Scotland and the Westminster Confession of Faith
04 Jul 2015
Scotland and the Westminster Confession of FaithScotland and the Westminster Confession of Faith
Professor Douglas MacMillan
“Do you sincerely own and believe the whole doctrine contained in the Confession of Faith, approved by former General Assemblies of this Church to be founded upon the Word of God, and do you acknowledge the same as the confession of your faith?”
For many generations, not only in Scotland but all through the English speaking world, people who attended the ordination or induction of ministers of the gospel of Christ into Presbyterian churches heard that question put to and affirmed by generation after generation after generation of ministers. And they were in fact, the very words that were put to me, at my ordination into the gospel ministry and my induction to my first charge.
Now these words reflect for us the central place that the Westminster Confession of Faith has had, and still holds, in the religious and Christian life of Scotland. And so closely identified is the Confession with the land of Scotland that many people have thought that the Westminster Confession is a Scottish document. However, although it is not a Scottish document, Scottish influence had a lot to do with the preparation and final formulation of the Confession.
Now I would like to look at the Westminster Confession of Faith in Scotland from three different points of view. First historically, then doctrinally, and last, from a more practical point of view. So we will consider the Origins, Objectives, and Operation of the Westminster Confession of Faith.
1. Origins of the Westminster Confession of Faith
In order to discover how this famous document come into being, we will have to take a brief historical survey of the events leading up to the Westminster Assembly of Divines.
Towards the end of the year 1640, at a time when Charles II was at odds with his Parliament in England, a very interesting document was sent from Scotland to be laid before a group of men who were called the 'Lords of the Treaty'. They were the men who were in charge of affairs while Charles was out of the picture for a little while and there was a lot of argument going on between himself and the parliament.
This document was sent to the Lords of the Treaty in London. It was conveyed there by Commissioners of the Church of Scotland, and it is believed to have been drawn up by one of the great leading statesmen of the Scottish Church of all time, the Rev Alexander Henderson, who also framed the Solemn League and Covenant. It had a long and very interesting title, "Our Desires Concerning Unity in Religion and Uniformity of Church Government as a Special Means to Conserve Peace in His Majesty's Dominions."
Desire for Unity
Now, in spelling out these desires in greater detail, the document made this very explicit and emphatic statement: "It is to be wished that there were one Confession of Faith, one Form of Catechism, and one Directory for all parts of the Public Worship of God in all the Churches of His Majesty's Dominions."
Then two years later in 1642, the English Parliament sent what was called a Declaration to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, meeting that year in St Andrews. The Declaration went like this: it was a message earnestly desiring "a most firm and stable union between the two kingdoms of England and Scotland, and that in view of the prevailing situation." Now the prevailing situation was one of tension between King and Parliament, and all sorts of tensions were creating a very ugly and threatening atmosphere in the southern kingdom.
In their answer, the General Assembly referred back to the paper referred to earlier in 1640, and they promised "That every effort necessary for agreeing upon a common Confession of Faith, Catechism and Directory for Worship, shall according to the order given by this Assembly be most willingly performed."
So to summarise, the Scottish Assembly first reached out to England, making the suggestion that a harmony in religion in the faith believed, the way people worshipped, and uniformity in the church, would be a means of establishing peace between the two kingdoms. England responded two years later, and again, the Scottish Church was willing to participate to its strength in doing that.
Invitation to Westminster
Now it was on the strength of these Scottish assurances that the English Parliament in 1643 commissioned certain noblemen and clergymen to attend the Scottish General Assembly in Edinburgh, asking for such godly and learned men as they thought fitted for the task be sent to Westminster. A few days later, backing up that move, an invitation came from an Assembly of Divines already meeting in Westminster, to the General Assembly in Scotland.
Now these divines in England had met by order of the English Parliament in June of 1643, just two months earlier. They had met specifically to prepare a defence of the Thirty Nine Articles, which were the confession of the faith held by the Church of England. They met to prepare a defence and clarification of these articles from scurrilous attack, and to prepare also a system of Church Government and Church Order. Now the letter from them, backing up the request from the Parliament in England welcomed the prospect of some Scotsmen coming among them, and it assured them of "all testimonies of respect, love and the right hand of fellowship". And it looked forward to Scotsmen coming among them to "put the sickles into this harvest which is so great". These men regarded this as a primary and basic task, and the Scottish Church looked upon it as a great opportunity, not only for unifying believers in both kingdoms, but also for unifying the two countries and bringing in a stable and lasting peace.
