The Westminster Confession Of Faith.
The Westminster Confession Of Faith. Section I.
These studies stem from a firm belief in the original intent of its authors, that the church believe nothing but that which can be proved from holy scripture. There are certainly other ‘platforms’ and ‘creeds’ that express the same truths as the WCF, but scarcely any that are as thorough and comprehensive as it is. One of the things that immediately stands out is how the subject matters are ordered, and in particular with what it begins with. It is no accident or coincidence that it begins with scripture. The authors firmly believed that one must begin with the special revelation of God in holy scripture, for no truth can be put forth or tested that does not first establish a source for knowing. In the modern study of world views, this is also why one must begin with epistemology, or the study of knowledge, and in particular, the special revelation of scripture.
The reference to world view studies is appropriate, for it can be seen that the authors of the Confession viewed there enterprise as that which ought to be the foundation of any Christian, and therefore biblical understanding of the world and life. The vast majority of the current scholars debating and defending a Christian worldview want to maintain that we should begin with metaphysics, in particular ontology, or the study of being, namely a God, because they want to presuppose as a basic assumption, that all truth begins with the study of the God of the bible. Of course some want to claim that they are arguing for some kind of generic Theism, but if they would be more honest, they would admit that their conception of God is already formed by the special revelation of holy writ. To quote Clark, “this argument overlooks one vital point: Where do we get our information about God? 1
“Where and what is the source of reliable, accurate, full, and true information about God?”2 This is the question we must ask in regard to theology, and of a church’s and Christian’s confession of faith. “Therefore, the authors of the Westminster Confession did not put the doctrine of God in their first chapter. They put it in the second chapter. Chapter one has to do with our source of knowledge.”3 It is the contention of the present author, that this must also be the starting point in forming a Christian, that is, a Biblical worldview. There are certain propositions, assumptions or presuppositions if you will, which are axiomatic to any engagement or discussion of thinking and knowing anything. For example, there are certain rules of logic that one is forced to concede or accept, without being subject to internal contradiction or inconsistency.
The authors of the Confession understood that in their determination to give verbal expression to the faith, faith here being propositional truth, they needed to establish the Scriptures as there first axiom of all thought, discussion, and formulations. These were men not unaware of the traditions and philosophies of their day, which like most moderns, formulated their beliefs and worldviews from a totally different, but no less axiomatic source. Worldview study does indeed examine what goes into why some people choose one axiom over another, but that is not precisely the subject at hand. Suffice it to say, that one’s Confession, and worldview also, must begin with an axiom, and like the authors of this Confession, the present writer concurs with Clark, that the only true axiom of first importance, is the special revelation of holy Scripture. Sola (only) Scriptura, and Tota (total) Scriptura.
So as with the Confession, we begin with epistemology, or the study of knowledge. “Although the light of nature,” refers to what has come to be called ‘natural revelation’, and what the authors were concerned about here, was the biblical affirmation that there is some knowledge of God, or light of nature, such as, to use Paul’s words, leaves all men “without excuse” (Rom. 1:20). However, we must not miss the point that this knowledge we have of what knowledge is the light of nature, we know only by examining the special revelation of holy Scripture. However, we can say, based on this presupposition, that all truth is God’s truth. We can also say, that one’s concept of truth is intimately related to the fields of religion and ethics. For Paul makes the point that this light of nature, includes God’s wrath on those who suppress the truth because they are both ungodly, and unrighteous (Rom. 1:18).
We can perhaps suggest that, this is an appropriate area to examine those pre-dispositional factors that affect one’s choice of their primary axiom, namely the condition or state of what the bible refers to as the ‘heart’, being the core or seat of what it means to be human. This is also the core meaning of idolatry, that the ungodliness is seated deeply in the human heart. It is that spiritual or religious commitment, which is revealed in words and deeds, and in the case of those who suppress the truth, do so in unrighteousness, “because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them” (Rom. 1:19). Make no mistake about it, Paul based his belief or faith on the special revelation of holy Scripture, and does so by going back to the original creation of man and all things at the beginning (Rom. 1:20 Cf. Gen. 1-2). This light was part of the original creation, of man and the world.
