Sunday, March 26, 2006

Freedom to Believe? The Westminster Confession of Faith in the Church of Scotland since 1929

After Presbyterianism was established as the form of government within the Church of Scotland in 1690, and Episcopalianism legally recognised in 1712, the issue of the spiritual freedom of the church became the single most important issue in Scottish church life. Over the next two centuries the relationship between church and state was at the heart of many ecclesiastical controversies. Certainly, there were doctrinal aspects to these controversies. However the establishment principle always influenced the outcome of any controversy because the dominant church, against which other protestant bodies were constituted, was privileged and protected by act of Parliament. But the church was also under the effective oversight of Parliament and civil jurisdiction. This was demonstrated during the Ten Years’ Conflict. Although the General Assembly of 1838 claimed that ‘in all matters touching the doctrine, government or discipline of this Church her judicatories possess an exclusive jurisdiction founded on the Word of God,’ the civil courts consistently rejected this claim by passing judgements conflicting with the church’s Veto Act of 1834. (Cameron 1993: 816)

Oversight of the church by Parliament included the church’s doctrine. Scottish kings and governments had always had an interest in the church, but this doctrinal precedent was forged at the Reformation when the Reformation Parliament accepted the Scots Confession in 1560. The Confession had been commissioned by English diplomats trying to influence the political crisis of 1559-60. Its ratification was part of an ongoing process between church and state in the reformation of Scotland. The Scottish government also commissioned the First Book of Discipline, which was approved by the Privy Council in January 1560-1. However, on Queen Mary’s return from France, and in the decades of strife that followed, both it and the Second Book of Discipline were never fully recognised by Parliament.

The struggle over the government of the church became a British issue after 1603, and it was the English Parliament that commissioned the Westminster Assembly in June 1643 with the aim of uniting the Church of England’s doctrine and practice with that of the Church in Scotland and other European churches. The Westminster Confession was adopted by the General Assembly of 1647, and the Scottish Parliament ratified it in 1649. After the Cromwellian occupation and the Stuart Restoration, the Revolution Settlement of 1688 offered the Presbyterians an opportunity to regain power within the church. In 1690, the same act of Parliament restoring Presbyterianism reaffirmed the Westminster Confession as the foundational document of the Church of Scotland. An act of the General Assembly in October 1690 brought the Westminster Confession back to prominence by judging it necessary ‘that all probationers licensed to preach, all entrants into the ministry, and all other ministers and elders received into communion with us in Church government, be obliged to subscribe their approbation of the Confession of Faith.’ (Heron 1982: 18) Subscription became a feature of church life as a measure against Episcopalianism and Jacobitism. By 1711, ministers were required to sign up to the Confession in its entirety, and at ordination assent to a formula of subscription, a form of initiation that exists to the present day. The context of these developments remained the Church of Scotland’s fear of English Tory attempts to destroy the church settlement described in the Revolution Settlement and the Act of Union 1707.

During the next two centuries unqualified subscription to the confession remained part of the process of becoming a minister or elder in the Church of Scotland. The Westminster Confession was retained as the subordinate standard of faith in the church without any serious objections. This is not to ignore the secessions and controversies of the 18th century. The secessions tended to be based upon disputes about the role of the establishment’s power within the church. Theological controversies in the Church of Scotland usually worked within the framework of the confession. For example, both sides in the Marrow Controversy claimed to uphold Westminster standards. What did become apparent was a general unease with the Westminster Confession, especially in the second half of the 19th century. Some of its doctrines became questionable because of the application of Enlightenment principles that had reconstructed the foundations of intellectual thought and textual criticism. It was impossible for ministers and theologians to ignore this movement. In fact, they were often the pioneers of enlightenment approaches to history and philosophy. Although there are stories of ministers subscribing to the confession ‘errors excepted’ (Macdonald 2004: 170), it was not until the 1870s that there was a change to subscription that would affect the Church of Scotland’s official position.

