Moderation and the Confession

Hugh McCann just posted a very helpful quotation from John Witherspoon (Ecclesiastical Characteristics, Maxim III) that I’d like to share with everyone.

“It is a necessary part of the character of a moderate man, never to speak of the Confession of Faith but with a sneer; to give sly hints, that he does not thoroughly believe it; and to make the word orthodoxy a term of contempt and reproach.

“The Confession of Faith, which we are now all laid under a disagreeable necessity to subscribe, was framed in times of hot religious zeal; and therefore it can hardly be supposed to contain any thing agreeable to our sentiments in these cool and refreshing days of moderation. So true is this, that I do not remember to have heard any moderate man speak well of it, or recommend it, in a sermon, or private discourse, in my time, And, indeed, nothing can be more ridiculous, than to make a fixed standard for opinions, which change just as the fashions of clothes and dress. No complete system can be settled for all ages, except the maxims I am now compiling and illustrating, and their great perfection lies in their being ambulatory, so that they may be applied differently, with the change of times.

“…There is one very strong particular reason why moderate men cannot love the Confession of Faith; moderation evidently implies a large share of charity, and consequently a good and favorable opinion of those that differ from our church; but a rigid adherence to the Confession of Faith, and high esteem of it, nearly borders upon, or gives great suspicion of harsh opinions of those that differ from us: and does not experience rise up and ratify this observation? Who are the narrow-minded, bigotted, uncharitable persons among us? Who are the severe censurers of those that differ in judgment? Who are the damners of the adorable Heathens, Socrates, Plato, Marcus Antonius, &c.? In fine, who are the persecutors of the inimitable heretics among ourselves? Who but the admirers of this antiquated composition, who pin their faith to other men’s sleeves, and will not endure one jot less or different belief from what their fathers had before them! It is therefore plain, that the moderate man, who desires to inclose all intelligent beings in one benevolent embrace, must have an utter abhorrence at that vile hedge of distinction, the Confession of Faith…”


  1. Joshua W.D. Smith said,

    April 21, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    If this is meant to refer to the FV, then there are two major problems, one logical and one theological.

    1. A fallacy of presumption or equivocation. The clear implication is: “Meyers said the confession needed to be changed, therefore he holds the confession in contempt.” The hidden premise of that enthymeme is what requires the presumption or equivocation: “Thinking the confession is limited by its historical context or needs to be changed shows contempt for the confession.” Suggesting that the confession needs to be changed in some way because of its historical setting does not entail contempt for it. There is at least one WSC professor who held this view of the confessions explicitly when I was there–and he is the one most vociferously opposed to FV. Mike Horton had in article in which he clearly stated that it is possible for contemporary exegesis to change historical statements of theology. Indeed, anyone who takes an exception to the confession indicates a private judgment that a part of the confession should be changed. So, do all of these people hold the confession in contempt?

    2. “Either the confession needs to be changed or it does not need to be changed.” This is a necessary statement, a tautology. Why would the confession need to be changed? Only if it is in error, whether of substance or expression. Otherwise, we would need to change things that are correct, which is absurd. But that means that saying the confession does not need to be changed entials that the confession is inerrant. How is that good Reformed orthodoxy?

    3. There’s another one: the syllogism appears to be: “If a man holds to the confession, then he is judgmental against differing opinions.” But notice that this is not a biconditional, and thus is vulnerable to the fallacy of affirming the consequence: “Since he is judgmental, he holds to the confession” is invalid. Therefore, it is possible for that judgmentalism to come from some other reason than holding to the confession, and one cannot use one’s willingness to condemn different beliefs to demonstrate one’s adherence to the confession.

  2. Jeff Cagle said,

    April 21, 2011 at 6:02 pm

    Aside: I am not moderate about the voting system. Having seen it in practice (on Slashdot), I can say that it encourages posturing and general over-concern for the opinions of others.


  3. Jeff Cagle said,

    April 21, 2011 at 6:05 pm

    But about the topic. The problem is that people sometimes find it hard to separate definite opinions about theology from harsh language about people. Hard-hearted folk give hard-nosed folk a bad name.

