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Westminster Shorter Catechism Project

The Presbyterian Standards

Francis R. Beattie




THIS chapter carries the exposition forward from the decrees to their execution, from the eternal purpose to its realization in time, from the all-comprehensive plan to its actual coming to pass. God executes his decrees, realizes his purpose, or carries out his plan in the works of creation and providence. At first glance, there may be some surprise felt that grace or redemption is not also mentioned here, but on looking into the Catechisms, and especially the Shorter, it will be found that the covenant of works is described as a special act of providence, which God exercised toward man in the estate in which he was created. In some respects it might have been better to have said that God executes his decrees in the works of creation, providence, and redemption, though the truths taught under this threefold arrangement would be substantially the same. In this exposition the twofold plan of the Standards will be followed, and it is at once entered on.

I. Creation is First Considered.

The Shorter Catechism states that God executes his decrees in the works of creation and providence. The Larger Catechism adds that this is done according to Godís infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will. The Confession in a formal way devotes a chapter to the subject of creation, and one to that of providence. The former of these is now to be noticed.

The fact of creation has reference to the origin of all finite existing things. There is a twofold distinction which it is necessary to keep in mind in this whole exposition. This is the distinction between what may be called primary and secondary creation. The former has reference to origin, strictly speaking; the latter to formation, or organization. That which relates to origin is real creation, and it consists in causing something to be where nothing was before; and that which pertains to formation relates to the organization of elements already existing into new forms.

Now the Standards, though they do not formally announce this distinction, do keep it in view in their various statements concerning the doctrine of creation. Perhaps it may be best to open up what the Standards say upon this subject by arranging their teaching under two general heads, the one dealing with the things created, and the other with the nature of the divine act in creating, so far as it can be understood.

1. The Finite Existing, Things which were Created. (a), The world, or cosmos, and all things therein, comes first. This includes the whole frame of the material universe, and not simply the earth, which is the abode of man. This also involves the origin of the primal elements which true creation brings into being, as well as new results which secondary creation produces in orderly form. The Confession says that things visible and invisible were created. The term visible no doubt relates to the material or substantial elements of the universe, and the word invisible was likely intended to denote the invisible forces with which the elements were endowed, and the orderly forms according to which they were arranged. Here, too, may properly be included all forms of life, no matter what view is taken of its nature. The term invisible might also embrace the souls of men and also the angels, but it is doubtful whether the framers of the Confession so intended. The main idea, no doubt, is that the whole cosmos of matter, force, and form was originated by the creative act of God. It is likely that angelic beings existed prior to the material universe.

(b), After God had brought into existence, either by primary or secondary creation, all other things, he created man as the crowning product of his hand upon this earth. He made the race to consist of male and female, and endowed them with living, reasonable, and immortal souls. This statement cannot be easily harmonized with the theory that man was, either as to his soul or body, slowly evolved by some purely natural process from some lower animal form. There is evidently a genetic difference between man and brute, according to the Standards. His body and his rational and immortal nature are alike due to the creative power of God, either directly or indirectly exercised. His body was formed of the dust of the ground, and God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and he thus became a living soul. Then the woman was made of the rib of the man, as the Larger Catechism, following the Scripture, states.

Further, man was created in the image or likeness of God. This image does not consist in mere bodily resemblance, but in spirituality of nature, and especially in knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness. Hence the likeness of man to God consists chiefly in possessing a mental, moral, and religious nature. As a result of this, man was created with the law of God written on his nature, which means that he was made, not merely in a state of negative innocence with no bent of disposition toward God, but that he was created with original righteousness as a positive possession of his nature. He was also created with ability to fulfil the moral law, and to render that service to God which was required of him. Perfect obedience to the law under which he was placed by virtue of his creation was possible, and manís fall into sin was by no means necessary. He was also endowed with free agency, or liberty of will, so that whatever he did was done freely and without compulsion of any kind, such freedom being necessary to moral responsibility. Then, having this moral freedom, and at the same time being finite and not confirmed in virtue, his will, and consequently his actions and moral disposition, was subject to change, and so man was liable to fall away from his state of obedience and rectitude.

