The Confession of Faith: A Critical Text and Introduction by John Bower

Ryan M. McGraw

The Confession of Faith: A Critical Text and Introduction, by John Bower, Principal Documents of the Westminster Assembly. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage, 2020, xviii + 415 pages, $40.00.

The Westminster Confession of Faith is the most robust and widely used Reformed confession of the seventeenth century. Representing the fruit of high orthodox Reformed thinking in the period of confessionalization, the Westminster Confession became the standard of ministerial unity in Presbyterian churches for centuries to come, and it served as the basis for Baptist and Congregational confessions of faith as well. The Westminster Confession continues in use in Presbyterian denominations across the world. This means that this Confession is an important part of the Christian heritage in general, and the Reformed tradition in particular. Yet in many cases, denominations that use the Confession include their own slight modifications to the original text, and the original text received minor alterations even in early printings. John Bower seeks to restore the original text by producing this critical edition of the Confession, with a substantial one hundred and ninety-two-page introduction to the production of the Confession and its contents. All readers interested in understanding the Confession in its own context will profit greatly from his painstaking work.

The author provides valuable historical background to the content and meaning of the Assembly’s work, largely building on the earlier research of Chad Van Dixhoorn. As he notes, “this study is more concerned with understanding how the confession was created than in explaining its meaning” (51). Nevertheless, his focus on the creation of the Confession is highly insightful in relation to the intent of the Assembly at key points. Bower illustrates the importance of his textual work by providing an example in which the original revision to the Thirty-Nine Articles included the word “all” in relation to Christ being the Savior of all men. Researchers have consistently based their analyses of atonement theories at the Assembly on the omission of the word “all,” which only applies to later copies of the Assembly’s work in revising the Articles (14). While the Assembly affirmed that Christ died for the elect only, they were comfortable retaining the biblical language of “all” in their documents.

In addition, Bower draws attention to the fact that “articles of knowledge” containing a brief summary of doctrine were drafted and only discovered recently (28). This issue was that Parliament had omitted a prescription in the proposed text of the Directory for Worship for the level of knowledge required to admit people to the Lord’s Supper, fearing that this would relegate the standard of admission to the Supper to the discretion of local church officers without any kind of uniformity (30). The resultant summary provided included Scripture, the Trinity, Christ’s two natures, creation and the fall, redemption in Christ and the means of applying his benefits, the nature and necessity of faith and repentance, the nature and use of the sacraments, and the future state (31). While bearing remarkable similarities to the membership vows used in many Presbyterian denominations today, Parliament intended the list to restrict the activities of local elders in examining communicants.

Bower goes on to show the vital role of the editorial committee at the Assembly in harmonizing the wording adopted in earlier chapters with that of chapters developed and adopted later (72). This committee later even began to change the order of some paragraphs in the final draft (91). It is interesting as well that the chapters on faith, repentance, and good works were added later to the initial chapter outline of the WCF (86). This was partly in response to concerns over antinomianism. Chapters eight and nine of the introduction address various official printings of the WCF and bibliographic issues. The final chapter outlines the method that the author used in his herculean task of producing an authentic critical text.

Bower offers useful insights at times into the content of the WCF as well. For example, he suggests that the reason for including a distinct chapter on adoption was that earlier Reformed creeds had presented adoption as the purpose of election and predestination. Moving election prior to creation resulted in the need for a distinct chapter on adoption (78). This is merely one example of such fruitful insights into the content and intent of the Confession.

Following the introduction, the text of the WCF itself appears in full, with the proof texts in the margins (195–234), followed by a table of corrections made to the proof texts (235–239). The remainder of the material compares the four authoritative printings of the WCF in parallel columns (242–342), a comparison of the WCF with the Irish Articles (343–350), and the Assembly’s partial revision of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (351–366). Bibliographic material, a glossary, and Scripture and subject indices make this book even more useful as a guide to the critical text, serving as an approximate guide to the original intent of the authors (190).

I have one minor quibble with Bower’s assertions. On page 114 he writes that oaths make an assertion and vows were promises “directly to God.” Bower mistakenly asserts that the WCF is at odds with its definition of vows by stating that vows can be between men. In actuality, this neglected the fact that vows were a species of oath in which people called on God to witness the truth or falsehood of promises made. While people must not make oaths and vows in the name of anything other than God, making vows to others, such as in marriage, fits the general definition of vows current at the time. Digging into more primary sources on this point would likely have resolved the issue.    

One of the great blessings of using a confession of faith that is over three hundred and fifty years old is that it connects the church of the present day to the Spirit’s work in the church in the past. One of the great challenges of using the WCF today is that it appeared in a context very different from our own. This work helps readers understand what the authors meant in their own context, how the text of the Confession was transmitted, and it gives us insight into its original form. This volume is indispensable to serious students of the WCF, whether historians, pastors, or interested church members. It is a useful complement to Bower’s earlier work on the Larger Catechism, and it leads readers to anticipate future books in this series.

Ryan M. McGraw is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as a  professor of systematic theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina. Ordained Servant Online, February 2021.

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Ordained Servant: February 2021

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