Whose Meaning? The Question of Original Intent

By the Rev. Peter J. Wallace

January 28, 2001

There has been considerable debate over the "original intent" of the Westminster Divines regarding the phrase "in the space of six days" (WCF 4.1). David Hall has established that the only view known to have been held by any of the Westminster Divines themselves is the 24-hour view,(1) but it is not at all obvious that this should settle the question. After all, isn't there a significant difference between what the Westminster Divines personally believed and what they intended the church to confess? Further, should the church be bound by the original intent of the Westminster Divines, or to the Word of God? A series of questions should show some of the problems with the "original intent" position.

1. Did the Westminster Divines believe that all ministers had to have precisely the same understanding of the wording of the Confession?

There were several matters on which the Westminster Divines were not fully agreed. In some cases, like the matter of the supralapsarian versus infralapsarian debate or with respect to the timing of the millennium, the Confession remained more or less silent. Others, however, had to be addressed. It is interesting to note that wherever they could, they found ways of allowing for a diversity of views among sound Reformed men. They did this by adopting wording that could be interpreted in different ways.

Perhaps the best known example is in the chapter on justification. The Thirty-Nine Articles asserted that the "whole obedience and satisfaction" of Christ was imputed to the believer in justification, but William Twisse, Richard Vines, and Thomas Gataker objected to this language being included in the new confession. They did not believe that the active obedience of Christ was included in justification, claiming that this was a part of sanctification instead. After some debate, the Assembly decided to use simply the language of "the obedience and satisfaction" of Christ, which could be interpreted either way. Twisse, Vines, and Gataker would understand this to refer solely to the passive obedience of Christ, while the majority would understand it to include both the active and the passive obedience of Christ.(2)

As another example, Cornelius Burgess believed that the elect were ordinarily regenerated at the time of their baptism. Burgess was placed on the committee to craft the confession's chapter on baptism. The result is a wording that allows for Burgess's views:

The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God's own will, in his appointed time. (Confession 28.6)

The Confession does not say when God's "appointed time" is. For many of the Divines (as for many of the later Puritans), that appointed time would have been associated with the time of conversion. But for Burgess and many of the older Reformed theologians, God's appointed time was usually the time of baptism. Given that Burgess was on the committee that drafted this chapter, it is not at all surprising that the wording permits his view.(3)

A third example is the condemnation of usury in Larger Catechism 142. During the middle ages, usury had been defined as referring to all lending at interest. Since usury was thoroughly condemned in Scripture (Deuteronomy 23:19-20; Psalm 15:5), Thomas Aquinas and others argued that all lending at interest was sin. But, as the Oxford Dictionary of the Reformation states:

By the sixteenth century the Thomist definition of usury was coming under attack from two directions. One critique, associated with Jean Gerson, nominalists such as Conrad Summenhardt, and Johann Eck, argued that usury occurred only when the lender intended to oppress the borrower. This line of reasoning was generally adopted by Protestant reformers, who made the Golden Rule the standard against which lending was measured. If the borrower and lender were in charity with one another there was no usury. Thus Luther, Calvin, and Bucer agreed widows, orphans, students, ministers, and other needy people could lend at interest to support themselves. Charles du Moulin created a highly influential argument that said one should give to the poor, lend without interest to the working people, and lend with interest to those who used money to make money.(4)

But while this distinction enabled the growth of early capitalism, it also caused some second thoughts among some of the Westminster Divines who became increasingly disturbed by the effects of lending at interest in English society. At the time of the Westminster Assembly, the majority of English ministers still approved du Moulin's distinction, but some were beginning to return to the medieval view that all lending at interest was usurious, and therefore sinful.

Two of the Westminster Divines wrote essays condemning all lending at interest: Daniel Cawdrey's Essay on Usury (1661), and Richard Capel's Tentations: Their nature, danger, cure (1658).

Both of these authors agree that the vast majority of the 16th century Reformers had approved of a limited form of usury. The list includes Calvin, Martyr, Bucer, Bullinger, Ursinus, Perkins, and Ames (among many others). Wolfgang Musculus's treatise on the subject was translated into English and published in 1552 to argue for limited usury. John Spottiswood published a treatise endorsing limited usury, appending a letter of John Calvin to substantiate his claims ca. 1602.

But, both Cawdrey and Capel took issue with this drift in Reformed thought. Both granted that the definition of usury was highly contested in their day, but both insisted that lending at interest is always sin.

