Rev. Cammenga is pastor of Southwest Protestant Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan.

The History


A unique part both of the heritage and contribution of Scottish Presbyterianism is the Scotch Confession of 1560.1 The Scotch Confession is the manifesto of the Scottish Reformation. It is the first of the distinctly Presbyterian confessions. Its publication in 1560 predates the earliest of our Dutch Reformed confessions, the Belgic Confession having been written in 1561 and the Heidelberg Catechism in 1563.

Already on December 3, 1557 a number of Protestant nobles meeting at Edinburgh had signed a “covenant” to maintain, nourish, and defend to the death “the whole congregation of Christ, and every member thereof.” By the signing of this covenant, they had thrown off the tyranny of Roman Catholicism and declared Scotland’s commitment for the cause of the Reformation.

In August of 1560 the Scottish Parliament commissioned the writing of Scotland’s own confession of faith. The work was entrusted to a committee of men, the most notable member of which was John Knox. Since all of the men on the committee were named John—John Winram, John Spottiswoode, John Willock, John Douglas, John Row, and John Knox—the confession they produced has sometimes been referred to as the confession of the six Johns. Although composition of the Scotch Confession was a joint effort, there is little doubt that the main author of the confession was John Knox.

Knox had been at the forefront of the reformatory movement in Scotland. Concerning Knox’s impact on the Reformation in Scotland, John Macleod writes:

There was a possibility that the Scottish Reformation might take on a Lutheran or an Anglican complexion. The work and influence of Knox decided that this should not be so (Scottish Theology, p. 13).

Knox was decidedly Calvinistic in his convictions, both in doctrine and church government. That Calvinistic commitment is reflected in the Scotch Confession.Knox and his companions labored only four days in composing the new creed of the Scottish churches. Although rather hastily written, it was undoubtedly true that the men came to their task fully prepared. And although the Scotch Confession is uniquely Scottish in flavor, its authors were familiar with and relied on the existing Reformed confessions that had been widely circulated.

With slight changes, the proposed confession was ratified by the Scottish Parliament on August 17, 1560. The Parliament issued the new confession as the “sum of that doctrine which we profess, and for the which we have sustained infamy and danger.” After the adoption of the new confession, Parliament went on to decree that from henceforth the Bishop of Rome had no jurisdiction in the Scottish realm. It annulled all other previous acts of Parliament which were contrary to the new confession. And it forbade the saying, hearing, or being present at the Mass, under penalty of confiscation of goods and imprisonment for the first offense, of banishment for the second, and of death for the third.

After Parliament adopted the confession, the story is told that the oldest member of Parliament, Lord Lindsay, addressed his peers:

I have lived many years; I am the oldest member of this company. Now that it hath pleased God to let me see this day, where so many nobles have approved so worthy a work, I will say with Simeon, Nunc dimittis (History of the Reformation, vol. 2, p. 304).

The original title of the Scotch Confession was “The Confession of the Faith and Doctrine, Believed and Professed by the Protestants of Scotland.” It was issued to the Scottish people by Parliament as containing “wholesome and sound doctrine, grounded upon the infallible truth of God’s Word.” In short order the new confession was translated into Latin under the title Confessio Scoticana. The Scotch Confession soon laid claim to an honored place among the collection of creeds that were produced by the churches of the Reformation. It remained the symbol of the Church of Scotland during the turbulent years of the first century of its existence. Not until 1645 was it displaced by the Westminster Confession, and then only because the Westminster Confession was a fuller expression of the Reformed faith and was in no parts contrary to the earlier confession.

The Preface

Most modern printings of the Scotch Confession fail to include “The Preface.” That is unfortunate because the preface is both significant and moving. It not only has historical value, but is instructive as well.

The preface opens with a salutation.

The Estates of Scotland, with the inhabitants of the same, profess Christ Jesus and his holy Evangel, to their natural countrymen, and unto all other realms that profess the same Lord Jesus with them, wish Grace, Mercy and Peace from God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, with the Spirit of righteous judgment, for salvation.2

With those words the lords of Scotland not only commended the new confession to the peoples of their beloved Scotland, but also identified themselves with the Reformed church worldwide. The preface indicates their concern for the greater cause of the Reformation that extended beyond the borders of their own country. The framers of the Scotch Confession were not driven by a narrow-minded parochialism. On the contrary, they exhibited a consciousness of the catholicity of the church and demonstrated a concern that Scottish Presbyterians be recognized as a part of the broader Reformation movement.

