The Brilliant Ambiguity of the Westminster Standards

The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context and Theological Insights (Refo500 Book) Confessions and creeds are useful tools and teachers for Christians who want guidance for standing firm in the faith.  Sadly, some people view Reformed creeds and confessions as straightjackets or paper popes that bind and restrict Christians in  many ways.  However, the Reformed confessions and creeds are purposely ambiguous on certain doctrines; this allows for some disagreement while fostering unity at the same time.

For example, John Fesko says that Reformed confessions of faith in the early modern period “were typically written to define a truth and fence off heterodoxy and heresy while allowing a degree of doctrinal latitude within the boundaries of the confessions.”  In other words, just because several people wholeheartedly agree with a certain confession doesn’t mean they must see eye to eye on every single doctrinal point.  The beauty is that they can still be firmly united around the central truths of the Christian faith.  Fesko puts it this way:

“…At many points the [Westminster] Confession is very specific in terms of what it rejects or teaches, but at other points it is brilliantly ambiguous or vague, thus allowing various theologians to assent to the document even though it might not advocate each theologian’s precise view on a particular subject.  Such deliberate ambiguity or vagueness can only be discovered by reading the Confession and catechisms in tandem with the minutes of the assembly and works of the period.”

“For example, one of the more complex issues in theology, whether in the present day or in the seventeenth century, is the relationship of the Mosaic covenant to the other covenants in Scripture; or alternatively stated, what is the Christian’s relationship to the Mosaic law?  Today many might not realize that at least five different views were held by various commissioners to the assembly. The Confession states the basics of what was the most common view, but when it came to its rejection of other views, it singled out only one position, namely, that of Tobias Crisp (1600-1643).  Crisp advocated that there were two covenants of grace, something the Confession explicitly rejects (7.6).  It is silent with regard to the other views held.”

I appreciate the term “brilliantly ambiguous,” and am thinking this discussion also holds true of the Three Forms of Unity.  But more on that some other day.

The above quotes were taken from pages 27-28 of Fesko’s The Theology of the Westminster Standards.

shane lems

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10 comments on “The Brilliant Ambiguity of the Westminster Standards

  1. Brenda R says:

    I’m not sure why these confessions and creeds are necessary. Don’t we have Bibles?

    • Yes, well, the heretics have the Bible too. Creeds/confessions are like teachers that summarize Bible doctrine to help unify the church, train Christians in biblical truths/practice, and safeguard against heresy and false teaching. For one example, a Jehovah’s Witness and a Mormon will “believe the Bible” but cannot confess the historic Apostles’ Creed. Obviously there’s more to it, but that’s a start in the discussion.

      Here are a few things to check out on this topic: https://reformedreader.wordpress.com/2013/09/03/why-christians-need-confessions/

      https://reformedreader.wordpress.com/2013/11/11/no-creed-but-the-bible/

      Hope this helps! Blessings!

      • Brenda R says:

        I suppose I am the person in the middle. I can agree with the Apostles Creed with the exception of believing in the Holy Catholic church. No sir. I cannot go there. What I have found with confessions is that people tend to take them as complete gospel and not all is covered in them.

        Unhealthy, destructive and abusive marriage is one thing that is never spoken of. The confessions or even statements of beliefs in churches never address these things. So the no divorce for any reason is adhered to, which is not Biblical. I want to stay as close to Jesus teachings as possible. He did tell the Pharisees that their divorce for any reason whatsoever was not as planned and it not the way to go. I also believe that Jesus would not keep us in bondage to an unsafe person.

    • bubaflub says:

      Eventually we will have to summarize and synthesize what the Bible says on a particular topic. Eventually we will have to answer a question that can’t just be answered by a citation, reference, or proof-text. When that happens, we can either do it with two thousand years of Christian thought or we can pretend to do it without.

      I think of confessions and creeds as a tool alongside of a concordance, study Bible, or Atlas – uninspired, but definitely useful:

      First, everyone has some kind of creed or confession — that is, a set of beliefs. Only some have bothered to write it down and make it available for scrutiny.

