CALVINISM: PURE AND MIXED
INEXPEDIENCY OF THE REVISION OF THE WESTMINSTER CONFESSION.1
The question whether the Westminster Confession shall be revised, has been referred to the whole Church represented by the presbyteries. The common sentiment of the denomination must determine the matter. The expression of opinion during the few months prior to the presbyterial action is, therefore, of consequence. It is desirable that it should be a full expression of all varieties of views, and as a contribution towards it, we purpose to assign some reasons why the revision of the Confession is not expedient.
1. In the first place it is inexpedient, because in its existing form as drawn up by the Westminster Assembly it has met, and well met, all the needs of the Church for the past two centuries. The Presbyterian Church in the United States since 1700 has passed through a varied and sometimes difficult experience. The controversies in the
1 New York Evangelist, September 5, 1889.
beginning between the Old and New Lights, and still more the vehement disputes that resulted in the division of the Church in 1837, have tried the common symbol as severely as it is ever likely to be. But through them all both theological divisions were content with the Confession and Catechisms as they stood, and both alike claimed to be true to thein. Neither party demanded a revision on any doctrinal points; and both alike found in them a satisfactory expression of their faith. What is there in the Presbyterian Church of to-day that necessitates any different statement of the doctrine of decrees, of atonement, of regeneration, or of punishment, from that accepted by the Presbyterian Church of 1837, or 1789? Are the statements upon these points any more liable to misconception or misrepresentation by non-Calvinists now than they were fifty or a hundred years ago? Are there any more "weak consciences" requiring softening explanations and relaxing clauses in the Church of to-day than in former periods? And with reference to the allowable differences of theological opinion within the Presbyterian Church, is not a creed that was adopted and defended by Charles Hodge and Albert Barnes sufficiently broad to include all who arc really Calvinistic and Presbyterian in belief? What is there, we repeat, in the condition of the Presbyterian Church of to-day that makes the old Confession of the past two hundred }-ears inadequate as a doctrinal Standard? All the past successes and victories of Presb3'terianism have been accomplished under it. Success in the past is guaranty for success in the future. Is it not better for the Church to work on the very same old base, in the very same straight line?
2. Revision is inexpedient, because the reunion of the two divisions of the Church was founded upon the Confession as it now stands. A proposition to unite the two branches of Presbyterianism by first revising the Westminster documents would have failed, because in the revision individual and party preferences would have shown themselves. But when the Standards pure and simple were laid down as the only terms of union, the whole mass of Presbyterians flowed together. It is to be feared that if a revision of the Confession should take place, there will be a dissatisfied portion of the Church who will prefer to remain upon the historic foundation; that the existing harmony will be disturbed; and that the proposed measures for union with other Presbyterian bodies will fall through.
3. Revision is inexpedient, because it will introduce new difficulties. The explanations will need to be explained. The revision that is called for is said by its more conservative advocates, not to be an alteration of the doctrine of the Confession, but an explanation only. Now good and sufficient explanations of a creed require more space than can be afforded in a concise symbol intended for use in inducting officers and members. Such full and careful explanations have been made all along from the beginning, and the Presbvterian Board of Publication has issued a large and valuable library of them. No one need be in any doubt respecting the meaning of the Confession who will carefully peruse one or more of them. lie who is not satisfied with the Westminster doctrine as so explained, will not be satisfied with it at all. But if brief explanations are inserted into the Confession itself, their brevity will inevitably expose them to misunderstanding and misconception. Take an illustration. An able minister and divine, whose Calvinism is unimpeachable, suggests that Confession iii. 3 shall read: "By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life, and others foreordained [for their sins] to everlasting death." If the clause in brackets is inserted without further explanation, the article might fairly and naturally be understood to teach that the reason why God passes by a sinner in the bestowment of regenerating grace is the sinner's sin. But St. Paul expressly says that the sinner's sin is not the cause of his non-election to regeneration. "The children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, it was said, The elder shall serve the younger. Esau have I hated" (Rom. 9: 11-13). The reason for the difference between the elect and non-elect is not the holiness or the sin of either of them, but God's sovereign good pleasure. "He hath mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth" (Rom. 9: 18). An explanation like this, without further explanation such as the proposer would undoubtedly make, would not only contradict Scripture, but change the Calvinistic doctrine into the Arminian. The reason for non-election would no longer be secret and sovereign, but known and conditional. All this liability to misconstruction is avoided by the Confession itself as it now stands. For in Confession iii, 7, after saying that the "passing by" in the bestowment of regenerating grace is an act of God's sovereign pleasure, "whereby he extendeth or withholdeth mercy as he pleaseth," it then adds that "the ordaining to dishonor and wrath" is "for sin." Sin is here represented as the reason for the judicial act of punishing, but not for the sovereign act of not regenerating. The only reason for the latter, our Lord gives in his, " Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in thy sight."
