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Westminster Shorter Catechism Project

The Presbyterian Standards

Francis R. Beattie



The proposed exposition of the Presbyterian Standards has been completed. A closing chapter may be devoted to some remarks based upon this exposition. Some general features of the contents of the Standards as a whole may be signalized now, in a more intelligent way than was possible prior to the exposition. A very brief summary of these contents may be first given.

At the outset, a chapter was devoted to a brief history of the creeds of the Christian church, and another to the nature and uses of religious creeds. Then the topics were taken up according to the general order of the Shorter Catechism, and the contents of the Larger Catechism and Confession of Faith were carefully woven into the discussion throughout. In addition, some topics set forth in the Confession alone were also explained, so as to make, the exposition complete. Then the several topics of Christian doctrine were unfolded in an orderly way. The doctrine of Holy Scripture came naturally first, then God and his attributes followed, together with an explanation of the Trinity. The decrees and their execution came next in order, to be followed by the outline of the covenant of works, and man's failure and fall in that covenant relation, together with an exposition of original sin. Then the covenant of grace came into view, and this led to an exposition of the person and work of the mediator of that covenant, under the three official relations of prophet, priest, and king, together with an outline of his humiliation and exaltation. This led to the nature and free agency of man, and to the important matter of effectual calling, and union with Christ. Then came the benefits of Christ in justification, adoption, and sanctification, together with faith and repentance. This was followed, very properly, by some explanation of good works, perseverance, and assurance. Next came the law of God and Christian liberty, to be followed by the communion of saints and religious worship. The means of grace was the topic next explained, and this led to an exposition of the ten commandments, and of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's supper at some length. After this a variety of topics, expounded chiefly in the Larger Catechism and Confession, were explained in regard to the church, her censures, her synods and councils, and her relation to the state. The exposition concluded with some explanations of death, the intermediate state, the resurrection of the dead, and the final judgment.

The first general remark to be made is the obvious one that the Standards, taken as a whole, are exceedingly comprehensive in their scope. They set forth with great fulness the teaching of the Scriptures in regard to the three great departments of the Christian religion. First, A very comprehensive statement of the doctrines of the Scriptures is given. These relate to God and his plan and its execution, to man and his fallen moral state, to Christ and his redeeming work, and to the results of that work both for this life and for that which is to come. Secondly, A very complete and detailed code of morals or Christian ethics is unfolded. The Scriptures are thereby regarded not only as a rule of faith, setting forth the doctrines to be believed, but also as a rule of life, unfolding the principles or laws which are to guide men in all they think and say and do. The summary of this rule is the ten commandments, and therein man's duty to God and to his fellowmen is explained with much care, both on the positive and negative sides. And, Thirdly, The general principles of the government, discipline, and worship of the church are exhibited. This department of religious truth is not so fully wrought out in the Standards as the other two, yet many important matters in harmony with the Presbyterian system are propounded and enforced. The discussion of the sacraments is unusually complete, and is one of the great excellencies of the Standards in comparison with other creeds. In this way it appears that doctrine, ethics, and polity are all embraced in the Standards. Matters of faith, duty, and worship are all explained.

In the second place, the Standards constitute a definite creed with a catholic spirit. That there is definiteness about the creed is evident from the exposition made. Some have found fault with the clear-cut form in which the doctrines are expressed, and with the minute way in which the rules for the conduct of life are set forth. Some have even been displeased with the general way in which matters of polity, especially in regard to the relations between church and state, are defined in the Standards. It is freely admitted that the doctrines are definite, that the ethical system is strict, and that the doctrine of the church is lofty and pure; but these features may be justly claimed to be excellencies rather than defects, so long as it can be shown that they are founded on and agreeable to the word of God, as we believe them to be.

