Seventy Years in the Making: The OPC's Confession of Faith and Catechisms with Proof Texts

James W. Scott

After nearly seventy years of work (on and off), the Orthodox Presbyterian Church finally has a printed edition of its Confession of Faith and Catechisms, with all its General Assembly-approved proof texts written out at the bottom of the page (actually, filling most of the page!). Here is an account of the history behind these documents.

When the First General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (initially called the Presbyterian Church of America) met in June 1936 to constitute a new denomination, it elected a Committee on the Constitution. One of its tasks was to "present for adoption to the General Assembly meeting in the autumn of 1936 the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms as the confession of the faith of this church."

Since the new church saw itself as the spiritual heir of the old Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., which had fallen under modernist control, this Committee was instructed to "take as the basis of its consideration the particular form of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms which appears in the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., 1934 edition." The Committee was empowered to recommend the elimination (or retention) of changes made to the Confession in 1903, but no other changes to "that form of these Standards" (Minutes, p. 7).

The Confession and Catechisms, as written by the Westminster Assembly of Divines (1646, 1647) and adopted in Scotland and other British lands, underwent revision on American soil. When the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. was formed in 1788, shortly after the birth of the new nation, it adopted the Westminster standards, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Scriptures. However, chapters 20.4, 23.3, and 31.2 of the Confession of Faith were changed, so as to remove the state (called "the civil magistrate") from involvement in ecclesiastical matters. This separation of church and state was a crucial element of American political philosophy, but was a novel idea on the other side of the Atlantic, where the state had been heavily involved in church affairs since the days of Emperor Constantine in the fourth century.

Two changes in the Larger Catechism were also made in 1788. In line with American ideas of religious freedom, the phrase "tolerating a false religion" was removed from the list of sins forbidden in Answer 109. Also, the sin of "depopulations" was replaced by the largely synonymous "depredation" in Answer 142. (The Shorter Catechism has never been changed.)

The Confession was amended again in 1887, when the final sentence of chapter 24.4, which forbade the marrying of the close kindred of one's deceased spouse, was removed.

More sweeping changes were adopted by the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in 1903. Chapter 16.7, on the works of unregenerate men, was rewritten. The last sentence of chapter 22.3, which forbade the refusing of a proper oath when required by lawful authority, was removed. Chapter 25.6, on the head of the church, was rewritten, and the identification of the Roman Catholic pope as the Antichrist was removed. Two chapters were added: "Of the Holy Spirit" (chapter 34) and "Of the Love of God and Missions" (chapter 35). A "Declaratory Statement" explaining chapters 3 and 10.3 (on election and salvation) was appended. Although these changes were acceptable to some orthodox men, such as B. B. Warfield, their general effect was to soften the Calvinism of the Confession.

The OPC's Committee on the Constitution consisted initially of Ned B. Stonehouse (chairman), assistant professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary; J. Gresham Machen (ex officio, as the moderator of the First Assembly), professor of New Testament at Westminster; the Rev. H. McAllister Griffiths; and ruling elder Murray Forst Thompson. (Mr. Griffiths withdrew from the OPC just before the Second General Assembly met in November 1936.) The Committee recommended to the Assembly that the Confession and Catechisms be adopted "in the form which they possessed" before the revisions of 1903 were made, with two exceptions. They recommended that the change in chapter 22.3 (regarding oaths) and the removal of the reference to the pope as the Antichrist (but not the other changes) in chapter 25.6 be retained. The Assembly adopted these recommendations.

In those early days of the OPC, a significant number of ministers were premillennial in eschatology (believing that between the return of Christ and the Last Judgment would be the Millennium mentioned in Revelation 20). They were concerned that their views might not be welcome in the new denomination, and so they proposed that a declaratory statement be added to the Confession, stating that premillennialism was consistent with the church standards. When this proposal was rejected (more because it was considered unnecessary than because of hostility to premillennialism), and for other reasons, these men left the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and in 1938 formed the Bible Presbyterian Church.

As a preliminary step toward the printing of the doctrinal standards of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Seventh General Assembly (1940) established a Committee on Texts and Proof Texts to study the texts and proof texts of those documents. It consisted of John Murray (chairman), E. J. Young, and Ned B. Stonehouse, who was replaced in 1941 by John H. Skilton. All of these men were teachers at Westminster Seminary.

This Committee submitted to the Eighteenth General Assembly (1951) "the text of the Confession of Faith, together with the proof texts as revised by the Committee." The text, except for the revisions that had been adopted by the Second General Assembly in 1936, was "derived from the original manuscript written by Cornelius Burges in 1646, edited by S. W. Carruthers [in 1937] and published by the Presbyterian Church of England in 1946" (Minutes, pp. 33-34).

That text of the Confession, with a few corrections, was adopted by the Twenty-second General Assembly (1955), approved by nearly all the presbyteries, and adopted again by the Twenty-third General Assembly (1956)"a process required by our Form of Government for revising the constitution. The list of proof texts prepared by the Committee was accepted for publication. The Confession was then published with these proof texts (as citations, not full texts) by the Committee on Christian Education, and has been reprinted ever since by Great Commission Publications.

The text of the Confession approved in 1956 was substantially the same as that adopted in 1936. But whereas the 1936 Assembly saw itself as restoring the purity of the American Presbyterian tradition, the 1956 Assembly, probably largely under the influence of Professor Murray (a Scotsman), looked more to its British Presbyterian roots.

The Thirty-fourth General Assembly (1967) set up a Committee on Proof Texts for the Catechisms. It consisted of E. J. Young (chairman)"who died in 1968 and was replaced by John Murray (who died in 1975) and Norman Shepherd-John H. Skilton (the new chairman), George W. Marston, and Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (beginning in 1971). All these men were Westminster professors, except for Mr. Marston, who worked for the seminary. Their assigned task was to prepare revised lists of proof texts for the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. The Committee presented a list of proof texts for the Shorter Catechism to the Forty-fourth General Assembly (1977), and the Forty-fifth General Assembly (1978) approved them for publication in an edition of the Shorter Catechism. Great Commission Publications then printed the Shorter Catechism with these proof texts (as citations, not full texts).

The Sixty-sixth General Assembly (1999) elected a Committee on Proof Texts for the Larger Catechism. It consisted of Stephen A. Pribble (chairman), George W. Knight III, Steven F. Miller, and Peter J. Wallace. Indicative of how the OPC's relationship with Westminster Seminary had changed over the years, not one of these men was associated with the seminary. This Committee worked diligently and presented a list of proof texts to the Sixty-seventh General Assembly (2000). The Sixty-eighth General Assembly (2001) approved the proof texts (with corrections) for publication. One additional change was made by the Seventy-first General Assembly (2004).

The Assembly in 2001 also authorized the Committee on Christian Education to publish the doctrinal standards of the OPC, with the proof texts prepared by the various committees over the years. All the texts and proof texts have now been assembled in a 464-page book (including a Scripture index), and is expected to be presented to the Seventy-second General Assembly meeting in June.

With all the proof texts written out for easy reference, this volume provides an excellent resource for studying the teachings of the Bible.

James W. Scott is publications coordinator for the Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2005.

New Horizons: June 2005

The Lord's Supper

Also in this issue

Proclaiming the Lord's Death: The Evangelistic Value of the Lord's Supper

Signed, Sealed, and Delivered

The Lord's Supper vs. the Corinthians' Supper

Turning Points in American Presbyterian History
Part 6: Old School Presbyterianism, 1838

Mission to the Military

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