The Westminster Standards Compared to the Three Forms of Unity
Previously some important differences between these two groups of confessions have been identified by Synods of Reformed Churches in Canada and here in Australia. The intention is to take a closer look at some of these specific points of differences. However, first it may be helpful to give some attention to these confessions in a more general way.
Both the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity flow from the Great Reformation from the Roman Catholic Church. They both very strongly and firmly uphold the authority of Scripture. They reject how the Roman Catholic Church continues to give Scriptural-like authority to the tradition of the Church. They both uphold centuries-old Scriptural doctrines regarding the trinity, the Person of Christ, His work for salvation and the Person and work of the Holy Spirit. There is more in common between these confessions than differences, but the differences are where the problems arise.
The Westminster Standards were written later than the Three Forms of Unity. They were written in 1646, thus after the Synod of Dort 1618-19 and after the completion of the Canons of Dort. Some Presbyterians attended this Synod. They understood the importance of insisting that salvation is a free gift God has given. Man does not and cannot contribute anything to this blessing. There were those at the Westminster Assembly who really wanted to hold onto this important conclusion. Consequently, a lot of attention was given to God's decision to choose those whom He willed. At the same time, they recognised the need for believers to show and maintain human responsibility and accountability. Nevertheless, the strong emphasis placed on God's prior eternal plan resulted in the confession in relation to human accountability becoming a bit awkward. To make this clear, it is necessary to pay some attention to the supra — verses infra — lapsarian debate. Please do not let this terminology scare you off. It is not that difficult.
Supra- verses Infra-lapsarian
The word lapsarian originates from Latin. The same word has been taken over into the English language, namely lapse, that is to say: a gap or failure. In theological context it refers to the fall into sin. The question of supra- in contrast to infra-lapsarian has to do with the order of events before and at the beginning of creation. The supra-lapsarian argues that: 1) God first planned everything, including those whom He has elected; 2) God next created everything; 3) Then the fall into sin took place. The infra-lapsarian, on the other hand, argues that God 1) created everything, including man; 2) Next the fall into sin took place; 3) God then decided whom He would elect.
In view of what we are told in Ephesians 1:4 that the Lord ... chose us in Him (that is, in Christ) before the foundation of the world... the supra-lapsarian order may appear to be more Scriptural. The expression, foundation of the world must refer to creation of the world. Thus it appears that the Lord determined already, before He began to create, whom He would choose for salvation.
However, those arguing in an infra-lapsarian way want to avoid any possible insinuation and suggestion that God is accountable for, planned, or determined evil and sin. In Article 13 of the Belgic Confession we insist that God is not the Author of sins which are committed nor can He be charged with them. We also confess in Article 14, concerning the creation of man, that he was created in such a way that his will could conform to the will of God in every respect. In other words, before the fall into sin, man was able not to sin. He could have resisted the devil's temptation. It is not as if God did not create man good enough or that God created man in such a way that he could not but sin. That sin came into the world is solely man's fault, not God's. The history of this world could have been very different if man had not sinned. The problem with the supra-lapsarian view-point is the apparent implication that God is somehow accountable for sin; for even though it is not said, if God already chose the elect before the foundation of the world, the implication is that God knew the fall into sin would happen before He created Adam and Eve. With the supra-lapsarian view one is left with the logical conclusion that God must have somehow been involved with the origin and rise of evil.
To come to an answer to this apparent logical problem regarding the order in which things have taken place in the beginning, Reformed scholars have recognized that God is greater than human logic. God is not bound to time. He is the Creator of all things. He is above and beyond time. He is from everlasting to everlasting. He is the Creator of time. The problem here is the limitation of human reasoning and logic. It is well known that philosophers who study the principles of logic, reason and workings of the human mind, recognize the natural phenomena that humans can only reason and think within the framework of time and space. Further detail regarding this philosophical conclusion is not necessary here except to acknowledge this human limitation.
The point for now is that at times it is suggested that the Westminster Standards take a more infra-lapsarian approach while the Three Forms of Unity, in particular the Belgic Confession, take a more supra-lapsarian approach. Concerning the Belgic Confession reference is made to the order of the Articles. In Article 14 we confess that God created man, in Article 15 we confess original sin, and then in Article 16 Divine election. In comparison, the order found in the Westminster Confession of Faith is first God's eternal decree and election (Chapter 3), then creation including the creation of man (Chapter 4), next God's providence (Chapter 5), and after this the fall into sin (Chapter 6). In view of what has been said already about this matter, it may be suggested that the order in which these doctrines receive attention should not matter, especially because we cannot really speak of a specific order when speaking about the Lord. However, with its supra-lapsarian approach the Westminster Standards tend to look at what the Lord teaches in His Word more from the Lord's perspective. The Belgic Confession with its more infra-lapsarian approach looks at what the Lord teaches more from the human perspective, or shall we say, through human eyes. The practical difference is that when trying to look at Scripture revelation from God's view point, all attention is on "this is how God sees it". When looking at what the Lord teaches from our human view point, more attention is given to how the Lord directs us to live.
Here some of the acknowledged points of differences become evident. For example, when speaking about the church, we know that God has planned it all. He knows whom He will save, but all that remains hidden from our eyes. Thus the Westminster Standards speak about an invisible church. Similarly, these Standards say that the Lord makes His covenant with the elect and their seed; and everyone will agree that God does not tell us whom He has elected to eternal life. Again, here is something that remains hidden from us.
Here, when initially speaking about a difference in approach or emphasis in the Three Forms of Unity compared to the Westminster Standards, a practical result already become evident. For when we try to look at what the Lord teaches us through His eyes, our understanding remains limited and also tends to become speculative for we cannot see things that the Lord sees. If we look at what the Lord teaches us in His Word through our human eyes and recognise it as His instruction for us, then we focus much more on how we are to apply that message in our daily walk of life. For, we may ask, does Deuteronomy 29:29 not make us read Scripture in a more supra-lapsarian way? There we are told that the secret things belong to the LORD our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law. It would be good for us to emphasise these last words ... that we may do ... Scripture clearly shows that God's eternal decree does not remove or diminish human responsibility and accountability. We would do well to leave the things that belong to the Lord with the Lord to concentrate on how the Lord directs us to live as His children.
Here one may also think of the recent debates and decisions regarding the so-called federal vision approach to the covenant.1It is not the intention to go into that question here and more study would need to be done when doing so. However, when reading some of the material along with references made to the writings of Dr. K. Schilder, the debate appears to hinge on how much emphasis is to be given to God's providence and eternal election with regards to salvation given as a free gift of grace, on the one hand, whilst, on the other hand, how much emphasis is to be given to human accountability and responsibility, since we are taught that only those who believe will be saved and those who persist in sin or turn away from the Lord are warned of eternal punishment.
The plan is to look more specifically at the way the Westminster Standards speak about the place of children in the covenant compared to the way the Three Forms of Unity do this.