I&I and the Westminster Confession of Faith

Some within the Reformed community have concluded (a bit too quickly, in my opinion) that I&I is incompatible with WCF chapter 1. As a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, and an ordained ruling elder in the PCA, I have taken a vow that I subscribe to the Westminster Standards. With respect to this, I would like to make two points that may clarify the source of some of the tension.

(1) I believe that this oath—whether at WTS or the PCA—does not mean that someone living today is bound to every word and expression found in the Westminster Standards, but to the “system” of faith that the Standards articulate. In other words, my oath is a system subscription oath, not a strict subscription oath. I have never confessed in any other way, and this is the manner of confessional commitment that was modeled and taught to me by my professors during my MDiv years at WTS (1985-89), not only by Harvie Conn in Eternal Word, Changing Worlds, but the rest of my professors (Ray Dillard†, Bruce Waltke, Tremper Longman III, Al Groves†, Moises Silva, Manuel Ortiz, Sam Logan, Tim Keller, Will Barker, Clair Davis, Sinclair Ferguson), three of whom are still on the faculty today (Dan McCartney, Dick Gaffin, Vern Poythress). System subscription is, in my view, the dominant WTS perspective on the matter and needs no significant clarification or defense. It is stricter views that are not only out of line with the particular iteration of Reformed thought at WTS, but run the risk of calling into question the authority of Scripture.

I wish to make it clear that I consider WCF 1 to be a wonderful, nuanced, subtle, and penetrating statement of Scripture’s authority, and this leads to my second point.

(2) The focus of WCF 1 is Scripture’s authority. The reason the Westminster Divines began their confession of faith with a lengthy statement on Scripture is to set the standard by which God’s people would believe and live, i.e., Scripture is the norm, not any human institution or ecclesiastical body. Now, this is not to say, of course, that the Divines were eager to cast off the shackles of tradition. They were saying that any tradition that is not rooted in Scripture is wrong, and that Scripture alone is to determine that (WCF 1.10).

WCF 1.6 puts is this way, that Scripture has full authority over the church in all matters pertaining to “His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life.” Scripture, because it is God’s word, i.e., is of divine origin, is authoritative. That’s it. (“The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God [who is truth itself] the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God” 1.4). No human tradition is the final court of appeal, but the Spirit speaking in and through Scripture (31.4).

The upshot of all this is that WCF 1 is not an exhaustive doctrine of Scripture, and is certainly not intended to close off further progress in the exploration of Scripture, a point made quite clear not only by keeping in mind the restricted function of WCF 1 in its historical setting, but by observing the very active subsequent history of Reformed biblical scholarship, some of which was consciously developed in light of perceived shortcomings in WCF 1, and much of which has been modeled by WTS faculty.

WCF 1 is a clear and foundational statement of the Bible’s authority as the Word of God. I affirm this fully, and an exploration of Scripture’s context, as is undertaken in I&I, is in my opinion in no way whatsoever in tension with this affirmation. The exploration of Scripture’s human element is neither encouraged nor discouraged by WCF 1 because it is off topic. In fact, the WCF is not prepared to address numerous issues that have arisen in modern biblical scholarship, surely due to the fact that it is a post-Reformation, pre-modern document.

To expect WCF to give the final word on, say, Genesis and ANE literature or the NT and Second Temple literature (to name just two general issues), even in principle, strains credulity and places a greater burden on this tremendous document than it can bear, and may in fact come very close to making it, rather than Scripture, the final court of appeal.

Moreover, an affirmation of WCF 1 does not determine what types of models one may or my not propose to handle the difficulties raised by a modern study of Scripture. So, for example, an incarnational model, which I advocate in I&I (along with many others in the history of the Reformed faith) is not “out of bounds” just because WCF 1 does not articulate such a model. Again, the reason Scripture’s humanity is, let’s say, “muted,” in WCF 1 is not because it is a topic unimportant for a doctrine of Scripture, but because it is not the proper focus when Scripture’s authority is being established. Therefore, insofar as the purpose of WCF 1 is to announce a commitment to biblical authority in matters pertaining to faith and life, and not a means of deflecting or marginalizing the challenges raised by the continual study of Scripture, I am in full and unwavering agreement.

I should add here, in far less detail than I would like, that just as WCF 1 is not the final court of appeal on matters concerning the exploration of Scripture, neither are past luminaries working in this tradition. An argument that I have seen repeatedly in the blogging world is that an appeal to W. H. Green, B. B. Warfield, J. Gresham Machen, etc., is a de facto court of final appeal, i.e., since Old Princeton did not argue the way Enns or others argue, then Enns’s view is not Reformed in the Old Princeton/WTS tradition. I do not think that addressing contemporary issues with older arguments constitutes fidelity to a tradition. If time allows, I will post on this at some future time, but interested readers can look at my inaugural lecture, posted on my personal website, “Bible in Context: The Continuing Vitality of Reformed Biblical Scholarship.”

 


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