Other illustrations might be given of the difficulty of avoiding misconception when a systematic creed is sought to be explained, particularly in its difficult points, by the brief interpolation of words and clauses. The method is too short. More space is required than can be spared. It is better, therefore, to let a carefully constructed and concisely phrased creed like the Westminster stand exactly as it was drawn up by the sixty-nine commissioners, in the five weekly sessions for nearly nine years, and have it explained, qualified, and defended in published treatises, in sermons, and especially in catechetical lectures. Had the ministry been as faithful as it should in years past in catechetical instruction, there would be little difficulty in understanding the Westminster creed. The remedy needed is in this direction, not in that of a revision.
4. Revision is inexpedient, because there is no end to the process. It is like the letting out of water. The doctrine of the divine decrees is the particular one selected by the presbytery whose request ha3 brought the subject of revision before the General Assembly. But this doctrine runs entirely through the Westminster documents, so that if changes were made merely in the third chapter of the Confession, it would be wholly out of harmony with the remainder. Effectual calling, regeneration, perseverance of the saints, are all linked in with the divine decree. The most cursory perusal will show that a revision of the Confession on this one subject would amount to an entire recasting of the creed.
5. Revision is inexpedient, because it may abridge the liberty of interpretation now afforded by the Confession. As an example of the variety in explanation admitted by the creed as it now stands, take the statement that " God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, in the beginning, created or made from nothing the world, and all things therein, in the space of six days." He who holds the patristic view that the days of Genesis were periods, and he who holds the modern opinion that the days were solar, can subscribe to the Westminster statement. But if revised in the interest of either view, the subscriber is shut up to it alone. Another example is found in the statement respecting the guilt of Adam's sin. The advocate of natural union, or of representative union, or of both in combination, can find a foothold, provided only that he holds to the penal nature of the first sin. Another instance is the article concerning "elect infants." As the tenet was formulated by the Assembly, it has been understood to mean, (a) that all infants dying in infancy are elected as a class, some being saved by covenanted mercy, and some by uncovenanted mercy; (b) that all infants dying in infancy are elected as a class—all alike, those within the Church and those outside of it, being saved by divine mercy, nothing being said of the covenant; (c) that dying infants are elected as individuals, some being elect, and some non-elect. Probably each of these opinions had its representatives in the Assembly, and hence the indefinite form of the statement. The writer regards the first-mentioned view as best supported by Scripture and the analogy of faith; but there are many who advocate the second view, and perhaps there may be some who hold the third. The liberty of opinion now conceded by the Confession on a subject respecting which the Scripture data are few, would be ill-exchanged for a statement that would admit of but one interpretation.
6. Revision is inexpedient, because the Westminster Confession, as it now reads, is a sufficiently broad and liberal creed. We do not say that it is sufficiently broad and liberal for every man and every denomination; but it is as broad and liberal for a Calvinist as any Calvinist should desire. For whoever professes Calvinism, professes a precise form of doctrine. He expects to keep within definite metes and bounds ; he is not one of those religionists who start from no premises, and come to no conclusions, and hold no tenets. The Presbyterian Church is a Calvinistic Church. It will be the beginning of its decline, as it already has been of some Calvinistic denominations, when it begins to swerve from this dogmatic position. It must therefore be distinguished among the Churches for doctrinal consistency, comprehensiveness, and firmness. But inside of the metes and bounds established by divine revelation, and to which it has voluntarily confined itself, it has a liberty that is as large as the kingdom of God. It cannot get outside of that kingdom, and should not desire to. But within it, it is as free to career as a ship in the ocean, as an eagle in the air. Yet the ship cannot sail beyond the ocean, nor the eagle fly beyond the sky. Liberty within the immeasurable bounds and limits of God's truth, is the only true liberty. All else is license. The Westminster Confession, exactly as it now reads, has been the creed of as free and enlarged intellects as ever lived on earth. The substance of it was the strong and fertile root of the two freest movements in modern history: that of the Protestant Reformation and that of Republican Government. No Presbyterian should complain that the creed of his Church is narrow and stifling.
And hero we notice an objection urged against the Confession relative to the tenet of limited redemption. It is said that it is not sufficiently broad and liberal in announcing the boundless compassion of God towards all men indiscriminately, and in inviting all men without exception to cast themselves upon it. But read and ponder the following statements:
"Repentance unto life is an evangelical grace, the doctrine whereof is to be preached in season and out of season by every minister of the gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ. It is every man's duty to endeavor to repent of his particular sins, particularly. Every man is bound to make private confession of his sius to God, praying for the pardon thereof, upon which, and the forsaking of them, he shall find mercy. Prayer, with thanksgiving, being one special part of religious worship, is by God required of all men. Prayer is to be made for all sorts of men living, or that shall live hereafter, but not for the dead. God is to be worshipped everywhere in spirit and in truth, and in secret each one by himself. God in his Word, by a positive moral commandment, binds all men in all ages. The grace of God is manifested in the second covenant, in that he freely provideth and offereth to sinners a mediator, and life and salvation in him. The ministry of the gospel testifies that whosoever believes in Christ shall be saved, and excludes none that will come unto him. God is able to search the heart, hear the requests, pardon the sins, and fulfil the desires, of all."
