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Westminster Wasn’t Enough

The Scandal of Savoy and Beyond

Article by

Pastor, Portland, Oregon

ABSTRACT: Ten years after the English Parliament published the Westminster Confession, a group of Reformed ministers, including John Owen and Thomas Goodwin, met to draft a new confession: the 1658 Savoy Declaration. Using Westminster as their guide, they honed and clarified doctrinal statements and also attached thirty articles on congregational polity. Unlike the original draft of Westminster, however, they did not include polity within the confession itself, convinced that such matters should be left to Christian liberty. In doing so, Savoy not only improved upon Westminster but also took a stand that speaks a timely word to Christians today.

On October 14, 1658, Thomas Goodwin and a deputation of English congregational ministers presented a confession of faith and church order to the new Protector of England, Oliver Cromwell’s son, Richard. Known to history as the Savoy Declaration of Faith and Order, it has been both neglected and misunderstood. On the one hand, with the demise of Richard’s Protectorate six months later, the instability of successive parliaments in 1659–1660, and the restoration of both Charles II in 1660 and the Church of England in 1662, whatever import was intended by its authors was quickly overtaken by events. On the other hand, from the beginning, its detractors, Presbyterian and radical alike, sought to marginalize the declaration as a narrow attempt to either enforce congregationalism or interfere with liberty of conscience.

But in fact, the Savoy Declaration should probably be considered “the high water mark of English Calvinism.”1 That the authors attached a clear and convincing explanation of congregational polity was a bonus that would not be lost on Baptists, who would use this document as a basis for their own confessions in 1677 and 1682.

Ripe for Reform

The story of the Savoy Declaration is part of the long and tortured attempt to “settle” the church of England as a thoroughly Protestant and Calvinist church. While Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556) had accomplished much after Henry VIII’s break with Rome through the Thirty-Nine Articles, many thought the church but “halfly-reformed.” Under Elizabeth I, James I, and Charles I, Puritans in both church and government had agitated and worked for more biblical forms of church government and worship. At the same time, Reformed theology continued to refine its understanding of the import of the covenants, the significance of the federal headship of Christ in the believer’s justification, and the dangers of both Arminianism and Amyraldianism. The Thirty-Nine Articles were ripe for both theological and ecclesiological reform, but Puritan hopes were repeatedly dashed and blocked by their Tudor monarchs.

Their first real chance at further institutional reform came when the Long Parliament summoned the Westminster Assembly of Divines in June 1643. What began as a “minor tweaking” of the Thirty-Nine Articles would become, for a variety of political and theological reasons, a completely “new confessional statement.”2 What we know today as the Westminster Confession of Faith, together with its Larger and Shorter Catechisms, is considered by some to be the pinnacle of confessional standards in the English language. But the English certainly didn’t think that at the time. When Parliament finally published the confession in 1648 (without formally adopting it), they omitted the two chapters that would have established a presbyterian form of church government, and they also made other changes related to marriage, the magistrate, and the conscience.3 Clearly, more work needed to be done if agreement on a new foundation for the church was to be established.

Among the Assembly’s major conflicts were disagreements over both the church’s polity and the role of the government in relation to the church. While the Erastians saw the church as part of the government, and the Presbyterians understood the church to stand alongside the government (and ultimately over it, since the king could be excommunicated!), a group known as “the Dissenting Brethren argued for a middle way.”4 These early congregationalists included Thomas Goodwin, William Bridge, Sydrach Simpson, and Philip Nye. While they were unsuccessful in their arguments at the Assembly, it would be this group, with the addition of John Owen, who would continue to press for church reform.

Assembly at Savoy Palace

With the execution of Charles I and the establishment of the Commonwealth in 1649, the Church of England ceased to exist, but the churches of England remained. Functioning presbyteries existed in and around London and Lancashire County. Congregational and Baptist churches were throughout the land. Some parish churches continued as if nothing had happened. Other groups effectively became a church within a church, depending on the convictions of their pastor. And a host of sects, radicals, and heresies burst into view, not least the Quakers and the anti-Trinitarian Socinians.

Amid this confusion, the Dissenting Brethren were part of repeated attempts to provide these churches, and the nation, with both a structure and a confession that could unite the “godly” and protect against error. Goodwin, president of Magdalen College, Oxford, and Owen, vice-chancellor of Oxford, collaborated with other leading clergy to produce a series of foundational confessional documents, beginning with The Principles of Christian Religion (1652) and The New Confession (1654). The documents were meant to serve as the basis for approving or rejecting ministers, while at the same time leaving room for liberty of conscience concerning lesser matters and allowing for a diversity of church polity. While fairly broad at first, as time went on and heresy and disorder multiplied, each successive confession became more exact in its doctrinal definitions and more Calvinist in its formulations.5

