In the 19th century, theological liberalism undermined European and American confidence in the truthfulness and authority of Scripture. Amid that crisis, the theologians of Princeton turned to the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646). Men like A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield retrieved and reasserted Westminster’s doctrine of Scripture. That recovery informed a century of Protestant pastors and perhaps even foreshadowed and assisted the work of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy at the end of the 20th century.
Today, the Confession bears lasting fruit. Its doctrine of God, which reflects classical Christian theism and the mature fruit of post-Reformation theology’s articulation of the being and works of the triune God is enjoying a renaissance in our time. It has provided protection from sub-biblical and ill-informed conceptions of God.
As Sinclair Ferguson writes, “To an extraordinary degree [the Westminster Divines] studied in depth the same issues which trouble and challenge the church today, and their work continues to serve as an invaluable guide.” It’s well worth our time to acquaint ourselves with the Confession and its history, content, and influence.
History and Content
The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), along with the Larger and Shorter Catechims, stands at the end of the Reformed tradition’s confessional age. It builds on over a hundred years of Protestant theological reflection and formulation in Europe, while also incorporating the rich legacy of historic creedal Christianity stretching back to the early church councils and fathers.
The Confession has provided protection from sub-biblical and ill-informed conceptions of God.
The Confession of Faith derives its name from the Westminster Assembly (1643–49/52), which met in London’s historic Westminster Abbey. The Assembly was an ecclesiastical council appointed by “the Long Parliament” of 1640–48 to recommend reforms in the doctrine and practice of the Church of England.
We can sum up the Westminster Confession’s 33 chapters in two parts, not unlike some of Paul’s epistles: doctrine (chapters 1–18, 32–33) and duty (19–31). The confession summarizes for us what the Scriptures teach us to believe (the theology of the faith) and how we’re to live (a practical Christian ethic).
The Confession contains 186 paragraphs and at least 205 distinct theological propositions, but it can be broadly outlined in eight sections: Scripture (chapter 1), God (2–5), man and sin (6), Christ and salvation (7–13), our God-enabled response to God’s salvation (14–18), the Christian life (personal, familial, and social, 19–24), the Christian life (ecclesiastical, 25–31), and last things (32–33).
The Westminster Catechisms, too, follow this outline. The Shorter Catechism could be summed up as what Christians believe (Questions 1–38) and how Christians are to live (39–107). The Larger Catechism’s structure is similar, with sections dedicated to doctrine (Questions 1–90) and duty (91–196).
High Doctrine of Scripture
The Confession begins by making the case for the necessity of Scripture, God’s written special revelation and inscripturated self-disclosure. The first chapter goes on to state the contents of Scripture positively (what books are in the Bible) and negatively (what books are not). Then it shows in consecutive sections why we believe the Bible is authoritative, true, sufficient for salvation and Christian living, clear, immediately God-breathed, providentially preserved—even while it must be translated into common languages.
The chapter concludes with a fundamental principle of biblical interpretation—Scripture infallibly interprets Scripture—and the powerful assertion that the Bible is the sole final authority in all matters of theological dispute. It’s the norma normans non normata (the norm that norms and cannot be normed). That is, because Scripture is the Word of God, it has the final word in all matters of faith and practice.
This chapter’s 1,000 words on the doctrine of Scripture, and the density and detail of the argument, make evident how important the Scriptures are for the Divines. B. B. Warfield cited A. F. Mitchell, a 19th-century historian of the Assembly:
If any chapter . . . was framed with more elaborate care than another, it was that which treats ‘Of the Holy Scripture.’ It was considered paragraph by paragraph—almost clause by clause—by the House of Commons as well as by the Assembly of Divines, before it was finally passed.
Philip Schaff also considered the Confession’s teaching on Scripture to be the definitive Protestant counterpart to Roman Catholic teaching on the subject: “No other Protestant symbol has such a clear, judicious, concise, and exhaustive statement of this fundamental article of Protestantism.”
