Archive for the ‘Westminster Standards’ Category

Is the Westminster Confession “scholastic”?

February 27, 2013

To follow in the footsteps of the Reformed orthodox, “we distinguish”! Here is Richard Muller on the issue of “scholasticism” and the Westminster Confession:

… the Westminster Confession, although produced in an era of scholastic doctrine, does not itself follow the method. As the theologians of the day would have noted, a confession is not “scholastic”; rather, it is positive or declarative and belongs to a genre parallel to that of a catechism … it is doubtless true that the architectonic vision and patters of definition found in the Westminster Assembly’s confession and catechisms reflect the concerns for clarity, precise definition , and logically presented argument characteristic of a mind trained in scholastic forms, but the documents themselves are not strictly “scholastic”.
Richard Muller, After Calvin, 27

Is the Westminster Confession Supralapsarian?

March 30, 2009

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).

Westminter Assembly and “Reckless Assertions”

March 7, 2009

I don’t always agree with Alexander Mitchell’s understanding of the Westminster Confession.  As we all are, he was of his time with interests of his own.  Nevertheless his work on the Westminster Assembly is good reading and in particular on the compatibility of the Westminster Assembly with the free offer of the gospel he gets it right:

In reply to the reckless assertion, that those who hold this doctrine [predestination] as it is held forth in the Westminster Standards cannot preach to perishing sinners the love of God and the freeness of Christ’s salvation, I deem it sufficient to point to the fact that they never ceased to preach these truths fully and faithfully. They believed them in their inmost hearts, and allowed their belief to influence their conduct and mould their teaching, and none have ever set forth these precious truths with more winning tenderness or more marked success, that the men who embraced their system of doctrine, and had a firm grasp of their principles as Leighton, Rutherford, Sedgewick, Arrowsmith, Tuckney, Calamy, and Bunyan, in the seventeenth century, Wilson, Boston, Whitfield, and the Erskines in the eighteenth, and Chalmers, M’Cheyne, the Bonars, Nicolson, and Crawford in the nineteenth Century.
The Westminster Assembly: Its History and Standards, 385

Now, I might not necessarily have chosen the same examples as Mitchell did, but still his point stands.  In essence he is saying – If you believe the confessions stance on the sovereignty of God precludes the well meant offer of the gospel then how do you account for the way these men actually preached?  This is one of the thrusts of the thesis that in understanding reformed thought on the free offer we need to consider more than just highly polemical theological works but also, and perhaps primarily, sermons where we see the practical implementation of the theology of the free offer.  Hence the focus on Durham!

John Dick on what it means to be “Confessional”

April 12, 2008

What does it mean to be a Professor in a Seminary/College that subscribes to the Westminster Confession of Faith?  What does it mean to be a Presbyter in a Church which subscribes to the Westminster Confession of Faith?  John Dick explains:

He who holds the office that I have undertaken [Professor of Theology], must deliver a particular system [of doctrine], because it is the system of the church which has appointed him, and because he believes it to be true.  He must say also, that if you will be ministers of that church, you must adopt her creed, because she allows no other to be taught to the people.  But further than that he has no right to proceed … He calls upon you to inquire for yourselves, with earnest prayer for divine illumination, and to embrace the truth wherever you may find it.
John Dick, Lectures on Theology (4 vols.; repr., Stoke on Trent: Tentmaker, 2004) 1:15.

Now let’s unpack what he is saying:

  • Firstly, in a setting where professors subscribe to the Westminster Standards they “must” deliver the doctrine contained in them.  It is a sacred duty – no wiggle room allowed.
  • Secondly, someone should only be a professor in such an institution if “he believes it [the Westminster Standards] to be true”.  As soon as that ceases to be the case a professor can no longer fulfil his duty honourably.  W.G.T Shedd is very helpful at this point, “There may be honest heresy but not honest dishonesty. A heretic who acknowledges that he is such, is a better man than he who pretends to be orthodox while subscribing to a creed which he dislikes, and which he saps under pretence of improving it and adapting it to the times. The honest heretic leaves the Church with which he no longer agrees; but the insincere subscriber remains within it in order to carry out his plan of demoralization.” (Shedd, Calvinism Pure and Mixed, 152).  [NB: I’m not equating disagreement with any element of the WCoF as heresy!]
  • Thirdly, candidates for the ministry need to understand the duty of pastors in denominations which subscribe to confessions.  To be a pastor in a confessional denomination you must be prepared to “accept her creed” as the truth of Scripture and you must be able to teach congregations doctrine consistent with the confessional standards.
  • Fourthly, confessionalism does not ride roughshod over people’s consciences.  If, after being instructed about the doctrinal position of a church, you come to disagree with it, then, fine (albeit sad).  Scripture must be followed.  The entry to ministry in a confessional church is closed but that is better than going against conscience.