Then, on the other hand, it is equally evident that the spirit of the Standards is of the broadest and most charitable nature. They give lofty views of God; they present honest descriptions of sin; they unfold a full, free gospel; they outline a high ideal of life and destiny; they exhibit a very exalted conception of the church of Christ; and yet all through there breathes the spirit of true freedom and a large liberty. The doctrine of the invisible church, and of the oneness of all who are members of that phase of the church which is the body of Christ, lays the basis for the communion of saints, and of the standing of all these members in Christ, no matter by what name they may be known. He that is true to the spirit of the Standards may have strong convictions in matters of religion, but he can never be a bigot, or persecute, for religion's sake, any true believer in Christ. The doctrine of the sacraments, especially of the Lord's supper, and the conditions of its observance, exhibits the same catholicity. All who love the Lord Jesus Christ, and who trust and obey him, are made welcome at the Lord's table. He that is true to the teaching and spirit of the Standards in this connection can never be an advocate of close communion, nor exhibit towards his brethren in Christ the temper of the Pharisee. Such is the catholic spirit of the Standards.

A third general remark is to the effect that the application of the contents of the Standards to individual, domestic and national life produces the highest and most beneficent results. The individual man who is consciously a freeman in Christ, and who enjoys the liberty wherewith Christ makes his people free, can never be a coward or a slave ; and he whose life is framed according to the ethical rules of the Standards will be found glorifying God in his body, soul and spirit as his reasonable service.

In the case of the home, he that follows the teaching of the Standards in regard to the duties of the domestic circle, whether it be those of parents or those of children, will find that the home life is properly regulated. Hence it is that wherever this teaching has prevailed, and regulated domestic life, that life is seen at its very best. Nowhere is the home so sacred and its life so pure as in those communities in which the doctrines of the Standards have been believed, and their ethical teaching observed in the family circle. History and observation abundantly confirm this position.

In regard to national life, the same thing is true on a larger scale. The teaching of the Standards in regard to civil government balances in a fitting manner the largest degree of individual liberty, and the necessary measure of control requisite for free yet stable national life and action. The form of church polity which the Standards exhibit has the same balanced structure, so that religious and national life, each in its own sphere, has the same stable adjustment. Those whose spirit is tempered by the teaching of the Standards cannot long be the subjects of oppression, nor will they, if in the place of authority and power, be the instruments of tyranny. History abundantly confirms this on both sides. Presbyterians, as a matter of fact, have always been the friends of freedom and the foes of oppression. Again and again they have fought the world's battle for religious freedom and civil liberty. This is the result not merely of the doctrines and ethics of the system which the Standards unfold, but also of the clear manner in which the provinces of church and state are marked out. The sphere of each is plainly prescribed, and the true basis of the nature and ends of civil government is laid down, so that neither is allowed to usurp the functions or invade the sphere of the other. Hence it is that those branches of the church which have been moulded by the true reformed doctrine contained in the Standards, and which have been permeated with its spirit, have led the van in the world's onward progress in intelligence, morality and self-government. They have been the pioneers in all that goes to lift up mankind to its divine ideal, and to supply it with a lofty motive to live for the glory of God and the welfare of men the world over.

In the fourth place, a few things may be properly said now in regard to the general type of doctrine which the Standards exhibit. Speaking generally, it may be described as typical Calvinism, using the term Calvinism in its historical rather than in its personal sense. The type of doctrine in the Standards is neither high Calvinism nor low Calvinism. It is generic, consistent, well-balanced Calvinism. Therein there is no special effort to reconcile seeming contradictions, which lie in the nature of things, but the utmost care is taken to exhibit in proper proportions the complete teaching of the Scriptures, alike in regard to the human and divine factors which enter into the system. This is what is meant by consistent, well-balanced Calvinism.

In regard to the doctrine of election, which is the divine sovereignty operative in the sphere of man's redemption, the doctrine of the Standards is sublapsarian rather than supralapsarian. Men are not, in the order of thought, elected and then created, but viewed as already created and fallen, and then elected or passed by. The order of the facts in the Catechisms entirely confirms this view, while the Confession, though it states the whole doctrine of the decrees in a single chapter before it sets forth the doctrine of creation, is not supralapsarian in its type of doctrine. As a creed statement it simply states the whole doctrine of the decrees in a single chapter, but does not thereby intend to adopt the supralapsarian order of the various factors.

