The Westminster Confession of Faith

J.V. Fesko writes,

“For centuries, countless Christians have turned to the Westminster Standards for insights into the Christian faith. These renowned documents - first published in the middle of the 17th century - are widely regarded as some of the most beautifully written summaries of the Bible’s teaching ever produced.”

When I was first introduced to the Westminster Standards, the first thing that I thought to myself was, what are the Westminster Standards? And I presume that some - not all - but some of you might know that we are a Westminster Presbyterian Church, but have never had the opportunity to read or have the Westminster Standards explained to you. Well this year, I hope to rectify that and take you through what Mr Fesko calls “some of the most beautifully written summaries of the Bible’s teaching ever produced” because I think you will greatly benefit from seeing just how useful, practical, succinct, and sound, the Westminster Confession (in particular) really is. It really is a document that timely came in the life of the church, and it’s longevity in guiding and growing Christians, churches and the presbyterian denomination is a testament to its status among us.

Now before we start to look in greater detail into the standards and more particularly the Westminster Confession (which we will do next week), it might be useful to answer the question, what exactly is the Westminster Confession (hereby WCF). American theologian John Bower writes, “the WCF was designed as a doctrinal compass to keep the scriptural bearings of the church true, even when tossed by error and division.” And so that gives us a clue into the world in which the WCF was both designed, written and published because no Creed or Confession was ever written in a vacuum, no the great touchstones of Christian orthodoxy (Nicene, Caledonian, the thirty nine articles etc…) usually became necessary because the Church was fighting against the heretical and dodgy doctrine of its day.

And so that is part of the story of the Westminster Standards. The divines (a fancy word for the pastors and theologians that put this document together) thought it necessary because the church of England hadn’t (in their view) fully reformed. No, they felt that the church’s Catholic roots weren’t fully dug out and so when the Puritans had won control of the government (of Westminster) in the 1640’s, one of the first things that they set out to do was set the Church back on the straight and narrow. Now there are so much more historical detail that we could go in to here, but I think the big highlights to take away about the context and necessity of the Westminster standards is that they were guarding the church from Catholicism (which hadn’t fully left) and Arminianism (which had started to come in). And so 121 divines got together and literally held court to make cases and arguments as to what the whole council of scripture actually taught so that the church of England could be fully reformed and pleasing to God in her worship and practice - to be a city set on a hill in a dark, dark world - the WCF was finished in 1647.

Church historian Justin Holcomb states, “ironically, the WCF had far more impact outside of the church of England then within it. The works of the assembly not only became official statements of the Scottish Church, but also served as the basis for the foundational theological statements of two other English sects and through them several other denominations.” In other words the WCF didn’t make an impact on the English Church like the Puritans had hoped, but the incredible thing is that though it didn’t hit the target that humanity had intended for it to do so, their labour was not in vain. No, God saw it fit to use their hard work and dedication for much bigger things. The WCF has far exceeded anything that the Puritans designed for it to do so. And so over the coming year as we go through their meticulous and detailed document, it is my prayer that you will be blessed and edified as so many Christians through the centuries have been by the WCF.

Published: March 15, 2024

Updated: March 15, 2024