Confession and Apologetics: The Westminster Confession & the Defense of the Faith
Do you ever wonder how the Westminster divines would defend the Christian faith? I happen to believe that the apologetic method most consistent with the Westminster Confession of Faith (as well as the Larger and Shorter Catechisms) is what is called covenantal apologetics or what has been called presuppositionalism as pioneered by the erstwhile Westminster Theological Seminary professor Cornelius Van Til. This is a theological or normative assessment not a historical judgment. That is, the prevailing way of defending the Christian faith for many years was one form or another of the classical method. Arguably the classical method is not consistent with the substance of the Westminster Confession.
Let me explain why. The Westminster Confession of Faith follows the post-Reformation Reformed Scholastic development of grounding theology in both the existential foundation which is God himself and the twin epistemological foundations of the external foundation of Scripture and the internal foundation of the witness of the Holy Spirit. These are the non-negotiables of true Reformed theology.
When we recognize that these are the true foundations of Reformed theology we are saying that theology is not based upon the use of unfettered unregenerate reason nor on special spiritual experiences nor on traditions untethered to Scripture. To say that God is the foundation of existence and that the conjunction of Scripture and the testimony of the Holy Spirit are the foundations of knowing what we mean is that in our search for the sources or origins of true Reformed theology we cannot go further back or behind God or his Word. A foundation is an original source.
Westminster Confession of Faith 1.4 specifically tells us,
The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.
While it is encouraging to know that many theologians and churches have stood upon the rock of God’s Word in the past, our final resting place for believing that Scripture comes from God is God himself. After all, there is no higher or more important authority than God. No man and no church is more authoritative that God is. God’s Word reflects his own character and attributes. This is not to confuse God with his Word, but is to simply recognize that the Word that God breathes out (1st Timothy 3:16-17) reflects his own nature. God’s Word is its own authority and its own best witness. Theologians refer to this as Scripture’s self-authentication or self-attestation.
Furthermore, Westminster Confession of Faith 1.5 goes on to spell out another dimension of God’s testimony to his Word:
We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man's salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.
God’s Word is self-authenticating and the internal witness of the Holy Spirit helps sinners like ourselves to recognize that God’s Word is what it is. That is, God’s Word is objectively God’s Word but we are not by nature inclined to grant what we know to be true. So, the Holy Spirit regenerates us by “enlightening our minds” and “renewing our wills” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q&A 31). Part of the work of the Holy Spirit is to remove our sinful blinders and to enable us to function as we should. Frankly, we should recognize God’s Word for what it is. But the Fall and our sinfulness prevent us from doing that.
This is all involved in what the Westminster Confession of Faith tells us is the foundation of true Reformed theology. Apologetics as the defense of the Christian faith is a thoroughly theological practice. The Christian faith ought to be defended in a Christian way. It’s really that simple. And it’s all in there.
Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum. Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.