The Doctrine of Scripture in “The Confession of 1967”

At its General Assembly this summer, the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America formally incorporated into its constitution a new confession of faith called “The Confession of 1967.” This confession resulted from a decision made by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in 1958: “that the united Church prepare a brief contemporary Statement of Faith to become apart of the Constitution.” An explanation of this decision described the intended “Statement of Faith” as follows:

A short Statement of Faith written in these times, dealing with the great verities of the Word of God and facing today’s burning issues, should be of interest and value to church officers and church school teachers, to new members of our churches, and to any among us who wish to give plain answers about the faith we hold. It should bring to all members of our Church some sense of participation in the thrilling revival of theology. (quoted in the brochure, “The Proposal to Revise the Confessional Position of The United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, ” p. 11—after this the brochure will be referred to as “The Proposal”.

Apart from the content of the new confession, the adoption of the “Confession of 1967” was of great significance for the United Presbyterian Church, a church of some three million members whose tradition is that of the Reformed faith. Adoption of the Confession included a radical change of the confessional basis of the Presbyterian Church. In the past the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. subscribed to the Reformed Westminster Confession and its companion documents, The Shorter and Larger Catechisms. At their ordination, candidates for the ministry had to answer affirmatively the question: “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scripture?” The radical change which the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. has effected consists not only of the addition to the Westminster Confession and the Shorter Catechism of “The Confession of 1967” and six other creeds (The Nicene Creed, The Apostles’ Creed, The Scats Confession, The Heidelberg Catechism, The Second Helvetic Confession and The Theological Declaration of Barmen) but also of its relegation of all creeds, including these nine, to the status of mere mementos of the past and of ecclesiastical guidelines. In reality, the United Presbyterian Church no longer has any creeds, especially not the Westminster Confession. This Church now declares that she “accepts and is guided by” the nine documents in her creedal mélange. Candidates for the ministry now merely state that they will perform their duties “(under) the guidance of the confessions of this Church” (“The Proposal,” p. 45). 

Behind the United Presbyterian Church’s change of her confessional position lies the widespread, pernicious rejection of the historic Reformed confessions as documents that once were useful for their times but are now hopelessly outdated, not only valueless for the “modern” Church but positively detrimental. Implied in this notion is the relativity of truth: The Reformed confessions “spoke the truth to their times” but speak the truth no longer. At bottom, the rejection of the Reformed confessions stems from a hatred of the Reformed faith, especially, the truths of election and reprobation, limited atonement and sovereign grace. There can be no doubt that the desire of those who masterminded the change in the Presbyterian Church was: Get rid of the staunchly Reformed Westminster Confession. They effectively accomplished the removal of the Westminster Confession, not by openly repudiating it as mostly a lie, mistakenly embraced for some three hundred years by Presbyterians, but by lumping it with other historical relics, all of which are from now on to be admired by the Church as monuments of by-gone eras. Then, to seal Westminster’s tomb, they saw to it that a new confession was adopted which contradicts the Westminster Confession throughout. 

That “The Confession of 1967” contradicts the Westminster Confession is easily shown. Of the Bible, the Westminster Confession says, “God (is) . . . the author thereof; and therefore it is to be received because it is the Word of God.” (Chapter I, 4. “The Confession of 1967” calls the Scriptures “the words of men.” (Part I, Section C, 2) The Westminster Confession declares that “by the decree of God…some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life, and others foreordained to everlasting death.” (Chapter III, 3) Also, “As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath he, by the eternal and most free purpose of his will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by his Spirit working in due season; are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by his power through faith unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.” (Chapter III, 6) In flat, universalistic contradiction, “The Confession of 1967” declares, “The risen Christ is the savior for all men,” (Part I, Section A, 1) “God expressed his love for all mankind through Israel…” (Part I, Section B) and “The gift of God in Christ is for all men.” (Part II, Section A, 3) 

