The Brilliant Ambiguity of the Westminster Standards

Just because several people wholeheartedly agree with a certain confession doesn’t mean they must see eye to eye on every single doctrinal point

Confessions and creeds are useful tools and teachers for Christians who want guidance for standing firm in the faith.  Sadly, some people view Reformed creeds and confessions as straightjackets or paper popes that bind and restrict Christians in  many ways.  However, the Reformed confessions and creeds are purposely ambiguous on certain doctrines; this allows for some disagreement while fostering unity at the same time.

For example, John Fesko says that Reformed confessions of faith in the early modern period “were typically written to define a truth and fence off heterodoxy and heresy while allowing a degree of doctrinal latitude within the boundaries of the confessions.”  In other words, just because several people wholeheartedly agree with a certain confession doesn’t mean they must see eye to eye on every single doctrinal point.  The beauty is that they can still be firmly united around the central truths of the Christian faith.  Fesko puts it this way:

“…At many points the [Westminster] Confession is very specific in terms of what it rejects or teaches, but at other points it is brilliantly ambiguous or vague, thus allowing various theologians to assent to the document even though it might not advocate each theologian’s precise view on a particular subject.  Such deliberate ambiguity or vagueness can only be discovered by reading the Confession and catechisms in tandem with the minutes of the assembly and works of the period.”

“For example, one of the more complex issues in theology, whether in the present day or in the seventeenth century, is the relationship of the Mosaic covenant to the other covenants in Scripture; or alternatively stated, what is the Christian’s relationship to the Mosaic law?  Today many might not realize that at least five different views were held by various commissioners to the assembly. The Confession states the basics of what was the most common view, but when it came to its rejection of other views, it singled out only one position, namely, that of Tobias Crisp (1600-1643).  Crisp advocated that there were two covenants of grace, something the Confession explicitly rejects (7.6).  It is silent with regard to the other views held.”

I appreciate the term “brilliantly ambiguous,” and am thinking this discussion also holds true of the Three Forms of Unity.  But more on that some other day.

The above quotes were taken from pages 27-28 of Fesko’s The Theology of the Westminster Standards.

Rev. Shane Lems is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and services as pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Hammond, Wis. This article appeared on his bog and is used with permission.