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

by John Macpherson

Chapter II | Section i-ii

The fact of God's existence had been assumed as the basis of the Confession. That God has spoken, His unity and His attributes.

(1.) In the writings of the purer and more spiritual of the classical writers, both poets and philosophers, we find an eager groping after the notion of the divine unity. They could not rest in the thought that a power which divides itself among several beings is the last and highest of all. That God is one, was the most profound conviction of their souls, as the discovery of this one God was the deepest longing of their hearts. If only the idea of God as absolute and personal were reached, or even approached, the necessary consequence would be the affirmation of the unity of God. Indeed, the assertion of the divine personality leads necessarily to the recognition of deity as absolute being, and this, again, if intelligently entertained, to the adoption of a strict monotheism. From a purely speculative point of view, therefore, the doctrine that there is but one God may be placed beyond dispute among all who reject naturalism, whether in the form of materialism or in the form of pantheism. It is to be noted, however, that our Confession states this doctrine in immediate connection with the claims which God makes upon His creatures for their undivided homage. We are taught to regard Him as the fountain of our being, as the Lord who has dominion over us, the Searcher of our hearts, and the God to whom our worship, service, and obedience are due. Thus the doctrine of His unity is emphasized chiefly in order that we may recognize in Him the God with whom alone we have to do.

(2.) The enumeration of the divine perfections, given in these sections, is singularly lengthy ; but there is no discoverable method or principle of arrangement. The attributes of God have been variously classified by different dogmatists ; but as no attempt at classification is made in our Confession, we need take no notice of such schemes. In looking over the list of the divine perfections given here, we are at once impressed with its decidedly biblical aspect. Some of the terms indeed are not immediately biblical in form, but seem rather to have been derived from the Scholastic theology, yet the ideas indicated by such phrases are very easily translated into well-known expressions of Scripture. On the other hand, we find that, repeatedly, complete clauses are introduced in their full and precise scriptural form. Without seeking formally to classify that which was not originally the subject of classification, we may notice the careful balancing of seemingly contrasted elements in the divine character, most free and most absolute, most loving, etc., and withal most just, etc. ; and also the singular accuracy with which God's self-sufficiency is maintained consistently with a living and evangelical view of His relations to His creatures. To say of God that He does not derive any glory from His creatures, is at first sight somewhat startling, till we observe that the term 'derive' is used in its most exact and proper sense of obtaining from an original source. Thus understood, it is evident that from the creature no glory of God can take its origin, for that glory had its origin earlier in the very creative act itself. This is further explained in the phrase which follows: “manifesting His own glory in them.” Whatever in the creature contributes to the glory of God, is really an exhibition of God's own glory by means of His own creation. Thus we have a sober and moderate view of man's place and dignity. It is man's high honor and privilege to show forth God's glory, yet he is prevented from boasting, as if he himself, God's creature, were regarded as of himself and independently contributing to the glory of God. Man has dignity, but it is creaturely dignity ; he can make no claim of being profitable to God. It was the grave error of mysticism to insist in an unguarded manner upon the importance of the creature for the Creator. One of the mystics of the Middle Ages ventured plainly to say, what is generally implied in those systems of mysticism that tend to Pantheism, ' God has as much need of me as I of Him. As intended by its author, this saying is not impious ; but it is overbold, and liable to be understood in accordance with the ordinary meaning of its terms in a sense that is nothing short of blasphemy. Our Confession, on the other hand, goes carefully upon scriptural lines. It is only the ignorant idolater that can suppose that God needs anything, and yet, when His creature turns away from Him, He cries out, “How shall I give thee up ?” Martensen has indicated a fair solution of the difficulty of reconciling God's independence of and interest in His creatures, by assuming that God has a twofold life, “a life in Himself of unclouded peace and self-satisfaction, and a life in and with His creation.” To the one, we refer all those scriptural expressions that imply limitation, or the appearance of human passions in God ; and to the other, which is the fundamental and ultimately triumphant form of the divine life, we ascribe that complete independence of His creation in which the attribute of unchangeableness is fully realized.

In the closing part of these sections, we have the three doctrinally most important of the divine attributes expressed in almost the very words of Scripture, and their meaning explained with immediate reference to man. We find here a fit prelude to the chapter on the Divine Decrees. There is here a forecast of the same pure type of doctrine, and the exhibition thus made of God's sovereignty, absolute knowledge, and all-pervading holiness, yields all the essential elements of the doctrine of Predestination which characterizes the whole of the Calvinistic symbols. In the declaration regarding God's sovereignty, the charge of arbitrariness is guarded against by the declaration as to the holiness of all His counsels. The perfection of His knowledge is explained, on the one hand, by His access to the most secret springs of human action, and on the other, by His independence of all creaturely conditions which introduce elements of contingency.

Edited by Michael Bremmer

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