In reference to the matter of our race relation to Adam and his sin and fall, the Standards are not absolutely committed to any one of several theories in regard to the facts. The fact that sin, guilt, and misery have come upon the whole race by reason of its connection with our first parents and their apostasy is plainly asserted, yet the Standards may be harmonized with either of several theories in regard to the fact. While we are clearly of the opinion that what is termed the immediate imputation theory is most consistent with the contents of the Standards, and especially with the covenant principle upon which they are constructed, yet we would be far from maintaining that the theory of mediate imputation, of generic unity, or of concurrence is to be regarded as heresy.

So, in like manner, broad middle ground is taken in the Standards in regard to the atonement. The fact that the sufferings and death of Christ are sacrificial and vicarious, and a satisfaction to the divine justice, is emphasized in various ways in different parts of the Standards, but they are not absolutely committed to any single theory in regard to that important scriptural fact. This being the case, there is some room for diversity of opinion in regard to the precise nature of the atonement, as a sacrifice for sin, and as a propitiation to the divine justice and an expiation for human guilt. In regard to the design or extent of the atonement, the doctrine of the Standards is more definite. So far as the efficacy of the death of Christ and the application of its benefits are concerned, the Standards always confine these to the elect. For them alone Christ efficaciously died and made full satisfction. Still, even here, there is nothing to hinder the view that, in addition to the sure benefits of salvation secured to the elect by the death of Christ, there are also benefits of various kinds which come even to the non-elect, whose final condemnation is, nevertheless, grounded upon their wilful sin and continued impenitence.

So, also, in regard to the doctrines of grace in the recovery of the sinner, the Standards assert constantly the necessity and efficacy of sovereign grace to renew and recover the sinner. Yet, at the same time, the mode in which the Standards describe the operation of that grace shows clearly that it works in no mere mechanical way, but in entire harmony with the mental and moral powers of man. This grace operates so as to make men both able and willing to receive and obey the gospel. Here, too, the Standards take middle ground between historically extreme opinion's. In regard to perseverance and assurance, the same statement is true. Careful middle ground is held in all these important matters of doctrine and experience. In regard to the much-debated question of the second advent of Christ, while we understand the Standards to teach the postmillennial view in a general way, and that the framers of the Standards intended to teach this view, still we admit that, from the way in which the Standards state their doctrine, premillennial views may not be condemned as seriously contra-confessional. The debate concerning this topic was not really broached in the Westminster Assembly in a formal way, so that the Standards are content to teach in a positive way the postmillennial view, and to remain silent in regard to the premillennial doctrine. Premillennialism is extra-confessional rather than contra-confessional. At the same time, we are constrained to add that in our own judgment the teaching of the Standards is more in harmony with the Scripture than premillennialism is. Many good men hold the latter doctrine. Some Scriptures seem to teach or favor it, but many other Scriptures teach the opposite doctrine, and we believe the doctrine of the Standards best exhibits the teaching of the whole Scripture upon this point.

In regard to ethics, some may be inclined to regard the teachings of the Standards as Puritan in their nature and requirements. Yet it may be successfully maintained that the Standards hold a consistent middle position between legalism and license. The experience of the great ethical principles set forth in the Standards, and the operations of the spirit of Christian liberty which they inculcate, secure this well-balanced result in life. The legitimate scope of the freedom of the Christian man, and the clear statement of the will of Christ set forth in the Standards, together conduce to this end. The spirit of ready obedience to the will of Christ as the rule of life and conversation is generated, so that a free and vigorous Christian life and experience is the result.

The polity of the Standards is generic Calvinism, for Calvinism is a polity as well as a doctrinal system. The polity is broad and comprehensive in its nature, securing stable government, and the liberty of the people in their balanced and harmonious relations.

