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Reformed Theology in Full Harvest

The Story of the Westminster Confession of Faith

Article by

Professor, Reformed Theological Seminary

ABSTRACT: The theologians gathered in 1643 for the Westminster Assembly did not intend to write a new confession of faith. But due to war, politics, and the internal workings of the assembly, those gathered eventually produced a document, divided into 33 chapters, that joined the classical doctrines of the Christian faith with the full harvest of Reformed theology. The Westminster Confession of Faith would soon become the most famous and influential confession produced in the English language. Today, its doctrines still shape churches throughout the English-speaking world and beyond, setting before God’s people truths worth studying, praying, and singing.

The Westminster Assembly had not planned to write the Westminster Confession of Faith.

A new confession was not necessary to deal with doctrinal problems in seventeenth-century England. Ever since Arminianism had emerged in the late sixteenth century and been exported to England, the country’s “Calvinist” ministers insisted that the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England already spoke with a Reformed accent.

Nor would a new confession be needed to deal with church government. After all, Puritans — and almost everyone at the Westminster Assembly was a Puritan! — always found some workaround or another to deal with heavy-handed bishops of the English church.

A new confession was not even needed to address the problem of worship. If worship was to be purified, and along the way, simplified, that work would have to be done in some other document. In fact, some other document would also be best to deal with any necessary changes in church government too, if it came to that.

Nonetheless, a confession was written. It is easily the most famous doctrinal formulation ever produced in the English language. It is the single text, next to the Bible, most influential in the history of Scottish, American, and Irish Protestant church life. Through missionary endeavors and church expansion, it has also had a profound impact on the churches in many other nations. In its various forms (first Presbyterian, then Congregationalist in 1658, and finally Baptist in 1689), it has perhaps outstripped the use made of the Thirty-Nine Articles by worldwide Anglicans.

This article explains why the authors of this confession assembled, what they accomplished, what their confession teaches, and why the Westminster Confession of Faith is still worthy of our attention today.

Why Westminster Assembled

First called “The Assembly of Divines,” the Westminster Assembly had been convened by the parliament of England to reform the church. England’s rebel parliament was at war with its king, Charles I, over matters political, economic, and religious. The assembly of divines, or theologians, was appointed to deal with matters doctrinal, governmental, and liturgical — it was called to create theological solutions to theological problems.

“The confession brought together the classical doctrines of the Christian church and the full harvest of Reformed theology.”

There were long-term problems in England, beginning in the reign of Edward VI (1547–1553) and, by and large, getting worse during the long reigns of Elizabeth (1558–1603), James (1603–1625), and Charles (1625–1649). Each had insisted on having the last word in any dispute about the life of the church. For Charles it meant compromises with Arminianism and Catholicism. For James it meant enlarging the role of bishops. For Elizabeth it meant reducing the quantity of preachers and preaching. And those who objected that these monarchs were usurping the role of ministers, and sometimes usurping the role of Christ himself, were punished harshly: fines were levied, preachers were removed from their pulpits, and faithful men were exiled, imprisoned, or maimed, some losing their tongues or ears, others being branded with hot irons on their faces.

There were also short-term problems leading to war, almost too complicated to describe. King Charles I ruled over three countries: England, Scotland, and Ireland. His mismanagement of each — and especially the over-extension of his “executive,” or royal, powers — eventually alienated his monied subjects (concerned about uncontrolled methods of taxation), his parliaments (worried about arbitrary government), and many of his more Reformed subjects (convinced of the tyranny of Charles’s bishops). By the end of the 1640s, each country had not only been devastated by civil war, but had exported troops to one or more of the king’s other dominions: Irish soldiers found themselves fighting in Scotland, the Scots marched into England, and the English slaughtered the Irish. The result in some places (such as England) was the highest percentage of lives lost in recorded history, not even surpassed by the horrors of World War I or II.1

It is in this context that the assembly met to play their part in extinguishing the fires of war, which had been stoked, as assembly members saw it, by the king and his leading bishops. Many of the 120 ministers called together in July of 1643 had suffered for teaching the whole counsel of God, with perhaps a third of them having survived stints in prison (the Puritan equivalent of a sabbatical). With the onset of war, a few did thrive financially, but most suffered hardships, and many lost family, friends, libraries, or homes due to the ravages of war.

I mention these problems because it explains why the assembly was called. We need to know this too because it tells us what kind of men came: these were men who had followed in the footsteps of their Savior, despised and rejected by men, themselves men of sorrows and acquainted with grief. We need to know these things because, with bloody battles all around, God enabled these men to produce a confession of faith that was at once wise to the subject of suffering, and yet savoring of the gospel of peace.