In 1879, the United Presbyterian Church adopted a Declaratory Act setting out its understanding of the place of the Confession in the life of the church. The act articulated concerns over the interpretation of some key doctrines in the Confession, especially the doctrine of predestination. It introduced the idea of liberty of opinion on ‘matters not entering into the substance of the faith’, illustrating this with reference to the six days of creation in chapter 4 of the Confession. The Free Church followed this example in the mid 1890s. The established church also expressed concern about its confessional subscription. With use of the Barrier Act in 1888, it eventually amended its formula of subscription from the rigid 1711 formula to the 1693 version. This change meant that ministers and elders now only acknowledged that the doctrine contained in the Confession was true doctrine, whereas the 1711 formula equated ‘the whole doctrine of the Confession’ with ‘the truths of God’ contained in the Bible. But even if the Church of Scotland had some sense of unease about its Confession, it was clear that there were legal difficulties hindering a more significant change. The established church was bound to the law of the land. It was not free to amend its confession out with existing legislation without the consent of Parliament. The consequences of union and division within the Presbyterian churches in Scotland would resolve this problem.

In 1900, the Free Church and the United Presbyterian Church united to form the United Free Church. But a minority within the Free Church opposed the union, and claimed that they were entitled to the all the assets of the church. After four years of legal action the House of Lords ruled in favour of the minority group – all the property of the pre-union Free Church was granted to them. To resolve the situation a Parliamentary Commission was set up. Eventually, an equitable distribution of the property was achieved through the Churches (Scotland) Act, 1905. But this act also contained a section that allowed the formula of subscription to the Westminster Confession in the Church of Scotland to be a matter for the church itself. By 1910, the church had approved a new formula for ministers and elders, which required “acceptance of the Confession as the Church’s Confession together with profession of belief in ‘the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith contained therein.’” (Heron 1982: 27)

Union between the Church of Scotland and the United Free Church was based on a long process beginning in 1910 and culminating in the re-union of 1929. Resolving the two issues preventing union required further Parliamentary legislation, as well as extensive negotiation between the churches to agree a constitution for the new body. After agreement was reached in both General Assemblies, the ‘Articles Declaratory of the Constitution of the Church of Scotland in Matters Spiritual’ were incorporated into the Church of Scotland Act, 1921. Spiritual independence and national recognition of religion were expressed within the Articles. The Church of Scotland retained its status as the established church, but it also gained the freedom to alter its relationship to its own doctrinal standards, in line with the United Free Church Act, 1906. ‘Liberty of opinion in points which do not enter into the substance of the faith’ was also retained within the new constitution, but the Westminster Confession remained ‘the principal subordinate standard’ of the church. (Murray 1993: 142,144) The inevitable compromises involved in the union negotiations created a situation where the church’s official doctrinal statement was a mid-17th century document, yet no member of the church was in any way bound to believe or confess allegiance to anything in it apart from undefined ‘fundamental doctrines of the Catholic faith’ within a trinitarian and Protestant framework. This freedom and ambiguity would characterise all subsequent discussions of the church’s confession, and it created a constitutional justification for avoiding the amendment or replacement of the Westminster Confession as the subordinate standard.

Although the constitutional place of the Confession has not changed since 1929 there have been attempts to raise the issue. In an article in the Scottish Journal of Theology, 1966, the Very Rev Dr Nevile Davidson described two reasons why the Confession was out of place in the contemporary church and suggested four options to replace the existing confessional position. His argument was based on the widespread assumption that the Church no longer held to the substance of the theology of the Confession. The most significant episode for change began with a move at the General Assembly of 1968, starting an exploration and debate within the church that lasted until 1974. J.K.S. Reid was successful in his deliverance, seconded by Nevile Davidson, that the Panel of Doctrine be requested to consider the place of the Westminster Confession ‘as the subordinate standard of the Church’s faith and to the reference to it in the preamble and questions used at ordination, with a view to offering guidance to the Church.’ (Church of Scotland 1968: 173) One year later the Panel of Doctrine reported that the situation was indeed unsatisfactory. But it did not recommend replacing the Confession. Instead, its report suggested that the idea of a subordinate standard should be abandoned. Rather, a new Preamble, containing a short statement of fundamental doctrines, should be attached to the current Formula that ministers and elders subscribe to on ordination.