This all seems fairly straightforward to me and yet, as anyone who reads church history knows, terribly difficult to put into practice!

I know none of the above is related to the free offer but I am doing a case study of the meaning of a confessional document so posting on the implications of confessions for church life is related to my studies.  I’ll try and write something on the free offer in the course of next week – I nearly posted something on the Marrowmen and “preparationism” but got stuck halfway through.  I hope to get unstuck soon.

PS I wouldn’t necessarily say John Dick perfectly lived out the sentiments above.

“The Doctrine of Conversion in the Westminster Standards With Reference to the Theology of Herman Hoeksema”

March 29, 2008

This is the title of a helpful article by David Silversides in Reformed Theological Journal 9 (1993), 62-84.  Here are some thoughts and quotations I’ve gleaned from the article.

Now, justification is a real favour applied to us in time, just as sanctification in the new birth: ‘and such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified’ (1 Cor. 6:11). Then were they sometime not washed.
Samuel Rutherford, Trial & Triumph of Faith, 1845, 91.

The Scots theologians of the mid 17th C seem to me to be quite opposed to any notion of eternal justification.  Things were not quite so uniform on this in England e.g. Thomas Goodwin.

The condition of the Covenant is faith: holiness and sanctification are the condition of the covenanters … This do was the condition of the Covenant of Works. This believe is the condition of this Covenant …
Samuel Rutherford, ibid, 87

The whole notion of “conditions” relating to the covenant of grace/gospel offer is something that is very interesting.  The Reformed divines (c.f. WLC Q&A 32) of the mid 17th C used the language of conditionality frequently but what they meant by “conditions” must be carefully understood.  I need to spend a fair amount of time expanding on this in the thesis which means a blog post on it will appear sometime.  Durham uses the language of “condition” everywhere but in one significant comment he says he doesn’t like the word very much!

God’s decree of election or His intention to save me, is not the proper object of my faith, but … Christ holdeth forth his rope to drowned and lost sinners, and layeth out an open market of rich treasures of heaven; do thou take it for granted, without any further dispute, as a principle, after to be made good, that Christ hath thoughts of grace and peace concerning thee, and do but now husband well the grace offered, lay hold on Christ, ay while he put thee away from Him, and if there be any question concerning God’s intention of saving thee, let Christ first move the doubt, but do not thou be the first mover.
S. Rutherford, A Sermon Preached to the Honourable House of Commons, 1643.
See also Trial p300.

A good example of gospel preaching.

If the anti-common grace position were correct, then Christ as God in no sense loved the reprobate even while they were in this world. As a man ‘made under the law’ the command “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” applied to Christ. Only two options are open. The first is an heretical division of the person of Christ, by maintaining that Christ loved only the elect in His divine nature but loved all men in His human nature. Clearly this must be rejected. The alternative is to say that Christ, in both natures, loved the elect only and that our obligation to love all men is founded on our ignorance of who the elect are. This means that we are required to love those whom God does not. Moreover, Scripture bases our obligation to love all men not on our ignorance of God’s mind, but the knowledge of it that we should have and our duty to be patterned after Him (Matt. 5:23-48).

Stark “either or” dilemmas are often double-edged swords but the above quote from Rev Silversides gets to the heart of a profound Christological problem for deniers of common love/grace.

… the Westminster Divines as a whole held to what became known as the doctrine of common grace in the sense that the Lord, in a variety of ways, displays his favour and lovingkindness even to the non-elect in this present life … The preaching of the Gospel and the overture of mercy which it includes is one part of that display of lovingkindness.

A sound piece of historical analysis.  This is what the Standards teach.

He offereth in the Gospel, life to all … [this is] God’s moral complacency of grace, revealing an obligation that all are to believe if they would be saved; and upon their own peril be it, if they refuse Christ … Christ cometh once with good tidings to all, elect and reprobate.
Rutherford, Trial, 129ff

Another good extract from Rutherford.

