The Whole Counsel of God: Courageous Calvinism for a New Century

W. Robert Godfrey’s Inaugural Address as President of Westminster Seminary in California, October 1, 1993

Dr. Carson, members of the Board of Trustees, fellow faculty members, administrators and staff of the Seminary. students, distinguished guests and delegates, family and my good friends. It is a privilege for me to be here and have this opportunity to meet with you on this special day for me and, I hope. special day in the life of the Seminary. I want to thank you all for coming and giving me this opportunity to speak about what President Bush called “the vision thing.”

What is our vision for the Seminary as we move forward building on the foundation laid above all by our Lord, but also laid by my very able predecessors. It is a special joy for me to have here in California, close at hand, three presidential predecessors. That might intimidate some, but it is a testimony to our collegiality here, that it is only a blessing. Founding president, Edmund Clowney is here with us, also Robert den Dulk and Robert Strimple. It is a great encouragement to me as I take up this office to know that they are here to help, to support and to encourage. It is also an encouragement for me to know that the faculty, having observed my strong support for administrators over the years, will support me in my new tasks.

So, I turn to this question of what vision should guide us and direct us as we continue to labor here for the Lord. Someone asked me, “What is your vision for the Seminary?” My initial response was that I hoped not to be the last president of Westminster in California. But as I continue to think about our vision, my hope is that Westminster Seminary might be an instrument in the hand of the Lord to renew the church through a renewal of historic Calvinism.

We as a Seminary are the inheritors of a marvelous tradition: the apologetic tradition of Cornelius Van Til, the biblical-theological tradition of Geerhardus Vos, the militant stance for the fundamentals of the faith in a Reformed church of J. Gresham Machen, the scholarship and Reformed orthodoxy of old Princeton Seminary, the evangelizing, Reformed revivalism of the Great Awakening, the confessional and experiential Calvinism of the Puritanism of the Westminster Assembly, the tradition of John Calvin and the Reformation, the tradition of Augustine and true Catholicity. What a heritage is ours. How much we have inherited from those who have gone before.

We recognize, however, that those heroic days of the past have come to more difficult times today. Certainly in terms of Calvinism, our numbers, our influence and our fervor are much diminished in 1993. I was reminded of this by an essay John Updike wrote on New England churches as he thought about those beautiful, white Congregational churches on village greens. He wrote, “Joy and aspiration have shaped these churches, but a certain melancholy may fill them. Puritanism faded into Unitarianism and thence to stoic agnosticism; these gallant old shells hold more memories than promises.”1 Has our movement come to hold more memories than promises? That is the great issue, it seems to me, before us today. My passion and my concern is that we be committed to the notion that Calvinism holds more promises than memories, as rich and glorious as those memories are.

I have taken as the title of my address tonight, “The Whole Counsel of God,” thinking of the motto that Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia adopted early in its history, words taken from Acts 20:27. This motto is part of the emblem of the Seminary, a pulpit with an open Bible and a sword laying on top of that Bible testifying to our conviction that the written word and the preached word are indeed the sword of the Spirit for the well-being ofthe church. It is in that spirit, then, of commitment to the whole counsel of God that I ask that you think with me about the character of courageous Calvinism for a new century. What do we need? Where do we need to be going? What is the truth of God that we must embrace and teach?




My first point would be that we need a comprehensive Calvinism. You notice how Paul talked about the “whole counsel of God”; that he did not “shrink from declaring to them that whole counsel of God”; that he did not hold back from them “anything that was profitable” (Acts 20:20). Paul spoke very much in the spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ who sent out His disciples in the Great Commission to go and teach “all things that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). The Scripture is clear and our Calvinistic heritage is clear that we are committed to all that the Lord has revealed in His Word. We seek no shrunken religion. We seek no minimalist doctrine. We seek the fulness of what the Lord has revealed to us. We stand with Jeremiah as the Lord spoke to him: “Thus says the Lord, ‘Stand in the court of the Lord’s house, and speak to all the cities of Judah, who have come to worship in the Lord’s house, all the words that I have commanded you to speak to them. Do not omit a word’” (Jeremiah 26:2). The task that is committed to us is to speak the whole counsel of God, all that God has revealed. For that reason we have a theological seminary, to study that Word and to grow in that Word.

