I would like to ask you a question regarding the Westminster Confession of Faith that was designed to reform the church: What potential value do the distinctive theological emphases of the Westminster Standards have for Christians in the twenty-first century?
Your question—"What potential value do the distinctive theological emphases of the Westminster Standards have for Christians in the twenty-first century?"—seems to require a division of your question into two parts. To respond requires, first, an attempt to define what "the distinctive theological emphases of the Westminster Standards" are. And then, secondly, what their "potential value for Christians in the 21st Century" is. I will therefore attempt to answer your question in this way.
In the history of the Presbyterian and Reformed Churches the Westminster Standards have always had an honored place as faithful expressions of the teaching of Scripture. In other words, the most important thing about the Westminster Standards is that they are in harmony not only with the Bible, but also, in all essentials, with the other great Reformed Confessions such as the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dordt or the Second Helvetic Confession. Yet it is also a fact that the Westminster Standards express that Reformed Faith with what could indeed be called "distinctive theological emphases." Let me simply point out a few of these.
Here are some of the distinctive points that set Chapter I of the Westminster Confession apart from all other Reformed Confessions.
a. The first is the self-attesting quality of the Scripture itself (an objective reality);
b. The second is the "inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts."
a. The Bible contains the whole counsel of God.
b. The whole counsel comes to us in two ways: expressly (direct assertion, command, etc.), and deductively (by inescapable logical conclusion—as in infant baptism).
c. We must never separate the written Word and the Holy Spirit. It is he who speaks to us, and he speaks to us now through the written Word alone.
d. There are "some circumstances concerning the worship of God and the government of the church"—those that are "common to human actions and societies"—that are not specifically prescribed in the Bible but left to prudence (common sense) within the general rules of Scripture.
a. Perspicuity does not mean that everything in the Bible is easy to understand (2 Pet. 3:16).
b. Neither does it mean that everyone can attain to the same level in understanding it.
c. What it means is that anyone who is willing to make a serious and sincere effort to understand its central message—using available means—can gain a sufficient (saving) understanding.
a. It is the text "immediately inspired by God" to which the term "word of God" refers. Theologians today commonly refer to this as the autographa (meaning the exact and entire text of the Bible as it was first written by the prophets and apostles).
b. This text has been wonderfully preserved by God's providence.
c. It is to this authentic text that final appeal is to be made.
d. But since it is not feasible for all of God's people to learn Hebrew and Greek, and yet all are commanded by God to search the Scriptures, it is therefore the responsibility of the Church to provide faithful and understandable translations.
Most of the above teaching can be logically deduced from other major Reformed Confessions. But none state them as clearly and fully as the Westminster Standards.
The same can be said of the much fuller treatment of the ten commandments that we find in the Larger Catechism, as compared with any of the other Reformed Catechisms or Confessions. Similarly, no other Catechism or Confession has so clear and full a statement of the doctrine of worship (Wesminster Confession of Faith XXI), the doctrine of Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience (WCF XX), or the Biblical teaching on Marriage and Divorce (WCF XXIV). And it is the only Reformed Confession that fully recognizes the importance of the doctrine of adoption (WCF XII).
More could be said, but this should be sufficient to make one thing quite clear: what is distinctive about the Westminster Standards is not that they teach a different doctrine than that of the other great Reformed Creeds but that they teach it with greater fullness and precision. And that, it seems to me, is what gives it great "potential value for Christians in the 21st Century."
It is generally recognized that the Christian church today needs a new Reformation! In many areas—such as worship, for example—the scene is one of confusion and disunity. Presbyterian and Reformed Churches in past generations were much more united in both doctrine and practice. Indeed, it was because they were united in doctrine that they tended to be of one mind in practice. If there is to be a new Reformation—and we believe there will be—it will come as the church recovers, first of all, in doctrine. And no document yet produced in the history of the church will be of greater importance than the Westminster Standards. The reason is quite simple: they express what the Bible teaches more fully and accurately than any other Creed.
May the Lord bless your own study of these great Reformation documents!
"Questions and Answers" is a weekly feature of the OPC website. The answers come from individual ministers in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church expressing their own convictions and do not necessarily represent an "official" position of the Church, especially in areas where the Standards of the Church (the Scriptures and the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms) are silent.
The questions come from individuals like yourself. If you have questions about biblical and theological matters, you are invited to send them by e-mail by using the "Pose a Question" link on the OPC home page or by clicking here.
At least one new question is posted each week, so there should always be something new here for you to read. (For those people who would like to look at previous questions and answers, they will continue to be available as well.)
The purpose of the OPC website's "Questions and Answers" is to respond to biblical and theological questions. Matters of church discipline, disputes, or debates go beyond the scope of our work. We recommend that you present your concerns in these areas to the appropriate judicatory. In most cases this will be to a local pastor, elder, or session. We do not want the website to replace personal involvement in, or commitment to, the local, visible church.
While we will respond to every serious questioner, we are not bound to give a substantive answer to every question, should we deem the question to be beyond the scope of our purpose or our own ability to answer.
You will receive an answer by e-mail. Please be patient as many of our respondents are busy pastors. The response to your question may take up to two (2) weeks. Some of the questions submitted will be chosen to be posted here, along with the corresponding answers.
Note that the "Questions and Answers" posted on the site have been editedall personal references are removed, Scripture references or from some source may be added, and sometimes portions are expandedto make the questions and answers more useful to a larger audience.