Cawdrey (writing in 1661) admits that the "ordinary resolution" of the case of usury is that it is lawful to charge interest to the rich, but unlawful to charge interest to the poor. He claims that the "common argument" is that all usury is sin, but that not all lending for gain is usurious. He states that he had previously accepted these arguments and had practiced usury himself, but now concludes from his exegesis of the OT that no one has the right to borrow except in the case of extreme need.

Capel (writing in 1658, with a preface by Richard Sibbes) claims that all lending at interest was forbidden by the ancient Jews, Romans [which is false: they condemned usury, but defined usury as exorbitant interest], and was not allowed in England until Henry III. He also claims that while the OT allowed for charging interest to strangers, the NT removes this permission since we are to love our enemy, and charging interest is an act of judgment according to Dt. 15. He went so far as to state that the papists were more consistent than the Reformed in their condemnation of all interest.

Therefore when the Larger Catechism condemns usury, does it condemn all lending at interest? Or does it condemn only certain types of lending at interest? It appears that the Westminster Divines themselves were divided on the issue. They could unite in condemning usury, but they could not agree on the definition of usury.

The one place where the Divines would have unanimously agreed is that charging interest to the poor is indeed usury--and therefore sin. They would have been flabbergasted at the thought of the church charging interest to the church. Of course, part of their reasoning was plainly rooted in their mercantilist assumption that the world economy can never grow: therefore if one man profits, another man must lose. Hence, for transactions within the church, if one church profits, the other will lose. All transactions within the church, therefore, must be strictly equal. If you don't buy into mercantilist assumptions, these arguments may not mean very much to you, but if we are bound by original intent, then all Orthodox Presbyterians must take exception to the mercantilist assumptions that infuse every reference to economic matters in the Standards.

Further examples could be given, but these three should be sufficient to demonstrate that the Westminster Divines did not believe that all ministers had to accept the same interpretation of the Confession. In many respects it was a compromise document, designed to bring together all those who were Reformed in doctrine against Roman, Arminian, Socinian, Baptist, and similar errors. They were not trying to exclude men over minor points, and regularly allowed for a diversity of interpretation of particular clauses of the Confession. So long as a man could affirm the wording of the Confession based upon responsible exegesis of Scripture (which of course required considerable charity-since it is easy to call someone else's exegesis irresponsible!), they were willing to live with diversity of opinion.

2. Did the Westminster Divines intend to exclude all views except the "normal day" view by their usage of the phrase "in the space of six days"?

If this was their intent, then they failed to communicate it very clearly. The phrase "the space of six days" was intended (as Ussher and Ames had used it) to reject Augustine's doctrine of instantaneous creation, and to affirm the sequentiality of the days.(5) If they wished to require ministers to believe that the days were of ordinary length, they could have done so. Given the latitude the Divines allowed in the interpretation of the chapters on justification and baptism, it would have been very odd indeed for them to have required a strict interpretation of the creation days. If they had desired to enforce a strict position, they were perfectly capable of writing it into the Confession. The fact that they did not specify the length of the days demonstrates that their interest was in the sequentiality of the days.

Of course, they may have assumed that only 24-hour men would agree with the phrase "in the space of six days," but we are not bound by the assumptions of the Westminster Divines. After all, they assumed that the ban on "unjust enclosures" in Larger Catechism 142 would continue to be understood in a sense that maintained traditional English and Scottish mercantile economic notions. If the assumptions of the Westminster Divines must bind the church, then all free market capitalists are outside the pale of the Standards! One could make the case that they were trying to exclude the Augustinian doctrine of instantaneous creation, but if they wished to exclude everything except the "normal day" view, they would have made it explicit.

It is worth pointing out that the Confession was intended to bring together three national churches. No one assumed that every minister in these three churches would agree in the interpretation of every phrase! Therefore if they wanted to require absolute agreement, they used extremely precise language ("This effectual call is of God's free and special grace alone, not from any thing at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein..." [10.2] Note how careful they are to exclude any possibility of human activity in effectual calling. They find three different ways of saying it!). Therefore, if they did not use precise language, it is highly unlikely that they were concerned to enforce absolute agreement!

3. Did the Westminster Divines themselves believe that the original intent of confessional documents was binding?

The Westminster Divines provide a plain answer to this in the text of the Larger Catechism, question 50:

Q50: Wherein consisted Christ's humiliation after his death?

A50: Christ's humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day; which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, he descended into hell.

