Towards a Confessional Hermeneutic: Some Suggestions (with a bit of commentary)

William B. Evans

Some of the issues persistently raised in recent discussions of controversial matters within the conservative Reformed community have to do with the role and interpretation of confessional materials.  Whether it be discussions pro and con of Federal Vision attempts to read the Westminster Standards as consistent with their emphases on sacramental objectivity and covenant conditionality (for what it's worth, I've repeatedly stated in print my view  that FV distinctives are not consistent with the WCF) or conversations regarding how much leeway the Westminster Standards may allow on the interpretation of Genesis 1, issues of confessional interpretation, or what we might call confessional hermeneutic, have come to the fore.  A complication here is that issues of confessional authority and interpretation are intertwined and not easily separated.


The context for such discussions can be described in terms of three concentric circles moving outward from the specific to the general.  At the center we find discussions of particular issues; this is where the confessional rubber often meets the road.  Here literal six-day creationism provides a useful example.   On the one hand, advocates of this approach often employ a "common-sense" hermeneutic in their interpretation of Genesis 1--the days of creation are read in terms of how they think the average person today will read them (what I have elsewhere termed "exegetical populism"), but with little sustained attention to how this material would have been read in its original ancient Near Eastern context and to the implications of that ANE data for how we should read the text today.  On the other hand, the Westminster Confession's reference to creation taking place "in the space of six days" is often read in what is purported to be a rigorously historical way.  Thus there appears to be a difference in this instance between the interpretive methods employed in the interpretation of Genesis 1 (a "common sense" or "populist" hermeneutic) and the methods employed in the interpretation of confessional documents (a more rigorous grammatical-historical approach), and this curious pattern suggests a certain ad hoc selectivity as to method (note that I am not passing judgment here on the question of what the Westminster divines meant by "in the space of six days").


Second, there is the larger context of the confessional subscription and interpretation in specific denominations.  Some churches have given more thought to these matters than have others.  For example, Presbyterian churches (e.g., the OPC and the PCA) that are the heirs of the Adopting Act of 1729 (in which the normative center was viewed as the "system of doctrine" rather than every jot and tittle of the Confession) seem to have given more thought to the question of how the confessional documents should be interpreted and used, while some of  those that are not (e.g., my own Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church) have not really hashed out what confessional subscription and interpretation mean in precise detail. 


Third, there is the still larger context of American Evangelicalism and its ongoing tragic doctrinal implosion.  Today there are few fundamental doctrines of the faith that are not being questioned in some fashion by people who self-identify as "evangelical."  For this reason, many of us have turned to the great confessional traditions of classical Protestant orthodoxy as a bulwark against doctrinal chaos.  But all of this makes the question of confessional hermeneutic all the more pressing!  And so, in this blog article I would like to present five principles that, I believe, should inform confessional interpretation.  Hopefully these will stimulate some useful discussion about these important matters.


1.  Confessions are human documents and are, in principle, fallible.  For Presbyterians this should go without saying, since the Westminster Confession clearly affirms that "synods or councils, since the Apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred."  For this reason, the results of such "are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both" (WCF 31.3).  That is to say, confessional documents are subsidiary authorities subordinate to Scripture, the "rule of faith and life" (WCF 1.2).  We affirm the authority of confessions insofar as they reflect and articulate the teaching of Scripture. 


2.  As human documents, confessions reflect the times in which they were written.  In a word, they are historical.  This, of course, flows from #1 above.  We will see some concrete examples of this below.


3.  Confessions belong to the interpretive communities that own them.  The normativity of a confession lies in the text as it is interpreted by the believing community.  Authorial intent is important, but it is not, in the final analysis, determinative.  But is this not too subjective?  To be sure, we don't want the confessions to become "noses of wax" twisted this way and that, and I hope that nothing said here is taken as endorsing a casual or cavalier attitude toward such documents.  On the other hand, we must also be realistic about the way confessions function.  Consider the following: 


First, we cannot go back to the authors of the Apostles' Creed or the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan Creed, or the Westminster Standards for that matter, and ask them what they meant.  Even when we have extensive records of debates by the framers of confessional documents (such as in the case of the Westminster divines) there is much that we do not know.  Thus any final location of meaning in authorial intent risks what the New Critics called the "intentional fallacy" (I hasten to add that this objection does not apply to Scriptural interpretation because of the related doctrines of dual authorship and illumination).    