The last of these confessional efforts was The Savoy Declaration (1658). Unlike the first two, this was the work of congregational ministers alone. Spearheaded by Philip Nye with Cromwell’s approval, around two hundred divines gathered at the Savoy Palace in London from September 29 to October 12. While the bulk of the company dealt with various complaints and cases, a committee composed of Goodwin, Owen, Nye, Bridge, William Greenhill, and Joseph Caryl — all Westminster Assembly alumni except for Owen — drew up the articles of confession.6 But they did not start from scratch. On the first day of the assembly, the body decided to start with the Westminster Confession of Faith, as published by Parliament in 1648, and revise from there. Each morning, the committee would present its work to the larger synod for debate and approval.7 In addition to the confession, they also put forward a “Church-order” consisting of thirty articles outlining congregational polity, the roles and limits of voluntary associations of churches, and the relationship to other true churches that are not congregational.8

It may be tempting to interpret the Savoy Declaration as a grab for power and an attempt to impose congregational polity on the nation. But that would be a mistake. Without doubt, the statement on church polity is “denominational” in its argument for congregationalism.9 Oliver Cromwell died before the synod was done, and his son Richard, who received the deputation, was sympathetic to the Presbyterians. Considering shifting political winds, there was need to make a case for their inclusion. But it’s also clear that the Savoyans viewed their statement on polity as secondary. In the preface, often attributed to Owen but more likely written by the committee, they state,

We have endeavoured throughout, to hold to such Truths in this our Confession, as are more properly termed matters of Faith; and what is of Church-order, we dispose in certain Propositions by it self. To this course we are led by the example of the Honourable Houses of Parliament, observing what was established, and what omitted by them in that Confession the Assembly presented to them. Who thought it not convenient to have matters of Discipline and Church-Government put into a Confession of Faith, especially such particulars thereof, as then were, and still are controverted and under dispute by men Orthodox and sound in Faith.10

“Unity in faith is as much a work of God as faith itself.”

They then reference the two chapters on presbyterian government, as well as matters pertaining to marriage, divorce, and the magistrate. As they observed, while most people had the copy of the Westminster Confession published in Presbyterian Scotland, they were following the Confession “approved and passed” by the Parliament in England.11

Improving Westminster

In what ways does the Savoy Declaration improve upon Westminster such that it deserves to be called “the high water mark of English Calvinism”? To begin with, the entire confession is explicitly framed within a developed covenantal framework that reflects the maturing thought of Reformed theologians. The fall is explicitly explained within the context of a “Covenant of Works and Life” as opposed to merely the permissive will of God in Westminster.12 The covenant of redemption between the Son and the Father is made the explicit basis for the mediatorial work of Christ in chapter 8.13 The most notable addition is chapter 20, “Of the Gospel, and of the extent of the Grace thereof.” There is nothing comparable to it in Westminster. It begins,

The Covenant of Works being broken by sin, and made unprofitable unto life, God was pleased to give unto the Elect the promise of Christ, the seed of the woman, as the means of calling them, and begetting in them Faith and Repentance: in this promise the Gospel, as to the substance of it, was revealed, and was therein effectual for the conversion and salvation of sinners.

Finally, in chapter 21, “the whole Legal administration of the Covenant of Grace,” described as a “yoak,” is removed in the liberty bought by Christ.14 While some of this is implicit in Westminster, and the structure of the covenants is explained in chapter 7, Savoy thinks about redemption in more nuanced and developed terms of covenant theology.

Savoy also takes sides in controversies Westminster sidestepped. In chapter 11, our justification is accomplished by the imputation of not only the “obedience and satisfaction of Christ,” but of “Christ’s active obedience unto the whole Law, and passive obedience in his death for their whole and sole righteousness.” Far from being afraid that the imputation of Christ’s active obedience might encourage antinomianism, Savoy makes it the ground of our faith. In the same chapter, Christ’s death is explained explicitly as a penal substitutionary sacrifice, rather than merely as making “satisfaction.”15 And while not coming down as infralapsarian or supralapsarian, Savoy goes out of its way to place the fall squarely within the eternal decree rather than God’s general providence.16

Throughout, the Declaration never misses a chance to make explicit the effectual call of God, the inability of man, and the priority of union with Christ. It also underlines that the “Doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our Communion with God, and comfortable Dependence upon him.”17 In these final small additions, Savoy is not correcting or improving Westminster, but “obviating some erroneous opinion, that have been more broadly and boldly here of late maintained by the Asserters, then in former times.”18

Guarding Christian Liberty

In all of these revisions and additions, we can see the influence of John Owen and Thomas Goodwin. Owen championed the imputation of Christ’s active and passive obedience for our justification, refuting both the Socinians and Richard Baxter in Vindiciae Evangelicae. Goodwin delighted in exploring the superiority of Christ the Mediator, rooted in the covenant of redemption.19 Owen and Goodwin together represent English scholastic Calvinism at its finest, exalting God’s glory in his sovereign work of salvation.

