Study the Confession: Basic Study Methods

I recently read an article that offered a disturbing statistic. The author claimed that 40% of students who enter college will not complete their degree.  He also claimed that over 60% of this group would not drop out due to financial reasons but a good number would stop because they simply don’t know how to study. Now, this article is not about college drop outs, but it is about studying. And I have wondered if the church does not suffer from the same malady.

Let me put it another way.  I have noticed that the church is deeply committed to teaching about the nature of Scripture and rightfully so. We teach people to speak and think the right words regarding this most important doctrine. We teach that the Bible is infallible, inerrant and authoritative. But the problem is that too few actually read it let alone study our holy book. And when I have inquired as to why this is I often hear the same response, “I just don’t know how to study the Bible.” Now, if our people don’t know how to study the Bible, then I think it’s safe to assume that they are not studying the Confession either!  So, let me offer some help by sketching out three methods for studying the Confession.

The first is a thematic approach. For instance, you might do a study on how the attributes of God (WCF 2) and the characteristics of God’s decree (WCF 3) interface.  When you match the attributes of God with the characteristics of His decrees you get something like this:

                              God’s Attributes                    God’s Decree

                                Infinite in glory                   For his own glory

                                Unchangeable                     Unchanging

                                     Eternal                                From eternity    

                                   Most wise                                  Wise

                                   Most Holy                                   Holy

Or you might consider tracing God’s providential superintendence of all things by mapping it through the chapter on God’s eternal decree and how that chapter informs the chapter on Providence (WCF 5) and the Fall of Man into Sin (WCF 6).  This approach is simple and with the number of searchable programs out there today it is relatively easy.  However, there is no substitute for sitting down with the Confession and marking it up!

A second approach is structural. The Confession is logically built. Benjamin B. Warfield once said that the Confession was built on the covenant phrase, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” Now, just think about that for a minute. Have you ever stopped to consider why the confession puts the chapter on Saving Faith (WCF 14) and Repentance (WCF 15) after the chapter on sanctification (WCF 13)?  The answer is simple if you are thinking along the Federal structure Warfield proposed. Things like effectual calling (WCF 10), justification (WCF 11), adoption (WCF 12), and sanctification (WCF 13) all belong to first part of the phrase, “I will be your God.” However, things like faith, repentance, good works, and perseverance all belong to the latter part of the phrase, “You will be my people.”  So, you can study the Confession or parts of it according to its structure.

A third approach is topical.  This is nothing more or less than working through the Confession according to topics.  For instance, you may want to study Marriage and Divorce and what a profitable study it would be. Not only do the pastors of the Westminster Assembly affirm the basics about marriage but they help us to navigate the difficult waters we find ourselves in today. Not only do they tell us the only two reasons for divorce and remarriage but they offer some sound counsel. Consider just the last part of chapter 24.6, it says that a husband and wife who are in the midst of marital problems are not to be “left to their own wills and discretion, in their own case.”  These pastors were wise indeed.

So, maybe you do struggle a bit when it comes to knowing the ins and outs of studying.  Well, why let that stop you? This is our Confession of Faith.  So, pick an approach, grab some resources and ask if your pastor or elders might be a resource too and then get to studying!

Jeffrey A. Stivason is the pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.  Jeff is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and is the Executive Editor for Place for Truth.

Jeffrey Stivason