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 as being compatible 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…
The Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRC) and my Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) are fraternal, ecumenical partners and are both denominational members of the World Communion of Reformed Churches as well as the World Reformed Fellowship. The CRC in 2016 appointed a study committee to address questions of human sexuality, with that committee publishing its report this past weekend. The report can be found here and its executive summary here. The committee is soliciting feedback from CRC congregations and classes, and its 2021 synod may yet edit their report in light of that response. The EPC similarly dealt with these subjects through a revised position paper (2016) and extensive pastoral letter (2018). There is much to commend in the CRC’s report, and several areas that the EPC could stand to emulate or consider imitating in modifying our own position and pastoral papers on this subject. My areas of concern focus in particular on the report’s therapeutic approach, minimizing the necessity of repentance, sidestepping important confessional questions on transgenderism and preferred pronouns, and the intrinsic evil of pornography.
Areas of Appreciation
I want to begin my comments with the report’s strong conclusion, which addresses the CRC’s confessional position regarding human sexuality: It observes that Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 108’s teaching that the 7th commandment (“You shall not commit adultery”) condemns all “unchastity”, which includes premarital sex, extramarital sex, adultery, polyamory, pornography, and homosexual sex (pg. 146, 148). Citing Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 81-82 and Belgic Confession 29, the report affirms that the CRC’s confessions already teach that the church may never ignore or affirm these expressions of unchaste sexual immorality, and instead must warn that those who practice such sins and refuse to repent will not inherit the kingdom of heaven (pg. 146). The report concludes that the CRC’s confessional teaching is biblically warranted “because these sins threaten a person’s salvation. The Scriptures call the church to warn people to flee sexual immorality for the sake of their souls and to encourage them with God’s presence and power to equip them for holy living. A church that fails to call people to repentance and offer them the hope of God’s loving deliverance is acting like a false church (pg. 148).”
This is sober and hard language, but loving…
A friend asked me the other day what I thought were the key 4-5 distinctives of Reformed theology. I gave my answer, but have found myself pondering that question. I think I would rephrase it to “the distinctives of Reformed faith and practice.” Reformed theology is not just about reforming doctrine, but practice. It’s an embodied, lived tradition of the church. So what separates Reformed faith and practice from other Christian traditions, particularly the (Ana)Baptist, Lutheran (though there is a lot of overlap here), Pentecostal, Roman Catholic, and Wesleyan traditions? I think the best resources for a quick overview are John Calvin’s The Necessity of Reforming the Church (1544), William Perkin’s A Reformed Catholic (1597), and R. Scott Clark’s Recovering the Reformed Confessions (2008). So Reformed churches are,
Catholic and Creedal. The Reformed are Reformed Catholics (in distinction to Roman or Eastern Orthodox Catholics) and fully embrace the Catholic tradition expressed in the Apostles’, Nicene, Chalcedonian, and Athanasian creeds. To be Catholic is to affirm and submit to Nicene Christianity as biblical Christianity. Nicene Christianity in particular defines the biblical and Catholic doctrines of the Trinity and Christ’s divinity and humanity. The Reformed also affirm and look to the church fathers for guidance.
Sola Scriptura. All Christians affirm the authority of scripture, and the Reformed are no different. Where differences lie is in the uniqueness…
“Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.”
-Westminster Confession of Faith 31.4
It continues to astound me how often P&R churches completely disregard this and believe that it is right and proper for the church to comment on every political issue. I’m looking at you, PC(U.S.A.) and WRC.
A pastor friend of mine and I were discussing the meaning of this phrase in the Apostles’ Creed, stimulated by Ligon Duncan’s recent article on the subject. Duncan helpfully lists out a number of options for its meaning:
- That it refers to the spiritual agony Christ felt on the cross. This is the meaning put forth by the Heidelberg Catechism (Q&A 44) and held by John Calvin (Institutes 2.16.8-10). Duncan rejects this as the historic intent of the phrase since it comes after burial of Christ in the creed.
- That it refers to Christ descending into hell and freeing Old Testament saints from captivity and bringing them with him to heaven. The idea here is that Sheol/Hades/Abraham’s Bosom all refer in various ways to the abode of the dead in general, with the dead being sorted into hell and heaven only after the redemptive-historical work of Christ. Calvin strongly rejected this view, but modern Reformed thinkers like J. I. Packer and Sinclair Ferguson teach a modified version of it.
- That Christ was providing a second chance to the damned to repent, which Duncan, correctly, rejects.
- Duncan emphatically ruled out the possibility that Jesus was paying for sins by suffering in hell, a view common to the Word of Faith movement.
- That it refers to the fact that Jesus really, truly died and continued in the state of death. Duncan accurately states that this is both the intent of the creed, and also that it is the view that best fits with scripture. This is the view taught in the Westminster Larger Catechism (Q&A 50).
Interestingly, Duncan doesn’t mention the historic Lutheran view that Christ descended into hell in victory, smashing the power of the devil (e.g. Formula of Concord, IX), though this view does overlap a bit with the idea that Christ in his death freed the Old Testament saints…