The Westminster Confession of Faith: Good & Necessary Consequence

The Westminster Confession of Faith begins with one of the most well articulated statements concerning the doctrine of Scripture. And incorporated right into the Confession is an ever so brief clause on how one might do theology. The clause was placed there to be an expression defending the sufficiency of Scripture in all of life. In chapter 1, paragraph six, the Westminster divines stated that “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequences may be deduced from Scripture...”

            As Robert Letham has put it, the phrase “by good and necessary a profoundly important statement. It points to the need for careful thought in reading, preaching, and thinking about the Bible. It mandates theology.”[1] And Letham is right. No preaching or theological work can be done rightly unless the church is willing to deduce from scripture good and necessary consequences in order to bring about doctrinal clarity and practical application.

            Louis Berkhof underscores this very mandate to do theology when he writes that “the word dogma is derived from the Greek verb dokein... [expressing the idea] not only, ‘it seems to me’, or, ‘I am of the opinion’, but also, ‘I have come to the conclusion’, ‘I am certain’, ‘it is my conviction’.  And it is especially this idea of certainty that finds expression in the word ‘dogma’... [Thus] religious dogmas are based on divine revelation (either real or supposed), and are therefore authoritative.”[2] It is here where we see the good and necessary function of theology finding it’s authoritative grounding in God’s authoritative word.

            William Cunningham (1805-1861), reflecting back upon the Westminster Confession, noted that many people express an extreme “dislike to precise and definite [theological] statements upon the great subjects brought before us in the sacred Scriptures. This dislike to precision in doctrinal statements, sometimes assumes the form of reverence for the Bible... [with] an unwillingness to mix up the reasonings and deductions of men with the direct declarations of God.” He continues though that “we believe it arises... from a dislike to the controlling influence of Scripture [and] from a desire to escape...the authority... of its regulating power as an infallible rule of faith and duty.”[3]  He concludes that “that we are bound to receive as true, on God’s authority, not only what is ‘expressly set down in Scripture,’ but also what, ‘by good and necessary consequences, may be deduced from Scripture.”[4]

            Theologians during the writing of the Confession, men like the Scottish puritan George Gillespie, defended this way of logically reading Scripture by pointing example of Jesus doing this very thing. We see this in verses like Matthew 22:32 where Jesus deductively upholds the doctrine of the resurrection. In quoting Exodus 3:6, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” Jesus concludes that the patriarchs, though long dead and buried, are actually alive, reasoning from the Exodus passage that “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Matt. 22:32). Gillespie argued then that we too, with a “reason captivated and subdued to the obedience of Christ... [and] standing to scriptural principles... [and] convinced and satisfied with the consequences and conclusions drawn from Scripture...” declare and hold to dogmatic convictions.[5]

            Some today have argued that this is a uniquely 17th century invention but it ought to be pointed out that it wasn’t just the Puritans who defended this understanding of theology. Three centuries earlier William of Ockham wrote that Christians must believe “with what is said in holy Scripture, or what can be inferred therefrom through necessary reasoning.”[6] In fact much earlier, in defending a most central tenet of Christian dogma, many of the early church fathers employed such logical deductions in their defence of the Trinity. No one can read the history of the doctrine of God’s triunity without seeing what a major role good and necessary consequences played in coming to these dogmatic conclusions.[7]     

            For instance, Athanasius gave grounds for this in his defense against the Arians. It was argued by the Arians that terms like “Trinity” and “one in essence” were unbiblical words and phrases and thus rendered the doctrine unbiblical. But Athanasius wisely responded that such wording and phraseology “if accurately examined, will be found to be altogether a representation of the truth, and especially if diligent attention be paid to the occasion which gave rise to these expressions, which was reasonable... [and] that, even if the expressions are not in so many words in the Scriptures, yet, as was said before, they contain the sense of the Scriptures, and expressing it, they convey it [rightly].”[8] For men like Athanasius, it was necessarily good to derive certain terms to describe and defend what was implicit, if not always explicit, in Scripture itself.

            Today, with much conversation revolving around whether or not theology is even an appropriate endeavor at all, this idea of “good and necessary consequences” takes on renewed import. For Christians of all stripes, a reading of the Bible which fails to derive good theological deductions which pertain to godliness and right living can be detrimental in a world where many of our everyday activities are not explicitly spoken of in Scripture. And yet, we can be sure that all of God’s word is sufficient for “all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, and is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence can be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.”[9]

            The writers of the Westminster Confession have given us solid ground on which to not only do theology, but to do a Scripturally based theology which is authoritative and guiding for our faith and life.


[1] Robert Letham, The Westminster Assembly,  139.

[2] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 18.

[3] William Cunningham, The Reformers & the Theology of the Reformation (Edinburgh, Banner of Truth, 2000) pp. 523

[4] ibid. 526

[5] George Gillespie, Treatise of Miscellany Quotations, 100-101 as seen in C.J. Williams, “Good and Necessary Consequences in the Westminster Confession”, pp. 175-6.

[6] William of Ockham, Dialogue against Heretics, bk. 2, chap. 5 in George H. Tavard, Holy Writ or Holy Church: The Crisis of the Protestant Reformation (London: Burns & Oats, 1959) pp. 35.

[7] See Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), pp. 211-25


Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.



Stephen Unthank