The Scottish Commissioners
Now acting very promptly upon these overtures, that Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1643 nominated Commissioners to "Repair unto the Assembly of Divines and others of the Church of England now sitting at Westminster to propound, consult, treat, and conclude with them in all such things as may conduce for the settling of the so much desired union of this whole island in one Form of Church Government, one Confession of Faith, and one Directory for the Worship of God."
They actually appointed eight commissioners, from the Scottish Assembly, five Ministers and three Elders. [ED: In the Presbyterian form of Church Government, a Minister is not above, but holds the same office as an Elder.] One of the Ministers and one of the Elders never actually went, but four of the Ministers did, and they stayed and worked with the Assembly of Divines in Westminster for almost as long as the Assembly sat. Their names should be familiar to us all - they are famous in Scottish church history, and they were great and godly men.
The one I have mentioned already, Alexander Henderson, was the leader of the Church of Scotland. There was Samuel Rutherford, whose name is still fragrant amongst Christians everywhere, because of the spiritual Letters which he wrote. A man who is not so well known was Dr Robert Baillie who became a professor, another very godly man. We owe a lot to him because he kept up a steady correspondence from Westminster and his letters give us great insight into what went on there. And finally, there was a young man, who wasn't long spared to the Church of Scotland, George Gillespie.
The Westminster Assembly
One feature of the Westminster Assembly and their work which we should notice is that when the Confession of Faith was prepared, it was then to be approved by the Lords and the Commons, the body which legally had commissioned it. The Assembly was composed of Episcopalians, Independents and Presbyterians, so there were bound to be differences of opinions, and in this event the differences of opinions (and the reasons) were to be reported to Parliament for further direction to the divines gathered.
Now these requirements of the Westminster Charter, the Charter which set up the Assembly of Divines, were carried through both in the letter and in the spirit. The racy letters of Robert Baillie to his homeland in Scotland, as well as the formal minutes of the sessions held, indicate very clearly that the English Parliament kept a very careful finger on the pulse of what was happening among the Assembly, and that it followed the whole proceedings with a very lively, intelligent and discerning interest. I wish we had a legislative body ruling our land today that was fit to judge on the things that are at issue in a Confession of the Christian faith - we had it in these days.
Now in terms of the Parliamentary instruction, the Assembly was in fact just an advisory rather than a legislative body, and their basic function was to consult and advise on matters laid before them by Parliament. Robert Baillie, being a good Scottish Presbyterian, was somewhat scandalised by this fact. He thought that it was a very Erastian procedure; that a Government shouldn't be dictating to the Church of Christ, and he actually wrote in one of his letters home "This is no proper Assembly, but a meeting called by Parliament to advise them in things that we are asked." So it was the Parliament that set afoot one of the greatest gatherings of divines, of a very outstandingly godly type and generation, that the Christian Church has ever known.
The Assembly did various things: they began revising the Thirty Nine Articles of the Church of England; they prepared the Directory for Public Worship and the Form of Church Government; and it wasn't until the summer of 1645, two years after the Assembly was first convened, that they were instructed by Parliament to prepare a totally new Confession of Faith that would sum up the things most surely believed amongst them. It was in the summer of 1645 that work on formulating this completely new Confession was begun, and the divines were occupied with nothing else from 7 July 1645 until 4 December 1646. So they were preparing and formulating the Confession of Faith for about 18 months. And it wasn't just once a week they met, but every day, and often until 10 or 11 O'clock at night.
On 4 December 1646 the document was presented by the whole Assembly to the House of Commons, and three days later to the House of Lords. And even then the Parliamentary body was not happy with it, and it was remitted back by the Commons to the Assembly of Divines to have Scripture Proofs added to the doctrinal statements they had made. This was done in another two or three months, and the whole document was then taken under consideration by Parliament, chapter by chapter, every Wednesday afternoon. That process was often interrupted because of difficulties between the Parliament and the King, but it went on until June 1648. Only then, after every chapter, and every section, and every clause had been discussed and looked at from all angles by the English Parliament, was the Confession approved by the House of Lords and the House of Commons, and it was printed and published in London.