Our growth is founded on and rooted upon our commitment to the Word and its inerrant authority. We embrace the Word in the spirit of John Calvin who said: “A soul, therefore, when deprived of the Word of God, is given up unarmed to the devil for destruction.”2 Our conviction is that the Word must be our sword and our defense. The Word is what we need and that to which we are committed.

John Calvin, commenting on Jeremiah 42:5,6, said, “If we desire to prove our fidelity to God, the only way of acting is, to regard his Word as binding, whether it be agreeable or otherwise, and never to murmur, as the ungodly do; for when God would have a yoke laid on them, they complain that his doctrine is too hard and burdensome. Away, then, with all those things which can render God’s Word unacceptable to us, if we desire to give sure proof of our fidelity.”3 We accept the Word of God in its fulness. We are committed to it, both where it is pleasing to us and where it pinches us. Because of our sins and our ignorance we must have the Word of God to correct us. And that means that we stand committed to a full Biblical theology.

Some of us talked earlier today about Dr. J. Gresham Machen’s views about Christian doctrine and its importance. We remember the deep conviction of Dr. Machen that “Christian life is the fruit of Christian doctrine, not its root, and Christian experience must be tested by the Bible, not the Bible by Christian experience.”4 We are committed to this notion that the Word judges us; we do not judge the Word. The Word directs us; we do not direct the Word.

Because of our commitment to the Word, we are committed to the notion of the importance of theology. We are committed to the idea that theology is a reflection on the Word and an effort on the part of human beings to summarize that Word. We are convinced that theology is a useful, necessary discipline for appropriating the Scriptures for us. Evelyn Waugh, the British novelist, gave one of the best definitions of theology I know after his journey to Ethiopia to the coronation of the emperor Haile Selassie. After observing the extreme mystery of the rituals of the Ethiopian Coptic Church, he rejoiced in a theology that makes clear what God’s ways are. He wrote, “I saw theology as the science of simplification by which nebulous and elusive ideas are formalized and made intelligible and exact.”5 The “science of simplification”—how seldom theology has been seen that way, but how true that is. Theology should make clear God’s will and God’s way as He has expressed them in His Word. And we here at Westminster are committed to the full theology of the confessions to which we have subscribed: the Westminster Confession, the Belgic Confession, the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort. We accept these rich theological documents because we believe the Word of God is rich. We accept these full theological documents because we believe the Scriptures are full. It is on this great theological foundation that we take our stand. On this basis we believe that our Seminary must go forward to educate those who would be ministers of the Word.

Now some have said this approach is too intellectualized. Some fear this means that only theologians have a role in the church. Perhaps in the tradition of our Reformed churches, there has been some danger of that. But it is not inherent in our tradition. We are not saying that theology is all there is to Christianity. But we are saying that theology must shape life. There must be life, but it must be shaped and directed by the Word of God.

Still, our Reformed heritage says that we do have more than theology. We have also piety; we have worship; we have loving service to the Lord. All of these elements of Calvinism also flow out of the teachings of Scripture.

We celebrate this year the 350th anniversary of the seating of the Westminster Assembly, naturally precious to Westminster Seminary. We need to remember that the Westminster Assembly gave us not only a Confession of Faith as the summary of our doctrine, but the Westminster Assembly gave us also catechisms to teach that faith. It gave us a directory of worship to guide our meeting with God. It gave us a form of government to help in the organization of the church, and it gave us a Psalter to voice our praise to God. As we seek a comprehensive Calvinism, we must be sure that we have not shrunk it just to theology—however full our theology might be. We need not only a Reformed theology but also a Reformed piety, a Reformed worship, a Reformed service in this world. We must be renewed in the fulness of a Reformed life flowing out of a Reformed theology. Our life must follow a pattern of Bible study and prayer, of word and sacrament, of self-denial and active love, and, let me say, of Sabbath and of Psalm. We have seen a great decline in Reformed piety, in Reformed life, and I would suggest that decline is tied intimately to our loss of Sabbath and of Psalm. Too many of us have lost a day of rest and worship and study and reflection and have lost the Psalms which put steel in our souls. (You will have a chance to get that steel back when we sing Psalm 68 later this evening, the great Psalm sung by the Huguenots in the face of their persecutors.) We need to recapture that fulness of Calvinistic experience as well as Calvinistic theology.

