In an earlier post, I wrote about the suggestions offered by Tom Nettles regarding Chapter 20, “Of the Gospel, and of the extent of the Grace thereof.” I also took note of a suggested alteration of Nettles’ proposal offered by Bob Gonzales. Today, however, I would like to begin a series of posts offering some suggestions of my own for quite a few chapters of the Confession. I will take up each of these chapters one at a time.
I will begin with Chapter 1, “Of the Holy Scriptures.” I would like to offer three suggestions for possible changes to this chapter.
First, beginning in paragraph 1, I would suggest an assertion making explicit the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture. The suggested language appears in bold type:
1. The Holy Scripture, fully and verbally inspired and inerrant in the original manuscripts, is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith and obedience. Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable, yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and His will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord at sundry times, and in many ways, to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His Church; and afterward for the better preserving, and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment, and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan, and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which makes the Holy Scriptures to be most necessary, those former ways of Gods revealing His will unto His people being now ceased.
I realize that many may see no need for such an addition, especially since the modified sentence already contains a reference to the Bible’s infallibility. As a matter of fact, some point out that the term infallibility is an even stronger term than inerrancy. John Frame, for example, has made this point in an article entitled Is the Bible Inerrant? He observes that:
If we are permitted, again, to use the dictionary — and why shouldn’t theologians use the dictionary!? — “infallible” is a stronger term than “inerrant.” “Inerrant” means there are no errors; “infallible” means there can be no errors.
While I agree with Frame’s point, I am nevertheless disturbed by the lack of clarity the term infallible possesses for many today. For example, A Student’s Dictionary for Biblical and Theological Studies, by F.B. Huey and Bruce Corley, offers this definition for the terms inerrancy/inerrant:
The term infallibility properly means the Bible is incapable of error, not liable to deceive or mislead. Although the adjectives inerrant and infallible are often used synonymously, some scholars apply the word infallible only to what the Bible teaches, in order to avoid the connotation of historical and scientific accuracy in all matters implied in the word inerrant.
Herein lies the problem. The terms are often used interchangeably or with less precision than they should be, and this means that more precision and clarification of the language in the Confession would be helpful. The Theopedia article on The Inerrancy of the Bible also demonstrates the difficulty here:
Some scholars see infallibility as a less restrictive term than “inerrancy” in discussing the reliability of the Bible. For example, Davis suggests “The Bible is inerrant if and only if it makes no false or misleading statements on any topic whatsoever. The Bible is infallible if and only if it makes no false or misleading statements on any matter of faith and practice.” Thus Davis argues that infallibility does not necessitate a doctrine of inerrancy. In this sense, infallibility is seen as a nuanced and less-restrictive view of the Bible’s reliability. [I assume the author has in mind here Stephen T. Davis’ The Debate about the Bible: Inerrancy vs. Infallibility]
However, others see it the other way around, i.e. infallibility is the stronger term and specifically implies inerrancy. In article XI, the Chicago Statement says, “We deny that it is possible for the Bible to be at the same time infallible and errant in its assertions. Infallibility and inerrancy may be distinguished, but not separated.” This then is contrary to Davis’ view above.
Further, in article XII, the Chicago statement says, “We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science.”
Adding to the potential confusion is the layman’s tendency to use the terms interchangeably.
Given the difficulties that have arisen surrounding the meaning of these terms, I think it best to include a statement along the lines of the one I have proposed above.
Second, I suggest making a change to paragraph 6, bringing the language back to what it was in the Westminster Confession of Faith. The suggested change is again in bold type:
6. The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture, unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelation of the Spirit or traditions of men. Nevertheless we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word, and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God and government of the Church common to human actions and societies which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.
The current wording, “or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture,” seems less precise to me and thus open to being more easily misunderstood. I am not sure why the change was made from the previous language in the first place, although Sam Waldron sees it as clarifying the wording of the Westminster Confession of Faith:
The phrase ‘or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture’ is equivalent to the phrase in the Westminster Confession it is intended to clarify: ‘or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture’. What may be by sound logic deduced from Scripture, that is to say, what is necessarily contained in it, has the authority of Scripture itself. (A Modern exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, pp. 42-43)
Am I the only one that thinks the older language was clearer? If the language was really intended to indicate that we must accept as authoritative “what may by sound logic be deduced from Scripture,” as Sam suggests, then doesn’t the original language say this better? Or perhaps we should just adopt Sam’s own wording and amend the Confession to read, “the whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or may by sound logic be deduced from Scripture.”
Third, I would like to suggest a change to paragraph 10, clarifying the meaning of the obscure old term private spirits.
10. The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private interpretations or revelations, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Scripture delivered by the Spirit, into which Scripture so delivered our faith is finally resolved.
It has become clear in recent scholarly discussion of the meaning of the term private spirits that the idea of personal revelations is meant, even if there has been debate over whether or not the Westminster Confession of faith or the Baptist Confession of 1689 allows support for some forms of private revelation or prophecy. James Renihan sums up the issue well in a blog article entitled Frequently Asked Symbolics Questions: Private Spirits:
Over the years, I have taught Symbolics in many places. Without fail, my students are bright and interested and ask me very useful and thought provoking questions. For the next few days, I want to explore some of those questions here. Let’s begin with Chapter 1. What is intended by the phrase ‘private spirits’ in paragraph 1?This question arise out of the claims of some (influenced by Wayne Grudem) that the phrase implies support for some form(s) of personal revelation. It has been debated in the scholarly literature in articles such as Byron Curtis, “‘Private Spirits’ in The Westminster Confession of Faith 1.10 and in Catholic-Protestant Debate (1588-1652),” Westminster Theological Journal 58 (1996): 257-266, and “’Private Spirits’ in the Westminster Confession of Faith and in Protestant–Catholic Debates: A Response to Byron Curtis” by Garnet H. Milne in the Spring 1999 fascicle of WTJ. More recently, Milne has published the exhaustive study The Westminster Confession of Faith and the Cessation of Special Revelation (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2007). He shows that the term frequently had reference to personal claims to a ‘testimony of the Spirit’ experienced by some believers. But is this akin to revelation? The simple answer is ‘no.’ You will do well to consult Milne on this question! I want to add one or two thoughts:The language of 2LCF (and WCF and Savoy) does this: it may acknowledge that there were some claims to private revelation, but in no way authorizes or legitimizes them. Rather it is seeking to state comprehensively that there is nothing men may claim that is above or beyond Scripture. Notice how “private spirits” is preceded by “doctrines of men.” There is no way that the WCF legitimizes “doctrines of men.” Notice for example 21:2 and its clear statement as well as Chapter 16 scripture
reference b; ch. 21 “n”; ch. 30 “f”.Similarly, one must factor in the challenge that was presented, from the late 1640s, by the Quakers. They regularly and frequently accused the Puritans of holding to a ‘dead letter’ by the Puritan focus on the centrality of the written word. For the Quakers, the living internal testimony of the Spirit was of exceedingly greater importance than dry and dead words printed on a page. In the case of the Confession, even claims to ‘private spirits’ (without giving any credence to them) had to be subordinated to the Scripture, given by the Spirit, as a fixed rule of faith.So does the Confession in any way authorize or permit private revelation by the use of this phrase? No way.
Again, whether or not one believes there is room for a concept of prophecy or revelation such as Wayne Grudem supposes, it is pretty clear that the term private spirits does refer to such a phenomenon, at least as others claim to experience it, and I think a clarification of the meaning of the term would help us to see how the Confession does, in fact, speak to such matters today. One thing is certain: Very few people today have any idea of what the original term means!