The Scottish Church
Now back in Scotland the Church was kept very well informed of the progress in London by the Scottish Commissioners, and at the January meeting of the Commission of Assembly in 1647, the first orders of printing of the document were issued by the Scottish Assembly, and three hundred copies were available for the Church of Scotland General Assembly in August 1647. The Scottish Assembly would have given the Confession a far more careful and suspicious scrutiny than it was given in the English Parliament, because the Scottish Assembly of these days was absolutely full of very meticulous theological minds. It was scrutinised there, and on 27 August 1647 the Assembly of the Church of Scotland was able to express approbation of the "Confession of Faith agreed upon by the Assembly of Divines sitting at Westminster, with the assistance of Commissioners from the Kirk of Scotland. . . the said Confession being, upon due examination thereof, found by the Assembly to be most agreeable to the Word of God, and in nothing contrary to the received doctrine, worship, discipline, and government of this Kirk."
Now in doing this, the General Assembly declared satisfaction "as to the truth of the matter; (judging it to be most orthodox, and grounded upon the Word of God)". It expressed its willingness and desire that the document be "a common Confession of Faith for the three kingdoms" (being England, Scotland and Ireland). So the Scottish Church placed great value upon this new Confession, for it previously had a Confession of its own before that - the 'Scots Confession of 1560'. Being Scotsmen and happy with the Confession that John Knox had produced, they were very reluctant to go for another. They only accepted the new Confession to try to bring about a uniformity and a binding together into the fellowship of the Gospel, the Churches in the three kingdoms; declaring that they believed it to be in nothing contrary to their own Scottish Confession.
The Church of Scotland placed another stamp of approval upon it just two years later, for the General Assembly of 1649 passed an Act that in every house "where there is any that can read" there be at least one copy of the Confession of Faith, one copy of the Shorter Catechism, and one copy of the Directory for Family Worship. So that is how the Westminster Confession of Faith came into being, and how it became a very important document to the Scottish Church. They believed that it was a fair declaration of their belief and the faith that they confessed.
Now we've been looking at the origins: where the Confession came from and how it began, and I want now to go on in the second place to look at the objectives behind a Confession of Faith, and of course that means the objectives behind the Westminster Confession of Faith in this instance.
2. Objectives Behind the Westminster Confession of Faith
Why did this Confession come into being at all? Well the Confession came into being, as we have seen, because of a very strong desire rising in the Scottish Church for harmony and unity through the Church of Christ in all the lands where their king was king. And although some people have said that it was politically rather than religiously motivated, that desire came to be reciprocated from the English side, and that was why the Confession of Faith came into being.
So I want to say several things about this Confession of Faith, and they tend to hold true for any Confession of Faith.
A Symbol of Unity
One of the reasons for the Confession of Faith was that it was a Symbol of Christian Unity, and that is what any real confession of faith should be. Now the men who formulated this Confession of the Christian Faith set out to systematise and define, in clear unmistakable language, the truths that their Churches believed. They wanted to define and know for themselves what the belief of their Church was, and they wanted that belief to be known by others. As stated at the very beginning of the Confession, their beliefs were drawn from and rooted in the teaching of the Word of God, so the unity that they aimed at was to be a unity that was grounded in truth. We have to ask ourselves this question: Can there be any real Christian unity which is not grounded in truth?
The primacy of Scripture was quite clearly recognised, and the Confession was looked upon from the very outset as a Subordinate Document - subordinate to the Bible. But it was a document which was taking the truths which the primary source revealed, and while they recognised the supremacy of Scripture, they believed that the Confession was a fair and true exposition of the truths that Scripture taught.
So it was to be a symbol of unity, and basic to that was the setting out the interpretation of the Bible's teaching. They thought that the more clearly the Bible's teaching was framed and expounded, the more clearly it would be understood and the easier it would be for true Christians to come together in the knowledge that they were coming together in a unity of belief on the grounds of truth. So it was a sort of standard of truth, and it has remained that ever since: a rule by which truth believed can be known and measured.
