At the annual meeting of the editors of The Standard Bearer held this past June, it was determined that the subject content of this rubric would be the Westminster Confession.
It might well be asked: why consider the Westminster Confession, when it is not one of the creeds of the Protestant Reformed Churches? There were no specific grounds given for the decision; but permit me to suggest some possible reasons for our considering of this creed.
First of all, we might consider this creed together because we are finding on the membership rolls of our churches, in ever increasing numbers, those who are of English or Scottish background, whose ancestors adhered to the standards created by the Westminster Assembly. We note, for example, that all of the members of our congregation in Houston, Texas are of English parentage. And we shall see more of this as we seek to fulfill our God-given mandate of mission work.
But also, generally speaking, it is good that we consider the Westminster Confession. The Westminster Assembly played an important part in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ. Often we find ourselves, rather selfishly, interested only in that which directly affects us. But it is good to know how the Church of the past in other areas of the world contended for the faith once delivered. This is a part of the healthy, spiritual interest the members of the Body of Christ have in and for other members of that beloved Body. Also, because there is nothing new under the sun, it might be helpful for us, in our personal and denominational contending for the faith, to know how other members of the Church of Christ contended for that faith.
Finally, it is good for us to consider the Westminster Confession because of our contact with the Orthodox Presbyterian Churches of New Zealand, which churches have the. Westminster Standards as their creedal basis. That we might know their positions of faith it is incumbent upon us to examine carefully this creed.
In this rubric it is our plan to consider this creed article by article in order to learn the contents and orthodoxy of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Since many of our readers probably do not have a copy of the Westminster Confession, I will quote each article at the beginning of our study of it. Please do not overlook these quotations, but pay close attention, especially to the Confession itself.
We are compelled to consider first the historical background of this creed. We will do this only briefly. Those desirous of more information will find interesting reading in the following: The Westminster Assembly And Its Work by Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield; Philip Schaff’s The Creeds of Christendom, vol. I; the introduction of The Reformed Faith by Rev. Robert Shaw; and the introduction of A Commentary of the Confession Of Faith by A. A. Hodge.
As was the case in the early church when emperors called the great ecumenical councils together, so was the progress of the Reformation to a great extent determined by the political maneuvering taking place in each country.
The form which Protestantism took in England was determined by the peculiar course the Reformation movement began in. that country. For about nine centuries Britain had been dominated by the Roman Catholic Church, which in turn was dominated by much idolatry and superstition and worldliness on the part of many of its clergy. The authority of the Word of God was subjected to the authority of the Church and especially to that of the Pope.
Under Henry VIII England separated itself from the bondage of Rome, only to enter an ecclesiastical despotism of the king; “The purpose which Henry VIII set before himself was to free the State from foreign influences exerted by the Pope through the Church; and his efforts were directed, with great singleness of aim, to the establishment of his own authority in ecclesiastical matters to the exclusion of that of the Pope” (p. 4, Warfield). So the same tyranny and basically the same errors remained though under a different name.
But the cause of God would not be stopped by a king who imagined vain things. Increasingly, the influences of the Reformation were felt in England, and that especially among the laity, though definitely not excluding the clergy. There was a renewed interest in the Scriptures which in turn made plain to many the errors existing within the State Church. Louder and louder grew the cries for reform. This reforming movement was viewed by the throne and by the hierarchy of the church as a grave threat.
In the providence of God this caused a shift in the controversy from a contest between the Pope and King to a contest between the King and Parliament: “The authority in ecclesiastical matters,” which the King now assumed, “was increasingly employed to establish the general authority of the throne over against the Parliament.” “The interests of civil liberty soon rendered it imperative to break the absolutism of the King in ecclesiastical affairs as it had ever been to eliminate the papacy from the control of the English Church” (pp. 4, 5, Warfield).
At the same time that the cause of the King was becoming ever more allied with the Bishops of the church, “the cause of Puritanism, that is of Protestantism, became ever more identical with that of the Parliament” (p. 5, Warfield). For a large part of the 17th century the Parliament was able to hold the upper hand.
