Formulating Doctrine

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"It pleased God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, for the manifestation of the glory of his eternal power, wisdom, and goodness, in the beginning, to create, or make of nothing, the world, and all things therein, whether visible or invisible, in the space of six days, and all very good." (Westminster Confession of Faith, 4.1)

The Savoy Declaration (1658) and the Second London Confession of Faith (1677/89) contain very similar statements. Our triune God is the Creator of all things (i.e., "all things" other than Himself, of course).

Formulating Christian doctrine, especially as it relates to the doctrine of the Trinity, is not as simple as counting texts which use the same words. Biblical texts ought to be weighed to determine their importance. Weighing texts is especially important when considering creation in relation to the Creator. If only one text of Holy Scripture informs us about a crucial element of the divine act of creation, that text is of great importance. This is the case because creation involves everything in relation to God. The doctrine of creation, as with the doctrine of the Trinity, is a distributed doctrine. John Webster's words capture what is meant by creation and the Trinity as distributed doctrines. He says:

"...the doctrine of creation is one of the two distributed doctrines in the corpus of Christian dogmatics. The first (both in sequence and in material primacy) distributed doctrine is the doctrine of the Trinity, of which all other articles of Christian teaching are an amplification or application, and which therefore permeates theological affirmations about every matter...The doctrine of creation is the second distributed doctrine, although, because its scope is restricted to the opera Dei ad extra [i.e., the external works of God], its distribution is less comprehensive than that of the doctrine of the Trinity. Within this limit, the doctrine of creation is ubiquitous. It is not restricted to one particular point in the sequence of Christian doctrine, but provides orientation and a measure of governance to all that theology has to say about all things in relation to God."1 

Because both creation and the Trinity are distributed doctrines, it is of utmost importance that we allow the Bible to speak on these issues, even if it does not speak as often as it does on other issues. We do not need a plethora of biblical texts indicating the work of the Spirit in creation, for example. One text would suffice, and its truth would extend to the entirety of Christian thinking on creation, conservation, re-creation, and consummation.

Formulating Christian doctrine is also more involved than a rehearsal of redemptive history. Though the study of redemptive history (i.e., biblical theology) is a vital aspect of the theological encyclopedia, it concerns itself with the revelatory process presented to us in Holy Scripture. Its method is not designed to conclude its work by presenting full statements on the various places of systematic theology. Unlike biblical theology, systematic theology is designed to collate various aspects of revelation under pre-determined headings (i.e., Scripture, God, creation, providence, etc.).[2] When systematic theology does its work properly, each topic's statements are formulated by a canonical consultation, a consultation of Scripture as a finished product of divine revelation, and in conversation with historical theology. Systematic theology reduces all the truths of Holy Scripture concerning given topics to propositional form. Similarly, confessional formulations seek to reduce large swaths of biblical truth into brief compass (e.g., 4.1 quoted above). In order to do this successfully, these formulations must weigh texts in order to ensure the formulations are brief, though comprehensive, enough to accurately convey the major emphases of Holy Scripture.

It is important to remember that the confessional documents mentioned above are confessions of faith. They contain, in summary form, what subscribers to them believe the totality of the Bible teaches on given subjects. The confession is not merely a reference point from which one subsequently develops doctrinal conclusions; it is the doctrinal conclusions on the subjects that it addresses. Because the confession summarizes what the Bible teaches on given subjects, this means the whole of the Bible is considered in the formulation of chapter 4. You can see this by noticing the Scripture references (and their order) at 4.1 in the WCF: Hebrews 1:2; John 1:2-3; Genesis 1:2; Job 26:13; Job 33:4; Romans 1:20; Jeremiah 10:12; Psalm 104:24; Psalm 33:5-6; Hebrews 11:3; Colossians 1:16; and Acts 17:24. Citing Scripture references indicates to readers that the members of the Assembly formulated the doctrines, in part, by the fruits of previous exegetical work in the biblical text. In other words, this is not some form of simplistic proof-texting. Stefan T. Lindblad helps us understand the rationale behind the practice of citing biblical references in the confession. He says:

...To call this a "proof-texting method" in the modern derogatory sense is misleading. By citing specific texts in support of their statements, the authors of the Confession were indicating their adherence to methods of biblical interpretation and doctrinal formation that was characteristic not just of Reformed orthodoxy but also of the whole sweep of pre-critical exegesis. The texts cited...are regarded as the primary seat of the doctrine, the primary (not exclusive) place in Scripture where the doctrine was either explicitly taught or "by just consequence deduced."3 By citing...texts the [Confession] was not arbitrarily appealing to texts out of context. Rather,...the [Confession] was drawing on the interpretation of these texts as argued in the biblical commentaries and annotations of the era. The statement of the Confession is thus a doctrinal result resting on the foundation of Scripture and its proper interpretation. The biblical texts cited thus point in two directions: back to biblical interpretation and forward to doctrinal formulation. Such texts, the dicta probantia or "proving statements," function as the necessary link between biblical interpretation and doctrinal formulation. A confession was not designed to reproduce the work of biblical interpretation, but to affirm its fruit, given that Scripture was the only authoritative and sufficient foundation for every doctrinal topic and for a system of theology as a whole.4

The texts cited are not the only scriptural bases from which the confessional formulations were derived. Also, the formulations are not mere recitations of the words of Scripture. Doctrines taught in Scripture must be formulated into words other than Scripture in order to explicate their meanings for us.

Finally, WCF 4.1 assumes all that comes before it. It assumes the doctrine of Scripture (along with a working hermeneutic [cf. 1.9]), God's attributes and triunity, and the decree. These doctrinal formulations provide background and context for the statement in 4.1. For example, the Creator at 4.1 is the same triune God confessed in chapters 2 and 3. He does not refashion Himself in order to create or while creating. If that were the case, 4.1 would contradict previous assertions of the confession.

Far from displaying a simplistic proof-texting method, the confession evidences a careful methodological approach. This includes exegesis of texts and synthesizing various scriptural emphases, as well as the assumption of doctrinal formulations previously contained in the confession.

 

1. John Webster, God without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology, Volume I, God and the Works of God (London, Oxford, New York, New Delhi, Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2016), 117.

2. We must not think that these pre-determined headings come from outside of Holy Scripture, imposed upon it to make sense of it. The doctrinal places of systematic theology come about due to contemplation upon Scripture.

3. This is a citation from Nehemiah Coxe, Vindiciae Veritatis, or a Confutation of the heresies and gross errours asserted by Thomas Collier in his additional word to his Body of Divinity (London: for Nathaniel Ponder, 1677), 9.

4. Stefan T. Lindblad, "'Eternally Begotten of the Father': An Analysis of the Second London Confession of Faith's Doctrine of the Eternal Generation of the Son," in By Common Confession: Essays in Honor of James M. Renihan, eds. Ronald S. Baines, Richard C. Barcellos, and James P. Butler (Palmdale, CA: RBAP, 2015), 338-39.

 

Richard C. Barcellos, is pastor of Grace Reformed Baptist Church, Palmdale, CA and Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at IRBS Theological Seminary. He is the author of Getting the Garden Right: Adam's Work and God's Rest in Light of Christ and The Covenant of Works: Its Confessional and Scriptural Basis.

Posted April 2, 2018 @ 7:45 AM by Richard C. Barcellos

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