Here the Westminster Divines assert that the phrase from the Apostles' Creed "he descended into hell" means that Christ was buried, and continued under the power of death until the third day. The Westminster Divines knew that this was not the original intent of the creed because they were all familiar with Calvin's Institutes, which admitted as much! Their view originated with Nicholas of Cusa in the late middle ages.

Calvin argued that the descent into hell should be understood the spiritual torment that Christ underwent for us (Institutes, 2.16.10). Martin Bucer and Theodore Beza argued that "descended into hell" simply meant "descended into the grave" and was identical to burial. Peter Martyr Vermigli held to the traditional interpretation. Calvin never broke fellowship with Bucer, Beza or Vermigli on the point. Divergent interpretations of the Creed were accepted in the Reformed churches so long as one defended his position from Scripture. The Westminster Divines chose a stance in between Calvin and Bucer.(6)

On the other hand, the Council of Trent (following Thomas Aquinas) insisted upon the original meaning against the radical new views of the Reformers. What was the original intent?

The patristic doctrine is well summarized by Irenaeus (ca. 180), who argued that Christ descended into the underworld to free the patriarchs from their confinement.(7) During the Arian controversy there were disagreements regarding whether the whole Christ descended into hell, but the substance of the doctrine was not questioned.

The "Apostles' Creed" had multiple forms prior to the sixth century. Each regional church had its own version which followed the same basic pattern, but varied in wording from region to region. The phrase "he descended into hell" makes its first creedal appearance in the Creed of Aquileia (ca. 390). Rufinus of Aquileia is the first to report the words in the West, and he believed that Christ manifested himself to the departed spirits in Hades after his death.(8)

It was this view that the Council of Trent insisted upon. They vehemently objected to the Reformers because the Reformers insisted upon interpreting the Creed according to Scripture, rather than according to the original intent of tradition.

Indeed, Calvin recognized that he was departing from the original intent of the Creed, when he said, "But we must seek a surer explanation, apart from the Creed, of Christ's descent into hell." (2.16.10) Calvin was willing to say that whatever Scripture says is what the Creed must mean. "The point is that the Creed sets forth what Christ suffered in the sight of men, and then appositely speaks of that invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he underwent in the sight of God in order that we might know not only that Christ's body was given as the price of our redemption, but that he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man." (2.16.10)(9)

Calvin was convinced that the words of the Creed were accurate, but that the original meaning was flawed. Therefore he interpreted the Creed according to Scripture, rather than according to original intent. The Westminster Divines followed him (though preferring Bucer and Beza's more moderate claim that the descent into hell simply meant residing under the power of death), thereby indicating to us the way in which we should interpret their work.

Since we take Scripture as our final authority, we believe that the Confession must mean what Scripture says. When the Church confesses her Confession, she is not bound by the original intent of the Westminster Divines. She is bound by the Word of God. The reason why we value the original intent of the Westminster Divines is not because their intentions were binding, but because they so faithfully expounded the Word of God! The example of Calvin and Beza in Geneva is a good one: they agreed with the original intent of the Apostles' Creed in 11 of the 12 statements of the Creed. They differed on the meaning of "descended into hell"-and even differed from each other-but they sang the Creed together in worship (the Apostles' Creed was one of the official creeds of Geneva, and was a part of the catechetical standards of the church). Both argued their case from Scripture-and both openly disagreed with the original intent.

Finally, the Confession itself tells us how to resolve controversies. It does not call us to look to the original intent of creeds. It calls us to Scripture:

The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture (Confession 1.10).

The decrees of the Westminster Assembly must be examined by Scripture. Nowhere in Scripture or in our Confession are we told to resolve our differences by appealing to the traditions of men.

It is worthwhile to note that at the Synod of Dort, when the question of Arminianism was to be decided, the members of the Synod were not required to decide the case by determining the teaching of the Belgic Confession. Rather they were required to take the following solemn oath:

I promise before God, in whom I believe, and whom I worship, as being present in this place, and as being the Searcher of all hearts, that during the course of the proceedings of this Synod, which will examine and decide, not only the five points, and all the differences resulting from them, but also any other doctrine, I will use no human writing, but only the word of God, which is an infallible rule of faith. And during all these discussions, I will only aim at the glory of God, the peace of the Church, and especially the preservation of the purity of doctrine. So help me, my Savior, Jesus Christ! I beseech him to assist me by his Holy Spirit."(10)

4. Whose original intent matters more? The authors of the confession, or the church that confesses?

Officers in the OPC "receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church" (FoG 22.13.c.2). We do not receive and adopt the Westminster Confession. To bind the church to the intentions of the Westminster Divines would be to follow the Council of Trent in requiring slavish submission to tradition rather than faithful submission to the Word of God. The Confession of Faith and Catechisms of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church mean no more and no less than the Scripture of which it is a faithful summary. If a dispute arises about the meaning of the Confession, the solution will be found through the exegesis of relevant texts of Scripture-not through a historical debate regarding the intentions of the Westminster Divines.