For this reason the authors of the Confession go on to say – “and the works of creation and providence.” Creation and providence are intimately related for a number of reasons. Firstly, in the work of creation, God created history. The authors affirmed the doctrine of creation being in six days, as does the present author, but in all the discussions and arguments over this, one must not lose sight of the fact that the bible states that God also created history, and as the Creator he is as sovereign over history as he is of everything else. Obviously this also impacts our view of history, a central subject in anyone’s worldview. Creation and providence “do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable.” ‘Manifestation’ is but another word for ‘reveal’, but again, it is the special revelation of holy Scripture, which informs us specifically as to what natural revelation reveals.
Goodness stands out as that which God declared his creation to be when he created all things. However, it can also be seen in the providential dealings with all men, since, as Jesus said concerning the Father, that “He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and unjust.” (Mt. 5:45) Wisdom, which we might say is the prudent application or exercise of knowledge, knowledge in particular of God’s law, is seen in the behavior of humanity, restrained by conscience. “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them.” (Rom. 2:14-15) Even modern man cannot escape from their conscience.
Humans know the righteous judgment of God, not only because of conscience being referential to the law written in their hearts, but also, especially as pertains to judgment, that death stands as the inevitable testimony of our covenantal rebellion (Rom. 1:32). Next we read, “and power of God.” Some want to say that the Westminster Standards, or other like standards, should not be imposed on scripture, but even a cursory reading of this Confession, shows just how much their thoughts were formed by the Holy Scriptures, and how they were utterly focused on them, also as the source of the revelation which also came in the person of Jesus the Christ. The inclusion of “wisdom and the power of God,” surely comes from Paul’s words in I Corinthians 1:24 – “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
Natural revelation may be described as “the mere edges of His ways,” but even hearing a whisper of God in creation, speaks of his power like thunder (Job 26:14). “But the thunder of His power who can understand.” There are two answers which the Confession and any worldview must address to this question. One is that because of the fall, our understanding is indeed darkened. However, this is why he also gave us his special revelation of holy scripture, to reverse this condition. However, there is still a whisper, as it were, saying “God has spoken once, twice I have heard this: that power belongs to God.” (Ps. 62:12). God has spoken in creation, and in the word, and both bear witness “that power belongs to God.” The word spoken in creation is enough to leave humans without excuse, but it is not sufficient to give the knowledge of redemption from our lost condition.
“Yet they are not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation.” Much has been, and could still be written on the sufficiency of the word, but the key point here is that it is “sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation.”4 The Confession will proceed to deal with what is “necessary unto salvation,” but at this beginning stage we need to see here that they are affirming and declaring that epistemology, or the theory of knowledge is the first order of business, with which they provide the primary axiom of Holy Scripture. Furthermore, they are affirming, echoing scripture as seen above, that this is more than just information, it is directed to us knowing God’s will. That is, scripture is the axiomatic starting point for both orthodoxy and orthopraxis – word and deed.
Paul made clear, that to know God’s will, that is, the holy scriptures, was to have the mind of Christ. Paul, quoting Isaiah, joins him in bearing witness, that the word is given that we might have this mind. “For ‘who has known the mind of the LORD that He may instruct Him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.” (I Cor. 2:16) Clearly there is a knowledge of God in humans, which the philosophers call ‘innate’, “and with this a priori equipment we see the glory of God upon the heavens.”5 Furthermore, “knowledge is the basis of responsibility,”6 and this is why humans are without excuse in not acknowledging it. “In the act of creation God implanted in man a knowledge of God’s existence.”7 However, “even innate knowledge of morality gives no information how or even whether sin may be forgiven.”8
“Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that, his will, unto his Church.” Again, anyone with a knowledge of the Scriptures, can readily see where the fathers got these words from, for they are contained in the prologue of the Letter or Epistle To The Hebrews. “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by his Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the ages.” Except for the last word, aion or ages, the rest is given from the preferred New King James Version for its modern English usage. We are told a lot here, in both the Confession, and the epistle. Firstly, we have the Holy Scriptures for no other reason than that the LORD was pleased to reveal them to us, and secondly that there is a continuity in that revelation.
