Why Reject the Added Chapters of the Westminster Confession?

My recent presbytery transferal exam included quite a bit of discussion on my opposition to the 1903 additions to the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) still held by the EPC, namely the chapters “The Holy Spirit” and “The Gospel of the Love of God and Missions.” Though I’ve written about the revisions to the Westminster Confession of Faith at length here, I thought it would be helpful to present a concise summary of how to understand these chapters and why I think they ought to be rejected, not merely on the basis of being superfluous, but for failing to meet biblical muster. I draw heavily on the 1936 analysis and critique from Ned Stonehouse and John Murray, as well as the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church’s 2014 report on the additional chapters, which I recommend people read if they want a fuller picture of the doctrines taught and neglected in the additional chapters.

In short historical review, in 1890 the PCUSA began the process of revising the WCF. This effort culminated in 1903 with several alterations, including the addition of the two chapters in question. The express purpose of these revisions was to soften the Reformed and Calvinistic theology of the WCF. Confessionalists, such as B. B. Warfield, Abraham Kuyper, and Geerhardus Vos opposed the changes. After the changes, Arminians stated that the WCF could now be read in a way that was compatible with their doctrine, and by 1906 the majority of the Cumberland Presbyterian church (Arminian in doctrine) had rejoined the PCUSA because of the doctrinal revisions. When the OPC formed in 1936, they rejected these additions, since they were incompatible with the WCF’s doctrine, which was the course followed by the PCA at its founding in 1973. The ARP had added the revisions in 1959, but removed them in 2014 on similar grounds. During the EPC’s formative years in the early 1980s the new chapters were kept, but no discussion of their compatibility with the rest of the WCF ever occurred.

There are several ways of reading the new chapters in relation to the rest of the WCF and Catechisms.

First, that the new chapters changed nothing or little, and are superfluous. The Princeton faculty and Warfield, who had “violently” opposed adopting the additions, initially took the optimistically hopeful view that the Calvinism of the WCF remained intact, though softened, once the additions were actually in place. The problem with this view is that the entire point of the additions was to alter the WCF’s doctrine in order to make it acceptable to Arminians. The additions are change, and therefore cannot be honestly treated as if they were not. Even if one were to take the view, as Murray and the ARP report do, that chapter 34 on the Holy Spirit is superfluous, it is “superfluous to the extent of being distinctly misleading.” The alleged superfluous nature of the chapters is not a neutral extra. Even if the chapters were merely unnecessary bonuses, that alone should merit their rejection: confessional Presbyterian ministers, including ordained officers in the EPC, vow that we subscribe the WCF and Catechisms as “containing the system of doctrine found in the scriptures.” If these chapters are superfluous, they are superfluous to the biblical system of doctrine, and therefore cannot be honestly subscribed to as part of that system. They would be extras to that system, not part of it, which is contradictory with the terms of our ordination vows.

Second, that the new chapters amended the WCF, and therefore amended the system of doctrine to which we subscribe. This reading claims that the additions altered the entire system, much like how adding an amendment to the U.S. Constitution changes the way we understand the entire document. This seems to have been the hope of the PCUSA when the chapters were added, and the view Warfield dejectedly held after the Cumberland Presbyterian Church rejoined them. If this were the case, then anyone who holds to the “Old Calvinism”, as Philip Schaff called the pre-revision WCF, would be obligated to take exception to these chapters. The weakness of this view is that the content of the unrevised WCF remains intact and present; the additions are additional chapters that do not modify the original chapters anymore than the original chapters modify the new. In 1903 the PCUSA also expressly amended chapter 7 and published an official interpretation of chapters 3 and 10, both of which the EPC rejected for inclusion in our version of the WCF. This indicates that the new chapters, unlike these other revisions, do not modify the system of doctrine previously taught in the WCF, but sit alongside the original teaching, not as amendments, but as additions.

Third, that the new chapters are incompatible with the rest of the WCF and Catechisms, much like how transplanted organs do not automatically modify or become part of their new host, but can be rejected by the host’s immune system. This is my view, as well as the view officially endorsed by the OPC and ARP in their assessment of the chapters. Since the original portions of the WCF remain, comparisons between the teaching of the original and newer chapters are warranted, which demonstrate their incompatibilities, and thereby exposes the inappropriate nature of the additions. They are intrusions into the biblical system of doctrine. On chapter 34, for instance, the ARP concluded that is incompatible “with our denominational identity as an evangelical, Reformed, Gospel-focused, Gospel-driven Church” whose faith is expressed in the WCF.

So what is the objectionable content of these chapters? It should be recalled that these chapters in their entirety were designed to serve up revisions to the WCF’s teaching, so even specific statements in the chapters which are unobjectionable on their own merits (such as chapter 34 restating the doctrine of the Holy Spirit’s divinity and personhood) are part of a structure intended to undermine the doctrine found in the original WCF. The inclusion of these rephrased repetitions is to indicate that the rest of the WCF is inadequate in its teaching (the entire motivation for the additions) and to provide a framework for delivering the sharper divergence from the WCF’s doctrine. This is what Murray means when he calls chapter 34 misleading, and why the ARP describes the additional chapters as containing “subtle contradictions”. It is for these reasons why I follow the OPC and ARP in rejecting the entirety of the chapters rather than just a few discrete statements: the whole revision project is designed to soften and undermine the WCF’s assertion of the biblical system of doctrine.

