Recent Criticisms of the  Westminster Confession of Faith

Rev. Rowland S. Ward  of the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia 

Copied with permission from Proceedings of The International Conference of Reformed Churches September 1-9, 1993 Zwolle, The Netherlands Published by Inheritance Publications, Neerlandia, Alberta, Canada  



The Confession as adopted by the Church of Scotland in 1647 and adhered to by the Formula of Subscription of 1711 is taken as the standard form of the Confession.

(A) Minor Blemishes in Statement or Phraseology

John Murray's survey

(B) Peripheral Criticisms Resting on Misunderstanding

1. The days of creation
2. The damnation of infants

3. The Pope as Antichrist

(C) Misrepresentations of the Doctrine of Scripture

1. Scripture not inerrant in all its parts - the Berkouwer/Rogers thesis.

2. Scripture not inerrant only in the original autographs.

3. Inerrancy belongs only to the "Received Texf' and the Protestant translations based on it.

(D) Adverse Criticisms related to God's Covenant

The covenant of works an unscriptural formulation - the criticism of J.B. Torrance & Holmes Rolston Ill.

(E) Criticisms Related to the Extent of the Atonement

1. Limited atonement is an oppressive legalism

2. The Confession does not exclude Amyraldianism.

(F) God's Law and the Civil Powers

A Christian Church in a Christian state as against both Erastianism and Voluntaryism is the Confession's teaching. Theonomy in the last 20 years appears to be an over-reaction to the secularism prevalent today and fails to distinguish correctly the moral, ceremonial, and civil laws given to Israel through Moses.

(G) The Formulation of the Doctrine of the Church

It is claimed a false definition of the Church is made so that it is defined (and not merely described) in terms of invisibility.

The Westminster Confession is not a perfect document but it is a finely crafted Confession capable of serving the Church still.


Back to the index

The Westminster Confession was not written over a few days in the heat of battle, as was the Scots confession (1560), nor by one man, as was the Belgic Confession (1561), nor to counter new heresy, as were the Canons of the Synod of Dort (1618 -19). Rather, it was written by a gathering of eminent British theologians who met at Westminster in London for several years from 1643, assisted by a number of treaty commissioners from the Church of Scotland. Their aim was to effect a thorough reformation of the British church, which already had a Reformed character, "according to the word of God and the example of the best Reformed churches." Thus, while setting forth a theology at one with the earlier confessions, it does so with a fullness of statement and maturity of expression appropriate to its position at the close of the period of great confessional writing.

The Confession of Faith as drawn up by the Westminster Assembly was qualified by the Adopting Act of the Church of Scotland in 1647:

a) the Confession was found to be "in nothing contrary to the received doctrine" of the Kirk,

b) the approval was "as to the truth of the matter," that is, to the doctrines expressed by the language of the Confession, and

c) the qualification of 31:2 limited the powers of the civil magistrate to call assemblies to the cases of churches not organised or constituted in government.

In 1694 the Church of Scotland enacted a formula of subscription to "the doctrine" contained in the Confession and rendered this commitment more explicit in 1711 when she spoke of adhering to "the whole doctrine." In 1846, following the "Disruption" of 1843, the Free Church of Scotland found it appropriate to disavow the view that the Confession, properly interpreted, taught persecuting principles, an action which is to be taken as a rejection of that interpretation of section 20:4 which alleged that the involvement of the civil power in matters concerning religion is ipso facto contrary to the right of private judgement and necessarily of a persecuting and coercive character.

It is the intention of this paper to survey criticisms of the WCF on the basis of the teaching of the Confession as accepted by the Church of Scotland in 1647 and vindicated by the Free Church of Scotland upon her formation in 1843. Most printed texts of the Confession have inaccuracies in punctuation (affecting particularly 20:2) and citation of Scripture texts which sometimes cause confusion (cf. Gordon Clark, What Do Presbyterians Believe, 1965, p. 66: the text Clark supposes is beside the point at 5:3 should be Job 34:20 not Job 34:10). The best critical text is that by Dr. S.W. Carruthers published in 1937. Notice will not be taken of the 18th century American modifications nor those which have occurred there since except to the extent that they are relevant in discussion of more recent criticisms. Nevertheless, it will be found that many criticisms of recent times echo criticisms of an earlier period.

Space constraints and the desire to provide an overview helpful to ordinary pastors means this paper will be a somewhat general survey of mostly negative criticisms. They will be grouped so that we move from the peripheral to those at the heart of the Confession. In essence the period of this survey will be 1967 to 1992, a period approximately the same as that marking the resurgence of orthodox Reformed theology. Much of the material in this paper may be gleaned also from my Westminster Confession for the Church Today (1992), which provides a modernised text and commentary commemorating the 350th anniversary of the Westminster Assembly.