That the change of the confessional position of the Presbyterian Church involves a rejection of the binding character of the creeds and the assertion that the historic Reformed creeds are little more than mementos can also be proved. The Preface of “The Confession of 1967” states: “The United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America acknowledges itself aided in understanding the gospel by the testimony of the church from earlier ages and from many lands. More especially it is guided by the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds…” Confessions merely “aid in understanding” and “guide”; they do not have binding authority upon the Church, its officebearers or its members. In an article included in the brochure, “The Proposal to Revise the Confessional Position of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.,” Edward A. Dowey, Jr., chairman of the committee that composed “The Confession of 1967,” writes: “A statement that is appropriate and powerful in its own day may fail to guide the church after some decades or centuries have gone by. It comes to resemble a monument marking the past more than a tool for present work.” (pp. 20, 21) This is the verdict upon the historic Reformed creeds. De Bres and the other martyrs spilled their life’s blood for the sake of — “monuments!” And a certain Trinterud, also a member of the committee that drafted the Confession, complains that for some men “The Westminster documents had come to have the character of timeless truth rather than the truth for the times.” (“The Proposal,” p. 17) It is a typical characteristic of all those who advocate the jettison of the Reformed creeds that they will not answer the simple question: Do the historic Reformed confessions express the (timeless, eternal) truth or the lie? 

But it is the content of the new Confession that now concerns us, particularly, the Confession’s doctrine of Holy Scripture. That which Dowey notes of the Westminster Confession, “The Westminster teaching about the Bible itself, on which the whole document depends…,” (“The Proposal,” p. 19) holds true of “The Confession of 1967” also: A confession of faith depends upon its view of Scripture. 

The very membership of the committee appointed to compose the Confession puts one on his guard. Among the members were a woman “Ruling Elder,” in violation of Scripture’s injunction against women officebearers, and Markus Barth, son of the famed German theologian, Karl Barth, who fully shares his father’s estimation of Scripture as an error-filled, human book. 

This estimation of Scripture is the doctrine of “The Confession of 1967.”l In Part I, Section C, 2, under the heading, “The Bible,” the Confession reads:

The Scriptures, given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are nevertheless the words of men, conditioned by the language, thought forms, and literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written. They reflect views of life, history, and the cosmos which were then current. The church, therefore, has an obligation to approach the Scriptures with literary and historical understanding. As God has spoken his word in diverse cultural situations, the church is confident that he will continue to speak through the Scriptures in a changing world and in every form of human culture.

Whereas the Westminster Confession and all the historic Reformed creeds call Scripture the Word of God and never call it the words of men, “The Confession of 1967” calls the Bible “the words of men.” As “the words of men,” the Bible is “conditioned by the. ..Literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written,” that is, the writers of the Bible used the technique of myth in Genesis 1-3 to express spiritual ideas about the beginning of the world and the corruption of mankind. The use of myth, disguised as genuine happening, was a “literary fashion” in the times of the writing of the Bible. The Scriptures “reflect views of ..history…which were then current,” that is, the Bible writers did not know that history consists of actual facts and real events so that they presented as historical things that never happened. 

The committee makes plain that, in the confession, they are repudiating the doctrine of the infallible inspiration of Scripture (maintained by the Westminster Confession) and are contending for the Barthian view that the Bible is a fallible human book. In his article, “Confessions of the Church: Types and Functions,” included in the brochure, “The Proposal,” Dowey writes: “The Westminster teaching about the Bible itself . notably a seventeenth-century formulation.” (p. 19)² This is an ominous statement. But the committee becomes explicit. Speaking of the section on “The Bible” in the Confession, the committee boldly declares:

This section is an intended revision of the Westminster doctrine, which rested primarily on a view of inspiration and equated the Biblical canon directly with the Word of God. By contrast, the preeminent and primary meaning of the word of God in the Confession of 1967 is the Word of God incarnate. The function of the Bible is to be the instrument of the revelation of the Word in the living church. It is not a witness among others but the witness without parallel, the norm of all other witness. At the same time questions of antiquated cosmology, diverse cultural influences, and the like, may be dealt with by careful scholarship uninhibited (sic!) by the doctrine of inerrancy which placed the older Reformed theology at odds with advances in historical and scientific studies. (“The Proposal”, p. 29)

According to the Confession, Jesus Christ is the Word of God, in distinction from Scripture; Scripture, the words of men, merely bears witness to Jesus Christ, the Word of God. This is from beginning to end the theology of Karl Barth. “The Confession of 1967” embodies the doctrine of Scripture of Karl Barth and makes that theology the credo of the Church. 