On another note my chapter “The Free Offer of the Gospel in the Westminster Confession” is now finished!  Hurray!  Required before the end of June – two chapters on James Durham.  This is the meat of my thesis and should be a pleasure to write.

Weekly Update 46 – Anglicans, Anarchists and the Westminster Assembly

March 15, 2008

Again time is tight – the deadline for getting this chapter done is Tuesday night and things are looking, well, not so good at the moment but I’m sure I’ll get there in the end.  So instead of a proper post these are some of my notes on Chad B. Van Dixhoorn’s MTh thesis entitled “Anglicans, Anarchists and the Westminster Assembly: The Making of a Pulpit Theology” (MTh., Westminster Theological Seminary, 2000).  Of course Dr Van Dixhoorn has gone on to bigger and better things since his MTh becoming the foremost expert on the Westminster Assembly and spearheading the first full printing of the Westminster Assembly Minutes, however his MTh still makes some interesting points.

… the men of the Westminster Assembly were heavily dependent on their theological predecessors.

As any good theologian will be!  We must get out of the mindset (especially in purely exegetical circles) that the past 50 years  (if we go back that far!) of writings are all that matter for the theological task today.  That is a grand mistake.

From my reading it appears that Martin Luther, though frequently cited by the Westminster divines, is used more as a source for cleaver quotations than for his theological insights. There are, of course, exceptions to such broad generalisations; I only suggest this as a tendency.

There is no denying that there are many “clever quotations” in Luther but there are better theologians (even though Luther got the main things spot on).

Calvin’s influence on the Assembly… is beyond doubt. “Mr Calvin” is frequently cited in the works of divines and was at times appealed to even in the midst of a sermon.

Calvin against the Calvinists anyone 🙂

It is a well known fact that the Westminster Assembly produced consensus documents in part, at least, for political reasons. Over the summer of 1643 the English Parliament was loosing too many battles to the royalist forces and look north for help to the equally unhappy Presbyterian Scots. The majority of Scots Presbyterian lairds (but not all) agreed to help the parliamentarians so long as the English would sign a six point treaty entitled, “The Solemn League and Covenant”.

Politics and religion in the 17th century – never far from one another!

The fact that almost all of them [Westminster Divines] came from the colleges from Oxford and Cambridge is also important. At Cambridge, William Perkins still loomed large; in both schools Calvin’s Institutes was a standard text.

Again Calvin versus the Calvinists?

… the present line of inquiry seems to suggest that the Assembly’s stress on preaching may not only represent conformity to a respected theological heritage, but may also indicate a concern over the neglect of preaching by the Anglicans only recently removed from power and the sudden burst of heterodox preaching which flooded the country during the civil war.

In interpreting any document context is key.  So although we can say the Westminster Confession’s emphasis on preaching is because of their biblical understanding it also has a polemic function against certain Anglicans and Seperatists.

… the body of the Directory’s practical instructions is Perkinsian in colour, elaborating the three part sermon structure of exegesis, doctrinal extraction, and application found in The Art of Prophesying. The conclusion of the Directory echoes many of Archbishop Usher’s nine exhortations to his ordinands.

So we need to be well read in earlier Reformed theology to grasp where the Confession is coming from and what the major influences on it are.

The hope that preaching extends to the lost is a recurring theme in the Assembly’s writing.

Happy days – Dr Van Dixhoorn’s thoughts tie with my own!  I must be on the right track after all.

It is the metaphor of ambassador that most seems to awe and grip the divines when they think about preaching and preachers.

It also grips Durham.

“… a minister… standeth in God’s room, and in God’s name makes offer of salvation, 2 Corinthians 5:10.”
William Gouge, Hebrews, Kregel, 1980, chapter 2, section 23, vol. 1, 101.

This is why I don’t understand the argument that the preacher only offers the gospel indiscriminately because he does not know who is elect or not.  Because it isn’t really the preacher doing the offering it is God’s offer – and he does know who is elect!

“…every sermon I come to hear, I must expect to be nearer heaven or nearer hell.”
Burroughs, Gospel Fear, SDG ed, 20

A profound thought.  Do we go to hear sermons with that thought on our minds and hearts?

“When a Minister preacheth and applieth the promises of the Gospel, he doth not only declare and make known God’s mercy and goodness to poor sinners, but also is an especial means to move those sinners to believe and embrace reconciliation with God.”
William Gouge, Whole Armour, Works, 262

A fitting note to end the post on.