This was the view of the 1647 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, which was troubled by the Confession's language in 31.2, that "magistrates may lawfully call a synod of ministers and other fit persons, to consult and advise with about matters of religion." In its adopting act it stated:

But, lest our intention and meaning be in some particulars misunderstood, it is hereby expressly declared and provided, That the not mentioning in this Confession the several sorts of ecclesiastical officers and assemblies, shall be no prejudice to the truth of Christ in these particulars, to be expressed fully in the Directory of Government. It is further declared, That the Assembly understandeth some parts of the second article of the thirty-one chapter only of kirks not settled, or constituted in point of government.(11)

Here the Church of Scotland declares that the intention and meaning of the adopting body has higher authority than the intention and meaning of the authors of the Confession. Further, it establishes the principle that the Church has the full authority to declare what her Confession means-even if that meaning contradicts the original intent. This is not some postmodern doctrine, but the action of the covenanting General Assembly of 1647. They did not deem it prudent or necessary to alter the Confession, so they simply included a declaratory statement in their adopting act in order to make clear "our intention and meaning." This is not a precedent for individuals to believe whatever they wish-rather, it demonstrates 1) a historical point: that the original intent of the Westminster Divines was not considered sacrosanct in the seventeenth century; and 2) an ecclesiastical point: that the Church should make her intention and meaning clear if she differs from the most natural reading of the text of her Confession.

Another example is occasioned by the American revisions of 1789. The revisions of 1789 changed the meaning of lots of words that remained in the text. For instance, 23.1 states that "God...has ordained civil magistrates, to be, under Him, over the people, for His own glory, and the public good." The original intent of "the public good" included the idea that the magistrate should preserve the peace of the Church and the truth of God (cf. the original WCF 23.3). The 1789 amendment changed the meaning of 23.1--even though the words were not changed. Which meaning of 23.1 is binding? The Westminster Divines' meaning? Or the 1789 meaning?

Likewise, the whole discussion of the visible church catholic in chapter 25.2-5 assumes that there will only be one church in any given region. The reference to "particular churches" in 25.4, was intended to refer to national churches-a meaning that was altered by the 1789 revision that spoke of "denominations" (23.3). (Incidentally, this is the same problem that the Dutch Reformed churches have encountered with the Belgic Confession's reference in chapter 28 to the necessity of being a part of the true church. It was assumed that there would be only one true church in any given region, which means that the language is ill-suited to the modern world of numerous orthodox Reformed denominations. Westminster's language, however, has proved more adaptable, and therefore the change in meaning has been relatively unnoticed.)

Through the interpretive statement of the 1647 Scottish General Assembly and through the numerous changes in meaning that resulted from the amendments of 1789, the church has asserted her right to say what she means when she confesses her faith. The Confession is not the Confession of the Westminster Divines; it is the Confession of Faith of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.(12) As such she has the right to say what she means, and is not bound by the original intent of the Westminster Assembly. She is bound solely by the Word of God. She must confess what Scripture declares to be essential to the faith. If she cannot use the words of the Westminster Divines, she should change them-for there are few dangers worse than turning language on its head-but if their words serve to express the faith of the church, then there is no need for revision.

Of course, if the church becomes so confused regarding the meaning of her confession that she cannot speak with one voice, it may be time to consider an amendment. The Confession was not designed to say everything that Scripture says. The Confession was designed to be a faithful summary of those things necessary for the church to teach and believe. We do not have to agree as to the moment when our baptism becomes efficacious. We do not have to agree whether grape juice should be used for communion. We do not have to agree regarding the timing of the millennium. I believe that Scripture is clear on all these matters, but I do not believe that they make a difference in whether a man is qualified to be a minister of the gospel.