Back to the index

The late Professor John Murray in his valuable 1973 article "The Theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith" [Works 4: pp. 241-2631 refers to several "blemishes." Leaving aside a few points of terminology of no great importance for present purposes, Murray suggests that at 5:2 providence is stated (wrongly and contrary to 5:3) to result in all things coming to pass by the operation of second causes; notes the lack of precision in 6:3 stating that Adam and Eve were the root of all mankind rather than that Adam was the root of mankind and its representative head; rightly regards as questionable the assertion in 7:4 of the frequent description in Scripture of God's covenant as a testament; wishes that the phrase "begotten by the Holy Spirit and conceived by the virgin Mary" appeared in 8:2 rather than "conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost;" finds the expression "the regenerate part doth overcome" in 13:3 less than satisfactory; and questions the definition of the church in terms of mere profession of the true religion (25:2) (of which more in Section G below).

However, as Murray himself notes, such blemishes do not affect the doctrinal teaching of the Confession nor are they of particular concern to subscribers since they do not adhere to the words as if they are a perfect expression of doctrine but to the doctrine as expressed by the words. Their presence is a reminder of the "imperfection which must attach itself to human composition" (p. 263).

Back to the index

It is not surprising that a number of well worn criticisms have resurfaced with the revival of interest in the Reformed faith. They are usually advanced by those who take a negative view of the Confession. However, some holding a Reformed theology within the more mainstream Presbyterian churches lean to acceptance of these criticisms and thus urge the necessity of liberty of opinion in "non-essential" matters, a liberty lacking clear definition but which their denomination may have given circa 1900 under the impact of the chill wind of the liberal evangelicalism of that time.

1. Claim: The Confession teaches (4:1) that the world was created in six literal days.

Of course, many subscribers of the Confession believe the creation days were 24 hour periods but the Confession limits itself to Scriptural language and does not further define the nature of the days saying only that all things were made "in the space of six days." It follows that whatever the days of Genesis mean is what the Confession teaches. So there is no occasion for subscribers to the teaching of the Confession who do not believe that Genesis is referring to ordinary days to plead relief from this phrase as if it commits one to something unbiblical.

2. Claim: The Confession teaches (10:3) that some infants dying thus are damned since it says that "elect infants" dying in infancy, are saved.

The problem here is that the context is ignored. The subject of the Confession in Chapter 10 is Effectual Calling. It is dealing with the way people are saved not the number of such persons. The word elect correctly implies the need of redemption for infants but it is not a necessary inference that some are not elect. While infants cannot be called by the word and Spirit in the ordinary way, they can still be saved because of the electing love of the Father, the atonement of Christ and regeneration by the Spirit. It is of interest that the Baptist Confession of 1689 deletes the word elect so as to affirm the salvation of all infants dying in infancy. However, this is to affirm what is not explicit in Scripture and to bind the conscience with what at best is a plausible private opinion.

3. Claim: The Confession teaches (25:6) that the Pope is the predicted antichrist thus relief from subscription to the whole doctrine of the Confession is necessary.

Taking account of the illustrative Scripture texts, the doctrinal positions of the Confession at 25:6 are (1) the Pope is not the head of the Church; (2) he exalts himself as if he were, which (3) proves him to be activated by the anti- Christian spirit which seeks religious veneration (Matt. 21:8-9), persecutes the godly (Rev. 13:6) and illustrates the predicted apostasy in the church (2 Thess. 2:3-4, 8-9). This does not seem unscriptural in any way.

The difficulties arise from erroneous inferences such as that there is no other application of the antichrist concept than to the papacy (contrary to 1 John 2:18; 4:3), or that the man of sin passage which refers to apostasy in the church is totally exhausted in the papacy, or that the Confession binds to details of unfulfilled prophecy. In fact the context is headship in the church not the interpretation of prophecy. The American modification passed by the PCUS (Southern) in 1939 is less liable to misunderstanding and preserves the doctrinal content. It reads: The Lord Jesus Christ is the only Head of the church, and the claim of any man to be the vicar of Christ and the head of the church, is without warrant in fact or in Scripture, even anti-Christian, an usurpation dishonouring to the Lord Jesus Christ.


It is not unimportant to understand that these three criticisms rest on misunderstandings since there is a tendency to use them as a kind of Trojan horse. In this way adherence to other and more important features of the Confession's teaching may be qualified and a fluctuating creed substituted for a definite one.

Back to the index

We will now consider three false claims concerning the doctrine of Scripture in Chapter 1 of the Confession.