You can’t read the Confession carefully and miss its pastoral attention. This isn’t surprising given that the 16th-century Puritans in England and Presbyterians in Scotland represented a movement that has bequeathed to us a tradition of pastoral theology unsurpassed in English-speaking Christian history.
The Confession begins by making the case for the necessity of Scripture, God’s written special revelation and inscripturated self-disclosure.
In the Confession’s chapter on God’s eternal decree, which deals with the Reformed doctrines of God’s sovereignty, predestination, and preterition, the Divines are concerned these doctrines be taught in such a way that what’s often a matter of theological disagreement will produce “humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the gospel” (WCF 3.8). In passages like this, the Confession frequently and directly connects theology to practice. It shows what truth is meant to produce in Christians’ lives.
Another example is the chapter “Of Assurance of Grace and Salvation.” Often, Christians are unsettled by their doubts, troubled by ongoing struggles with sin, and unsure of their salvation. The Confession, however, gives beautiful, biblical, and realistic comfort:
Yet are they never utterly destitute of that seed of God, and life of faith, that love of Christ and the brethren, that sincerity of heart, and conscience of duty, out of which, by the operation of the Spirit, this assurance may, in due time, be revived; and by the which, in the meantime, they are supported from utter despair. (WCF 18.4)
Only a doctrinal statement written by pastor-theologians who are true and experienced doctors of the human heart could contain such pastoral wisdom and precision. This sort of care for souls is evident throughout the confession.
Global and Multidenominational Influence
The Divines aimed to bring about unity between all the Protestant churches of England, Scotland, and Ireland. They failed in that aspiration, but they couldn’t have imagined their influence on global Christianity today.
Their theological formulations inform and encourage more than 70 million Christians in numerous denominations worldwide. There are more Korean Christians in churches that subscribe to the Confession than there are Britons and Americans. There’s a growing Reformed movement in India, China, and Southeast Asia. There are more Brazilians and Mexicans in denominations that acknowledge the Confession than in the U.S. and Canada, and Africans outnumber them all.
The Confession has also influenced multiple Protestant church traditions. Many associate the Confession with Presbyterianism, but Westminster has shaped the theology of Congregational, Baptist, and Anglican churches through confessions they’ve adapted. There has always been a stream of Anglicanism with high regard for the Confession, and the late J. I. Packer, an evangelical Anglican, did as much as anyone to popularize it in the larger evangelical world.
Only a doctrinal statement written by pastor-theologians who are true and experienced doctors of the human heart could contain such pastoral wisdom and precision.
Movements and organizations like Ligonier Ministries, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, Together for the Gospel, The Gospel Coalition, the World Reformed Fellowship, the International Conference of Reformed Churches, and the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council have helped spread awareness and reception of the theology of the Confession worldwide. Seminaries with multidenominational constituencies and global reach have also helped broadcast awareness and foster the embrace of the Confession’s theology around the world and into numerous church bodies.
There’s a sense in which we’re living right now in a golden age of availability of published works on the Confession, the Assembly, and its theologians. The recent rediscovery and publication (in 2012) of The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly (1643–1652) by Chad Van Dixhoorn and his subsequent research are significant parts of this.
When I’m asked by seminary students to define Reformed theology, I often describe it as a school of historic, orthodox, confessional, Protestant Christianity in which the sovereignty of God, the authority of Scripture, God’s grace in salvation, the necessity and significance of the church, and covenant theology are maintained and emphasized. All these are special emphases of the Westminster Confession, and the Confession has proved persuasive of these doctrines in the church at large today.
What has been called the “Reformed awakening” or the “Reformed resurgence” of the last 50 years, or even what people designate as “Big God Theology,” gives evidence of the widespread influence of the Confession’s teaching on God’s sovereignty and grace.
No wonder the Westminster Assembly’s Confession of Faith and Catechisms have been called “the finest and most enduring statements of early modern Reformed theology,” and “by far the most influential doctrinal symbol in American Protestant history.” The influence of the Confession shows no sign of slowing down in our time. May it continue to bear gospel fruit pleasing to God.