The Confession’s denial that Scripture is God’s Word is not mitigated by an insertion that so-called conservatives managed to make, over the objections of the committee that composed the document. The insertion adds to the words, “Holy Scriptures,” the words, “which are received and obeyed as the word of God written.” In the light of the entire section on Scripture and in light of the committee’s open explanation of the significance of the section on Scripture, the insertion is not only meaningless and indicative of a pitiful attempt to camouflage stark reality but also outright deception. For, first, the inserted phrase merely says that the Scriptures “are received and obeyed as the word of God written.” It does not say that the Bible is the Word of God written.³ Secondly, how this insertion is to be understood, the committee itself indicates: “By extension of the meaning of the Word to which the Bible witnesses, the Bible as well may be called the word of God.” (“The Proposal”, p. 42) This means, following Karl Barth, that Scripture really is not the Word of God. Only Jesus is the Word of God. But because the Bible witnesses to Jesus, you may — if you insist! — call the Bible the Word of God. In reality, as “The Confession of 1967” plainly states, the Bible is the words, the fallible words of men. 

It does not surprise us that the Confession, having such a view of Scripture, corrupts other truths also. It denies election and reprobation, teaching a universal love of God. It denies limited atonement, teaching a death of Christ for all men. By implication, it denies total depravity and sovereign, irresistible grace, when it suggests that some men reject the offered Christ and go lost to the frustration of God’s intentions. It adopts a form of syncretism when it maintains that “The Christian finds parallels between other religions and his own and must approach all religions with openness and respect.” It calls the church to the labor of social improvements as she “strives for a better world.” 

It also follows that the vows of ordination must be changed. In place of the previous “Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice?” the committee recommended: “Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the normative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church catholic, and by his Spirit God’s Word to you?” (“The Proposal”, p. 45) This quotation from the dogmatics of Karl Barth means that the Holy Spirit takes the human, fallible Bible, the words of men, and causes men, now and again, to hear the Word of God through that Bible. 

If it is true, as Christianity Today reported, that “conservatives” found “a patch of common ground” on which to stand with the “liberals” to adopt the Confession and if it is true that “a delicate liberal conservative balance” was achieved by which the Confession was almost unanimously adopted, then it is also true that the love of the so-called conservatives has long since waxed cold, that the so-called conservatives are little less enemies of the Church than the “liberals” and that the so-called conservatives share the blame for this Confession with those that drew it up (see Christianity Today, June 10, 1966, p. 44). 

In his article, “Confessions of the Church: Types and Functions,” Edward Dowey complains that the Church that produced the Westminster Confession was trying “to hold back the dawn of modern natural science and philosophy.” (“The Proposal”, pp. 19, 20) He implies that the Church today must open herself to “modern natural science and philosophy,” by banishing the Reformed creeds and adopting “The Confession of 1967.” This, the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. has now done. May God have mercy on her.

1.It may now be laid down as a general principle that every attack upon the authority of the creeds, although made in the name of the unique authority of Scripture, heralds and goes hand-in-hand with a denial of the inspiration and authority of Scripture. One who undermines the creeds is one who also denies the authority of Scripture, by rejecting its infallible inspiration. On the other hand, it can safely be said that one who stoutly defends the authority of the creeds (which after all he has sworn to defend)is one who also maintains the full authority of Scripture. In the light of these rules, James Daane’s jab at Herman Hoeksema in the May-June 1967 issue of The Reformed Journalis revelatory of both Hoeksema and Daane: “he (Hoeksema) viewed (the Reformed creeds —DE) with an almost blind, uncritical loyalty, accepting them as not-to-be-questioned truth, not as historical documents.” 

2. This brings to mind what C.S. Lewis put into the mouth of the demon Screwtape in The Screwtape Letters: “We have…(inculcated) the Historical Point of View. The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates . ..” The one question Mr. Dowey never asks about Westminster’s doctrine of Scripture is “whether it is true.” 

3 Contrast this statement, as everyone in the Presbyterian General Assembly and Church must have done, with that which the Westminster Confession says. It also speaks of “receiving” Scripture and its authority but fundamentally differently than does “The Confession of 1967”: “therefore it is to be received,because it is the Word of God. ” (Chapter I, 4 – my emphasis, DE.