In the final years of the 19th-century, a push began in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. to revise the Westminster Standards. That effort eventually won out in 1903, incorporating changes which in turn allowed for a merger or reception of the larger portion of the Cumberland Presbyterians, a denomination which was historically anti-Calvinistic.
Benjamin B. Warfield opposed any talk of revision and in one of his lesser known works, presented his reasons at some length. From an address delivered by Dr. Warfield before the Presbytery of New Brunswick, at Dutch Neck, New Jersey, on June 25, 1889, the following five points summarize his arguments against revision:
REASONS FOR NOT REVISING THE CONFESSION.
- Our free but safe formula of acceptance of the Confession of Faith, by which we “receive and adopt it” as “containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures” (Form of Government, XV., xii.), relieves us of all necessity for seeking, each one to conform the Confession in all its propositions to his individual preferences, and enables us to treat the Confession as a public document, designed, not to bring each of our idiosyncrasies to expression, but to express the general and common faith of the whole body—which it adequately and admirably does.
- Enjoying this free yet hearty relation to the Confession, we consider that our situation toward our standards is incapable of improvement. However much or little the Confession were altered, we could not, as a body, accept the altered Confession in a closer sense than for system of doctrine; and the alterations could not better it as a public Confession, however much it might be made a closer expression of the faith of some individuals among us. In any case, it could not be made, in all its propositions and forms of statement, the exact expression of the personal faith of each one of our thousands of office-bearers.
- In these circumstances we are unwilling to mar the integrity of so venerable and admirable a document, in the mere license of change, without prospect of substantially bettering our relation to it, or its fitness to serve as an adequate statement of the system of doctrine which we all heartily believe. The historical character and the hereditary value of the creed should, in such a case, be preserved.
- We have little hope of substantially bettering the Confession, either in the doctrines it states or in the manner in which they are stated. When we consider the guardedness, moderation, fullness, lucidity, and catholicity of its statement of the Augustinian system of truth, and of the several doctrines which enter into it, we are convinced that the Westminster Confession is the best, safest, and most acceptable statement of the truths and the system which we most surely believe that has ever been formulated; and we despair of making any substantial improvements upon its form of sound words. On this account we not only do not desire changes on our own account, but should look with doubt and apprehension upon any efforts to improve upon it by the Church.
- The moderate, catholic, and irenical character of the Westminster Confession has always made it a unifying document. Framed as an irenicon, it bound at once the Scotch and English Churches together; it was adopted and continues to be used by many Congregational and Baptist churches as the confession of their faith; with its accompanying Catechisms it has lately been made the basis of union between the two great Presbyterian bodies which united to constitute our Church; and we are convinced that if Presbyterian union is to go further, it must be on the basis of the Westminster Standards, pure and simple. In the interests of Church union, therefore, as in the interests of a broad and irenical, moderate and catholic Calvinism, we deprecate any changes in our historical standards, to the system of doctrine contained in which we unabatedly adhere, and with the forms of statement of which we find ourselves in hearty accord.
Words to Live By:
“Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you.”—2 Timothy 1:13-14, NASB.