William Bradford Institute
for Study of the
Early Settlement of America

What is Meant by Adopting the Westminster Confession?

by Charles Hodge, D.D.

Every minister at his ordination is required to declare that he adopts the
Westminster Confession and Catechism, as containing the system of doctrine
taught in the Sacred Scriptures. There are three ways in which these words have
been, and still are, interpreted. First, some understand them to mean that every
proposition contained in the Confession of Faith is included in the profession
made at ordination. Secondly, others say that they mean just what the words
import. What is adopted is the "system of doctrine." The system of the Reformed
Churches is a known and admitted scheme of doctrine; and that scheme, nothing
more or less, we profess to adopt. The third view of the subject is, that by the
system of doctrine contained in the Confession is meant the essential doctrines
of Christianity and nothing more.

As to the first of these interpretations, it is enough to say l. That it is not
the meaning of the words. There are many propositions contained in the
Westminster Confession which do not belong to the integrity of the Augustinian
or Reformed system. A man may be a true Augustinian or Calvinist, and not
believe that the Pope is the Antichrist predicted by St. Paul; or that the 18th
chapter of Leviticus is still binding. 2. Such a rule of interpretation can
never be practically carried out, without dividing the Church into innumerable
fragments. It is impossible that a body of several thousand ministers and elders
should think alike on all the topics embraced in such an extended and minute
formula of belief. 3. Such has never been the rule adopted in our Church.
Individuals have held it, but the Church as a body never has. No prosecution for
doctrinal error has ever been attempted or sanctioned, except for errors which
were regarded as involving the rejection, not of explanations of doctrines, but
of the doctrines themselves. For example, our Confession teaches the doctrine of
original sin. That doctrine is essential to the Reformed or Calvinistic system.
Any man who denies that doctrine, thereby rejects the system taught in our
Confession, and cannot with a good conscience say that he adopts it. Original
sin, however, is one thing; the way in which it is accounted for, is another.
The doctrine is, that such is the relation between Adam and his posterity, that
all mankind, descending from him by ordinary generation, are born in a state of
sin and condemnation. Any man who admits this, holds the doctrine. But there are
at least three ways of accounting for this fact. The scriptural explanation as
given in our Standards is, that "the covenant being made with Adam, not only for
himself, but for his posterity, all mankind, descending from him by ordinary
generation, sinned in him, and fell with him, in his first transgression." The
fact that mankind fell into that estate of sin and misery in which they are
born, is accounted for on the principle of representation. Adam was constituted
our head and representative, so that his sin is the judicial ground of our
condemnation and of the consequent loss of the divine image, and of the state of
spiritual death in which all men come into the world. This, as it is the
scriptural, so it is the Church view of the subject. It is the view held in the
Latin and the Lutheran, as well as in the Reformed Church, and therefore belongs
to the Church catholic. Still it is not essential to the doctrine. Realists
admit the doctrine, but, unsatisfied with the principle of representative
responsibility, assume that humanity as a generic life acted and sinned in Adam;
and, therefore, that his sin is the act, with its demerit and consequences, of
every man in whom that generic life is individualized. Others, accepting neither
of these solutions, assert that the fact of original sin (i.e., the sinfulness
and condemnation of man at birth) is to be accounted for in the general law of
propagation. Like begets like. Adam became sinful, and hence all his posterity
are born in t state of sin, or with a sinful nature. Although these views are
not equally scriptural, or equally in harmony with our Confession, nevertheless
they leave the doctrine intact, and do not work a rejection of the system of
which it is an essential part.