Both men were also congregationalists, evident not only in Savoy’s appended Church-order, but in the careful reworking of chapter 24, which corresponds to chapter 23 in Westminster, “Of the Civil Magistrate.” It’s in this chapter that their middle way between the Erastians and Presbyterians is evident. Westminster gave the magistrate authority “that unity and peace be preserved in the Church,” “that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed,” “all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented,” “and all the ordinances of God duly . . . observed.”20 As a result, while the government was ultimately subject to the church through its discipline, the government was also responsible to establish the church and enforce conformity. In contrast, while Savoy agrees that the magistrate has a responsibility to promote and protect the gospel, and to prevent the publishing and promotion of heresies and errors that “subvert . . . the faith, and inevitably destroy . . . the souls of them that receive them,”

Yet in such difference about the Doctrines of the Gospel, or ways of the worship of God, as may befall men exercising a good conscience, manifesting it in their conversation [i.e., way of life], and holding the foundation, not disturbing others in their ways or worship that differ from them; there is no warrant for the Magistrate under the Gospel to abridge them of their liberty.21

The preface explains the motivation for this change. “There being nothing that tends more to heighten dissentings among Brethren, then to determine and adopt the matter of their difference, under so high a title, as to be an Article of our Faith.”22

The drafters of Savoy believed that their understanding of the government and order of the church was “the Order which Christ himself hath appointed to be observed.”23 They were not pragmatists. They were not following their preferences. They believed that to act otherwise was to sin against Christ. Nevertheless, they also understood that these and other matters were not part of “the foundation” of the faith. And so, while they wanted the magistrate to promote and protect godly religion, they also wanted to protect the liberty of a believer’s conscience from the magistrate and from themselves.

Against Imposition

That liberty reveals one of the most important legacies of the Savoy Declaration. These strict congregational ministers, articulating “the high water mark of English Calvinism,” were concerned first and foremost with what they called “experimental religion,” or what we would call “experiential religion.” They understood the importance of right doctrine and biblical polity. But they also understood that unity in faith is as much a work of God as faith itself. Human imposition, whether by government or church authority, has no place.

In our own day, when some Christians would be tempted to wield the power of government to enforce a more Christian society, we would do well to listen to those who wielded such power in their own. “Whatever is of force or constraint in matters of this nature causeth them to degenerate from the name and nature of Confessions, and turns them from being Confessions of Faith, into exactions and impositions of Faith.”24 Surely that is a timely word for us today.

  1. Hunter Powell, “Cromwellian Calvinism: England’s Church and the End of the Puritan Revolution,” in Bruce Gordon and Carl R. Trueman, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Calvin and Calvinism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021), 13. Page numbers for this resource correspond to the printed PDF from Oxford Handbooks Online. 

  2. Anthony Milton, England’s Second Reformation: The Battle for the Church of England, 1625–1662 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 223–24. 

  3. Milton, England’s Second Reformation, 227. 

  4. Powell, “Cromwellian Calvinism,” 2. 

  5. Powell, “Cromwellian Calvinism,” 3. 

  6. A.G. Matthews, ed., The Savoy Declaration of Faith and Order 1658 (London: Independent Press, 1959), 34. 

  7. Matthews, The Savoy Declaration, 34, 66. 

  8. Matthews, The Savoy Declaration, 121–27. 

  9. Powell, “Cromwellian Calvinism,” 14. 

  10. Powell, “Cromwellian Calvinism,” 66. Emphasis original. 

  11. Powell, “Cromwellian Calvinism,” 67. 

  12. Powell, “Cromwellian Calvinism,” 83. 

  13. Powell, “Cromwellian Calvinism,” 86. 

  14. Powell, “Cromwellian Calvinism,” 102. 

  15. Powell, “Cromwellian Calvinism,” 90. 

  16. Powell, “Cromwellian Calvinism,” 82. 

  17. Powell, “Cromwellian Calvinism,” 79. 

  18. Powell, “Cromwellian Calvinism,” 66. 

  19. See, e.g., “A Discourse of Christ the Mediator” in The Works of Thomas Goodwin, vol. 5 (Grand Rapids: Soli Deo Gloria, 2021). 

  20. Matthews, The Savoy Declaration, 108. 

  21. Matthews, The Savoy Declaration, 108–9. 

  22. Matthews, The Savoy Declaration, 67. Emphasis original. 

  23. Matthews, The Savoy Declaration, 68. 

  24. Matthews, The Savoy Declaration, 51–52. 

is the lead pastor of Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon. He has his PhD in seventeenth-century British church history. He is married to Adrienne and has five children.