Hinterlands September 23, 2014

Paul Helm has a remarkable article on the uses and limits of Confessions. He points to the work of Chad Van Dixhoorn, whose investigations into the Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly have uncovered the pressures, personalities, and clashes behind the Westminster Confession. As Helm says, “In the nature of things confessions and creeds are forms of compromise draftings that attract a majority on a particular day.”

This realism about the process of Confession-formation also highlights the distinction between the doctrinal agreements found in confessions and the “vast hinterland of theological opinion,” the “private conjectures” and speculations that formed a “a penumbra of opinion, which may have any of several relations to the core.” The Confession may allow an opinion held in the hinterland; perhaps, though, the Confession says nothing that pertains to the are of speculation. What the Confession covers is not all and every doctrine but the “core.”

Helm illustrates with a teeter-tottering discussion of the grace (or lack of grace) that Adam enjoyed (or not) before the fall. He asks Did Adam live a life of faith? And he answers, “Yes and no.” Was it “temporary faith”? Yes and no again. Did Adam have the Spirit? Helm says, What work of the Spirit are we talking about?

Deciding whether any of these positions runs afoul of a Confessional statement requires an act of judgment about what is a “central plant of the doctrine of the gospel” and what is a “personal quirk.” 

Helm is understandably worried that “one motivation that some have for engaging in Reformed theology in the way that they do is in order to extend the boundaries of the official Reformed theology.” He wants to restore the Puritan vision in which theologians were free to “think and to let others think” in “matters beyond the Confession.”

To this I would add one point that highlights something that seems implicit in Helm’s discussion, but a point that I’m not sure he’d agree with. The distinction between “core” and “periphery,” between the bounded Confession and the hinterlands is, as he says, a matter of judgment. And that means that it can be disputed, and it can be disputed over time. 

Many Reformed theologians today think that children should be allowed to receive the Eucharist. The Westminster Confession forbids it (though there is some marginal dispute about whether this is so). Should a Reformed church as a whole become convinced of paedocomunion, the Confession would have to be revised accordingly, and that would have ripple effects, some quite significant, elsewhere – at least in the way baptism is understood, and in soteriology as well.

This doesn’t mean that everything is always up for grabs; the church will not suddenly discover that Jesus isn’t God-man after all, or that God is Biune. But it might happen that an invader from the hinterland could cause a re-consideration of some aspects of the “core” and a change in settled doctrine. It might even cause a reconsideration of what constitutes the core, and where the hinterland begins.

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