“’The Essentials are set forth in greater detail in the Westminster Confession of Faith.’ These are the final words of the Essentials, present since its drafting in 1981. This states clearly what was reaffirmed throughout the EPC’s history: the Essentials is a summary of belief, with the WCF as the fuller account. For the Essentials to be set out in greater detail in the WCF implies that there is an agreement between the two documents, with the WCF’s meaning taking priority over and defining the meaning of the Essentials. The point of this quotation is to affirm that no matter how extensive the Essentials is, its full meaning is found in the WCF. In other words, the Essentials is not an expansion of the WCF that could be reasonably understood to contradict the WCF. Otherwise the WCF would be set out in greater in the Essentials! The Essentials is a summary, the true meaning of which is in the WCF. The position of the EPC, then, is that the Essentials mean what the WCF says.”
- The Essentials is the essentials of being an evangelical, but its use as an essential distillation of what it means to a Christian, or being orthodox, of the meaning of Westminster Confession of Faith, of what EPC officers need to believe, or the beliefs of the EPC, is common in the church. None of these alternatives are accurate or work.
- Deleting the Essentials takes nothing away from the doctrine of the EPC, while deleting the Westminster Standards would radically alter our character. In that sense, the Essentials contribute nothing to the EPC. However, it is common to hear people say that they are in the EPC because they can hold to the Essentials and not worry about Westminster. This produces confessional schizophrenia.
- Taking the Essentials at face value shows contradictions with the WCF. Yet, the EPC insists that there is contradiction. The only tenable conclusion is that the Essentials mean what Westminster says. This again makes the Essentials confessionally meaningless.
- The process for making the Essentials constitutional failed to reckon with the incompatibility between it and the Westminster Standards. The Essentials’ constitutional role is already ambiguous (not part of the Standards or the Book of Order, nor part of the ordination process), but the lack of due diligence on this point makes the legitimacy of the Essentials’ constitutional addition suspect.
In 2019 I started a series on confessionalism and the EPC. My initial post received a lot of pushback and interest. That combination led to some good friendships developing and a hesitation on publishing the rest. Now I’ve decided to get the remaining, written parts of the series out there.
All posts in that series can be found here. The first article focused upon the EPC’s amendments to the Westminster Standards and can be found here, something I’ve written about additionally and more accessibly here.
This is Part II, on the EPC’s modern language versions of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. In summary, I argue that,
- The EPC never adopted the modern language versions of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. At different points the EPC has approved them for use or publication, but never adopted as the official doctrinal standard of the church.
- The original language version of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms were the original constitutional standard of the EPC, meaning that they are the default standard, not the modern language. If the modern language versions are to be used as the doctrinal standard of the church they would need to be approved following the constitutional amendment process.
- There are significant differences in content between the original and modern language versions of the Standards. The doctrine of God, the imputation of sin, the nature of justification, the accomplishment and application of Christ’s redemptive work, and the nature of the church and its ordinances are all articulated differently in the modern language version. These are significant areas of theology with significant divergences from the constitutional and original version of the Westminster Standards.
- The modern language versions, whether or not they were formally adopted by the EPC, are functionally the confessional standards of our church. They are promoted, published, and used in ways that the original is not. With the differences between the two versions being significant, without proactive reinterpretation by pastors, the modern language version will mislead congregants. Their use should be ended, and if a modern language version is really desired, then a more conservative and less inventive alternative should be endorsed.
I need to add an addendum of two pieces to part one of my call to confessional renewal in the EPC.
First, in regards to Christ’s headship over the church, I said, “Any pastoral candidate taking exception to the statement, ‘And the claim of any man to be the head of the Church is unscriptural and is a usurpation dishonoring to the Lord Jesus Christ,’ should be barred from ministry. Anyone unwilling to say that it is unscriptural and sinful to claim the headship of the church should not be in a position to shepherd the church.”
Some have asked if this means I believe this should an “essential”, i.e. something elevated from within our confessional system that is non-negotiable. The answer is a qualified no. This is the lone instance where I argued that something should be added to the WCF rather than being replaced or deleted. The Westminster Standards are not a haphazard or total compilation of biblical data, but contain the system of doctrine found in the scripture. Therefore, if something is to be added to the Standards, even if it is being returned after previous deletion as in this example, a case needs to be made that it represents a truth that is part of the system of doctrine found in the Bible. A counter example could be helpful: How many judges are there in the Old Testament? 12? 14? 16? There is a definitive biblical answer, even if that answer depends on a variety of factors (e.g. what counts as a judge?) But this doctrine, while biblical, is not part of the Bible’s system of doctrine, nor would disagreement on this proscribe someone’s ordination to the pastoral office…
The aim of this call to renewal is to begin confessional revival and resourcement. The desire is that this series will prompt meaningful conversation in the EPC over the role of the Confession and Catechisms, conversation that will lead to action and revision. Since as elders of the EPC we have given our sincere word that we affirm and receive the WCF, WLC, and WSC as containing the system of doctrine found in the scriptures, we already affirm their importance: What unites us theologically is our sincere affirmation of, and submission to, the Confession’s and Catechisms’ faithfulness in presenting God’s rule of faith and obedience The Confession and Catechisms of our church are serious, and should be the primary theological framework for the lives of our congregations and our ministerial practice.
Part I of this series evaluates the modifications to the Westminster Confession of Faith held by the EPC…