Both sides in this debate have sometimes appealed too much to human tradition. The exclusive 24-hour men have frequently appealed to the original intent of the Westminster Assembly. Those favoring diversity of opinion have frequently appealed to the original intent of the OPC. Certainly the intention of the OPC has more weight in terms of how we should view what positions are acceptable in the OPC (e.g., we may not vote against a man who approves the use of grape juice in communion, because his view is in accord with the OPC's understanding of her confession), but in the end, the meaning of our Confession must be found in Scripture alone.

5. But if the church may reinterpret the Confession, what will prevent her from reinterpreting Scripture?

This question fails to distinguish between Scripture and Confession. Scripture is the final authority. Scripture is the Word of God-therefore He is the final interpreter of Scripture-as Confession 1.10 says! The Confession is the word of the church-therefore the church is the final interpreter of the Confession. The church submits to the Word of God, but has authority over her own Confession. Indeed, she must always ensure that her Confession faithfully proclaims the Word of God.

Perhaps an analogy will be useful. The original intent of the human authors of Scripture is not binding-rather we are bound by the original intent of the divine author. So while Moses may have recognized that the rock in the wilderness symbolized God in some sense, there is nothing in the text of Exodus 17 and Numbers 20 that suggests that he understood that this rock was the Messiah. This is only revealed 1500 years later through the Apostle Paul (cf. 1 Corinthians 10). There are many instances in Scripture where the human authors did not understand the full signification of their words and therefore did not intend all that God intended through their words. Indeed, this is what Peter says in 2 Peter 1:20-21: "First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God." Therefore the original intent of the human authors is not the final authority, but the original intent of God. The human authors are important, and their intentions may not be disregarded, but they must yield to the one whose word it finally is.

Likewise, the authors of the church's confession were instruments of the church. They were not setting forth their private opinions, but were voicing the faith of the church. Indeed, they were called by the church (in retrospect-of course, since the Westminster Assembly was called by the English Parliament!) to set forth the teaching of the church. As such the intentions of the Westminster Divines are important, but they must yield to the church's intentions, because it was the Confession of Faith of the Churches of England, Scotland and Ireland that they wrote (and of course, those three churches understood the same confession differently in certain respects). In its revised form, the Confession is now the Confession of Faith of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. She ignores the intentions of those who wrote it at her peril-but those who dwell in the grave cannot bind her conscience. She is bound to the Word of God and must confess the good confession according to the Scriptures.

6. But if we mean something different from the original intent of the Westminster Divines, aren't we equivocating?

J. Gresham Machen stated more than 65 years ago:

"Equivocation, the double use of traditional terminology, subscription to solemn creedal statements in a sense different from the sense originally intended in those statements--these things give a man a poor platform upon which to stand, no matter what it is that he proposes, upon that platform, to do."(13)

Of course, it should be noted that Machen defended the Day Age view, served grape juice in communion, and sang hymns in worship. It would be most uncharitable to interpret Machen's words in such a way as to make him a hypocrite. If Machen were saying that the original intent of the Westminster Divines is binding upon the church, then Machen himself was guilty of gross equivocation.

Rather than say that Machen was equivocating, I would suggest that Machen believed that the "original intent" of the Westminster Divines was that their Confession simply meant what Scripture said. "The creeds of Christendom...are summary statements of what God has told us in His Word."(14) Machen argued that a confession simply states what the Word states. He did not argue that the 17th century standpoint is the true one; he argued that the biblical standpoint is the true one, and both the 17th century and the 20th century must affirm it. Progress in doctrinal understanding comes by "a return to God's Word!" (p157).

Or as Norman Shepherd put it:

the point is that the confessional statement achieves validity through its agreement with the Word of God. In saying that the place of the confession is not next to, much less above, but "deep under" the Scripture, Bavinck has marked out the correct way between the Roman Catholic error of raising the confession to the level of the Bible and the Barthian error of reducing the Bible to the level of the confession.(15)

Ironically, those who argue for the binding authority of original intent have unintentionally raised the Confession to the level of the Bible. When the OPC adopted her confession and catechisms, Machen and the subscribers of the OPC's adopting act did not follow this Roman view of tradition. They understood that Scripture was the final arbiter of the Confession's meaning, and therefore were not equivocating when they understood the confession differently from the Westminster Divines. Indeed, they were treating the Confession in precisely the same way that the Westminster Divines had treated the Apostles' Creed. They believed that "wine" could be understood as grape juice. They believed that "in the space of six days" could be interpreted as the Day Age view. They confessed that "psalms" could include hymns. They did not believe that they were equivocating because they believed that these views were entirely consistent with the plain meaning of the words of the Confession.

