Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Recognising the Scriptures: WCF #3

Sections 1-4 of Chapter 1 of the WCF lay out a view of what the Scriptures are: God’s inspired and authoritative word. In doing this they set the Scriptures in a wider account of God’s redemptive revelation and name the contents. All of this is quite ‘objective’. In Section 5 the Confession deals with the subjective question of how Christians come to recognise that the Scriptures are God’s authoritative word.

In the mid-17th century the key issue was how the authority of the church related to Scripture. The members of the Assembly made it clear that the church does not authorise Scripture, even though the church may direct us there. The substantive theological point comes at the end of the section, that the recognition of Scripture comes from the ministry of the Spirit through Scripture itself.

The need for the work of the Spirit is two-fold. One is that God’s word as the normative authority is authorized by God himself, as he speaks in his word. The other reason is that human sin means that we resist God’s authority and by nature reject God’s word. So in 10.1 effectual calling by the Spirit involves a change in the mind, heart and will of a believer and in 14.2 the grace of faith given by the Spirit means that “a Christian believes to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God Himself speaking therein”. This work of the Spirit leads to a recognition of the Bible, as the Bible is read and preached.

The picture is of the 1599 Geneva Bible, the preferred version of the Puritans.

This formulation reflects the emphasis of the Puritans on the importance of the individual conscience. The ground of a conviction of the divine authorship of Scripture is inner and personal. To us this might seem like a recipe for an irretrievable subjectivism. There certainly was a subjectivist stream in 17th century England – the Quakers would be the best known version of that. However the Reformed thinkers of Westminster were not of that ilk. In their view the reality of Scripture was an objective truth and the work of the Spirit was powerful and reliable (indeed irresistible). So while they realised that not all people came to the same conviction about Scripture (for not all had the Spirit) they expected that the Spirit would always lead believers to see the reality of Scripture.

The expression of the confession here does not have to mean people hear a single text of scripture and have an overwhelming conviction of its inspiration and authority, I’d explain it in terms of the later chapters which discuss the work of the Spirit. As the Spirit does his work of leading us to receive and rest on Christ for “for justification, sanctification, and eternal life” (14.2) we see that the Bible speaks of Christ and that he in turn directs us to the Scriptures.

In Reformed thought this section has been interpreted in two ways. One is to take the opening discussion of evidences as a positive statement about what the Spirit may use to lead us to an inner conviction. So Warfield wrote that “ ‘Abundant evidence’ one must suppose to be sufficient; and objectively it is sufficient and more than sufficient and this is what the Confession means to affirm. But, according to the Reformed theology, man needs something more than evidence, however abundant, to persuade and enable him to believe and obey God’s word; he needs the work of the Holy Spirit accompanying the Word …” (The Westminster Assembly and its Work, Baker, 1927, 211).

In contrast the presuppositionalists have treated the two sections as contrasting so that evidence and rational argument provides no basis for the Christian confidence in the Scripture. Wayne Spear argues that “ The Confession’s use of arguments for the divine authority of the Bible … does not indicate that rational argument is the necessary foundation for faith … Warfield’s apologetic method appears to depart from the position taken by the Confession. In principle Warfield holds that the evidences which will prove that Scripture is divinely inspired are valid according to the principles of universal human reason, prior to and apart from the regenerating work of the Spirit.” (“Word and Spirit in the Westminster Confession” 39-56 in L. Duncan (ed) The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century Mentor; 2003, 53).

This debate reflects two different epistemologies and is an important one. I find myself generally on the presuppositionalist side. However I don’t think that the Confession can really settle the dispute. Both evidentialist and presuppositionalist apologetics have developed in response to the scepticism and the enlightenment. In the 17th century Britains scepticism existed, but was still rare and the Enlightenment lay in the future. The WCF is not formulated to address the 19th century, let alone the 20th or 21st. There is room for both positions in this section, and we should have an ongoing healthy discussion about it.

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