In the fifth place, it is interesting to make inquiry in regard to the constructive principle of the Standards. In the interests of theology this is an important inquiry. The subjects treated of in the Standards are not formally classified into heads or divisions. The Catechisms have an implicit classification of the topics into two general divisions. The one relates to what man is to believe concerning God, and the other pertains to the duty which God requires of man. The Confession has no formal classification at all, but in its statement goes on through doctrine, duty, worship, and polity, chapter by chapter, without any division of topics.

The inquiry now raised may be considered from a twofold point of view : First, A general view of the principle upon which the entire Standards are constructed may be taken. Here what may be termed the theocentric principle rules. Everything is from God, is subject to God, and is for the glory of God. The absolute sovereignty of God in creation, in providence, and in grace, is the fundamental idea of the Standards. He is sovereign in the sphere of natural or physical government, and in the realm of moral government, as well as in the domain of his spiritual redemptive government. Thus the sovereignty of God, rightly regarded and applied, is the root idea of the generic Calvinism of the Standards, and it supplies their constructive principle. The first question in the Catechisms strikes the key-note, and the entire contents of the Standards are in harmony with this view. God is the ruler of nature, and he is the Lord of the head, the heart, the conscience, and the life of all men. He is also King of kings and Lord of lords, as well as the king and head of his church. The theocentric principle is the constructive principle of the Standards as a whole, and it gives great majesty and remarkable completeness to the doctrines, ethics, and polity which they contain.

Secondly, A narrower or special view of the constructive principle of the Standards may be taken. This raises the question of the central principle of the redemptive scheme which they unfold. In general, this is the Christo-centric idea or principle. Redemption centres in, and flows from, Christ. The incarnation is in order to redemption, and Christ is the sum and substance of redemption. If the question be farther raised as to what particular form of the Christo-centric scheme the Standards exhibit, the answer is to the effect that they set forth the federal or covenant idea, in its general broad outlines. The federal principle in its general outline, rather than in definite detail, is adopted in the Standards. Both the Adamic and the Christic relations are construed in the Standards under the federal principle. Adam was the natural root and the federal or representative head of the race, and his failure in that covenant relation brought guilt and depravity upon the whole human race. And Christ, the second Adam, is the federal or representative head of his elect people, and by his obedience, death, and intercession he obtains for them, and applies to them, all the redemptive benefits which are secured for his seed by the provisions of the covenant of grace. This, in general, is the federal principle. It is applied in the Standards alike to the first Adam and to Christ, the second Adam. Both hold covenant relations, and both represent and act for others. The first Adam acted for the race, the second for the covenant seed. This twofold covenant idea is that according to which the Standards construct their redemptive scheme. It explains the facts of sin in which the race is involved through Adam, and it accounts for the facts of redemption which come through Jesus Christ, the mediator of the covenant. The Standards, therefore, while Christo-centric in regard to their redemptive scheme, at the same time represent what may be termed the generic federal phase of that scheme. Whatever theologians come finally to think of this scheme, one thing may be safely said, and that is, that there has not yet been presented any other scheme which is more entirely scriptural, which is more consistent and comprehensive, and which more adequately accounts for all the facts of sin and redemption, than that type of the federal theology represented by the Standards.

In the sixth place, it is proper to emphasize the ethical system of the Standards, especially as it is found in the Catechisms. In most treatises on theology so much prominence is given to doctrine that the ethical side of religion is often left in the background. Indeed, the whole department of Christian ethics is often relegated to a different department altogether, and receives treatment apart from theology. The Standards do not so regard this topic, nor do they so treat it, but they deal with the practical as well as with the doctrinal side of religion. This is a very important matter, and it deserves careful consideration at the hands of those who are drawing up treatises on theology. Then, too, it is evident that no attempt to formulate a code of Christian ethics apart from the ten commandments, especially as interpreted by Christ, can succeed. The Standards in this connection deserve high commendation. The manner in which the ten commands are expounded in the Standards is fitted to develop strong and sturdy Christian character, wherein virtue and righteousness shall be the ruling principles. Moreover, the ethical system therein unfolded fits men to fulfil their duties in all the relations of life in the very best way, whether it be in the home, in the state, or in the church. The importance of teaching children these things, and of expounding them from the pulpit, and enforcing them in all legitimate ways, is evident in this connection. Even theological instruction given to young ministers should not overlook the importance of this branch in its teachings.