So also of the doctrine of inability. That man is by the fall rendered utterly
indisposed, opposite, and disabled to all spiritual good, is a doctrine of the
Confession as well as of Scripture. And it is essential to the system of
doctrine embraced by all the Reformed Church. Whether men have plenary power to
regenerate themselves, or can co-operate in the work of their regeneration, or
can effectually resist the converting grace of God, are questions which have
separated Pelagians, the later Romanists, Semi-Pelagians, Lutherans, and
Arminians, from Augustinians or Calvinists. The denial of the inability of
fallen man, therefore, of necessity works the rejection of Calvinism. But if the
fact be admitted, it is not essential whether the inability be called natural or
moral; whether it be attributed solely to the perverseness of the will, or to
the blindness of the understanding. These points of difference are not
unimportant, but they do not affect the essence of the doctrine.

Our Confession teaches that God foreordains whatever comes to pass; that he
executes his decrees in the works of creation and providence; that his
providential government is holy, wise, and powerful, controlling all his
creatures and all their actions; that from the fallen mass of men he has, from
all eternity, of his mere good pleasure, elected some to everlasting life; that
by the incarnation and mediatorial work of his eternal Son, our Lord Jesus
Christ, and by the effectual working of his Spirit, he has rendered the
salvation of his people absolutely certain; that the reason why some are saved
and others not, is not the foresight of their faith and repentance, but solely
because he has elected some and not others, and that in execution of his
purpose, in his own good time, he sends them the Holy Spirit. who so operates on
them as to render their repentance, faith, and holy living absolutely certain.
Now it is plain that men may differ as to the mode of God's providential
government, or the operations of his grace, and retain the facts which
constitute the essence of this doctrinal scheme. But if any one teaches that God
cannot effectually control the acts of free agents without destroying their
liberty; that he cannot render the repentance or faith of any man certain; that
he does all he can to convert every man, it would be an insult to reason and
conscience, to say that he held the system of doctrine which embraces the facts
and principles above stated.

