The interpretation of Scripture has been an issue of controversy ever since the Biblical canon was formed. The church found itself rocked by a myriad of interpretations, often directly contradictory to one another. Major instances of this issue include the Arian controversy (fourth century), St. Augustine’s conflict with Pelagianism (fifth century), the Reformation (sixteenth century) and the fundamentalist–modernist controversy (twentieth century).
The various strands of Christianity have dealt with this problem in different ways. For example, the Catholic Church reserved for itself the responsibility of Scriptural interpretation. The Reformation, with its focus on Sola scriptura and the accessibility of Scripture, encouraged personal study and application of the Bible. However, this openness to personal study of Scripture caused a major problem, that being how to create and maintain a common standard for Biblical interpretation. The primary answer for this problem in the Reformed tradition was the adoption of Confessional standards.
The Book of Confessions, which is the first part of the PCUSA’s constitution (the second part is the Book of Order), defines a confession as follows.
…a confession of faith is an officially adopted statement that spells out a church’s understanding of the meaning and implications of the one basic confession of the lordship of Christ.
The Book of Confessions goes on to enumerate the primary purposes of the confessions, those being.
Worship. Like the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, some creeds and confessions have been used as acts of worship in the church’s liturgy. This use is a reminder of the fact that the church’s confessions are first of all acts of praise, thanksgiving, and commitment in the presence of God.
Defense of orthodoxy. Most confessions have been intended as polemical defense of true Christian faith and life against perversion from within as well as from attacks from outside the church. They are the church’s means of preserving the authenticity and purity of its faith.
Instruction. The confessions have been used for the education of leaders and members of the church in the right interpretation of Scripture and church tradition and to guard against the danger of individuals or groups selecting from the Bible or church tradition only that which confirms their personal opinions and desires. Confessions written in question-and-answer form (like the Heidelberg and Westminster Catechisms) were written to prepare children and adult converts for baptism and participation in the fellowship of believers.
Rallying-point in times of danger and persecution. Confessions have often prepared and strengthened Christians to stand together in faithfulness to the gospel when they have been tempted to surrender to powerful forces of political, racial, social, or economic injustice.
Church order and discipline. Some churches, like the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), have sought to preserve the purity and unity of the church by requiring its ministers and church officers to accept the teachings of its confessions in order to be ordained. The government of these churches is also determined by their confessions of faith.
Not surprisingly, there is tension between the existence of doctrinal standards that are subordinate to God’s Word and the possibility (likelihood) of evolving understanding. The Book of Confessions discusses this issue directly.
Those who choose confessional authority over personal freedom make impossible the continual reformation of the church called for by Reformed confessions themselves. They run the risk of idolatrously giving to the church the ultimate authority that belongs alone to the living God we come to know in Jesus Christ through the Bible. On the other hand, those who choose personal freedom over the confessional consensus of the church destroy the church’s unity, cut themselves off from the guidance of the church as they interpret Scripture, and run the risk of serving not biblical truth but the personal biases they read into Scripture.
For the last century the Confessions have been is a state of steady decline. In today’s PCUSA they exist as mere relics of a time long past, unused, unknown and utterly irrelevant to the vast majority of members and elders. There is thus not the slightest possibility that the PCUSA will fall prey to “those who choose confessional authority over personal freedom” in the foreseeable future.
The PCUSA has clearly fallen prey to “those who choose personal freedom over the confessional consensus of the church.” This precisely describes the process that has enabled the PCUSA’s current appalling situation.