Westminster Standards

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A Potential Schism Halted by a Compromise

Initially there was no real problem with the written standards for the Presbyterian Church in America. Ministerial students were simply tested for their learning and soundness in the faith. But a controversy in the mother country soon changed this.  So the question arose, should teaching and ruling elders be required to subscribe to the subordinate standards of the Westminster Assembly in their entirety, or just for their essential truths? The fact that so many officers were still in the process of emigrating to the colonies made this a relevant question for the infant church to resolve.

Conscious of the potential for schism, on September 17, 1729, Jonathan Dickinson became the main proponent against the total subscriptionist party in the church. His argument was simple. He believed the Bible was the sufficient rule for faith and life.  Subscription must be adhered to it and to it alone, not to some man-made summary of it, as good as it might be.

The total subscriptionist side also believed the Bible was all-sufficient for doctrine and life, but were equally convinced that the Westminster standards of confession and catechisms offer an adequate summary of the Old and New Testaments. To receive it and adopt it in its entirely would stop any heresies which may invade the church from either within or without the church.

At the synod in 1729, Dickinson and his followers won the day with what has become known at the Adopting Act of 1729. [Link fixed, 9/17/15 @ 10:23 a.m.] The document stated that on the one hand, there was a clear requirement to receive and adopt the Westminster Standards.  However, if an elder, whether teaching or ruling elder, had an exception to those standards, he was to make known to the church or presbytery his exception. The latter body would then judge whether the exception dealt with essential and necessary articles of doctrine, worship, or government. If it did not, then he could be ordained without official censure or social ostracism.

The entire body of elders gathered at the Philadelphia Synod gave thanks to God in solemn praise and prayer that the resolution of this potential schism had been averted and unity was maintained in the infant Presbyterian church.

Words to live by:  It is always good that disunity should be avoided and unity be maintained. But at what cost, is the question? The compromise here looked good on the surface. But presbyteries and synods and assemblies are made up of fallible men who can, sadly, declare that the basic truths of the Christian religion are not necessary to be held, as is the case now with several liberal Presbyterian bodies.  Obviously, much prayer must be made for those who instruct and rule over us, that God’s Spirit will keep the visible church pure in both faith and life. The true key to doctrinal unity springs from a daily awareness of our own sinfulness, from hearts broken before the Lord in godly humility, Seeking the forgiveness found in Jesus Christ alone.

See also, The Meaning of Subscription, by Rev. Benjamin McKee Gemmill.

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In the final years of the 19th-century, a push began in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. to revise the Westminster Standards. That effort eventually won out in 1903, incorporating changes which in turn allowed for a merger or reception of the larger portion of the Cumberland Presbyterians, a denomination which was historically anti-Calvinistic.

Benjamin B. Warfield opposed any talk of revision and in one of his lesser known works, presented his reasons at some length. From an address delivered by Dr. Warfield before the Presbytery of New Brunswick, at Dutch Neck, New Jersey, on June 25, 1889, the following five points summarize his arguments against revision:

REASONS FOR NOT REVISING THE CONFESSION.

  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.
  2. 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.
  1. 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.
  2. We have little hope of substantially 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 form 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.
  3. 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:
Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you.”—2 Timothy 1:13-14, NASB.

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 A Union based on Compromise of Doctrine

The early twentieth century in the northern Presbyterian church was increasingly one of a battle over the Bible. Charles Briggs, of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, had just been indicted for heresy and found guilty by both his presbytery and the General Assembly. In the midst of this trial and subsequent indictment, there was a proposal to revise the Westminster Standards by 15 presbyteries of the denomination. The result was the addition of two chapters to the Confession on the Holy Spirit and the Love of God and Missions, composed of chapters 34 and 35. Further, some language was changed in chapter 16 relating to the works of unregenerate men. Instead of these works being considered sinful and unable to please God, they were described as “praiseworthy.” Last, a declarative statement was added to better understand Chapter 3 of the Confession as it related to God’s eternal decree.

» Dr. Charles Augustus Briggs, pictured at about age 43. »

Let there be no doubt with respect to these changes. That result was that the Standards of the Westminster Assembly were watered down as to their solid Calvinism originally taught in them. Particular redemption was replaced by general redemption. Total depravity was replaced by a partial depravity. Arminianism was introduced into the subordinate standards of the church. J. Gresham Machen called the changes to be “highly objectionable,” “a calamity,” and “a very serious lowering of the flag.”

Whether such a momentous change was due to potential union talk or not, it is interesting that soon after this change, joint discussions arose with the possibility of union with the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Northern assembly of the Presbyterian church. Remember, around 1810, a division occurred over Calvinism and the Westminster Standards in the Presbyterian Church, which division brought about the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Now this Arminianism denomination was being invited to reunite with the Northern Presbyterian Church, without any change on their part with regards to their Arminian beliefs. The plans for that union were adopted on February 19, 1904. After some further refinements to the plans, the last General Assembly of the old Cumberland Presbyterian Church met in May of 1906 [pictured below].

