A brief history of the Westminster Confession of Faith
George Santayana aptly stated; “[t]hose who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.”
As 21st century Christians many of us know nothing of the historical roots of the Church. We pride ourselves in contemporary living. Credence seems to be given to fresh ideas. It is out with the old and in with the new. Modern Christendom is mimicking what it sees in the world round about it. Innovation is preferred to in-depth study of God’s Word. Popular culture is shaping how we worship instead of an understanding of how our forefathers in the faith lived out their faith in obedience. How often we forget the importance of history; friends we must return to know, love and understand that the testimony of the Lord Jesus Christ has determined the course of history. Indeed, it has shaped the freedoms afforded our western societies. From the very beginning of creation to the final day in history, all has been preordained by the sovereign will of the Triune God of the Bible. Everything is working and has in history to the glory of God, whether we understand why or how, or not. In discounting the history of the Church modern Christians rob their faith of much richness and fullness and diminish it to mere doctrinal statements. Remember, the Bible is not merely a textbook of theological assertions. It is the story of the history of man, his fall and salvation unto working upon the earth -tending it and taking dominion over it - for the glory of God. The Bible’s theology and doctrine are of utmost importance but we must also acknowledge the impetus of the historical stories which run through the pages of Scripture. Friends, we must become a people who keep telling the “old, old story.” Our theology needs to burst from our fingertips. Henry Van Til aptly surmised the efforts of the Reformers; “[t]hrough the Reformation the mechanical relation of nature and grace was superseded by an ethical one, so that the restoration of the law of God in every sphere of life became the concern of the believer.” Through this introduction to the Westminster Confession I will seek to tell you the story surrounding the formation of the Westminster Assembly and the development of its confession. We must learn to love the stories of antiquity which make up the rich heritage of the Church of Jesus Christ; that Church which has continuously grown since the Garden of Eden and the promise of Genesis 3:15.
The Historical Setting
Obviously, the confession did not drop out of heaven, it is not inspired. It is rather the secondary or subordinate standard of our Church, under the inspired Scriptures of the Old and New Covenants. It summarises what our Church believes the Bible teaches on many important theological issues and therefore forms the preaching and teaching standard of our Church. But are we to view the confession as unchangeable, totally inerrant. No, but it is a very good piece of theological work. Hopefully, you will have a better appreciation for this document if I lay before you some history surrounding its formulation. In order to understand the Westminster Confession of Faith, we must understand the Westminster Assembly. To understand the Assembly we must understand the Puritan revolution which took place in England in the 17th century. To understand the Puritan revolution we must back up a century. I won’t do this “Infinitum!” but will go back to King Henry the 8th of England.
Henry the 8th
I am sure you are all aware that Henry the 8th was no true champion of Reformed theology. If you can’t recall anything of Henry the 8th from your history lessons you probably remember the Hermans Hermits song; “I’m Henry the Eight I Am!” Now, this is the man we will spend a few minutes with. In 1521, 120 years prior to the Westminster Assembly, Henry wrote a treatise against Martin Luther, which the Roman Catholic Pope endorsed and thus honoured Henry. Nevertheless in 1534, 13 years later, when the Pope would not sanction the proposed divorce from Katherine of Arragon from which Henry sought to marry Anne Boleyn; Henry declared himself to be the “Protector and Supreme Head of the Church and Clergy of England.”3 Therefore, this brought a political break with Roman Catholicism but most definitely not a theological one. The political separation of England to the religion of Rome did not bring about liberation for the Church to operate under the auspice of her own court but rather transferred authority over the Church from a foreign Roman Pope to the domestic King. Now, the name of the theological system when the King is head of and controls the Church is called Erastianism. This system of ecclesiastical governance denies the Biblical authority of any Church court under the direct authority of the Church. The state rules the Church. So, we find Henry the 8th breaking from Rome primarily for his own purposes, that to take control of the Church to allow himself to commit adultery.
