A Review of the Scots Confession of 1560 - Principal John Macleod
04 Jul 2015
The time came in due season when the challenge was given to set forth the Faith that Knox and his brethren held. This was in 1560, and in a few days the Reformers gave in, as their answer to this challenge, the Scottish Confession. It took them less than a week to put in shape, though it may be that for a few weeks before they were gathering together the material which they arranged at such short notice. One of the leading ends for which such documents were drawn up and given to the world was to let friend and foe alike know what the truth was that was held. Thus the Confessors might clear up difficulties and give a careful and considered answer to misrepresentations that found currency in regard to their Teaching. The Scottish Confession was the manifesto of the Reforming party. It was, as we see, hurriedly adjusted; but it was the work of men who were at home in their subject. And although it is less technical and academic than many of its sister Confessions, yet it is drafted in a more free and familiar fashion than any one of them. There is a frank outspokenness about it that was quite in keeping with the character of the leader of the Reforming movement. Its strength lies in these things and not in the balanced accuracy with which it sets forth the faith of the men who drew it up. The very fact that none of them would be spoken of as a specialist in the positive or dogmatic statement of the proportion and value of the various truths confessed makes the Scottish Confession a very human document. The men who gave it in were capable working theologians, but they could not be classed as experts of the first rank with Calvin or Bucer, or Peter Martyr or Bullinger. Know in his treatise on Predestination gives a good sample of his work. He shows, however, his native boldness at times as when in his History he disagrees with what Paul did on the occasion of his last visit to Jerusalem when he was at the expense of the service of purification of the four men that had a vow. The Confession, however, though it is often spoken of as his work, was that of his fellow-Reformers as well as of Knox.
In common with the other Confessions of the Reformed Churches the Scots Confession makes its appeal to Holy Writ and builds upon its teaching. It gives a chapter to the authority of the Scriptures. Yet its statements as to what Holy Scripture is are not by any means full. But there is no dubiety as to what they mean and were intended to cover. Thus in the 18th chapter we come across these words which come, as it were, by the way:
"The doctrine taught in our Churches contained in the written Word of God, to wit, in the books of the Old and New Testaments, in those books, we mean, which of the ancients have been reputed canonical. In the which we affirm that all things necessary to be believed for the salvation of mankind are sufficiently expressed."
The chapter goes on to speak of its interpretation and says:
"When controversy then happens for the right understanding of any place or sentence of Scripture. . . we ought not so much to look what men before have said or done as unto that which the Holy Ghost uniformly speaks within the body of the Scriptures. . . For this is a thing universally granted that the Spirit of God which is the Spirit of unity is in nothing contrarious to Himself."
Then again we read in the Preface:
"Protesting that if any man will note in this our Confession any Article or sentence repugnant to God's Holy Word that it would please him of his gentleness and for Christian charity's sake to admonish us of the same in writing; and we, upon our honours and fidelity, by God's grace do promise to him satisfaction from the mouth of God, that is, from His Holy Scripture, or else reformation of that which he shall prove to be amiss."
There is given in the Confession a sketch of the history of the promise or of the progress of gracious revelation. Yet it has no elaborate statement of what the word is, the assured faith of which it teaches. It obviously, however, proceeds upon the acceptance of Holy Writ as being God's Word. In this respect it followed in the line of the Universal Church as well as of the sister Churches of the Reformation age. They accepted the New Testament Scriptures as the Divinely authoritative account of the witness borne by the Apostles to the truth of the revelation of the Everlasting Word. The Apostles had seen for themselves and heard for themselves and were competent first-hand witnesses, and their witness is on permanent record for the good of the Church. Those Scriptures which embody and perpetuate their witness convey with equal truth and authority the teaching which they give to open up the meaning of the Gospel facts, so that with the New Testament books in her hand the Church to the end of time is able to hear the voice of the witnesses and teachers whom the Lord appointed for her establishment in her New Testament, and final earthly, form. In thus accepting the New Testament in its witness and its teaching as authoritative and trustworthy the Reformed Confession echoed the witness to Holy Scripture which was a feature of the historical Church as a visible organisation. Taking their place at the footstool of their Lord and His Apostles, our Reformers handled the Scriptures of the Old Testament with the same reverence and submission with which both Christ and His Apostles treated them. The Scriptures, then, that they built upon were the whole Canon of the Old Testament, Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms with those of the dispensation of fulfilment. To controvert or overthrow their teaching they held that their opponents must first set aside the teaching of Holy Writ. For it was on the Divine Word that they built, and their teaching owed all the authority that it claimed to the written Word which was its warrant.