PS I’m away on holiday this coming week from Wednesday until the following Monday so I may not get the chance to post again until Monday 24th.

Weekly Update 35 – Anyone for some Marrow?

December 29, 2007

William Greenhill will be back in the near future but I was looking over the Marrow of Modern Divinity (London: Thomas Tegg and Son, 1837) again this week and a few things struck me as interesting. 

Now given that the Marrow really came to prominence in Scotland in a controversy in the 18th C it is all too easy to forget that the original context of the work was mid 17th C.  Again, it is easy to forget (given how controversial the Marrow became in the 18th C) that the Marrow is really nothing more than a compendium of Reformed thought up to 1650 (with a bit of Luther thrown in for free).  According to its author “much of the matter contained in the ensuing Dialogue” came from the great figures of the development and codification of the Reformed faith e.g. Calvin, Beza, Ursinus, Perkins, Ames, Peter Martyr, Polanus, Sibbs, Goodwin, Ball etc (p xx).  So really there should not have been much in the Marrow to complain about!

All this is interesting but what has it got to do with my thesis?  Well, for one the Marrow provides an insight into the general theological context in which the Westminster Standards were framed.  This is important for my work.  It also provides an insight into how mid 17th C theologians interpreted earlier Reformed theologians and used their works.  Again this is important.  Additionally, the Marrow was also cleared for the press by Joseph Caryl, a member of the Westminster Assembly, and was published with commendations from two other Assembly members.  So clearly there were members of the assembly who upheld “Marrow doctrine”.

Still, even though useful in these respects and though commended by 3 members of the Assembly we can’t argue for 1:1 identity between Marrow doctrine and the Westminster documents – can we?  Well, granted not on the basis I have provided above.  More work would need to be done – but has someone else done that work already?  Enter Thomas Boston!

Now in his notes on the Marrow, Boston has an extensive comment on the section, “God… moved with nothing but with his free love unto mankind lost, hath made a gift and grant unto them all, that whosoever of them all shall believe in this his Son, shall not perish, but have eternal life” (p106).  Boston begins by noting that the phrase comes from Ezekiel Culverwell in a work commended by Westminster Divine William Gouge.  He then proceeds to identify this “gift and grant” with the gospel offer of John 3:16 explaining that: “Where the gospel comes, this grant is published, and the ministerial offer made; and there is no exception of any of all mankind in the grant” (p106).  This speaking of the gospel offer as a “gift and grant” giving all sinners a warrant to believe in Christ is for Boston, “the good old way of discovering to sinners their warrant to believe in Christ; and it doth indeed bear the sufficiency of the sacrifice of Christ for all, and that Christ crucified is the ordinance of God for salvation unto all mankind, in the use-making of which only they can be saved; but not an universal atonement or redemption” (p106).  So a couple of points here.  Boston equates Marrow doctrine with “good old doctrine”.  For him it is nothing more or less than Reformed orthodoxy.  Secondly, Boston here relates the gospel offer to the sufficiency of the atonement (so did John Owen) but this is done in the context of rejecting a universal atonement/redemption.

But what specifically does Boston mean by “good old doctrine”?  Well, he means standard Scottish doctrine and he quotes James Melville to this effect.  But more specifically he means Reformed theology as set out in the great Reformed confessions.  He quotes Westminster Confession of Faith 7:3 (my thesis topic via James Durham), Westminster Larger Catechism 63 as supporting the “gift and grant” in the gospel offer (p106).  He also quotes Dort 2:5-6, ” Moreover, the promise of the gospel is that whosoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have eternal life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel.  And, whereas many who are called by the gospel do not repent nor believe in Christ, but perish in unbelief, this is not owing to any defect or insufficiency in the sacrifice offered by Christ upon the cross, but is wholly to be imputed to themselves.”  So for Boston, Dort and Westminster are one on the gospel offer and on Marrow doctrine.  Boston also quotes the Sum of Saving Knowledge, “Again, consider, that this general offer in substance is equivalent to a special offer made to every one in particular; as appeareth by the apostle’s making use of it, Acts 16:31. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house. The reason of which offer is given, John 3:16.”  Now the SoSK was, of course, written by James Durham and David Dickson.  Thus Boston aligns his view of the gospel offer with that of James Durham.

