My Use of the Reformed Confessions

by John M. Frame

[A Presentation to the Trustees of Westminster Theological Seminary in California]


I have been asked to tell you a bit about my own teaching, particularly with respect to my use of the Reformed confessional documents.

To begin with, I am rather a theological generalist. Bob Strimple once mentioned meeting a European scholar who specialized in the study of Anselm of Canterbury. When Bob asked the man what subjects he taught at the university, he replied, “Anselm, of course.” That scholar was not a theological generalist, on my definition. I suppose I can imagine someone even more specialized, say a European professor who limited his course offerings to one book of Anselm like the Cur Deus Homo, or perhaps even to Chapter One of the Proslogium. But if such a scholar existed, I would be on the opposite extreme from him. I teach three loci of systematic theology: Doctrine of the Word of God, Doctrine of God, and Ethics. I also teach theological epistemology, theological method, apologetics, the history of philosophy, the history of modern theology, the philosophy of science, modern culture and the arts. Also, in my work of publication, I have dared to venture into the areas of worship and church music, areas in which I have some training, some experience, and many concerns.

There are disadvantages to being a theological generalist, chief of which being that I’m never up-to-date on the literature relevant to all my fields. If you ask me about the latest books in the area of the history of philosophy, I would not be able to give you a very good answer. I approach the goal of being up-to-date only in the areas in which I am currently writing books, presently the area of the Doctrine of God.

Nevertheless, I do not envy the Professor of Anselm. Being a theological generalist is just fine with me. It motivates me to focus on the forest rather than the trees, to develop a broad overview of the theological enterprise and to see connections between the various theological disciplines. I’ve been able to take some of the broad themes of the Bible, especially that of God’s covenant Lordship, and apply those themes to a wide variety of theological subjects. God’s covenant Lordship implies (1) his control of all that comes to pass, (2) his supreme authority over all his creatures, and (3) his presence with his covenant servants in creation, providence, and redemption. That threefold understanding of God’s Lordship provides the main structure of my course and my forthcoming book on the Doctrine of God.

That triad also provides the basic outline of my lectures on the Word of God. God’s Word is the Word of the Lord, and therefore in displays God’s Lordship in those three general ways:  it conveys his supreme power, his absolute authority, and it is the location of God’s personal presence with those to whom he is speaking. The Word of God is God speaking.

And my ethics course, Doctrine of the Christian Life, follows the same pattern. God’s controlling power corresponds to the goal of ethics, he controls the end to which all nature and history are moving. He tells us to seek his kingdom, the goal of history which he has sovereignly ordained. The standard of ethics corresponds to God’s sovereign authority, his law, and the motive of ethics corresponds to God’s providential and redemptive presence. We cannot do good without the motivation of Jesus’ redemption and the presence of God’s Spirit in our hearts.

The triadic structure applied to ethics coincides with statements of the Reformed confessions to which Cornelius Van Til drew our attention. Ethics has a goal, the glory of God, a standard, the word of God, and a motive, Christian faith. Maintaining a balanced emphasis between goal, standard, and motive, and finding the source of these in God’s covenant Lordship, saves us from the futility of secular ethics. Secular teleological ethics, or utilitarianism, focuses on the goal of ethics, without an adequate standard or motive, and without appealing to God as the source of its goals. Non-Christian deontological ethics focuses on standards: norms, moral laws, but it either denies or ignores the importance of goals and motives, and its norms are without content, since these thinkers try to find ethical norms apart from God’s Word. And non-Christian existential ethics tries to base ethics on man’s inner subjectivity, apart from either norms or goals, and, again, apart from God, who alone can raise our subjectivity above the level of wishful thinking.

As I study the Bible’s teaching on such matters, I have often found such interesting correlations between biblical theology and the statements of the Reformed Confessions. In my teaching on the Word of God, for example, for some years I emphasized that the authority of Scripture takes various forms, varying with the different kinds of language and subject matter. That is to say, in the Bible God makes different sorts of demands upon us: when he speaks to us indicatively, he tells us authoritatively what to believe. When he speaks imperatively, he tells us what to do. Then there are promises, which are not mere indicatives or statements of fact, although they are in the indicative grammatical mode. Rather in giving promises, God commits himself personally to bringing his purposes to bear in history. A promise demands not only belief, but trust, expecting him to bring something to pass. Similarly a divine threat mandates fear, trembling, and repentance.