Teaching that made such claims naturally met with opposition from the Roman Communion. So in argument with the Romanists the Reformers were called upon to answer objections and clear up difficulties which were as fully relevant when raised against Rome's own doctrine on the subject as they were against that of the rest of Christendom. The difficulties were as real for the one side in the dispute as for the other. In taking the line of raising such objections the Romanists were seeking to shut men in to a blind submission to what they held to be the infallible judgment of the teaching Church. To secure their end some of their spokesmen did not shrink from serving the cause of specific unbelief. In practice this procedure meant that it was lawful for them to do evil that good might come. As a matter of fact the claims which they put forth on behalf of the Church they defended by the witness of Scripture as the Word of God, while, by taking the course that they did, they were busy sawing off between themselves and the trunk the branch of the tree on which they were sitting. All Christians have the benefit of the witness of the Church in its historic continuity. And the value of this witness does not depend on the acceptance by all parties of the Roman definition of what the Visible Church is.
It was one of the weaknesses that developed since the age of the post-Reformation discussions that many of the Protestants came to lay less stress than was well warranted by their own true principles on the testimony of the custodian in whose hands the sacred books have been throughout the ages. When we find an Apostle directing one of those books to all that in every place call upon the name of Christ Jesus our Lord we may see what holds of the rest of the New Testament books, that whatever the profession of the truth of the Evangel is made by calling on the name of the Lord those who make it are not outwith the range and ambit of the definition that tells what the Visible Church of God is. That Visible Church in which they have a place bears witness to Holy Writ which it holds in its hands. It is a mistake, then, to leave with Rome, as if it were her exclusive property, the witness of the Visible Church to the Holy Oracles. For it is a witness in which the whole visible corporate Church has a share, and it is needed for the full exhibition of the Christian case.
Such a mistake our Reformers did not think of making, however rashly at times Luther might speak. They were teased by their opponents with piffling questions of a critical nature, but they held fast the Canon of historical Christendom which was more than Rome did, when, at Trent, she canonised so many of the ApocryphaAPOCRYPHA n.
A group of Jewish books written during the four hundred 'silent' years between Malachi and Matthew. They are of doubtful origin, and not included in the authentic Canon of Scripture.
There is no record of Christ or any of the New Testament writers ever quoting from the Apocrypha, although they quoted extensively from the Old Testament.. As they stood fast by the witness of Holy Writ they relegated to the minor and subordinate place that belongs to it the whole range of mere critical details. There is no mistake about this, that it was not on the authority of the Church that they believed the Scriptures. But when she as a witness brought the holy books to their notice and they discerned the decisive intrinsic marks that they bear, marks that are inwrought into their very fibre, and that testify to their Divine origin, they saw the sacred writings shine in their own light. With such a discovery of their true and inner glory they could say to the Church as was said to the woman of Samaria: "Now we believe, not for thy saying, for we have heard Him ourselves and know that this is indeed the Christ the saviour of the world." The discovery, in the Gospel, of the Lord in His glory and truth carries with it a recognition of the truth of the Word that sets Him forth. And if we acknowledge the truth of the Word we accept its testimony as to the spiritual equipment of its writers. We see, too, the Divine character that belongs to their work. In regard to the place accorded to Holy Writ in the Theology of Scotland, no great question was raised until the closing quarter of the nineteenth century.
Quite in keeping with the haste with which it was put in shape, the Scots Confession is not distinguished by that deliberate order and consecution of parts that one prepared in a more leisurely fashion might be expected to show. It does not bear the marks of the dogmatic treatise or the handbook to Systematic Theology. Thus, for example, it is in Chapter 3, which deals with Original Sin, that we find its most definite statement in regard to Regeneration. This reads:
"Which regeneration is wrought by the power of the Holy Ghost, working in the hearts of the elect of God an assured faith in the promise of God revealed to us in His Word; by which faith we apprehend Christ Jesus with the graces and benefits promised in Him."
In a series of the chapters of the Confession there is a narrative quality as they present in historical form the truth that is confessed. It is a sketch before Jonathan Edwards' day of the History of Redemption when the Confession treats of the Revelation of the Promise in Chapter 4, and then in Chapter 5 the Continuance, Increase and Preservation of the Church until the coming of Christ. This is followed by Chapter 6, which treats of the Incarnation, the great thing to which the previous process was leading up. Such an historical way of setting forth the truth in regard to the onward progress of Divine Revelation is like an echo of what is found in the Summa Doctrinae of John Alasco's Church of the Strangers or Foreigners in London. Knox had come into touch with this body both in London and in Frankfurt.
