Wednesday, November 02, 2022

Our Pattern of Sound Words: the Westminster Confession’s View of Itself in the Light of Scripture

The following is our pastor's latest contribution to Seventeen82.

As we’ve seen from Scripture, the Lord’s people must remember Him and His Word to themselves and their children for perpetual generations. And the Spirit’s method for this features the use of patterns of sound words (e.g. confessions and catechisms). As ARPs, we obviously think that the Westminster Confession and Catechisms are such patterns. What makes them so?

The first answer is that our confession acknowledges that Scripture alone is the rule of faith and practice. The reason that the truth in chapters 2–33 is sound and profitable is found in chapter 1, “Of the Holy Scripture.” This little article will be most helpful to you if read side-by-side with that chapter.

Holy Scripture is God’s Self-revelation. WCF 1.1 teaches that God has committed His revelation

“wholly unto writing” and that “those former ways of God’s revealing His will unto His people” has ceased. This is why I prefer a word like “completionism” to the word “cessationism.” Jesus promised that all those things that remained for Him to say to the twelve, the Holy Spirit would teach them—the things that would come when they could bear them (cf. Jn 16:12–15). Jesus completed His promise, and the Spirit completed this work. God committed His revelation “wholly unto writing.” Praise be to God for the completed Bible!

But as amazing as its completeness is, the content of the Bible is perhaps even more amazing. WCF 1.1 also says that “it pleased the Lord” […] “to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His church.” As the catechism rightly begins, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” What we most need to know is God Himself. This is what God is giving us through Scripture: Himself.

The Confession therefore begins with humility. It receives the sixty-six God-breathed (“given by inspiration of God,” WCF 1.2) books as “the” (i.e. “only”!) “rule of faith and life.” Then in WCF 1.3, it admits that “other human writings” “are of no authority in the church of God.” Only that which God has breathed out can reveal God Himself.

And what a marvelous thing is the Holy Scripture in which it is God Himself that He has revealed!

Holy Scripture is affirmed by God. Although it lists which books are the rule (the “canon”), our Confession rejects the idea that any man or church (or even our Confession) has given those books the status of Holy Scripture. This authority depends “wholly upon God (Who is Truth itself)” (WCF 1.4). Nothing else makes Scripture to be Scripture but God.

Holy Scripture is attested by God. Why isn’t everyone, then, persuaded and sure that Holy Scripture is infallibly true and divinely authoritative? The difficulty is not in the Scripture, which is adorned with many “incomparable excellencies.” The difficulty is in man, who needs “the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts” (WCF 1.5). “Saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word” requires “the inward illumination of the Spirit of God.”

You and I could not give ourselves to recognize the Bible as God’s Word. It is folly to think that we can give that recognition to others. Indeed, the Confession itself rejects the idea that it can convince you that the Bible is the Word of God. It contradicts the Confession itself to put the Confession on the same level as Scripture (as those who do not know it well sometimes accuse confessional men of doing).

Holy Scripture is the whole of Scripture. In WCF 1.6, the Confession teaches that “nothing at any time is to be added” to Holy Scripture—whether by the Confession itself or in any other way. So the Confession self-limits to the boundaries of the Bible. Only what “is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” is the rule of faith and life. “The light of nature and Christian prudence” may be required in order to follow the rule, but they must not add to it.

Here already is the foundation of a couple of our Confession’s most significant contributions to the church’s understanding of the Bible: its formulations of liberty of conscience (WCF 20) and the regulative principle (WCF 21). Liberty of conscience refuses to allow any man or tradition of men to add any teaching or commandment alongside the Word of God in matters of faith or worship. The regulative principle recognizes that God alone prescribes the acceptable way of worshiping God. These ideas are “good and necessary consequences” of the truth that the Bible is the alone inerrant, authoritative, sufficient Word of God.

Holy Scripture is the interpreter of Holy Scripture. In WCF 1.7–10, the believer finds freedom in God from the tyranny of the expert or of the individual. “Not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding” of the Scriptures (WCF 1.7). “In all controversies of religion, the Church is finally to appeal unto” “the Old Testament in Hebrew […] and the New Testament in Greek” (WCF 1.8). “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself,” and any question about any Scripture’s meaning “must be searched and known by other places” of Scripture (WCF 1.9).

This means, on the one hand, that the Confession is a faithful summary, but must not become a functional substitute for Scripture. The reason any text of Scripture means what it means cannot be, “because the Confession says so.” But on the other hand, the reason also cannot be, “because I think that it is so.” Or “because I feel that it is so.” Or “because I want it to be so.”

This is why a faithful ARP minister will labor to show you from the text itself what it means, not only from the local context, but from that vitally important context: the rest of the Bible. Why? Because it is “the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture” (WCF 1.10), and therefore it is Scripture that properly determines the meaning of Scripture. This is the only right way of examining “all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits.”

The soundness of a pattern of theological words is its Scripturally demonstrable understanding of the Scriptures. Perhaps you have heard the accusation that our confessional men put our Confession on the level of the Bible. While it is possible for a man to do so either lazily or tyrannically, in my experience these accusations come from those who know little of our Confession. A crash course in WCF 101 (chapter 1) instructs us that the Confession itself makes no such claim. Rather, it is a summary of biblical truth, arrived at by the comparing of each Scripture with all of the rest of Scripture.

What this means for all of us ARPs is that the more we know our Confession, the more easily we will understand any text of Scripture. And the more of the Holy Scripture that we come to know, the more obvious it will be to us that our Confession faithfully summarizes it. This has been my own experience. And I pray God’s blessing upon you, gentle reader, that it will be your experience too. His providence has been ever so merciful to us to grant to us a pattern of such sound words!

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