BENYOLA: Puritans wrote the Westminster Confession, which is of course, the confessional standard of Presbyterian and many other Reformed churches. As we consider the divergent paths of confessional Protestants, what are the major differences between Puritan and Presbyterian theology?
BEEKE: I gather from your question that you see a divergence between the theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith and the theology of much of contemporary Presbyterianism. Sad to say, the divergence is there. Restive spirits set to work and voices for change began to be heard in late nineteenth-century Presbyterianism, both in Scotland and the United States. Efforts were taken to modify or set at naught the Calvinism of the Confession in the name of adjusting the faith of the church to the needs of the times.
In the years that followed, many alternative constructs of the Christian faith were proposed, promoted, and then discarded. Time would fail us to name them all. What matters most is the net result of this process of endless theological change. It would be difficult to say just what many of today’s Presbyterians believe, and what they have in common as a creed, beyond a vague theism and some of the less problematic ethical teachings of Jesus. Theological liberalism, or “modernism” as we used to call it, is a long-term strategy for extinguishing all commitment to the system of doctrine taught in God’s Word.
In the Presbyterian Church (USA), there still are at least some evangelical ministers and churches, who are increasingly unhappy with the latest decisions and pronouncements of their church courts. Some are leaving for more conservative denominational connections, but there is little desire to return to the faith and practice of the Puritans as summed up in the Westminster Standards.
Thankfully there are several smaller Presbyterian denominations that cherish and maintain the faith of the Westminster Standards. As such, they uphold the divine inspiration and supreme authority of Scripture as the rule of faith and life, the doctrine of the one God who exists in the three persons of the Trinity, the totality of the fall of mankind into sin and our utter inability to save ourselves, the sovereignty of God in all aspects of the accomplishment and application of redemption, the deity of Christ and His work as the only Savior and the Mediator of the covenant of grace, the doctrine of justification by faith alone, and the binding character of the moral law of God on all men, and especially on Christians as the followers of Christ, in the fellowship of His body, the church.
All these precious truths have been discarded by many others who still call themselves Presbyterians, just as they have been discarded by many who still call themselves Reformed. The high price of such contempt for the faith of their fathers is to lapse into error, ignorance, confusion and indifference, and finally to pass away as irrelevant to the purposes of God and Christ in history.