Over 1100 Cumberland Presbyterian teaching elders joined the ranks of the Presbyterian Church, bringing their number up to 9,031 men. Over 90,000 members came into the fold of the Presbyterian church. The union wasn’t complete however, in that, some 50,000 stayed out of the union, and continued on as the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. But what was found in the union meant in reality that the Presbyterian church was no longer uncompromisedly Reformed in doctrine and life. That was to have a profound effect on the next 30 years of existence and testimony.

Words to Live By: Beware of a tendency to lower your Biblical testimony, and that of your church or denomination, to suit the ever-changing sentiments of the world around you.  Your standard is always the Word of God, never the word of man.

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We return today to Leonard Van Horn’s series on the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Today we come to Catechism Question 3.

Instruction in the Westminster Standards.

The Historic Standards of Presbyterian Denominations.

STUDIES IN THE WESTMINSTER SHORTER CATECHISM

Q. 3 What do the Scriptures principally teach?

A. The Scriptures principally teach, what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.

Scripture References: Micah 6:8. John 20:31. John 3:16. 2 Tim. 1:3. Questions:

  1. Why does our Catechism place such importance on the Scriptures? There could be no Catechism without the Scripture, for the foundation of the Catechism itself is in the acceptance of the full truthfulness of the Bible as the Word of God. It is within the Word of God we find our way to eternal life. “And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” (2 Tim. 3:15)
  1. What is meant by the word “principally” in this question?

It means that though all things revealed in the Scriptures are equally true, yet everything in it is not equally necessary to salvation.

  1. What are the two important teachings of the Word of God?

The two important teachings are what we believe and what we should do.

  1. What is belief according to the Scriptures?

It includes three parts: (1) To be persuaded of the truth. (2) To credit the truth of a person. (3) To trust, to have confidence in a person. We must have faith (belief) in the words of God and in the God who speaks them. This is a personal trust in the living God through the living Christ.

  1. Why is belief placed before duty?

This is the order of Scripture. The Christian is saved by grace through faith and is created unto good works. The foundation of the faith, “I am the Lord thy God” is presented in the Law before God presents His people with the Commandments. What we believe is important in order that we might do what is well-pleasing in the sight of God. Alexander Whyte says, “An orthodox faith and an obedient life is the whole duty of man.”

  1. Could there be any significance in the fact that both the Larger and Shorter Catechisms have this same question?

Yes. True happiness for man comes only when he recognizes three important teachings of the Bible: First, that he is a lost sinner. Second, that Jesus Christ is his Redeemer from sin. Third, that he is to live a holy life based upon the revealed will of God, the Scriptures.

Our title is rapidly becoming a popular question of this age within the walls of the church. Back some years ago the cry was, “No Creed but Christ!” This slogan was accepted by many and led many away from established systems of belief. As a dangerous trend in the life of the church, this departure prompted some to look for “revelations” outside of the revealed Word of God. Even this trend though can not be compared to the danger that is spreading throughout the church today, the danger of suggesting what we believe is not really important.

It is important to note that Question No. 3 of the Shorter Catechism places the matter of our belief in a prominent place. Our Lord did the same thing. In Matthew 22:37, 38 he says, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy MIND.” The Bible leaves no doubt in the mind of anyone that what we believe is important.

Today in many Presbyterian churches there is a prejudice against creeds, against doctrine. This is shown in our failure to teach our Standards. It is also seen in the failure always to insist that candidates for the ministry be thoroughly conversant with the Standards. Again it is seen in the growing emphasis within the church today of obedience to the church as an institution without regard to the teaching of the Bible or of the accepted Creed.

Does it matter what we believe? It certainly does, if we are going to be a confessing body. It certainly does, if we want to continue to hear a gospel message in our church. The very heart of the gospel message is that we may receive the gift of salvation by believing (trusting) in Christ as our Saviour. Without this act of faith or belief we are lost, with it we are saved. Thus what we believe does make a difference, namely, where we shall spend eternity — heaven or hell.

It is equally true that it matters what we believe because the duty which God requires of us is based on what we believe. The widely accepted definition of belief is that “it is the assent of the mind to what is told us on competent and credible authority.” Our Bible is our competent and credible and infallible authority. Our Standards contain the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures. Therefore any indifference to doctrine, any attempt to bypass or alter it to suit modern man, any movement to permit, as acceptable practice, less than a complete committal to our doctrinal standards should be recognized as contrary to historic Presbyterianism.

Originally published by THE SHIELD and SWORD, INC.
Dedicated to instruction in the Westminster Standards for use as a bulletin insert or other methods of distribution in Presbyterian churches.

Vol. 1, No. 3    March, 1961

By Rev. Leonard T. Van Horn

Bonus – An Outline of the Westminster Shorter Catechism:

The Catechism uses 107 Q. & A. to give an overview of the central teachings of Scripture.

Q. 1-12 : concern God as Creator.
Q. 13-20 : Original sin & man’s fallen nature.
Q. 21-38 : Christ our Redeemer & the benefits of redemption.
Q. 39-84 : The Ten Commandments.
Q. 85-97 : The Sacraments of Baptism & Holy Communion.
Q. 98-107 The Lord’s prayer.

