An article by Dr. Guy M. Richard, recently republished in the fine Confessional Presbyterian Journal (Vol. 4, 162-70), Samuel Rutherford’s Supralapsarianism Revealed: A Key to the Lapsarian Position of the Westminster Confessionof Faith, made the case that the Westminster Confession is best read as an inherently supralapsarian document. The article was valuable for a variety of reasons, among which are, an insightful survey of Rutherford’s supralapsarianism (milder than often thought) and an attempt to understand the Confession through contextualised mid 17th century polemics rather than through later dogmatic positions (an approach often found in theological commentaries on the Confession). However, I have a few questions around the central thrust of the article – which is that the Westminster Confession is inherently supralapsarian. Key questions are:
- Don’t the debates at the Assembly lend themselves to the understanding that a studied ambiguity on this subject was the aim? For instance on the subject of the decree(s) Reynolds argued “Let us not put in disputes and scholastical things into a Confession of Faith.” Gillespie added a suggestion for wording that would enable “every one [to] enjoy his own sense” and Calamy added “why should we put it [number of decrees – referring to Twisse by name] in a Confession of Faith” (Mitchell and Struthers, Minutes of the Westminster Assembly, 150-1). This is hardly the language of a body striving to put in their confession a firm view of the logical order of the Divine decrees. In view of this perhaps the quest to find “the” lapsarian position of the Westminster Confession of Faith is in itself a false starting point? The first question then might not be “Is Westminster Surpa or Infra” but “Does the Confession take a lapsarian stance at all”? Alexander Mitchell argues that “care was taken to avoid the insertion of anything which could be regarded as indicating a preference for supralapsarianism.” (Minutes, lv).
- Granted that Twisse (who died in 1647 – during the Westminster Assembly) and Rutherford were influential and Surpa does it follow that the confession is (even just inherently) Supralapsarian? Dort was not short of influential supras and yet can be read more easily as infra (see below). However influential certain members of a minority are, when it comes to a vote the minority still loses 🙂 To take another case I dont think anyone would argue that Edmund Calamy was insignificant in English Presbyterian circles (or that he was quiet in the Assembly!) – yet he held to a broader concept of the design of the atonement that the Scottish Divines were content with. Should we conclude the Confession is inherently “hypothetical universalist” (take your pick of terms!)? The point is of course clear – and I don’t think would be disputed – just because an influential member holds a position does not mean that it is the majority position, or that it would be enshrined in the confession itself, i.e. no one would argue that the Confession is inherently “universal redemptionist.” (Of course some argue that “universal redemption” is not excluded by the confession – a different discussion).
Again it does not appear to me, for all the respect that was given to Twisse, everyone agreed with all his positions. To take two examples, his position on the extent of the atonement (despite being a Supra!), or his being, in the words of Baillie, an “express Chillast” i.e. Premillenialist (Baillie, Letters, 2:313) would not have found much acceptance in the enlightened part of the British Isles – that is Scotland for anyone in any doubt 🙂
- How does the fact that Dort was infra come in to play? James Durham, Rutherford’s illustrious contemporary, read Dort as infra. But to him that was no cue for Supra’s to form an orderly line and march out of the Reformed churches never to return. Indeed he comments as follows: “yet the synod [Dort] has not made any division by censuring of such, neither have these who differ from that determination broken off communion with the church, but have kept communion, and union in the church has not been thereby interrupted. Yet those who apprehend themselves to be right cannot but think the other is in an error, and if this forbearance is not allowed, there can never be union in the church, except we should think that they behoved all to be in the same mind about such things, and there should never be a decision in a church, but when there is absolute harmony.” So if I read Durham right on this point he is saying that even though a Confession may take a position on the lapsarian question charity should still be extended to those who disagree. This might explain how Rutherford could still be ok with the Westminster Confession even if it was infra, far or less if it is was ambivalent over the issue?
- How did Rutherford’s Scottish contemporaries view his supralapsarianisn? Fellow Scottish Westminster Divine Robert Bailie appears not to have been a cheerleader for Rutherford’s position. Nowhere does this come out more clearly in the case of Prof. John Strang of Glaswow University. He held something less than infralapsarianism (Baillie, Letters, 3:5) and yet Baillie would endeavour “that our Assembly meddle not with such subtle questions, but leave them to the schools.” (Letters, 3:6). This is hardly the language of a man who would wish a Confession to take a stance on the lapsarian issue. Indeed Baillie particularly states that no Reformed confession has taken a supralapsarian stance, “When such made a most diligent search into his [Strang’s] private and public management, that they might have somewhat against him, he was found beyond reproach in his personal carriage, and in the discharge of his office; only in his dictats to his scholars, some few things were taken notice of, wherein he differed in his sentiments from Dr Twiss and Mr Rutherford in some scholastic speculations. He was not so much as blamed for any departure from the confession of any reformed church, . . . but, in a few questions, exceeding nice and difficult, as to God’s providence about sin, he thought himself at liberty, modestly to differ in his sentiments from so many privat men.” (Chambers, A Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen, 4:309 – emphasis added). This is not to suggest Rutherford was alone in his supralapsarianism in Scotland, or even to suggest he was in a minority, but simply that he was not speaking for the Scottish Church on this issue, and that significant theologians in his Church thought his views “scholastic speculations”. Durham’s sermons also reveal an unwillingness to address the issue – which would be strange if the Confession of the Church addressed the issue.
[Whether Baillie’s reading of Strang was influenced by his family relations are beyond the scope of this post!]
- Again how does the earlier history of the lapsarian question in Scotland come in to play? If Melvile, Rollock, Bruce etc. were infra (as argued by Mitchell) then surely that comes in to play?
So from my point of view the article left too many questions unanswered to challenge the conclusion of Warfied: “But the wise plan was adopted with respect to the points of difference between the Supralapsarians, who were represented by a number of the ablest thinkers in the Assembly (Twisse, Rutherford), and the Infralapsarians, to which party the great mass of the members adhered, to set down in the Confession only what was common ground to both, leaving the whole region which was in dispute between them entirely untouched.” So is it not still safer to conclude that the Confession is neither inherently Supra or inherently Infra and follow the eminent John Murray:
“The Confession is non-committal on the debate between the Supralapsarians and the Infralapsarians and intentionally so, as both the terms of the section and the debate in the Assembly clearly show. Surely this is the proper reserve in a credal document.” (Collected Writings, 4:209 – see also 249).