These proposals were found to be acceptable, and after two years of consultation with Presbyteries and Kirk Sessions, the Panel of Doctrine presented an overture to the General Assembly of 1972 with the final draft for a new Preamble and the agreed amendments to the Articles Declaratory. When the changes were brought to the General Assembly of 1974 for final approval, there was a lengthy debate that demonstrated considerable opposition to the proposed changes. Although it was successful in opposing the changes the opposition was not unified. There were at least two arguments against the changes. A technical and legal challenge was made against the proposals, and in the minds of many delegates this must have raised the possibility of a situation similar to the Free Church Case of 1900-04. In the words of one commentator, ‘the critics argued that to depart from the Westminster Confession of Faith as the Church’s principal subordinate standard would be to challenge the provisions of the legislation leading to the Union of Parliaments in 1707, which, they claimed, permanently safeguarded the position of the Confession.’ (Heron 1982: 77) The validity of the argument did not matter so much as the threat of further legal interference in the life of the church to resolve its business. The second argument against the charges was articulated in an amended counter-motion proposed by Andrew Herron and seconded by Duncan Shaw. This moved that the Church should wait for a new statement of faith before proceeding with the matter. The counter-motion was carried by a majority of 292 votes to 238.

No new statement of faith has ever been accepted as a formal confession to either replace the Westminster Confession, or define the fundamental doctrines of the faith. A proposal to change the Articles in connection with the Church’s doctrine was a result of two questions put to the Procurator by Professor Tom Torrance at the General Assembly of 1983. The answer to these two questions confirmed that there was no liberty of opinion for the Church in respect of the first Article of the constitution. Torrance then moved that the Panel on Doctrine be asked to prepare a new preamble and formula articulating this position. But again there was hesitation, this time on the part of Presbyteries, to support action that would amend Article Two by adding to the principal subordinate standards the Apostles’ Creed and the Scots Confession. (Murray 1993: 138) The status quo remained and has not changed since this last significant attempt in 1985.

The place of the Confession is still discussed in the church. In 2002, the subject was raised in an article in Life and Work, the Church of Scotland’s monthly record. (‘Dogged by Doubt’ Lorna Hill. Life and Work, April 2002, p17.) It demonstrates that little has changed since 1929. A significant motivation for proposing a new or amended confession remains church union and ecumenicalism in the form of the Scottish Church Initiative for Union (SCIFU). But the continuing anomalous position of the confession as the church’s subordinate standard brings with it familiar analysis from a range of commentators. Academics and church people are quoted in Hill’s article questioning the usual areas of the Confession that seem unacceptable in the church today. Conservative opinion is recognised but even David Searle, a leading evangelical, admits that the Confession is not perfect: ‘I still think the Westminster Confession is a very, very fine statement of Christian doctrine though obviously there are certain aspects of it that one wouldn’t want to stand by.’ The only good reason for not pursuing change seems to be fear of division. David Wright, an academic, and an evangelical churchman, comments to the effect that any plan to scrap or replace the Confession would be ‘a profoundly divisive exercise.’ The article ends with the twin observations that ‘consensus on the issue seems an almost impossible feat’, and the future promises ‘stormy times ahead’ for the church over the issue. Although writing in a different context, former moderator and current Principal Clerk of the General Assembly, Finlay Macdonald agrees: ‘The time is coming when the Church should take up the unfinished business of 1974.’ (Macdonald 2004: 183) Since the church has recently withdrawn from SCIFU there have been no attempts to readdress the place of the confession in the church’s constitution.

Perhaps an example of self-fulfilling prophecy, the Life and Work itself provides evidence that Hill’s article is accurate. In correspondence following the article it is confirmed that theological problems with the Confession are generally recognised. One letter expresses the view that the doctrine of double predestination, which was not referred to directly in Hill’s article, is ‘far more objectionable’ than the main problem that Hill had cited about the Confession, the remarks about Roman Catholicism and the Papacy. (Life and Work, May 2002, p29) With reference to the Confession’s chapter 16, Of Good Works, another correspondent comments: ‘the big point is that the Confession is in many respects a theological disaster.’ (Life and Work, June 2002, p26)

But other articles, and the correspondence generated by them, illustrate the divisive nature of the issue. An article by Andrew McGowan, ‘Evangelicalism in the Kirk: A Manifesto’, contains the following words: ‘When being ordained in the Church of Scotland, ministers are asked to affirm their commitment to the Bible as the Word of God and to the theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith… a wonderful expression of evangelical, biblical theology.’ (Life and Work, August 2002, p32) In the context of this essay the reaction to McGowan’s comment is not surprising. Letters in Life and Work, October 2002, explain the limits of subscription, and the church’s commitment to the Word of God contained in the Scriptures, opposed to McGowan’s evangelical equation of ‘the Bible as the Word of God.’ However, two letters published in the following month are even more pertinent. Reacting to McGowan’s call for an evangelical pressure group within the church, one reader comments: ‘If pressure is to be brought to bear on the beliefs of non-evangelicals, the main battlefield will no doubt be the Westminster Confession.’ (Life and Work, November 2002, p27) Over the page, another correspondent uses the Confession’s description of the afterlife to query the conclusions of an article on the nature of hell. (‘Is Hell Real?’ Life and Work, September 2002, p9.)