The last thing mentioned in the Standards concerning man at this stage is that he had dominion over the creatures. This is what the Scriptures say, and it is in accordance with the well-known facts in the case. The Confession at this point hints at what is afterwards described as the covenant of life or works, but as this topic is referred to later on in the Confession, and is definitely treated of in the Catechisms at a subsequent stage, its consideration may be properly deferred at present.

(c), In the Larger Catechism special mention is made of the fact that God also created the angels, and that this was done by him before man was brought into being. Angels were created as spirits, immortal, holy, excelling in knowledge, of mighty power; and it is added that the purpose of their being is to execute the commands of God, and to praise his great and holy name. Like man, the angels possessed moral agency, which involves freedom, and were therefore subject to change. It may be properly added that the angels were not created a race, or species, as man was. Each angelic being was a separate creation, and each one that fell must have fallen personally, even as those that were confirmed in holiness must have experienced personal confirmation. This will be seen to be a very important fact when Godís covenants with man come to be considered. Race connection is a fact in the case of man, but it does not exist in that of the angels. This race connection is the ground of the covenant constitution between Adam and the human race. And the fact of the incarnation of the Son of God provides the basis for the covenant relation which subsists between Christ and his people.

2. The nature of the creative activity in general is now to be described.

This topic is, of course, inherently mysterious, so that all that need now be done is to mention some of the things which are stated in the Standards. What is here referred to is the nature of the genesis of finite dependent existence. It relates not merely to material substance and physical force, or even to forms of life, but also to the origin of spiritual substance, and the rational and moral endowment of responsible personal agents, such as men and angels. Here several items are to be noted.

(a), The divine creative act produced its result out of nothing. This does not mean that nothing was the something out of which the finite universe was made. This language merely lays stress upon the fact of a real origin, the genesis of something de novo. It simply means that something began to be where nothing existed before, even in elemental form. All speculative notions of matter being eternal, or of finite substance being part of the essence of deity, are set aside by the teaching of the Standards upon this subject.

(b), Next, the Standards teach that the world was made in the space of six days. Here secondary creation comes chiefly into view, and the way in which the result of primary creation in chaotic form was reduced to an orderly cosmic condition during a period of six days is described. It is not necessary to discuss at length the meaning of the term days here used. The term found in the Standards is precisely that which occurs in Scripture. Hence, if the word used in Scripture is not inconsistent with the idea of twenty-four hours, or that of a long period of time, the language of the Standards cannot be out of harmony with either idea. There is little doubt that the framers of the Standards meant a literal day of twenty-four hours, but the caution of the teaching on this point in simply reproducing Scripture is worthy of all praise. The door is open in the Standards for either interpretation, and the utmost care should be taken not to shut that door at the bidding of a scientific theory against either view.

(c), The agency by which creation was effected is said to have been the word of Godís power in the beginning. The Confession, with great scriptural accuracy, connects creative power and agency with each of the three persons of the Trinity. The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost are all concerned in the matter of creation. The order of execution here is what is usually found in the outward trinitarian operations. The Father creates through the Son and by the Holy Ghost. In other words, the three persons concur in all creative acts.

(d), The nature of the product of creation was all very good. It was without defect of any kind. This does not imply that everything had reached its goal of absolute perfection, but that everything was rightly fitted for its place and purpose. Physical disorder did not exist, nor did moral evil at first pertain to the results of the creative activity of God, so that it cannot be in any sense the product of divine origination. The purpose of creation, it need only be added, is the glory of Godís eternal power, wisdom and goodness. This is the high aim which the Standards always set for the creative acts of God, and in like manner for the activity of the creature.

Many inferences might be made from the teaching of the Standards regarding creation. It is clear that the universe had a beginning, even as to its elements, so that matter cannot be eternal. Spirit is prior in time to matter, and hence materialism in every form is excluded. The result of creation is the origin of something entirely new, and hence pantheism is rejected, as it also is by the fact of the personality of God. It is evident, too, that mere natural development cannot explain the origin and intelligible order of the universe; nor can it be maintained that man is the gradual product of organic evolution from some brute species. The reality of manís moral nature, and the validity of Godís moral government, are both clearly involved in the teaching of the Standards.