1. Claim: The Confession does not teach Scripture is inerrant in all its parts.

The publication of G.C. Berkouwer's De Heilige Schrift [The Holy Scripture] in 1966-67 is important as marking a resurgence from within the Reformed camp of a "functional" view of the inerrancy of Scripture. A "formal" view of inerrancy in every part of Scripture is rejected as scholastic, and Scripture is regarded as inerrant only in matters related to its primary purpose of bringing people to a saying relationship with God in Christ. Berkouwer's English translator (1975) was Jack B. Rogers, the same Rogers whose doctoral study under Berkouwer, Scripture in the Westminster Confession, was published in Kampen in 1967. Rogers' work marks a revival of the position argued by C.A. Briggs of New York in the 1880s which affirmed the inspiration of Scripture but rejected its inerrancy as advocated by the Princeton theologians. (Similarly Prof. Wm. Robertson Smith in Scotland just a few years earlier.) The significant point for our purposes is that Rogers, like Briggs before him, asserts that the functional view of inerrancy is the position of Calvin and the Westminster Divines, so that the Princeton position of Alexander, the Hodges, and Warfield is a serious distortion. Ernest Sandeen's study Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism 1800-1930 (1970) furthers this line while Rogers and Donald K. McKirn have elaborated these views in The Aufhority and Interpretation of the Bible (1979).

Valid responses to these rather startling claims have not been wanting, as for example in the symposium edited by D.A. Carson & J.D. Woodbridge entitled Scripture & Truth (1983; repr. 1992) pp. 225-279, just as Warfield refuted the misuse of the quotations Briggs adduced from 17th century writers in The Westminster Assembly and Its Work (1931) pp. 261-333. Rogers is particularly thin, it seems to me, in his examination. No citation of that very influential and learned Puritan, Dr. William. Ames (1576-1633), appears in the volume by Rogers and McKim. The 1986 republication in modem English of Ames' classic, The Marrow of Theology (1623) and the recent issue (1992) in English of Volume 1 of Francis Turretin's Institutes facilitates the rebutting of some of the extravagant and incorrect claims, even though we recognize that every apologist is to some degree influenced in his presentation of Christian doctrine by the circumstances of his age.

In WCF 1:2 the sentence "all of which are given by inspiration of God, to be the rule of faith and life" is not a definition of inspiration as if inspiration extends only to matters of faith and life and not to matters of fact and history. Rather, it is an assertion of the inspiration of all the 66 books so that they are "the word of God written" and thus not "human writings" [WCF 1:31 as are uninspired books. Hence also the statement that God is their "author" [WCF 1:41, and that they are "immediately inspired by God" [WCF 1:81, possessing "entire perfection" and "infallible truth" [WCF 1:51. While the modem term "inerrancy" is not used in the Confession there is no doubt that the church doctrine of the plenary, verbal inspiration of Scripture in all its parts is taught.

Given that 20th century fundamentalism in the American sense is frequently associated with an extreme literalism and a preoccupation with seeking to prove Scripture and to provide a pedantic harmonising, one might understand Rogers' unhappiness with formal inerrancy and entertain the hope that dialogue could bring a meeting of minds. For, as Herman Bavinck reminds us: "If Scripture had used instead [of the language of daily experience] the language of the academy, and had spoken with scientific exactitude, it would have been a hindrance to its own authority." Moreover, Rogers is well aware of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy of 1974 with such careful statements as the following (Art. XIIl):

We affirm the propriety of using inerrancy as a theological term with reference to the complete truthfulness of Scripture.

We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.

This is a statement which Calvin or the Westminster men would have happily endorsed. But it does not appear that Rogers is listening, for he has his own pseudo-Reformed agenda.

2. Claim: The Confession does not teach that inerrancy belongs only to the original autographs.

The debate raised by such as Rogers and McKim regards the limitation of inerrancy to the original autographs as a refinement owed principally to Warfield who, it is claimed, followed a scholastic method. The fact that the available manuscripts have imperfections is not a difficulty for Rogers and McKim, since to them infallibility does not consist in formal correctness or verbal inerrancy but in the saving function of Scripture, and this is not affected by transcriptional errors.

We may agree that the imperfections in textual transmission do not destroy the saying function of Scripture, but because of Scripture's teaching about itself we are not prepared to accept that there may have been such errors in the autographs, or that the Confession does not properly distinguish the authority of the sources. Balmer and Woodbridge have provided valuable excerpts from the writings of William. Whitaker (1547-95) and William Ames (1576-1633) in the symposium referred to previously, which make it abundantly clear that these men, who have not been accused of scholasticism, adhered to the complete reliability of Scripture in the originals in all it teaches. John Owen-who has been accused of scholasticism-wrote in 1659 what was the common position:

"First then, it is granted that the individual autographs of Moses, the prophets and the apostles, are in all probability, and as to all that we know, utterly perished and lost out of the world.... Had those individual writings been preserved, men would have been ready to adore them.... Secondly, For the Scriptures of the New Testament, it doth not appear that the autographs of the several writers of it were ever gathered together into one volume.... the first transcribers of the original copies, and those who in succeeding ages have done the like work from them, whereby they have been propagated and continued down to us, in a subserviency to the providence and promise of God, we say not, as is vainly charged by Morinus and Capellus, that they were all or any of them 'infallible and divinely inspired,' so that it was impossible for them in anything to mistake. It is known, it is granted, that failings have been amongst them, and that various lections have from thence arisen.... Thirdly, We add that the whole Scripture, entire as given out from God, without any loss, is preserved in the copies of the originals yet remaining . . . In them all, we say, is every letter and tittle of the word. These copies we say, are the rule, standard, and touchstone of all translations, ancient or modern, by which they in all things are to be examined, tried, corrected, amended; and themselves only by themselves." [John Owen (1616-1683) in his Of the Integrity and Purity of the Hebrew and Greek Text of the Scripture in Works, Vol. 16 pp. 353, 354, 357 in 1968 edition; first edition was 1659; (italics in original).]

