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Reformed Confessions: Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms (1643)

John R. Muether

On July 1, 1643, in the midst of a civil war, a group of 121 “divines” or ministers gathered in London’s Westminster Abbey, eventually joined by six influential (though non-voting) Scottish commissioners. Parliament had convened the Westminster Assembly of Divines with the task of reforming the religion of the Church of England, clearing its doctrine from “all false aspersions or misconstructions,” in order to make it “more agreeable with the Word of God.” Strictly speaking, this was not a church court; it was empowered with no ecclesiastical authority. In its advisory role it would compose three doctrinal formularies, a Confession of Faith and two catechisms, as well as a directory for worship and a form of church government.

Covering thirty-three chapters from Holy Scripture to the last judgment, the Westminster Confession is lauded for its breadth and scope as well as its concision of language. The Shorter Catechism’s first answer is the most famous of all Reformed catechisms: “man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” By far the least familiar of the three is the Larger Catechism, and this to the great detriment of churches today. It is distinguished by its fine summaries of doctrine, its elaborate exposition of the Ten Commandments, and its emphasis on the visible church.[1] (See the excerpt below for the careful way in which the Larger Catechism affirms the personal properties of the Trinity, including the eternal Sonship of Christ.)

John Murray summed up the work of the assembly in this way:

The Westminster Confession and Catechisms, are … the mature fruit of the whole movement of creed-formation throughout fifteen centuries of Christian history, and, in particular, they are the crown of the greatest age of confessional exposition, the Protestant Reformation. No other similar documents have concentrated in them, and formulated with such precision, so much of the truth embodied in the Christian revelation.[2]

Regarding the first (and longest) chapter on Scripture, the great Princeton theologian Benjamin B. Warfield wrote: “There is certainly in the whole mass of confessional literature no more nobly conceived or ably wrought-out statement of doctrine.… It has commanded the hearty admiration of all competent readers.”[3]

The Westminster divines labored for five and a half years in 1,163 regular sessions.  “It is a savage irony,” writes Robert Letham, that the assembly was “a total failure” in its goal to reform the Church of England.[4] But it produced a body of work that would change the course of Reformed Protestantism forever, far beyond the “three kingdoms” of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

As we draw this series to a close, it is important to underscore the assembly’s use of its rich Reformed confessional antecedents. Despite claims (now largely discredited) that the theology of Westminster was a scholastic departure from the spirit of the Reformation, the divines saw themselves in continuity with the sixteenth-century confessions we have surveyed. “Their doctrine of Scripture in no way precluded appeal to the tradition of the church,” noted Letham, a reliance that extended even beyond the Reformed confessions to the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds of the early church.[5]

An Excerpt: Westminster Larger Catechism, Q/A 7-11

Q. 7. What is God?
A. God is a Spirit, in and of himself infinite in being, glory, blessedness, and perfection; all-sufficient, eternal, unchangeable, incomprehensible, everywhere present, almighty, knowing all things, most wise, most holy, most just, most merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth.

Q. 8. Are there more Gods than one?
A. There is but one only, the living and true God.

Q. 9. How many persons are there in the Godhead?
A. There be three persons in the Godhead, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one true, eternal God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory; although distinguished by their personal properties.

Q. 10. What are the personal properties of the three persons in the Godhead?
A. It is proper to the Father to beget the Son, and to the Son to be begotten of the Father, and to the Holy Ghost to proceed from the Father and the Son from all eternity.

Q. 11. How doth it appear that the Son and the Holy Ghost are God equal with the Father?
A. The Scriptures manifest that the Son and the Holy Ghost are God equal with the Father, ascribing unto them such names, attributes, works, and worship, as are proper to God only.

The Sequence of Confessions

Sixty-Seven Articles of Ulrich Zwingli (1523)
Tetrapolitan Confession (1530)
First Helvetic Confession (1536)
French Confession of Faith (1559)
Scots Confession (1560)
Belgic Confession of Faith (1561)
Heidelberg Catechism (1563)
Second Helvetic Confession (1566)
Canons of the Synod of Dordt (1619)
Westminster Confession & Catechisms (1643)

Endnotes

[1] W. Robert Godfrey summarizes well the value of the Larger Catechism in his introduction to J. G. Vos’s The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary, ed. G. I. Williamson (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2002), ix–xx.

[2] John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray, Volume 1: The Claims of Truth (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1976), 313.

[3] Benjamin B. Warfield, The Westminster Assembly and its Work (New York: Oxford University Press, 1931), 155.

[4] Robert Letham, The Westminster Assembly: Readings in its Theology in Historical Context (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2009), 47.

[5] Letham, 92.

John R. Muether serves as a ruling elder at Reformation Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Oviedo, Florida, dean of libraries at Reformed Theological Seminary, and historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Ordained Servant Online, December 2017.

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