One of the chief goals of the Westminster Assembly was to produce a confessional statement which the majority of evangelicals of the British Isles could endorse and upon which they could stand together. This was a much more daunting task than many today might realize.
Peter Wallace in his essay “Whose Meaning? The Question of Original Intent,” (available here) has pointed out that because there were a wide range of theological opinions present in the Assembly and because there was a concern to frame statements that all could embrace without giving up these particular convictions, the Assembly’s language was often not nearly as precise and specific as it sometimes appears to be.
Some of the issues over which there were divisions were passed over in silence (infra- vs. supra-lapsarianism and the millennium, e.g.) but this could not be done at every point of difference. Among the best known of the doctrinal accommodations of the Assembly are those relating to the imputation of the active obedience of Christ and baptismal efficacy. Both issues were carefully debated and, in the end, the Assembly adopted language that was sufficiently broad and ambiguous to allow for all views that were considered to have plausible scriptural support. Coming to a definitive position on these issues was judged to be secondary to being able to stand together.
The Westminster Divines did not believe all ministers had to accept exactly the same interpretation of the language of the Confession in order to affirm it. The Confession was a consensus document (as is true of nearly all the creeds). It was designed to bring together all those who were Reformed in doctrine so that a solid front could be presented against Romanism, Arminianism, Socinianism, the Antinomians, and other errors which existed in the British Isles.
Far from trying to frame a document which would “lock” men into a precise theological position on every issue, they wrote the document in such a way as to allow for a diversity of interpretations at particular points where there were legitimate, honest differences in understanding. So long as a man could affirm the wording of the Confession based upon responsible exegesis, they were willing to live with a diversity of opinion and trust that the Lord would bring them to further unity in time.
This is not the way many view the Westminster Confession today, however. We commonly hear the Westminster Confession acclaimed as “the best” and “most thorough” of all the Protestant creeds – and from this many have drawn a very dangerous implication. If the Westminster is the “most faithful summary of the teaching of the Bible” then it is often assumed (in practice if not always in theory) that to disagree with it is tantamount to disagreeing with the Bible itself.
In practice we come perilously close to equating the Confession with the Scriptures. This is shown in how some seek to interpret the Confession. It is viewed as a precisely worded, internally consistent document which accurately reflects the harmony and consistency of the Bible. Rather than viewing the Confession as the fruit of committee work, sewn together by amendment, some insist on treating it as if it was somehow inspired of God and infallible. In spite of our protests to the contrary and our affirmation of Sola Scriptura, we have not successfully avoided this error.
For this reason some are appalled over the mere suggestion that Westminster’s language is at points confusing, inconsistent, and in need of amendment. The distinction between the teaching of the Scriptures and the teaching of the confession has been, for all practical purposes, lost.
We must remember that the confession is a summary of some of the teachings of the Bible (it is not a comprehensive compendium of all the Bible teaches). Nor is it an authoritative interpretation of the Scriptures. To view the Confession in either of these ways is to make all disagreement with the creed a departure from the Bible and practically to destroy the supremacy of the Scriptures over the creed.
Alister McGrath has observed that these problems are not new to the Reformed Church. In the early years of the Reformation a great many beliefs and practices were viewed as matters of indifference. But as the arguments between the Lutherans and the Calvinists intensified, the need to distinguish between the two groups led them to search for distinctive doctrinal differences.
McGrath notes, “At the social and political level, the communities were difficult to distinguish; doctrine therefore provided the most reliable means by which they might define themselves over and against one another.” Each group produced precise doctrinal formulations in hopes of demonstrating the places in which they differed. This led not only to a loss of theological “elbow room” but to something far worse:
Perhaps more importantly, given the central role of the Bible for Protestantism, this new trend meant that the Bible tended to be read through the prism of ‘confessions’ – statements of faith that frequently influenced, and sometimes determined, how certain passages of the Bible were to be interpreted. This shift was a contributing factor to the rise of ‘proof-texting’: citing isolated, decontextualized verses of the Bible in support of often controversial confessional positions. Paradoxically, this development actually lessened the influence of the Bible within Protestantism, in that biblical statements were accommodated to existing doctrinal frameworks rather than being allowed to determine them, and even to challenge them. (Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, 103)
We see the same thing in our own day as recent controversies over the so-called “Federal Vision” have demonstrated. But this stands in stark contradiction of our profession to Sola Scriptura and to the goal of continuing reformation. In its most vibrant seasons, the Reformed Church has been concerned to preserve the liberty of theologians to examine creedal statements in light of the Word of God and refine them as necessary. Faithfulness to the Word of God, not adherence to the language of a particular confessional statement, was supreme.
If loyalty to a confessional statement supplants faithfulness to the Scriptures (or if loyalty to a confession is identified with faithfulness to the Scriptures), we have fallen away from the Reformed tradition. Indeed, we are, at that point, in danger of departing from Jesus Himself and identifying with His enemies.
(to be continued)