Henry’s son, Edward the 6th, came to the throne in 1547. Under Edward the 6th Calvinistic leaders in the Church and university effectively introduced reformed theology into England. Henry passes succession to John Dudley’s (1st Duke of Northumberland) daughter in law Lady Jane Grey, a Godly woman, who was only enthroned for 9 days as this her ascension contradicted the Act of Succession.4 Therefore, in 1552 Mary Tudor came to the throne. She is the English Queen more commonly known as “Bloody Mary”. This name was earned through her persecution of the Reformed people and clergy in order to bring England back under the tyranny of Catholicism. Her very first act as Queen was “to repeal the Protestant legislation of her brother, Edward VI, hurling England into a phase of religious persecution. Her major goal was the re-establishment of Catholicism in England,...to which she was totally committed.”5 In fact in 1890 Bishop J.C. Ryle wrote of Mary that; “[s]he was, in fact, a very Papist of Papists, conscientious, zealous, bigoted, and narrow-minded in the extreme. She began at once to...restore Popery in its worst and most offensive forms. Step by step she and her councillors marched back to Rome, trampling down one by one every obstacle.”6 In 1555, a mere two years after she ascended the towns of England were ablaze and the blood of martyrs flowed thick and fast. According to Soames History of the Reformation7 the number of Protestants burnt at the stake by Bloody Mary were: 71 in 1555, 89 in 1556, 88 in 1557 and in the year of her death (1558) there were 40. It must be noted that out of these 288 murdered people; “one was an archbishop, four were bishops, twenty-one were clergymen, fifty-five were women, and four were children.”8 Thus allegiance to the Pope was restored by Mary through persecuting and burning every form of Reformed, Biblical opposition from within or without the Church.
History is ordained by God to His glory and the building up of the Church of Christ. On the 16th October 1555 as the fire was lit at the feet of the faithful Bishop Ridley his companion and good friend, bound to the stake next to him, Bishop Hugh Latimer uttered these astonishing words; “BE OF GOOD COMFORT, MASTER RIDLEY, AND PLAY THE MAN; WE SHALL THIS DAY LIGHT SUCH A CANDLE. BY GOD’S GRACE, IN ENGLAND, AS I TRUST SHALL NEVER BE PUT OUT.”9 Friends we need to pause here and take that in. Our freedom, liberty, prosperity, Reformed heritage and blessings of living within a Nation whose Constitution is based on the Law of God was all built upon such sacrifice and faith in God even to the point of persecution and death. Next time you sit in the comfort of your home and open the Bible in English, or when you walk the dog in peace, or when you go to work without persecution, or each Sunday and Wednesday when you attend our Church REMEMBER THE COST OF SUCH LIBERTY. It was bought with the pain and blood of many of our forefathers in the Reformed faith.
Bloody Mary’s half-sister, Elizabeth, who was the daughter of Henry the 8th and Anne Boleyn, ascended the throne as Queen of England in 1558. She disliked both the Papists, for they denied her legitimacy and the Calvinists because they criticised her Episcopacy! However, Elizabeth favoured Protestantism with a hierarchical/Episcopalian form of Church government. For political expediency and efficiency, she returned Protestantism back to the Church of England; with a more Episcopalian liturgy and Church government. In 1562, during Elizabeth’s reign, the 39 Articles were formed as the doctrinal standards of the Church of England. These articles were drawn up from the original 42 Articles written by Archbishop Cranmer and Bishop Ridley in 1551.10 The 39 Articles are principally Calvinistic in their outlook, regarding soteriology or doctrine of salvation.