We need the courage to be comprehensive in our Calvinism. We need to avoid the danger of minimalism and of shallowness that pervades Christianity today. As David Wells has so powerfully put it in his new book, No Place For Truth: “We laugh at those who think theology is important, and then are shocked to find in our midst the superficial and unbelieving.”6 We need a comprehensive Calvinism, and that takes courage in our time.


We need also a consistent Calvinism. We need Calvinism that grows out of its own inherent genius, a Calvinism that shows a coherence in its life, ministry and message. We need Calvinism, therefore, that at every point and in every way seeks to ask how do we build organically on the insights into Scripture that our forbearers have given us. As Calvinists, we want to avoid a kind of eclecticism that goes through the religious world gathering tidbits here and there and in an artificial way tries to connect them to the Reformed heritage that we have inherited. We want to be consistent in our Calvinism. We want every aspect of our lives, our piety, our worship to flow out of those Reformed convictions that we confess in our theology.

That consistency will not always be easy to achieve. The consistent answer will not always be obvious. But that should be our goal, that should be our determination—to allow the Scripture to guide us in all areas of life. It should guide our evangelism; it should guide our church planting; it should guide our worship. John Calvin said of worship, “…there is nothing more perilous to our salvation than a preposterous and perverse worship of God.”7 God calls upon us in every area of our life to ask how we can live consistently for Him.

We need to be consistent in our training of ministers. How can we train ministers consistent with our Calvinism? Wells says that the dominant conception of what a minister must be in our time is that he be one who has good interpersonal skills, who has an open and affirming style, who, in summary, is a good friend.8 Now, a good friend is a precious thing. But a faithful minister who preaches God’s Word is better. Certainly a faithful minister is what we need in the pulpit. Wells warns us about contemporary, evangelical ministry: “Office disappears in profession, believing in doing, thought in ‘personality’. And so, once again the wheel has come full circle. The image of the pastor that dominated Protestant Liberalism has returned to dominate Protestant evangelicalism.”9 May it not be so with us. May we as an institution be committed to a consistent Calvinism that recognizes. above all else, that our calling is to educate those entrusted to us, to know the Word, to love the Word and to be able to teach. communicate and preach the Word. We do not want an accommodating or eclectic Calvinism. We want a consistent Calvinism.

Now, in calling for a consistent Calvinism. we are not saying that there is nothing to learn from others. We need to resist our all too present Reformed tendencies to be smug and self-satisfied. We need to listen to brothers and sisters of other traditions. We need to weigh what they would say to us. We need clearly to recognize the reality of genuine Christianity in other traditions that can speak to us and can help us. But if we are committed, as Westminster Seminary is, to the fact that historic confessional Calvinism is the fullest and most faithful form of Biblical teaching, then we must evaluate what we are hearing from other traditions by that root of faith from which we seek to grow and to be sure that we are being consistent Calvinists. We need courage then, to be consistent Calvinists.


Thirdly, I would say that we need to be Christocentric Calvinists. Now there will be some, no doubt, who will think that this should have been my first point and not my third. Such a contention could well be argued, although I would say that in my notion of a comprehensive theology, Christ will be central. But I think a Christocentric Calvinism must be underscored because in all things Jesus Christ must be central for the Christian. As Paul proclaimed in Ephesus the whole counsel of God, so he also especially taught repentance and faith (Acts 20:21). He especially taught “the gospel of the grace of God” and “the word of grace that builds up” (Acts 20:24,32). In that comprehensive and consistent Calvinism to which we aspire we must always remember that Christ must be at the center. Christ’s atoning work on the cross; Christ’s glorious victory over sin and death in His resurrection; Christ our great prophet, priest and king; Christ our Lord through the Holy Spirit. Christ is at the very heart and center of our life, of our faith, of our study, of our preaching. And so, we must always and again renew ourselves in that central commitment to Jesus Christ.