As Parliament slowly broke down the walls of prelacy, it sought to provide a positive constitution of the church (1640-1642). “It was recognized from the beginning that for this positive legislation the advice of approved divines would be requisite” (p. 10, Warfield). The result was that the Westminster Assembly was organized as a subcommittee of the political power, not as a gathering of the church by the church. As the Synod of Dordt in the Netherlands, the Westminster Assembly was called into session by the State.
B. B. Warfield gives the prime purpose of the Assembly, partially in the words of Parliament’s ordinance, as being “‘to consult and advice’ with Parliament, as it may be required to do, in the Parliament’s efforts to substitute for the existing prelatical government of the Church, such a government ‘as may be most agreeable to Cod’s holy word, and most apt to procure and preserve the peace of the Church at home, and nearer agreement with the Church of Scotland, and other Reformed Churches abroad'” (p. 13, Warfield). That the Assembly was conscious of the authority of Parliament is evidenced in the title it gave to its completed work: “The Humble Advice of the Assembly of Divine, now by authority of Parliament sitting at Westminster, concerning a Confession of Faith, presented by them lately to both Houses of Parliament.” However, the Assembly was “perfectly free in its deliberations and conclusions. The limitation of its discussions to topics committed to it by Parliament, moreover, proved no grievance, in the face of the very broad commitments which were ultimately made to it.” (pp. 16, 17, Warfield).
The Assembly was duly constituted in the Abbey of Westminster on July 1, 1643 and that in defiance to a prohibitive proclamation of the king. It met for 1163 regular sessions until February 22, 1649. Its existence continued thereafter, but on a very irregular basis until March 25, 1652. The actual work of “formulating the Confession of Faith was begun in Committee as early as the midsummer of 1644 (August 20). But it was not until the following spring (April 25, 1645) that any of it came before the Assembly; and not until the next midsummer (July 7, 1645)” that the debates upon it in the Assembly began. Time and pains were lavishly expended-on it as the work slowly progressed. By the middle of 1646 the whole was substantially finished in first-draft, and the review of it begun.” (pp. 59, 60, Warfield).
As far as the composition of the Assembly is concerned, Parliament appointed two ministers from each English county’ and one from each Welsh county. Present was also a commission from Scotland of six ministers which played a very good and important role in the work of the Assembly. Parliament also sent letters of .invitation to the colonial churches in America and directed the Assembly to address letters to the Belgic, French, and other Reformed churches. Favorable replies were received, especially from Holland, Switzerland, and the Huguenot church in Paris. Schaaf also notes that “the framers of the Confession were no doubt quite familiar with Continental theology; Latin was then still the theological language; the Arminian controversy had excited the greatest attention in England, and agitated the pulpit and the press for years; the English Church was well represented at the Synod of Dordt; several divines of the Assembly had spent some time in, Holland, where they found a hospitable refuge from persecution under Charles I, and were treated with great respect by the Dutch ministers and divines.” (pp. 760, 761, P. Schaff).
Both Warfield and Schaff express themselves on the character of the doctrine embodied in the Westminster Confession. Schaff says that “the Westminster Confession sets forth the Calvinistic system in its scholastic maturity after it had passed through the sharp conflict with Arminianism in Holland, and as it had shaped itself in the minds of Scotch Presbyterians and English Puritans during their conflict with High-Church prelacy” (p. 760). Warfield states that there was fundamental harmony among the delegates doctrinally. “There were indeed differences among them in doctrine, too; but these lay for the most part within the recognized limits of the Reformed system . . . .To the Amyraldians, . . . there was denied, to be sure, the right to . . . make room for their ‘hypothetical universalism’ in the saving work of Christ (cf. the Confession, iii.6, viii.58). But the wise plan was adopted with respect to the points of difference between the Supralapsarians, who were represented by a number of the ablest thinkers in the Assembly, and the Infralapsarians, to which party the great mass of the members adhered, to set down in the Confession only what was common ground to both, leaving the whole region which was in dispute between them entirely untouched. This procedure gives to the Confession a peculiar comprehensiveness, while yet it permits to its statements of the generic doctrine of the Reformed Churches a directness, a definiteness, a crisp precision, and an unambiguous clarity which are attained by few Confessional documents of any age or creed” (p. 56, Warfield).
For our examination of the Confession we must wait until next time, the Lord willing.