This continuity was nevertheless expressed in various ways, and at various times, which gives expression to a couple of important ideas. One is that God superintended this, as the sovereign Creator of history and therefore providence, and although the ways and times of the ages varied, they nevertheless communicated one unifying message. Fourthly, the LORD did this through the Prophets, beginning with Moses and ending in the Son. Therefore, fifthly, they find their apex and goal in the person and work of Jesus the Christ. By appealing to the fathers, the writer is also stating that this revelation is given in the broad perspective of the covenant. For, Jesus is also the heir of that last old covenant administration, the Davidic, and as such he comes to inherit all that has come before as the true Son of David, as well as the Son of God.
Although it is common in Reformed circles to say that we are living in the last days, this actually cannot be squared with the scriptural testimony, which states that the lasts days were the last days of the old covenant ages or eras. Obviously we are here concerned with what is called ‘biblical theology’, something that was not foreign to the fathers of the Confession. It is a cardinal principle of biblical theology that the acts of redemption are always accompanied by special revelation, which reinforces the need for special revelation when it comes to salvation or redemption. The testimony of Scripture is that with the coming of the Son of man to the Ancient of Days, as occurred in Jesus ascension (Dan. 7:13-14), that a number of things would happen, which are spoken of by the author of Hebrews, in the prologue.
These things are taken from Daniel’s prophecy at 9:24. First of all, like Hebrews, Daniel grounds what he is about to say, in history, which happens to be that which was fulfilled at the time of Christ’s first advent. These things are “to finish the transgression, to make an end of sins, to make reconciliation for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness,” which Jesus did when he, as our high priest, “had by Himself purged our sins.” Secondly, “to seal up vision and prophecy.” This the writer to the Hebrews is declaring in Christ’s role as the final Prophet. These two things occurred in history with the destruction of the temple, because of the once for all sacrifice of the Son. The canon of revelation was also completed, so that the gifts associated with this task also ceased. Hence, the fathers wanted to state in the Confession that “the former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people now ceased.”
However, we must not miss the fact that the fathers stated that these things were revealed “unto his church,” showing that they believed that there is but one church throughout salvation history. “And afterward, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which makes the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people now ceased.” Here we see that the fathers wanted to be very clear, that all the previous variety of ways and times, were preserved by the LORD in the written word, and that that word from the very beginning was its own test of canonization.
The word serves several purposes. Firstly, part of what is necessary unto full salvation, is that the whole of God’s will be declared to the church. Secondly, it was given “for the better preserving and propagating of the truth.” God’s special revelation is the sole guard and guarantee of what is true truth, as Schaeffer would say. However, they were not content with simply preserving the word, but it was also given that it might be propagated both in the church, and by the church, to the world. Furthermore, lest one think that they were only concerned with the intellect, they state that the scriptures were also given “for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world.” Part of being saved is to be established in the faith, and the writing of this Confession was also meant to help carry out this work.
The scriptures are also for our comfort. We need comfort, for besides our own infirmities, there is the “malice of Satan and of the world.” For the fathers, the church’s disputations with outsiders, the world, was really a spiritual battle led on the other side ultimately by Satan, and with malice. No doubt they had the following words of Paul in mind. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Eph. 6:12) ‘Malice is the intention or will to do someone evil. Against this we need to defend ourselves and the church with nothing less than the whole of the scriptural testimony. This is what should concern all branches of theology, worldview studies, the arts and sciences, and apologetics, and virtually all areas of thought and practice. Sola Scriptura, Tota Scriptura.
We must not miss the fact that the fathers also stated that this word was declared. Those human authors who wrote the scriptures, wrote not from their own imaginations, but only that which was declared unto them. It is these that the church must use in her doctrine and life. Ultimately, as stated in the prologue of the Letter To The Hebrews, Jesus is the culmination of both salvation history, and its accompanying special revelation. As the Anointed One, which is what the word ‘Christ’ means, Jesus occupies the threefold office of Prophet, Priest, and King. He is the One who is the heir of all things. Furthermore he is the author, sustainer, and end of all history, the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end. His reign as King is now, but it is through his word as our Prophet, and the gospel of his once for all sacrifice as our Priest. This is the power of God (Rom. 1:16-17).