The Westminster Divines said that the Bible, being the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, was to be the supreme standard, and it was recognised as the supreme standard. And just as the men who wrote the Scots Confession in 1560 had done, the men who wrote and formulated the Westminster Confession of Faith asked that if any person could show them where their confessional statements were not in harmony with Scripture, that the disharmony be pointed out to them, and they would correct it immediately.
So the basic position that underlay the acceptance of the Confession by the Scottish Church, and really what gave it then and what gives it now a real objective value is in my view that it is a Confession prepared in the light of Scripture itself, and it was to be scrutinised under Scripture. It was to be assessed by the teaching of the Bible, and it was to be believed only in as far as it was a fair and true representation of the Bible's teaching.
The Confession was a Symbol of Unity and it set out what the Bible taught, and it expected men to come together as Christian believers on the basis of what the Bible taught.
A Summary of Belief
Not only was the Westminster Confession a Symbol of Unity, but it was also a Summary of Belief, and this has to be distinguished from the previous point. The very idea of a Confession at all recognises the fact that while the Scriptures are from God, their understanding is by men. God has given us infallible Revelation in the Bible, but it is fallible men who have to grapple with that infallible Revelation. And therefore there is always some doubt, not about the Bible, but of our understanding of what the Bible says. That is why Confessions came into being at all, and ever since the time of the Lord Jesus Christ on earth, the Christian Church has confessed her faith. A Confession of Faith really comes out of a knowledge of the truth and an experience of God.
For example, one of the earliest confessions that we have, is found in the New Testament - the confession of Peter the fisherman from Galilee. In Caeserea Philippi one day, Jesus said to Peter, "whom say ye that I am?" And Peter confessed his faith, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God!" That was a confession of Peter's faith. After our Lord's resurrection another disciple confessed his faith in memorable words, "My Lord and my God!" (Thomas). You get the apostle Paul confessing like this, "I know whom I have believed, and I am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him against that Day." All these were personal confessions of a personal faith that was grounded in a belief in the truth.
And so confessions went on - one could go right through the New Testament. For example in 1 Corinthians 15:1-5 we get a fairly elaborate but succinct confession of the faith of the apostle Paul as a minister and preacher of the Church of Christ, "I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you. . . that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures". These were confessions of faith, and as time went on, after the apostles had left the scene, and as other men came in and began to reinterpret the message of the Gospel in their own way, there become an increasing need for a clear definition of what the Gospel was, and what the Scripture meant.
And there has been no time in the history of the Christian Church since then, when a Confession of Faith has not been needed. You see, as someone has said, almost any heretic or errorist who comes to your door will quote the Bible to you, but he'll quote it from his own particular point of view, and he will take no notice of what the broad stream of Christian belief has been down through the centuries. And that is why we need a confession: it is a summary of the things, as Paul said, most surely believed amongst us. The Psalmist had a confession of faith, "I believed, therefore have I spoken", and you can't believe without expressing your belief. Your can't hold your faith intelligently without expressing it. That is what a Confession of Faith is about.
So the Confession is a Symbol of Unity and a Summary of Belief, but it is also a Standard for Teaching.
A Standard for Teaching
How can we be sure that the men we send out into our churches and congregations, or into our mission fields will keep on preaching the Gospel we believe and for which we sent them forth? One way of doing it, is to make them subscribe to a Standard of the Truths which they teach. A Confession is a systematised Standard of Truth.
Now let me remind you that what ever else it is, the Westminster Confession of Faith is a biblical confession, and its a confession of the biblical faith. Its doctrines are drawn from nowhere else but the Bible. It is usually spoken of as being a Calvinistic document, and for the last hundred years, this has been said scornfully. But we could just as easily say that the Westminster Confession of Faith was Augustinian. Now it is Calvinistic, lets not be ashamed of it; it is Augustinian; but we could equally say that it is Pauline. What did Augustine do, but take the doctrine taught by Paul, who had taken the doctrine taught by Christ, and Augustine systematised it. Then at the time of the Reformation, one of the greatest theological minds the world has seen took the doctrines of Augustine. Seeing that it was a biblical system, Calvin elaborated it more and made it clearer, and gave us theological works that are coming back into the hearts, as well as the minds of men today.