  4. greenbaggins said,

    April 21, 2011 at 7:16 pm

    Jeff, I agree. I have taken them off. The other problem is that it makes the pages harder to load.

    Joshua, this post is not specifically aimed at FV folk, but at people who think the confession is just one big tent under which many competing interpretations *of the things the confession talks about* can all exist quite happily. Of these, I have seen many FV folk outright attack the Westminster Standards. You cannot deny that some FV folk have done this.

  5. David Gray said,

    April 21, 2011 at 7:22 pm

    Of course the WCF as used by the PCA and OPC has been changed.

  6. Towne said,

    April 21, 2011 at 7:58 pm

    Mr. W.D. Smith (aka “40” to your friends?):

    You based your logic on a faulty premise. Take the time to carefully re-read the prior thread. See Mr. McCann’s post #24 and following. There is no reference, implied or otherwise, to the Federal Vision. The only association was between a statement by Rev. Meyers and the parody by Dr. Witherspoon.

    Also, at the end of pt. 2, you drew a false conclusion in your comment: “saying the confession does not need to be changed entials [sic] that the confession is inerrant.”

    No, rather, saying the confession does not need to be changed simply says that it is acceptable (for now) the way it is.

    It may also say that we do not trust the available, over-eager volunteers as truly competent to draft something of comparable quality.

    (I for one cannot bring myself to say that the requisite generation of genuinely humble scholars is yet in view. You do not know the Word of God nearly as well as you imagine. Half your number are addicted to pornography; most are afflicted with materialism; few have suffered and rare the man who has suffered for the sake of the Gospel. To wit, this clamoring to draft a new Confession seems born of a parochial American arrogance.)

    [Mr. Gray: That edition in use by the OPC and the PCA bears only modest changes from the original. Nothing like the wholesale gutting envisioned by its detractors.]

  7. proregno said,

    April 22, 2011 at 6:36 am

    What about the argument: if the Confessions is ‘outdated’ about exclusive Psalmody/worship and need some ‘further reformation’, why can it not also be ‘outdated’ about soteriology/justification issues, and in needed of some ‘further reformation’ ?

    I believe both issues are not outdated in the Confessions (both Westminster and Dordt), but would like to know how we can decide whether one issue is outdated/wrong or need some further reformation, but another issue is not outdated/still right and not in need of any further reformation ?

    Thank you for the answer.

  8. Cris Dickason said,

    April 22, 2011 at 12:28 pm

    Thanks to Lane for making more prominent the remarks from Witherspoon and thanks to Hugh for first bringing it forward. I’m missing the theological and syllogistic problems that some find in Witherspoon’s maxim. (shrug) There are 13 maxims total, approx 75 pages, I’m going to try reading the entirety.

    Another source for these Ecclesiastical Maxims is here:
    It is in Volume 6 of the Witherspoon’s Works. This link is to the volumes at the Princeton Seminary, digitized and available on the “Internet Archive.” Multiple formats available for d/l. I have no connection to! I just note they’ve digitized all the old stuff at PTS (so I have the PDF of Warfield’s copy of Hodge’s Systematic Theology).


  9. Hugh McCann said,

    April 22, 2011 at 4:22 pm

    Joshua (#1),

    I *was* thinking about this summary of Meyers’ theology, some of which explicitly denigrates the WCF, some of which implicitly does so by wrecking the gospel, which the WCF exults in:

    “The key is to understand what “righteous” means. It does not refer to moral purity or conformity to a legal standard (the “Lutheran” mistake). “Righteousness” in the Bible means covenant faithfulness. A person is righteous when he does what the covenant requires of him.” – Watching Car Crashes

    “[James] Jordan’s works have been foundational in my own thinking and ministry.” – Covenant Theology Bibliography

    “Baptized children are Christians. They are disciples. They belong to Jesus. They are members of his body, of his Church. They don’t grow up and “become” Christians in high school or college when they have a particularly powerful experience of God’s love or grace. They can and should have these experiences as they mature. But for baptized Christian children these experiences are not “conversion.” Baptism seals to our children all the promises of God in Christ. They are forgiven, justified, adopted, etc. by means of their baptism into the church.” – Justified by Means of Their Baptism