On this point I must plead as a church historian, the concern of John Calvin, that we restore the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper to a more central place in our piety because the sacrament so basically draws us back to the very body and blood of Christ where we have our redemption. We need Christ at the center of our theology, of our piety, of our worship, of our service. When we make Christ central, I believe it will help us in the other decisions we have to make about a consistent Calvinism. When Christ is at the center, priorities become much dearer. We can distinguish more important and less important doctrines from one another. We can distinguish doctrines more certain and less certain. Above all else, we will be filled with a humility in the broader community of Christian churches as we do seek to learn from one another and as we seek to live together in love with one another, cooperating wherever possible with fellow Christians. Our goal must be Christocentric Calvinism that gives us an intense sense of spiritual union with all of those who are truly in Christ by faith.

Christocentric Calvinism will help us to avoid the danger of a Reformed sectarianism that would say we alone are Christians; we alone have the truth. We need the courage then to be Christocentric in our Calvinism.


Fourthly, I would say that we need a committed Calvinism. You notice how Paul in Acts 20 talks about not holding his own life dear but doing all that he can to accomplish the course (v. 29); how he came to them in all lowliness of mind and with tears, to communicate the grace of God (vs. 19); how he was content among them; how Paul lived a committed life among his people. Perhaps of all the dangers besetting us—the danger not to have a comprehensive Calvinism, the danger not to have a consistent Calvinism, the danger not to have a Christocentric Calvinism—the greatest danger before us is that we might not have a committed Calvinism. That commitment was well expressed in a statement of one of the founding documents of Princeton and preserved in the Westminster By-Laws: the Seminary is committed “to develop in those who shall aspire to the ministerial office, both that piety of heart which is the fruit of the renewing and sanctifying grace of God, and solid learning, believing that zeal without knowledge or knowledge without zeal must ultimately prove injurious to the Church…” Many traditions have a lot of zeal and not much learning. But our besetting danger today is that we have great learning and not much zeal. Our great danger is that we have become comfortable Calvinist that life has become easy for us and we are contented with that ease. Long one are the days when someone like King Charles II could observe “Presbyterianism is no religion for gentlemen.”10 Those Scottish Presbyterians of whom King Charles spoke were anything but gentlemen.

They did not compromise for king or noblemen. They were committed in the spirit of John Knox of whom the regent Morton said at his grave: “Here lies one who never feared any flesh.”11

Do we still exhibit an appropriate lack of gentlemanliness, or have we fit in all too well? I was reading in the New York Review of Books an article on religion in which Elizabeth Hardwick said: “The Calvinists, in the natural waning of the impractical notions of Election and Predestination, are today a mild and reasonable denomination, recessive in the manner of other traditional Protestant churches.”12 Has it really come to that? Are we just mild and recessive? I am afraid that it may have come to that. It may have come to what William Butler Yates in his famous poem, “The Second Coming,” wrote:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

Where is our passionate intensity, assuming for the moment that we are closer to being the best than the worst? Where is our zeal? Where is our commitment? Where is our conviction that the comprehensive, consistent, Christocentric Calvinism that we teach is in fact what the Word of God teaches and what the world needs? Where is our passion? It has not died out all together. We have examples in the twentieth century to inspire us. We have the zealous Calvinism of Korea, one of the great missionary successes of the twentieth century. We have the zealous Calvinism of the the people in Nigeria where there are more people in church every Sunday, by far, than there are members of the church because they so carefully guard membership in the church. When I think of commitment, I also think of a great Scottish Presbyterian missionary, Mary Slessor, who went to a part of Nigeria early in this century. As a woman alone she journeyed into the jungle because the men were afraid to go, and she went to the most dangerous of tribes to take the gospel of Christ. She said, “I am ready to go anywhere, provided it be forward.”13