In the seventh place, a remark in regard to the finality of the Standards ought to be made in this connection. Highly as they are to be admired and regarded, and valuable and useful as they are as a matter of fact, still the position should not be dogmatically taken that they are a finality. They contain the most complete and scriptural outline of Christian doctrine to be found in any of the great creeds and we are inclined to think that none of our modern theologians have made any notable or valuable additions to the system of the Standards, yet no one should hold that they are perfect in form and contents. It may even be confessed that the more one studies the Standards the more one will admire, their logical consistency and scriptural completeness, and the more one will marvel at the insight of the men who framed them into Holy Scripture, and into the philosophical soundness of the principles which underlie the doctrinal system; yet at the same time it may be held that the Standards, being the productions of the hands of godly and learned men, who were illuminated by the Spirit, though not inspired, cannot be regarded as infallible. They are the product of an assembly or council of the church, and, as the Standards themselves say, such councils are liable to err ; so that the Standards, even by their own claim, are not to be regarded as perfect or necessarily final. And while the Holy Spirit does dwell in the church, and is promised to keep and lead it aright, yet this promise does not mean that the church is inspired. If the church may not claim inspiration and infallibility, then the Standards, being the product of the church, cannot be infallible.

The Standards, therefore, are not to be placed on a par with the Scriptures, much less are they to be put above the inspired word of God. They are not necessarily a finality, as the word of God is a finality. The Standards express for the time being the general outline of divine truth, which the church, taught by the Holy Ghost, finds in the Scriptures. The Spirit may lead into new views of the truths of God's word and of their relations and connections, and he may enable the church more fully to understand the mind of the Lord as revealed in the Scriptures. When this result has been clearly reached, the time may have come for the revision of the Standards, either by omission, addition, or change. But, in the meantime, till that stage is actually reached, the Standards constitute for the church the definite doctrinal system under which it lives and does its work, as its interpretation of the teaching of Holy Scripture. But this does not hinder the church from holding the door open, or at least unlocked, for new light to shine in from the lamp of revelation, and if such light comes, the Standards may be modified in order more fully to express the contents of Scripture. That the time is now at hand for such a revision or readjustment can scarcely be maintained. But to assert that such a time shall never come may not be wise. What, in our judgment, is much needed in many quarters is a more diligent study of the contents of the Standards, and a careful observation, in the light of the Scripture proofs, of the scriptural and comprehensive nature of the Catechisms and Confession alike. If such study and observation be made, the result will, in all probability, be that the supposed need for revision will be very much less sensibly felt than it was prior thereto. The simple point contended for here is, that all creeds and confessions are fallible; that Holy Scripture alone is the supreme rule of faith and life; that the Holy Spirit who first gave the Scriptures dwells in the church; that the Spirit may lead the church in the future, as he has in the past, into new and larger views of the truth contained in the Scriptures; and that these new and larger views may, if deemed necessary, be incorporated by the church in a creed statement. The Scripture, as the supreme rule, is complete, infallible, and final, and can in no way be added to, but the church may, in coming ages, be led into a fuller knowledge of the will of God and the mind of the Spirit therein contained. This is virtually the view the Standards themselves take, when they confess that synods and councils of the church may err, and have erred.

In the last place, the expression of an opinion may be ventured in regard to the bearing of the Standards upon the question of a closer union among the various branches of the church of Christ. The opinion ventured is to the effect that if the various branches of Protestantism are ever to be brought together, it must be on the broad middle ground represented by the general teaching which the Standards exhibit in regard to doctrine, worship, ethics and polity. This may seem a bold and foolhardy assertion of an ill-grounded opinion, but we are inclined to think that a good case can be made out for it. A few hints may suggest the line of reasoning in its support.