3. Claim: The Confession teaches (1:8) the inerrancy of the "Received Text" and of the Protestant translations based on it.

This position is not unrelated to the previous one but comes from (shall we say) the right wing rather than the left. Believing in the complete inerrancy of Scripture some conservatives have adopted what might be called the Vulgate error (from the Roman elevation of the Latin text). They hold that God's special providence in preserving the sources "pure in all ages" (1:8) is such as implies a "jot and tittle" view of preservation so that the "Received Text" represents the original without the slightest variation. Many hold in addition that, seeing 1:8 also says that translations enable the word of God to dwell plentifully in believers, the translation employed by the Westminster Divines (taken to be the KJV) must be precisely accurate, otherwise it could not be called "the word of God."

Whatever the superficial attractiveness of the logic of this claim, it is contrary to the plainest facts. It arises from a simplistic logic (not unlike that among some of the Anabaptists of the 17th century) coupled with a reactionary conservatism. Matthew 5:18 (the jot and tittle passage) is not referring to the transmission of the text of Scripture but to the authority of God's claims upon us, The transmission of Scripture is not such that the sources have been preserved with exactness in any particular manuscript but, as Owen noted, in all the manuscripts. And we cannot say that providence has preserved only some manuscripts since providence extends to all events and thus to the preservation of all the manuscripts. Nor can we say that providence tells us which manuscripts are the best ones: only manuscript comparison and analysis can do that. In short, "pure" does not mean "without any transcriptional errors" but it means something like "without loss of doctrines and with the text preserved in the variety of manuscripts." Thus, in affirming that "the original texts of the Old and New Testaments come down to us pure and uncorrupted" Francis Turretin (1623- 87) states:

  • "The question is not, Are the sources so pure that no fault has crept into the many sacred manuscripts .... ? For this is acknowledged on both sides and the various readings clearly prove it. Rather, the question is have the original texts (or the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts) been so corrupted by copyists through carelessness (or by the Jews and heretics through malice) that they can no longer be regarded as the judge of controversies and the rule to which all the versions may be applied? The papists affirm, we deny it ... for besides being in things of small importance and not pertaining to faith and practice ... they are not universal in all the manuscripts; or they are not such as cannot be easily corrected from a collation of the Scriptures and the various manuscripts." [Institutes, II: 10: 3, 8 (pp. 106, 108-9 of 1992 edition]

The "jot and tittle theory" cannot produce the allegedly perfectly preserved text which is the ultimate standard of appeal. Even the "Received Text" is not the best (NT) text that can be constructed from the Byzantine family of manuscripts but, as we all know, is largely the text constructed from a few manuscripts of that family and the ingenuity of Erasmus. In fact, many adherents of this theory canonise the King James Version, even affirm that God's elect always share their faith in its complete inerrancy (pity those who have only the "impure" stream of manuscripts% and appeal finally to it. Let William Ames express the truth of the matter in his clear and judicious way:

"The Scriptures are not so tied to these first languages that they cannot and ought not to be translated into other languages for common use in the church. But among interpreters, neither the seventy who turned them into Greek, nor Jerome, nor any other such held the office of a prophet; they were not free from errors in interpretation. Hence no versions are fully authentic except as they express the sources, by which they are also to be weighed. Neither is there any authority on earth whereby any version may be made absolutely authentic. God's providence in preserving the sources is notable and glorious, for neither have they wholly perished nor have they been injured by the loss of any book or blemished by any serious defect- though today not one of the earlier versions remains intact. From these human versions all those things may be made known which are absolutely necessary, provided they agree with the sources in essentials. Hence, all the versions accepted by the churches usually agree, although they may differ and be defective at several minor points. We must not rest forever in any accepted version, but faithfully see to it that a pure and faultless interpretation is given to the church." [William Ames (1576-1633), The Marrow of Theology, I xxxiv, 27-33 (first edition, Latin 1623; English translations 1638; 1986).]

It is not possible to give a consistent interpretation of WCF 1:8 other than on the basis set out by such as Ames, Turretin, and Owen. The absence of an English text equivalent in every respect of meaning to the original Scripture is no more an argument against the verbal inspiration of the autographs than is the admitted obscurity and difficulty of interpretation of certain parts of Scripture. We pass over the subject of the testimony of the Spirit, simply observing that the Confession does not set the objective evidences over against the internal testimony. The testimony of the Spirit is by and with the word, and saving understanding always requires the Spirit's work.

Given the sharp differences and divisions in even Reformed churches on the subject of text and translation, we do well to instruct our people more adequately in these matters with which our fathers were very familiar. It is somewhat ironic and also disturbing when Roman and Anabaptist arguments against the Protestant and Reformed position in the 17th century are beard in the mouth of earnest 20th century Protestants.

The Australian Presbyterian scholar and liberal-evangelical Andrew Harper acknowledged in 1892 that the change in the doctrine of inspiration was not unimportant for it does not end with itself. "In a system of doctrine so carefully articulated and wrought out as that of the Reformed Churches is, no one doctrine of importance can be modified without insensibly modifying all the others." These are words to take to heart.

Back to the index

1. Claim: The covenant of works is an unscriptural formulation which subverts grace.

Professor James B. Torrance has been an insistent propagandist for the view that the covenant formulation of 17th century federal theology in general and of the Confession in particular is a marked departure from Calvin and results in all manner of evils. This may be seen in his 1970 article Covenant or Contract? (Scottish Journal of Theology, 1970, pp. 51-76), in his chapter in that uneven volume The Westminster Confession in the Church Today (1981), as well as in public lectures such as one in Melbourne in 1990. Holmes Rolston Ill also published in the SJT (1970 pp. 129-156) but is best known for his volume John Calvin versus the Westminster Confession (1972), The views of these writers reflect their commitment to a Barthian approach. No real distinction is made between a pre-fall and post-fall situation since to them the story of Adam is myth or saga not history. As Prof. J. Douma has said: "However incomprehensible the fall into sin may be, no theologian can properly speak about redemption without taking that catastrophe into account." Their great complaint is that law has priority over grace in the federal scheme whereas they wish to proclaim free and costly grace on a universal basis. This is not the place to refute their presuppositions, nor to trace the undoubted development in thinking on a pre-fall covenant from 1560 [for which see D.A. Weir's excellent study, The Origins of The Federal Theology in Sixteenth -Century Reformation Thought (Oxford 1990)], but some vindication of the Confession is appropriate.

First, as regards terminology, all recognize that the word "covenant" is not used of this relationship in the narrative of Genesis 1-3 or elsewhere unless Hosea 6:7 is an exception. Second, assuming nevertheless that the relationship is covenantal, some variety in preferred phraseology exists. The favoured initial phrase from about 1580 seems to have been covenant of nature, while the 1615 Irish Articles' embryonic federalism speaks of the covenant of the law (Art. 21). Westminster uses covenant of works in the Confession but covenant of life in the Shorter Catechism #12. More recent writers suggest covenant of creation. The real question is not the precise words but whether the ideas behind them are Biblical.

The Genesis narrative certainly shows the elements of a covenant even if the word is not used, for it describes a sovereign disposition by God involving promises, requiring response and threatening a penalty. However, while some statements (e.g. the Irish Articles) give the distinct impression that the covenant was to be kept by man's own strength so that he might merit eternal life, the Westminster Confession (7:1) is very careful in the balance of its statement. The Confession emphasises that there was grace, in the sense of condescension, in the making of the covenant and also implies, I think, that the reward of obedience would not be of debt but of God's free favour. Man was never in a merely legal relationship with his Maker, a position where God owed him something. The relationship was covenantal-one of personal communion in righteousness. In this connection note the compound name in Genesis 2 and 3 [Yahweh Elohim] which combines the name which speaks of creative power with that which is the personal name of God. Further, Adam's original righteousness was God's gift and he was dependent upon God that he might fulfil the covenant demands. Adam could not have praised himself but only glorified God if he had stood the test.

Torrance and Rolston would allow that the arrangements of the first covenant include elements which may be described as gracious (cf. Rolston, p. 142 on Dabney's position in his Systematic Theology, p. 302). But they still regard the covenant of life (as I shall call it) as subversive of redemptive grace because they are operating on Barthian principles. But if we accept the biblical record of our first parents we cannot possibly understand redemptive grace except in the context of the prior righteous requirements of God which man has disobeyed. To stigmatise the Westminster formulation as legalistic is to evacuate grace of its redemptive character.  

Back to the index


1. Claim. Limited atonement in the Confession is Part of the oppressive legalism of federal theology.

J.B. Torrance has difficulties with Christ's atonement being for the elect alone. He claims it is to deny the incarnational oneness which Christ has with all men as Head of all creation and to prevent saying to each and all "Christ died for you."

Leaving aside the Scripturalness or otherwise of the last expression, it would be a heavy burden indeed if we could not integrate our humanity and our evangelism. But again, the problem is Torrance's Barthianism, which he cannot possibly read out of the Confession, but which he endeavours to read back into Calvin, so appearing to be a Reformed theologian when he rejects the maturest statement of the Reformed faith.

