Historical Sketch About The Westminster Confession of Faith

Bible Studies


What follows is a brief background about how The Westminster Confession of Faith came to be written—a fuller summary of this history can be found in A. A. Hodge’s The Confession of Faith.

Until very modern times virtually every state understood itself as a theocracy, with the head of state as God’s (or the gods’) vicegerent.  This gave divine authority to civil law and cohesion and homogeneity to the people.  In Western Christendom, at least from the time of Charlemagne, this was under the mediatorial authority of Rome.  Great Britain was no exception to this system and, indeed, added a new twist.

In 1527 King Henry VIII sought to have his marriage to his late brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon, annulled by Pope Clement VII.  Henry was not fundamentally motivated by lust but by a concern for political stability and wanted a male heir.  However, Catherine was the aunt of the Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, and Clement refused to grant the annulment.  England then broke with the Roman Catholic Church and declared Henry the head of the Church of England.

A measure of reformation came to the English Church at this point, with a much more thoroughgoing reform being carried out under Henry’s son, Edward VI.  In the Providence of God, Edward died early in his reign, and his sister, Mary, the daughter of Catherine, succeeded him.  She was Roman Catholic with a vengeance, and many Protestants were killed or went into exile under her reign (the Marian Martyrs and Exiles).  Mercifully, her rule was short—five years—and her sister, Elizabeth, came to power in 1558.

Elizabeth is the true genius behind the Church of England, and bequeathed a denomination that was Calvinistic in its official doctrine, was enough like Roman Catholicism in its worship to appeal to the mass of the English people, and was Erastian in it government (the head of the state is also the head of the church).  By means of this compromise—which she enforced with an iron-hand—Elizabeth was able to bring peace to her troubled land.

That settlement did not sit well either with Roman Catholics or with those who had studied under Calvin (some of the Marian Exiles) or their heirs, and so a movement was born to purify the Church of England.  These “Puritans” exercised increasing power under Elizabeth’s successor, James I, (James VI of Scotland, the son of Mary Stuart).  When James died, he was succeeded by his son, Charles I, who, along with his Arminian Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, was determined to enforce a common religious form throughout the realm.  Their enforcement of the Book of Common Prayer was particularly odious to the Scots, who soon revolted.

Charles needed money to fight the rebellious Scots and summoned Parliament for approval (That’s one reason that underscores why a line item veto is contrary the principle of the separation of powers in the U. S. Constitution.).  When they did not act in accordance with his desire, Charles dissolved them, but because of his continued inability to raise an army against the invading Caledonian hordes from the North, he summoned the representatives of the people once again.  This Puritan dominated Parliament, called the Long Parliament, determined to set many matters straight, among which was a revision of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion of the Church of England, and called a convention of theologians from throughout Britain to meet at Westminster Abbey.

What they produced was a series of documents in the spirit of Elizabethan unity, with a Puritan exegetical base.  Aiming at unity throughout the realm, they at times deliberately used ambiguous language.  Being Puritans, they decreed nothing but what they could support from Holy Scripture—whatever is not commanded in the Bible is forbidden for the Church to require whether in faith, life or worship.  This makes the Westminster Confession, in particular, a marvelous document; it is an effort of biblical scholars topically to set forth what the Bible teaches, yet it is not a narrow document, written with a party spirit.  Were I to have only three documents beside the Bible, I would want the Westminster Confession of Faith and two catechisms, the Westminster Shorter and Heidelberg.

Bob Vincent