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In the United States, the mainline Presbyterian denomination (the PCUSA), along with several other Presbyterian bodies, include two chapters that were first added to the Westminster Confession in 1903. The PCUSA calls these chapters "Of the Holy Spirit" and "Of the Gospel," while the latter was known as "Of the Gospel of the Love of God and Missions" by the UPCUSA. They were originally added as chapters 34 and 35 of the Confession, respectively, though now some denominations (like the PCUSA) have renumbered them.

According to this history of changes to the confession, these additions were rejected by the conservative Orthodox Presbyterian Church when it was founded in the 1930s. Here, I'd like to better understand what conservatives specifically objected to. Historically, what issues with the text of these chapters have conservative opponents expressed?

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I'll quote from two notable opponents of these two chapters. The first is John Murray; his comments on the Confession were published in 1936 in the newsletter edited by J. Gresham Machen, the founder of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The second is the 2014 report of the study committee of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, which recommended that the two chapters be removed from the denomination's version of the Confession.

These conservative opponents argue in two main ways regarding these chapters:

  • They are awkward, ambiguous additions to an otherwise carefully organized confessional statement
  • They implicitly or explicitly reject elements of traditional Reformed theology

Awkward and ambiguous

First, conservatives regularly point to the logical structure of the original Westminster Confession. The ARP argues that the two new chapters "disrupt the chapter-by-chapter logic of the WCF’s system of Reformed doctrine," and with regards to chapter 34 in particular write:

The brilliance of the WCF is found in its pervasive treatment of the person and work of the Holy Spirit throughout many chapters. The added chapter Of the Holy Spirit in its attempt to soften the Calvinism of the WCF provides, at best, superfluous material. Its contents appear to be ambiguous, if not subtly subversive statements to the more biblical statements on sovereignty of God designed within the whole of the WCF.

Similarly, John Murray calls chapter 34 "inadequate," "superfluous to the extent of being distinctly misleading," and "destitute of that strength that characterizes the Confession."

Rejections of Reformed theology

Regarding chapter 34, the ARP takes issue with several statements that seem to emphasize human agency over divine sovereignty in the work of salvation. Murray devotes relatively little space to that chapter, and like the ARP, is more critical of chapter 35, particularly its failure to uphold a distinction between the efficacious, saving love of God directed toward the elect, and the more general, non-saving love of God directed toward all. This "studied omission," he says, is "fatal," particularly because the extent of God's love is always "expressly universalized" in the chapter. The ARP writes about the same chapter:

Its emphasis on a universal love of God is representative of an Amyraldian view of the decree of God and extent of the atonement that restricts the sovereignty of God.

Specifically, it argues that the chapter's language, "by His Spirit accompanying the word pleads with men to accept His gracious invitation," fails to account for the distinction between the elect and non-elect described in WCF 10.4. That chapter specifies that the non-elect receive only "some common operations of the Spirit," not an effectual call.

John Murray concludes:

In brief, the objection to this chapter is that it is not Reformed, indeed, that there is nothing distinctly Reformed in it. [...] How possibly can a formulation so destitute of Reformed truth on so vital a subject be defended in Reformed Confession? There is no defense.

Summary

Conservative opponents to chapters 34 and 35 argue that these chapters are detrimental to the structure of the Confession; ambiguous and confusing in their content; and, especially with respect to chapter 35, at least implicitly opposed to traditional Reformed theology. As a result these chapters were rejected by the OPC and PCA when the denominations were founded, and removed by the ARP in 2014.


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