Look At All the Detail (and Beware the Adverbs)

When teaching on the historical development of Reformed Protestantism I have been struck lately by the greater and greater amounts of detail into which the Reformed churches went in descriptions of the Holy Spirit’s work. If you look (see below) at the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) you don’t see much beyond affirmations of faith, regeneration, and the work of the Holy Spirit. (I don’t think I have been overly selective.) And if you look at the nature of conversion, as sixteenth-century Protestants understood it, you see a notion much closer to Nevin’s idea of organic and life-long development than to the First Pretty Good Awakening’s standard of a moment of crisis of existential proportions.

When it comes to the Shorter Catechism (1647), you see much more detail (see below) about the layers and stages of the work of the Holy Spirit, not to mention the ordo salutis. You still don’t see any modern conception of conversion. The Divines were still thinking in terms of mortification and vivification over the course of a saint’s life. But effectual calling receives attention in a detailed way, and faith and repentance have descriptions that go beyond what the sixteenth-creeds or catechisms. (I suspect the influence here of Puritan practical or experimental divinity.)

Which then brings us to the American Presbyterian Church’s Plan of Union from 1758, a document that brought the Old Side (anti-revival) and New Side (pro-revival) back together in a hodge-podge of objective and subjective formula. What you see is even more detail regarding the inner workings of the Spirit than in the Shorter Catechism. Which is a puzzle to me. These Presbyterians already affirmed the Shorter Catechism. If they had only subscribed Heidelberg, they might have wanted a fuller statement of the Spirit’s work. But they had one. And they felt compelled to add girth to the Shorter Catechism’s already full figure. I suspect the influence of pietism and revivalism where the quest for spiritual authenticity requires ever greater levels of specifying the Spirit’s work.

Heidelberg Catechism
Q.21. What is true faith?
A: True faith is not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in his word, but also an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel in my heart; that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness and salvation, are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.

Question 65. Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all his benefits by faith only, whence does this faith proceed?
Answer: From the Holy Ghost, (a) who works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel, and confirms it by the use of the sacraments. (b)

Q 88. Of how many parts does the true conversion of man consist?
A: Of two parts; of the mortification of the old, and the quickening of the new man.

Q 89. What is the mortification of the old man?
A: It is a sincere sorrow of heart, that we have provoked God by our sins; and more and more to hate and flee from them.

Q 90. What is the quickening of the new man?
A: It is a sincere joy of heart in God, through Christ, and with love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works.

Shorter Catechism
Q. 30. How doth the Spirit apply to us the redemption purchased by Christ?
A. The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling.

Q. 31. What is effectual calling?
A. Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.

Q. 85. What doth God require of us that we may escape his wrath and curse due to us for sin?
A. To escape the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin, God requireth of us faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, with the diligent use of all the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption.

Q. 86. What is faith in Jesus Christ?
A. Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.

Q. 87. What is repentance unto life?
A. Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.

Plan of Union (1758)
. . . all mankind are naturally dead in trespasses and sins, an entire change of heart and life is necessary to make them meet for the service and enjoyment of God; that such a change can be only effected by the powerful operations of the Divine Spirit; that when sinners are made sensible of their lost condition and absolute inability to recover themselves, are enlightened in the knowledge of Christ and convinced of his ability and willingness to save, and upon gospel encouragements do choose him for the Saviour, and renouncing their own righteousness in point of merit, depend upon his imputed righteousness for their justification before God, and on his wisdom and strength for guidance and support; when upon these apprehensions and exercises their souls are comforted, notwithstanding all their past guilt, and rejoice in God through Jesus Christ; when they hate and bewail their sins of heart and life, delight in the laws of God without exception, reverentially and diligently attend his ordinances, become humble and self denied, and make it the business of their lives to please and glorify God and to do good to their fellow-men, – this is to be acknowledge as a gracious work of God, even though it should be attended with unusual bodily commotions or some more exceptionable circumstances, by means of infirmity, temptations or remaining corruptions; and wherever religious appearances are attended with the good effects above mentioned, we desire to rejoice in and thank God for them.

5 thoughts on “Look At All the Detail (and Beware the Adverbs)

  1. That section is definitely a revival-side composition. It sounds very Edwardsean. But I repeat myself. It makes me think the New Side was driving the terms of the reunion and the Old Side felt compelled to take the offer. I recall from The forming of an American tradition; a re-examination of colonial Presbyterianism by Leonard J. Trinterud that the New Side was generally presented as “the good guys”. Any other works on that era that might be more balanced?

    New question, if the Shorter Catechism has a “full figure” how would you describe the Larger Catechism? Simply Overweight? Or actually Obese? http://www.nhlbisupport.com/bmi/

    Joke aside, I think the Westminster Standards a sufficiently detailed and would like to avoid supplemental documents. So the real question would be, did the Plan of 1758 create a powerful pro-revival and anti-subscription animus imponentis in the colonial/early republican Presbyterian Church?



  2. “even though it should be attended with unusual bodily commotions or some more exceptionable circumstances, by means of infirmity, temptations or remaining corruptions; ”

    So is that a claim that any bodily commotion or exceptional circumstances aren’t actually coming from God? That they come from three possible bad sources (weakness, temptation (to sin?), or remaining corruption?


  3. Revivalists are more into the process than the content of faith. David Gordon makes some very interesting observations about the difference between focus on our faith and ethics vs focus on what Christ has already done.

    “There are at least two religious movements that would like to believe that Paul’s pivsti” jIhsou’ is a reference to a “faithful Jesus.” Historically, the first of these two movements is Pietism. Intellectually, Pietism had a suspicion for systematic theology and precise theological formulation. As Paul Tillich observed: ““Old and New Testament theology become decisive, not systematic theology. Wherever biblical theology prevails over systematic theology, that is almost always due to the influence of Pietism.”

    Continental pietism preferred a “simpler” faith, a faith in which we simply “followed Jesus.” In part, of course, Pietism reflected a portion of the biblical tradition itself. Jesus is presented in the Bible as an example to be followed, in many ways. He is especially presented as a model or example of our relation to other humans. His “new commandment” is that we are to love one another “as I have loved you.” However, Jesus is not presented biblically as a model for our relation to God, or for our faith, which is the precise point at hand.

    Even at Hebrews 12:2, the point of Jesus’s example is that we should be willing to suffer because of our faith in, and relation to, Christ. Christ is the example, contextually, of patiently enduring suffering. It is not at all clear that he is more comprehensively an example of our faith in general. It is the previous chapter of Hebrews where more-comprehensive exemplars of our faith are presented for our emulation: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, et. al., but, significantly, not Jesus. Despite this, I believe any good Pietist is going to be attracted to the “faithful Jesus” interpretation, even before the evidence is considered.

    A second religious movement attracted to the “faithful Jesus” interpretation is opposed to all claims of religious exclusivity. One of its proponents said to me recently that he did not deny the unique he merely denied the “uniquely unique,” employing the kind of doubletalk one had otherwise thought was reserved for career politicians.

    For such people, the problem with the objective genitive (“faith in Jesus Christ”) is that it excludes those who do not believe in Jesus Christ. Such exclusivity is neither politically nor academically “correct,” even if it is logically cogent and factually true, as a description of Paul’s beliefs. Politically correct individuals are not so much positively attracted to the “faithful Jesus” interpretation as they are repulsed by the “faithful Christian” interpretation.


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