Qualities of the Westminster Confession of Faith - Robert Shaw
04 Jul 2015
The first thing which must strike any thoughtful reader, after having carefully and studiously perused the Westminster Assembly's Confession of Faith, is the remarkable comprehensiveness and accuracy of its character, viewed as a systematic exhibition of divine truth, or what is termed a system of theology. In this respect it may be regarded as almost perfect, both in its arrangement and in its completeness. Even a single glance over its table of contents will show with what exquisite skill is arrangements proceeds from the statement of first principles to the regular development and final consummation of the whole scheme of revealed truth. Nothing essential is omitted; and nothing is extended to a length disproportioned to its due importance. Nor do we think that a systematic study of theology could be prosecuted on a better plan than that of the Confession of Faith. Too little attention, perhaps, has been shown to the Confession in this respect; and we are strongly persuaded that it might be most advantageously used in our theological halls as a text-book.
This, at least, may be affirmed, that no private Christian could fail to benefit largely from a deliberate and studious perusal and re-perusal of the Confession of Faith, for the express purpose of obtaining a clear and systematic conception of sacred truth, both as a whole, and with all its parts so arranged as to display their relative importance, and their mutual bearing upon, and illustration of, each other. Such a deliberate perusal would also tend very greatly to fortify the mind against the danger of being led astray by crude notions, or induced to attribute undue importance to some favourite doctrine, to the disparagement of others not less essential, and with serious injury to the harmonious analogy of faith.
There is another characteristic of the Westminster Confession to which still less attention had been generally directed, but which is not less remarkable. Framed, as it was, by men of distinguished learning and ability, who were thoroughly conversant with the history of the Church from the earliest times till the period in which they lived, it contains the calm and settled judgement of these profound divines on all previous heresies, and subjects of controversy which had in any age or country agitated the Church. This it does without expressly naming even one of these heresies, or entering into mere controversy. Each error is condemned, not by a direct statement and refutation of it, but by a clear, definite and strong statement of the converse truth. There was, in this mode of exhibiting the truth, singular wisdom combined with equally singular modesty. Everything of an irritating nature is suppressed, and the pure and simple truth alone displayed; while there is not only no ostentatious parade of superior learning, but even a concealment of learning the most accurate and profound.
A hasty or superficial reader of the Confession of Faith will scarcely perceive that, in some of its apparently simple propositions, he is perusing an acute and conclusive refutation of the various heresies and controversies that have corrupted and disturbed the Church. Yet, if he will turn to Church history, make himself acquainted with its details, and resume his study of the Confession, he will be often surprised to find in one place the wild theories of the Gnostics dispelled; in another, the Arian and Socinian heresies set aside; in another, the very essences of the Papal system annihilated; and in another, the basis of all Pelagian and Arminian errors removed.
Thus viewed, the Confession of Faith might be so connected with one aspect of Church history as to furnish, if not a textbook according to chronological arrangement in studying the rise and refutation of heresies, yet a valuable arrangement of their relative importance, doctrinally considered. And when we advert to the fact that, owing to the sameness of the human mind, there is a perpetually recurring tendency to reproduce an old and exploded error, as if it were a new discovery of some hitherto unknown or neglected truth, it must be obvious that were the peculiar excellence of our Confession, as a deliverance of all previously existing heresies, better known and more attended to, there would be great reason to hope that their re-appearance would be rendered almost impossible, or, at least, that their growth would be very speedily and effectually checked.
Closely connected with this excellence of the Confession of Faith is its astonishing precision of thought and language. The whole mental training of the eminent divines of that period led to this result. They were accustomed to cast every argument into the syllogistic form, and to adjust all its terms with the utmost care and accuracy. Every one who has studied the propositions of the Confession must have remarked their extreme precision; but, without peculiar attention, he may not perceive the astonishing care which these divines must have bestowed on this part of their great work. This may be best shown by an instance. Let us select one from Chapter 3, "On God's Eternal Decree", Sections 3 and 4:
"By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestined unto everlasting life, and others foreordained to everlasting death. These angels and men, thus predestinated and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed; and their number is so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished."