The same strain of remark might be made in reference to the other great
doctrines which constitute the Augustinian system. Enough, however, has been
said to illustrate the principle of interpretation for which Old School men
contend. We do not expect our ministers should adopt every proposition contained
in our Standards. This they are not required to do. But they are required to
adopt the system; and that system consists of certain doctrines; no one of which
can be omitted without destroying its identity. Those doctrines are:the plenary
inspiration of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and the consequent
infallibility of all their teachings;doctrine of the Trinity; that there is one
God subsisting in three persons, the Father, Son, and Spirit, the same in
substance and equal in power and glory;the doctrine of decrees and
predestination, as above stated;the doctrine of creation, viz., that the
universe and all that it contains is not eternal, is not a necessary product of
the life of God, is not an emanation from the divine substance, but owes its
existence, as to substance and form, solely to his will; and in reference to
man, that he was created in the image of God, in knowledge, righteousness, and
holiness, and not in puris naturalibus, without any moral character;the
doctrine of providence, or that God effectually governs all his creatures and
all their actions, so that nothing comes to pass which is not in accordance with
his infinitely wise, holy, and benevolent purposes;the doctrines of the
covenants; the first, or covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam,
and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience;
and the second, or covenant of grace, wherein God freely offers unto sinners
life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they
may be saved, and promising to give, unto all who are ordained unto life, his
Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe;the doctrine concerning
Christ our Mediator, ordained of God to be our Prophet, Priest, and King, the
Head and Saviour of his Church, the Heir of all things, and Judge of the world;
unto whom he did. from eternity, give a people to be his seed, to be by him in
time redeemed, called, justified, sanctified, and glorified; and that the
eternal Son of God of one substance with the Father, took upon him man's nature,
so that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood,
were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition,
or confusion; that this Lord Jesus Christ, by his perfect obedience and
sacrifice of himself, hath fully satisfied the justice of his Father, and
purchased not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom
of heaven for all those whom the Father hath given to him;the doctrine of free
will; viz., that man was created not only a free agent, but with full ability to
choose good or evil, and by that choice determine his future character and
destiny; that by the fall he has lost this ability to spiritual good; that in
conversion, God, by his Spirit, enables the sinner freely to repent and
believe;the doctrine of effectual calling, or regeneration; that those, and
those only, whom God has predestinated unto life, he effectually calls, by his
Word and Spirit, from a state of spiritual death to a state of spiritual life,
renewing their wills, and by his almighty power determining their wills, thus
effectually drawing them to Christ; yet so that they come most freely; and that
this effectual calling is of God's free and special grace alone, not from
anything foreseen in man;the doctrine of justification; that it is a free act,
or act of grace on the part of God; that it does not consist in any subjective
change of state, nor simply in pardon, but includes a declaring and accepting
the sinner as righteous; that it is founded not on anything wrought in us or
done by us; not on faith or evangelical obedience, but simply on what Christ has
done for us,i.e., in his obedience and sufferings unto death; this
righteousness of Christ being a proper, real, and full satisfaction to the
justice of God, his exact justice and rich grace are glorified in the
justification of sinners;the doctrine of adoption; that those who are justified
are received into the family of God, and made partakers of the Spirit and
privileges of his children;the doctrine of sanctification; that those once
regenerated by the Spirit of God are, by his power and indwelling, in the use of
the appointed means of grace, rendered more and more holy; which work, although
always imperfect in this life, is perfected at death;the doctrine of saving
faith; that it is the gift of God, and work of the Holy Spirit, by which the
Christian receives as true, on the authority of God, whatever is revealed in his
Word; the special acts of which faith are the receiving and resting upon Christ
alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life;the doctrine of
repentance; that the sinner, out of the sight and sense, not only of the danger,
but the odiousness of sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, does,
with grief and hatred of his own sins, turn from them unto God, with full
purpose and endeavour after new obedience;the doctrine of good works; that they
are such only as God has commanded; that they are the fruits of faith; that such
works, although not necessary as the ground of our justification, are
indispensable, in the case of adults, as the uniform products of the indwelling
of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers;the doctrine of the perseverance
of the saints; that those once effectually called and sanctified by the Spirit
can never totally or finally fall from a state of grace; because the decree of
election is immutable; because Christ's merit is infinite, and his intercession
constant; because the Spirit abides with the people of God; and because the
covenant of grace secures the salvation of all who believe;the doctrine of
assurance; that the assurance of salvation is desirable, possible, and
obligatory, but is not of the essence of faith;the doctrine of the law; that it
is a revelation of the will of God, and a perfect rule of righteousness; that it
is perpetually obligatory on justified persons as well as on others, although
believers are not under it as a covenant of works;the doctrine of Christian
liberty; that it includes freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemnation of the
law, from a legal spirit, from the bondage of Satan and dominion of sin, from
the world, and ultimately from all evil, together with free access to God as his
children. Since the advent of Christ, his people are freed also from the yoke of
the ceremonial law. God alone is the Lord of the conscience, which he has set
free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are in anything contrary
to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship. The doctrines
concerning worship and the Sabbath, concerning vows and oaths, of the civil
magistrate, of marriage, contain nothing peculiar to our system, or which is
matter of controversy among Presbyterians. The same is true as to what the
Confession teaches concerning the Church, of the communion of saints, of the
sacraments, and of the future state, and of the resurrection of the dead, and of
the final judgment.

That such is the system of doctrine of the Reformed Church is a matter of
history. It is the system which, as the granite formation of the Earth,
underlies and sustains the whole scheme of truth as revealed in the Scriptures,
and without which all the rest is as drifting sand. It has been from the
beginning the life and soul of the Church, taught explicitly by our Lord
himself, and more fully by his inspired servants, and always professed by a
cloud of witnesses in the Church. It has, moreover, ever been the esoteric faith
of true believers, adopted in their prayers and hymns, even when rejected from
their creeds. It is this system which the Presbyterian Church is pledged to
profess, to defend, and to teach; and it is a breach of faith to God and man if
she fails to require a profession of this system by all those whom she receives
or ordains as teachers and guides of her people. It is for the adoption of the
Confession of Faith in this sense that the Old School have always contended as a
matter of conscience.