So for Boston, the Marrow theology of the free offer is the theology of Westminster Assembly and Dort and the Sum of Saving Knowledge and therefore of James Durham!  But is he right?….. yes 🙂  This is all very pertinent to my thesis and to the chapter I’m currently writing on: the free offer in the Reformed creeds.

Another item of interest is the proof texts that the Marrow uses to outline its doctrine of the free offer.  They are John 3:16 and Mark 16:15.  Now what are two of the “proof texts” for WCoF 7:3? – yes, you guessed John 3:16 and Mark 16:15.  More evidence for similarity of doctrine!

Weekly Update 32 – WGT Shedd on WCF 7:3

December 8, 2007

W.G.T Shedd is one of my favourite theologians.  Of course, I don’t agree with everything he said but, taken as a whole, his Dogmatic Theology is a work of brilliance.

Among his many other works Shedd also has a small volume entitled: Calvinism: Pure and Mixed.  In this work Shedd has a chapter entitled The Westminster Standards and the Offer of Mercy.  What Shedd tries to do in this short chapter is clarify the teaching of the Westminster Standards on the free offer of the gospel.  The following are his comments on WCoF 7:3:

Confession vii. 3, declares that ‘man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that (legal) covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein He freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe’.  Two distinct and different things are mentioned here: (a) an offer of salvation; (b) a promise of the Holy Spirit to make the unwilling sinner willing to accept it.  The number of those to whom the offer of salvation is made is unlimited; [the number] of those to whom the promise of the Spirit to ‘make them willing’ is made, is limited by ‘ordination to life’ or election.  It is clear that God may desire that to be done by man under the influence of his common grace in the common call, which he may not decide and purpose to make him do by the operation of his special grace in the effectual call.  His desire that sinners would hear his universal call to repentance may be, and is unlimited; but his purpose to overcome their unwillingness and incline them to repentance may be, and is limited.  God offers Christ’s sacrifice to every man, without exception, and assures him that if he will trust in it he shall be saved, and gives him common grace to encourage him to believe.  This is proof that God loves his soul and desires its salvation.  But God does not, in addition to this universal offer of mercy, promise to overcome man’s aversion to believe and repent and his resistance of common grace.  Election and preterition have no reference to the offer of salvation or to common grace.  They relate only to special grace and the effectual application of Christ’s sacrifice.  The universal offer of mercy taught in this section evinces the universality of God’s compassion towards sinners.

W.G.T Shedd, Calvinism: Pure and Mixed Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1999, 26-27

Is Shedd being historically accurate in his description here?  Is that really what WCoF 7:3 means?  Coming to a thesis near you soon… (But if you are a regular reader here no doubt you will be able to guess my take on Shedd’s view!)

Weekly Update 19 – The Westminster Annotations

September 8, 2007

This week I’m going to take a look at the free offer of the gospel and related themes in a Scripture Commentary known as the Westminster Annotations.  This is essentially a Bible commentary produced by members of the Westminster Assembly and other Puritans (6 of the 11 known contributors were Westminster Assembly members).  William Barker in his book on the Puritans notes that the contents of these annotations can help us understand the Westminster Standards better. 

Some of the comments are rather brief and led good Mr Spurgeon to complain in his commenting and commentaries that, “The notes are too short and fragmentary to be of any great value”.  In one sense he is correct but they are still useful – especially for the student in historical theology!

Annotations upon all the Books of the Old and New Testament; Wherein the Text is Explained, Doubts Resolved, Scriptures Paralleled, and Various Readings observed. By the Joynt-Labour of certain Learned Divines, thereunto appointed, and therein employed, As is explained in the preface. London: Printed by John Legass and John Raworth, 1645

[The 1645 edition is not the best one to work with (1657 is the authoritative edition) but it is all I have to work with.]

He is bountifull to good men and bad, Matth. 5. 45. 1 Tim. 4 .10, yea to the beasts, Psal. 36 .6.
goodness] Or, mercy.

Comment on Ps 33:5

The annotations clearly teach God’s universal goodness.

He describeth after what sort God showeth himself to all his creatures, though our sins have provoked his vengeance against all: he shows himself mercifull, not onely in pardoning the sins of his children, but also in doing good to wicked men, albeit they feel not the sweet comfort of Gods benefits.
Comment on Ps 145:8

God shows himself to be merciful in doing good to wicked men.  Sadly they do not acknowledge this.