7. Why not consider divergences from original intent as exceptions to the Confession?

What is an exception? There is no provision in the constitution of the OPC for taking "exceptions." An exception is simply a disagreement. When a presbytery considers a man for ordination, they must ascertain whether his theology is consistent with their confession. If he disagrees with the confession, then the presbytery must ascertain whether his disagreements are significant enough that he cannot "receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures" (FOG 23.8.2). If he disagrees with the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures, then he cannot minister in the church of Jesus Christ. There is no point in having him "take an exception"! But if his disagreements do not compromise the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures, then he may take his vows with a clear conscience.

N.B., There is no provision in the OPC's Form of Government for the presbytery to require a man to take an exception. This is not an omission or an accident. After all, an "exception" is simply a disagreement. If he does not believe that he disagrees with the Confession, it is a violation of conscience to require him to say that does disagree with it.

If a man's doctrine is an offense against the Word of God, then he should not be ordained-or, if he has already been ordained, then he must be charged. It is a matter for the courts of the church to decide judicially (Confession of Faith 31.2). To require a man to take an exception (especially if he will be forbidden to teach his view as consistent with the Confession-or at all) is to bypass judicial procedure and condemn a man without allowing him to provide a full biblical defense of his views. Indeed, especially when such an action requires full subscription to the original intent of the Westminster Divines, it is no different from Trent's requirement that all Catholics affirm the original intent of the Apostles' Creed. It banishes all biblical argument from the discussion and binds consciences to uphold human tradition.

Conclusion: Presbyterian Culture Wars?

[NOTE: I recognize that advocates of the "normal day" interpretation base their views on their exegesis of Scripture. In this conclusion I am not focusing on this position; instead I am attempting to understand the exclusivist position that wishes to exclude men from the ministry who hold to other positions. In other words, I am dealing with those who would vote against a candidate for licensure or ordination simply because of his interpretation of the creation days.]

Why has the creation day issue become the central debate in so many Presbyterian and Reformed churches? And particularly, why have some presbyteries reached the point where they refuse to ordain anyone who will not affirm the ordinary day view (or in other cases require candidates to take an exception to the Confession)? While there are numerous hermeneutical and exegetical issues involved, these issues would be equally important in several other issues. If the original intent of the Confession were really the main issue, then those who wish to see the church exclude all who hold to non-24 hour views should be equally zealous to return the church to exclusive psalmody and the exclusive use of wine in communion. Confession 29.3, 5, 7, plainly insists upon the usage of wine, which invariably contained alcohol. The original intent of the Westminster Divines in this instance is absolutely obvious. They intended that alcoholic wine should be used.

Someone may answer that this is a minor issue, whereas the adoption of non-literal views of the days of Genesis was the root Liberalism. But if the fear of Liberalism were the real issue, then these folks should be far more concerned about the elimination of wine at Reformed communion services because the hermeneutic involved in the banishment of wine from the Lord's Table was far worse than the hermeneutic involved in the development of the Day Age theory; and the abandonment of wine in communion occurred much earlier and was far more widespread than the Day Age theory.

Leo Hirrell has recently authored an excellent study of the connection between New School theology and the antebellum reform movement. His treatment of the temperance movement is particularly interesting in this regard. Since New Schoolers viewed sin largely in terms of external habits and forces, "they reasoned that a substance that was evil in its effects must be evil in its nature."(16) In the 1820s, the early reformers attempted to persuade people to stop drinking hard liquor, but that wine and beer were acceptable because of its lower alcohol content. By 1835 the New School reformers had realized that since beer and wine also contained alcohol, consistency required them to proclaim that it was sinful for Christians to consume, manufacture, or sell any form of beverage alcohol.

Because they believed that common sense could provide absolute moral truths the New School became largely unable to consider the possibility that a thing might be good in some circumstances but evil in another. New School Presbyterians tended to see alcohol as the source of all social ills, and as one commented in the New York Observer, "when the Reform shall have done its perfect work, we may hope to see not only prisons, but almshouses and even hospitals become vacant."(17) While Old School Presbyterians frequently encouraged abstinence from alcohol on the grounds of expediency, they refused to say that it was sinful in and of itself because they tended to see sin as a matter of the heart.