Two opposing attitudes to the Confession are evidenced in correspondence in Life and Work covering at least three different aspects of church life. It is arguable that the Church of Scotland has demonstrated a singular lack of doctrinal cohesion over the last century. One implication of this is a lack of unity that stifles progress towards shaping the organisation of the church for existence within a rapidly changing society. But there are other implications. If the Kirk is unable to define its doctrine and belief apart from retaining anachronistic creeds and confessions, how can it relate to other Christian churches? Failure to revise the Kirk’s confession in the 20th century is surely part of the reason for the broken dreams of greater church unity that inspired many church people in the 1950s and 1960s.

Cameron, Dictionary of Scottish Church History and
1993 Theology Edinburgh: T&T Clark
Church of Scotland 1968- Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland Edinburgh: Church of Scotland
Davidson, N. 1966 ‘The Westminster Confession of Faith’ Scottish Journal of Theology (Vol 19) pp309-318
Heron, A.I.C. (ed) 1982 The Westminster Confession in the Church Today Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press
Herron, A. 1985 Kirk by Divine Right Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press
Lyall, F. 1980 Of Presbyters and Kings Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press
Macdonald, F.A.J. 2004 Confidence in a Changing Church Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press
Murray, D.M. 1993 Freedom to Reform: the ‘Articles Declaratory’ of the Church of Scotland 1921 Edinburgh: T&T Clark
Murray, D.M. 2000 Rebuilding the Kirk. Presbyterian Reunion in Scotland 1909-1929 Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press

Who'd be a Bishop?

You’ve got to feel a little sorry for Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the leading churchman in the UK. According to an article in The Times, 25 March 2006, he will be overseeing ‘secret’ crisis talks to try and avert schism in his organisation. At the same time as being the focus for Anglican unity, he has to carry the weight of being the 'cleverest of churchmen’. Williams is certainly clever. Read his excellent book on Arius if you need proof of that. But what does it say about Christianity if its most highly educated and literate thinkers receive the kind of admiration that Jasper Gerard provides in the Sunday Times, 26 March 2006? Gerard asks serious questions in a short piece, questions that no prominent church people ever seem to answer with any clarity.
The reason for this lack of clarity is simply the fear of schism, it has nothing to do with the difficulty of the questions being asked. Church people tend to mimic politicians in their ability to offer many words in answer to simple questions. When I read Christian responses to the Tsunami crisis I was amazed at the empty words that failed to declare God’s oversight over the situation, yet suggested that this was an opportunity for human nature to show its true goodness. How does human goodness answer questions about the activity of God unless we deny the reality or divinity of God? (I am not unaware that many Christians would try to answer this question with reference to the person of Jesus Christ, but wasn’t he the Son of God, the Word who was with God from the beginning, and was God?)
There is a relatively clear distinction between conservative and liberal Christians, even if each of those two labels cover many trends and traditions. It just happens that Williams is faced with a time when the problems over sexuality in the church are becoming practical rather than theoretical. Nothing has really changed otherwise. For at least the last two centuries the mainstream churches have been unable to agree a definition of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The last century of doctrinal debate in the Church of Scotland has managed to fudge every serious question about the interpretation of its confession of faith. (See my essay on the Church of Scotland and its confession of faith.)
The consequence, it seems, is that pressure groups become the only christian voice heard. The churches are just ignored. Any thoughts on Chrisitan Voice and its tactics against the trends in society at the moment?

I to the hills...

I to the hills will lift mine eyes.
From whence doth come mine aid?
My safety cometh from the Lord,
who heaven and earth hath made.

The lines above come from an old metrical version of one of my favourite psalms, Psalm 121. A more modern version of these verses is probably easier to understand: ‘I lift up my eyes to the hills- where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.’ Ps121:1,2 (New International Version) The song was probably written to reflect the feelings of people facing a pilgrimage through rough, mountainous and dangerous terrain.