Mary Queen of Scots is beheaded and the Divine Right of James I
Elizabeth’s cousin was Mary Queen of Scots, not to be confused with Mary Tudor, the Bloody one. Mary Queen of Scots was a Papist who unsuccessfully thwarted the Reformation of the Scottish Church, lead by John Knox (and others). A year before the English defeat of the Spanish Armada, during the Spanish and therefore Roman Catholic threat to England11, Elizabeth had Mary executed in Scotland. Now, this explains a great deal of the tension between the Scottish and English! Mary’s son, James the 6th of Scotland came to the throne of the United Kingdoms in 1603 at the death of Elizabeth. James took on the title of James the 1st when he became the Monarch of the United Kingdoms. King James the 1st is known for his authorisation of the King James Bible in 1611. James held to the divine rights of Kings and insisted that the Episcopalian structure of Church government was correct and essential for the security of his royal authority. His famous saying was “no Bishop no King.”12 Thus arguing that if you don’t have hierarchy in the Church how can you expect people to respect the hierarchy in the state; so even as the state has a king so the Church must have a Bishop. Therefore, he opposed the Puritans for their views of Church government and he tried to enforce an Episcopalian Church structure upon Scotland. King James also despised the Puritans for their desire to further rid England of the Papacy and their strict Sabbath-keeping views13. William Hetherington summarised the King’s assertions well. The people “should be indulged in such recreations as dancing, archery, leaping, May-games,…morrice-dances, setting up of May-poles, and such like amusements. That the people should meditate on their religious duties, and prepare to practice the instructions given them in God’s Word, did not seem to his majesty at all a desirable matter…[why; because t]hinking men cannot be slaves…Religious men must think, and think solemnly and loftily; therefore, to prevent this, religion must give place to giddy mirth, and God’s hallowed day must be profaned by every kind of idle recreation.”14 Throughout the reign of James the 1st there was tension between the English Parliament and the King; especially regarding the foreign policies of entangled favours to Roman Catholic countries.
Charles 1st battles the Parliament and Puritans
In 1625 James died and his son Charles the 1st assumed the monarch over the United Kingdoms. Charles the 1st becomes a central player in the Puritan revolution. Charles was worse than his father, believing himself above the law he declared that he was incapable of error. He appointed William Laud, a man who favoured Roman Catholicism and hated Calvinism, as Archbishop of Canterbury. Laud bitterly persecuted the Puritans, some of which emigrated to America to escape the persecution. Many in the English Parliament sympathised with the Puritan body in the Church and opposed Charles’ dance with Popery; especially after his marriage to Henrietta the daughter of the French King who was a zealous Papist. In 1629 Charles dared to proclaim the removal of the Parliament and ruled without it until 1640.15 For 11 years the Parliament was dissolved by an edict of the King. Charles the 1st’s unpopularity intensified through two infamous courts; the civil court called the Star Chamber and the other an ecclesiastical court called the High Commission. In these days it became clear that the issue of Royal absolutism had to be fought on both civil and ecclesiastical sides. Hetherington gives an example of the cruelty and persecution of this time when he tells of Alexander Leighton who “was condemned to have his ears cut off, and his nose slit, to be branded on the cheek, to stand in that condition in the pillory, and then to be cast into prison till he should pay a fine utterly beyond his means, – a sentence equivalent to perpetual imprisonment….[a]nd great numbers were reduced to entire destitution, because they dared to write or speak against Laud’s popish ceremonies, or against the prelatic system of Church government. Numbers forsook the country.”16
Thus, in the Puritan Revolution the Puritans fought the ecclesiastical absolutism of a hierarchical Rome and the Parliament, sympathetic to the Puritans, fought civil absolutism. The Puritans fought to be freed from unbridled power for men within the Church and the Parliament sought to free the Kingdom from the unbridled power of the King. The reform of English civil liberty of necessity went hand in hand with ecclesiastical liberty and reform. In 21st century Australia it is very difficult to appreciate that situation. We think what happens in the Church and what happens in the state are totally separate, different ball games. In that day what happened in the Church and State cross-pollinated each other and if there was going to be liberty it was going to have to be both ecclesiastical and civil. Under the guidance of John Knox the Church in Scotland began to be governed by representative groups of men called Presbyteries; these courts exercised a spiritual jurisdiction which was totally independent of the civil magistrate. This is what Knox accomplished in Scotland; he essentially installed Presbyterianism which allowed for representative courts of Presbyteries to rule the Church. These courts were separate from civil rule. But in 1637 Charles the 1st of England tried to impose, without any warning, an Episcopalian Church structure and new prayer book upon the Church of Scotland. As the story goes, this led Jennie Geddes to throw her milking stool at the Bishop in the Edinburgh Church!17 The Scots would not accept the ecclesiastical tyranny of the king. The prayer book had strong links to Rome; and Episcopacy was what Knox had been vehemently fighting. The whole of Scotland; nobility, most of the middle class and all of the ministers; united to defend their religious liberty and protect their Presbyterian form of Church government and liturgy. “All of Scotland was prompted by the intrusions of Charles to sign a "National Covenant" (1638), an oath [to death] to maintain the cause of their religious liberty and Presbyterian polity. When the General Assembly of the Scottish Church met in November, Charles