Pristine Grace

The Westminster Confession of Faith
A Compartmentalized Theology
by Bob Higby
The Westminster Confession of Faith

     Introduction: Four False Hermeneutics in Protestantism

     In the years following the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, men of various sectarian persuasions rushed quickly to settle on a comprehensive statement of doctrine. This was deemed necessary in order to clearly define a system of beliefs that stood in contrast to the Roman Papacy and other denominations within Protestantism itself. The question that must be asked is this: Did men of the 16th and 17th centuries act too quickly to define a comprehensive paradigm which would be exalted as the rule for all future biblical interpretation? The position of this study series will be that assemblies of men in that era attempted to settle many matters which they were unequipped to resolve. In spite of the learning, integrity, and thorough debate of the Westminster Assembly, the process of unlearning the traditions of men that resulted in the Dark Ages could only take place by the increased wisdom of many centuries. A rush to dogma on many of the issues was motivated by the political pressures of that era and the urgent need to contrast one sect from another.

Although this series will interact with the Westminster Confession, the conclusions reached will apply equally to the 1689 London Baptist Confession--as it is a mere re-statement of Westminster with a very few omissions and revisions. The principles expressed will also apply equally to evaluating other statements of doctrine such as the Three Forms of Unity and the Anglican and Lutheran confessions.

     Those in the Westminster tradition believe that their confession and catechisms are the best comprehensive summary of biblical doctrine in the history of the institutional church. This conclusion is essential for those desperate to recognize that God had to be leading in the comprehensive dogma of AT LEAST ONE of the established denominational traditions. For persons of such conviction, the notion that God led no church in its full system of doctrine is unimaginable. God would not be as cruel in the sovereign disposition of his will as to withhold major aspects of his truth from all organized churches! The journey of investigation to be engaged here will be of no value for those of the traditional confessional mindset. Historic churchmen may read but they will soon turn away in offense at what is said.

     None of the established Christian doctrines of the Trinity, person and work of Christ, authority of scripture, or five ‘only’ pillars of the Reformation will be challenged here. On these points hearty agreement with the Confession will be expressed. Christology and soteriology will not be the focal points of dissension, though aspects of the broader understanding of the ‘plan’ of salvation will be. Christians will always gladly defend and preserve those precious gems of historic truth that have withstood the onslaught of the ages. Without them we have no gospel and no hope.

     Before examining the Confession itself, the critical matter of false hermeneutical methods must be brought to attention. If there are mistakes in any doctrinal statement, these come as a result of false assumptions about how to interpret God’s revealed truth in the scriptures. So let us proceed to briefly examine four false methods of interpretation: paradox, synthesis, analogy, and compartmentalization. All of these methods generally are intertwined in the defense of errant dogma.

     1. Paradox

     Of the four false methods under consideration, paradox is definitely the most prominent one taught outright in the pulpits and seminaries of the world. All controversies deemed hard to understand and too difficult to resolve are excused away by invoking the ‘P’ word. Closely associated with these allegations of paradox is an appeal to mystery, since the fact of mystery is certainly expressed as a truth of scripture. It must be remembered, however, that mystery as affirmed in the Bible relates to the ‘secret things’ of God that are not revealed (Deut. 29:29). Although many mysteries of God still remain, the mystery of the ages that is now revealed, which is the glorious inclusion of all peoples in the gospel of salvation, is no longer a mystery (Col. 1:26)! So the issue to be settled is whether the revealed truths of scripture contain real and actual paradoxes or contradictions.

     The prophet of paradox typically asserts that God put conflicting ‘truths’ in his revelatory scriptures in order to ‘balance’ difficult teachings with opposite ones that are equally difficult. Hence contradictory propositions might be true! It is proposed that we should not attempt to reconcile such contradictions but simply accept them and realize that God ‘intended the tension.’ This reasoning, of course, can be used to justify the promotion of endless stupid dogma and practice. Until the seeker of God’s truth is delivered from the curse of paradoxical teaching, there can be no rest in the joyful harmony of the biblical revelation of the gospel of Christ.

     Many of those who stand in the tradition of Westminster (and others) oppose and condemn the hermeneutic of paradox. We gladly stand with them in opposing this method of teaching. It ultimately curses the souls of mankind with a muddy and confusing gospel devoid of confidence and assurance. However, we cannot assume that the Westminster tradition contains no paradoxes simply because many in that tradition oppose a theology of paradox! As the other three false hermeneutics under discussion are exposed, it becomes clear that one of them is the ‘long suit’ of confessional Protestantism. And all of these false methods contain paradoxical assertions.