He speaketh this to commend God’s mercy to poore sinners, who rather is ready to pardon than to punish, as his long suffering declareth…
Comment on Ezek 18:23

God is more ready to pardon sinners than to punish them!  The evidence for this is his long suffering.

That ye may hereby declare your selves to be God’s children, who doth good to his enemies, whereas men naturally studie revenge…
Comment on Matthew 5:45

We are to be like God who does good to wicked men.

Uses “invited” for the gospel call.
Comment on Matt 22:4

Again we see the gospel offer is more than a command – it is an invitation.

He speaketh of his humane and ministeriall will; for his divine will could not be resisted by them.
Comment on Matt 23:37.

This is the comment on Christ’s lament over Jerusalem.  This is very poor and unnecessarily constrained exegesis.  As much as we see the free offer and related topics maintained in these Annotations there are times when a trajectory can be seen in some of the comments which could eventually lead to a John Gill coming along further down the path.  Much better on this verse is Dabney in his God’s Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy:

“Such interpretations [as the one above], implying some degree of dissent between the two natures [of Christ], are perilous, in that they obscure that vital truth, Christ the manifestation to us of the divine nature. “He is the image of the invisible God;” “He is the brightness of his glory, and express image of his substance;” “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father, and how sayest thou then, Shew us the Father?” (Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3; John 14:9.) It is our happiness to believe that when we see Jesus weeping over lost Jerusalem, we “have seen the Father;” we have received an insight into the divine benevolence and pity.”

See also Calvin’s comments where he clearly attributes Christ’s words to the Divine nature – “Christ, speaking in the person of God”.

Pitied him, that, having outwardly kept the commandments, which many did not, he should lose heaven nevertheless.
Comment on Mark 10:21

The Westminster Annotations, despite the poor exegesis of Christ’s lament over Jerusalem, do not commit the hypercalvinistic blunder of making the rich young ruler whom Christ loved elect.  They freely confess Christ loved this man and yet he “lost heaven” i.e. was never saved.

1 Joh.4.9. Mankind.
Comment on John 3:16

This comment on John 3:16 is fascinating.  All it says is mankind.  This calls for some comment.  Is the author here taking John 3:16 universally as John Calvin, John Ball and in later times Thomas Boston and Robert Dabney do?  Quite possibly.  Other Puritans of the time did e.g. Thomas Manton.  The Scottish Church at the time of the Westminster Assembly had, I think, settled on the view that John 3:16 pertained to the elect.  Rutherford and Gillespie argued for their position at the Westminster Assembly.  In England I don’t think the position was quite so clear cut (e.g. Manton).  What makes this especially interesting for me is that John 3:16 is one of the proof texts used by the Assembly for the free offer.  Also interesting is that John Ley who wrote the commentary on the Gospels was a member of the Westminster Assembly.  What is confusing though is that he also wrote the comments on Christ weeping over Jerusalem above.

By as much as appeareth unto us by his will revealed in the Gospel, he excludeth none by name, neither nation nor condition whatsoever, Matth. 28. 19. Mark 16.15. Or, all, may be taken, not pro singulis generum, but pro generibus singulorum.
Comment on 1 Tim 2:4

This is the exposition of God, who will have all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.  The first option given above is that this text speaks of the revealed will of God in the gospel.  Alternatively, we could take the text not as speaking of all individual men, but rather as all classes of men.  In which case the will spoken of here would be the will of decree.  Interestingly, George Gillespie seems to call the first position that we take this verse as speaking pro singulis generum “Arminian” in his “Treatise of miscellany questions”.  I’m not sure what the Westminster Assembly divine who wrote these comments (Daniel Featley) would make of that!  As an aside, the annotations clearly state that when we read in v6 who gave himself a ransom for all we are to understand all as “all that do believe in him”.

…or towards mankind, of which number we also are… Not any at all; by his directing and approving will, Ezek 33:11… Or, he speaks of God’s approving will, whereby he likes of repentance in any.
Comment on 2 Peter 3:9

The two standard reformed interpretations of 2 Peter 3:9 are given, namely that it can be read as an decretive will so that “all” are the elect or that it is the revealed will being spoken of so “all” really are all.

[Christ knocks] At the door of men’s consciences, both by outward means and inward motions, Psal.16.7 as one desirous of admittance; Cant.5.2.
Comment on Rev 3:20

Again we see Rev 3:20 taken evangelistically.  Also note that Christ, when he knocks on our hearts with the gospel, is desirous to come in.  The gospel offer is no fraud or sham.  It is well meant.

