The Westminster Kill Switch

When the Israelites were bitten by venomous snakes, God instructed Moses to make a snake and put it on a pole, and when those who were bitten by snakes looked at it, they were healed (Numbers 21:4-9). The object had no power to heal the people, but it was symbolic of the coming atonement of Christ, who would become a curse on the cross so that he could save his people.

However, the Israelites made it into an idol and burned incense to it until the time of Hezekiah. It was a mere symbol, and the king was commended for destroying it (2 Kings 18:1-4). If a symbol becomes more than a symbol in people’s minds and begins to share a place with God or takes the place of his word, then it would be better to destroy the symbol so that the people could look to the reality again.

If we should destroy something that God himself commanded by supernatural revelation in order to preserve biblical worship, how much more should we destroy something that God never commanded, or at best something that he arranged by ordinary providence, in order to preserve biblical doctrine?

The Westminster Confession of Faith contains a statement that practically functions as a kill switch on the creed: “All synods or councils, since the Apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both” (WCF 31.3). We are focusing on the WCF because people throw it at us so much, as if we must bow to it like they do, but several other historic confessions contain similar language (e.g. Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, 21).

The statement refers to “all councils,” so it must include the WCF itself. It applies “since the apostles’ times,” so that it has been the case since the beginning, without exception. It is possible for all councils to err, and it adds, “and many have erred.” Many. This means that error is not merely possible, but it is probable. Again, this includes the WCF itself, and all other creeds. Therefore, the WCF continues, these councils “are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as a help in both” (see also WCF 1.10 and 20.2).

Unless they were liars, the framers never intended the WCF to be a rule, but only a help. It is a mere tool. It was never meant to be an authoritative standard. If they suggested otherwise elsewhere, then they contradicted themselves, and committed the very thing that WCF 31.3 mentions. Indeed, within the WCF we find what could be self-defeating statements even on our current topic. It is ironic that those who practically place the WCF on the same level with the Bible do not take WCF 31.3 to heart. They take everything that it says as Scripture, but they do not apply WCF 31.3 to the WCF itself. Thus they are double hypocrites. Just as they are selective about what they accept from the Bible, they are also selective about what they affirm from the WCF. They have believed whatever they wished all this time, and used the Bible and the WCF only to justify themselves.

When we have a disagreement with the WCF — such as with its cessationist heresy, passive reprobation, covenant of works, liberty and contingency of second causes, mysticism in baptism and communion, and so on — they must either admit that it is possible for the creed to be wrong, in which case the discussion would return to what the Bible says, and it is possible for some parts of the WCF to be completely overturned, or they must insist that it is impossible for the creed to err, in which case WCF 31.3 itself would be wrong, which would actually show that WCF 31.3 is right, so that the WCF and its followers destroy one another.

If the framers were sincere — if they were not frauds — then I think they would weep to see how people have taken their effort to provide a “help” and used it as a “rule” to supplant Scripture itself. Now if your religion has not progressed beyond 2 Kings, how dare you to challenge me about Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? I know your own creed better than you do, and in a way, respect it more than you do.

The framers were prepared for idolaters like you. Even if the statement was not mainly intended as a kill switch, it can function as one when people make the creed a rule instead of a mere tool, since it declares that the Westminster council could be wrong. Of course, even if there were never any kill switch, the Bible grants us the authority to shut down the whole thing. Repent, and return to God. Return to the gospel of Jesus Christ. If the creed has become an idol, flip the switch. If you do not, I can always flip it for you.