superiority of original westminster documents
The superiority of the original
westminster confession of faith,
The Westminster Confession of Faith, produced by the venerable Westminster Assembly in London , England (1643-1648), has been called the greatest confessional creed ever written. It is no wonder that the Westminster Confession and Catechisms became the standard for the English-speaking church, and particularly for Presbyterianism.
However, as the Presbyterian faith made its way to the New World, certain modifications gradually crept into the Americanized version of the Westminster Standards. These changes did not take place all at once, but rather occurred over the course of several decades. We will focus on the most important of these changes.
The first set of changes happened in the nascent days of the denomination that became known as the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA)—in other words, the main body of Presbyterians in the newly-independent United States of America . These changes have to do with the civil magistrate and church/state relations.
The American church modified the Westminster Confession by removing a section of a section of Chapter XXXI, “Of Synods and Councils,” and by significantly re-writing a section of Chapter XXIII, “Of the Civil Magistrate,” and by modifying Chapter XX, “Of Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience,” The primary thrust of these changes was that the civil government should be neutral with regard to religious matters, and not favor one religion above another.
It is arguable that even the American Presbyterian forefathers did not intend to advocate for a totally secular state. For instance, John Witherspoon, the only clergyman who signed the Declaration of Independence, was a key participant in the first American Presbyterian General Assembly in 1788, which approved the modification. But Witherspoon was in favor of state support for Christian churches. Therefore, it is probably better to understand the early American Presbyterian position as being somewhat of a spectrum, ranging from more classic Presbyterian viewpoints to more radical perspectives which would maintain a complete separation of church and state.
Furthermore, while the Confession of Faith was modified, the Westminster Catechisms were not. Thus, the Larger Catechism continued to contain the requirement, in conjunction with the Second Commandment, that everyone according to his calling was “to remove all monuments of idolatry” (Q/A 108). In addition, the Larger Catechism counseled that when we pray “Thy kingdom come,” we are to pray that the civil magistrate would “countenance and maintain the true religion” (Q/A 191).
Nevertheless, the direction was clear, and became clearer as time went on: American Presbyterians, by and large, rejected the views of their British counterparts with respect to church/state relations.
The reasons for this new direction are multi-faceted, but basically revolve around three factors. First, there was the indisputable fact of pluralism in the new nation. Unlike the European scene, there was no church which could claim a privileged status in the country as a whole; instead, “denominations” were free to compete for members and money. Secondly, the “democratic” impulse, with its implicit individualism, and in combination with the heterodoxy, heresy, and even skepticism swirling about in the Early National period, argued against the imposition of one’s beliefs upon others. Thirdly, this individualism combined with the emotionalism and man-centeredness of revivalism, so that religion became relegated to the status of a “personal” (read that “individual”) choice.
In our modern world, to deny the thoroughly secularized vision of “separation of church and state” seems like heresy, if not blasphemy. But, of course, the opposite is precisely the case.
The crux of the matter is one of Lordship—who is the sovereign of the civil government? Either Jesus Christ is Lord and King of all, or He is not Lord and King at all. And if King Jesus is the sovereign ruler of all nations, and if He is to be recognized as such, does it not then follow that the civil magistrate, rather than being “neutral,” should be seeking to undergird and support His Church? That was the view of the Westminster Assembly; and not only of those churchmen, but of the leaders of the entire magisterial Reformation—from Luther and Calvin and Knox in the sixteenth century, to the Puritan theologians and others in the seventeenth century.
The original Westminster Standards do not teach the heresy of Erastianism (that is, the notion that the church should be subjugated to the state), nor the heresy of ecclesiocracy (that is, the idea that the state should be subjugated to the church—that is the teaching of Roman Catholicism). Rather, the Westminster Standards teach that both church and state are under the Lordship of Jesus; and that each is a coordinate sphere of activity that is to lend mutual support to the other. This position, we respectfully maintain, is consonant with Scripture, which means that the antithetical position is not.
The other major change to the Westminster Confession of Faith was the elimination of the teaching that the pope is the anti-Christ. This change occurred in the late 1800s, during a time when there was an increasing ecumenism, in the context of a burgeoning Roman Catholic population in the United States .
We realize that men of good will can differ as to whether the pope is the anti-Christ, or merely anti-Christ. Concerning whether the papacy is in opposition to Christ’s genuine kingdom, there can be no question: the so-called bishop of Rome , in his official capacity, contradicts the unambiguous teaching of the Apostle Paul with respect to the gospel—that is, the Biblical teaching of justification by faith alone through grace alone based upon Christ’s imputed righteousness alone. But given the close connection of the pope with Christendom, we would suggest that he, more than anyone else, matches the description of the “man of sin” set forth in II Thessalonians 2. It is because the papacy so clearly fits the definition of the anti-Christ, that the Westminster divines, in conjunction with the unanimous testimony of the Protestant Reformation, identified the pope as such. Given the nature of the papal system, and its slaughtering of countless thousands of Bible-believing Christians through the centuries, we have no problem in affirming that the pope is the anti-Christ, nor in believing that there was no need to modify the original Westminster Confession on this point.
The aphorism that “nature abhors a vacuum,” is reflected in the realm of the spirit, as well. Either Jesus is Lord, or He is not.
The United Nations, the U.S. Supreme Court, and the American Civil Liberties Union, along with both major American political parties, would contest King Jesus’ claims, and would set forth instead a privatized notion of religion. The fruit of this thinking has become evident in the recent past: no Bible reading or prayer in public schools, the inability of the prosecution to appeal to God’s Word in a criminal case, the eradication of Christian symbols from the public square, and the tearing down and covering over of displays of the Ten Commandments. But what must be remembered is that these perversions came about because of a fundamentally flawed idea, viz., that of a radical separation of church and state.
In contrast to the American ideas of church/state relations, the original Westminster Confession of Faith boldly and unapologetically proclaims that God is the Lord, and that all institutions owe Him their allegiance. The seventeenth century document also is not ashamed to point out the anti-Christian nature of the pope—a usurper of the prerogatives of the Son of God, and one who seeks to undermine the precious gospel.
The Westminster Assembly asserted the Lordship of Christ in both church and state, and therefore would not tolerate any effort to subvert His Kingship. The civil government is to recognize the rule of King Jesus, and therefore the kings and queens (including presidents and prime ministers, parliaments and congresses by whatever name they go) of the earth are to be nursing fathers and nursing mothers of the church (Isaiah 49:22-23). The church submits only to her Lord and Savior, not to pretenders to His throne. It is because of this unabashed adherence to Jesus Christ that we respectfully submit that the original Westminster Standards are superior to their American cousins.
(Approved at American Presbytery, November 2, 2005)