These declarations, scattered broadcast through the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, teach the universality of the Gospel, except no human creature from the offer of it, and exclude no human creature from its benefits. Their consistency with the doctrine of election is assumed, but not explained, in the Confession of Faith. And no revision of this by the mere interpolation of a few words or clauses, will make the subject any clearer, or stop all objections.
7. Revision is inexpedient, because the Westminster Standards already make full provision for those exceptional cases, on account of which revision is claimed by its advocates to be needed. It is said that there are some true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, who cannot adopt all the Westminster statements, who yet should not be, and actually are not, excluded from the Presbyterian Church; that there are tender consciences of good men, whose scruples are to be respected. But these cases are referred by the Form of Government to the church session, and power is given to it to receive into membership any person who trusts in the blood of Christ for the remission of sin, althongh his doctrinal knowledge and belief may be unsatisfactory on some points. He may stumble at predestination,, but if with the publican he cries " God be merciful to me a sinner," he has the root of the matter in him, and is a regenerate child of God. But why should the whole Presbyterian Church revise its entire creed, so as to make it fit these exceptional cases? Why should the mountain go to Mohammed? Why should a genuine but deficient evangelical knowledge and experience be set up as the type of doctrine for the whole denomination? These "babes in Christ" need the education of the full and complete system of truth, and should gradually be led up to it, instead of bringing the system down to their level. There is sometimes a misconception at this point. We have seen it stated that the membership of the Presbyterian Church is not required or expected to hold the same doctrine with the officers; that the pastor, elders, and deacons must accept the Confession of Faith " as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures," but that the congregation need not. But this error arises from confounding the toleration of a deficiency with the endorsement of it. Becanse a church session tolerates in a particular person, who gives evidence of faith in Christ, an error respecting foreordination, or even some abstruse point in the trinity, or the incarnation, it does not thereby endorse the error. It does not sanction his opinion on these subjects, but only endures it, in view of his religious experience on the vital points of faith and repentance, and with the hope that his subsequent growth in knowledge will bring him to the final rejection of it. The Presbyterian Church tolerates theatre-going in some of its members: that is to say, it does not discipline them for it. But it does not formally approve of and sanction theatre-going. A proposition to revise the Confession by inserting a clause to this effect, in order to meet the wishes and practice of theatre-going church-members, woidd be voted down by the presbyteries.
The position that the officers of a church may have one creed, and the membership another, is untenable. No church could live and thrive upon it. A Trinitarian clergy preaching to an Arian or Socinian membership, would preach to unwilling hearers. And although the difference is not so great and so vital, yet a Calvinistie clergy preaching to an Arminian membership, or an Arminian clergy to a Calvinistie membership, would on some points find unsympathetic auditors. Pastor and people, officers and members, must be homogeneous in doctrine, in order to a vigorous church-life. If, therefore, a certain class of members is received into a church, who do not on all points agree with the Church creed, this is not to be understood, as giving the members generally a liberty to depart from the Church creed, or to be a reason for revising it.'
The case is different with the officers of the church.
1 The question whether there shall be a short creed to be used in the admission of members into the Church, is entirely distinct from that oJ revision. Such a creed ought not, of course, to contain anything contradictory to the larger creed which makes a part of the constitution of the Church, and is used in the induction of ministers, elders, and theological professors.
There is no exceptional class in this instance. Neither the session nor the presbytery have any authority to dispense with the acceptance of any part of the Confession of Faith, when a pastor, elder, or deacon is inducted into office. There is no toleration of defective views provided for, when those who are to teach and rule the Church are put into the ministry. And this for the good reason that ministers and elders are expected to be so well indoctrinated, that, they are "apt to teach" and competent to "rule well." Some propose "loose subscription" as a remedy, when candidates of lax or unsettled views present themselves for licensure and ordination. This is demoralizing, and kills all simplicity and godly sincerity. Better a thousand times for a denomination to alter its creed, than to allow its ministry to "palter with words in a double meaning;" than to permit an Arian subscription to the Nicene Symbol, an Arminian subscription to the Westminster Confession, a Calvinistic subscription to the Articles of Wesley, a Restorationist subscription to the doctrine of endless punishment.
For these reasons, it seems to us that the proposed revision of the Westminster Confession is not wise or expedient. The revision of a denominational creed is a rare occurrence in ecclesiastical history. Commonly a denomination remains from first to last upon the base that was laid for it in the beginning by its fathers and founders. And when revision does occur, it is seldom in the direction of fulness and precision. Usually the alteration is in favor of vague and looser statements. Even slight changes are apt to be followed by greater ones. The disposition to revise and alter, needs watching. In an age when the general drift of the unregenerate world is away from the strong statements of the Hebrew prophets, of Christ and his inspired Apostles, it is of the utmost importance that the regenerate Church, in all its denominations, should stand firm in the old paths, and hold fast to that "Word of God which is sharper than a two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit."