June 27: Warfield’s Paper to the New Brunswick Presbytery (1889)

We are a few days off from the anniversary of this event, but other scheduled posts bumped this post to today. Close enough, for our purposes, I think.

WarfieldBB_1903In the late 19th century, an effort was begun to revise the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, as held by the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. This effort toward revision was led by Charles A. Briggs and several other then prominent men in that denomination. Opposing them, among others, was the Rev. Dr. Benjamin B. Warfield, professor at the Princeton Theological Seminary. Here he presents some of his earliest arguments in countering the revisionists:—

Professor Warfield’s Paper presented to the New Brunswick Presbytery, June 25, 1889.

THE PRESBYTERY OF NEW BRUNSWICK AND THE WESTMINSTER CONFESSION.

At the June intermediate meeting of the Presbytery of New Brunswick, held on June 25th at Dutch Neck, the overture of the General Assembly anent the revision of the Confession of Faith was answered in the negative, nemine contradicente, as follows :

“The Presbytery of New Brunswick, having carefully considered the overture in relation to the revision of the Confession of Faith, proposed by the General Assembly, respectfully replies as follows :

“This Presbytery does not desire any revision of the Confession of Faith.”

The reasons to be assigned for this answer, as proposed in a paper presented by Prof. B. B. Warfield, were then taken up ; but, on account of lack of time for full consideration, were laid over until the October meeting of the Presbytery. These reasons have been printed by order of the Presbytery, that all who are interested may have opportunity to consider them before the Fall meeting. They are as follows :

  1. Our free but safe formula of acceptance of the Confession of Faith, by which we “receive and adopt it” as “containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures” (Form of Government, XV., xii.), relieves us of all necessity for seeking, each one to conform the Confession in all its propositions to his individual preferences, and enables us to treat the Confession as a public document, designed, not to bring each of our idiosyncrasies to expression, but to express the general and common faith of the whole body—which it adequately and admirably does.
  1. Enjoying this free yet hearty relation to the Confession, we consider that our situation toward our Standards is incapable of improvement. However much or little the Confession were altered, we could not, as a body, accept the altered Confession in a closer sense than for system of doctrine ; and the alterations could not better it as a public Confession, however much it might be made a closer expression of the faith of some individuals among us. In any case, it could not be made, in all its propositions and forms of statement, the exact expression of the personal faith of each one of our thousands of office-bearers.
  2. In these circumstances we are unwilling to mar the integrity of so venerable and admirable a document, in the mere license of change, without prospect of substantially bettering our relation to it or its fitness to serve as an adequate statement of the system of doctrine which we all heartily believe. The historical character and the hereditary value of the creed should, in such a case, be preserved.
  1. We have no hope of bettering the Confession, either in the doctrines it states or in the manner in which they are stated. When we consider the guardedness, moderation, fullness, lucidity, and catholicity of its statement of the Augustinian system of truth, and of the several doctrines which enter into it, we are convinced that the Westminster Confession is the best, safest and most acceptable statement of the truths and the system which we most surely believe that has ever been formulated ; and we despair of making any substantial improvements upon its forms of sound words. On this account we not only do not desire changes on our own account, but should look with doubt and apprehension upon any efforts to improve upon it by the Church.
  1. The moderate, catholic, and irenical character of the Westminster Confession has always made it a unifying document. Framed as an irenicon, it bound at once the Scotch and English Churches together ; it was adopted and continues to be used by many Congregational and Baptist Churches as the confession of their faith; with its accompanying Catechisms it has lately been made the basis of union between the two great Presbyterian bodies which united to constitute our Church ; and we are convinced that if Presbyterian union is to go further, it must be on the basis of the Westminster Standards, pure and simple. In the interests of Church union, therefore, as in the interests of a broad and irenical, moderate and catholic Calvinism, we deprecate any changes in our historical standards, to the system of doctrine contained in which we unabatedly adhere, and with the forms of statement of which we find ourselves in hearty accord.

Words to Live By:
Our Confession of Faith can be thought of as a commentary on what the Scriptures teach. As such, it serves to bring unity, when we jointly concur that the Confession summarizes some of the central doctrines taught in the Scriptures. It also serves as a public notice of what will be taught in our churches—think of it as something akin to a truth-in-advertising document : As the Confession is our agreed upon Standard, visitors to our churches should be able to expect a faithful proclamation of the Gospel from our pulpits and teachings that are in accord with the Westminster Standards. For these reasons and more, efforts to revise our Confession should be considered with the greatest care and reluctance. It’s not that the Confession is inerrant or incapable of further perfection, but changes should be soundly Biblical, vested with much prayer, and always with a clear purpose to glorify our Lord and Savior. The changes that eventually were made in 1903 proved damaging to the PCUSA, weakening the Calvinism of the document and thus paving the way for the 1906 reception of the larger portion of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church [about 1000 pastors and 90,000 members]. This was a denomination that historically had opposed Calvinism and taught Arminianism.

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.—Hebrews 10:23 (NASB)

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