Confession and Orthodoxy: A Purifying, Preserving Distillation Process

Just as bottles of distilled water offer drink that is free of poisonous chemicals and clogging minerals, so the Church’s confessions provide boiled-down, condensed, purified orthodoxy for healthy Body life systems.

For instance, a seminary student being examined on the floor of Presbytery with which he is under care can best keep a clear head and communicate clearly about complex doctrines by deferring to the carefully and concisely constructed sieve of the Westminster Standards.  During such a time, quoting these tools can protect a young man from the inadvertent seeping of heresies and the unnecessary spilling of diversions while his brain is backed up by the clutter of studies (and impeded by how oral examination can make a mind race and a mouth ramble).[1]

Rote regurgitation is not being advised; but reasoned use of sanctified refinement is.  It is wise to drink from truths distilled of distracting details that corrode clarity.  To clearly express the truth of the Trinity, for example, one drinks most sweetly from the Westminster Shorter Catechism, number six: There are three persons in the Godhead; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.[2]

That’s it.  That’s plenty. So too the Westminster Confession (section 2:3) and Larger Catechism (numbers nine and ten) model both the ensuring of pithy expression as well as the preserving of pure doctrine.  Attempting to explain or illustrate the Trinity without these filters risks offering people something that is not safe to drink.  B.B. Warfield would have seemed to concur: “When we have said these three things, then—that there is but one God, that the Father and the Son and the Spirit is each a distinct person—we have enunciated the doctrine of the Trinity in its completeness.”[3]  Calvin essentially said the same:  “ … let those who dearly love soberness, and who will be content with the measure of faith, receive in brief form what is useful to know: namely, that, when we profess to believe in one God, under the name of God is understood a single, simple essence, in which we comprehend three persons …”[4]

Similarly, during interviews with visiting saints who seek admittance to partake at the Lord’s Supper, a sage Church Session will assist their articulation and affirmation of Christ’s spiritual presence while denying transubstantiation and consubstantiation by reviewing the Westminster Shorter Catechism, number 96: The Lord's supper is a sacrament, wherein … worthy receivers are, not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of his body and blood …[5] Such official, ecclesiastical distilling of the details is helpful to confirm and ensure a mutually right belief and practice.[6]

Turning to the confessions and their supplemental catechisms does not discourage us to think, but rather guides our thinking—it does not purport an implicit faith, but instead informs our believing with words that have been thought through so that we can be spiritually and actually thoughtful.

In the original version of the Westminster Standards, two letters introduce them as instruments to distill the main emphases of the Scriptures for simple home use in keeping Christian families cleansed.  First, in “To the Christian Reader, Especially Heads of Families”, one reads that such purified drink will keep pristine not only orthodoxy (correct belief) but its intended product, orthopraxy (correct practice): “Diseases in the body have many times their rise from distempers in the head, and exorbitancies in practice from errors in judgment … A most sovereign antidote against all kind of errors, is to be grounded and settled in the faith: persons unfixed in the true religion, are very receptive of a false; and they who are nothing in spiritual knowledge, are easily made anything.”[7]  As a pop star of my generation once sang, “You’ve gotta stand for something, or you’re gonna fall for anything.”  Confessions are the Church’s distillation of the Bible to help Christians regularly drink of it and stay Scripturally hydrated and standing. 

What’s more, as Thomas Manton next put it in his letter to the readers of the original Westminster Standards, using the Divines’ officially concentrated teachings will nourish in its students a heigthened diciphering of all things: “… if they once understand these grounds of religion, they will be able to read other books more understandingly, and hear sermons more profitably, and confer more judiciously, and hold fast the doctrine of Christ more firmly, than ever you are like to do by any other course.”[8]

[1] The author is writing from his recollection of several of his own intimidating, humbling experiences that proved useful in sweating out some impurities!

[2] Underscore, GVL.

[3] Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity,” in Biblical and Theological Studies, ed. Samuel G. Craig (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1952) , 36.

[4] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 1, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1975) , 144.

[5] Underscore, GVL.

[6] The author is writing from his own pastoral and enjoyable experiences that secured sweet communion.

[7] Henry Wilkinson and others, “To the Christian Reader, Especially Heads of Families” in Westminster Confession of Faith (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 2001) , 6.

[8] Thomas Manton, “Mr. Thomas Manton’s Epistle to the Reader”, ibid, 11-12.

Grant Van Leuven has been feeding the flock at the Puritan Evangelical Church of America in San Diego, CA, since 2010.  He is the adoring husband of Jennifer Van Leuven and a proud father of their four covenant children: Rachel, Olivia, Abraham, and Isaac.  He earned his M.Div. at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA.

Grant Van Leuven