The American Revisions to Chapter 23 of the Westminster Confession of Faith

Daryl G. Hart has alleged that:

But at least we have a disagreement by two church synods on what the Bible requires of magistrates. One says the magistrate should abolish false religion. The other says the magistrate should protect the freedoms of all people, including those who hold false religions.

I don’t agree with Hart. I think he’s misreading the American Revisions.

Let’s take a look at the American Revisions in contrast to the original Westminster Confession of Faith:

Original:

Chapter XXIII
Of the Civil Magistrate

III. The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven: yet he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire; that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed; all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed; and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.

American Revisions:

Chapter 23
Of the Civil Magistrate

3. Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith. Yet, as nursing fathers, it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger. And, as Jesus Christ hath appointed a regular government and discipline in his church, no law of any commonwealth should interfere with, let, or hinder, the due exercise thereof, among the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians, according to their own profession and belief. It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people, in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered, either upon pretense of religion or of infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever: and to take order, that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance.

Let’s break down the American Revisions by sentence:

(1) Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith.

The bold item is an addition. The original confession does not list interfering in matters of faith as a duty of the civil magistrate. Of course, “interfering” is pejorative … but let’s not digress.

(2) Yet, as nursing fathers, it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger.

This sentence speaks particularly to the duty of the civil magistrate to protect Christian churches without giving denominational preference. Nothing in the original confession required the civil magistrate to give a denominational preference, and otherwise the idea of protecting the church is something that is consistent with the original confession.

(3) And, as Jesus Christ hath appointed a regular government and discipline in his church, no law of any commonwealth should interfere with, let, or hinder, the due exercise thereof, among the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians, according to their own profession and belief.

This sentence speaks to the fact that the civil magistrate should not interfere with the free practice of religion among Christians. Again, there’s nothing here that explicitly contradicts the original Confession, nor vice versa.

(4) It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people, in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered, either upon pretense of religion or of infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever: and to take order, that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance.

This sentence, considered alone, does not specify that the protections provided are to be provided only to Christians. The reference to “religion” is probably best understood to refer to the Christian religion, and “religious and ecclesiastical assemblies” to Christian ones. Nevertheless, even if we view it broadly, it still does not contradict the original Westminster Confession for this key reason that men like Hart seem to be overlooking.

The sentence states: “no person be suffered, either upon pretense of religion or of infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever … .” The revised confession does not say that the civil magistrate may not criminally punish anyone. The revised confession is limited to the civil magistrate preventing individuals from being little Gideons and taking the law into their own hands. The final phrase about assemblies not being molested should be understood as an extension of the phrase about people going after one another – likewise the civil magistrate shouldn’t (says the revised confession) let little Gideons go break up someone else’s worship services.

Now, I am aware that some (perhaps many) of the folks behind the revisions were opposed to the original WCF view. However, it appears that they did the politically expedient thing and set forth a new chapter that both supporters and opposers of the original WCF could affirm. That’s not surprising, since a lot of presbyterian ministers who were still alive during the time of the revision had subscribed in good faith to the original standards.

I realize that this absence of direct contradiction is not what the R2K crowd will want to hear, but shouldn’t they be happy? While they may be out of line with the American Revisions, they are less out of line than they would have been under the original Westminster Confession of Faith.

I’ll grant one further point. There’s an indirect contradiction between the very active role that the civil magistrate should play with respect to the Christian religion in the original WCF and the relatively “hands off” approach that the civil magistrate should have with respect to the Christian religion in the revised standards. However, the words chosen (words like “interfere”) prevent there from being an direct contradiction.

-TurretinFan

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18 Responses to “The American Revisions to Chapter 23 of the Westminster Confession of Faith”

  1. natamllc Says:

    TF,this is original for you?The revised confession is limited to the civil magistrate preventing individuals from being little Gideons and taking the law into their own hands.Nevertheless, that's brilliant!