Even while we affirm that Christ is Head over all things we must add "for the church" (Eph. 1:22). Further, what we have come to term common grace is a reality, while orthodox Calvinism works in practice so far as evangelistic thrust and social transformation is concerned, particularly Scottish evangelical Calvinism. At least Torrance admits that the Confession teaches Christ's atonement was definite.

2. Claim: The Confession does not exclude Amyraldianism

It is well known that there were several members of the Westminster Assembly who adhered to the hypothetical universalisrn of the Amyraldian school. It has been alleged last century and more recently that this position is not excluded by the Confession.

In 1961 a Calvinistic church was formed in Tasmania from several congregations of former Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians. It is now known as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC). The tendency to reaction from their previous Arminian mysticism led to suspicion of the doctrine of the free offer as if it was based on a universal atonement in the Amyraldian sense. In debate with their near kin, the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia, the leaders of the EPC held that the issue was not resolved by the Confession since, while the Confession was accepted in 1647 as in no way contrary to received doctrine, it was claimed by the EPC that before 1647 the Church of Scotland did not hold to any limitation on the extent and intent of the atonement. It was not until the Acts of the Church of Scotland condemning the Marrow teaching in 1720 and 1721 that any such limitation existed, they claimed. The EPC therefore relied on these Acts to reject the related ambiguities and contradictions they saw as inherent in the free offer teaching as expounded, for example, by John Murray and Ned Stonehouse, and they went on to adopt a position on common grace rather similar to that of Herman Hoeksema and the Protestant Reformed Churches in the USA.

The response to this line of reasoning is to reject the claim that the Confession does not exclude Amyraldian views, to reject the allegations about the pre-1647 teaching of the Church of Scotland, and to regard the Acts condemning the Marrow as making partial and selective use of aspects of the Marrow and as irrelevant. The Acts against the Marrowmen would only be competent if they were true Declaratory Acts, that is, Acts declaring existing law. The force of the Acts, though unrepealed, is exceedingly dubious because of the peculiar circumstances. It is true that they were appealed to in the Macleod Campbell case in 1831. Campbell, unlike the Marrowmen, really did teach universal pardon, and the great historian Thomas McCrie (1772-1835) thereupon published several articles to vindicate the Marrowmen from some of the unjust charges in the Assembly Acts. It is a libel on the Scottish Church to suppose the love of God in the free offer was ever doubted or regarded as inconsistent with a strict Calvinism.

While A.F. Mitchell thought Amyraldianism may not be excluded by the Confession in 3:6, William, Cunningham is sure it is and Warfield agrees. The issue really seems settled by the terms of WCF 8:8 which state that all for whom Christ purchased redemption have the same applied effectually to them. John Carneron held that the absence of such a statement in the findings of the Synod of Dort 1619 meant his Amyraldianism, was not excluded, thus we take it Westminster does exclude it. Christ made satisfaction for those the Father gave to Him, and Christ, through the Spirit, effectively applies this redemption to those for whom He died.

The seeming inconsistency in the Confession excluding views which were held by several of its members perhaps may be explained on the supposition that the Confession was going to be the public Confession of the British church, but would not be imposed by a tight subscription. While such an idea would not have been acceptable in Scotland it was a position some of the English divines held. On this supposition the Amyraldians would not have been able to teach against the Confession but might have held their own views as private opinions. At any rate, the terms of the Adopting Act in Scotland leave no doubt that Amyraldianism is excluded as an option for strict subscribers.

Back to the index

When R.J. Rushdoony's massive work The Institutes of Biblical Law was published in 1973 it became the spearhead of what is now known as theonomy (from Greg Bahnsen's Theonomy in Christian Ethics, 1977), dominion theology or the movement for Christian reconstruction. The burden of this teaching is that the law of God, insofar as it is not expressly repealed, fully binds modem states and societies.

Such a statement does not sound as shocking in ears attuned to the Scottish Reformed understanding of Church and State as it does in American ears. The American modification of WCF 23:3 in 1788 affirmed that the duty of the state in reference to religion was (1) to protect the church; (2) to protect citizens; (3) to ensure freedom of assembly. However, the duty of the state to encourage the unity of the church and the maintenance of the truth was not asserted and all denominations of Christians were placed on an equal basis. The underlying principle is at best that the state's duty does not extend to anything but the encouragement of a lowest common denominator Christianity, and at worst that the state has nothing to do with religion but to protect people in the free exercise of it-Ihe actual current practice in the United States. In other words, the vision of a thoroughly Christian state was somewhat dimmed by a pragmatic acceptance of the denominational ideal, and secularising influences since 1788 have contributed to a pluralistic view of the state with law derived from the will of the people. In addition, much evangelicalism is dispensational and antinomian.

In 19th century Scotland the Voluntary controversy at root was concerned with the same issue: the sovereignty of God over the nation was downplayed or rejected and the modem secular state foreshadowed. I suppose the orthodox Reformed position in the Netherlands in the 19th century shared a similar concern to the orthodox in Scotland---one recalls Groen Van Prinsterer and the Anti Revolutionary Party.

