The Westminster Confession of Faith Today
The Purpose of Creeds
Confessions are doctrinal summaries of the Bible’s teaching. They are written by the Church for the Church and the world. They are written for the world because churches with creeds and confessions are trying to be honest about themselves. These doctrinal statements announce that this is a church that has beliefs and is willing to list the most important ones for all to see. This is the very thing that cults and sects refuse to do. When they arrive at your door on Saturday mornings they discuss all things peripheral; their pamphlets hide what they believe and so do their websites.
Things are different in orthodox churches and have been so from the beginning. Not only were the Christians of the early church forced to explain themselves to governors unhappy with the exclusive claims of Christians. They also needed to explain their faith simply to new converts wanting summaries of the Bible’s teaching. Creeds and confessions serve this purpose well. They summarize what God’s word has to say about God and they state succinctly the horror of the fall and then the wonder of the gospel.
Although confessions and creeds have sometimes started as signposts to a church’s honesty or catalogues of its core beliefs, the best of them have also served as ecumenical charters of some sort. They were meant to be shared, perhaps by many churches for many centuries. That has meant that those who use a confession might not be able to shape each sentence and paragraph just as they would like. But the value of a shared confession is almost incalculable for the church that uses it, for it helps it to express the unity of the body of Christ. Shared confessions such as the Apostles’ Creed or the Westminster Confession of Faith unite the church to others which have confessed the same doctrines before. These texts remind us that Christianity was not invented last Tuesday and they affirm that we are united to all those that love and preach what we have confessed in written form. And so a good confession is not only public, but it also strikes the right balance between the pure doctrine of the church and the unity of the church. A confession should state each doctrine carefully, but also humbly. It should plainly confess what is plain in Scripture and, if it is necessary to state it at all, it should cautiously express that which is less obvious.
The Westminster Assembly (1643-1652)
Of course it is easier to announce a maxim than it is to live it out and this was certainly true for the theologians of the Westminster Assembly, for they had to decide how to reform the Church of England and its doctrinal standards. Two years before the famous assembly gathered in Westminster Abbey, a prominent minister named Edmund Calamy urged the House of Commons to reform the English Church. This was no nostalgic look back to the Edenic days of England’s boy-king, the evangelical and Reformed Edward VI. On the contrary, Calamy urged Parliament to “reform the Reformation itself.” It was not until 1643 that Calamy’s modern reformation took shape in the calling of what proved to be the last of the great post-Reformation synods, the Westminster Assembly (1643-1652).
The Westminster Assembly was instrumental in purging the church of many appalling preachers and filling it with many less appalling ones. It tried to revise, and eventually re-wrote texts for the Churches of England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland. It drafted directions for Church Government, published a guide for public worship, issued statements on doctrine, corresponded with foreign churches, authored two catechisms and wrote a new Confession of Faith.
Really, Edmund Calamy and his colleagues should have been very pleased, but he was not. The task of revising or writing documents like a Confession looked easier that it really was. Then (as now) there were too many architects wanting reform and not enough builders who could actually effect it. While individual ministers could individually state their own understanding of the Bible, it was much harder to do this as a group. The experience was frustrating, leaving Calamy to mourn that “noe man knows what this reformation is. This is a sin & misery.”
The Westminster Confession of Faith today
In 1644 Edmund Calamy was in despair but by 1646 the Assembly had managed to finish its great Confession. The end product was worth celebrating and still is today. Indeed it is a truly remarkable text in the history of Christianity and all who peruse its pages will find a sure-footed summary of Christian truth for the Christian life.
Its opening pages rejoice in the wonder of God’s revelation of himself in the world and in the Word. Whole paragraphs linger over the fullness and clarity of the Scriptures, and show marked deference to the authority and finality of the Bible’s sixty-six books. With devotion and delight, the Confession goes on to consider the God who reveals himself in all his perfections. With reverence and awe the Westminster divines strive to say what can be said of the God who is one and the God who is three. The glories of the eternal God occupy some lines; the “most loving, gracious” and “merciful” character of God occupies others.
Further chapters remind us that our God has ordained or ordered “whatsoever comes to pass.” This plan of the eternal God was settled from “all eternity.” And from the beginning God’s plan or counsel for the ordering of all things is “most wise and holy.” What else could it be? This plan is worked out in the creation of the world and in the care of the world. Three breathless sentences open up the wonder of creation; the remainder of the Confession shows how “God the great Creator” providentially “upholds” “all things”, or, as the letter to the Hebrews says, “he sustains all things by his powerful word” (Heb 1:3). As we would expect from a God who has decreed and created all things, God’s upholding is no bare upholding. Not at all. He “directs, disposes and governs” his creation – all of his creatures, all their actions, and all of those parts of creation that cannot act. This comes as no surprise for those who are familiar with almost any part of the Bible but, as usual, the footnotes in the Confession point to selected portions of Scripture to make the point. Is not this all-encompassing providence portrayed so vividly in the dreams sent to King Nebuchadnezzar and explained by the prophet Daniel? Is not God’s providence the wonder for which the Psalmist praises the Lord, the Lord who “does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths” (Ps 135:6)? Reflection on the lines of the Confession often lead to the study of the words of Scripture. Few other exercises can provide such rich returns on one’s investment in time.
And so it is that chapter by chapter, the Westminster Confession of Faith traces with bold strokes the great history of our redemption. The sad realities of the fall, God’s gracious covenants with man, the stunning announcement of salvation, and our sure hope of eternal life – all these are sketched out here in bold, but considered strokes. Who can read this text and not be warned that those who ignore the Holy Scripture are doomed to stumble through the world in darkness? And who can read this Confession and not see that those who embrace the true God, believe what he promises, and walk by his precepts, will never be without a guide or a light for this life? It is because of the clarity of this gospel message in all of its parts that the Westminster Confession of Faith finds itself in the first rank of great Christian creeds. Perhaps it is the wisest of creeds in its teaching and the finest in its doctrinal expression. Certainly it is a reliable guide to the Scriptures, which are the only guide to God. It is my hope that all who follow its directions will find their way to the Father’s home, through the grace and mercy of the Son and by the power of his Holy Spirit.
Chad Van Dixhoorn is [to come]
This article originally appeared on reformation21.org. It was published ca. February, 2007.