As an illustration of how untechnical the Confession is we have in Chapter 8 what we might look for in Chapter 7. The seventh chapter is entitled: "Why it behoved the Mediator to be very God and very man." The next chapter treats of Election, and there we read:
". . . It behoved further the Messias and Redeemer to be very God and very Man because he was to underlie the punishment due for our transgressions and to present Himself in the presence of His Father's judgment as in our person to suffer for our transgressions and inobedience, by death to overcome him who was the author of death. But because the only Godhead could not suffer death, neither yet could the only Manhood overcome the same, He joined both together in one Person that the imbecility of one should suffer and be subject to death which we had deserved; and the infinite and invincible power of the other, to wit, of the Godhead, should triumph and purchase to us life, liberty, and perpetual victory."
After the question why it behoved the Mediator to be very God and very man has been dealt with and the answer expanded under the caption of Election, there are three chapters which deal in order with the Death, the Resurrection, and the Ascension of Christ. From this the Confession goes on to acknowledge our faith in the Holy Ghost and in His work as that is seen in the good works of believers. Then in regard to good works, the question is taken up and handled of what their norm is. So the Law comes in for discussion, after which the Confession deals with the Perfection of the Law and the Imperfection of Men. It is in this chapter that its teaching in respect to Justification is given. This has no scholastic treatment accorded to it when we find it expressed in these terms:
"And therefore it behoves us to apprehend Christ Jesus with His justice and satisfaction who is the end and accomplishment of the Law by whom we are set at this liberty that the curse and malediction of God fall not upon us albeit we fulfil not the same in all points. For God the Father beholding us in the body of His Son Christ Jesus accepts our imperfect obedience as if it were perfect and covers our works which are defiled with many spots with the justice of His Son."
In respect to the continued acceptance of believers we read again in Chapter 25:
"But such as with heart unfeignedly believe and with mouth boldly confess the Lord Jesus as before we have said shall most certainly receive these gifts: First, in this life, remission of sins and that by only faith in Christ's blood insomuch that albeit sin remain and continually abide in these our mortal bodies, yet it is not imputed unto us but is remitted and covered with Christ's justice."
Objection has been taken to such an account of Justification by Faith as not being the same as is taught in common by the Confessions of the Reformation. It is true it is not so distinctly or fully wrought out. There is no doubt, however, that our Scottish Reformers, though in the statements quoted they do not cover the whole field, were of one mind with their brethren in other lands in this matter. For we have to take note of the fact that as surely as they submitted their Confession they appointed Calvin's Catechism for the teaching of youth, and in 1566 cordially accepted the Second Helvetic Confession, apart from what it says in regard to holidays. And there is no dubiety as to where the Geneva Catechism and the Second Helvetic Confession stand on the subject of Justification by Faith. When the Confession speaks of "the end and accomplishment of the Law," Dr Mitchell of St Andrews aptly quotes to illustrate the meaning from Balnaves on Justification - Henry Balnaves was fellow-prisoner for the Faith with John Knox himself - "Christ is the end of the Law (unto righteousness) to all that believe, that is, Christ is the consummation and fulfilling of the Law and that justice which the Law requireth, and all they which believe in Him are just by imputation through faith, and for His sake are reputed and accepted as just." (Baird Lectures on The Scottish Reformation, p 113, by A F Mitchell, DD). On this doctrine no one doubts that Knox was at one with his old comrade and partner in suffering and witness.
The Confession goes on to treat of the Church and its notes. In regard to these marks of the Visible Church it lays stress, as we have seen, on the exercise of godly discipline when it says (Chapter 18):
"Last, ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered as the Word prescribes, whereby vice is reproved and virtue nourished."
In giving this note, the Confession stands among the Symbolic documents pretty much by itself. It goes on then to deal with the Sacraments along the lines of Reformed teaching which restricts the good of them to the Elect, the people of God, the faithful. Particular stress is laid, and that at some length, on the Lord's Supper. There is a chapter treating of the Civil Magistrate which laid the foundations for the later teachings of the Church of Scotland in regard to the office of the supreme power in the State and his duties circa sacra as custos utriusque tabulae.
“A Review of the Scots Confession of 1560” is from John MacLeod’s Scottish Theology - In Relation to Church History Since the Reformation, (Edinburgh: The Knox Press, 1943, reprinted 1974), pp 14-22.
SCOTTISH REFORMATION SOCIETY
The Scottish Reformation Society was founded in 1851, following a protest against the re-establishment of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England. The original constitution of the Society set out its objectives as being “to resist the aggressions of Popery; to watch the designs and movements of its promoters and abettors; and to diffuse sound Scriptural teaching and information on the distinctive tenets of Protestantism and Popery”.
To these aims, the Society has maintained and promoted a faithful witness to the present time. A quarterly magazine, The Bulwark, is committed to the same principles as the Society and the material is drawn from a wide source of Reformed teachers and writers past and present.
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