The Book of Psalms is found in what is commonly called the Old Testament. The OT is a collection of writings that make up the sacred texts of ancient Israel. These Hebrew Scriptures came to be known by Christians as the Old Testament after the formation of a subsequent collection of writings – the so-called New Testament - that reflected on the significance of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christians gathered the OT books and the NT books into one collection of ‘holy scriptures’ now known as the Bible. The question of which books made up the Bible was more or less settled by the year 400. All the books in the Bible are probably no later than 100AD or CE. The earliest Christian believers used them as a guide to authentic Christian living.

I to the hills… is a blog where I hope to share my reflections on life, the universe and everything from my perspective as a Christian. I hope to record thoughts on general reading, current events, theology, church and maybe some personal stuff. The first few posts are pretty serious - mostly essays I've written - but time will no doubt lead to a downgrade of quality, and hopefully some lighter stuff too. My aim is to record my own pilgrimage through life, to share my understanding of the Christian gospel, and to reflect on its application in all aspects of life.
I hope to publish the following posts soon: What is Christianity? and Why I am a Christian. Hopefully, these will set the context for everything else that I post on this blog.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Church of Scotland and civil partnerships

The Church of Scotland is to discuss and debate civil partnerships at its General Assembly in May this year. The issue has been addressed in a report produced by the Legal Questions Committee. A press release describes the report, and the report in full should be available on the Church of Scotland website nearer the week of the assembly.

It is difficult to gauge the early responses to this report. Two responses from evangelical organisations in Scotland suggest that the report will be strongly opposed. Forward Together and Rutherford House have both issued press releases on the matter. However the permissive tone of the report, which claims to protect conscience on all sides of a complicated matter, points to likely acceptance of the report without any significant changes. Ministers in the CofS will be free to bless civil partnerships in this case, and it will be impossible for the church to stop people in civil partnerships entering the offices of eldership and ministry.
It is impossible to tell whether there will be any constructive opposition in the event of the report being passed. Evangelicals within the CofS appear unable to agree a course of action that will either stop the report being accepted or provide a coherent response in such an event. Whatever the circumstances the church will continue to lose members. It is difficult to imagine how this report won’t add to the numbers leaving the Kirk.

Hague on Pitt aided by Lloyd-Jones

I’m slowly reading through William Hague’s bio of William Pitt the Younger, published by Harper Perennial. Whatever you think of his political outlook it’s difficult not to admire Hague. In my opinion he was unfortunate to grasp leadership in the Conservative Party at exactly the wrong moment in the Blairite era. Yet, I guess no young political animal could turn down the opportunity to become Leader of the Opposition. As Shadow Foreign Secretary in David Cameron’s new-look Conservative front bench, Hague looks set to become the statesman he has longed to be since his childhood. But, surely PM is beyond his reach now that Cameron and Osbourne are shaping the Tory party for the next decade or so. Even if Cameron loses the next general election to Gordon Brown I would be surprised if the Conservative Party ditch him.

Anyway, back to the point of this post. Hague’s book on an earlier young political animal is excellent. It follows the standard form for such biographies. I have to confess I picked it up as much because Hague was the author as because Pitt was the subject.

While browsing through the bibliography I was surprised and intrigued to find Darkness and Light, Ephesians 4:17-5:17 by Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Most of you reading this will have heard of MLJ. A Google search will help those of you who haven’t. I haven’t read this volume, so at first I couldn’t work out the connection. But when I was reminded that Pitt was close to William Wilberforce things became a little clearer. Still, I wonder how Hague knew about MLJ’s reference to Wilberforce?

Hague recounts Pitt’s reaction to Wilberforce’s conversion to Christianity in 1785. The effect on Pitt was that he lost close contact with one of his closest friends and political allies. Wilberforce could no longer commit himself to following Pitt’s line at all costs. Hague quotes in full a touching letter from Pitt to Wilberforce – touching, not just because of the nature of Pitt’s affection for Wilberforce, but because it illustrates the inevitable gulf between Christians and non-Christians, especially when a close friend believes the gospel for the first time.

Pitt wrote to Wilberforece: ‘You will not suspect me of thinking lightly of any moral or religious motives which guide you… But forgive me if I cannot help expressing my fear that you are nevertheless deluding yourself into principles which have but too much tendency to counteract your own object, and to render your virtues and your talents useless both to yourself and to mankind.’

