Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 2: The Ultimate Issue
In his study of the theology of Calvin, Dordt, and Westminster, Prof. John Murray talks of "a distinguishing mark of our Reformed heritage" (Collected Writings, Vol. 4, p 212). He is at this point discussing the decrees of predestination and reprobation, and shows that although differing terms were used by Calvin in the sixteenth century and by the Synod of Dordt and the Westminster Assembly in the next, "the glory of God is the issue at stake" (p212).
The thought of God was dominant in the work of the Westminster Assembly. And when the chapter on the doctrine of God was submitted to Parliament on 7 July 1645, the divines bequeathed to the Reformed church such a statement concerning the Divine Being as has been unsurpassed. Murray goes on to say that "Nowhere in the compass of theological formulation is the praise of God's glory more central that in the work of Calvin, Dordt and Westminster" (p215). In the Providence of God, guiding both the Reformation movement as well as the work of the Assembly, there was an evident and direct connection of thought between the Institutes of Calvin, for example, and the Westminster theology. So much is this the case that Warfield could say that "The system of doctrine taught in the Confession is that system that is known in history as the Reformed or Calvinistic system" (Selected Shorter Writings, Vol.2, p.396).
Theology Derived from Scripture
We have examined the salient features and emphases of the opening chapter of the Confession. The issue of AUTHORITY was paramount in the Reformation movement. No issue of theology can ever be settled until first the issue of ultimate authority is settled. The idea of the Reformation was that "In theology there is, of course, no room for originality properly so called, for its whole materials are contained in the actual statements of God's Word" (Cunningham in The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, p296). Instead of being a weakness, this was the greatest strength of the whole Reformation movement — that it grounded all its theology and teaching in the clear and unequivocal - statements of Scripture.
The Most Important Question
"This introduction", writes Sinclair Ferguson, "brings the Confession to the most important theological question of all. Who is God? Our answer to this determines all our thinking" (The Westminster Confession in the church today, p.30). The Confession moves, logically, from its discussion of Scripture as the final arbiter of theology, to God, the proper object of theological enquiry.
Warfield defines "the determining principle of Calvinism" as "the glory of the Lord God Almighty ... the conception of God" (p.414). From the introductory statement about biblical authority the divines take us to the formative doctrine — the doctrine which affects every other doctrine — the doctrine of God.
It is worth pausing for a moment to reflect on the importance the Bible gives to this doctrine. Jeremiah declared in chapter 9:23-24:
Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches; but let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the Lord which exercise loving kindness, judgement and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, saith the Lord.
This is echoed by our Lord's definition of eternal life, which is "to know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent" (John 17:3). John also was to declare to the infant New Testament church that "we know that the Son of God hath come, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know him that is true, and we are in him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life" (1 John 5:20).
It is, therefore, impossible to dismiss the doctrine of God as some dry, academic point of doctrine that is peripheral to Christian living. The doctrine of God IS the life of the Christian. We cannot profess to have eternal life if we do not know God. We cannot distinguish between the people of God and the world around apart from the doctrine of God. And, as Daniel reminds us, it is "the people that do know their God" that "shall be strong and do exploits" (Daniel 11:32).
Calvin made this foundational to his work in the sixteenth century. The opening sentence of his Institutes reads: "Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves". There cannot be true wisdom, true understanding, where either of these is absent.
The Practical Implications of Theology
The doctrine of God is vital for the proclamation of the church. If we are wrong on this, we will be wrong on everything. Seventy years ago, A.W. Pink wrote: "Present day conditions call loudly for a new examination and new presentation of God's omnipotency, God's sufficiency, God's sovereignty. From every pulpit in the land it needs to be thundered forth that God still lives, that God still observes, that God still reigns... What is needed now, as never before, is a full, positive, constructive setting forth of the Godhood of God" (The Sovereignty of God, p.17). That was written in 1929, and is still necessary almost 70 years on.
The doctrine of God is vital, too, for the worship of the church. One historian has said of Charles Hodge that he was a "kneeling as opposed to a sitting theologian. He had seen the grace and glory of God, and in his Systematic Theology he turns to the world to explain his vision" (Princeton, Vol.2, p.35). If our theology does not issue in adoration and praise, something is amiss. The divines at Westminster gave expression to the thoughts that called forth the greatest praises of their hearts.
In another place, Warfield writes in similar vein. "The central fact of Calvinism", he says, "is the vision of God... It is this sense of God, of God's presence, of God's power, of God's all-pervading activity — most of all in the process of salvation — which constitutes Calvinism... The Calvinist, in a word, is the man who sees God... God in nature, God in history, God in grace" (Calvin and Augustine, pp502-3).
The great statements of Chapter 2 of the Confession bring us, therefore, to the very heartland of Reformed truth. May the Lord help us to capture the vision of its pages, and serve the Lord our God with all our heart!