Following the salutation, the preface goes on:

Long have we thirsted, dear brethren, to have notified to the world the sum of that doctrine which we profess, and for the which we have sustained infamy and danger. But such has been the rage of Satan against us and against Christ Jesus and his eternal verity, now lately again born among us, that to this day no time has been granted unto us to clear our consciences, as most gladly we would have done. For how we have been tossed heretofore, the most part of Europe, as we suppose, does understand.

These words make plain that the Scotch Confession, like the other great Reformed confessions, was not written in an ivory tower by theologians detached from the life and struggles of the members of the church. The confession is intended rather to give expression to the faith which they love and for which they have suffered dearly. They mean to set down in the confession the truths of God’s Word according to which they are committed to live, and for which they are ready if necessary to die.

There is a lesson here for our doctrinally weak and indifferent age. Reformed people today find it fashionable to ignore and belittle their heritage. The confessions of the church of the past are dismissed as outdated relics of antiquity that have no real relevance for the church of today—dry bones and dead dinosaurs. They may have served a purpose in their day, but certainly they are of little value today. Nothing could be further from the truth! It is imperative as never before that Reformed Christians recall their past, root themselves in the Reformation creeds, and live out of the truths contained in the historic confessions of the Reformed churches.

A noteworthy feature of the preface is not only its reverence for the Word of God as the ultimate authority in the church, but its explicit renunciation of any claim to infallibility of interpretation. The confession is commended to the Reformed church world for its examination, with the promise that if any corrections are needed in its formulations, they will be promptly made.

If one man will note in this our confession one article or sentence repugnant 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 upon our honor and fidelity, by God’s grace do promise unto him satisfaction from the mouth of God, that is, from his Holy Scriptures, and reformation of that which he shall prove to be amiss.

At the outset, the writers of the Scotch Confession make plain their commitment to the sole authority of the Holy Scriptures. Everything that follows in the body of the confession is based squarely on the teaching of the Bible. In common with the other great confessions of the Reformed churches, the Scotch Confession makes its appeal to Holy Writ and sets forth its teaching.

The preface closes with these words:

We take God to record in our consciences, that from our hearts we abhor all sects of heresy and all teachers of erroneous doctrine, and that with all humility we embrace the purity of Christ’s Gospel, which is the only food of our souls, and therefore so precious unto us, that we are determined to suffer the most extreme of worldly danger, rather than that we will suffer ourselves to be defrauded of the same. For hereof we are most certainly persuaded, and whosoever denies Christ Jesus, or is ashamed of him in the presence of men, shall be denied before the Father and before his holy angels. And therefore by the assistance of the mighty Spirit of the same Lord Jesus Christ, we firmly purpose to abide to the end in the confession of this our faith, the articles of which follow.

Thus was the trumpet blast of the Reformation in Scotland sounded. Under the banner of the new confession the lords of Scotland and the leading reformers have rallied the faithful people of God. With the Scotch Confession at their head, they are determined to march forward into the battle for God’s truth and church. Drawn up in some haste by a small number of its ministers, the confession will serve the Scottish church well in the coming decades. Succeeding generations of Scottish Presbyterians will be nurtured under its instruction, and the Reformed church of Scotland will be built upon its solid foundation.

A brief study of the Scotch Confession will be worthwhile. Undoubtedly its contents are not very familiar to most of our readers. In a following article, therefore, it will be my purpose to acquaint our readers with the contents of this early Reformation creed. Such a study of the Scotch Confession will foster an appreciation for the unique features of the Scottish Reformation, but will also underscore the common heritage shared by the Scotch Presbyterians and the Dutch Reformed.

1.Works on the history of the Scotch Confession of Faith include Philip Schaff’s The Creeds of Christendom, Vol. 1, pp. 680ff.; Alexander Stewart’s Creeds and Churches: Studies in Symbolics, pp. 175ff.; John Macleod’s Scottish Theology, pp. 14ff.; and T.M. Lindsay’s History of the Reformation, vol. 2, pp. 302ff. The history presented in this article is drawn largely from these works.

2.Quotations from “The Preface” of the Scotch Confession are taken from Philip Schaff’s Creeds of Christendom, vol. 3, pp. 437ff. But since Schaff retains the old spelling and certain grammatical forms, I have taken the liberty to update the spelling and some of the grammar.