The Presbyterian Standards: An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms by Francis R. Beattie, Richmond, VA: The Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1896, 431 pp.
[While Francis R. Beattie (1848–1906) was at the time of publishing this book an ordained minister in the PCUS (Southern) and a professor at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, he was not originally a Southerner, but a Canadian. He was born in Canada, he earned degrees at the University of Toronto (B.A. 1875, M.A. 1876), and pastored a church in Brantford, Ontario before earning a Ph.D. at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington Illinois in 1884.]
[My copy of this book was previously owned by S. S. Gill of Hickory Withe, TN, a town settled by Presbyterians in the 1830s. S. S. (Sid) Gill (1829–1907) was a Presbyterian minister at the Hickory Withe and Macon churches from 1861 to 1905.]
Beattie begins with a history and defense of creeds in general, and then proceeds to his exposition of the Westminster Standards primarily focused on the Shorter Catechism. While he goes through the Shorter Catechism point-by-point, for brevity I’ll just note a few thing that stood out for me in this volume.
It is seen that Beattie was a moderate or low Calvinist. He opposes supralapsarianism (p. 64) and relishes the fact that the Standards never apply the term “predestined” or “reprobated” to the non-elect but only speak of them as being “foreordained to death.” (p. 66, 67, 71, 72) But while Beattie is correct that the Standards do not use the term “reprobate,” John Calvin often did. For example, Calvin wrote:
“Many professing a desire to defend the Deity from an invidious charge admit the doctrine of election, but deny that any one is reprobated. … Those, therefore, whom God passes by he reprobates, and that for no other cause but because he is pleased to exclude them from the inheritance which he predestines to his children. … Then how will those who refuse to admit that any are reprobated by God explain the following words of Christ? ‘Every plant which my heavenly Father has not planted shall be rooted up.'” – Calvin’s Institutes, Chapter 23.
Some comments Beattie makes on angels seem speculative. Without any argument, he notes, “It is likely that angelic beings exited prior to the material universe.” (p. 77) And he writes, “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.” (p. 79)
He opposes evolution. (p. 78, 81)) And notes that “There is little doubt that the framers of the Standards meant a literal day of twenty-four hours.” (p. 80)
Beattie points out an interesting difference in the use of language between the Catechisms and the Confession. He writes, “In the fulness of time this eternal Son became man, or took upon himself man’s nature. The former is the language of the Catechisms, and the latter is that of the Confession. In some respects the confessional statement seems to be the better one, although the meaning of the Catechisms is afterwards explained in almost the same sense. The eternal Son did not become man in the sense that he no longer retained his true deity.” (p. 126) I would tend to agree with him in preferring the confessional statement.
He argues that in the phrase “he descended into hell” in the Apostles’ Creed and alluded to in the Catechism, “hell” must mean “the invisible world of departed spirits” and thus “the meaning of the phrase is, that during the period between his death and his resurrection Christ’s human spirit, or soul, was in the region of departed disembodied souls in the unseen world, and at the same time his body was lying in the tomb.” (p. 164)
He believes that the “Standards teach what is now known as the post-millennial view of the time and purport of the second advent of Christ” in that “their teaching is, that he has ascended to the right hand of the Father where he shall remain till the end of the world, and that when he shall come again it shall be to judge the quick and the dead.” (p. 166) Today we would understand both postmillennialism and amillennialism as agreeing to that point. Beattie’s motivation is likely just to show the Standards’ opposition to pre-millennialism.
There is a very technical chapter on “Free Will and Ability” which goes beyond the simple exposition of the Catechism made in the rest of the volume. There Beattie makes an interesting distinction between “liberty” and “ability.” He writes, “Liberty is simple the power to choose or decide as the man desires or pleases. Ability is the power to choose this or that course, even though it may be contrary to the desires or dispositions of the man.” (p. 174) He explains, “An illustration may make the difference more fully understood. A wicked man constantly sins. In sinning he chooses freely to sin. He sins freely because he pleases to sin, and he has full liberty in that direction. It cannot be said that he sins under compulsion. But, on the other hand, he has no power to choose or prefer holiness. He has no ability to will that which is pure and good. Herein lies his inability. He has liberty in willing the evil, but he has no ability to will the good.” (p. 174-175) Beattie later notes of the “Calvinist theory” that “Man has liberty in regard to all the exercises of his will, but he has no ability to choose the right or holy.” (p. 181)
He is to be credited for providing definitions of the terms “receive” and “rest upon” as they are used in the Standards in explaining faith. He writes, “The word receive evidently relates to the acceptance of Christ at first unto justification of life. The phrase rest upon points to the abiding state and relation of the believer to Christ.” (p. 228) This seems to be a good definition of “rest upon” as it does not add any performative works to faith as some are wont to do.
Beattie does not make assurance essential to faith. He writes, “But this infallible assurance of grace and salvation is not the essence of faith. This simply mean that there may be true faith without assurance, and a true believer may wait long and contend with many difficulties before he is made partaker of it.” (p. 243)
Coming to the civil or judicial law, Beattie notes,
“God also gave to his people Israel, as a body politic, that is, as a civil or national institute, sundry judicial laws. … They were, so far as they did not involve strictly moral elements, positive in their nature, and not binding upon any other people, though many of these judicial laws have such marks of divine wisdom that they may well arrest the attention of modern legislators. But these laws, as well as the ceremonial laws mentioned in the previous paragraph, have expired. The former, so far as general equity may require, passed away with the Jewish commonwealth, and the latter have been fulfilled or abrogated in teh New Testament.” (p. 250)
This statement appears to me to be decidedly opposed to the Theonomy that became prominent in the second half of the twentieth century. I suspect a Theonomist will here tell me I don’t understand their position, but alas no one seems to understand their position(s). Regardless, Beattie evidences a 19th century Presbyterian who did not believe in the “abiding validity of the Old Testament civil law.”
Beattie seems to be a supporter of exclusive Psalmody, or at least sees it in the confession. He writes,
“Praise, in the form of singing of psalms with grace in the heart, is to have a place in worship. It is curious to note the fact that hymns are not mentioned by name at this point; but doubtless the scriptural terms, ‘psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,’ are properly included under the word psalms in the Standards. Still, it is well to give the psalms in some form of a prominent place in the service of praise in public worship.” (p. 262-263)
Beattie notes some interesting history of the Westminster Assembly:
“The statement is often made, that effusion or sprinkling, as against immersion, was made the doctrine of the Confession by a vote of only one. That is not he fact, as Mitchell’s excellent account of the debate, based upon the Minutes of the Assembly, clearly shows. The question debated by the Assembly was not effusion, as against immersion, but it was as to whether immersion should be acknowledged as a valid mode of baptism at all. At the close of the debate the result of the vote was that by a majority of one it was decided that immersion may be regarded as valid baptism, but that baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling, that is, by affusion.” (p. 309-310)
The volume does not make for a particularly easy or enjoyable read through, but should function as a good reference guide when reading on some particular topic in the Standards.