Chapter 34.2 states that the Holy Spirit “prepares the way for [the gospel], accompanies it with his persuasive power, and urges its message upon the reason and conscience of men, so that they who reject its merciful offer are not only without excuse, but are also guilty of resisting the Holy Spirit.” This leaves the ultimate efficacy of the gospel of Christ dependent upon the response of sinners; the Holy Spirit only prepares people for salvation, whose accompanying persuasive power can be sinfully denied and thwarted. Contrast this with WCF 10.2, which states that the call of the gospel “Is of God’s free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it.” Likewise, WCF 3.6 on divine election and application of salvation affirms undeniably divine success in salvation; the Holy Spirit effectively calls sinners to Christ. The new chapter teaches that the Holy Spirit prepares people to respond, the original that the Holy Spirit renews sinners who then call upon God because they have been renewed. In the new chapter, the Holy Spirit equips people for the possibility of response, in the original, they are renewed so that they inevitably respond to God’s effective call. Especially in light of the historical context of chapter 34, its Arminian intent is clear.

Similarly, 34.3 teaches, “The Holy Spirit, Whom the Father is ever willing to give to all who ask Him…” The ARP report on this clause is worth quoting:

The weight of the statement rests on the contingency of the Father ‘ever willing’ to grant the Spirit ‘to all who ask him.’ The conditionality of human agency in the application of redemption presented in 34.3, is clearly antithetical to the overall teaching within the WCF. The WCF’s stronger, biblical statements in chapters 6.2, 4 and 9.1-3 statements on the total depravity of humanity, the doctrine of predestination in 2.2; 3.6-7, and the Trinitarian ministry of God the Father who sends His Spirit to apply salvation in 3.3; 10.1-2, rule out any human agency in the application of redemption. Thus, the teaching of Chapter 34.3 in asserting some human agency in salvation, subtly limits the sovereignty of the Spirit, which in turn, chisels away at WCF 3’s emphasis on the sovereign decree of God.

Chapter 34 ignores that the work of the Holy Spirit is described as effective and invincible for salvation throughout the scope of biblical teaching (e.g. Ezekiel 36:22-32, John 3:3-8, 6:37,63, Romans 8:5-11, 1 Corinthians 2:11-14, Ephesians 2:4-5, 2 Timothy 1:9, Titus 3:5-7) and declines to teach that the Holy Spirit effectively calls in faith those whom God has elected precisely because it intends in its teaching to welcome those who reject that view.

Chapter 35 asserts that God in “his infinite and perfect love, having provided in the covenant of grace” through the work of Jesus for salvation “adapted to the whole lost race of man”, and “freely offers this salvation to all men in the gospel”. It continues, “In the gospel God declares his love for the world” and “by his Spirit accompanying the word pleads with men to accept his gracious invitation.” Someone could attempt to read these statements as simply expressing God’s love for humanity in general, but chapter 35 fails to mention God’s love for the elect, and confuses the infinite love given to his people in Christ and his common benevolence to humanity: the love of God in the covenant of grace is a love for those united to Christ in that covenant, not the whole lost race of humanity. Biblically speaking, God manifests his infinite and unfailing love in the person and work of Christ, who does not fail in God’s love to accomplish what God designed: “God demonstrated his love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).” Again from the ARP report,

A closer reading of Chapter 35 shows it to betray the theological system of the original WCF’s statement that the eternal love of God centers on Jesus Christ, who accomplishes the Gospel through the covenant of grace by being the only Mediator between God and the elect as emphasized in WCF 3; 7; 8.1; 10. The logic of the WCF carefully places the emphasis of the love of God in manifesting the Gospel through Christ within the eternal decree of God (WCF 3), but by means of the covenant of grace (WCF 7). While 35.1 appears to affirm a free offer of the gospel out of the ‘perfect love’ of God, 35.1-3 undermines the assertion of 7.3 ‘that the Lord was pleased…promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe.’ 35.1-3 moves away from the assertion of 8.5 that declares the certainty (particularity) of God’s redemption of sinners through the [person and work of Jesus, effectively accomplished and applied].

The gospel is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16); it does not plead without hope of success, because God effectively, powerfully, infallibly accomplishes salvation through the gospel. Chapter 35, like chapter 34, makes the success of the gospel contingent upon the sinner’s response to God pleading in the gospel, rather than the free grace of God in Christ. Contrast chapter 35 with WCF 8.8 on the love of God and the gospel, “To all those for whom Christ hath purchased redemption, he doth certainly and effectually apply and communicate the same; making intercession for them, and revealing unto them, in and by the Word, the mysteries of salvation; effectually persuading them by his Spirit to believe and obey.” Christ certainly applies redemption achieved to his people, whom he effectually persuades by the Spirit.

God’s gospel love is mediated through the redemptive work of Christ, which comes to us through our sharing in Christ by his covenant. This covenantal love is not God’s favor towards humanity generally speaking, but to those whom he has called and purchased, which is exactly the point of Paul’s asymmetrical comparison between fallen humanity in Adam and redeemed humanity in Christ (Romans 5:12-21). Chapter 35 subordinates God’s covenantally elective, particular, infallible redemptive love to his general benevolence for humanity, and thereby erases the actual gospel nature of God’s love.

Chapter 35’s discussion of missions is premised upon an understanding of God’s love that accommodates and is dependent upon human agency in salvation. Believing this weakens the church in its gospel proclamation, because rather than trusting God to work sovereignly and effectively through the “foolishness of preaching” and grace of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 1:18-31), missions hinges upon a pleading of God that is not decisive before the contingency of human decision. This breaks with the teaching of the WCF and Catechisms that the preached word is a means of applying the benefits of Christ and his mediation (WCF 7.6, WLC 35, 155) and instead reduces preaching to a mere invitation to respond to Christ. Preaching becomes about moral suasion, not redemptive declaration.