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Our plan this year is to visit each Lord’s Day the studies on the Westminster Shorter Catechism prepared by the Rev. Leonard T. Van Horn. Rev. Van Horn was one of the founding fathers of the PCA, pastored churches in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, New Mexico, Mississippi., and Tennessee. He served for a time as Vice President at Covenant Theological Seminary and served as a professor at Reformed Theological Seminary. Rev. Van Horn wrote these studies while serving as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Port Gibson, MS.    

STUDIES IN THE WESTMINSTER SHORTER CATECHISM
by Rev. Leonard T. Van Horn

Vol. 1 No. 2, February, 1961

Question 2. —  What rule has God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy Him?

Answer — The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glori­fy and enjoy Him.

Scripture References: 2 Tim. 3:18. Isa. 8:20. I John 1:3. Luke 16:29,31.

Study Questions :

1. What is the meaning of the word “rule” in this question?

When this word is used in a religious sense it means a direction or a command. It naturally implies the idea of straightness by which a man may attain the best possible end.

2. Why is it necessary to have such a rule?

It is necessary as man needs an objective standard by which he may pattern his life. The Word of God, as his rule, must be the supreme authority in the life of the man. It should be noted that if man has placed something else above the Word of God, whether it is con­science or tradition or the church, he will tend to use that authority to interpret the Word of God in many facets of his life.

3. What do we mean when we say the Scriptures are the Word of God? We mean that they aie the Word of God in written form. We place no limitations on that statement. We mean that the Bible is the Word of God and the words in the Bible are the very words of God. We mean that the Bible is trustworthy because God inspired it and inspiration includes the very words of Scripture.

4. Some say that the Bible “contains” the Word of God. Is this true?

If they mean by it that the word of God forms the contents of the Bible it is true. But if they mean that the word of God forms only a part of the contents of the Bible and the rest makes up the words of men, they are not speaking the truth. Or if they mean by it that the Bible only becomes the Word of God when the Holy Spirit makes some portions of it applicable to the hearer, they are not speaking the truth. This would make man the judge of the Word of God. When’our Shorter Catechism speaks of “the word of God” it means what the Westminster Standards have historically meant, that is, the Bible, is the Word of God as to both its contents and its form, so that there is nothing in it that God did not want to be in it, and reversely, it contains all that the Lord wanted to be contained therein.

5. Since this Word of God is to be our only rule, how can we know that it is the Word of God?

We know it by our simple acceptance of God’s statement that it is the word of God and that it is perfect. The Holy Spirit shows us Christ as our Saviour and brings the conviction to our hearts that it is the Word of God and we accept it by faith. Our Confession teaches us that our full assurance of the fact that the Bible is in­fallible and has the authority of God is the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.

It is strange that so often the Christian who realizes the theological fact of the authority of the Scripture is the very person that does not live under that authority as he should. There is a great need today for Christians who do not only believe in the authority of the Scriptures but who live as the Scriptures command them to live.

It has been said by many that one of the hardest places for a Bible- believing Christian to live in a way that is consistent with the Word of God is in a conservative Seminary. This sounds surprising and yet so many times it is true. A Professor in a theological seminary once said he thought the reason for this was that there was indeed a concentrated study of theology but not enough concentrated devotional study of the Jesus Christ of the Scriptures. Possibly what is true of many of our semi­naries is equally true of many of our churches. Lip service to our creeds is present but heart service to our Saviour is sometimes missing.

Our church today is in the midst of many problems. There are the inroads of a subjective theology where man becomes the judge of Scripture; the cry that is being raised against the conservative position; the emphasis on organizational unity. All of these should motivate us to examine once again our position regarding the authority of Scripture. And in the midst of our examination we should realize that Scripture holds for us a high standard of personal holiness. It is good to be able to say that we believe in our Westminster Standards. It is good to be able to say that we have a great heritage from our forefathers of the Reforma­tion. The danger with us today is the danger of insisting we believe, in­sisting we have a great heritage without insisting in our daily living that we practice what we say we believe.

The authority of the Scripture is just as effectual, just as binding, in our practice as it is in our principles. There is great danger that the whole tone of the Christian mind in regard to practical Christianity is being lowered. The danger of lowering it in daily, personal living. The danger of lowering it in the concessions we are making to those who deny the faith, who deny it in their actions and aims if not in their statement of belief. The danger of lowering it in the talking a lot about God without walking with Him day by day, moment by moment. Sepa­rated Christian living, according to the authority of Scripture, is not present as it should be.

Dr. J. L. Packer says it this way, “To accept the authority of Scrip­ture means in practice being willing, first to believe what it teaches, and then to apply its teaching to ourselves for our correction and guid­ance.” (Fundamentalism and the Word of God, Pg. 69).

We have a rule by which we may glorify and enjoy Him. Possibly we should remember that Scripture is profitable not only for “doctrine” but also for “instruction in righteousness.”

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