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Understanding Historic Calvinism and the Confessional Revisions of 1903

I have written before regarding the way that historic and confessional Calvinism, and particularly the doctrine concerning predestination, is often misunderstood and misused today. So much so, that I rarely now identify myself as a Calvinist. If someone asks me if I or the church believe in Calvinism, I always ask them to explain to me what they mean by “Calvinism” before I answer. Most of the time, I find that what they understand as Calvinism is not at all what historic and confessional reformed theology actually teaches.   

Not surprisingly, questions about Calvinism and similar types of misunderstanding are not unique to our time. As the saying goes, there is nothing new under the sun. I was reminded of this recently after reading an essay by B.B. Warfield analyzing the changes made to the Westminster Confession of Faith in 1903 by the Presbyterian Church. In that year, the church approved several changes to the Confession, adding a "Declaratory Statement" to some sections, adding new chapters on the Holy Spirit and Love of God, and making some deletions to certain sections. For this blog, I want to focus exclusively on the added declaratory statement, and specifically the portion which address the teaching of chapter 3 of the Confession dealing with God's decree of election.  

Why did the church feel it was necessary to do this? The answer from the statement is as follows: "...the desire has been formally expressed for a disavowal by the Church of certain inferences drawn from statements in the Confession of faith."  In other words, the church added the statement in order to repudiate the many false inferences from the doctrine of election that were used as a basis of attacking the doctrine of election as set forth in the confession.  

What might some of these false inferences be?  The statement continues:

“First. With references to Chapter III of the Confession of Faith: That concerning those who are saved in Christ, the doctrine of God’s eternal decree is held in harmony with the doctrine of his love to all mankind, his gift of his Son to be the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, and his readiness to bestow his saving grace on all who seek it.  That concerning those who perish, the doctrine of Gods eternal decree is held in harmony with the doctrine that God desires not the death of any sinner, but has provided in Christ a salvation sufficient for all, adapted to all, and freely offered in the gospel to all: that men are fully responsible for their treatment of Gods gracious offer, and that no man is condemned except on the ground of his sin.” 

 We can see here a number of false inferences that the church wanted to deny with respect to its teaching on predestination and election. 

  • The inference that if election is true, God does not love all mankind
  • The inference that if election is true, Jesus was not given for the sins of the whole world
  • The inference that if election is true, God wants some people to go to hell or will not give his grace to those who seek 
  • The inferences that if election is true, then there is no free offer of the Gospel for all.
  • The inference that if election is true, men are not responsible for their sin or for their response to God's gracious offer.
  • The inference that if election is true, men go to hell because God did not elect them

As I said, there is nothing new under the sun. These same assertions continue to be repeated today as a basis for rejecting the biblical teaching of God's eternal decree. Often when someone tells me that they have a problem with Calvinism, and I ask them what it is, they repeat one of the points above. But what we learn here is that historic and confessional teaching on predestination does not actually teach any of these things, these are all false inferences. Notice how the prefatory statement does not change or repudiate any of the teaching of chapter 3 itself, it merely clarifies that the confessional teaching in chapter three is held by the church in full "harmony" with all of the other doctrines expressed. The statement says in effect, that historic and confessional Calvinism regarding predestination does not deny and is not inconsistent at all with truth that God loves all mankind, that there is a free offer of the Gospel, etc.  

Warfield is surely right when he summarizes the intent of this statement as follows: "The first section of the "Declaratory Statement" appears then to be nothing other than a sharp repudiation of the ordinary Arminian assault on the doctrine of the Decree, and puts in a brief form the common Calvinistic response to this assault." Warfield then shows very thoroughly from history that the prefatory statement is fully in line with what reformed theologians like John Calvin, Francis Turretin, Charles Hodge, and many others, actually taught. Just as one example, he quotes John Calvin from his commentary on the Gospel of John, "The heavenly Father loves the human race, and would not have them perish."  

To be sure, there are real issues and points of disagreement between Calvinism and Arminianism as theological systems. However, the prefatory statement of 1903 is helpful because it exposes how prone we are to draw false inferences from the doctrine of election that neither scripture no historic Calvinism has ever taught. As Calvin himself wrote, the doctrine of predestination is a "labyrinth from which the mind of man is wholly incapable of extricating itself... Let this, therefore, be our sacred rule, not to seek to know anything about it except which Scripture teaches us. Where the lord closes his holy mouth, let us also stop our minds from going on further." In other words we must affirm God's election because the Bible teaches it, but we must at the same time be very careful not to engage in unwarranted speculation on drawing inferences from that doctrine that the Bible itself does not draw, rather we must stay firmly fixed on God's word and what it reveals to us.