Second, we cannot repristinate the worldviews of the confessional authors.  Nor should we try to do so.  For example, the detailed creedal expressions of the church fathers regarding trinity and Christology were explained at the time in terms that assume the prevailing Platonism of the fathers, but that does not mean that we should become Platonists. Similarly, the texts of the Westminster Standards contain embedded within them certain assumptions about the hierarchical nature of  human society, but that does not mean that we should adopt the British class system of the seventeenth century.  We need a confessional hermeneutic sophisticated enough to deal with such issues. 


And finally, in practice nobody consistently regards authorial intent as decisive.  For example, there are those who champion the Westminster regulative principle of worship and yet see no contradiction in singing hymns (something originally understood to be precluded by that principle).  I'm also struck by the way that even the most ardent sabbatarian today does not observe the Sabbath with near the rigor that is implied by the language of WLC QQ. 115-121.  The confessional reasoning behind the 1722 deposition of a minister by New Castle Presbytery for bathing in a creek on the Sabbath is undoubtedly closer to authorial intent.  Finally, WLC QQ. 124-133 clearly assume the British class system of the seventeenth century (and would not have been written apart from that social context), and yet I do not hear the strict-subscriptionist champions of authorial intent, who tend to be quite Whiggish and republican in their social sentiments, calling for confessional revisions here.  In short, a focus on authorial intent at the expense of subsequent interpretive history and the authority of the believing community results in an unfortunate selectivity as intent is appealed to when it is convenient and ignored it when it is not. 


This ownership of confessional documents is expressed in revision processes that we may designate as formal and explicit on the one hand and informal and implicit on the other.  There are formal confessional revision processes undertaken when the tension or contradiction between the situation or ethos of the believing community and the confessional document becomes too stark.  Here we think, for example, of the early revisions by American Presbyterian bodies to the Westminster Confession's chapter "Of the Civil Magistrate" that accommodated the text of the Confession to the new American political context after the Revolution, or the twentieth-century additions by mainline Presbyterians and some others (such as the ARPC) of the two chapters "Of the Gospel" and "Of the Holy Spirit."  In addition, there have been smaller-scale revisions undertaken involving the degrees of affinity permitted in marriage, references to the Pope as the Antichrist, and so forth.  But more often, the interpretation of the confession is simply conformed to a new context without formal revision of language.  This process of implicit revision is both natural and inevitable as confessional insights are applied to new situations. 


4.  Pertinent questions are to be asked of the confessional documents.  It is quite possible to ask impertinent questions (i.e., questions the authors were not attempting to answer).  We are tempted to do this all time and must guard against it.   An example of such an impertinent query is the appeal to the "in the space of six days" language in WCF 4.1.  Whatever the divines meant by that phrase, what is clear is that the prevailing alternative to literal six day interpretation from the early church period until the seventeenth century was a shorter period (e.g., Augustine's notion of instantaneous creation) rather than a longer time frame.  What the divines would have said in response to later exegetical insights into the nature of biblical genealogies, ANE comparative data suggesting that the narrative in Genesis 1 is framed in terms of an ancient cosmology that we do not share, and the mass of scientific evidence suggesting that the cosmos is much older than they assumed is not at all clear and should remain an open question. 


5.  Confessions in themselves are no guarantee of theological fidelity.  We must be realistic about what confessions can and cannot do.  While often extraordinarily helpful, they are no substitute for careful exegesis, theological reflection, and ongoing attention to the way these are fleshed out in the life of the confessing community.  Today, however, unrealistic expectations of confessions abound.  For example, some today seem to view the church as constituted by its confession, and many regard confessions as a "silver bullet" solution to the problem of doctrinal declension.  A danger here is that confessions may become an end in themselves and that the resulting confessionalism may degenerate into bald appeals to authority for its own sake.  This, however, only signals the incipient death of a confessional tradition. 

But the church is constituted by its Head, Jesus Christ.  It is the body of Christ.  Confessional traditions exist, not as ends in themselves, but to point us to Christ and to help us understand the richness of Scripture more fully.  Each generation must own the confession for itself if that confessional tradition is to remain vital and relevant.  Moreover, as I have suggested above, such ownership inevitably involves a measure of contextualization.  While we must be on guard against explicit and implicit confessional revisions that subvert the teachings of Scripture, at the same time we should welcome those that enable the confessional tradition to speak to new situations and contexts.