So in a sense we have to say that its not just a Calvinistic document, and not just an Augustinian document, but that it is a biblical document. It is because these men were biblical that we can call it Calvinistic or Augustinian etc, but it goes right back to the teaching of the Old and New Testaments. Its doctrine is very positive - there are no 'ifs or buts' about the statements of the Confession of Faith. Bold straightforward affirmations of the teaching of Scripture, so that its teaching being clarified, linked together, and systematised, not only can be clearly understood, it cannot be misunderstood. One of the reasons that the Westminster Confession of Faith has for a long time been at a low ebb in our churches was just because of this simple fact: Not only can it be easily understood - it cannot be misunderstood.
So the Westminster Confession is positive, but not only that, it is also negative. It does what every good Confession ought to do - it shuts out and excludes erroneous and wrong interpretations of the Bible, and so it safeguards biblical doctrine from the slants and the twists of heresy. And I believe that in this connection the Westminster Confession of Faith does its work superbly. If you know your Shorter Catechism, far less the Confession of Faith, you'll be able to teach any of the heretical sects that come to your door, what the way of God is.
Professor John Murray, one of our own Scotsmen, and one of the great Scottish theologians, one of the great biblical theologians of the Twentieth Century, has had this to say of the Westminster Confession of faith: "In respect of fidelity to Scripture, precision of thought and formulation, fullness of statement, balanced proportion of emphasis, studied economy of words, and effective exposure of error, no creedal confession attains the level of excellence characterising that of the Westminster."
What a standard the Confession gives for teaching oneself; and until one has taught oneself, one cannot teach others. So I suggest that it is a marvellous manual for teaching the truths which are to be believed by Christians.
A Seal of Identity
And then finally, not only is the Confession is a Symbol of Unity, a Summary of Belief, and a Standard for Teaching, but it brings a Seal of Identity. How do you know what a Church really believes, but by what it professes to teach.
Perhaps someone says "We teach the Bible, and that's all we want." In one sense, Yes; but we really need more than just a profession of holding to the Bible, because you could go to a Mormon, and he would say, "Yes, we teach the Bible". But once you were six weeks in their church they would start telling you about the Book of Mormon as well. You could go to any of the sects, and they would all tell you that they hold to the Bible; but when you get to know them a little bit better, they all have a confession of faith which interprets the Bible in their own way. The Mormons have them - little cards with seven cardinal doctrines - which unless you believe and accept, you cannot become a Mormon, and therefore you'll never be saved. Jehovah Witnesses have them - they will not confess the full deity of the Lord Jesus Christ.
So you need more than a bare profession of belief in the Bible. For example, The Westminster Confession of Faith teaches on the main doctrines taught in the Bible. It teaches the Doctrine of God - that the biblical doctrine of God is a Trinitarian doctrine - that God is one God, and yet He is three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
There is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit. . . [WCF II:1]
In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. The Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son. [WCF II:3]
That doctrine goes back a long way, and all that the Westminster Divines have done is that they have gathered the doctrines formulated hundreds of years before, formulated in the Council of Nicea in 325 AD - not believed for the first time but formulated then. The doctrine of the Trinity was plucked out of the Nicene Creed and put into the Westminster Confession of Faith in very clear, understandable language.
It is the same with doctrine of Christ: it tells us who He is, that He is the Son of God; that He is one Person, not two Persons; that He has two Natures; and it excludes all sorts of errors in these simple statements.
The Son of God, the second person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance, and equal with the Father. . . so that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man. [WCF VIII:2]
It teaches us what the Bible has to say about man: that he is a sinner; that he's under God's wrath and curse; that he is not now as he was when he came from the hand of the Creator; and so on.
Our first parents being seduced by the subtlety and temptation of Satan, sinned in eating the forbidden fruit. . . [WCF VI:1]
By this sin they fell from their original righteousness, and communion with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body. [WCF VI:2]
They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed, and the same death in sin and corrupted nature conveyed to all their posterity, descending from them by ordinary generation. [WCF VI:3]
From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions. [WCF VI:4]
Every sin, both original and actual, being a transgression of the righteous law of God, and contrary thereunto, doth, in its own nature, bring guilt upon the sinner, whereby he is bound over to the wrath of God, and curse of the law, and so made subject to death, with all miseries spiritual, temporal, and eternal. [WCF VI:6]
Now if you have a Church which says, "Yes, we believe the Westminster Confession of Faith", you can find out what that Church believes. You can tell what kind of doctrine will be preached from its pulpits, and among its congregations. What a useful, helpful thing a Confession is in Identifying a church, and a church without a confession is almost a church without an identity.
