Spirit of Theological Pursuit at the Historic WTS

The Westminster Standards are the climactic statement of Reformed Theology. In a very real sense, their publication in 1647 brought the creedal development of the Protestant Reformation to its historical conclusion.[1]

The expression of the covenantal theology of the Westminster Confession developed the unity of the Bible under the theme of the progressive development of God’s self-disclosure in history climaxing in Christ’s incarnation and completed redemption.[2]

This redemptive work of Christ was therein developed in terms of both union with Christ as well as the application of this salvation as the ordo salutis of the Holy Spirit’s ministry of sovereign grace.[3]

Since Westminster Theological Seminary’s inception, this system of confessional theology with its reformational finality and its doctrinal integrity has been the ex animo commitment of its faculty and Board of Trustees to this very moment.[4]

As WTS came into being under Dr. J. Gresham Machen’s leadership in the battle over the truthfulness of the Biblical faith of our Standards in the context of the reorganization of Princeton Theological Seminary, the newly formed Seminary brought with it not only the historic Reformed theology of the Westminster Standards, but also the newly developing science of Biblical Theology championed by Professor Geerhardus Vos.[5]

Although difficult to fully appreciate today, WTS’s approach to seminary education from its start was a reflection of Matthew 13:51-52, a joining together of the old and the new: "Have you understood all these things?" Jesus asked. ‘Yes,’ they replied. He said to them, ‘Therefore every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.’"[6] Dr. Machen’s Reformational theology reflected the old.[7] Dr. Van Til’s development of Kuyperian apologetics reflected the new.[8] The Presbyterianism of Machen represented the old, but his joining it with the Reformed ecclesiology of R.B. Kuiper represented the new. Thus the marriage of the best of old Presbyterianism in America (Machen) and that of Scotland (Murray) with the historic Reformed theology of the Netherlands (Van Til) represented a new Reformed ecumenicity as the new Seminary was born with both historic conservatism and new Biblical creativity.

This marriage of both the old and new in WTS life has continued unabated throughout its more than 75 years of history. All the while maintaining commitment and integrity to the historic Westminster Standards, the faculty developed and explored new concepts of theology and ministry: historic-redemptive Preaching (Clowney), presuppositional apologetics (Van Til); Biblical counseling (Adams, Bettler); contextual cross-cultural missions (Conn); creation Ordinance ethics (Murray); the primacy of eschatology in New Testament exegesis as expressed in the theology of the “already and not yet” (Gaffin); the full inerrancy of the Biblical autographs coupled with an unflinching consideration of challenges to inspiration (Stonehouse, Young, Dillard, Waltke); the absolute truth of God’s revelation in Scripture viewed through the multiple perspectives and themes of revelation (Poythress); the importance of Christian truth as expressed in both Reformed and non-Reformed traditions (Woolley, Davis); the integration of technology with the study of Biblical languages (Groves), as well as interaction with new ecumenical challenges in Presbyterianism (Clowney, Logan).

All of this to say that the Confessional fidelity of the WTS faculty has been deep and consistent, all the while being open to new and creative ideas emerging from authentic scholarship. WTS at its very best has found a way to be simultaneously deeply committed to both the highest level of scholarly inquiry as well as the wholehearted affirmation of Reformed Confessionalism and orthodoxy as expressed in the Westminster Standards.[9]

Thus as WTS addresses its commitment to and utilization of Biblical Theology in the context of its adherence to the Systematic Theology outlined by the Westminster Standards, it does so in its historic characteristic manner of wedding the old and the new. Simply put, WTS’ faculty has endeavored to integrate the reformational truths and insights of our Reformed fathers of faith with the creative post-confessional Biblical –theological insights of old Princetonian Professor Geerhardus Vos.

Because the theological store room of WTS has the “new treasure” of Biblical Theology and the “old treasure” of our confessional heritage, we herein seek to “bring out” of our theological “storeroom” our understanding of several important issues confronting reformed and evangelical scholars today. The first challenge before us is created by the inherent tension created by the paradoxical truth that the Westminster Standards are simultaneously the high water mark of reformed confessional theology but only the spring or the birthing point of the Biblical science of Biblical Theology. We must thus simultaneously honor the Standards’ magisterial authority in Systemic theology and recognize their undeveloped and inchoate character in regard to what was, at the Standards’ time of writing, an embryonic and nascent theological science.

[1] Schaff says of the Westminster Assembly and its influence, “Whether we look at the extent or ability of its labors, or its influence upon future generations, it stands first among Protestant councils.” Creeds of Christendom, I:728.

[2] See WCF, Chapter VII.1-6.

[3] See Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., “Biblical Theology and the Westminster Standards” in The Practical Calvinist, pp. 425-442.

