Geerhardus Vos on the need for faithful creeds and confessions

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During the run-up to the 1903 PCUSA revision of the Westminster Confession of Faith, B.B. Warfield wasn’t the only prominent Princetonian expressing concerns about the potential risks to the church. Geerhardus Vos, in an exchange with Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch theologian, during the 1890’s, reveals his opposition to the planned revision.

This exchange — detailed in Danny E. Olinger’s recent biography, Geerhardus Vos: Reformed Biblical Theologican, Confessional Presbyterian (2018), and in James T. Dennison, Jr.’s The Letters of Geerhardus Vos (2006) [both available at our Secondary Sources Bookstore page] — was private, but he also addressed the matter publicly on a few occasions. One was his article on “The Biblical Idea of Preterition” (The Presbyterian, 70, 36 (September 5, 1900): pp. 9-10); another was "The Scriptural Doctrine of the Love of God” (The Presbyterian and Reformed Review, 13, 49 (January 1902): pp. 1-37). In the former article, Vos noted,

One of the gravest symptoms of the revision movement in the Presbyterian Church today consists in the absence of serious appeal to scriptural authority for the changes of confessional statement that are advocated….Consequently there is reason to fear that the spirit in which revision is sought forebodes greater evil to the church than any material modifications of the creed to which revision may lead. Even if the Calvinistic system of doctrine embodied in our standards were seriously mutilated in result of the present movement, so long as the great body of believers feel themselves in conscience bound to yield unquestioning faith to the Bible, there is always hope for a rehabilitation of the principles temporarily abandoned. But when once the sense of allegiance to the Word of God as the only authoritative rule of faith has become weakened, or while still recognized in theory has ceased to be a living force in the minds of believers, then the hope of a return to the truth once forsaken is reduced to a minimum.

See Olinger’s discussion of these articles, ibid., pp. 107-116, for a helpful analysis of the concerns that Vos had.

Furthermore, in 1896, Vos published his handwritten 5-volume Reformed Dogmatics in Dutch. As these volumes have been recently translated (they are not currently on this site), readers will find interesting his remarks from Volume 5, p. 41, on the value of faithful creeds and confessions.

There are many who deny to the church the power and right of making creeds, and think that to do so is in conflict with the sufficiency of Holy Scripture. Hence, too, there are many communions that hold to no confession, such as the Quakers, Darbyists, etc. One should grant that creeds are not absolutely necessary. A church, if one wishes to reason in the abstract, can exist without confessional documents, and has existed without such. These, however, were exceptional situations. It is impossible to guide someone through Scripture in its entirety or to ask him his opinions concerning the whole of Scripture. The essential things must be gathered together in order that the church may show how it understands Scripture in the light of the Spirit. The authority of these creeds is always bound to Scripture; they are susceptible to improvement, but may not be lightly revised, inasmuch as they are not a compendium of theology but the ripe fruits of the spiritual development of the church, sometimes obtained through a long struggle. A true revision does not tear down the old but explains and confirms it and further illumines it in connection with new times and circumstances. But it remains true that the Scripture is the norma normans [norming norm], the confession the norma normata [normed norm].

From these sources we learn both how Vos opposed the movement to amend the Westminster Confession of Faith, which succeeded in its goal in 1903, and why Vos valued sound confessionalism, viewing faithful creeds as a means to aid the church in its affirmation of what Scripture teaches on a systematic basis. It was precisely because of his view that Scripture is the only rule of faith and practice that Vos taught the necessity of creeds as subordinate to Scripture — to guard the exposition of those Scriptures by the church from error — and the danger of revisions when they sprang from preference as opposed to scriptural mandate.

Samuel Miller on Dort

The Christian world, since the days of the apostles, had never a synod of more excellent divines (taking one thing with another) than this synod [Westminster] and the Synod of Dort were. — Richard Baxter

The divines of that assembly [Synod of Dort]...were esteemed of the best that all the reformed churches of Europe (that of France excepted) could afford.” — John Owen

The Synod of Dort, that great ecumenical Reformed council, was first convened on November 13, 1618, four hundred years ago today.

Thomas Scott (1747-1821), the famous British Anglican rector and Biblical commentator, published a study of The Articles of the Synod of Dort in 1818. Two decades later, in 1841, Samuel Miller wrote an Introductory Essay to this valuable work that itself is a worthy read. Sprinkle Publications of Harrisonburg, Virginia republished these works together in 1993.

Take time on this historic anniversary to read what Miller and Scott had to say about the great Synod of Dort. It is well worth your 21st century time to better understand this 17th century council through 19th century eyes.

Samuel Wylie Crawford on Creeds and Confessions

Samuel Wylie Crawford was born on October 14, 1792, in the Chester District of South Carolina. He was born of good Scottish stock, but was orphaned at a young age, and was looked after by his uncle Dr. Samuel Wylie. Crawford initially studied medicine, but then settled on the study of theology. He was ordained by the Northern Presbytery of the Reformed Presbyterian Church and was installed as a pastor in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. This sermon comes to us from that congregation. It is a remarkably helpful sermon today just as it was in yesteryear. Crawford opens with the text Amos 3:3 “Can two walk together lest they be agreed?” He uses this as the touchstone for a wonderful doctrinal sermon. He explored the basis of Ecclesiastical relations, the significance of having creeds and confessions, as well as the problems with fellowships that do not have them. Overall this sermon is as helpful today as it was the day it was preached.