I want to give you a quote from the Banner of Truth magazine: "Let it be remembered that unity does not begin at the level of structure and organisation; it begins with heart commitment to the truth of Christ. That is why the confessions and creeds of historic Christianity, in which we profess the sense in which we understand Scripture (for every heretic or errorist can quote Scripture), are the rallying points for unity today."
The Confession of Faith helps us to know who we are and what we are, and it helps other people to know as well. Now I want to go on to look at our third area, the Operation of the Confession of Faith.
3. The Operation of the Westminster Confession of Faith
How has this particular Confession of Faith worked in Scotland over the years? And again, we have to go into some history.
Now from its firm and unhesitating acceptance by the Church of Scotland in 1647, and by the Parliament of Scotland which ratified and approved it as the Confession of the Scottish Church in 1649, it held a high and honoured place in the Scottish Church for almost 250 years. It was acknowledged in the Revolution Settlement, after the time of the Covenanters, in 1690; It was acknowledged in the Treaty of Union in 1707; and it was acknowledged in almost every other important legislation concerning the Church in Scotland by Parliament right through those 250 years.
The Presbyterian churches of Scotland gave the Confession unqualified adherence right through until the late 1870s and 1890s. By that time theological thinking in Scotland had undergone what one can only term as a sad convulsion. Changes occurred over the years 1860 to 1880 which were almost unbelievable. German rationalism, and a very self-important, self-assertive spirit of radical scholarship undermined confidence in the infallibility and authority of Scripture, and the inevitable result was an growing felt unease and dissatisfaction with a Confession which so strongly rooted in the Bible.
[ED: It is interesting to note how often in the history of Church, error and subsequent decline has come in through theological colleges, under the guise of 'advances in scholarship'. There is a dangerous temptation to be accepted by current secular thought, which will not accept the authority of God's Word. When the foundational doctrine of Scripture is thus undermined, all other doctrines begin to crumble and fall.]
Now the first official church action to relieve the tension between diminishing acceptance of the Bible as the Word of God, and a Confession which acclaimed the Bible as the truth of God, unchanged and unchangeable, was taken by the United Presbyterian Church in 1879. The United Presbyterian Church was a church which had brought together streams of earlier secessionists from 1733 and 1760. They had merged together in the 1840s to become the United Presbyterian Church. This was the first Presbyterian church in Scotland which became unable to live with an unqualified commitment to the Confession of Faith. In 1879 it passed a 'Declaratory ActDECLARATORY ACT n.
An Act which made certain Declarations about the way in which the office-bearers of the church subscribed to the Confession of Faith, effectively allowing men to subscribe while holding mental reservations about any doctrines they disagreed with.' which had a series of Articles which eased the Church away from full acceptance of the clear definitions of the Confession's theology.
In 1892 the Free Church of Scotland followed suit with its 'Declaratory Act'. This issued in the formation of the Free Presbyterian Church (and I have a lot of sympathy for the men who walked out of the 1892 Free Church), leaving a 'Protesting Minority' who refused to accept the authority to change what was a Constitutional Document of the Church.
At the union between the United Presbyterian Church and the Free Church in 1900, that 'Protesting Minority' was left behind as the remnant Free Church, when the United Free Church was formed. Now the critical thing about these 'Declaratory Acts' was that they left room for "diversity of opinion" in their minister's adherence to the Westminster Confession of Faith on such points in the Confession as do not "enter into the substance of the reformed faith", and basically the Declaratory Act of the Free Church in 1892 did the same thing. Now they were allowing diversity of opinion on that category of doctrine which did not enter into the substance of the reformed faith, but they also left completely undefined and indeterminate which doctrines fell into that category. The diversity of opinion catered for was not delimited or bounded in any way at all. All kinds of contrary belief, or almost no belief at all could then be free to sign the Westminster Confession of Faith as the 'confession of its own faith'.
