One could postulate a number of reasons for preferring the American revision of the Westminster Confession of Faith to the unrevised version, or vice versa. Some of these reasons will be plausible, and some will be–ahem–less so.
An example of the latter is found in the Whiggish chronological snobbery in the “Advertisement” to the bowdlerized American edition of Robert Shaw’s commentary on the Confession. There the authors note that “[a] literal reprint would not have suited the circumstances of the Presbyterian Church in this country, and hence certain liberties have been taken with the original” (8). Fair enough. Where are these liberties taken? One would be correct to guess that they mostly have to do with Shaw’s exposition of the original WCF on the role of the magistrate, with which he agrees.
The Committee of Publication assures us that no “exceptions have been taken to what may be termed the strictly theological views of the author” (ibid.). But, “in reference to the right of the civil magistrate to interpose in the government of the church” (ibid.), the original could not stand.
Why? “The Westminster Divines had so far imbibed the spirit of the age in which they lived, as to obscure their views of the true independence of the Church, although they had made great advances towards the right doctrine 1 on this subject” (ibid.).
When Shaw’s book was brought to the United States, then, “those features relating to the civil magistracy were modified to suit the genius of our republican principles” (8-9).
Leaving aside the question of whether the original’s teaching is or could be harmonious with “republican principles,” whether ours or someone else’s, I’d like to focus on the language used to refer to the work of the Divines. They had, it is said, “imbibed the spirit of the age” to such an extent that their views had been “obscured.” These poor men were captive to the Zeitgeist.
Let us assume that this is true, argumenti causa. Could the members of the Committee of Publication be so sure that they were not subject to some zeitgeistisch tippling of their own? “Progress,” after all, is a cruel mistress.
E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.
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