  2. Anonymous Says:

    As Harold O. J. Brown used to point out, there is nothing in the US Constitution to prevent the States from establishing a religion. In fact, several of them did have established faiths. Nor do the American revisions prevent such a thing. Godith

  3. Truth Unites... and Divides Says:

    I think you're doing a fine job in contending with Dr. Darryl Hart.

  4. Truth Unites... and Divides Says:

    Hi TurretinFan,Darryl Hart links to this post in his post titled: Point of Order: Even for Covenanters 2k Is Confessional:"Now some have tried to say that the revisions still assert the magistrate’s duty to suppress blasphemy and heresy. But given what the American divines said and did not say, and given that the Covenanters no longer insist on magisterial responsibility for punishing idolatry, this argument is even less believable than the one about George Washington being an orthodox Protestant."I guess Darryl Hart is also saying that George Washington was a unorthodox Protestant.

  5. Turretinfan Says:

    There are several possibilities.DGH could be referring to someone else.DGH could have seriously misread this article.DGH could be lying.-TurretinFan

  6. Truth Unites... and Divides Says:

    TFan,You can eliminate the first possibility. Darryl Hart linked directly you and this post.You're left with either:DGH could have seriously misread this article.DGH could be lying.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    I'm not sure I'm following. The original WCF allowed for interference and the revised says civil magistrates may not interfere. Aren't the two at odds?

  8. Anonymous Says:

    p.s. if the revision simply took out the charge to magistrates to interfere then we could chalk it up to being more inclusive but since it explictly goes in the opposite direction it would seem that it is an about face. Thoughts?

  9. Anonymous Says:

    "The original confession does not list interfering in matters of faith as…" It doesn't say "civil magistrates may interfere" but it does charge the magistrate with actions that would be to interfere under certain situations, yes?I think you are taking "interfering" to be interfering with sound, orthodox religion. But what if the Divines meant that they may not interfere in the breaking up of pagan practices, which the original allowed for and prescribed.

  10. Turretinfan Says:

    Anonymous:The term "interfere" is a pejorative term. No one argues that the civil magistrate should "interfere" in matters in faith, any more than anyone argues that sermons should be more tedious, or that wives should nag more. Words like "nag," "tedious," and "interfere," are pejorative terms. Some might argue that wives should provide more helpful advice to their husbands, that sermons should not be done in 15 minutes, or that the civil magistrate should call synods, but those advocating such things would not view their own proposal in pejorative terms.There is not, of course, a charge to civil magistrates to interfere, and what constitutes interference is not defined in the document."But what if the Divines meant that they may not interfere in the breaking up of pagan practices, which the original allowed for and prescribed."I assume by "Divines," you mean the revisers. I acknowledge that those who pushed for the changes did so because they rejected what the original said (how they got ordained is another question). However, they drafted a consensus document – something that the conservatives could also accept.Moreover, recall that the "interefe" line is part of this sentence:"Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith."Everything up to the final "or" is in the original. If we view the phrase in that context, it looks like interfering would include things like administering the sacraments, administering the power of the keys, or the like (i.e. other lesser forms of interference).As to what those lesser forms might be, the same paragraph indicates: "And, as Jesus Christ hath appointed a regular government and discipline in his church, no law of any commonwealth should interfere with, let, or hinder, the due exercise thereof, among the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians, according to their own profession and belief."It seems as though the language there prevents the church from interfering with church discipline.Does that make sense?- TurretinFan

  11. Ronald W. Di Giacomo Says:

    TF,That was enormously helpful! I am very grateful for you taking the time to write such a thoughtful response. My thoughts are much more organized now and I agree with everything you said, 100%. Thank you for placing the omission in the context of Word and Sacrament. (And yes, I did not mean Divines; I meant revisers as you thought.) :)Also, I appreciate your willingness to acknowledge that the revisers as an organic whole did not necessarily agree with the original with respect to the role of government. It's that sort of truthfulness that demonstrates that this is not some partisan debate for you but rather a pursuit for, and defense of, the truth. Ron

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