Next week I’ll probably pick up on Durham again and finish off the sermon on “Come for all things are ready”.  I am going to be very busy next weekend as I will be delivering three talks at our Church’s Young People’s Weekend Away.  Bear with me then if I post on the Monday rather than the usual Saturday!

Weekly Update 18 – John Brown (of Wamphray)

September 1, 2007

This week I’m looking at the views of John Brown of Wamphray (1610-1679) – has one name ever belonged to so many good theologians?  (John Brown Covenanter Martyr, John Brown of Haddington, John Brown of Whittburn, John Brown of Edinburgh).

The Dictionary of National Biography notes “Brown was respected by several theologians of his day: as early as 1637 Rutherford noted that he ‘saw Christ in [Brown] more than in his brethren’ (DSCHT, 98).  Robert Wodrow referred to him as a man of ‘very great learning, warm zeal, and remarkable piety’ (Wodrow, 1.304).”  He was well respected in Scotland and also spent many years as an exile in Holland so is an interesting connection point with continental theology.

Of Brown’s works only one has been reprinted today Christ, the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.  It seems to have had various publishers and the Soli Deo Gloria seems out of print.  It is available here with a very tasteful cover!

What follows are his views of the free offer of the gospel.  Again I’ve read the sources and I think I’m representing him fairly but any corrections are welcome.

Brown, John. Christ, the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. Or a Short Discourse. Pointing forth the way of making use of Christ, for justification, and especially and more particularly, for Sanctification in all its parts from Johan. XIV; Vers. VI. Rotterdam: Printed by H.G. for John Cairns, book seller in Edinburgh, and to be sold there, 1677.

Is it not a wonder that such an all sufficient Mediator, who is able to save to the uttermost all that come to God through him, should be so little regarded and sought unto, and that there should be so few, that embrace him, and take him as he is offered in the gospel.

Brown, as a Reformed theologian, had no difficulty with the concept of the gospel as an offer.  It is standard reformed terminology.

… we Judge not the want of these requisites a ground to excuse any, that heareth the gospel, from the obligation to believe & rest upon Christ, as he is offered in the gospel.

Again it is simply not true that Scottish theology was “preparationist”.  Yes Scottish theologians would talk about the necessity of conviction of sin (rightly) but, regardless of whether this was present, the duty to come to Christ was the same!  Note of course Brown believed in our obligation or duty to believe savingly on Christ – he believed in duty faith.

The soul must know, that He [Christ] is not only an able and sufficient mediator; but that also he is willing and ready, to redeem & save all that will come… Therefore it is necessary that the soul conceiveth not only a possibility; but also a probability of help this way; and that the dispensation of the gospel of grace, and the promulgation and offer of those good news to him, speak out so much that the patience of God waiting long, and his goodness renewing the offers, confirmeth this, that his serious pressing, his strong motives on the one hand, and his sharp threatenings on the other… his expressed sorrow & grief over such as would not come to him, his upbraidings & objurgations of such, as do obstinately refuse, and the like, put his willingness to save such as will come to him, out of all question… [there is] no impediment lying in the way, but their own unwillingness.

Brown here discusses what sinners need to know before they will come to Christ.  First we need to know the sufficency of Christ to save us from our sins, second we need to know that God is willing to save all that come to him.  How are we to know God is willing to save us?  Well we live in a dispensation of grace where the good news of the gospel is offered to us.  This speaks to us of God’s patience and goodness to us.  But more than this we know God’s willingness to save all who come to him because he expresses grief and sorrow over those who do not come.  There is no reason that we will not be saved but our own unwillingness.

[Those who reject the gospel] as to them, all Christ’s entreaties, motives, allurements, patience and longsuffering, his standing at the door and knocking, till his locks be wet with the dew &c. are in vain: yea they are contemptuously rejected, despised, slighted, & undervalued.

Again note Brown uses Rev 3:20 evangelistically.  Also important is Brown’s description of the gospel offer – it is an entreaty, an allurement.  Again, and I seem to say this every week, it is not simply a command, a statement of facts – it is so much more.