Of course, the claim that all alcohol was inherently evil created certain problems for New Schoolers. They still believed in the authority and inspiration of Scripture. And while they could find several passages that condemned drunkenness, they were frequently embarrassed by the fact that Jesus had turned water into wine, and by the many other passages that encouraged the use of alcoholic beverages. In 1830 Moses Stuart, a leading New School biblical scholar, argued that biblical wine contained much less alcohol than modern wine, and concluded that Scripture allowed for moderate wine consumption. Many New Schoolers were furious. They developed what they called the "two-wine" theory, which claimed that the same Hebrew word could be used for both fermented and non-fermented wines (even Stuart came to accept this theory in 1848).

This was too much for Old School Presbyterians. John McLean, a professor at the College of New Jersey, wrote a detailed refutation of the two-wine theory in 1841 (published in the Princeton Review), demonstrating that there was absolutely no historical evidence for the two-wine theory.(18) There was no evidence that any ancient culture knew how to prevent grape juice from fermenting. Nonetheless, the two-wine theory became increasingly popular due to the New School view of sin and human ability. Since human reason has declared alcohol to be evil, therefore God must agree. The New School even moved to excommunicate all those involved in the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages and began the process of eliminating wine from communion.

Some might argue that the hermeneutic behind the Day Age view was exactly the same: in order to make Scripture fit the findings of modern science, we must reinterpret Scripture to fit human reason. If this were so, then we ought to expect that the same people who sought to eliminate wine from communion would be equally zealous for the Day Age view. But this was not the case. Some of the leading advocates of the two-wine theory were zealous defenders of 24-hour creation days, while the Old School critics of the two-wine theory frequently supported the Day Age view. The Princetonians and other orthodox defenders of the Day Age view recognized that both Scripture and Confession plainly taught that wine was the proper element for the Lord's Supper. Nowhere in Scripture is there any evidence for a non-alcoholic wine. Yayin and oinos do not have multiple meanings in Scripture. On the other hand, the word yom ("day") does have multiple meanings in Scripture. Therefore, while the two-wine theory is an exegetical absurdity, and interprets Scripture according to the dictates of human reason, the Day Age interpretation is an exegetical possibility because it attempts to interpret Scripture according to Scripture. Likewise, "wine" in the Confession could only mean alcoholic wine, but the phrase "the space of six days" did not specify the length of the days.

The doctrines of the temperance movement quickly became the official policy of the New School Presbyterian Church, and slowly infiltrated the Old School as well. The New School General Assembly declared the beverage use of alcohol to be sinful in the 1840s and began excluding those who manufactured and sold it by the 1850s. By the formation of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union in the 1870s, the reunited PCUSA was firmly on board with the prohibition movement, and was systematically eliminating the use of wine in communion. The two-wine theory was much more pervasive on a popular level than the Day Age view ever was. The WCTU organized hundreds of chapters all over the country and managed to shut down innumerable taverns. Tens of thousands of Presbyterian women were mobilized in behalf of this effort, utterly convinced that Jesus had turned the water into grape juice.

The step to Liberalism was simple. Many honest men could not accept the two-wine theory, but they were convinced by New School arguments that wine was evil. Therefore they had to deny the plain teaching of Scripture in order to maintain the wickedness of wine. The underlying doctrines of human ability and the authority of common sense resulted in the complete overthrow of the authority of Scripture.

Therefore, if the advocates of the exclusive 24-hour view were truly interested in attacking the roots of Liberalism, they should be demanding the use of wine in communion. The fact that they themselves frequently use grape juice in communion demonstrates that they are not actually interested in original intent-nor are they really interested in attacking the roots of Liberalism. Indeed, they are perfectly satisfied to continue a practice that had far more influence in preparing the laity for liberalism than the Day Age view ever had!

What, then is the motivation behind this recent growth of the exclusive 24-hour position? The PCA's 2000 study report on the creation days offered some insight into the reasons behind the increasing polarization in the Reformed churches over the length of the creation days. Among their suggestions:

Second, the Christian Reconstructionist community has heavily emphasized the doctrine of creation in general and the 24-hour Day view in particular as a test of orthodoxy. Their arguments have been widely read and are influential in PCA circles.

Third, the home-schooling curricula used by many in the PCA often come from a young-earth creationist perspective, with its attendant polemic against "non-literal" views. This has been influential in PCA homes and congregations.