    “The WCF and the bi-polar Cov of Works/Grace scheme needs to be subjected to some careful scrutiny by men who do not worship at the idol of Westminster. Maybe [N.T.] Wright is just the one to do that, not being a part of our tradition.” – Defense of What Saint Paul Really Said

    “Baptism makes one a disciple and disciples are called Christians. One may be a faithful disciple or an unfaithful disciple. But one is a disciple and Christian when one is baptized . . . Personally, I would like to see us out from under the straightjacket of the Westminster standards.” – The Problem With RUF Guys

    “Read Richard Hays’ wonderful commentary on Galatians side by side with Luther’s and be amazed at the difference. Once you understand the *historia salutis* issues in Galatians, it’s hard to go back and appreciate a commentary that is driven by an alien and abstract law-gospel dichotomy.” – On the Alien and Abstract Law/Gospel Dichotomy

    “Israel, the bride, is to cling to Yahweh, her Husband and Lord, in faithfulness. What is this but salvation by faith? How is that wrong? . . . NT Wright’s point is that these [Reformed] confessions could be (and probably are) wrong. His argument is that the Lutheran law-gospel dichotomy is not particularly helpful in exegeting passages in Paul (to put it mildly).” – Faith is Faithfulness

    “The rectification of the [Tax Collector] follows upon his being faithful to the covenant . . . There’s nothing in the parable to indicate that something was imputed to him. He was rectified because he did what was right. He was declared by God to be in the right. He was judged to be faithful (=righteous) to the real terms of the covenant.” – The Parable of the Pharisee & Publican, Part Deux

    “Furthermore, how can we read Paul’s opposition of “faith” and “works” as an abstract dichotomy between “passive trust” and “active working” when he describes what the Galatians are being deflected from (by the Judaizers) as “OBEYING the truth” (Gal. 4:7)?” – Faith Works

    “The W. standards are 17th century documents composed by committees. They were never designed to function as a once-for-all formulation of the faith. We must confess our faith afresh to our own generation. The Westminster Standards don’t do that every well anymore . . . We must stop living in the past . . . I do think the latest scholarly work in biblical theology demands that we go back and redo a great deal of the Westminster standards . . . The whole bi-polar covenant of works/grace schema has got to go. And if that goes, the whole “system” must be reworked.” – Latest Scholarship Demands Westminster Revision

    “After Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus, Pastor Ananias says to him, “Arise, be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.” It’s pretty certain that the reason baptism was offered immediately is because the forgiveness of sins is attached to the action. When were Paul’s sins forgiven? When was he “converted”? On the road to Damascus or in Damascus when Ananias poured water over his head in the name of the triune God? The text is pretty clear.” – Baptism and the Forgiveness of Sin

    Found in ‘Jeffrey Meyers – The “Full Corpus” of His Theology’ @

  10. David Gray said,

    April 22, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    Calvin didn’t think that the Lutherans wrecked the Gospel. Liberal innovators such as you are a greater threat. But then anyone who’s seeking guidance from the like of Gerety has issues.

  11. Hugh McCann said,

    April 22, 2011 at 7:01 pm

    ‘Calvin didn’t think that the Lutherans wrecked the Gospel.’
    Nor do I. Meyers abominates Lutheranism (it’d be antinomian to him), so what do you mean, Gray?

    ‘Liberal innovators such as you are a greater threat.’
    Now THAT’S funny!

    ‘But then anyone who’s seeking guidance from the like of Gerety has issues.’ Dunno that one necessarily follows the other – so don’t tar or tag Gerety with my issues! ;)

    They’re mine, all mine! Bwa ha ha!

  12. April 24, 2011 at 10:48 pm

    Hugh McCann, thanks for that compilation of little gems (in #9). Btw, Hugh, do you happen to live in California?

  13. Hugh McCann said,

    April 25, 2011 at 10:49 am

    Yep, it’s me.

  14. April 25, 2011 at 10:20 pm

    Hugh, it’s good to see a familiar name on here. Long time no see. Hope you’re well. I’ll be at my folk’s place for the bulk of this summer, so if you have time, we should go for coffee sometime!

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