II. The Doctrine of Divine Providence. This is a subject of much importance and of great difficulty. Its treatment in the Standards is as complete and satisfactory a discussion of the subject as is to be found anywhere. The Shorter Catechism defines providence as Godís most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures and all their actions. The Larger Catechism expands the last clause by saying that God orders his creatures and all their actions to his own glory; and it also makes special allusion to Godís providence with respect to the angels. Both Catechisms suggest the two branches of the doctrine of providence which theologians usually discuss. These are known as ďPreservationĒ and ďGovernment.Ē The Confession, in its very complete statement of the doctrine of providence, does not so clearly announce this twofold division, although it virtually implies it. According to the Confession, God upholds, directs, disposes, and governs all creatures, actions, and things, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will. This is a very complete statement. The upholding of this passage is the preserving of the Catechisms; and the directing, disposing, and governing of which it speaks come naturally under the Catechism notion of government. These two heads of the doctrine are to be now explained.

1. Preservation is the First Branch of Providence.

God, who created all things, also continues to preserve the works of his hands. As to this fact, the Standards very plainly assert it, so that all deistical theories of Godís relation to his works are excluded. Blind chance does not rule in the universe, but a free and intelligent preservation, which is not of the nature of continuous creation, is exercised over all things by the same God who made them. God is immanent in all his works, as well as transcendent in relation to them. In him all things live, move, and have their being; and his tender mercies are over all his works.

This preserving and upholding extends to all Godís creatures, and to all their actions. Inanimate creation and all forms of organic life are not only upheld in being by him, but maintained in the exercise of all the powers which God may have given to each. All free moral agents, such as men and angels, are also preserved by Godís providence, and are thereby sustained, directed, and disposed, in accordance with the free, rational, moral nature which each possesses. And the same preservation pervades the sphere of grace, and by means of it believers and the church are securely preserved. Nothing is too great to be above divine direction, and nothing is too small to be beneath Godís preserving care. He numbers the sparrows as they fall, and counts the hairs on the heads of the children of men. God preserveth man and beast. This is a very important branch of the doctrine to keep in mind at the present day, when the tendency of certain modern types of science and philosophy is to put God as far as possible in the background of his works.

2. Government is the Other Branch of Providence. It is under this branch of the doctrine of divine providence that the chief difficulties lie. The contents of the Standards at this point must, therefore, be explained with some care. A bold mechanical philosophy assails the doctrine at this juncture, and some theologians are in danger of conceding too much to this philosophy. The following particulars are of value here.

(a), The nature of Godís government is first stated. The Standards affirm that it is holy, so that there can be no element of evil in it. It is also a wise government, for under it there is a wise adaptation of means to ends, of conditions to results, and of causes to effects. All this adaptation serves to bring to pass what God has ordained, so that all things happen under Godís hand, and not by chance. Further, it is a powerful government, so that whatsoever God pleases comes to pass under his almighty hand.

(b), The ground or basis of this government is next to be stated. It rests upon Godís infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his will. God sees the end from the beginning, and he is able, therefore, to govern all things with certainty and wisdom. In the fact of the divine foreknowledge certainty is provided for, inasmuch as future events can only be known as certain by assuming that they are under the ordaining government of a wise and powerful God. Hence, if God foreknows all things, it is because he has ordained all things, and is effectively governing all that comes to pass.

(c), Then the end of the government which God exercises over his creatures and all their actions is his own glory. The Confession says that it is for the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy. This is a very suggestive statement, and it emphasizes the fact again that the glory of God is his chief end in the works of creation, providence, and redemption. For the manifestation of his glory he created the universe; in governing it he continues to manifest his glory; and in redeeming those who are the heirs of everlasting life he specially shows forth his glory.

(d), The mode of the divine government is also exhibited in a variety of connections in the Confession. The chief particulars are now set down in order.

Though, as has been seen in connection with the foreknowledge and ordination of God, all things that come to pass happen certainly, or, as the Confession says, immutably and infallibly, yet the same providence which, in the form of divine government, brings these things to pass with absolute certainty, also causes them to happen in harmony with the nature and powers of the things, creatures, or actions concerned. Hence, second causes, with their dependent and constituted efficiency, are called into play. These second causes operate under Godís hand, and according to their several natures and original endowments. Hence, in the sphere of physical nature these causes operate according to the law of necessity, and the divine government is exercised in harmony therewith. In the case where one event is conditioned upon another, as, for example, the rising of the sun with the revolution of the earth upon its axis, or the saving of the shipís crew with Paul in the shipwreck if they remained on board, the event, though certain, is yet relatively contingent; but the government of God in the case extends to both the condition and the result.

