Distinctives of Biblical Presbyterianism
The purpose of this work is to set forth the major distinctives of Biblical Presbyterians in order that those who are members of a Presbyterian church might know in a somewhat concise way what their church believes and that curious persons might know what Presbyterians generally believe. A majority of those who are members of a Presbyterian church probably do not know what are the fundamental tenets of their church, nor do they know why they are Presbyterian. By this we mean that most could not give sufficient Biblical or theological reasons why they are Presbyterians as opposed to Baptist,, Methodist, Church of God, etc. There is a great need for members not only to know clearly what they believe but why they believe it. Thomas Witherow perceived the situation quite clearly in his work entitles, The Apostolic Church. In speaking about why people join churches, Witherow said.:
"They are guided by feeling rather than by judgement. They do not first ascertain the leading principles of the denomination from its acknowledged standards, and then examine these principles in the light of the Word of God. The bulk of mankind are not intellectual enough to search for principles and weigh them. At least they do not take the trouble, but are influenced in their choice, either by the authority of some great men, or the moral worth of some particular persons, or the piety and eloquence of some local minister. 1
The term 'Biblical Presbyterianism' is used for a specific reason. As unfortunate as it may be, one is forced to use such terminology in light of the current "theological atmosphere" in most mainline denominations. There are those churches which deny much of what will be set forth in this presentation, and yet they refer to themselves as Presbyterians. They are Presbyterian in name only. Upon close scrutiny of their theological beliefs these churches hardly could be called "Christian." Some of these deny the deity of Jesus Christ, His virgin birth His personal visible return, the inerrancy of Scripture. etc. And the sad thing is that so many do not realize that there is such a polarization of theological beliefs in "Presbyterianism." Those of us that do affirm all the beliefs that will be set forth in this work are often disturbed that we are automatically lumped together with others under the term "Presbyterian." We would wish that these churches would remove the term "Presbyterian" since they deny what is true Biblical Presbyterianism. By "Biblical Presbyterianism" we mean that system of belief which conforms itself to Scripture in all details. And any subsequent use of the term 'Presbyterian' in this presentation will assume that this is what we mean by this term.
Presbyterians believe that God has revealed Himself in two areas: 1) general revelation, 2) special revelation. By 'general revelation' we mean that God has given information about Himself in His entire creation through the power and focus of nature, in the constitution of the human mind, in the voice of conscience, and in the facts of experience and history (Ps. 19:1,2; Rom. 1:19,20; 2:14,15)2. The main purpose that general revelation serves is to render mankind inexcusable. God does exist and all men are accountable to Him. However, general revelation is insufficient in its ability to convey a reliable knowledge of God. This is because it has been tainted with sin (Rom. 8:19-22). It cannot provide man a knowledge of the way of salvation. Thus, 'special revelation' is needed.
This special revelation is now embedded in the Bible. Because of sin's entrance into the world, nature was corrupted becoming obscured to man. Man became spiritually blind unable to understand accurately the physical universe or himself. It was necessary that God should interpret the fact of the universe and provide man with a means to remedy his sinful condition enabling him to have fellowship with his creator and understand the facts of the universe.
The Holy Scriptures are central in the thinking and behavior of Presbyterians. The Bible is seen as the inspired Word of God and the infallible rule for faith and practice (II Timothy 3:16,17; 1 Thess. 2:13). How did God inspire the Scriptures? The Holy Spirit acted on the writers in such a way to preserve their character, temperament, gifts and talents, education and culture, vocabulary, and style so that what they wrote was exactly what God wanted to convey (II Peter 1:20,21).
By the inerrancy of Scripture, Presbyterians imply that the Bible is without error all of its teaching. This means that the Bible is inspired in its historical archaeology and scientific facts as well as it is in its so called moral or religious teaching. Not only does this inspiration extend to the entirety of the Bible but it extends to the very words employed. This is referred to as "verbal Inspiration." Every single word of Scripture is God breathed. Paul mentioned that his words were Spirit taught words (I Cor. 2:13). And both he and Jesus formulated arguments an the basis of a single word (Matt. 22:43, 45; John 10:35; Gal. 3:16). And Jesus applied it to the very jot and tittle of the Scriptures (Matt 5:18).
Presbyterians would hold that the Scripture is the only sure guide for our salvation and growth in holiness (II Tim 3:15). And the Holy Spirit never leads anyone apart from the revealed Word of God (John 16:13; 17:17). All thoughts and all actions must be viewed through the 'spectacles' of Scripture. It is the sure foundation that never changes. The inerrancy of Scripture was listed here as the first major distinctive of Presbyterianism simply because one's view of Scripture determines one's approach to theology.
Presbyterianism is without doubt a creedal and confessional church. What do we mean by this? First we should note the slight differences between creeds and confessions. It could be said that creeds such as the three classic creeds Apostles' Nicene and Athanasian - seek to enumerate the unifying essentials of the church universal for all ages. A creed deals with the fundamentals of the church. A confession, on the other hand, is a more detailed treatment of theology. One only has to look at the difference between the Apostles' Creed and the Westminster Confession of Faith to note this point.