To 21st century readers this sounds like strong stuff. But the reaction of unbelievers to those who suddenly turn to Christ often mirrors Pitt’s concerns about Wilberforce. Can any Christian converted in their late teens or later in life not give similar testimony about the reaction of friends to their new found faith and their newly formed ambitions and motivations?

Despite the work that Wilberforce achieved as a Christian politician, I pondered the change of direction in his life at this point. Could he have remained faithful to Christ while working more closely with Pitt? Pitt would certainly have used Wilberforce’s talents in the highest offices in government had Wilberforce consented. Perhaps it is impossible for a Christian to hold the highest political offices and remain effective in service to Christ? John Newton persuaded Wilberforce not to enter the Anglican ministry but to remain a politician. I wonder if we would have urged Wilberforce in the other direction? I wonder if we would have pleaded with him to court favour with Pitt for the ‘Christian good’ of the nation? Wilberforce walked between power for power’s sake and abandonment of political life for church life, choosing to remain a politician while giving up the privileges of patronage to pursue good causes.

Can we learn anything from these men still? On one occasion Wilberforce took Pitt to hear Richard Cecil, a noted evangelical preacher of the time. After the service Pitt confessed that he did not have ‘the slightest idea what that man has been talking about.’ The lesson, surely, is that unbelief is the greatest mystery to fathom. And belief is often worked out in ways that appear less than fulfilling. What would Wilberforce have achieved as a minister of state, or as a minister of the church? God only knows. But, I suggest that his name would not be so familiar had he chosen either of those paths. God knows how best to use our gifts, and he will vindicate the righteous sooner or later to the glory of his own name, even if our closest friends and family cannot understand our choices.

Warfield's theology of history

Here is a link to my dissertation on BB Warfield's theology of history. I am currently coming to the end of a three year degree in theology at Glasgow University. This is part of my preparation to become a minister in the Church of Scotland, more of which to come in future posts.
The link represents the final copy I handed in for marking. It's full of typos, so please don't be too critical! I'm learning to appreciate the work that goes into editing and publishing good copy.
Why not read the abstract, introduction and conclusion? These will give you a taste for the other chapters. It was a fascinating study. My admiration for Warfield grew, even though I realised how much his theology was shaped by his cultural setting.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Benjamin B. Warfield

For six or seven months I've been reading and studying the writings of Benjamin B. Warfield. Look out for more posts on Warfield soon, including sections from my dissertation on Warfield's theology of history.
Here are 2000 words surveying Warfield's accessible articles on baptism.
Benjamin B. Warfield was Professor of Didactic and Polemic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary from 1887 to 1921. He was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1875, but within three years he was working as a theological educator. Warfield is now known through the influence of his writings on Reformed and evangelical thinking. In particular, his writings on the doctrine of scripture have contributed to the ongoing discussions within evangelicalism about the nature of biblical authority. One dividing line is whether or not Warfield’s doctrine of inerrancy is a useful way to understand the truthfulness of scripture. Another discussion revolves around whether his work represents a development of Reformed doctrines of scripture, or whether it is an innovation that breaks with the Reformed tradition.

However, Warfield’s writing covered the whole field of theological discussion. The most accessible of his collected works contain several articles on Christian baptism. These articles represent a case study of how evangelical Presbyterians have defended their baptismal practices. Warfield discussed both the mode and the proper subjects of baptism, and he did this from biblical, theological, and historical perspectives. This essay describes and analyses these articles from the perspective of someone who is sympathetic to Warfield’s position.

The mode of baptism

In an article first published in 1896, ‘The Archaeology of the Mode of Baptism’, Warfield discussed the history of how baptism has been practised in the church. He acknowledged and described the diversity of baptismal administration throughout the church, including the differences between the Eastern church and the Western church. His starting point in this was to suggest a broad division between the trine immersion of the Eastern church, and the affusion of the Western church. (IX: 345-347) Warfield believed that English Baptists in the seventeenth century were the first to declare that immersion was essential to valid baptism, and that this was ‘a survival from an earlier time only in the sense that it was a return to an earlier custom, although with the variation of a single instead of a trine immersion.’ (IX: 347) Throughout the article there is a tension between Warfield’s discussion of history and his attempt to defend his own practice.
Warfield had to acknowledge that the Eastern tradition was older than the Western tradition, although he was well aware that there was no uniform practice in the Western church. He could allude to ‘survivals of an older custom’ along side the common practices in these two traditions, but he did not believe that the baptismal practices of Protestant Baptists could be included among these. He seems to have believed that immersion was the tradition found in Roman and Anglican Prayer books, and that affusion was an exception to the general rule that had become the common practice. All this discussion is illuminated when we discover Warfield’s belief, described below, that the New Testament does not provide enough information about the mode of baptism for churches to copy. At the end of a fascinating but verbose discussion on the history of baptism, Warfield concludes that only the New Testament itself can provide satisfactory guidance on the matter. (IX: 386)

