Question and Answer
Value of the Westminster Standards
I would like to ask you a question regarding the Westminster Confession of Faith that was designed to reform the church: What potential value do the distinctive theological emphases of the Westminster Standards have for Christians in the twenty-first century?
Your question—"What potential value do the distinctive theological emphases of the Westminster Standards have for Christians in the twenty-first century?"—seems to require a division of your question into two parts. To respond requires, first, an attempt to define what "the distinctive theological emphases of the Westminster Standards" are. And then, secondly, what their "potential value for Christians in the 21st Century" is. I will therefore attempt to answer your question in this way.
In the history of the Presbyterian and Reformed Churches the Westminster Standards have always had an honored place as faithful expressions of the teaching of Scripture. In other words, the most important thing about the Westminster Standards is that they are in harmony not only with the Bible, but also, in all essentials, with the other great Reformed Confessions such as the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dordt or the Second Helvetic Confession. Yet it is also a fact that the Westminster Standards express that Reformed Faith with what could indeed be called "distinctive theological emphases." Let me simply point out a few of these.
Here are some of the distinctive points that set Chapter I of the Westminster Confession apart from all other Reformed Confessions.
- Natural (or general) revelation is both internal and external (I, 1).
- Special revelation is now a finished product (I, 1 & I, 6).
- Special revelation it is found in the 66 books of the Canon—39 O.T. & 27 N.T. (I,2). Note the absence of speculation as to who wrote Hebrews.
- These [and only these] are the Word of God for us. This is true because they were given by inspiration. God is the ultimate author. He speaks (present tense) to us in it. (I, 3, 4).
- The Church is ordinarily the first to tell us the Bible is the Word of God (I,5a), but we can only come to "full persuasion" on the basis of two weightier reasons (I, 5):
a. The first is the self-attesting quality of the Scripture itself (an objective reality);
b. The second is the "inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts."
- The Reformation doctrine of the "sufficiency of Scripture" is carefully defined (I, 6):
a. The Bible contains the whole counsel of God.
b. The whole counsel comes to us in two ways: expressly (direct assertion, command, etc.), and deductively (by inescapable logical conclusion—as in infant baptism).
c. We must never separate the written Word and the Holy Spirit. It is he who speaks to us, and he speaks to us now through the written Word alone.
d. There are "some circumstances concerning the worship of God and the government of the church"—those that are "common to human actions and societies"—that are not specifically prescribed in the Bible but left to prudence (common sense) within the general rules of Scripture.
- The Reformation doctrine of the "perspicuity of Scripture" is carefully defined (I, 7):
a. Perspicuity does not mean that everything in the Bible is easy to understand (2 Pet. 3:16).
b. Neither does it mean that everyone can attain to the same level in understanding it.
c. What it means is that anyone who is willing to make a serious and sincere effort to understand its central message—using available means—can gain a sufficient (saving) understanding.
- The identity God's Word is more precisely defined than in any other Reformed Confession (I, 8):
a. It is the text "immediately inspired by God" to which the term "word of God" refers. Theologians today commonly refer to this as the autographa (meaning the exact and entire text of the Bible as it was first written by the prophets and apostles).
b. This text has been wonderfully preserved by God's providence.
c. It is to this authentic text that final appeal is to be made.
d. But since it is not feasible for all of God's people to learn Hebrew and Greek, and yet all are commanded by God to search the Scriptures, it is therefore the responsibility of the Church to provide faithful and understandable translations.
- The Reformation doctrine of the analogy of scripture is stated here more succinctly than in any other Reformed Confession. (I, 9).
- Ultimate or final authority in the Church belongs only to God—in the person of the Holy Spirit—speaking to us in the Scriptures. (I, 10).
Most of the above teaching can be logically deduced from other major Reformed Confessions. But none state them as clearly and fully as the Westminster Standards.
The same can be said of the much fuller treatment of the ten commandments that we find in the Larger Catechism, as compared with any of the other Reformed Catechisms or Confessions. Similarly, no other Catechism or Confession has so clear and full a statement of the doctrine of worship (Wesminster Confession of Faith XXI), the doctrine of Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience (WCF XX), or the Biblical teaching on Marriage and Divorce (WCF XXIV). And it is the only Reformed Confession that fully recognizes the importance of the doctrine of adoption (WCF XII).
More could be said, but this should be sufficient to make one thing quite clear: what is distinctive about the Westminster Standards is not that they teach a different doctrine than that of the other great Reformed Creeds but that they teach it with greater fullness and precision. And that, it seems to me, is what gives it great "potential value for Christians in the 21st Century."
It is generally recognized that the Christian church today needs a new Reformation! In many areas—such as worship, for example—the scene is one of confusion and disunity. Presbyterian and Reformed Churches in past generations were much more united in both doctrine and practice. Indeed, it was because they were united in doctrine that they tended to be of one mind in practice. If there is to be a new Reformation—and we believe there will be—it will come as the church recovers, first of all, in doctrine. And no document yet produced in the history of the church will be of greater importance than the Westminster Standards. The reason is quite simple: they express what the Bible teaches more fully and accurately than any other Creed.
May the Lord bless your own study of these great Reformation documents!
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