Presbyterians would affirm that the statements set forth in the ancient creeds and the Westminster Confession of Faith are accurate statements of Scriptural truths (as far as fallible men can discern). We would say, for example, that the Westminster Confession of Faith contains the system of doctrine as taught in the Bible.
In saying this, we do not place the Confessional standards on par with the Bible. Creeds and Confessions are not independent assertions of truth serving as supplemental material to the Scriptures. They are wholly subordinate to the Bible. The Westminster Confession emphatically assets the sole sufficiency of Scripture:
"The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed. dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof; and therefore it is to be received. because it is the Word of God (WCF 1:4). 7he supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture (WCF 1:10).*"
Furthermore, the Confession makes mention of the action of church bodies and their relative authority. Such actions are to be heeded only, 'if consonant to the Word of God' (WCF 31:3).
Then why have creeds and confessions What purpose do they serve? There are large segments of professing Christianity that consider themselves anticreedal and anticonfessional. They assert that such documents detract from the sole sufficiency of Scripture. Their great motto is: "no creed but the Bible." What are we to make of such statements? First, as already noted, creedal and confessional churches do not deny the sole sufficiency of Scripture but diligently cherish this truth. Second, the statement that 'we have no creed but the Bible' is itself a creed! It is saying in effect, 'my creed is that I have no creed but the Bible.' Practically speaking, this doesn't say much of anything. It is a vague statement. Such churches miss the whole point. The overriding purpose of creeds and confessions is to clearly set forth what one believes about the Bible. Presbyterians have merely said, "if a person wants to know what we believe, simply look at the creeds and confessions that we recognize as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Bible." Anticreedal and anticonfessional churches simply have not recognized or written down the distinctives of their belief in one given document. But most assuredly, these churches do have doctrinal beliefs that they believe Scripture supports.
Presbyterianism is indeed a creedal and confessional church. We hold forth our statements of faith before the watching world. We invite all to study them and understand what we believe and why we believe it. For a fine presentation on the nature and function of creeds see Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.'s tract entitled The Usefulness of Creeds.
Presbyterians would affirm a covenantal view of the Bible as opposed to a dispensational view. By a dispensational view we mean that view which states that God deals with man in a different way during each of the dispensations of human history. When man fails each test given in each dispensation, a new one is instituted by God. The dominant element of dispensationalism is that each era is basically distinct from all the others except for a minor continuity among them. This system denies an overriding continuity throughout the different stages of history. The discontinuity is greater than what continuity exists among them.
What is meant by the term, "covenant"? O. Palmer Robertson in his book, The Christ of the Covenants, defines a covenant as "a bond in blood sovereignly administered."3 There are several key elements in this definition. First, a covenant is that which bonds persons together. The use of oaths and signs demonstrates that a covenant is a bond. A covenant commits the individual parties to one another.
A covenant is a bond-in-blood. This expresses a life and death commitment. The rituals associated with a covenant in Scripture such as in Gen. 15 reflect a "cutting process" whereby blood is shed. In Gen. 15 the animal-division signifies a "pledge to the death." The dismembered animal represents the curse the parties are liable to if they violate the covenant. The phrase "bond in blood" expresses vividly the idea of Heb. 9:22, "apart from the shedding of blood there is no remission." Blood in the Bible represents life. Life is said to be in the Blood (Lev. 17:11). A pouring out of blood then signifies the only way the covenant commitment can be terminated. Robertson summarizes it well "a covenant is a bond-in-blood. It involves commitments with life and death consequences. At the point of covenantal inauguration, the parties of the covenant are committed to one another by a formalizing process of blood-shedding. This blood-shedding represents the intensity of the commitment of the covenant. By the covenant they are bound for life and death."4
The other key element of a covenant is the fact that it is sovereignly administered. This means there is no bargaining going on, and it means that one is in the position of dictating all the terms.
Presbyterians see that God has entered into such a bond-in-blood commitment with mankind. Being the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth, God has dictated the terms of the covenant. He promises blessing to man if he is obedient to the covenant stipulations, and He threatens man with death if he disobeys. Hence, man is placed in a position of being either a covenant keeper or covenant breaker. The concept of covenant unfolds m Scripture in a unique way. God is seen as entering into a covenant with man in different historical periods. From the beginning of creation to the end of the world, God is in covenant with man. There is a unity and diversity to the covenants. God's covenant with man can be divided into two categories: 1) a covenant of works, 2) a covenant of grace or redemption.
What is meant by the covenant of works? This is used to refer to the testing period of Adam before his fall into sin. If Adam obeys he will receive the blessings of God. Though the term "covenant" is not used the essential elements of a covenant are present. God's relationship to man is indeed a bond-in-blood sovereignly administered. Man was to obey God's specific command which was the precise point of testing-to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:16,17). It was man's failure at this juncture that caused him to suffer the penalty for violating the covenant. Man died spiritually and he would die physically one day. But, it was at this point that Gods grace shone brightly. God entered, then, into a covenant of grace or redemption with man.