Do we have that commitment, do we have that zeal, do we have that passion? If we do not have it in the church, then it must come in the first place from ministers who are entrusted by God with a sacred office to lead, to direct, to guide the congregation of God’s people. John Calvin spoke so eloquently about the central role of the ministry, He wrote: “…he (God) uses the ministry of men to declare openly his will to us by mouth, as a sort of delegated work, not by transferring to them his right and honor, but only that through their mouths he may do his own work just as a workman uses a tool to do his work…For neither the light or the heat of the sun, nor food and drink, are so necessary to nourish and sustain the present life as the apostolic and pastoral office is necessary to preserve the church on earth.”14 That is Calvin’s vision of the central work of the ministry, to be the tool by which God speaks to His people. If there is no passion about such work in the ministry, then how can there be among the people?

We especially in the seminary must be recommitted to the goal of training not only comprehensive and consistent an Christocentric Calvinists but training committed, passionate Calvinists. Dr. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism wrote: “Christian education is the chief business of the hour for every earnest Christian man.”15 We need Christian education. Dr. Machen said it starts in the family. It goes on through the schools, and it culminates in the seminary so that ministers can teach the people of God the truths of God. David Wells wrote, “Now, the great preponderance of faculty, even in evangelical seminaries, think little of theology, work little with it, and shrug off its importance in their own field…The unifying center, therefore, is no longer theological truth, but what ever it is that the student needs in order to become a religious professional.”16 We do not want to turn out religious professionals from Westminster Seminary. We want to turn out those who know the Scripture, who know the historic theological heritage of Christianity and are committed to teaching that in this world.

I am convinced that in rejecting the idea of religious professionalism, we must all embrace the ideal of being missionaries. We must be missionaries who may be working in a culture that we may not fully understand and that will surely not understand us, but with the commitment of missionaries who are willing to leave even family and home to teach the Word of God. We must be missionaries in the spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ who, as we read in John 6, sought to make disciples by turning away those who would not hear the truth, and preaching the theological truth of the kingdom with disturbing clarity until He whittled a crowd of five thousand down to twelve and said even to them, “Will you also leave me?” How different is that from the discipling work of Simon Magus (Acts 8) who used all the tricks and splendor of the world to gather a great crowd around him. But that was all he gathered: a great crowd of disciples for himself. How much better to have a few disciples of Jesus Christ than many disciples of this world.

So, if we are to be committed Calvinists, we need to be committed to our heritage, to the Word of God’s truth, to “hold fast the confession of our faith without wavering” (Hebrews 10:23), to heed the Word of God spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “Now, gird up your loins, and arise and speak: to them all which I have commanded you. Do not be dismayed before them, lest I dismay you before them” (Jeremiah 1:11). It is not the world that we need to fear; it is the Lord, if we are faithless.

We must learn to pray for that commitment. We have said so often that our Korean brothers are such an example to us in prayer. We need fervent prayer as a foundation to our commitment. Again, Jeremiah, (29:11ff): “For I know the plans that I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then, you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. And you will seek me and find me, when you search for me with all your heart.” Are we whole-hearted Calvinists? Do we single-mindedly seek the Lord and His will and His blessing and His service?

Now, all of this is a big undertaking, especially, as a small and not too significant seminary, to seek to develop comprehensive, consistent, Christocentric, committed Calvinists. But I thought of the words of Robert Frost in the poem of his entitled “Reluctance.” In the last stanza, he writes,

Ah, when to the heart of man Was it ever less than a treason To go with the drift of things, To yield with a grace to reason, And bow and accept the end of a love and a season?17

Are we traitors to our cause, accepting the end of a love and a season? Or, do we go on, faithful to the Lord, trusting in Him, in His good timing, in His good purposes?