The expressions to which we wish to draw the reader's attention are the words "predestinated" and "foreordained". A hasty or superficial reader might perceive no difference between these words. But, if so, why are they both used? For there is no instance of mere tautological repetition in the concise language of the Confession. But, further, let it be well remarked that the word "predestinated" is used only in connection with "everlasting life", and the word "foreordained" with "everlasting death". And when the compound form of the proposition is assumed, both terms are used to represent each its respective member in the general affirmation. Why is this the case? Because the Westminster Divines did not understand the meaning of the terms predestination and foreordination to be identical, and therefore never used these words as synonymous. By predestination they meant a positive decree determining to confer everlasting life; and this they regarded as the basis of the whole doctrines of free grace, arising from nothing in man, but having for its divine origin the character and sovereignty of God. By foreordination, on the other hand, they meant a decree of order, or arrangement, determining that the guilty should be condemned to everlasting death; and this they regarded as the basis of judicial procedure, according to which God "ordains men to dishonour and wrath for their sin," and having respect to man's own character and conduct.
Let it be further remarked, that while, according to this view, the term predestination could never with propriety be applied to the lost, the term foreordination might be applied to the saved, since they also are the subjects, in one sense, of judicial procedure. Accordingly there is no instance in the Confession of Faith where the term predestination is applied to the lost, though there are several instances where the term foreordination, or a kindred term, is applied to the saved. And let this also be marked, that the term reprobation, which is so liable to be misunderstood and applied in an offensive sense to the doctrine of predestination, is not even once used in the Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. Later writers on that doctrine have indeed employed that word, as older writers had done, and had thereby furnished occasion to the opponents of the doctrine to misrepresent it; but the Westminster Divines cautiously avoided the use of an offensive term, carefully selected such words as were best fitted to convey their meaning, and in every instance used them with the most strict and definite precision.
[ED: This is not to suggest that the word reprobation should never be employed, but that it should be used with care and with adequate explanation, or in a context where it is not liable to be misunderstood. Readers will note that in Chp III:6,7 the Westminster Confession speaks of "the elect", and "the rest of mankind".]
Many other examples might be given of the remarkable accuracy of thought and language which forms a distinguished characteristic of the Confession of Faith; but we must content ourselves with suggesting the line of investigation, leaving it to every reader to prosecute it for himself.
Another decided and great merit of the Confession consists in the clear and well-defined statement which it makes of the principles on which alone can securely rest the great idea of the co-ordination, yet mutual support, of the civil and the ecclesiastical jurisdictions. It is but too usual for people to misunderstand those parts of the Confession which treat of these jurisdictions - some accusing those passages of containing Erastian concessions, and others charging them with being either lawless or intolerant. The truth is, they favour no extreme. Proceeding upon the sacred rule - to render to Caesar what is Caesars, and to God what is God's - they willingly ascribe to the civil magistrate a supreme power in the State: all that belongs to his province, not merely with regard to his due authority over the persons and property of men, but also with regard to what pertains to his own official mode of rendering homage to the King of kings. It is in this latter department of magisterial duty that what is called the power of the civil magistrate - circa sacra - about religious matters, consists. But there his province ends, and he has no power in sacris - in religious matters. This is most carefully guarded in the leading proposition of Chapter 30: "The Lord Jesus, as King and Head of his Church, hath therein appointed a government in the hand of Church-Officers, distinct from the Civil Magistrate."
The leading Erastians of that period, learned and subtle as they were, felt it impossible to evade the force of that proposition, and could but refuse to give it the sanction of the Legislature. They could not, however, prevail upon the Assembly either to modify or suppress it; and there it remains, and must remain, as the unanswered and unanswerable refutation of the Erastian heresy by the Westminster Assembly of Divines.