What is the covenant of grace? Louis Berkhof's definition is sufficient: "That gracious agreement between the offended God and the offending but elect sinner, in which God promises salvation through faith in Christ, and the sinner accepts this in faith, promising a life of faith and obedience." 5
Jesus Christ is the point of division in biblical history. God's covenant with man before Christ is called the "old covenant or old testament" and the covenant after Christ is the "new covenant or new testament." The old covenant is characterized by "promise," "shadow," and "prophecy" whereas the new covenant is characterized as "fulfillment," "reality," and "realization." 6
In speaking about the covenant of grace these individual covenants are expressed in Scripture: 1) the Adamic, 2) the Noahic, 3) the Abrahamic, 4) the Mosaic, 5) the Davidic, and 6) the new or consummatory.
The beauty of these covenants is that they are unified. They build upon each other with each succeeding one adding newer dimensions yet preserving the essential elements of the previous ones. There is a definite line of progression. Robertson speaks of a structural and thematic unity of the covenants. 7
There is a unity in historical experience. It was because of the promise of the Abrahamic covenant that God was moved to deliver Israel from Egyptian bondage and bring them to the promised land (Ex. 2:24; 3:16,17; 6:4-8; Ps. 105:8-12,42,45; 106:45). Moses' altar which was built (Ex. 24:4) links the tribal structure of the patriarchal period the beginning of the Mosaic covenant. And the covenant with David is tied with Israel's deliverance from Egypt (II Sam. 7:6,23). Israel's national judgement can be understood with reference to the Mosaic covenant. It was Israel's violation of the Mosaic covenant during the time of the Davidic covenant that brought their captivity.
There is a unity in genealogical administration. Unto a "thousand generations." He has remembered His covenant (Deut 7:9; Ps. 105:8-10). It is manifested with reference to the "seed" concept (Gen. 15:19; Ex. 20:5,6; Deut. 7:9; II Sam. 7:12). This principle is seen in the New Testament in the "engrafting of the Gentiles" (Rom. 11:17,19; Gal. 3:29).
The unity of the covenants is related to the "new covenant." The new covenant represents a consummate fulfillment of the earlier covenants. The new expressed in Jer. 31:31ff is linked to the Mosaic covenants. It will not have certain external features. The law of God is in the believer's heart. The new covenant is linked, also to the Abrahamic covenant. God will "give them one heart and one way" that they may fear Him (Jer. 32:39,40). And He will "faithfully plant them in this land" (Jer.. 32:41). Ezekiel relates the new covenant with the Davidic (Ezek. 34:23,24). The new covenant is linked with the Noahic. The Noahic covenant preserved a people for Himself And even today the regularity of the seasons is a continuation of this covenant (Gen. 8:22). Moreover, the new covenant is linked to the Adamic covenant. In Gen. 3:15 God promised a redeemer as a consequence of man's fall. in the New Testament God's commitment to the word that was first spoken to the serpent is inviolable (Rom. 16:20).
The covenants are united by a great theme as well as by a structural unity. The great theme which recurs is: "I shall be your God and you shall be my people." The heart of the covenant of grace is seen as "God is with us."
The first occurrence of this theme is seen in Gen 17:7 in connection with circumcision as the sign and seal of the Abrahamic covenant. The thematic phrase is seen under the Mosaic covenant with reference to Israel' deliverance from slavery (Ex. 6:6,7; 19.4,5; Lev. 11:45; Deut. 4:20). The theme is seen in the Davidic covenant (II Kings 11:17). In Ezek. 34:24 the prophet brings out the fact that God will be their God and David my prince in their midst And the new covenant uses the phrase with reference to God's people (II Cor. 6:16; Heb. 8:10).
Moreover, this theme, "I shall be your God and you shall be My people," is associated with God's dwelling in the midst of His people. This is seen in the progression from the tabernacle to the temple, to the incarnate tabernacle, and to the church. We see God dwelling with His people in the tabernacle (Ex. 25:8; 29:42-44; Lev. 26:9-13). We then see God's presence in the sanctuary of the temple (II Chron. 5:14; Ezek. 43:4-7). Jesus Christ is seen as the incarnate Son tabernacling in our midst (John 1:14). And the church is called the temple of God where He dwells with us (Eph.2:21ff). The covenant theme culminates in one person-Jesus Christ. Isaiah develops this theme (Isa. 42:6: 49:8; 55;3,4). Jesus is the very embodiment of the covenant. Jesus becomes the unifying principle in all of Scripture. Jesus, in His substitutionary death, paid the penalty for our being covenant breaking (I Peter 3:18; Col. 2:13,14). Since the covenants find their final converging point in Jesus Christ they are all unified. Since Christ cannot be divided neither can the covenants be fragmented.
A covenantal view of Scripture is a major distinctive of Presbyterianism. Without understanding the concept of the covenant one simply cannot appreciate the diversity and the unity of Scripture. Covenant theology is a major pillar undergirding Presbyterianism.