[4] Westminster Theological Seminary’s Constitution prescribes the following pledge for every voting member of the faculty:

I do solemnly declare, in the presence of God, and of the Trustees and Faculty of this Seminary, that (1) I believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice; and (2) I do solemnly and ex animo adopt, receive, and subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms in the form in which they were adopted by this Seminary in the year of our Lord 1936, as the confession of my faith, or as a summary and just exhibition of that system of doctrine and religious belief, which is contained in Holy Scripture, and therein revealed by God to man for his salvation; and I do solemnly, ex animo, profess to receive the fundamental principles of the Presbyterian form of church government, as agreeable to the inspired oracles. And I do solemnly promise and engage not to inculcate, teach, or insinuate anything which shall appear to me to contradict or contravene, either directly or impliedly, any element in that system of doctrine, nor to oppose any of the fundamental principles of that form of church government, while I continue a member of the Faculty in this Seminary. I do further solemnly declare that, being convinced of my sin and misery and of my inability to rescue myself from my lost condition, not only have I assented to the truth of the promises of the Gospel, but also I have received and rest upon Christ and His righteousness for pardon of my sin and for my acceptance as righteous in the sight of God and I do further promise that if at any time I find myself out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine, I will on my own initiative, make known to the Faculty of this institution and, where applicable, my judicatory, the change which has taken place in my views since the assumption of the vow.

[5] Gaffin writes, “Vos is significant because he is the father of a Reformed biblical theology, or, as he much prefers to describe the discipline, ‘History of Special Revelation.’ . . . Vos is the first in the Reformed tradition, perhaps even the first orthodox theologian, to give pointed, systematic attention to the doctrinal or positive theological significance of the fact that redemptive revelation comes as an organically unfolding historical process and to begin working out the methodological consequences of this insight. . . Two statements . . . from Vos . . . serve to bracket his entire life’s work and also to pinpoint its thrust in a highly instructive fashion. ‘It is certainly not without significance that God has embodied the contents of revelation, not in a dogmatic system, but in a book of history, the parallel to which in dramatic interest and simple eloquence is nowhere to be found.’ ‘The Bible is not a dogmatic handbook but a historical book full of dramatic interest.’” In Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., pp. xiv-xv.

[6] Vos writes, “To this historical character of revelation we owe the fullness and variety which enable the Scriptures to mete out new treasures to all ages without becoming exhausted or even fully explored. A Biblical Theology imbued with the devout spirit of humble faith in the revealed Word of God, will enrich the student with all this wealth of living truth, making him in the highest sense a householder, bringing forth out of his treasures things new and old.”, “The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., p. 23. (All further references for Vos are from this article.)

[7]Machen’s battle against liberalism in the Presbyterian Church began with his “Liberalism or Christianity,” in Princeton Theological Review 20 (1922), pp. 98, 104, where he declared, “With regard to the presuppositions, as with regard to the message itself, modern liberalism is diametrically opposed to Christianity. . . .Modern liberalism, then, has lost sight of the two great presuppositions of the Christian message—the living God and the fact of sin. The liberal doctrine of God and the liberal doctrine of man are diametrically opposite to the Christian view.” Machen’s insistence on historical Christianity ultimately brought about his efforts to form Westminster. Machen’s commitment to historic Christianity was eloquently and somberly expressed in his address delivered at the opening of Westminster Seminary in Witherspoon Hall, Philadelphia on Wednesday afternoon, September 25, 1929, “Westminster Theological Seminary, which opens its doors to-day, will hardly be attended by those who seek the plaudits of the world or the plaudits of a worldly church. It can offer for the present no magnificent buildings, no long-established standing in the ecclesiastical or academic world. Why, then, does it open its doors; why does it appeal to the support of Christian men? The answer is plain. Our new institution is devoted to an unpopular cause; it is devoted to the service of One who is despised and rejected by the world and increasingly belittled by the visible church, the majestic Lord and Saviour who is presented to us in the Word of God. From him men are turning away one by one. His sayings are too hard, his deeds of power too strange, his atoning death too great an offense to human pride. But to him, despite all, we hold. No Christ from our own imaginings can ever take his place for us, no mystic Christ whom we seek merely in the hidden depths of our own souls. From all such we turn away ever anew to the blessed written Word and say to the Christ there set forth, the Christ with whom then we have living communion: ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.’” Cited in Edmund P. Clowney’s Address at the Seventieth Anniversary Convocation of Westminster, “Investing Westminster’s Endowment,” on September 9, 1999.

[8] Machen’s interest in Van Til’s newer Kuyperian presuppositional apologetic in distinction to the older evidential apologetic of Warfield of Princeton is seen in Greg L. Bahnsen, “Machen, Van Til and the Apologetical Tradition of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church,” in Pressing Toward the Mark, eds. Charles G. Dennison and Richard C. Gamble (Philadelphia: Committee for the Historian of the OPC, 1986), pp. 284-85; and McKendree R. Langley, A Brief History of Westminster Theological Seminary, (Westminster Theological Seminary, 1994), pp. 25-27.

[9] See the Westminster Seminary Faculty statement on Academic Freedom.