Studying the Confession: The Proof Texts
When it comes to the Westminster Confession of the Faith, we often do not think very much about how we might be able to study the Confession’s use of Scripture. In fact, most of us probably do not get very far beyond acknowledging the proof texts that the Confession offers. Yet the use of Scripture by the Confession can be an important topic.
First, the use of Scripture by the Confession reminds us that ultimately the Confession finds its authority in the Word of God. Confessions are authority under the Authority of the Word. In fact, we should only follow the Confession so far as we are convinced that it is being faithful to Scripture and the doctrines found in the Scripture.
Second, we should acknowledge that the Confession is not an exegetical treatment of the Scriptures. The Scriptures listed in the Confession provide proof-texts that can serve as part of a larger study of Scripture. Early in my theological education, “proof-text” was a dirty word, the idea of proof-texting was supposed to invoke shame. It often meant one quoted a verse out of context without careful examination of the verse. You wanted to say something, so you found a verse that backed what you already thought to be true. Yet, the Westminster Assembly is often careful in their citations, even if they do not offer an exegesis to the verse.
I’ve come to have a better appreciation for “proof-texts” so long as we are using the verse properly. Often times, as a Pastor, people want a quick answer. As they are leaving church they don’t want an exhaustive treatise on say the doctrine of perseverance of the saints. A short statement and a verse is what they want to hear. After service, you greet someone at the back of the sanctuary who says, “I have a friend from another church who told me if I have to persevere in my faith, I’m making salvation a work.” In response, you can say, “perseverance of the saints means that ‘he who began a good work in you will complete until the day of Jesus Christ’ (Phil. 1:6).” In this respect, studying the Confession’s use of the Bible can help you quickly associate doctrines with Biblical texts.
One way that you can study the Confession’s Use of the Bible is to use the proof texts as windows into the Biblical nature of the doctrine. You may decide to work through the Confession slowly. When you encounter a proof-text, look it up, examine the context, ask yourself “what doctrine is described in the text.” You may even challenge yourself by asking “what other texts of Scripture would defend this doctrine from the Confession. Use a concordance or a cross-reference system and see what other texts deal with the same things.
Second, another way you can study the Confession’s use of the Bible is do more historical research. The writers of the confessions were pastors and theologians, they wrote more than just the confession. For example, you may find a particular verse cited in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Go back and begin to understand how this verse was interpreted by the Westminster divines. You may be able to find commentaries, or sermons on the verse. You may able to find a treatment of the verse in some of their other theological writings. The important thing to remember, the writers of the Confession were not tacking verses to the Confession like we might throw darts at a wall. They did so with a knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures.
A third and final way that you can examine the Confession’s use of the Bible is simply by using the Confession as a devotional guide, this works equally well with the catechism. Take a section or chapter from the Confession and work through it slowly. Use the verses listed for a particular point or item as the verses for Biblical study or meditation for the day. You will not regret the slow and thematic approach on which the Confession will take you.
In our day, we have not only a lack of Biblical knowledge but people who lack knowledge of the Bible have an inability to pull together the major themes and topics of Scriptures. Studying the Confession’s use of Scripture can help us. The members of the Westminster Assembly had an ability to think consistently and systematically about the whole of Scripture. They did not lose the forest for the trees but also saw how the trees contributed to the forest as a whole. Examining their approach to Scripture may indeed help us to recover better Biblical doctrine.
Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Pretoria, South Africa. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.