     2. Synthesis

     A methodology incorporating synthesis is a corollary to paradox and the favorite tool of pastoral homily. The challenge of the orator is to skillfully fuse paradoxical notions in such a manner that the listener doesn’t think there is any contradiction between them! While the scholar of bad theology admits and confesses paradoxes that cannot be reconciled, the preacher refuses to end with such an approach. Although a minister confesses the same theology of paradox as the theologian, he wants to remove the ‘sting’ of contradictory assertions by mixing them up in such a manner as to sound appealing and comfort souls. As a result the same preached message will assert objective and subjective justification, the sovereignty of God and free will of man, law-centered and gospel-centered holy living, etc. So the lover of truth and the gospel may indeed rejoice in portions of sermons that are preached by these men! Yet the lies that are also taught must cause any genuine believer to withdraw in horror. Always stand aware of the marketer of synthesis theology. He is delivering gospel truth mixed with the poison of soul-destructive false teaching.

     3. Analogy

     The hermeneutic of analogy has the deceiving power to make error seem like truth more than any other. There is no doctrine that cannot be apparently ‘proved’ by this false method. The reason it is so deceptive is because scripture itself uses analogy to illustrate truth. Did not Christ teach with parables time and time again? Did he not say “I am the vine, you are the branches?” Did not Paul illustrate his points with examples from the material world and human experience? What about the massive use of analogy in the prophecies of scripture? How do we explain why the Bible uses apocalyptic teaching?

     There is no problem with using analogy to explain doctrines that are explicitly taught in the Bible. The deception starts when teachers use a method of illustrating truth utilized in the scriptures and go off in their own direction with it. When a professed expositor has a doctrinal or prophetic agenda to promote, one which does not harmonize with the gospel of Jesus Christ (and thus ‘paradoxical’), he often resorts to the false use of reasoning from analogy. All of the following doctrines in professed Christendom have no didactic support in scripture and are promoted using analogy alone:

  1. The ‘fall’ of Satan (using an analogical comparison to the fall of the kings of Babylon and Tyre in Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28).
  2. The ‘fall’ of angels in general (alluding to the casting down of the rebellious angels in Rev. 12).
  3. The ‘common fall’ of humanity (not mere ‘common iniquity’ and total inability which the Bible certainly teaches), constructing an argument that ‘all’ in the Pauline scriptures refers to every member of the human race when describing all things wicked but believers only when referring to the ‘all’ who are given salvation.
  4. All systems of false prophetic interpretation use analogy to support them (Dispensationalism, Reconstructionism, etc.).
  5. The doctrines of covenant water baptism of infants and adult water submersion.
  6. The sacramental interpretation of partaking of the communion bread and wine.
  7. The doctrine of neo-legalism or metamorphosis of strictly Old Covenant law into the New Covenant.
  8. The method of allegorizing the Song of Solomon to illustrate the eternal union of Christ and his elect people (plus other similar allegorizing of the Old Testament).

     4. Compartmentalization

     In order to construct a doctrinal statement that includes paradoxical false teaching along with the true gospel, something different than the three methods examined so far must be invoked. A confession of beliefs must have the format of a systematic, logical, and harmonious body of teaching or system of truth. So in order to achieve this objective, any teaching out of harmony with didactic gospel truth must be compartmentalized or ‘isolated’ from the core doctrines of the Christian faith. Paradoxical propositions, homiletic synthesis, or parabolic and allegorical analogy cannot be the major basis of a systematic confession. Otherwise it would have the appearance of an illogical set of beliefs.

     A compartmentalized theology is achieved by stating the major and widely-accepted doctrines first, then skillfully digressing into a host of sectarian dogma. The teachings do not have to be in harmony because they are all tucked away into separate disjointed chapters or compartments. So the Christocentric hermeneutic or rule of the gospel is disgarded. Portions of the confession that have nothing to do with the gospel simply ignore the need to defend each proposition by subjecting it to the refining furnace of gospel light and consuming fire.

     Men who are stewards of Presbyterian tradition demand that all officers in what they term ‘the church’ are one-hundred percent Westminster in doctrine. The same is true for other traditions with similar confessions. Men have arrogated to themselves the right to disregard spiritual gifts that might exist in others who are less than one-hundred percent subscribers. So there is a good basis for re-examining any confession of men to see if God will honor or condemn such attitudes and actions in the judgment!