How the Assembly Worked

The members of the Westminster Assembly worked in deadly earnest, and at an unsustainable pace. In the first five years of its existence, the assembly met five, sometimes six days per week; in that same period, the gathering allowed itself only two weeks of holiday. But that is not all. It became quickly apparent that the cash-strapped parliament was (understandably) more worried about paying its soldiers than its theologians. Thus, members who moved from around the country to attend the assembly were, on top of their duties in the assembly, forced to serve as pastors in London churches just to make ends meet. Although many men at the assembly had been academics at some point, every member of the assembly was serving or had served as a pastor. So they did not necessarily, at least at first, need to build every sermon from the bottom up. But in addition to morning meetings, where the assembly met as a whole, and afternoon meetings, where the gathering met in committees, members preached two or three times per week or more, with the more ambitious ones also writing books in their spare time.

The Divines

The gathering was led by the bookish but learned William Twisse, who offered one of the first major attacks in England against the theology of Jacobus Arminius. His assistants were learned men too — Cornelius Burges (an understudied Puritan if there ever were one) and John White, famous both as “father” of Massachusetts and as the minister whose earnest prayers, powerful preaching, and a profitable brewery turned the town of Dorchester into England’s Geneva, a story ably told by the social historian David Underdown.2

Everybody who was anybody in the Puritan world was there too: William Gouge, Stephen Marshall, and Edmund Calamy were present as England’s most famous preachers in the 1630s, 1640s, and 1650s. The congregationalist Thomas Goodwin was there with his friends the learned William Bridge and the influential Philip Nye. Old Testament scholars like Lazarus Seaman and John Lightfoot were crammed into the Jerusalem Chamber too, as were the authors of works of popular devotion, like Henry Scudder, famous for his runaway best seller, The Christian’s Daily Walk. Thirty politicians were present also: having seen the populace so badly treated by prelates throughout the land, members of parliament were convinced they needed to keep a close eye on the preachers they had brought to Westminster Abbey.

The Proceedings

After a summer of revising the Thirty-Nine Articles (it turns out that, given the chance, Puritans were willing to improve upon it), the gathering suddenly found its work interrupted. The English Parliament was doing poorly in its war against the king, but it managed to sign a treaty, the Solemn League and Covenant, with like-minded Scottish Presbyterians to the north. Scottish rebels had controlled a significant army, and promised to send it south to help the English if only they would pledge to more thoroughly reform the Church of England. And thus it happened that the scores of ministers in the assembly were joined by ministers of the Church of Scotland, such as George Gillespie and Samuel Rutherford, as well as by a few members of the Scottish nobility.

“One topic flows into the next, like water through a series of locks.”

It was the presence of these Scottish members and the promise of the Solemn League and Covenant that led the Westminster Assembly to create new texts for all of Charles’s churches, including a new confession of faith. But the first task in the autumn of 1643 was to figure out how to address the shortage of ministers in the church. The assembly first asked what a pastor is, what he is to do, and how he is to be installed or ordained, concluding (for the first time in English history!) that all ministers are pastors (rather than the bishops only) and that all pastors must be preachers, for prior to this point preaching was an optional extra for an ordained clergyman.

In 1644, the assembly addressed the practicalities of worship, creating a do-it-yourself Directory for Public Worship in place of the already-assembled liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer. The assembly also produced a mostly new psalter — an unpopular work that was more literal and less singable than the one it was supposed to replace.

With both of these works in hand by 1645, the assembly pivoted back to the subject of church governance in what would prove to be an especially tempestuous year. The assembly had largely decided in 1643 that it would abandon episcopacy (church government through bishops). It then debated whether, with bishops put out to pasture, the church would be governed by the elders of congregations only (Congregationalism), or, as the majority eventually decided, by both congregational elderships and regional elderships — the latter “Presbyterian” option allowing for broader input on matters that affect all the churches of a given area, such as the testing and ordination of ministers, alleged abuses of church government, and the grave censure of excommunication (the assembly assumed that if a member was removed from one church of Christ, he was removed from the whole church of Christ).

The gathering’s work on church governance not only exposed a fissure among the godly men called to serve in the gathering; it also created a division between the majority in the assembly and the House of Commons (the lower and larger of the two houses of parliament). When it came to church discipline, all members of the assembly assumed that if someone unrepentantly refused to confess the faith or live the life of a Christian, then it was the task of the elders to suspend that person from the Lord’s Supper. The House of Commons, filled with people who had tried to protect godly people, including themselves, from the severe censures of the bishops, were unwilling to allow local elderships to exercise church discipline. The final text approved by parliament for use in 1646 was shorn of its biblical support and allowed for the meddling of the state in the government of the church, leading to heated debates, crushed spirits, and strained relations between the politicians and the pastors.3

The Result

The interesting thing about these conflicts both within and without the assembly — and I did not even begin to mention the many other errors that cropped up during the chaos of the civil war, such as errors about the Trinity or justification, to choose two accessible examples — is that the Westminster Assembly was forced to write with an increased alertness about a wider range of doctrinal errors.4 It forced additional precision about a wider range of topics, thus expanding its usefulness and its shelf life for later users of these texts.