The evidence of the references in various English confessions and prayer books to immersion prepared the way for learning that ‘there was a time when immersion was universal even in the West as in the East.’ (IX: 349) History showed that within the first thousand years of the church’s life the ordinary use of trine immersion defined Christian baptism. At this point, Warfield takes two lines of further inquiry. Was the universality of trine immersion itself the result of ecclesiastical development; and was conformity to trine immersion held to be essential to the validity of baptism, or only necessary to the good order of the church? Before discussing the evidence, Warfield simply states that there never was a time when immersion was held to be the only valid mode of baptism. To defend this statement he refers to cases of necessity, for example, Cyprian’s clinic baptism. (IX: 352) There follows a strange discussion where Warfield mentions other exceptions to immersion in order to make the case that immersion was never held to be the only valid mode. He distinguishes between ‘the necessity of order’ and ‘the necessity of means’. (IX: 358) Trine immersion was held up by the church for the purposes of keeping good order in the church, but single immersion and affusion were allowed and were valid when circumstances pointed to such baptismal practice.

In the article Warfield next discusses the archaeological or monumental evidence. Study of ancient baptismal fonts seems to imply affusion, since they tend to be too shallow to allow for immersion. Yet, this conclusion contradicts the weight of evidence that shows that the Church Fathers understood affusion as an extraordinary and unusual form of baptism. After a discussion about theories attempting to explain this anomaly, including an intriguing section where Warfield discusses the history of art images depicting baptisms, he comes to the conclusion that the monumental evidence represents the actual practice of the church, while the literary evidence preserves the canonical form of baptism. Warfield comments: ‘It would be no unheard-of thing if the actual practice varied from the official form: indeed, we know as a matter of fact, that not only have such changes in general, but that this change in particular has usually taken effect in practice before it has been recognized in law. It was only because actual baptism had come to be by affusion that the Western Church was led in later ages to place affusion on a par in her formularies with immersion: and the same history was subsequently wrought out in the English Church.’ (IX: 367)

However, Warfield then claims that the only theory that does full justice to the facts is one that supposes that normal baptisms in the early church were performed by a mode that united immersion and affusion in one single rite. The subject of baptism would stand in the font, perhaps up to his or her knees, and either duck their face in the water or have water poured over their head. The rite would represent an entire bath, fitting the symbolism of baptism being a cleansing or purifying rite. This triune immersion of a standing catechumen was, according to Warfield, the normal patristic baptism. (IX: 372)

Having acknowledged the historical evidence pointing in favour of immersion, Warfield then asks whether this mode ‘represents truly the original mode of baptism as handed down to the Church by the apostles.’ (IX: 376) Warfield is unable to answer this question. His discussion turns to the question of ‘Jewish’ baptism, including the rabbinical custom of initiating prosolytes into the Jewish faith by an ablution. But Warfield is cautious about assuming any links between Jewish lustrations and Christian baptism. He is also very reluctant to assume that the practice of the early church is traceable to the apostolic practice. Obviously, Warfield cannot claim that the earliest known practices are apostolic without having to change his own preferred mode of baptism.

