Objections to the Revision of the Westminster Confession



The first question sent down to the presbyteries is the most important of the two; namely, Whether a revision of the Confession is desired. If this is answered in the negative, it will mean that the Presbyterian Church of the present day is satisfied with its ancestral faith, as formulated in its Standards, and accords with the Church of the past in this respect. It will be a formal and positive reaffirmation of the historic Calvinism, at a time when this system of doctrine is charged with being unscriptural, erroneous, and antiquated by modern theological progress. If it be answered in the affirmative, it will mean that the Church of the present day is more or less dissatisfied with the doctrines of the Westminster Assembly, and is no longer willing to endorse and preach them as that body of divines defined and stated them. Revision is alteration, more or less. The object is not merely to make sure that the creed just as it stands is understood; but to modify it either in its structural plan, its component parts, its emphasis, or its general perspective. The second question, How much revision is desired? is comparatively of less consequence, because it is the first question alone that decides the vital point, whether the Presbyterian Church

1 New York Presbytery, November 20, 1889; Northwestern Presbyterian, November 23, 1889.

has drifted at all from the old anchorage. For this reason, we present in a brief form the following objections to the revision of the Westminster Confession:

1. Revision is objectionable, because the project originated in too small a fraction of the Church. Only fifteen presbyteries out of two hundred and two united in overturing the Assembly in its favor. The remaining one hundred and eighty-seven will have to be argued and persuaded into it. But so important a step as the revision of the doctrinal basis of a denomination should begin in a general uprising of the whole body, and be the spontaneous and strong^ expressed desire of the great majority of its members. The revision of secondary matters, like the form of government and discipline, does not require this in the same degree. As the case now stands, fifteen presbyteries have asked one hundred and eighty-seven presbyteries if they do not want to amend the Confession. There should have been a far wider dissatisfaction with the Standards than this indicates, to initiate revision.

2. Revision is objectionable, because the Confession is a correct statement of " the system of doctrine contained in the Scriptures." The system meant in this phrase is universally known as the Calvinistic; not as resting upon the authority of Calvin, but as a convenient designation of that interpretation of Scripture which is common to Augustine, Calvin, the Reformed theologians, and the Westminster divines. The term "evangelical" does not define it, because there are several evangelical systems, but only one Calvinistic. The systems of Arminins, of Wesley, and of the Later-Lutherans, as well as that of Calvin, are alike evangelical, in distinction from anti-evangelical systems like Socinianism and Deism. They are all alike derived from the Bible, and contain the doctrines of the trinity, the incarnation, the apostasy, and the redemption. But the Calvinistic interpretation of Scripture, which is the one formulated in the Westminster Standards, differs from these other "evangelical" systems, in teaching unconditional election and pretention, instead of conditional; limited redemption (not atonement) instead of unlimited; regeneration wholly by the Holy Spirit instead of partly; the total inability of the sinner instead of partial. The Calvinistic system, as thus discriminated from the other "evangelical" systems, has been adopted by American Presbyterians for two centuries. Neither Old Lights, nor New Lights; neither Old School, nor New School; have demanded that these tenets which distinguish Calvinism from Arminianism should be eliminated from the creed. They were accepted with equal sincerity by both branches of the Church in the reunion of 1870, and there is no reason for altering the formulas that were satisfactory then, unless the belief of the Church has altered in regard to these distinctive points of Calvinism.

3. The revision of the Confession is objectionable, because the principal amendments proposed by its advocates will introduce error into it, so that it will no longer be "the system of doctrine contained in the Scriptures." The four following alterations are urged upon the Church: (a) To strike out the doctrine of the sovereignty of God in pretention, leaving the doctrine of election unlimited and universal, (b) To retain pretention, but assign as the reason for it the sin of the non-elect, (c) To strike out the statement that the number of the elect and nonelect is "so certain and definite, that it cannot be increased or diminished" by "angels and men." (d) To strike out the statement that no man who rejects the " Christian religion," or the evangelical method of salvation, can be saved by the legal method of living "according to the light of nature," or some system of morality which he "professes." If these changes are made, the Westminster Standards will no longer contain a class of truths that are plainly taught in Scripture, and will cease to be that "system of doctrine" which their authors had in mind, and to which the present generation of ministers and elders have subscribed like their fathers before them.

4. Revision is objectionable, because it will be a concession to the enemies of the Standards that their aspersions of them are true. The charges that have been made by the opponents of them from time immemorial are, that Calvinism represents God as a tyrannical sovereign who is destitute of love and mercy for any but an elect few, that it attributes to man the depravity of devils, deprives him of moral freedom, and subjects him to the arbitrary cruelty of a Being who creates some men in order to damn them. A few ministers and elders within the Presbyterian Church endorse these allegations; and many assert that the Confession contains no universal offer of salvation, teaches that none of the heathen are saved, and that some infants are non-elect and lost. The great reason assigned by such Presbyterians for revising the Standards is, that they inculcate unscriptural and offensive doctrines that cannot be believed or preached. But this is to concede that all preceding Presbyterians have been grossly mistaken in denying that the Confession contains such doctrines, either directly or by implication. It is an acknowledgment that one of the most carefully drawn and important of all the Reformed s}'mbols, inculcates in a latent form some of the most repulsive tenets conceivable by the human mind. Presbyterians of all schools have hitherto met this calumny on their creed by contradicting it, and trying the issue by close reasoning and debate. Revision proposes, in the legal phrase, to give a cognovit, admit the charge, and alter the standards to suit the enemy who made it.

5. ilevision is objectionable, because it will reopen the old discussions and controversies upon the difficult doctrines, without resulting in any better definitions of them than they already have in the Church. On the contrary, the great variety of changes that will be urged, from the very conservative to the very radical, will introduce a period of speculative dispute and disagreement that will seriously impair the existing harmony of the denomination, and divert its attention from the great practical interests of Christ's kingdom in which it is now engaged.

These five objections, it seems to us, are conclusive reasons why the Presbyterian Church should not alter, but reaffirm the doctrines of the Westminster Standards, and continue to teach and defend them as they have been by all the past generations of Presbyterians. 2