This article is about the background of the Westminster confession of faith. It also discusses the subscription to confessions and the purpose of confessions.

Source: The Presbyterian Banner, 2006. 3 pages.

The Westminster Confession of Faith

The Westminster Confession of Faith was prepared by an assembly of divines meeting at Westminster, England. This assembly of “learned, godly and judicious Divines” was called in 1643, by the English Parliament to provide advice on issues of worship, doctrine, government and discipline of the Church. They began their deliberations on July 1, 1643 in the Chapel of Henry VII, but because of the cold weather of winter approaching, were moved to the so called “Jerusalem Chamber” on October 2, 1643, and there they met until all their work was done. They sat in 1,163 numbered sessions until February 22, 1649.

Church historians agree that this was one of the most learned bodies ever assembled on this earth for the formulation and promulgation of Christian truth. These divines were the intellectual cream of the British Isles and they were carefully selected on the basis of learning and intellectual gifts. More than that, they were marked by a deep and genuine spirituality. For the full period of their labour, it was their practice to set aside one whole day of each month for prayer and fasting. They were men who were prepared intellectually and spiritually for their task, and this is seen in the thoroughness of their work.

There was a rule which they had laid down for themselves as a guide for their discussions:

What any man undertakes to prove as necessary, he shall make good out of the Scriptures.

Every Monday morning each member was required to take a vow, which was read to all the members: I do seriously promise and vow in the presence of Almighty God, that in this Assembly where I am a member, I will maintain nothing in point of doctrine, but what I believe to be most agreeable to the Word of God; nor in point of discipline, but what may make most for God’s glory and the peace and the good of His Church.

Although some of these men were brilliant contemporary philosophers, they never permitted one iota of human philosophy to influence their Confessional Statement.

Richard Baxter, a Puritan of no mean feat himself, and contemporary of the Westminster Divines wrote an evaluation in his autobiography, where he stated,

The Divines there congregated were men of eminent learning, godliness, ministerial abilities and fidelity; and not being worthy to be one of them myself, I may the more speak the truth; even in the face of malice and envy, that, as far as I am able to judge by the information of all history of that time, and by any other evidence left us, the Christian world, since the days of the Apostles, had never a Synod of more excellent divines (taken one thing with another) than this and the Synod of Dort.

In the opinion of B. B. Warfield, The Westminster Divines left to posterity not only the most thoroughly thought out statement ever penned, of the elements of evangelical religion, but also one which breathes the finest fragrance of spiritual religion. Their most influential work, The Shorter Catechism, was intended for an introduction to the Christian faith.

G. H. Clark adds, What in that day was a compendium for children, the Shorter Catechism, is today more than ample for a seminary graduate requesting ordination of presbytery.

The first Church to adopt the Confession was the Church of Scotland. On August 27, 1647, the General Assembly “found” the Confession “to be the most agreeable to the Word of God, and in nothing contrary to the received doctrine, worship, discipline and government of the Kirk” and declared:

The General Assembly doth, therefore, after mature deliberation Agree unto and Approve the said Confession as to the truth of the matter, (judging it to be most orthodox, and grounded upon the Word of God;) and also as to point of uniformity, agreeing for our part, that it be a common Confession of the faith of the three Kingdoms.

So the Westminster Confession of faith has served as the principal subordinate standard of the Church of Scotland and Presbyterian churches all over the world. Office bearers, particularly ministers and elders subscribe to it as the confession of their own faith. They profess loyalty to all its doctrines and vow to “assert, maintain and defend” them to their utmost ability.

But the situation has been changing over recent years. Some Presbyterian denominations have relaxed the terms of subscription. No longer is the subscription to the whole doctrines of the Confession asserted but only to such, as are seen to be essential and fundamental. There are Presbyterians who regard the Westminster Confession as a meaningless form to which lip service is paid at ordination.

There are some Christians who are opposed to any form or idea of a Confession of Faith. For them the Bible is their confession and the heart of their religion. One can understand their fear, because they are jealous of anything which might encroach on the authority of Scripture. But this is a misunderstanding of the purpose and need for the Confession. The Confession is always subordinate. The Scripture alone is always the supreme standard. This was a fact that the Westminster Divines strenuously defended. According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism SC2 “The Scripture of the Old and New Testaments is the only rule.” It is not a rule but the only rule. It is the only writing which has inherent canonical status. Westminster Confession 1:10 expressed it even more emphatically.

The supreme judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of Councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures.

It was never the intention of the Westminster Divines, or indeed the Reformers, that the Confession should usurp the place of Scripture or even to be placed on the same level with the word of God. The Confession was subordinate and not supreme. It was not inherently authoritative. It was not above revision. It was binding only in so far as it was biblical. The compilers of the Scots Confession of 1560 expressed it thus,

Protesting that if any man will note this in our Confession any article or sentence repugning [contrary] to God’s holy Word, that it would please him of his gentleness, and for Christian charity’s sake, to admonish us of the same in writing; and we of our honour and fidelity do promise unto him satisfaction from the mouth of God (that is from His holy Scripture) or else reformation of that which he shall prove to be amiss.

This does not mean, of course, that they would change or amend them to suit and satisfy every whim of man and any and every change of theological fashion but there was a readiness to modify if they could be shown to be unbiblical, in any particular.

The questions may be raised in our days. “Do we need the Westminster Confession of Faith?” How can a Confession compiled over three hundred years ago be of use to us today?” There are at least two reasons why we still need the Westminster Confession as our subordinate standard today.

  • Firstly it serves as a bond of union between Christians holding to a common faith. It underscores the doctrines they hold in common. Furthermore it commits them to offer help and support to each other in the defense and maintenance of these doctrines. Where these doctrines are intelligently and conscientiously accepted, it draws and holds together men who believe and are committed to the Christian faith as embodied in the Reformation and Augustinian tradition. They are united, not by some vague respect for Scripture but by a deep rooted commitment and adherence to its message.

  • Secondly the Confession is a standard. By this we do not mean that it is the standard by which an applicant for membership is received. It is rather the standard which applies to the candidates for ruling and teaching offices. It is a kind of theological norm by which the Church can be assured of the orthodoxy of her teachers and rulers. The Westminster Confession has never been imposed by any Presbyterian Church as a condition for church membership. The church has no right to impose anything as a condition for membership, that Christ has not made a condition for salvation.

Those who hold office and rule in the Church can only continue, in so far as they maintain and adhere to the doctrines contained in the Westminster Confession. After all we would not want any to be inducted into any of our congregations who doubted or denied such fundamentals as the Virgin Birth, the resurrection of Christ, the Trinity or the Divine Decrees.

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