Welcome to the Camp

September 04, 2008

`Welcome to the camp, I guess you all know why we’re here.’  So begins the finale of The Who’s great rock opera, Tommy. Well, welcome to Westminster, though, as you will discover, this is no holiday camp.  In addition, I am not going to assume we all know why we’re here.  As the critic, Edward Said, once wrote, “There seems to be nothing in the world which sustains the story; unless you go on telling it, it will just drop and disappear.”  So, today, it seems appropriate to tell something of the story of why we are here, lest it drop and disappear.

So, if not to a holiday camp, where have you come?  Well, Westminster as an institution is both evangelical and confessional.  By evangelical, I am not using the term in the way that has become common in the media, where it means little more than a section of the American political demographic; I am using it as it was used in England during the Reformation, to refer to those committed to the great truths of the Bible.

As evangelicals in this sense, these are the truths for which we stand. First, we at Westminster stand for salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, by the righteousness of Christ alone.  This is the doctrine which undergirds Christian assurance, brings hope to the desperate, and is the dynamic behind Christian action.  The pragmatic world around us prioritises action over belief; the gospel, however, requires that we place belief before practice.  We can only live as Christians because of what we believe by faith that God Himself has done for us by his grace.

Second, Westminster stands for salvation in Christ alone, an unpopular teaching in a day of pluralism and tolerance.  We are, after all, privileged to live in a liberal democracy where a kaleidoscopic diversity of views finds legitimate expression.  Moreover, we respect those with whom we differ and we willingly acknowledge their right to hold views that contradict our own; but we do not confuse the right to freedom of speech with the equal validity of all viewpoints.  Our consciences are bound to the word of God, and to the fact that there we are taught that Christ is the only way to eternal salvation.

Third, we stand for scripture alone.  Scripture is for us the very word of God.  Contra so much modern theory, we believe that language is a God-given medium for lucid communication, that its finite, creaturely limits are no hindrance to God but are rather the means by which our loving heavenly father speaks truth to us; and we believe he has done so authoritatively, definitively, and perspicuously, in his inspired, infallible, and inerrant scriptures. 

Fourth, we stand for God’s glory alone.  When J. Gresham Machen founded this seminary in 1929, he did not do it for earthly glory.  It made him few friends and it lost him considerable influence and professional prestige.  It was, from the world’s perspective, an act of professional and cultural suicide.  He founded Westminster because his conscience was bound by the word of his God.  So we too today continue that tradition: we care not if the world despises our little seminary; by God’s grace we teach the whole counsel of God in order that he alone might be glorified.

But we are more than an evangelical seminary.  I also welcome you to Westminster as a confessional seminary.  All Faculty have taken solemn vows to teach according to the theological system laid out in the Westminster Standards, that is, the Westminster Confession, and the Shorter and Larger Catechisms.  Now, the whole idea of such confessions runs counter to so much of what we find in church life today, where the past is often seen more as a source of embarrassment than authority and guidance.  So let me clarify this commitment.

First, you should be aware that we who teach here do not put our faith in the Westminster Standards but rather in the God to whom they direct our attention; and we do not seek here to teach you to exegete the Standards but rather to exegete the Holy Bible, the deposit of divine, authoritative, inerrant revelation. We do, however, believe that the Westminster Standards represent the best summary of the system of doctrine contained in God’s scriptures, and we have voluntarily bound ourselves to teach in a manner consistent with that belief.

Second, the Westminster Standards are not alien documents which have been imposed on this institution from outside.  Far from it.  It was, in fact, the very desire to articulate with freedom and integrity the theology of the Bible as expressed in the Standards which led to the founding of this institution in 1929.  Nor are the Standards intended to be seen as overly restrictive or divisive. They cover the basic heads of Christian doctrine, no more, no less; and they connect us to the great traditions of biblical exegesis, theological reflection, and doxology that have marked the communion of saints throughout the ages.  Indeed, to borrow a turn of phrase from Dr Albert Mohler of Southern Seminary, the purpose of the Standards is unity, not disunity; their heart is bent toward a common confession.

