There have been many objections urged against the use of Creeds and Confessions of Faith, at different periods, and with various degrees of skill or plausibility. It is not necessary either to enumerate all these objections or to answer them all, since many of them have sunk into oblivion, and others have already met sufficient refutation.
Almost the only objection which is now urged with any degree of confidence, is that which accuses Confessions of usurping a position and authority due to divine truth alone. This objection itself has its origin in an erroneous view of what a Confession at Faith really is, and of what it is in which the necessity of a Confession being framed consists. The necessity for the formation of Confessions of Faith does not lie in the nature of the sacred truth revealed to man; but in the nature of the human mind itself. A Confession of Faith is not a revelation of divine truth – it is “not even a rule of faith and practice, but a help in both,” to use the words of our own Confession; but it is a declaration of the manner in which any man, or number of men – any Christian or any Church – understands the truth which has been revealed. Its object is, therefore, not to teach divine truth; but to exhibit a clear, systematic and intelligible declaration of our own sentiments, to furnish the means of ascertaining the opinions of others, especially in religious controversies.
The truth of this view, and the explanation which it gives of the necessity for the existence Creeds and Confessions, may be easily shown. The human mind is so prone to error, and of such widely diversified capacity in every respect that when even a simple truth is presented for its reception, that truth may be reproduced in almost as many different aspects as there were different minds to which it was presented. Suppose it a single sentence, uttered in a voice, or written in a language understood by all – each man might understand it in his own way, putting upon it the construction which, to him, seemed the clearest ; but it would be impossible to ascertain, whether they all understood it in the same sense or not by their merely repeating the very words which they had heard or read, unless they were all to state, each in his own words, what they understood it to mean. Each man might then say, “l believe its meaning was to this effect.” This would be really his Creed, or Confession of Faith, respecting that truth; and when all had thus stated their belief, if any thing like a harmonious consent of mind among them could be obtained, it would be their united Confession of Faith, with regard to that particular truth so revealed and understood.
But it would be more than this – it would be both a bond of union among themselves on that point, and also a conjoint testimony to all other men; not as absolutely and certainly teaching that truth, but as also absolutely and certainly conveying the sense in which these men understood it, so far as their statement was itself distinct and intelligible; and it might prove the term of admission to the body of those who had thus emitted a joint declaration of what they believed to be the meaning of that truth.
To this extent, we think, all intelligent and candid persons will readily concur; and so far, it must be
evident that there is no attempt to control or overbear his conscientious convictions respecting what he believes to be truth in any given or supposable case. If any man cannot agree with the joint testimony borne by those who are agreed, this may be a cause of mutual regret; but it could neither confer on them any right to compel him to join them, contrary to his convictions, nor entitle him to complain on account of being excluded from a body of men with whose opinions he did not concur. No man of strict integrity, indeed, could even wish to become one of a body of men with whom he did not agree on that peculiar point which formed the basis of their association.
Excerpt from Introductory Essay to The Westminster Confession of Faith by Robert Shaw.