In fact, Warfield, in an article published fifteen years later, wrote that the New Testament had little or no concern with the mode of baptism. It was unclear how the rite was performed in the New Testament, and so there could be no authoritative directions taken from it to apply to baptism in the church. Even the ten accounts of baptising in the book of Acts did not provide sufficient information to describe how the baptisms were administered. References to water did not imply immersion. (SSWW II: 335-337) Believing that the New Testament gave no definite instruction on the matter, Warfield argued that ‘the nature of the ordinance itself’ had to be considered to discover appropriate modes of administration. (SSWW II: 348) The most important aspect of baptism was that it was a washing or a cleansing that symbolised the cleansing of the soul by the blood of Christ. In the Old Testament, cleansing could be symbolised by rites such as a complete bath, affusion, or sprinkling. Warfield comes to the conclusion ‘we are clearly within the bounds of decency and order when we follow their suggestions.’ (SSWW II: 349) Before finishing the article he manages a dig at current norms of Baptist administration, commenting that it was never normal in the ancient church ‘to baptize by laying fully clothed recipients down on their backs in the water.’ (SSWW II: 349)

The subjects of baptism

Warfield’s views on the appropriate subjects of baptism are a good example of a doctrine of the church upholding the continuing practice of a tradition. It is interesting to see the reversal in Warfield’s arguments. In discussing the mode of baptism, he is reluctant to press the historical evidence too far in his defence of Reformed Presbyterian practice. However, in an article entitled ‘The Polemics of Infant Baptism’, he is quick to state the historical prevalence of baptising infants in the history of the church. (IX: 390) However, before stating this, Warfield has already described how the doctrine of the church is of central importance in the discussion of the matter. He distinguishes between ‘the Puritan idea of the Church’ and ‘the general Protestant doctrine’, concluding that it is only on the basis of a Puritan conception of the church that Baptists exclude infants from baptism. (IX: 389) Warfield adds two general ideas to these in order to state his summary of ‘a convincing positive argument … capable of being set forth for infant baptism, to the support of which whatever obscure allusions to it may be found in the New Testament itself may then be summoned.’ (IX: 391) These are the continuity of God’s purposes among the Israelite people with his work in the church of Jesus Christ, and the equivalence of circumcision in the Old Testament with Christian baptism in the New Testament church.

It is remarkable that Warfield cannot point to the clear teaching of the New Testament text, but that he is happy to interpret ‘obscure allusions’ in the context of historical and theological ‘facts’. Warfield’s article becomes a review of A.H. Strong’s arguments against infant baptism in his Systematic Theology. Warfield acknowledges that there is ‘no express record’ and ‘no clear example’ in the New Testament about infant baptisms taking place. He states that the household baptisms in Acts are at best neutral on the issue, and that they are passages that ‘will support any other indications of infant baptism which may be brought forward, but which will scarcely suffice to prove it against evidence to the contrary,’. (IX: 396) Nevertheless, Warfield discusses these passages before discussing the argument based upon the assumption that Old Testament theology helps to defend the doctrine. Yet, his strongest argument rests on the attestation of infant baptism in the early church, even though he is conscious of the same gap that exists in the case of the mode of baptism between the early church practice and apostolic practice. The ‘ambiguous evidence of Tertullian’ is the only exception to the prevalence of infant baptism in the early church, ‘so that our choice is to follow history and baptise infants or to recontruct by a priori methods a history for which we have no evidence.’ (IX: 403)

Warfield’s arguments for infant baptism come under the type of defence that Beasley-Murray describes under the heading ‘The Covenant, Circumcision and Baptism.’ (Beasley-Murray 1976: 334-344) In a later discussion of baptism in general, Warfield described eligible subjects for baptism as ‘those who are the Lord’s’, a subtle shift from his own discussion of baptism being about union with Chirst. (SSWW I: 327,328) Those infants who belonged to the Lord were worthy to receive the sign of baptism, but infant baptism itself becomes a sign of salvation being ‘altogether of the Lord.’

Warfield was part of a tradition that upheld and defended the Westminster Confession of Faith. It is difficult to read his work on baptism without thinking that he was bound to interpret all the evidence for infant baptism in the context of a Presbyterian commitment to that doctrine. The fact that little of this evidence comes from the New Testament did not concern Warfield because he believed that all facts had to be systematised. All that Warfield wrote, including his thoughts on baptism, was within his controlling Westminster framework. This brought occasions where he appeared to reinterpret the Westminster tradition to suit his own view of the evidence. His discussions on baptism interpreted the evidence to fit the undeniable Westminster line on the mode and subjects of baptism.


WBBW The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield 10 vols. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker House (reprint, 1981) (Originally published 1927 – 32 by Oxford University Press, New York.)
IX Studies in Theology

SSWW Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, ed. John E. Meeter, 2 vols. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R 1970, 1973.

Beasley-Murray, G.R. 1976 Baptism in the New Testament. Exeter, Paternoster Press