Some, perhaps many, of you are now thinking, `But I’m not a Presbyterian!   Have I come to the wrong place?  Am I really welcome here?’   Brothers and sisters in Christ, you are most certainly welcome here.  Indeed, I cannot stress how much we appreciate your presence and look forward to getting to know you better in classroom and on campus.  We Faculty rejoice in our common Christian faith with all of those who look to Christ for salvation, regardless of denominational affiliation or background.  Rest assured: you will not be required to agree with the Westminster Standards to matriculate; nor will you be required to agree with the Westminster Standards to graduate; but you should expect that the teaching you receive in each and every class will be consistent with our confessional Standards.  In terms of our own theological commitments as confessional, Presbyterian Faculty, we make no apologies for who we are; but we truly delight to welcome here all of you who call on the name of Christ for salvation, whatever your denominational affiliation or background, and we celebrate our common bond of faith.

Of course, this confessional commitment does not mean that classes here are trapped in the seventeenth century. In the lecture rooms you will meet a whole array of modern thinkers and theologians, from Karl Marx and Friedrich Schleiermacher to Peter Singer and Wolfhart Pannenberg; our institutional commitment to the Standards does not prevent us engaging with these thinkers or our culture; rather, it binds us as Faculty to a standard of confessional judgment and allows you as students to know up front the perspective from which we at Westminster approach these matters. 

This commitment not simply to the possibility of truth, but to its actual expression both in scripture and in those confessions which summarise scripture’s teaching, is deeply counter-cultural.  In our pluralist, relativist world, it probably sounds arrogant.  Indeed, it has to be acknowledged that the free-floating, relativism that pervades our culture does have a specious appearance of catholicity and attractive tolerance; but ultimately it cannot really help us to engage our world in any critical or prophetic manner.  As neo-Marxist critic Terry Eagleton has convincingly argued, if one is to challenge the world, then postmodern relativism simply will not do, being ultimately a complacent ally of the status quo; truly critical and prophetic engagement requires that one must first have a firm place to stand.  Thus, our institutional commitment to the Westminster Standards does not bind us to obscurantism or intellectual isolationism or require that that we repudiate scholarship; rather, it gives us just such a place to stand, a place from which we can engage all and any thinker or idea which crosses the church’s path.  And let us not forget: the kind of criticism which is so popular today – a criticism which only ever criticizes established traditions and traditional positions – such is no real criticism at all, but is often more of an idiom for cultural compliance and complacency.  We at Westminster hold fast to a tradition precisely so that we can be critically engaged with the culture around us.

So this, in short compass, is Westminster, the place to which I now delight to welcome you.   I trust that your time here will prove to be fruitful, a time of spiritual growth; a time when your knowledge of sacred mysteries will be deepened; and a time when you will forge friendships which will last you a lifetime and serve your future ministries in ways you cannot yet begin to imagine.  But above all, I pray that Westminster, through its focus on the holy God who speaks through his infallible, inerrant scripture, will play its part in making you into the kind of men and women to whom the Lord looks.  In Isaiah, the Lord himself describes such in these terms: those who are humble and contrite in spirit and tremble at His word.   You have come to study the holy words of a holy God; may you learn, in all humility and love, to tremble before him and his word.

Let me close with the prayer of one knew what it was to tremble in humility at God’s holy word, the great Martin Luther:

Eternal God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, give us your Holy Spirit who writes the preached Word into our hearts.  May we receive and believe it and be cheered and comforted by it in eternity.  Glorify your Word in our hearts and make it so bright and warm that we may find pleasure in it, through your Holy Spirit think what is right, and by your power fulfill the Word, for the sake of Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord.  Amen.

Vice President for Academic Affairs, Dr. Carl Trueman