There has, however, always been a party in the Church which adopted the third
method of understanding the words "system of doctrine," in the ordination
serviceviz., that they mean nothing more than the essential doctrines of
religion or of Christianity.

That such a party has existed is plainl. Because, in our original Synod,
President Dickinson and several other members openly took this ground. President
Dickinson was opposed to all human creeds; he resisted the adoption of the
Westminster Confession, and he succeeded in having it adopted with the ambiguous
words, "as to all the essential principles of religion." This may mean the
essential principles of Christianity, or the essential principles of the
peculiar system taught in the Confession 2. This mode of adopting the Confession
gave rise to immediate and general complaint. 3. When President Davis was in
England, the latitudinarian Presbyterians and other Dissenters from the
Established Church from whom he expected encouragement and aid in his mission,
objected that our Synod had adopted the Westminster Confession in its strict
meaning. President Davis replied that the Synod required candidates to adopt it
only as to "the articles essential to Christianity." 4. The Rev. Mr. Creaghead,
member of the original Synod, withdrew from it on the ground of this lax rule of
adoption. 5. The Rev. Mr. Harkness, when suspended from the ministry by the
Synod for doctrinal errors, complained of the injustice and inconsistency of
such censure, on the ground that the Synod required the adoption only of the
essential doctrines of the Gospel, no one of which he had called in question.

While it is thus apparent that there was a party in the Church who adopted this
latitudinarian principle of subscription, the Synod itself never did adopt it.
This is plain, because what we call the Adopting Act, and which includes the
ambiguous language in question, the Synod call "their Preliminary Act;" i.e., an
Act preliminary to the actual adoption of the Westminster Confession. That
adoption was effected in a subsequent meeting (on the afternoon of the same
day), in which the Confession was adopted in all its articles, except what in
the twenty-third chapter related to the power of the civil magistrate in matters
of religion. This is what the Synod itself called its Adopting Act... When in
1787 the General Assembly was organized, it was solemnly declared that the
Westminster Confession of Faith, as then revised and corrected, was part of the
CONSTITUTION of this Church. No man has ever yet maintained that in adopting
Republican constitution, it was accepted only as embracing the general
principles of government common to monarchies, aristocracies, and democracies.

The Old School have always protested against this Broad Church principle1.
Because, in their view, it is immoral. For a man to assert that he adopts a
Calvinistic confession when he rejects the distinctive features of the
Calvinistic system, and receives only the essential principles of Christianity,
is to say what is not true in the legitimate and accepted meaning of the terms.
It would be universally recognized as a falsehood should a Protestant declare
that he adopted the canons of the Council of Trent, or the Romish Catechism,
when he intended that he received them only so far as they contained the
substance of the Apostles' Creed. If the Church is prepared to make the
Apostles' Creed the standard of ministerial communion, let the constitution be
altered; but do not let us adopt the demoralizing principle of professing
ourselves, and requiring others to profess, what we do not believe.
2. A second objection to the lax rule of interpretation is, that it is contrary
to the very principle on which our Church was founded, and on which, as t
Church, it has always professed to act.
3. The Old School have always believed that it was the duty of the Church, as a
witness for the truth, to hold fast that great system of truth which in all ages
has been the faith of the great body of the people of God, and on which, as they
believe, the best interests of the Church and of the world depend.
4. This lax principle must work the relaxation of all discipline, destroy the
purity of the Church, and introduce either perpetual conflict or death-like
5. There always has been, and still is, a body of men who feel it their duty to
profess and teach the system of doctrine contained in our Confession in its
integrity. These men never can consent to what they believe to be immoral and
destructive; and therefore any attempt to establish this Broad Church principle
of subscription must tend to produce dissension and division. Either let our
faith conform to our creed, or make our creed conform to our faith. Let those
who are convinced that the Apostles' Creed is a broad enough basis for Church
organization, form a Church on that principle; but do not let them attempt to
persuade others to sacrifice their consciences, or advocate the adoption of a
more extended formula of faith which is not to be sincerely embraced.


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