Westminster Confession Of Faith: With Introduction And Notes (1881)

by John Macpherson

Chapter I | Section ii

The Rule of Faith was the term used to indicate the sum of saving knowledge. Then as the subject matter of this canon or rule was wholly derived from Holy Scripture, the inspired writings were distinguished from all others as canonical. The Canon, therefore, does not mean merely a catalog of Scriptures received in the church, but the accepted rule or measure of Christendom. The Rule of Faith was doctrine.

The enumeration of books in our Confession is given according to the distribution of these in our ordinary English Bibles. The Hebrew Bible followed another arrangement, grouping the books of the Old Testament according to subject, style, and date, under a threefold division, 1. Torah : the Law, comprising the five books, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. 2. The Prophets, comprising of (1) Earlier Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings; (2) Later Prophets : Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve Minor Prophets. 3. Hagiographa (the sacred writings), comprising Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles. It was to this early distribution of the Old Testament books that our Lord alluded when He claimed that things concerning Him had been written in the law of Moses, in the Prophets, and in the Psalms (Luke 24:44).

According to our present arrangement, the historical books of the last division of the Hebrew Bible are classed with the earlier Prophets : Daniel gets the fourth place among the more directly prophetic writings, and Lamentations is placed beside Jeremiah. This distribution originated with the Septuagint, was thence adopted in the Vulgate, was followed by Luther, and has thus come to be regarded with general favor. It is supposed to correspond well with the distribution of the books of the New Testament. Thus in our Old Testament we have (1) Historical Books: Genesis to Esther; (2) Didactic Books : Job to Ecclesiastes ; (3) Prophetic Books : Isaiah to Malachi. In the New Testament we have (1) Histories : Gospels and Acts ; (2) Didactic Treatises or Epistles : Romans to Jude ; (3) A Prophetic Book : The Apocalypse.

The caution shown by the Westminster divines in their choice of designations for the several books of the Canon of Scripture is very admirable. Wherever they found no author's name prefixed to a particular book, they have been careful to insert none ; and in this they have been scrupulously consistent. They showed their wisdom in refusing to imperil the position of any single book in the Canon by fixing for it an authorship which it did not itself claim or an authorship which, having been maintained by tradition in one age, might probably be repudiated by criticism in another.

Although no test of canonicity is here explicitly announced, yet when the clause “all which are given by inspiration of God, to be” etc., is compared with the opening words of sec. 3, “The Books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of Divine inspiration, are no part of the canon of the Scripture,” it appears that the framers of the Confession understood inspiration to be the test of canonicity. Writings which are inspired are canonical, writings which are not inspired are not canonical. This leaves us confronted by the further and formidable question, How are we to ascertain what writings are inspired?

There are two processes by which we can arrive at the conclusion that a writing is inspired. The internal evidence afforded by the marks appealed to in sec. 5 may be sufficient to warrant the conclusion. Or we may believe in the inspiration of a writing, because we first of all believe in Christ, and find that He authorized certain persons to speak in His name, and with His Spirit. But there are books in our Canon whose claims are justified by neither of these tests; of such books as Chronicles and Esther we neither know the authorship nor can we unhesitatingly say that they carry in themselves indubitable marks of Divine origin. We are driven, therefore, to some test, such as Luther's, conformity to the main end of revelation. If by canonical writings we mean the writings through which God conveys to us the knowledge of the revelation He has made, and if this be the prominent idea, and if their being the rule of faith and life be an inference from this, then we find a broader basis for the Canon, and can admit into it all writings which have an immediate connection with God's revelation of Himself in Christ. If the book in question gives us a link in the history of that revelation, or if it represents a stage of God's dealings, and of the growth His people made under these dealings, and if it contains nothing which is quite inconsistent with the idea of its being inspired, then its claim to be admitted seems valid.

The Jewish teachers did not consider the Old Testament Canon fixed until after the fall of the Temple. The New Testament Canon was not finally adjusted till the end of the fourth century; and even then the canonicity of certain books was disputed by one and another leader of the church. Those books that were universally accepted weere entitled Homologoumena, and those that for a time had their place questioned, Antilegomena. The Reformers, notably Luther, were surprisingly free in their use of this distinction. In the latter division were placed James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation. The claims of these books to bear apostolic names are now almost universally admitted by evangelical scholars; and with this the ground for the distinction has disappeared. Hence in our Confession all the books enumerated are regarded as having equal canonical rank. In order to determine the question of canonicity, we have to trace the history of the reception of the several books in the ancient church, and then the list thus arranged according to the authority of tradition must be subjected to criticism, to determine whether the writings contained in it really reflect apostolic doctrine. Apostolic origin, either as to writing or as to spirit, is indispensable to the securing for any book a place in the Canon. This was so early recognized as a mark of canonicity, that heretical works seeking canonical authority were put forth under the names of apostles.

The Westminster Confession, in common with most of the doctrinal symbols of the Reformed or Calvinistic Churches, while not going into argument, accepts the definite results of tradition and criticism in the church, and so gives the list arrived at by those means. Luther stood free in regard to the Canon; and Lutheran standards, in order to preserve this freedom, even from the earliest Reformation times, forbear to give an enumeration of the books of Scripture lest they should fetter critical inquiry. Dorner brings it as a reproach against the Reformed Confessions that they have inserted such lists.

The relation between Inspiration and Canonicity is very much like that between Creation and Providence. Each writing is the product of divine inspiration, a creation of God's Spirit; and the preservation and grouping together of these writings must be regarded as the result of a divine providence employing as instruments the spiritual and critical discernment of man. In regard to Inspiration the Confession gives its imprimatur [official approval] to no particular theory, but clearly and strongly affirms the fact. All the books enumerated form one Canon, one rule of faith and life. The perfect and canonical authority of Holy Scripture does not depend upon any one writing, but upon the whole collection of writings, which supplement one another, and must therefore be taken together; and in this dogma regarding Scripture is involved the truth, that we have in the New Testament, not merely fragments of the Apostolic Age, which have by chance been preserved to us, but a harmonious whole, complete within itself, wherein no principle of apostolic consciousness is wanting.

Edited by Michael Bremmer

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