ordered it to disband; instead, led by Alexander Henderson, the Scottish church repudiated episcopacy altogether. Scotland prepared to resist the military campaign threatened by Charles.”18 The king raised an army to forcefully subdue the Scots and in 1639 the English Civil War or Puritan Revolution broke out between England and Scotland. However, the king “shrunk from the perilous encounter, and framed an evasive truce. This abortive attempt exhausted his treasury, and compelled, him reluctantly to [reconvene] a Parliament,”19 which met in 1640. Now the king did not call the parliament for any other purpose than the noble intent to procure funds to continue the fight with Scotland. The only way the King could increase his treasury without resistance from the English people was to have the parliament go along with him. Remember that the parliament has not met in 11 years. Well this assembly met for nearly a month; thus it is known as the “short Parliament” in history! The Parliament refused to prostrate itself before the royal prerogative and promised only to address the king’s demands once he redress their grievances. This enraged Charles, he dissolved Parliament at once and extracted the necessary funding through civil tyranny.20 After a strategic loss to the Scottish Charles calls the Parliament to reconvene in November of 1640. The House of Commons, or Parliament, was now determined to take the government of England into its own hands. Parliament impeached and then imprisoned the heads of the Star Chamber and High Commission; and abolished those tyrannical institutions! Those who were responsible for religious persecution were imprisoned and their authority dismantled. In May 1641 the Long Parliament passed an “Act providing that it should be dissolved only at its own consent;…[at the same time the majority of the House] subscribed a bond binding them to persevere in the defense of their liberties and of the Protestant religion.”21 A committee of the Parliament drew up a remonstrance consisting of 206 articles “to draw out of all the grievances of the nation such a remonstrance as might be a faithful and lively representation to his majesty of the deplorable state of the kingdom."22 Before the king was given right of return answer this remonstrance was printed and dispersed across the kingdom. Thus the “Parliament fairly took their ground, threw themselves and their cause upon the principle and intelligence of the kingdom, and thenceforward the struggle was one between the sovereign and the nation.”23
Charles was utterly exasperated. So much so that after his failed attempt to impeach five leading men of the Parliament the King himself went to Parliament with armed men to seize the five. What a fascinating scene in history. The King seeks to roll up his sleeves and take things into his own hands and when he is in the Speaker’s seat he knows his plans were uncovered. The people protected the five Parliamentarians and the King’s unconstitutional and violent attempt to assert his authority was aborted. Both sides, the nation and the monarch proceeded with an arms race, raising troops and artillery against each other. In 1642 the king had to flee London and the civil war erupted.24 “Anglicans and Romanists sided with the king, while most in the parliamentary party were aligned with the Puritans (whether of Presbyterian or separatist variety).”25
The calling of the Westminster Assembly
It was in this context and amidst this conflict with the King that the Parliament called the Westminster Assembly. In 1643 Parliament finally loosed England of the shackles of official Roman Episcopalianism, through passing “‘[a]n Act for the utter abolishing and taking away of all archbishops, bishops, their chancellors and commissaries’…ordaining, that after the 5th of November 1648, there shall be no archbishop, etc., including the whole array of dignitaries and cathedral functionaries, and that all their titles, jurisdictions, and offices, ‘shall cease, determine, and become absolutely void…"26 The Commons and Lords enacted a bill to authorise “121 of the most godly and theologically astute men of England (called "divines") to assemble on July 1 at Westminster Abbey for the stated purpose to advise Parliament on the reformation of the liturgy, discipline and government of the church of England, as well as the vindication and clarification of its doctrine. (It should be noted that the assembly was in no way a court of the church, being entirely a creation of the Parliament and having no independent power.) Now, during the course of that same summer of 1643, the Parliamentary army suffered devastating setbacks, and it became urgent for Parliament to secure the assistance of Scotland in the war against the King's forces. The English Parliament thus entered into an alliance with the Scottish rebels, known as ‘The Solemn League and Covenant.’ Its terms called for an endeavor to bring the religion of England, Scotland and Ireland into uniformity, the ‘preservation’ of Reformed doctrine, worship, and government in Scotland, and the ‘reformation’ of the English church ‘according to the word of God and the example of the best reformed churches.’ This meant the recognition of presbyterianism as the proper form of church government throughout the realm.”27
The Parliamentary army reorganised after some initial defeats and structured the “New Model” under Oliver Cromwell in 1644 and in late spring of that year King Charles the 1st surrendered. This did not solve all the political and ecclesiastical problems and governance; fractions appeared within the Parliament. The Presbyterians wished to allow the king to return with a monarch that had limited authority and the Reformed faith and ecclesiastical government for the Church of England. On the other hand the Separatists wanted nothing further to do with the King and wanted an independent or what we term a congregational form of Church government, with full civil tolerance for it. The Presbyterians had the majority support with the London citizens and within the Parliament; however the powerful Cromwell led the Separatist army to evict 11 Presbyterian leaders from the House of Commons. The people of London protested, which led Cromwell and the army to march upon and seize the city.
