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The Beauty of the Westminster Confession of Faith — An Excerpt from "Know the Creeds and Councils"

Categories Theology Book Excerpts

9780310515098While many Christians are familiar with the ancient creeds of the Church, confessions are a different story. 

Yet as Justin Holcomb explains in his book Know the Creeds and Councils, such denominational rallying points expand upon the more limited scope of creeds:

God has given us a lot of information about himself that a creed does not cover; it is within the confessions that churches interpret that information and show believers how it can help them know God. (16)

When understood in this way confessions “take on a new beauty…” (16-17)

One such confession is the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Forged during the English Civil War in 1642-1649, it’s appeal lies in its ability to bring high theology to the everyday believer, making it “one of the most significant statements of faith for the Protestant tradition.” (135)

Read the excerpt below and consider how you can benefit from it yourself.

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Historical Background

The Thirty-nine Articles satisfied the Protestants in England for some time, but in a few generations conflict broke out again. The more radical Protestants, called Puritans, preferred to use the Bible alone, to have very simple worship services and live modestly, without bishops, rituals, or any hints of Catholicism. As Anglicanism became a sign of the upper class and Puritanism a sign of the middle class, the country entered civil war in 1642. By the following decade, the Puritans had won control of the government, but Catholics and Arminians (who advocated free will and a universal invitation to salvation) hovered in the wings in hopes of recovering the throne. To guard against the influence of Catholic king James II and Arminian Archbishop William Laud, Parliament convened a council of 121 theologians (along with thirty laymen, six Scottish commissioners, and nine Scottish elders) in 1646 and charged the assembly with overseeing a “more perfect reformation of the Church.”

The Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) is a Reformed confession produced by that Westminster Assembly in London. Intended to set the doctrinal standards for the Church of England, it became a powerful force in the Church of Scotland and has influenced Presbyterian churches all over the world. Centuries later, numerous churches and denominations worldwide look to the Westminster Confession as their standard of doctrine, subordinate, of course, to Scripture.

Initially, Parliament charged the assembly with the task of revising the Thirty-nine Articles (1563), the doctrinal statement that had served as the official stance of the Church of England since the early days of Elizabeth I’s reign. However, when the English Parliament forged a political alliance with their Scottish counterparts, the assembly aborted this endeavor in favor of more thorough reforms in favor of Protestantism. When Anglican troops regained the government and reestablished the monarchy, the Puritan groups kept the Westminster Confession (especially in Scotland) and carried it with them on their missionary expeditions, while the English government returned to the Thirty-nine Articles for its own use.

Relevance

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Westminster Assembly is how a group of theologians labored amid extreme political turmoil to follow a higher calling. The temptation in any political crisis is to support one’s own side or to avoid offending anyone at all. There may be a little evidence of the first temptation in the more extreme statements on predestination, but as a whole the document is virtually free from it. It certainly takes a firm stance, but hardly a vindictive one. Rather, the overall theme of the confession is in understanding how far-reaching the implications of seemingly academic doctrines can be. The Westminster Assembly clearly understood that practice follows teaching, and for the assembly, the theology of the church could not be divorced from the actions of the laity. The confession puts its heart into making the implications of this theology understandable rather than repeating a set of ideas.

Aside from continuing to serve as the theological foundation of several denominations, the all-encompassing nature of this version of Reformed theology stands as perhaps the most enduring aspect of the Confession of Faith and the supporting documents published by the assembly. The Westminster Standards left practically no aspect of church life (or human life, for that matter) untouched. The biblical and theological thinking that undergirds this system simply cannot be reduced to a single doctrine, as is often tried in much contemporary theological discussion. Specifically, the Westminster Confession does not limit its discussion of predestinarian theology merely to a discussion of salvation, nor does it focus on small portions of Scripture to prove its stance. The attempt to strike some balance between human free will — albeit one corrupted by depravity — and divine sovereignty demonstrates well this desire to incorporate the whole testimony of Scripture.

Those who find the Thirty-nine Articles too general and noncommittal and the Book of Concord too Lutheran may be drawn to the Westminster Confession of Faith as an alternative reading of Scripture that falls within the bounds of orthodox theology. The assembly’s focus on divine prerogative and gracious activity, highlighted especially by the centrality of the covenant of grace, has often led to this version of Reformed theology being referred to as “the doctrines of grace.” The fine-tuned nature of the confession, due largely to the amount of time taken to craft the document as well as to the large number of theologians involved in the process, has allowed it (and its daughter confessions) to stand the test of time.

Ultimately, the Westminster Assembly succeeded in coordinating its theology within the historically accepted creeds and confessions, separating themselves from the heterodox theologies promulgated throughout Europe and even readily found in the British Isles. Besides setting an example for modern theologians, the confession will also help believers broaden their thinking. One of the more jarring aspects of the document is its discussions of everyday life — regulating the Sabbath, for example, which is hardly something that churches spend much time discussing nowadays.  The fact is that the confession does open up its readers to seeing Christian life in a more all-encompassing way. Additionally, the confession gives excellent summaries of the decisions of the major early councils and their importance for Christian life…While the language of the seventeenth century may intimidate some readers, the sections are relatively short and worth the effort to understand God’s providence and the serious implications of living a Christian life.

The confession overflows with scriptural proofs, and it is anything but a cranky “hammerheaded” Calvinism. Because the document is Calvinistic, its tone is that of a theology permeated by divine grace. The confession is thoroughly concerned with maintaining conversation with the great creeds of the church that elaborated a robust doctrine of the Trinity (Nicaea) and Christ’s nature (Chalcedon).

For all of these reasons, the Westminster Confession remains relevant as one of the most significant statements of faith for the Protestant tradition.

 

Know the Creeds and Councils

Know the Creeds and Councils

By Justin S. Holcomb

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