The Confession in the form adopted in Scotland recognised the distinct government in the church but held that the nation living in the light of special revelation was accountable to God and had certain particular responsibilities in reference to the encouragement of the truth, and the provision of a framework of law, education and welfare agreeable to Scripture. Christian reconstruction differs from the classic Scottish position in that it appears to believe that the non-ceremonial laws of the Old Testament Israel together with the prescribed penalties are binding today unless specifically repealed in Scripture. But reconstructionists differ much among themselves on details.

The Confession makes the classic distinction between the moral, ceremonial and judicial laws. This oft-criticised distinction is entirely justified by the data: while the Mosaic law is a unit and different kinds of law are found in the one context, the unique position of the moral law is seen in the facts that only the ten commandments were spoken by God's voice, they alone were accompanied by the shaking of Mount Sinai, they alone were written on stone in addition to being written in a book (Deut. 4:10-14; Ex. 24:4), and they alone of all the laws were placed in the ark of the covenant. The subservience of the ceremonial to the ethical is also evident, as in the words of the prophets (e.g. Ps. 51:16-19; Jer. 7; Amos 5). Note also Matt. 7:12 cf. Lev. 19:18.

Apart from classical dispensationalists, all admit that the ceremonial laws have been abrogated by the ratification of the new covenant by Christ (WCF 19:3). The Confession further affirms (19:4) that the sundry judicial laws God gave Israel as a nation "expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require." Israel was a theocratic nation and was to reflect the requirement that she be a holy people. At any rate, the civil law of Israel does not bind any other people now since no earthly nation today is in the same covenant position as ancient Israel.

The New Testament church is the proper continuation of Israel. From this viewpoint the church must take the Old Testament laws seriously, particularly those marked by the death penalty or exclusion ("cutting off') from the nation. If professing believers who commit similar offenses do not repent they are subject to the equivalent penalty-spiritual death, that is, excommunication (compare the position of the incestuous man at Corinth, 1 Cor. 5: W & Lev. 18:8, 29).

So far as the civil authorities today are concerned, those living in the light of special revelation need to take the Old Testament judicial laws seriously too. However, and this is the point theonomy seems to stumble at, the civil ruler today will not apply Mosaic laws and penalties because they are prescribed by the Mosaic law, but because he discerns that the law or the penalty reflects a basic principle of justice and right that ought always to be observed, that is, that it is an application of the moral law. However, while some of the case laws are applications of the moral law, one may also speak of the judicial laws in their nature and penalties having an aspect of prefiguring righteousness in Christ and destruction of sin through Christ. On this view the law given to the race through Noah would justify the death penalty for murder, but death penalties for other offenses prescribed for Israel would not necessarily be justified today. Indeed, they were not always carried out in Israel (cf. David's adultery and murder). Obvious examples of general equity include the law of incest and the law of negligence, but it should be noted that Israel's law did not punish everything recognised as a crime (e.g. visiting a prostitute). It does not appear that the civil authority is to punish those who hold false beliefs, but only those whose views have disruptive consequences in the good order of church or society (cf. WCF 20:4).

Those who accept the Confession's teaching will find areas of difference, as has always been the case, but they will also reject the wholesale application of the judicial laws. Theonomists can take heart from the fact that an optimistic eschatology was the general outlook of the Westminster Divines, and pre-millennialism as we know it in modern times was rejected. If they would be a little less arrogant and somewhat more patient, the debate could draw the extremes together.

I have more than a suspicion that the American interest in theonomy arises from an over-reaction to the practical secularism of American life. One notes with some dismay the modernisation of the WCF issued by Summertown Texts in Tennessee (2nd edition 1984): "These expired with the State of Israel and make no further obligation on God's people than seems appropriate in contemporary legal codes." This is imprecise and fails to highlight the particular point by which continuing obligation is to be assessed. Those who speak in this way are certainly going to ruffle the feathers of those who advocate Christian reconstruction. A useful recent treatment of the theonomic issues by staff of Westminster seminary, reflecting some diversity of approach, is Theonomy: A Reformed Critique (1990).


Claim: 1. A false distinction is made in WCF 25 between the visible and invisible church.

The way the Confession expresses the doctrine of the church has been criticised by a number of staunch advocates of the Reformed Faith. Indeed, John Murray [Works 1: 231-236) has an excellent article in which he shows that while the church as visible and as invisible may be distinguished in theology, there are dangers with this terminology since it has been misapplied to escape the obligations of unity or as an excuse for failure to address doctrinal or moral error within a particular denomination. Indeed, Murray points out that the church in Scripture may have invisible aspects but it cannot be defined in terms of invisibility. Dr. Jelle Faber made the same point in his address to the first ICRC in 1985. Referring to WCF 25: 1, 2 he asked: "Is it right to divide the Scriptural epithets of the church so that the invisible church is called the spouse and the body of Christ, and the visible church his kingdom, the house and family of God?"