      Second, even if I disagree with a creed it gives me a concise window to understand what someone else believes.

      Third, for churches that require some kind of subscription to a confession (mine does not), it limits abuses of authority: where the confession is silent (or intentionally ambiguous!) I cannot be disciplined for disagreeing with someone.

      • Brenda R says:

        bubaflub,
        I know of abused women who would disagree with your third statement. It limits abuses of authority. Many women are told that they must submit to their husbands no matter what by those in authority. They are beaten, sexually assaulted, spiritually, emotionally or whatever kind of abuse is taking place and then reabused by those handing down the judgements. If they do not comply, they are labeled unforgiving and excommunicated. The person doing the abuse continues on as normal.
        I’m not saying this happens in all churches, but there are many where this happened. I wish it wasn’t true, but it is.

        • bubaflub says:

          Brenda,

          Abuse inside the church is beyond sad and grievous. I do not believe that a creed or confession enables abuse; abuse like the type you described comes from “ignorant people who twist Scripture to their own destruction.”

          That being said, I do think you’re pointing out a real limit to the usefulness of a confession or creed – they do not speak to every issue. Creeds and confessions are documents of their time and can be silent on what they assume. For example, many Reformation-era creeds are not explicit on gender roles, the continuation or cessation of the charismatic gifts, or points of eschatology. That does not make these creeds and confessions useless. Although my Bible dictionary, concordance, Atlas, or commentary may not have every entry I am looking for, it is not thereby useless.

          As a side note, I think the “one, holy, catholic, apostolic Church” in the Nicene creed refers not to the present day Roman Catholic church but rather to the “universal” church (note the lower-case “c” on catholic). I’ve understood that to mean that even though you and I go to different local assemblies, we belong to the true, universal, spiritual church along with all true believers throughout time.

          Bob

        • Brenda R says:

          Bob,
          I spent the better part of my life being warned about the “universal church”. That was tabu. I am gradually learning and praying for discernment between the way I was taught and the way Jesus meant things to be.

          Thank you for your response.

          Brenda

  2. Thanks for the cordial comments, Bob and Brenda.

    One other thing I wanted to note from the pastoral side of the topic of confessions and the sin of abuse/neglect is the fact that the Reformed confessions talk about 1) obeying Christ and loving one another (they speak against abuse!), and 2) discipline for unrepentant sin.

    For example, chapter 30 of the Westminster Confession of Faith says that discipline is necessary in a Christian church (Mt. 16:10, Mt. 18:17-18, 1 Cor 5:1-13, etc). In this case, the confessions should help the elders of the church apply the biblical steps of discipline for unrepentant sin – which, if there is no repentance, leads to excommunication. If properly followed, these steps of discipline would protect the victim from the abuser.

    Hope this helps!
    shane

    • Brenda R says:

      Hi Ps. Shane,
      I know that you do not condone abuse. I believe I read your post on ACFJ. There should be good steps for abusers, but unfortunately in many cases there aren’t.

      I confess that I haven’t read the entire Westminster Confession of Faith. Up until I started visiting ACFJ, I didn’t know it existed or the London Confession either. Those were not things that were discussed whatsoever. We had a basic articles of faith for the church but I think it may have been one page long, but that was all.

      I have a big Amen party every time another pastor says he stands behind those that have been through abuse.

      Brenda

  3. thepersistentwidow says:

    I will have to disagree with this article as it appears that the author handpicked an example to suit his needs. There are others to cite that do not follow his premise.

    Concerning worship, Chapter XXI:

    I. The light of nature shows that there is a God, who has lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and does good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.

    Yet, most of the Reformed churches now have Advent wreaths that violate the clear teaching of WCF.

    The Confession is not ambiguous. How the leaders chose to interpret it is. Which leaves hope that divorce for abuse may eventually be accepted just as the Advent wreath. However, the clear and present danger remains that an abuse victim will run into a brick wall and be further abused by the church due to literal interpretation of the WCF.

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