In the matter of doctrine, history shows that the choice has always been between extremes, the one honoring God, and the other exalting man. As to the Trinity, it has been between definite Trinitarianism and Socinianism. As to Christ's person and work, it has been between Calvinism and Arminianism. As to man, it has been between Augustinianism and Pelagianism. And so with all the doctrines of grace, the choice lies between a purely natural theory and a supernatural one. Now, consistent generic Calvinism has always honored God, and held fast by a true scriptural supernaturalism, and if ever the churches are to come together without loss of scriptural doctrine and spiritual force, they must take their stand on this doctrinal basis. In our judgment this ground cannot be deserted, even if the price should be a divided Protestantism. In such a case union might be weakness, and not strength. Doctrinal union on the basis of generic Calvinism would be immense gain of strength.

In regard to polity, perhaps a still better case can be made out for the essential principles of the Presbyterian system as the common meeting-place for all branches of Protestantism. The Standards clearly hold a middle position in this sphere, between Episcopacy, with its orders in the ministry, and Independency, with its denial of the corporate idea of the visible church. The Standards undoubtedly hold the middle ground here ; and, so far as the unification of Protestantism is concerned on the side of polity, the principles of the Standards, call them Presbyterian, or by any other name, supply the middle meeting-place. Presbyterianism, as a spiritual republic, avoids the dangers of hierarchical pretension which arise from the prelatic system, and it avoids the dangers of separatism and isolation which are sure to flow from Independency. Other features in Presbyterian polity need not be dwelt on at length.

In the sphere of ethics, too, the same claim can be made good, that the position of the Standards in regard to life and conduct is a safe middle one. They hold the balance between asceticism and epicureanism, between legalism and license. They set forth principles of action rather than minute prohibitions for the direction of the conduct of the Christian man, and yet the statement of these principles is such as to render loose living impossible. The men who have made a mark upon their age for moral good have nearly always been men whose lives were under the dominion of the redemptive and ethical system contained in the generic Calvinism of the Standards. This is another valid plea for unity among Protestants on the ethical basis of the Westminster Standards.

And, finally, in regard to worship and discipline, a good case may also be made out for union upon the basis of the Standards. Simplicity and spirituality of worship are emphasized in the Standards, and they present a scheme of discipline in outline which secures the purity of the church wherever it is administered. The evils of ritualism are avoided on the one hand, and everything is done decently and in order on the other. Spirituality of worship and the preaching of pure scriptural doctrine in all its fulness is what men need, both for this life and for that which is to come. This position the Standards hold, and so supply another plea for the unity of Protestantism on the basis they provide. Thus outlined, this plea is left to speak further for itself.

The exposition of the Standards is now complete, together with the inferences made in this concluding chapter. It is hoped that in no respect has injustice been done to their contents, and that the word and Spirit of God have not been dishonored. If an increased interest in, knowledge of, and devotion to, the system of divine and saving truth exhibited in the Standards is produced by these pages of simple exposition, their aim will have been attained.

Two hundred and fifty years have passed away since the Westminster Assembly met and did its noble work. During these years the world has seen wonderful changes, and the human race has, in various ways, made remarkable progress. Civil liberty has in many lands been planted on a sure foundation, intellectual activity has gained much splendid renown, commercial energy has conquered many an unexplored region, and missionary zeal has reached out to the ends of the earth. How much of all this is due to the silent and salutary operation of the Reformed doctrine, polity and ethics can scarcely be estimated. The verdict of history tells the splendid story. And today, the world over, there are many millions of people who accept the system of Reformed doctrine and Presbyterian polity of which the Standards are such a complete exposition. Generic Calvinism is not dying out, nor shall it be allowed to die. Its noble history, often bathed in tears and baptized with blood; its deep philosophy of the facts of nature, of providence, and of grace; and its absolute submission to the will of God as made known in the Scriptures, guarantee its vitality and efficiency till time shall be no more. and grace be fully crowned in glory.

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