King Charles the 1st immediately took advantage of the situation and negotiated support from the Scots through promising to recognise Presbyterianism. In April 1648 the King again went to war and Scottish insurgence came across the border into England. Cromwell easily defeated the King and his uprising by August; and now took political matters into his own hands. “In December, 1648, Cromwell excluded 143 Presbyterians from the House of Commons by military force (‘Pride's Purge’), leaving a ‘Rump Parliament’ (of about 60 members) who then followed his wishes and abolished the monarchy. Charles was tried for treason and, in January, 1649, was beheaded. In the ensuing reorganization of the state as a ‘Commonwealth’ Cromwell dismissed the House of Lords and, when the ‘Rump Parliament’ exasperated him, in 1653 he marched troops into it to disperse its members.”28 The very atrocity that the Separatists were so vehemently opposed was enforced by themselves. Cromwell established a virtual dictatorship with himself as the "Lord Protector" for life, with this office being hereditary. Sadly we now see England coming 360 degrees from a tyrannical Episcopalian structured Monarch to an absolutist independency under the Lord Protector. Scotland recognized Charles the 2nd, the son of the executed King, as king of Scotland. Ireland revolted against Cromwell, who barbarically butchered the rebels. He also routed the Scottish army, who marched upon England, and thus forced Charles the 2nd to flee to Europe.29 Upon his death in 1658, Cromwell was succeeded by his son, but the vast majority of Englishmen were now weary of the harsh Protectorate. A mere two years later a newly elected Parliament restored the monarchy in 1660, declaring Prince Charles the 2nd of Scotland (who was in exile in Europe) to be King of England. “Anglicanism (episcopacy) became the established religion of England. The ‘Act of Uniformity’ (1662) required all ministers to assent to the exclusive use of the Book of Common Prayer, repudiate the National Covenant, and be deprived of their positions if not ordained by an Episcopal priest. (Some 2,000 Presbyterians refused and lost their vocations.) Even worse, on his deathbed (1685), King Charles II formally professed the Roman Catholic faith and was succeeded on the English throne by his Roman Catholic brother, James II.”30
The Westminster Assembly
These were the times surrounding the convening of the Westminster Assembly in 1643. So understanding its historical setting identifies that the Assembly and its work was the high water mark of the English endeavor towards a Protestant Reformation.
The convening of such an Assembly can be attributed to the brilliance of the Scot Alexander Henderson. As part of a peace commission to London in 1641 he wrote a paper suggesting the great advantage of; “one Confession of Faith, one form of Catechism, one Directory for all the parts of the public worship of God, and for prayer, preaching, administration of sacraments…and one form of Church government, in all the Churches of his majesty’s dominions.”31 Thus is 1642 the Parliament passed a bill to call leading godly men, called divines, to assemble and work on uniting the Church governance across the Kingdoms. However, King Charles the 1st refused the bill five times. Thus the sixth bill was “read in the Commons as an ordinance…and agreed to by the Lords…[and] was put into effect without the King’s assent.”32 So the Assembly was to convene upon the summons of Parliament.
