The Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) is an impressive summary of Reformed thought influenced by Puritan theology for the purpose of achieving doctrinal unity and clarity among a diverse group of Christians.
To best understand the WCF and how it came about, a historical primer on what was happening in Scotland and England at the time is helpful. Prior to the Westminster Assembly coming together, there was conflict in the Church of England. The main point of contention was the question over the role of the state in Church affairs. King Henry appointed himself as the supreme head of the church in 1534, a move that began a long discussion and power struggle concerning the roles of civil and church governments. A few years later in 1538, an English translation of the Bible was completed that allowed the people of England to have access to the Holy Scriptures in their language.
These developments pitted scriptural authority over and against the authority of both church and state government. What took place in England was a microcosm of the large scale Reformation taking place in Europe.
After Henry’s death, the Church of England continued to experience turmoil, and there were numerous attempts to unite the divided Church of England. However, reform was needed and the Westminster Assembly was summoned by the English Parliament in 1643 in order to organize the Church by revising the 39 Articles.
Content of the Westminster Confession
The Westminster Assembly met because of issues surrounding church government, church discipline, pastoral, elder, and deacon qualifications, and disagreements over ordination. But the scope of the resulting Westminster Confession was broader than that. All of the members of the Assembly were in basic agreement with the truth of the Calvinistic system of doctrine, and they believed the Roman Church and Arminianism to be in error.
The immediate result of the Westminster Assembly was the Westminster Confession, as well as the subsequent Shorter and Larger Catechisms. The Larger Catechism was intended for use in pastoral exposition, and the Shorter was intended for instructing children in the faith.
The Confession is overflowing with scriptural proofs, and it is anything but a cranky “hammer-headed” Calvinism.
The Westminster Confession is composed of thirty-three chapters. The opening chapter on the doctrine of Scripture was called by Benjamin Warfield “the best single chapter in any Protestant confession” (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology). The doctrine of predestination is only discussed in four chapters of the Confession (chapters 3, 5, 9, and 17). Moreover, the Confession is very careful in its discussion of reprobation (chapter 3, articles 7 and 8), qualifying the doctrine in terms of an emphasis on human freedom (chapter 9). God’s covenants with his people are emphasized (chapter 7) and “its doctrine of redemption structured according to God’s acts (chapters 10-13) and human response (chapters 14-17)” (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology).
While the entire Westminster Confession is relevant for Christians as a rich formulation of Christian theology, it has special relevance for the current situation in which the Church finds itself. First, the Confession would encourage those who claim to be Reformed to expand their theological horizon to embrace a larger system of Reformed theology rather than reducing it to only soteriology.
Additionally, the Confession is extremely careful, seeking to find a scriptural balance between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. The WCF is more careful than most contemporary Calvinists.
Moreover, because the document is Calvinistic, its tone is that of a theology permeated by divine grace. The Confession is overflowing with scriptural proofs, and it is anything but a cranky “hammer-headed” Calvinism.
Finally, the Westminster Confession is thoroughly concerned with maintaining conversation with the great Creeds of the Church that elaborated a robust doctrine of the Trinity (Nicaea) and Christology (Chalcedon).