I made these distinctions originally on the impulse of some philosophical study of the various distinctions within language. Indeed, I considered myself rather insightful. But somewhat later I re-read Westminster Confession 14, “Of Saving Faith,” section 2, which reads in part,

By this faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein; and acteth differently upon that which every particular passage thereof containeth; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come.

You see that all my bright ideas were already there in our confession.

So in my classes, I make much use of the confessions, asking the students to read relevant portions of them and sometimes including material from the confessions in my lectures and exams. I do more of this, I believe, than my own teachers did at Westminster/Phila. in the early 1960s.

At the same time, my courses are not catechism courses. The confessions and catechisms are not the focus of my teaching, although I do mention them and make substantial use of them. Rather the focus of my teaching is our primary standard, the Word of God itself. This is my practice for the following reasons:

1. One of the great principles of the Reformation and of Scripture itself is sola Scriptura. The Scriptures themselves are the only ultimate source for Christian doctrine. Luther and Calvin stood on this principle and therefore had the freedom to take a critical stance toward popes, councils, and any human tradition that failed to measure up to the standard of the Word of God.

2. Therefore, in the tradition of Westminster, we do not teach systematic theology, apologetics, ethics, philosophy, and so on through a survey of history and tradition, referring to the Bible only occasionally for confirmation. Rather, our approach is to prove each doctrine by careful exegesis of the original source. This approach is somewhat different from that of many theologians in the Reformed tradition. G. C. Berkouwer’s books, for example, are structured according to controversies that have emerged in the history of doctrine. But John Murray, who taught systematics at WTSP for over 35 years, rejected this approach both in his practice and in his statements on theological method.

3. When we show how Reformed doctrine is grounded in Scripture itself we give to our teaching a cogency it would never have if we presented these doctrines merely as human traditions. When I first came toWestminster, evangelical friends told me that Reformed theology was speculative and was based on tradition rather than the Bible itself. I resolved not to believe anything on the basis of tradition alone. But Westminstershowed me that the Reformed faith is strongly based in the Word of God, giving me the greatest assurance possible to a Christian that these doctrines were true. That is the blessing I want to impart to my own students.

4. To base doctrine on Scripture itself is especially appropriate to Westminster’s mission as a graduate level institution requiring biblical languages of all students. When a student is admitted to Westminster, we assume that he or she is capable of doing serious exegesis. How could we then allow ourselves to lose an opportunity to help them search the Scriptures for themselves?

5. Westminster does have excellent teaching in the history of doctrine through the church history department. It is wonderful to teach in a school where there is a high degree of mutual trust among faculty members. So I am confident that I really do not need to focus on the church’s confessional history as I might have to do in another institution.

6. I do believe there is a danger in the evangelical churches of what I would call traditionalism. In traditionalism, the evangelical or Reformed faith is defined according to its history, in doctrine, worship, evangelism, and church life. And those who differ from those traditions, even on the basis of biblical arguments, are excluded. I’ve written a couple of articles recently on this subject. One is called “In Defense of Something Close to Biblicism” which was published in the WTJ 1997 and also as an Appendix in my book Contemporary Worship Music: a Biblical Defense. In a situation like this, it is especially important that students become aware of what Scripture says on these matters and, equally importantly, what Scripture doesn’t say. It is only by means of careful exegesis that we will have a firm basis to distinguish which traditions are grounded in God’s Word and which ones are not. And, as with Luther and Calvin, it is important for us to maintain a critical stance toward the traditions of the church so we may have the freedom to apply the biblical principles in the fullest possible way to contemporary life and ministry.

7. I look forward to the time when God will equip his church to write new confessions. The Reformed confessions of the 16th and 17th centuries are wonderful documents that have served the church well. But we need confessions that speak to the issues of our own time: abortion, postmodern ideology, egalitarianism, new spiritualities, ecumenism, the gifts of the Spirit, common grace, the precise role of the Mosaic law the status of non-Christian religions, the obligation of Christians to the poor, the nature of worship, biblical standards for missions and evangelism, and, indeed, the nature of confessional subscription. We need confessions also that can state the old Reformed and biblical doctrines in contemporary language and support those doctrines with the biblical scholarship that has developed over the last 400 years. Perhaps we are not ready yet to write new confessions, granted the spiritual immaturity of the contemporary church and the proliferation of denominational division. But if we are ever to reach the point at which new confessions can be written, we need to train pastors and teachers for the church who are able to develop doctrinal formulations from the Word of God itself. And we need to graduate students who understand that the 16th and 17th century confessions are not the final word, that there is much more that God calls us to say to the church and to the world.



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