If it be asked what warrant have poor sinners to lay hold on Christ… Our absolute necessity of him… Christ’s all sufficient furniture, whereby he is a qualified mediator… His being appointed of the Father, to be mediator of the covenant… The Father’s offering of him to us in the gospel, and Christ’s inviting us, who are weary and heavy loaden; yea calling and commanding such to come to him… exhorting further and requesting upon terms of love, pressing earnestly by many motives, sending out his ambassadors to beseech, in his stead, poor sinners to be reconciled… all these are sufficient warrant…

This discussion of the warrant of faith is important.  What is our warrant?  Our need, Christ’s sufficiency, that he is offered in the gospel, and that God has sent ambassadors in his stead to beseech sinners to come to him.

[Christ] is the Truth, in respect that he carryeth towards poor sinners in all things, according to the tenor of the gospel, and the offers thereof: He offeres himself to all freely, and promiseth to put none away that come to Him; and this He doth in truth… He giveth encouragement to all sinners to come; that will be content to quit their sins…

Again the offer and promise comes to all.

Brown, John. An Exposition of the Epistle of Paul the Apostle, to the Romans, with Large Practical Observations; Delivered in Several Lectures. Edinburgh: David Patterson, 1766

…God’s goodness… declares how ready he is to embrace sinners, and how unwilling and loath to strike and destroy them…

The free offer of the gospel is an expression of the goodness of God.

So bountiful and liberal is the Lord Creator, in whom we live, move, and have our being, that even wicked, profane hypocrites, and such as delight in their wickedness, and are enemies to him, are participating of his goodness; general temporal favours, are even such getting from him: for God’s goodness was extended even to such here as were despising it. And so wonderfully good is our God, and such is his native kindness, or good nature, that he is ready, and prompt, as it were, to be employed by the creatures, and to do them good…

God is good to all.  There is no denial of God’s goodness and favour towards those who are impenitent.

These expressions of bounty and longanimity in God towards the wicked, however they are not pledges of his favour and goodwill towards them, as they are unto his own; yet, in that they show what an one God is, and how well worthy to be turned unto, and contain in them some ground of hope, that he will welcome such as come, they have in them a manuducency unto repentance…

This general goodness is not to be confused with God’s peculiar goodness to his people.  Nevertheless God’s general goodness is a testimony and ground of hope that he will accept all who come to him.

So dearly should all ministers love, and so earnestly should they desire the salvation of such as are under their charge, and also all Christians should so seriously desire the salvation of others, that they should be content to be at any loss imaginable and profitable, for the procuring of the same, and should think nothing too dear for that effert…

Ministers are to desire the salvation of all their hearers.  Oh that many would feel this within them and preach with according love and passion!

This was the meeting [rejection] which God got at their hands, whom he invited both by his servants the prophets, and his courtesies, most tenderly and affectionately, as a loving father or mother stretcheth out their arms to imbrace their dauted children; and this he did not once or twice, but with great patience and longanimity all day long… he was weary in shewing kindness to them (all this is metaphorically spoken, the more to convince us both of his tender affection and long suffering)…

God’s invitations are tender and affectionate.  Note the language Brown uses “as a loving father or mother stretcheth out their arms” to their children.  Sure this is a metaphor – but it is one designed to convince of his tender affection and long suffering to those who reject him.

Brown, John. The Life of Justification Opened. No publisher noted in book: 1695

There isn’t too much I want to cover here.  There are a few interesting points however in his appendix Arguments Against Universal Redemption.  (This argument is repeated in his treatise on Quakerism.)

First Brown argues that the Westminster Confession explicitly teaches definite (particular) atonement in 3.6, 8.1, 8.5, 8.8.  Many try to make the case that the WCoF does not explicitly rule out belief in a universal atonement.  What is interesting here is that a well respected theologian at the time of the assembly insists that it does.

Second Brown’s first argument for definite atonement is from the covenant of redemption.

Thirdly Brown contra Calvin and others I noted last week limits John 3:16 to the elect.

Fourthly Brown commends Durham’s discussion of limited atonement in his commentary on Revelation calling him “learned & solid”.

Fifthly there is a comment of Brown’s that needs explanation.  He criticises an Amyraut like positing of an “antecedent will for the salvation of all… as if God could not effectuate whatever he desired, or could not have a velleity towards anything, which either he could not or would not effectuate”.  The key word here is velleity which means an incomplete volition.  For Brown and Ball, as we saw last week, we cannot tie desire to intention.  What God intends he does.  That is not to say Brown would have a problem with the use of desire in general when referring to the revealed will of God in the gospel.  As we have seen repeatedly Durham doesn’t, so I don’t imagine Brown would either.