The Westminster Assembly, which finally fizzled out in 1653 due to changes in the English army and government, does not offer a story of unending success. But it did manage to reform much of the ministry of the church.5 It also produced about 140 papers, letters, and explanatory documents, many of them recently recovered and even now being made available.6 The year 1646 was the turning point, the moment when the assembly realized that even if it were to produce the best of texts, it might never be used in the Church of England itself. But 1646 was not all bad news. It was in that year that the assembly completed the Confession of Faith it had been developing alongside its Directory for Church Government. It offered a low point for church polity, but 1646, and then 1647, offered a high point for theology.

The Confession of Faith

As John Bower explains in his recent book on the Westminster Confession of Faith, the confession was produced in two parts, brought together in 33 chapters and printed for parliament’s consideration in 1646.7 The confession married the classical doctrines of the Christian church and the full harvest of Reformed theology at the close of the long Protestant Reformation. Opening chapters discussed foundational topics: Scripture, God, and God’s decrees. Everything that follows is a subset of those decrees: creation in one chapter and providence in all the remaining chapters, including the very special providence of divine salvation, a salvation lingered over in fulsome detail.

“Churches use confessions as a kind of prenuptial agreement between elders and their congregations.”

The history of the fall of man into sin, God’s single covenant of grace, and the accomplishment of redemption in Christ is then followed by the effects of man’s fall, God’s regenerating grace, and the application of redemption by the Holy Spirit. One topic flows into the next, like water through a series of locks. Chapters 11 and 12 consider God’s acts of grace in justification and adoption, after which chapter 13 treats God’s work of grace in sanctification. These discussions in turn warrant a reflection on faith and repentance. The shape of repentance is fleshed out in chapter 16, a chapter on good works (one of the finest in the confession as a whole). And since our problems in producing good works generate real pastoral problems, the following chapters discuss the perseverance (not mere preservation) of the saints and the assurance of salvation.

The confession then moves to the closely intertwined topics of law and liberty, with liberty connected to worship, worship to oaths and vows, oaths and vows to the civil magistrate, the magistrate to marriage, marriage to the church, the church to sacraments. Of course, it is in the context of the Lord’s Supper that discipline must sometimes be done, so the supper chapter is followed by the censures chapter, and since elders do not always get that right, the sections on censures are followed by a chapter on synods and councils, where appeals about injustice can be made. The final two chapters deal with final things.8

The English parliament thought that the confession offered synods too large a role in church government compared to the civil magistrate. American Presbyterians would later decide that the confession offered synods too small a role in church government compared to the civil magistrate. The Scottish Kirk thought the assembly got it just right and officially adopted the Confession of Faith, an unedited version of the assembly’s Directory for Church Government, and the assembly’s Directory for Public Worship, as well as its enormous Larger Catechism and justly famous Shorter Catechism.

Using Confessions Today

Mostly through Scottish and Irish Presbyterian missionary emigration to America, and then through Presbyterian missions worldwide, the assembly’s Shorter Catechism and the Westminster Confession of Faith received a wide readership.

The catechism has been deployed as a teaching tool worldwide, and highly valued for its clear-sighted structure, deliberately designed to implant Christian doctrine in the minds and hearts of Christian people.9 Unlike in previous catechisms, every question stands independent of previous questions — the catechism is arranged in a logical system, but one does not need to follow a series of questions and answers for a question to make sense. Similarly, every answer offers a distinct doctrinal aphorism, or a pithy standalone statement: never simply “To glorify and enjoy God,” but always “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” Individuals, families, and churches read through the catechism, seeking to understand what it meant. Then they began to memorize its truths and the passages appended to prove each point from the Scriptures themselves.

The Confession of Faith has also been used for teaching and as doctrinal standards in Presbyterian churches (and in revised form in other churches). Churches use confessions as a kind of prenuptial agreement between elders and their congregations, as churches commit themselves to finding leaders who teach the doctrines that they have learned to love from God’s word, and as their leaders agree to teach the truths of the confession, once they discover that this confession is the confession of their own heart.

“As with hammers, so with confessions: it is not enough to have it; it matters how we hold it.”