In modern times it has been too much the custom of the opponents of Erastianism tacitly to grant the Erastian argument - or, at least, the principle on which it rests - by admitting, or even asserting, that if a Church be established, it must cease to have a separate and independent jurisdiction, and must obey the laws of the State, even in spiritual matters; but then declaring that, as this is evidently wrong, there out to be no Established Church. There is more peril to both civil and religious liberty in this mode of avoiding Erastianism that is commonly perceived; for, if it were generally admitted that an Established Church ought to be subject, even in spiritual matters, to the civil jurisdiction of the State, then would civil rulers have a direct and admitted interest in establishing a Church, not for the sake of promoting Christianity, nor with the view of rendering homage to the Prince of the kings of the earth, but for the purpose of employing the Church as a powerful engine of State policy. That they would avail themselves of such an admission is certain; and this would necessarily tend to produce a perilous contest between the defenders of religious liberty and the supporters of arbitrary power; and if the issue should be the triumph of Erastianism, that issue would inevitably involve the loss of both civil and religious liberty in the blending of the two jurisdictions - which is the very essence of absolute despotism.
Of this the framers of our Confession were well aware; and, therefore, they strove to procure the well-adjusted and mutual counterpoise and co-operation of the two jurisdictions, as the best safeguards of both civil and religious liberty, and as founded on the express authority of the Word of God. It has never yet been proved, from wither Scripture or reason, that they were wrong, although their views have been much misunderstood and grievously misrepresented.
The Confession of Faith has often been accused of advocating intolerant and persecuting principles. It is, however, in truth, equally free from latitudinarian laxity on the one hand, and intolerance on the other. An intelligent and candid perusal of Chapter 20, "On Christian Liberty, and Liberty of Conscience," ought of itself to refute all such calumnies. The mind of man never produced a truer or nobler proposition than the following:
"God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are in any thing contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship."
The man who can comprehend, entertain, and act upon that principle can never arrogate an overbearing and intolerant authority over the conscience of his fellow-man, much less wield against him the weapons of remorseless persecution.
But there is a very prevalent and yet very false method of thinking, or pretending to think, respecting toleration and liberty of conscience. Many seem to be of the opinion that toleration consists in making no distinction between truth and error, but regarding them with equal favour. This opinion, if carefully analysed, would be found to be essentially of an infidel character. Many seem to think that by liberty of conscience is meant that every man should be at liberty to act in everything according to his own inclination, without regard to the feelings, convictions and rights of other men. This would, indeed, be to convert liberty into lawlessness, and to make conscience of licentiousness.
But the Confession proceeds upon the principle that truth can be distinguished from error, right from wrong; that though conscience cannot be compelled, it may be enlightened; and that when sinful, corrupt and prone to licentiousness, men may be lawfully restrained from the commission of such excesses as are offensive to public feeling, and injurious to the moral welfare of the community. If this be intolerance, it is a kind of intolerance of which none will complain but those who wish to be free from all restraint of law, human or divine. Nothing, in our opinion, but a wilful determination to misrepresent the sentiments expressed in the Confession of Faith, or a culpable degree of wilful ignorance respecting the true meaning of these sentiments, could induce any man to accuse it of favouring intolerant and persecuting principles. Certainly the conduct of those who framed it gave no countenance to such an accusation, though that calumny has been often and most pertinaciously asserted. On this point, also it would be well if people would take the trouble to ascertain what precise meaning the framers of the Confession gave to the words which they employed; for it is not doing justice to them and their work to adopt some modern acceptation of a term used by them in a different sense, and then to charge them with holding the sentiment conveyed by the modern use or misuse of that term. Yet this is the method almost invariably employed by the assailants of the Confession of Faith.
“Qualities of the Westminster Confession of Faith” by Robert Shaw, is extracted from the Introductory Essay to An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, (Ross-Shire: Christian Focus Publications, 1998), pp 16-22.
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