I think most thoughtful exponents of Reformed theology would agree with Murray and Faber's understanding of the church at this point. However, it is not so clear that the Confession is committing the sin of false definition suggested even if its description has infelicities. At any rate, we know that the Confession was not accepted as in any way contrary to the received doctrine of the Church of Scotland ` and that doctrine was a very catholic one which abhorred schism. The Reformers, and here we include Calvin, Ursinus and the rest, employed the idea of the church as visible to emphasize that the church's life depends on divine election and the operation of the Spirit which are not infallibly discerned by men. It does not mean that there are two churches, but that the one church may be viewed in two ways, and that the church as we see it is not to be thought of apart from its nature as a congregation of true Christian believers. The Confession states (25:3) that "there is no ordinary possibility of salvation" outside the visible church to which, of course, it connects the means of grace. N.H. Gootjes, reminds us that its reference to the invisible church is not in the interests of a casual approach to these means [Clarion, 28 March 1991, pp. 155-1581.

Churches like my own have not been free from the influences of a nonreformed evangelicalism, but our separate stand does not arise from the idea that the church is ours to order as we see fit. We would reject indignantly the concept of pluriformity as known by the Dutch churches. We do not regard every church as equally valid. It is precisely because we regard the church as bound to maintain the whole counsel of God that we remain separate. But we are not prepared to deny that the term "church" may properly apply to other Christian bodies which have errors of various kinds. It is a novel, unbalanced, and really sectarian approach that says otherwise.

The reality is that nothing in the Scottish Reformed fathers of the Westminster period suggests that their doctrine of the church was any different from the doctrine held on the Continent except perhaps for the greater rigour in which ceremonies of human devising were opposed. Yet even allowing for such greater rigour there was the balancing consideration of the unity of the church, which meant Anglican and Lutheran churches were recognised except in cases of persecution. The English church was represented at Dort. Even Rome was reckoned, following Calvin, as in some senses a church so that its baptism was not as such invalid. The common Reformed doctrine, was and is that the presence of some errors or abuses will not be sufficient to cause withdrawal from a church. The nature of the errors, the insistence with which they are advocated, and the freedom or otherwise from compliance, will be relevant in deciding whether or not we can remain in the body.

The true/false distinction in the Belgic Confession (with its principal application to the Church of Rome) is common to the Scottish heritage too. But it is not helpful to historical understanding (or present relationships) to suggest that the purelless distinction of Westminster cannot be harmonised with the Belgic, Art. 29, for what church manages all things according to the pure word of God as she should? The Reformed and Presbyterian world has little enough of the passion for unity in the truth. But that desire for unity in the truth must recognize the relative importance (or unimportance) of our differences. Too often we seem to be concerned to avoid offending the traditional in our pews or church assemblies. We look for reasons not to accept one another rather than joyfully embracing one another and growing together, being enriched by a sharing of what the Lord has taught us through our various histories.

Back to the index

We have reviewed some of the major criticisms of the teaching of the Westminster Confession, principally those of negative character. They come from a variety of quarters but are not such as should cause any great concern to subscribers to the Confession in this closing decade of the 20th century. It is not that one is unwilling to admit any criticisms or that there is no room for improvement. Rather, we have to acknowledge that those who drew up this noble document nearly 350 years ago had the great advantage of drawing on voluminous materials from the previous century of confessional drafting, and did their work very well. In principle one is no more against changes in the Confession to make it more clear or balanced than was the 1847 Free Church of Scotland which sanctioned a Constitutional Catechism which recognises the freedom and duty of the church to do just that, but a demonstrated need is not particularly evident at present, nor is the resurgent Reformed movement yet at a level of maturity and consensus to offer the hope of significant confessional advance.

What would appear a wise course today is that careful editions be provided. I find it a great shame that an accurate edition of the Confession with its illustrative Scripture texts (secondary though they be) is not available from any of the Scottish churches. Surely this is not a right state of affairs. In addition, if I may express a suggestion made to me by a member of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Ireland (John Greir of The Evangelical Bookshop in Belfast), the ICRC could surely do something to co-ordinate the preparation of standard texts of our symbolic documents (and perhaps the Psalter) in modem English. Such modernised texts may not become the legally binding texts in our churches but they have an immense practical role in ensuring intelligent propagation of the faith. Inactivity by the churches will not stop these editions because there is a need and their issue creates further demand: my scarcely advertised edition of the Shorter Catechism (Learning the Christian Faith: 1981) has sold more than 8,000 copies in Australia. Yet it would be in the interests of the Reformed community if effort was expended to attain generally agreed modernisations. Perhaps this is another of the many positive things the ICRC can do to further the Biblical faith. And why not a volume containing the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity with relevant terms of subscription?

Back to the index