But this only scratches the surface of the usefulness of a confession. Confessions are useful for promoting honesty. I grew up with some dear Christian people who believed in “no creed but the Bible.” They never meant to deceive anyone, but their claim was not true. They had a precise creed, and anyone who taught against it would quickly find this out. They had simply failed to recognize and write down their creed. Confessional Christians are showing their own self-awareness and are being open about what they believe.

Confessions have a kind of ecumenical purpose. The Westminster Confession of Faith is an old confession, and so a large number of Christians have heard of it, and many churches use it. A good confession that is well-known offers a tool to help Christian churches identify other churches with whom they may have much in common, and with whom they might profitably plant churches or engage in doctrinally rich gospel ministry. Of course, it is only a tool. As with hammers, so with confessions: it is not enough to have it; it matters how we hold it.

Best of all, a good confession promotes doxology. A few bullet points on a website will do this a little. “Our church believes that sinners are saved through faith alone.” If that is the full summary of a church’s statement about the saving grace of God, we can be thankful for what it says. We can dwell on the fact that this church is willing to talk about sin and not merely about weakness. We can flag helpful words like alone, which reminds readers to magnify the Lord for our salvation and not ourselves.

More is accomplished by the recent New City Catechism with, for example, one of its compound questions, “What do justification and sanctification mean?” and the corresponding answer: “Justification means our declared righteousness before God, made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection for us. Sanctification means our gradual, growing righteousness, made possible by the Spirit’s work in us.” With respect to justification, forgiveness is not mentioned, but declared righteousness is, and we are told how — and not for the first time in the catechism.

But set this new work beside one of the Westminster Assembly’s productions. Even the Shorter Catechism offers a fuller treatment of the topic:

Q. What is justification?

A. Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.

Here there is more to chew on. This is glorious — these are doctrines to confess, to sing, to pray.

I think every Christian should learn to pray the Scriptures, to study a passage and consider how it might be reframed as awe-filled praise, humble thanks, and hopeful petition. But Christians also do well to pray over doctrine, and here the Confession of Faith offers densely catalogued material for praise.

  1. For recent tellings of these events with a focus on the long-term struggles, see D.D. Hall, The Puritans: A Transatlantic History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019); and M.P. Winship, Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019). 

  2. D. Underdown, Fire from Heaven: Life in an English Town in the Seventeenth Century (1992; repr., London: Pimlico, 2003). 

  3. For a narrative of some of these events, albeit focusing especially on ecclesiological contests in the assembly, see R.S. Paul, Assembly of the Lord: Politics and Religion in the Westminster Assembly (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1984); and C.B. Van Dixhoorn, “Politics and Religion in the Westminster Assembly and the ‘Grand Debate,’” in Insular Christianity: Alternative Models of the Church in Britain and Ireland, c. 1570–c. 1700, eds. R. Armstrong and T. O’hAnnrachain (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2013), 129–48. 

  4. For a sampling of these errors, see C.B. Van Dixhoorn, “Post-Reformation Trinitarian Perspectives,” in Retrieving Eternal Generation, eds. F. Sanders and S. Swain (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 180–207; and C.B. Van Dixhoorn, “The Strange Silence of Prolocutor Twisse: Predestination and Politics in the Westminster Assembly’s Debate over Justification,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 40, no. 2 (Summer 2009), 395–418. 

  5. See C.B. Van Dixhoorn, God’s Ambassadors: The Westminster Assembly and the Reformation of the English Pulpit, 1643–1653 (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2017); and C.B. Van Dixhoorn, “God’s Physicians: Models of Pastoral Care at the Westminster Assembly, 1643–1653,” in Church Life: Pastors, Congregations, and the Experience of Dissent in Seventeenth-Century England, eds. M. Davies, A. Dunan-Page, and J. Halcomb (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 82–100. 

  6. C.B. Van Dixhoorn, The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly, 1643–1653, 5 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). 

  7. J. Bower, The Confession of Faith: A Critical Text and Introduction (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2020). 

  8. For a fuller account of the confession’s teaching, see C.B. Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith: A Reader’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith (Edinburgh, 2014); C.B. Van Dixhoorn, The Oxford Handbook of Reformed Theology, eds. S. Swain and M. Allen (Oxford, 2020); F.R. Beattie, The Presbyterian Standards (1896; Greenville, SC: Southern Presbyterian Press, n.d.); J. Fesko, The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context and Theological Insights (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014); A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (many editions; recently, Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2013); R. Letham, The Westminster Assembly (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2009); and R. Shaw, The Reformed Faith: An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith (many editions; recently, Fearn, UK: Christian Focus, 2008). 

  9. The leading study of the assembly’s largest catechism is J. Bower, The Larger Catechism: A Critical Text and Introduction (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2010).