The Church of Scotland
In an Act of Parliament in 1905 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland was given freedom to interpret and formulate her own view of the Confession, and she passed important Acts in the years 1910, 1921, 1926 and 1929; with her plan and basis of union with the majority of the United Free Church. In these Acts defining the relationship to the Confession of Faith as a Subordinate Standard, the Church of Scotland relaxed the adherence which she had held until then, in the same way as the other churches had done.
The 1926 Act, with its Declaratory Article is the most critical one, from a legal or doctrinal perspective, for the Church of Scotland today. That particular Act has nine Articles, and I would like to consider several points about them.
The first Article defines the faith held by the Church of Scotland, in certain ways. It defines it, for example, as holding to a Trinitarian doctrine and a Protestant doctrine of the Christian faith, and a church which is "receiving the Word of God which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the supreme rule of faith and life", and "avowing the fundamental doctrines of the catholic faith founded thereupon."
Now in essence, the Church of Scotland was doing the same thing as the other churches had done: Yes, we believe the 'fundamental doctrines' of the faith - But when you go through to look for a definition of what these 'fundamental doctrines' are, you don't find them; and they never have been defined.
The second Article of that 1926 Act asserts that the Westminster Confession of Faith is the chief or principle subordinate standard of the Church of Scotland, and containing the sum and substance of the faith of the reformed church. Article 5 says that the church shall be the sole judge with due regard to liberty of opinion in points which do not enter into the substance of the faith.
So these Articles all speak about the fundamentals or the substance of the faith, and we would expect that somewhere they would be defined, but in all these Articles, they are not defined at all.
In 1929 as part of a Plan and Basis of Union with the United Free Church, they produced a new Formula to which every minister and office-bearer would subscribe, and which would spell out the faith that they adhered to. And one hoped that what is missing in the Declaratory Act and the Act of 1926 would be brought into the Act of 1929, but when we go to that, we don't find that done either. The nearest approach to it is in Question 3 which is put to ordinands or men at inductions.
Question 3 of the Formula says "Do you believe the fundamental doctrines of the Christian Faith contained in the Confession of Faith of this Church?" It sounds good, but the one difficulty is that there is absolutely nothing in any of these Acts which spells out which of the doctrines of the Westminster Confession of Faith are the 'fundamental' ones, and which are the 'non-fundamental'. There is no way that we can tell which of the doctrines spell out the sum and substance of the faith, and that has been a felt difficulty in the Church of Scotland for a long time now. There is no further definition of the substance of the faith or the fundamental doctrine. It is the same kind of attitude as the United Presbyterian Church and the Free Church, in the late 1800s.
Now that leaves room, of course, for a great diversity of opinion (and perhaps it was meant to). It leaves room for argument as to what may and what may not be according to the Scriptures. Now since 1969 there has been a very encouraging debate going on in the Church of Scotland about this very matter. It has been brought to Assembly after Assembly, and I think that there has been strong movement within the Church of Scotland since 1969, either to get back to a whole hearted acceptance of and adherence to the Westminster Confession ,or to a declaration (no matter how short) that would tie men down to a prescribed minimum of doctrinal belief. Some now want to go back to the earlier more basic Church Creeds: the Creed of Nicea, which safeguards the Trinitarian doctrine of the Being of God; or the Creed of Chalcedon, which safeguards the doctrine of the Person of Christ. My own position is why go back to something that is not so clear, not so detailed, when you can already find them embodied in the Westminster Confession of Faith; because the Westminster Confession of Faith does embody all these earlier creeds. Do they want to accept just the total reducible minimum amount of doctrine? Or, do they not want a church which is able to operate with a broad front of doctrine. These are questions I would ask.
My plea would be for a return to a full acceptance of the Confession of Faith, to the kind of subscription that I mentioned at the very beginning of this paper. . . "Do you sincerely own and believe the whole doctrine contained in the Confession of Faith, approved by former General Assemblies of this Church to be founded upon the Word of God, and do you acknowledge the same as the confession of your faith?"
This article was transcribed from a recording of Scotland and the Westminster Confession of Faith - a lecture given by Professor Douglas MacMillan, at a public meeting of the Inverness Branch of the Scottish Reformation Society in 1984.
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”.
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