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

Dear Presbyterian Churches: Don’t Ignore the Larger Catechism!

Product Details For various reasons, the Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) has not been overly influential in American Presbyterian circles the last 100-200 years or so.  I won’t discuss those reasons here now.  However, I do want to take a moment to encourage our readers to read and study the WLC, since, as W. Robert Godfrey wrote, “The Larger Catechism is a mine of fine gold theologically, historically, and spiritually.”

From an essay he wrote in the introduction to J. G. Vos’ helpful commentary on the WLC, Godfrey gave a few ways the WLC is valuable for Christians today.  I’ll summarize the first ones, and give most of the final point below.

First, the value of the catechism should be seen in some of the outstanding summarizes of doctrine to be found there.

Second, some expositors of the catechism (i.e. John Murray) have argued that the Larger Catechism on some doctrinal points is superior to the formulations in the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Third, the Larger Catechism provides an especially full and rich exposition of the Ten Commandments.

Fourth, the value of the Larger Catechism rests in its presentation of the doctrine of the church.  The Larger Catechism develops a full-orbed doctrine of the church – a subject almost entirely absent from the Shorter Catechism.

A final and most important value of the Larger Catechism is that it is a full, balanced, edifying summary of the Christian faith.  The Larger Catechism is a useful and worthy aid to the believer as he grows in the knowledge of God’s truth.  The catechism is not at all difficult to read and understand.  In fact, it is simpler in its statements than the Confession….  The difficulty of using the Larger Catechism is mainly in the length of its sentences, which can be daunting for the contemporary reader.  It is in fact easy to understand if taken one clause at a time.”

“The Westminster Assembly was remarkable in many ways.  The standards it produced are one of the great treasures in Christ’s church.  The Larger Catechism is a crucial part of that treasure, and churches of the Reformed tradition – especially Presbyterian churches – impoverish themselves if they fail to use it.”

W. Robert Godfrey, from the introduction to The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary by J. G. Vos.

rev shane lems
hammond wi

How To Read the Puritan Paperbacks

If you’ve followed this blog at all, you know that we enjoy the little Banner of Truth series of books called “Puritan Paperbacks.”  To be honest, the first time I read one of these Paperbacks (I forget which one), I didn’t really enjoy it or appreciate it.  I thought it was too tedious, detailed, and old-school.  That was ten years ago; now I have about 15 of them and have benefited from them in many ways.  Here are a few things that have helped me read the Puritan Paperbacks with profit.  This list also applies to other Puritan books, for sure, but to keep it shorter, I’m thinking primarily of the Paperbacks.

Puritan Paperback Set

To read the Puritan Paperbacks with profit, 

1) Know your systematic theology.  You don’t need a Ph.D. in systematics to benefit from them, but if you know your basic systematics (i.e. the attributes of God, the doctrine of man, the doctrine of Christ, the ordo salutis, etc.) it will be easier to read the Paperbacks.  For example, if you know the Westminster Standards well, or study Louis Berkhof’s Manual of Christian Doctrine, it will make reading the Paperbacks more enjoyable – you’ll be able to see that when the Puritans do “go deep,” they’re staying in the Reformed categories.  When I realized this, it made it easier and more edifying to read the Puritans on sanctification, because (just for one example) I knew that even when they were quite detailed, they were not blending it with justification. 

2) Stick with it.  The archaic language and grammar is tough at first (you may need a dictionary!), and even annoying, but after a few Paperbacks you get used to it.  Remember that these authors wrote several hundred years ago, so the language and illustrations will be different (I still chuckle when I come across a word like “compunction”).  And as with all books, don’t be surprised when there are a few sections here and there that are less helpful than others.   Be patient and start by reading a chapter/section or two a week.  One good Paperback to start with is Thomas Watson’s Repentance because it is short, clear, and very helpful – it won’t overwhelm you.  Don’t read the longer and harder ones until later.  For example, wait quite awhile until you read The Sinfulness of Sin, A Lifting Up for the Downcast, and others that are detailed and over 200 pages or so. 

3) Take notes.  When I read a Paperback, I have a pencil and highlighter in hand to mark the best sections.  I also make my own index in the back cover so that when I study a certain topic later I can just pull the Paperback off my shelf, turn to the back cover, find the topic and page number that I wrote, and turn there to find it highlighted/underlined.  You may want to do the same for certain Scripture references since the books don’t have scriptural indexes.  Basically, you’ll profit from reading these books by making your own topical or scriptural index so you can use these books often in your future studies and devotions. 

4) Approach reading the Paperbacks differently than you do other books.  The genre of these books is quite different than other stuff we read from day to day, so read them when you’re in the mood for deeper subjects.  If you approach the Paperbacks realizing that they are not newspaper articles, Christian Amish fiction novels, or Twitter, you’ll be in the right frame of mind to read.  I find that I profit best from these books when I space them out a bit.  For example, I read one last week (on my “vacation week”) and I won’t read another for a month or so.   Reading them too often is something like too much of a good thing. 

In summary, I think with some time and effort, most Christians who are “readers” will be able to understand these books, profit from them, and learn to appreciate the Puritans at least to some extent.  Though I don’t elevate the Puritans above other writers/teachers, the Paperbacks have given me a deep respect for the Puritans. 

By the way – one other great thing about these Paperbacks is that they are usually priced well under $10. 

shane lems