The Westminster Confession of Faith is one of the most important Protestant confessions, for it gave substantial definition to Reformed theology in the seventeenth century. It is often compared to similar confessions of faith, such as the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Scots Confession, and the Thirty-Nine Articles.
There was an internal debate as to where to begin a study of Reformed theology: with the doctrine of God or with the doctrine of Scripture. It is significant that the Westminster divines began their confessional statement with sacred Scripture. They were concerned about two principles. One, which is at the very heart of Christianity, is the concept of divine revelation. Christianity is a revealed religion, constructed not on the basis of speculative philosophy but in response to what God Himself has made manifest. Second is the principle of sola Scriptura, developed by the Reformers. It acknowledges that the final authority in all matters of theology and in all controversies of faith and life is not the decrees or traditions of the church but sacred Scripture itself. The Westminster Confession affirms the central importance and sufficiency of Scripture—a Reformational concept.
- Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing: which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.
The first sentence distinguishes between the divine revelation that is sufficient for salvation and the divine revelation that is not sufficient for salvation. The light of nature refers to Paul’s teaching about general revelation (Rom. 1). Classic Reformed theology distinguishes between general (or natural) revelation and special revelation.
God’s general revelation is His revelation of Himself principally through nature and also through history, through the ministry of His providence to His people, and through His works of creation. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1). Paul teaches that all men, by nature, know something of the existence, character, power, and deity of God, because God so clearly manifests Himself in general revelation (Rom. 1:18–20).
God’s general revelation can be either “immediate” or “mediate.” Immediate means “direct, without any medium or intervening agency.” Paul talks about God’s revealing His law inwardly through the human heart, so that every person is born with a conscience (Rom. 2:14–15). God plants a sense of Himself immediately in the soul of His creatures. John Calvin calls this the sensus divinitatis, “the sense of the divine.” As fallen creatures, we suppress the knowledge of right and wrong that God plants within us. But try as we may, we can never extinguish it. It is still present in the soul. That is immediate general revelation.