Fourth, there is a conviction among many that Christians are engaged in "culture wars" for the very survival of the Christian heritage and worldview. Reformed Christians rightly agree that the doctrine of creation lies at the basis of the Christian worldview. Criticisms or questions about the calendar-day exegesis may be perceived as questioning the doctrine of creation itself. Calendar-day proponents are used to this coming from outside the church, but not from within and therefore have labeled the non-Calendar Day proponents as accommodating the secular culture. The mutual trading of accusations has certainly raised the temperature of the debate. [p2311-2312]

While there are significant exegetical, hermeneutical, and theological issues involved in the creation day debates, we should not forget that there are also cultural reasons for the present debate. Those who attack non-24-hour positions like to accuse us of selling out to modern science. Since they are so willing to see cultural factors behind our exegetical arguments, I trust that they will not object when we suggest that there might be cultural factors behind their exegetical arguments as well. In order to resolve this issue we must recognize the cultural as well as the exegetical and confessional factors involved and come together as the people of God. In our haste to remove the speck from our brother's eye, let us not whack him over the head with the beam that is in our own! (And those who reviewed early drafts of this essay will acknowledge that the author is not innocent of this.)

The solution to the debate over the creation days will not be found through any appeal to original intent. The church must ascertain from the Word of God what we must confess. If the issue is as important as some think, perhaps we should follow the example of the Synod of Dort and call an ecumenical synod from Reformed churches all over the world to spend several months examining the Scriptures. In the meantime, let us take the example of the Westminster Divines, who sought to live at peace with Reformed brethren who differed in non-essential things. If the imputation of the active obedience of Christ in justification was considered a non-essential matter, how much more the length of the creation days! Kyrie eleison

1. "The Westminster View of Creation Days: A Choice between Non-Ambiguity or Historical Revisionism" (Available at http://capo.org/creation.hmtl)

2. Alexander F. Mitchell, The Westminster Assembly, (Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1897) 154-160; William S. Barker, Puritan Profiles (Mentor, 1999), 158, 178.

3. See Cornelius Burgess, Baptismall Regeneration of Elect Infants, professed by the Church of England, according to Scriptures, the Primitiue Church, the present Reformed Churches, and many particular divines apart. 4to. pp. 347. (I. L. for Henry Curteyn: Oxford, 1629); an account of the different baptismal views among the Westminster Divines can be found in E. Brooks Holifield, The Covenant Sealed: The Development of Puritan Sacramental Theology in Old and New England, 1570-1720 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974).

4. Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation (Oxford University Press, 1996) IV. 204-205.

5. Robert Letham, "'In the Space of Six Days': the Days of Creation from Origen to the Westminster Assembly." Westminster Theological Journal 61 (1999) 171-172.

6. Calvin believed that the origins of the Creed went back to the "apostolic age"-and claimed was that "wherever it originated" it was received as a "public confession by the consent of all." (2.16.18). He knew quite well, however, that the final form did not come from the apostolic age, but that it developed over time, and that the phrase "descended into hell" was not in most early copies of the Creed, and "that it was inserted after a time, and did not become customary in the churches at once, but gradually" (2.16.8).

7. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, IV.ii; V.xxxi.

8. Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, II, 46, 49. The phrase appears in the official version of the Apostles' Creed of Venantius Fortunatus, ca. 570, who followed Rufinus's exposition of the Creed rather closely.

9. Calvin's view could not have been the original intent of the Creed, because the 4th-6th centuries (when the descent into hell was inserted) did not share Calvin's understanding of the substitutionary atonement (see any good history of doctrine for this--J.N.D Kelly's Early Christian Doctrines is probably the best).

10. From Samuel Miller's "Introductory Essay" to The Articles of the Synod of Dort (Sprinkle, 1993) 37.

11. Westminster Confession of Faith (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1997), p. 17.

12. See the Minutes of the Twenty-First General Assembly (1954), p.37-38, 46, where the authoritative text of the Confession of Faith was adopted. The original motion called it the "Westminster Confession of Faith," but the Assembly amended the motion so that they did not adopt the Westminster Confession of Faith, but "the Confession of Faith of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church."

13. From "The Responsibility of the Church in Our New Age" reprinted in D. G. Hart and John Muether, Fighting the Good Fight (Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1995) 205.

14. J. Gresham Machen, "The Creeds and Doctrinal Advance," in Scripture and Confession, (Philadelphia, 1968) 150.

15. Norman Shepherd, "Scripture and Confession," in Scripture and Confession, 30.

16. Leo Hirrell, Children of Wrath: New School Calvinism and Antebellum Reform (University of Kentucky, 1998) 121.

17. Ibid., 123.

18. This is available online at http://moa.umdl.umich.edu/moa_browse.html (go to Princeton Review, 1841, issues 2 and 4).