Most Free Church people probably do not think of themselves as catholic. Now, there is a sense in which that is correct: if you are a member of the Free Church, then, by definition, you are not a member of the Roman Catholic Church. At least, if you are, and the minister or the priest finds out about it, you are going to be in some considerable trouble. Yet there is also a sense in which Free Church people are catholics. To be catholic, after all, really only means to be part of the one great communion of saints, of all those who call upon Christ for salvation and who are entrusted with the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
There are various ways in which this should manifest itself, but one of the most significant is in the way we think about the Bible. Do we just pick it up and read it for ourselves, effectively reinventing the faith every time we open the cover? Or do we self-consciously read it with the church, listening to the many great voices of the past as we engage with its text? Up until the last century, there would have been no question: the church’s teaching in the past was of vital importance to understanding the Bible in the present. Now, however, it is not so much the case.
Various factors have brought us to this sorry pass. Science has led us to believe that the past is merely useful as a prelude to the future, which is bound to be better than the present. There is much truth in this: after all, who wants to go back to a world with no antibiotics? But while the forward-looking, future-prioritising scientific mindset works well with medication, it is not so good when it comes to cultural expectations with regard to an historic faith which demands by its very essence continuity with the past, and gives no guarantee that the future will necessarily represent a great leap forward.
There are other factors, too: consumerism, with its built-in imperative which makes all possessions obsolete almost as soon as they are purchased; the cult of youth, with its insistence that the least experienced and most unqualified people in this world are the ones to whom society, including the church, needs to listen to more than anyone else; technology, whose constant change and development favours younger, more nimble minds and gives technique the edge over character and experience; and, of course, the theological brains which have bought into the modern specialist research mentality – our equivalent of the scientific paradigm. We even find such characters in evangelical quarters; you know, the kind of theologian who spends his entire career redefining things that don’t need redefining, fixing doctrines that aren’t bust in the first place, replacing the creedal equivalent of a Chippendale chair with something in a flat-pack from IKEA, and generally wandering around the theological landscape like a latter day Frank Spencer (remember him?), crashing cars into lamp posts and blowing up the gas boiler he was brought in to fix.
There are too many problems to address here, but for the Free Church to take its place in the catholic church, a number of things must be self-consciously pursued by its members. First, we should acknowledge our debt to the past and to the way in which that past connects to our reading of the Bible in the present. The obvious factor here is the church’s confession, the Westminster Standards. It is surely time that we stopped paying mere lip-service to these documents and brought them back into the day-to-day life of the church. Indeed, they should be embraced and become an integral part of the church’s life at a congregational level. This is not to place them on a par with scripture, but the Free Church is committed to regarding the Standards as a summary of the system of doctrine taught in scripture; and, as such, they offer a great overview and synthesis of biblical teaching. In an era when people know less and less about the Bible, it is not enough just to tell them to learn the stories; they need to put the whole thing together as well, and the Standards help to do that.
Secondly, by placing the Standards at the heart of the church’s life, the Free Church reconnects with the great traditions to which the Standards themselves belong: Trinitarianism, the doctrine of the person and work of Jesus Christ, the nature of the church as a body committed to the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments. Further, the very act of reasserting the importance of the Standards is itself a counter-cultural move, pointing to the fact that no, we do not reinvent the faith every Sunday; rather, in gratitude and humility, we receive the faith that has been handed down to us by previous generations, and we keep it safe for our children and their children after them. Creeds, like the Standards, give continuity and stability to our faith and to our testimony.
Some may well regard this move as idolatrous: does it not exalt the doctrines of men as if they were the Word of God? Well, no, I do not think so. Rather, it acknowledges our indebtedness to those who have gone before us. Anyone who uses a Bible translation is indebted to the past, to traditions of linguistic, textual, and translation work. Thus, in acknowledging our debt to the past, we are, perhaps, simply being honest. Oh, and also catholic as well, in our acceptance that our day, generation, and congregation are not the final word on everything.