Friday, December 12, 2008

Christmas theology according to the Westminster and Baptist 1689 Confessions

I know that the Puritans who drew up the Westminster Confession and the Second London Baptist Confession weren't too keen on the idea of Christmas. But here are some thoughts on what those confessions (both Chapter VIII:2 - here) had to say on the incarnation of the Son of God. Where the LBC differs from the WCF, I have highlighted slight differences in wording in blue and more significant differences in red. In both the Confessions the relevant Chapter is headed, "of Christ the Mediator". The interest is not in exploring Christology for its own sake, but on setting out what the Son of God is for us.
The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646)
The Son of God, the second Person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance, and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon him man's nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof; yet without sin: being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, of her substance. So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man.
The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689)
The Son of God, the second person in the Holy Trinity, being very and eternal God, the brightness of the Father's glory, of one substance and equal with him who made the world, who upholdeth and governeth all things he hath made, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon him man's nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin; being conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, the Holy Spirit coming down upon her: and the power of the Most High overshadowing her; and so was made of a woman of the tribe of Judah, of the seed of Abraham and David according to the Scriptures; so that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion; which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only mediator between God and man.
The Savoy Declaration of Faith, the Independent's revision of the WCF makes no alterations to this section at all (see here). But the Baptists were clearly not content to leave the Presbyterian confession untouched. The Baptist version of VIII:2 is longer with 157 words to the WCF's 110. They add "Holy" to Trinity and were clearly unhappy with a reference to the "Holy Ghost", which they render "Holy Spirit". The first main addition, "the brightness of the Father's glory", is clearly an allusion to Hebrews 1:3. The statement that Jesus is equal with "him who made the world, who upholdeth and governeth all things he hath made" brings God's works of creation and providence into the frame. Where the WCF concentrates on the being of God, the LBC also emphasises his mighty acts.
The LBC omits the words "of her substance" from the clause "conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary of her substance" (WCF). This is a pity as it destroys the parallelism of the opening proposition, "The Son of God, the second Person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance, and equal with the Father" (WCF). Also, the statement that Jesus was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary of her substance bears witness to two important truths: 1) Mary was not a 'surrogate mother' who simply bore in her womb the humanity of Jesus which was created ex nihilo by the Holy Spirit. She was his true genetic mother. Hopefully without trespassing on the mystery of the Virgin Birth we can say in the light of modern genetics that Mary contributed the unfertilized egg, replete with her DNA. It was from that egg that the Holy Spirit created the human nature of the Son of God. The Spirit contributed the remainder of Jesus’ genetic code including his Y chromosome that made him male. Jesus really was the Son of Mary - of her substance. 2) That Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit of the substance of his mother means that he is genuinely one of us. At the incarnation, the Son of God identified himself fully with the humanity he came to save. As the children were partakers of flesh and blood, he himself shared in the same, coming in the likeness of sinful flesh (Hebrews 2:14, Romans 8:3). Undoubtedly there is also something new here. Jesus was sinless, being conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin. He was not 'shapen in iniquity and born in sin' as a son of Adam. He is the head of God's new humanity. As the risen Lord he is the last Adam, who gives resurrection life to those who were dead in trespasses and sins. Of course the LBC insists that Jesus was "made of a woman" and so none of this is denied. But perhaps the phrase of her substance makes the reality of our Lord's enfleshment and identification with humanity a little more clear. The Person of Christ is of one substance with God and of one substance with us, fully God and fully Man. The Baptist confession also alludes to Luke 1:35 in its description of the virginal conception of Christ, saying, "the Holy Spirit coming down upon her: and the power of the Most High overshadowing her." The LBC sets his incarnation in salvation-historical context by saying that Jesus "was made of a woman of the tribe of Judah, of the seed of Abraham and David according to the Scriptures"
Both confessions conclude with language that very much resembles the Definition of Chalcedon (here). It is worthwhile noting that the Puritans were not radical revisionists, who wanted to jettison the traditions of the Church in order to start again from scratch, aided by the Bible alone. For all their emphasis on sola Scriptura, they valued the theological heritage of the Church and were wiling to work within the parameters of earlier creedal theology. Where they had new light from Scripture, they revised - the WCF was a revision of the Anglican 39 Articles, and the LBC revises the WCF on baptism and other issues. But the Puritans were Catholic and Orthodox Christians, not sectarian hotheads. They believed in the historical dimension of the communion of the saints. Apart from details of punctuation, the WCF and LBC are in complete agreement in the final statement,
"So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man."
Here we have the two natures, one person Christology that is characteristic of Chalcedonian orthodoxy. Also included are several safeguards against misunderstanding. The incarnation does not involve the conversion of the divine nature into another substance. The Son did not become man in the sense that he ceased to be God. After his enfleshment he was fully God and fully Man. Jesus' incarnate humanity is not a composition of the divine and human. For example, the Logos did not take the place of Jesus' human soul. If the Son did not assume a true humanity, with a real body and rational soul, then he cannot save us. Neither is there a confusion of natures in the person of Christ. For example, the humanity of the Son did not take on the attribute of omnipresence (even at his glorification - contrary to the Luther!). We are not to think that the whole person of Christ died on the cross. The Son died in his humanity. There was no confusion of natures at Calvary.
So, the WCF and LBC give us some clear headed Christmas theology. It seems that the Baptists preferred to express their teaching in the language of Scripture whenever possible, although they were not totally adverse to extra-biblical language such as "substance", "nature" and the Chalcedonian negations at the end of the statement. The reluctance of the Baptists to follow the Presbyterians and Independents in saying that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit of the substance of the Virgin Mary is regrettable. But the Baptist revision adds welcome reference to God's works of creation and providence, and roots the incarnation of the Son of God in the flow of redemption history.
Sometimes we Evangelicals are guilty of speaking quite inadvisedly about what happened at the first Christmas. In the Christmas edition of a respected Evangelical newspaper I read these words, "It was a great and mighty miracle for God (who made us in his own image and likeness) to add our nature to his divine nature in one new person - the God-man." What's the problem with that statement? Well, if we are thinking in terms of the Church's historic confession, the union of the divine and human natures in Christ did not constitute a new person. What happened was that the Person of the Son took a human nature. Both the WCF and LBC make it clear that the second Person in the Trinity was the subject of the incarnation. The words "person", "nature" etc have been carefully defined over centuries and we need to use them with great care. Study of the great Puritan confessions of faith will help to save us from such blunders.

2 comments:

Christology Teacher said...

Phenomenal commentary. Can you shed some light on where you and/or these two confessions would fall on the topic of Christs impeccability? I'm currently teaching ok Christology and this is the chief topic of recent.

Exiled Preacher said...

As you can see from the quotes, both confessions say that Christ was "without sin". Section 3 of chapter VIII of the two confessions elaborates on this a little more. Follow the link in the main post.

I believe that according to the Scriptures, Christ was without sin, 1 Peter 2:21 & 22, 1 John 3:5.

In my opinion, it was impossible for Christ to sin: 1) Because his human nature existed in union with his divine Person. 2) Because of the Spirit's work in his life, who bestowed upon him all the fullness of God's grace, which enabled him to persevere in holiness.

But Christ's temptations were very real. He had to srtuggle to maintain his sinlessness and endured genuine suffering when he was tempted - Hebrews 2:17 & 18, 4:15.

I hope that helps.