The Covenant Theology of the “Westminster Confession of Faith” and Recent Criticism -- By: David B. McWilliams

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 53:1 (Spring 1991)
Article: The Covenant Theology of the “Westminster Confession of Faith” and Recent Criticism
Author: David B. McWilliams


The Covenant Theology of the “Westminster Confession of Faith” and Recent Criticism

David B. McWilliams

The federal theology of the Confession of Faith of the Westminster Assembly (WCF) has been widely discussed in the theological literature of the past few decades. Federalism is often thought to be the epitome of a “Reformed scholasticism”; in fact, no one can deny the powerful influence exerted by this system of thought within the Reformed tradition. An awareness of this undeniable influence has compelled reaction and reevaluation of both the history and content of the covenant theology which finds its most precise expression in the Westminster standards. While much of the recent attention to federalism has been negative, some is more positive, seeking to formulate the covenantal theme in a more biblical way while affirming the basic intent of the older federalism (semper reformanda). The main purpose of this paper is to interact with a few of the more important evaluations of confessional federalism that have appeared within relatively recent literature. The result of this interaction is a critical survey which, though not intended to be exhaustive, is suggestive of the issues involved and indicative of the applicability of the covenant scheme for modern theology. Moreover, the issues surveyed in this paper are related by a single theme which is the essential question of whether the distinction between a covenant of works and a covenant of grace, as assumed in traditional Reformed theology, is legitimate after all. This question is of vital interest to the Reformed community and the method presented here intends to provide a fresh approach to a perennial issue in Reformed, covenantal theology.

I. The Confession’s Covenant Theology

The WCF maintains that God’s dealings with man are covenantal. This essential motif is expressed in the following classic formulation:

The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but

by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He hath been pleased to express by way of a covenant [WCF 7.1].1

From the outset the confession makes clear that man qua man needs God’s grace. Man’s finitude is such that he cannot fulfill his end to glorify and to enjoy God apart from God’s enabling grace. Moreover, God’s transcendence means that man can never hope to commune with him, glorify and enjoy him, apart from a “voluntary condescension on God’s part,” w...

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