An important historical fact that must be understood is the major reason for the convening of the Divines. It was “‘for the calling of an Assembly of learned and godly Divines, and others, to be consulted with by Parliament, for the settling of the Government and Liturgy of the Church of England…secondary in importance [were] its labors [to] be directed also to [the reformation] of the doctrine of the...Church from false aspersions and interpretations.’”33 An honest effort was made to include men of all shades of Church government opinion in the Assembly. The original list of invitees included 10 Lords, 20 commoners as lay members, and 121 Divines. Episcopalians (like Brownrigg and Ussher), Presbyterians (like Twisse and Reynolds), Independents (like Godwin and Nye) and Erastians (like Lightfoot) were all summoned to participate and after the signing of the Solemn League and Covenant 8 commissioners from Scotland were included. These Scots included Henderson, Baillie, Rutherford, and Gillespie; it must be noted that these commissioners could debate but had no formal vote in the decisions.34 The Assembly convened on July 1, 1643 in the Henry VII Chapel of Westminster Abbey. However, the ensuing autumn weather drove the Assembly to the more comfortable Jerusalem Chamber, which became their regular meeting place. The Assembly engaged many hours of corporate prayer for their deliberations, often praying together for hours upon end. The average number of attendants were 60 to eighty men, the majority being Presbyterians after the withdrawal of the Episcopalians upon the signing of the Solemn League and Covenant.35 The first task of the Assembly was the revision of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England. Once the 15th article had been completed the Solemn League and Covenant was signed, so on the 12th October 1643 the Assembly was re-directed to compose “a Confession of Faith for the three Kingdoms, according to the Solemn League and Covenant”36 which would achieve; “‘the vindicating and clearing of the doctrine of the Church of England from all false aspirations and misconstructions.”37 This new formulation and summary of theology and doctrine became the Westminster Confession of Faith, presented to the Parliament without Scripture proof texts on December 3, 1646 and with texts on April 29, 1647. The Assembly completed its studious work on February 22, 1649 after 1,163 sessions. The Assembly then became a committee who continued to hold meetings for the trial and examination of ministers until March 1652 when Oliver Cromwell forcefully dissolved the Parliament from which the Assembly obtained its authority. The Assembly dissolved without any formal dissolution.38
The chronological order of works completed by the Assembly were:
1.Directory for Ordination (finished April, 1644)
2.Propositions Concerning Church Government (autumn, 1644)
3.Practical Directory for Church Government (July, 1645)
4.Directory for the Public Worship of God (1645)
5.The Confession of Faith (December, 1646)
6.The Larger Catechism (October, 1647)
7.The Shorter Catechism (November, 1647)39
Finally, there is a majestic and glorious irony in the formation of the Westminster Assembly. The Assembly was called to resolve the dispute over Church government. They were called to solve the tyrannical Episcopalianism favored by the King. The Assembly committed hours of debate and work to this issue. The grand defense of the Biblical Presbyterian form of ecclesiastical government against the Episcopalians and Separatists was astonishing and it would be expected to be the work for which the Assembly was most renowned for. Instead of being remembered for its works concerning Presbyterian Church Government the historical jewel of the Assembly was its masterful doctrinal confession of the Reformed faith. The Westminster Confession of Faith has been the source of systematically teaching and understanding the Word of God for more than 350 years now. The grand irony was that the Westminster Assembly was devoted to religious and ecclesiastical reform; however it never had any ecclesiastical authority! The Reformed community is forever indebted to men who did not succumb to the popular culture of tyrannical rule of a king. They gave unto God what is God’s and sought to uphold the Word of God against civil absolutism. May we never, never forget their sacrifice and diligence. May we be encouraged to study the Scriptures as these men did and never give unto Caesar that which is God’s. It is important to know what authority the family, Church and state have been afforded by the Word of God. Further than that, we must be willing to uphold what the Bible teaches to the point of death. If not we will pass on a tyranny of absolutism to our children and grandchildren. Christianity is about death and resurrection. No other worldview leads from death to resurrection. Christianity does. The triumphant march of the gospel through history is firmly established upon the death/blood of our forefathers in the faith. Only through death does new life come. That is the story of Christianity. Peoples and nations are discipled through God’s people dying to themselves, taking up their cross and working to take every thought captive to Christ. This is the Biblical pattern of growth. The once tiny mustard seed sized kingdom is ever expanding. The kingdom growth is cyclical. It is patterned after the first born from the dead…the death then resurrection pattern. Our time in history may seem strange. What we must remember is life (i.e. new growth) follows death.