One further point needs to be made with respect to the need for special revelation. The confession does indeed state that it was necessary for salvation, however, as Williamson has pointed out, even Adam needed special revelation to fully apprehend the will of God for him.9 The fathers clearly had in mind Psalm 19, which makes the same distinction between so-called natural revelation (vv. 1-6), and that which is obtained from God’s law. Verse seven does speak of the law-word of the covenant as “converting the soul,” however it goes on to say much more (vv. 7-11). This much more would surely have been necessary even before the fall. Nevertheless, it concludes with what is clearly also needed, and that is salvation to the full, by the Redeemer (vv. 12-14). The testimony of scripture is clear, man in Adam disobeyed the special revelation given (Gen. 3).
“Just as the test of man’s obedience came by way of the word of revelation, so the remedy for man’s present need comes by way of word revelation. Only the gospel can supplement natural revelation in such a way as to (a) disclose the means of removing God’s enmity (Rom. 1:17; II Cor. 5:18-21f) and (b) make man once more a willing subject of the will of God (Rom. 12:12).”10 “The Scriptures assure us, that there is no salvation for sinful men in any other names but that of Jesus Christ – that there is no salvation through him but by faith, and that there can be no faith nor knowledge of Christ but by revelation (Acts 4:12; Mark 16:16; Rom. 10:14-17). The Scripture affirms, in terms the most express, that ‘where there is no vision,’ or revelation, ‘the people perish’: and it describes those who are destitute of divine revelation, as ‘having no hope, and without God in the world’ (Pro. 29:18; Eph. 2:12)”11
Furthermore, “it pleased God that the whole of his revealed will should be committed to writing, that the church might have a standing rule of faith and practice, by which all doctrines might be examined, and all actions regulated – that sacred truth might be preserved uncorrupted and entire – that it might be propagated throughout the several nations, and might be conveyed down to all succeeding generations. Without this the Church would be left to the uncertainty of tradition and oral teaching; but the written Word is a sure test of doctrines, and a light in a dark place, both of which are most necessary (Isa. 8:20; 2 Pet. 1:19).”12 “That consequently it has pleased God, of his sovereign grace, to make, in various ways and at different times, a supernatural revelation of himself and of his purposes to a chosen portion of the human family.”13
Supplementary scripture: Nu. 12:6-8; Dt. 31:24; II Sa. 23:1-3; Jer. 36:1-2; Pr. 22:19:19-21; Mt. 4:4-20; Lk. 1:3-4; Jn. 16:13-14; Ro. 2:1; 10:13; 15:4; I Co. 1:21; Gal. 1:1, 11-12; I Tim. 5:18; II Tim. 3:15-17; II Pet. 1:20-21; 3:15-16; I Jn. 2:20.
One is strongly encouraged to also follow the questions included in the contribution of Joseph A. Pipa, Jr., in his ‘The Westminster Confession Of Faith Study Book’ (Christian Focus), in this section at 15-20. A further reference, especially good on scripture proofs, is ‘A Guide to The Westminster Standards’ by James E. Bordwine (The Trinity Foundation)
Solus Christus, Sola Deo Gloria!
Solus Christus, Sola Deo Gloria!
1.‘What Do Presbyterians Believe?’ (P & R, 7)
2. Ibid. (7)
3. Ibid. (8)
4. ‘The Sufficiency Of Scripture’ Noel Weeks (Banner Of Truth, 1988)
5. Ibid. (10)
6. Ibid. (10)
7. Ibid. (11)
8. Ibid. (11)
9. ‘The Westminster Confession Of Faith’ (P & R, 2)
10. Ibid. (3)
11. ‘The Reformed Faith’ Robert Shaw (Christian Heritage, 39)
12. Ibid. (41)
13. “The Westminster Confession A Commentary’ A.A. Hodge (Banner Of Truth, 28-29)