Ninety-five years ago, Abraham Kuyper came to America to give the Stone Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary. The last lecture was entitled, “The Future of Calvinism.” Kuyper did not speak as a prophet, but he spoke to encourage God’s people to think about the future. He thought the future of Christianity was in Asia. (He was not such a bad prophet, perhaps!) But he said, at the end of that lecture on Calvinism and the future:

And if you retort, half mockingly, am I really naive enough to expect from certain Calvinistic studies a reversal in the Christian world view, then be the following my answer: The quickening of life does not come from men: it is the prerogative of God, and it is due to His sovereign will alone, whether or not the tide of religious life rise high in one century and run to a low ebb in the next…Unless God send forth His Spirit, there will be no turn, and fearfully rapid will be the descent of the waters. But do you remember the Aeolian Harp, which men were wont to place outside their encasement, that the breeze might wake its music into life. Until the wind blew, the harp remained silent, while, again even though the wind arose, if the harp did not lie in readiness, a rustling of the breeze might be heard, but not a single note of ethereal music delighted the ear. Now, let Calvinism be nothing but such in an Aeolian Harp,—absolutely powerless, as it is, without the quickening Spirit of God—still we feel it our God-given duty to keep our harp, its strings tuned aright, ready in the window of God’s Holy Zion, awaiting the breath of the Spirit.18

Our responsibility is not to produce great success in our own strength. Our responsibility is to be faithful and thereby to be instruments that God may use just as He will. Our great concern should not be our success or our will, but our great concern should be God’s will and God’s success. And as Calvinists, our confidence will be that God will accomplish His purpose. He will not be thwarted. And we can go forward in the marvelous words of Jonathan as he went out almost single-handed against the army of Philistines: “Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf. Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few” (I Samuel 14:6). Perhaps the Lord will act for us, but we know that the Lord will save according to His good purpose whether by many or by few. May we as a Seminary embrace the whole counsel of God and in embracing it, become courageous Calvinists for a new century. May God bless us by His Spirit to that great end as we seek Him with all our hearts.

Thank you very much.


1. John Updike, “New England Churches,” Hugging the Shore, New York (Vintage), 1984, p. 66.

2. John Calvin, “Reply to Sadoleto,” A Reformation Debate, ed. John C. Olin, New York (Harper), 1966, p. 78.

3. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Prophet Jeremiah and the Lamentations, Grand Rapids, Michigan (Baker), 1979, vol. IV, p. 484.

4. Westminster Theological Seminary Catalogue 1929–1930, p. 17.

5. Evelyn Waugh, “Ethiopian Empire,” Remote People, New York (Ecco), 1990, p. 68,

6. David Wells, No Place for Truth, Grand Rapids, Michigan (Eeromans), 1993, p. 247.

7. Calvin, “Reply to Sadoleto,” p. 59.

8. Wells, op. cit., pp. 232–4.

9. Ibid., p. 237

10. Cited in Elizabeth Hardwick, “Church Going,” New York Review of Books, Aug. 18, 1988, p. 15. The statement of King Charles was originally recorded in Gilbert Burnet, Bishop Burnet’s History of His Own Time, London (Thomas Ward), 1724, Vol. I, Book 2, p. 107.

11. W. Stanrord Reid, Trumpeter of God, New York (Scribner), 1974, p. 283.

12. Hardwick, loc. cit., p. 15.

13. W.P. Livingstone, Mary Slessor, Westwood, New Jersey (Barbour), 1986, p. 56.

14. Calvin, Institutes, IV, iii 1 and 2.

15. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, Grand Rapids, Michigan (Eerdmans), 1946, p. 177.

16. Wells, op. cit., p. 243.

17. Robert Frost, “Reluctance,” Complete Poems of Robert Frost, New York (Holt, Rinehart and Winston), 1964, p. 43.

18. Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, Grand Rapids, Michigan (Eerdmans), 1931, p.199.

Dr. Godfrey, president of Westminster Seminary in California, is also a contributing editor of this publication, The Outlook.

Editors’ note: Westminster Seminary in California has recently developed a Testimony to Our Times which is included as an insert in this issue of The Outlook.