I was reading a recent acquisition, Herman Witsius’s Sacred Dissertations on the Apostles’ Creed. Dissertation 2 was worth the price of admission for me. It is entitled “On Fundamental Articles.” In this article, Witsius tries to do the impossible. Whether he succeeded or not is a fair question, but no one could deny that he says some very important things along the way. The question he is seeking to answer, and one that is essential for the PCA right now, is this: how can we know what doctrines are fundamental and/or necessary to the Christian faith?
Witsius is cautious about this, as it is an exceedingly difficult question. He writes, “This, indeed, is so abstruse a topic, that it has very much embarrassed even the most judicious and acute Theologians who have attempted to explain it; and scarcely any one has given full satisfaction to himself, much less to others” (p. 16 of volume 1). Throughout this particular dissertation, we find similar statements of caution. For instance, he says also, “To point out the articles necessary to salvation, and precisely to determine their number, is a task, if not utterly impossible, at least extremely difficult” (p. 27). And especially when it comes to judging the state of salvation must we be careful: “It does not become us to ascend into the tribunal of God, and to pronounce concerning our neighbor, for how small a defect of knowledge, or for how inconsiderable an error, he must be excluded from heaven. It is much safer to leave that to God” (p. 29). This is immediately balanced, however, with a statement that ensures critical and judicial thinking on the part of the church: “It may not be safe and expedient for us to receive into church-fellowship, a person chargeable with some error or sin; whom, however, we should not dare, on account of that error or sin, to exclude from heaven” (ibid). In other words, on the one hand, delineating which doctrines are essential for salvation is very difficult. On the other hand, we must not on that account stop trying to determine this, nor should we equate membership in our church with membership in heaven. Witsius says unequivocally that “her (the church, LK) safety is ill consulted by those who, under the specious pretext of peace and toleration, would have her to embrace with open arms, all that hold errors not entirely fundamental” (p. 32). We can afford, nay, cannot afford not, to be stricter when it comes to what the church teaches in comparison with what is necessary to be saved. Otherwise, the peace and purity of the church will always be suspect.
In terms of actual criteria of what constitutes fundamental doctrine, Witsius is exceedingly helpful and careful. First, some helpful distinctions are in order concerning the realm of necessity:
[D]octrines may be said to be necessary,-to Salvation,-or to Religion,-or to the Church. A doctrine, without the knowledge and faith of which, God does not save grown-up persons, is necessary to Salvation; that, without the profession and practice of which, no one can be considered religious, is necessary to Religion; and that, without which none is admitted to the communion of the visible church, is necessary to the Church.
It seems fairly clear that Witsius’s intention here is to delineate three expanding realms of necessity. The smallest is Salvation, next is Religion, and the last is Church. In other words, the fewest number of doctrines are necessary for salvation, more are required for Religion, and most are required for the Church.
A second caveat he has is that people can hold necessary doctrines with different degrees of clarity: “It is in different measures of clearness, abundance, and efficacy that divine revelation, the means of grace, and the communications of the Spirit are enjoyed” (p. 17). However, this does not mean that people should be satisfied with the bare minimum. On the contrary, “The command of God, indeed, lays an indispensable obligation upon all men, to make every possible effort to attain a most clear, distinct, and assured knowledge of divine truth” (p. 18). In terms of the bare minimum regarding any particular doctrine, “The smallest measure of the requisite knowledge appears to be this, that, when an article of faith is explained, the mind so far at least apprehends it, as to recognise (sic) and embrace it as true” (p. 18). Witsius will add later that “It is possible, too, that a man who holds the foundation, may embrace some error inconsistent with a fundamental article” (p. 27).
A third caveat he issues is in regard to time. The more light there is available to us, “the more extensive and more explicit knowledge is necessary to salvation” (p. 18). This is particularly true when we move from the Old Testament to the New Testament. He quotes Thomas Aquinas in a very clear expression of how this works: “The articles of faith have increased with the lapse of time, not indeed with respect to the faith itself, but with respect to explicit and express profession. The same things which are believed explicitly, and under a greater number of articles, by the saints in latter days, were all believed implicitly, and under a smaller number, by the fathers in ancient times” (p. 19, quoting Summa, II.1.7).
The actual criteria for what constitute necessary doctrines then follows: 1. It must be contained in Scripture; 2. It must be clear enough in Scripture that any person can perceive that it is Scriptural (he includes here an important qualification that articles contained in scripture “must include not only those which they teach in express words, but also those which, to all who apply their minds to the subject, are obviously deducible from them by necessary consequence” (p. 20)); 3. “that it be of such a nature that neither faith in Christ, nor true repentance, can subsist without it;” 4. Any article is fundamental, the denial of which leads to destruction (the reverse does not always hold, if the promise of life is annexed, giving baptism as an example, see page 23); 5. if the Scriptures call it a foundation; 6. any article which is necessary to understand another necessary article is also necessary; 7. This one is a bit difficult, but basically Witsius says that if a more doubtful doctrine is said to be essential, then the less doubtful article that follows from it must also be essential.
One last caution is in order, with regard to heretics:
Our faith consists not in words, but in sense; not in the surface, but in the substance; not in the leaves of a profession, but in the root of reason. All the heretics of the present day, that claim the name of Christians, are willing enough to subscribe the words of the Creed; each however affixing to them whatever sense he pleases, though diametrically opposite to sound doctrine.
So does all this boil down to the PCA today? Several points deserve reflection here. Firstly, many people think that it is perfectly okay for ministers of the PCA not to hold to all the articles in the Westminster Standards. This would be to confuse the different realms that Witsius has so helpfully delineated. Now, here we must be careful. It is evident that Witsius was speaking of the Apostles Creed, and not of the Westminster Standards. However, he freely acknowledges that the Church can, and even should, have stricter requirements of doctrine that what is essential for getting into heaven (i.e., what church membership would entail). Chalk this up to maintaining peace and purity among like-minded people. Secondly, we have not even begun to reflect upon the nature of essential doctrine in the PCA today. Has anyone really talked about this in our day with a sophistication even approaching Witsius? And yet, how many confusions have arisen in the PCA over just these points? Is not the entire debate over subscription based on a confused understanding of these more basic, underlying issues? Furthermore, Witsius’s last warning is extremely salutary for today: every FV person, for instance, will say he holds to the Westminster Standards. At least, every one in the PCA will say that his doctrine does not conflict with the standards. The question is this, though: is the doctrine the FV holds diametrically opposite to the sound doctrine that is actually meant in the Westminster Standards? Are they affixing whatever sense they please to sections of the Westminster Standards? We cannot assume that when someone says that they hold to the Westminster Standards, that they actually do.
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, who are we as a denomination? How do we wish to be defined? By the bare minimum? Can we not see that if we create a standard within the standard (what I like to refer to as a Barthian hermeneutic of the confessions), we will create disunity of the highest degree. It is not the confessionalists, then, who are creating disunity in the PCA today. Rather, it is those who desire not to hold to everything in the Westminster Standards, those who do not wish to be defined by Reformed confessions. Witsius, in effect, connects elaborate confessions and catechisms to the Church. That is what the church should do for the sake of unity and peace. If a person, then, desires not to hold to the Westminster Standards, there are many denominations out there who will welcome them with open arms. Why do we need another generally evangelical denomination?