutes of the Assembly show that as they went about their task, they were steeped in the writings of earlier theologians, from the first centuries right up to their own time. They wanted to be faithful to the teaching that had been handed down by faithful leaders since the time of the apostles. In other words, they wanted their teaching to be catholic—to represent the universal understanding of the church across nations and generations.

Reformed

There is no guarantee that particular churches will be faithful to catholic doctrine. In the century before the Westminster Confession of Faith was written, the church had just gone through the Reformation because the Reformers believed that the Western Church had departed from catholic teaching, both by adding to it and subtracting from it.

They wanted to reform the church by weighing its teaching against Scripture and historic Christian orthodoxy. For that reason, those who followed the Reformers, like the Westminster Divines, could call themselves Reformed Catholics.

Biblical

Many churches claim to teach the Bible or to have a biblical ministry, but who decides what is biblical? Some evangelical Christians think it’s up to them as individuals. With Bible in hand, they stride across the centuries, tossing aside every creed and confession like a losing lottery ticket.

We believe that what is ‘biblical’ is to be settled corporately, by a representative assembly of the whole church, in submission to the Word of God and in dependence upon the Holy Spirit. It’s not for individual leaders to determine what is biblical and then become despotic cranks, or worse, start a cult. The Westminster Confession of Faith does not deny that such assemblies may err, but their ambition was to write a confession that was biblical. We think they succeeded.