In the case of the actions of free moral agents, their actions, as events, happen or come to pass in conformity with the laws of the nature of such agents. Hence, while all volitions and acts of free agents are, as a matter of fact, certain, though not necessary, yet Godís providential government extends over all the acts of free agents. From the divine side they are certain, because God governs them, and from the side of the free agent their production is consciously free.

Secondly, In thus governing, God usually uses means in his ordinary providential procedure, yet he is not so bound by such means as to be compelled always to resort to their use. As an absolute sovereign, he is free to work without, above, or against means at his pleasure. This allows a proper place for the introduction and operation of the extraordinary or supernatural activities of God in any sphere of his providential government. This statement of the Standards provides a place for special divine revelation, for the miracle, for answer to prayer, and for the experiences of divine grace in the soul. Hence, God is not bound by the order of nature which he has constituted, but is free to intervene, and in any way deemed proper to modify that order by his providential government. This is the secure philosophical basis of the supernatural activities of God. Thirdly, Godís providential government in respect to sin is also to be explained. Here there is a profound mystery in regard to which the Standards speak with remarkable caution. The Confession says that the power, wisdom, and goodness of God are so manifested in providence that they extend themselves to the first fall of man, and also to all other sins of men and angels. This is a plain assertion that even sinful and sinning moral agents are under the providential government of God. As to the mode of this government, the Confession teaches, negatively, that it is not a bare permission by which God has simply allowed sin to come into his domain. He does permit sin in the sense that he neither produces nor hinders it; but he also bounds the operations of sin by his wise and powerful providence, and he so orders and governs the sinful acts of moral agents that they are made to minister to his own holy ends. Thus, positively, God by his providential government permits and yet so controls sin, that the sinfulness always pertains to the creature and proceeds from him, and never from God, who cannot be the author or approver of sin.

Fourthly, The relation of the government of God to his church and people deserves brief remark. In a special sense God takes care of his church, and by his providence disposes all things for its good and his own glory. In regard to his people the Confession teaches that God may leave them to manifold temptations, and to the evil of their own hearts, for some wise and gracious end. This may be partly to chastise them for their former sins, or to reveal to them the evil and deceit of their own hearts, or partly to humble his children, and so lead them to walk more closely with God, and to cause them to exercise dependence and watchfulness, that they may not fall again into sin. In this connection the solution of many of the perplexing problems of religious experience may be found. It is the paternal discipline of the Father scourging every son whom he receiveth.

Fifthly, The effects of Godís providential government upon wicked and ungodly men is alluded to in a comprehensive and important section of the Confession. In respect to such men God is a righteous judge, and his government in their case is judicial. As punishment for former sins, God may blind the mind and harden the heart of the sinful moral agent. He may also withhold grace, and withdraw gifts, for all grace and every gift depends upon his good pleasure. The result of this procedure is to expose them more than ever to the evil of their own hearts, to the temptations of the world, and to the power of Satan. The consequence is that they harden themselves more and more. Even the same conditions which, with grace and divine favor, would soften and sanctify the heart, will produce hardening when grace is withheld and Godís judicial displeasure incurred. This is a solemn fact set forth in the Scriptures, and often sadly confirmed by the experience of men.

Sixthly, A single brief paragraph remains to be added in regard to what the Larger Catechism says about Godís providence in reference to the angels. Under his inscrutable providence, God permitted some of the angels to fall wilfully and irrecoverably into sin, and so to come under condemnation. Yet even their sin he limits and orders for his own glory. The rest of the angels he has been pleased to establish in holiness, and he also employs them at his pleasure in carrying forward his purposes of power, mercy and justice. His angels do his pleasure, and are ministering spirits to the heirs of salvation.

This concludes what the Standards teach in reference to the great topics of creation and providence. In the Catechism, as already mentioned, the sad fact of the fall of man into sin and guilt, and in a sense the whole economy of redemption, is construed under the scope of providence. But the Confession does not so strictly follow this arrangement. The next chapter proceeds to explain the first covenant constitution made with man.

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