B.B. Warfield and the Revision of 1903

The American edition of the Westminster Confession of Faith was revised in 1903. It was a time of great controversy, and there were those who were opposed to the suggested changes. One of them was B.B. Warfield. We have recently compiled his writings on the subject, written before and after the revisions were approved, which includes literature from others on both sides of the question. 

Warfield, whose "trilogy" on the Westminster Standards we have previously highlighted, began writing about the proposals to amend the Confession as early as 1889. The following is a list of his works on this particular topic: 

  • "The Presbyterian Churches and the Westminster Confession" (The Presbyterian Review, October 1889);
  • On the Revision of the Confession of Faith (1890);
  • Ought the Confession of Faith to be Revised? (1890, edited by Warfield, including contributions by John DeWitt, Henry J. Van Dyke, Jr., and W.G.T. Shedd);
  • Proposed Reply to "The Final Report of the Committee on the Revision of the Confession" (The Presbyterian and Reformed Review, 1892); and
  • The Confession of Faith as Revised in 1903 (1904). 

What were the revisions that were adopted in 1903 by the Presbyterian Church (USA)? Two new chapters were added - "Of the Holy Spirit" and "Of the Love of God, and Missions" - as well as a "Declaratory Statement" dealing with God's eternal decree of election and the question of those who die in infancy. Additionally, a sentence was deleted in section 2 of chapter 22 ("Of Lawful Oaths and Vows"); and chapter 25:6 (on "The Church") was revised to remove the assertion that the Pope is Antichrist. When the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) separated from the PCUSA and created its own edition of the Westminster Standards in 1936 (which was later adopted by the Presbyterian Church in American (PCA)), the two new chapters and declaratory statement were removed, but the latter two changes were retained. 

Donald John Maclean writes in James Durham (1622–1658): And the Gospel Offer in its Seventeenth-Century Context (2015) that "Although an opponent of confessional revision, B.B. Warfield, long-time professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, regarded the changes in a surprisingly positive light. In the end, he believed that the changes finally adopted in no way altered the system of doctrine contained in the Westminster Standards. Thus, he was able to give them his support" (p. 273). J.G. Machen, writing in 1936, was not as favorable, describing the 1903 revisions as "compromising amendments," "highly objectionable," a "calamity," and "a very serious lowering of the flag" (Presbyterian Guardian, Nov. 28, 1936, pp. 69-70).

For a recent discussion of the two chapters that were added to the Confession in 1903, see J.V. Fesko, The Spirit of the Age: The 19th-Century Debate Over the Holy Spirit and the Westminster Confession (2017). It is fascinating, nevertheless, to review Warfield's body of literature on the 1903 revisions both before and after they took place. In doing so, this great expert on the Westminster Standards reveals both his confessional fortitude and his willingness to bend for the sake of peace in the church, though not, as he viewed it, at the expense of the truth.