Reflections on the Legacy of the Westminster Confession of Faith

(I delivered this paper on October 20, 2022 for a Webinar: Westminster Confession at 375: Historical Reflections and Contemporary Relevance. In commemoration of this important anniversary, the Congregational Library & Archives, Boston, and Dr Williams’s Library, London, brought scholars and theologians together to talk about the significance of the Westminster Confession: past, present, and future.)

I want to thank the organizers of this event for inviting me. I also want to greet our friends in Britain. My family and I lived in the UK on three occasions when I was a visiting scholar during my sabbaticals. We were at Mansfield College, Oxford in 1989, St Mary’s College, St Andrews in 1995, and Westminster College, Cambridge in 2001. I was also an ecumenical observer from the United Church of Christ to the General Assembly of the United Reformed Church meeting in York in 1989. We worshipped in URC congregations during our stays in England, and at Holy Trinity Church of Scotland in St Andrews where the minister was my next-door neighbor.

My son was six in 1989, and became fascinated by the English Civil War. By accident we happened upon an all-day battle re-enactment by Sealed Knot, which left quite an impression on him. We watched costumed Roundheads with pikes and Cavaliers on horseback charge at each other for hours. When he returned to the states, whenever a teacher mentioned the Civil War he would ask, “Which one?”

I’ve been tasked to reflect on the legacy of the Westminster Confession and what follows is merely that, my reflections. It may be a fool’s errand to attempt in 20 minutes, but here I go!

I first became aware of the Westminster Confession as an undergraduate at my Presbyterian college, Coe College, where generous scholarships were available to those who could recite the Shorter Catechism from memory. I didn’t quite accomplish this, but I did gain several wonderful phrases that stay with me still.

I suspect that the use of the Shorter Catechism may be one of the abiding legacies of Westminster. George Hunsinger told me that T. F. Torrance once remarked that the widespread use of the catechism in Scotland raised the intellectual tone of the Scottish people.

The original purpose for the Westminster Assembly was to provide the documents that would define, as they put it, “a thoroughly reformed Church of England.” That plan was ultimately thwarted by the restoration of the Stuart King Charles the Second in 1660 and the return of the monarchy, the episcopacy, and The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion.

Reformed Protestantism did, however, return in Scotland in 1690, and the numerous Scots and Ulster Scots who immigrated around the world brought their Presbyterian faith and the Westminster Standards with them. Significant numbers of Presbyterians settled in North America, New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere. Many of them still employ the Westminster Standards in one form or another.

And then there was my tribe, the Congregationalists. In seminary polity class we read Williston Walker’s “Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism” and I learned that the Westminster Confession was part of our heritage. It was affirmed by my Congregational forebears in Massachusetts by way of the Cambridge Platform of 1648, and later by the Connecticut Congregationalists, by way of the Saybrook Platform of 1708. The English Independents and Congregationalists affirmed Westminster in their Savoy Declaration of 1658. All three of these documents amended the polity portions of the Confession to affirm congregational polity over presbyterial.

In addition, “Westminster was also adopted by the English Baptists in 1677, and then in 1707 this London Confession was adopted by the immensely influential Philadelphia Association of Baptists in America. The unaltered Westminster Confession (and catechism) were made normative for the Church of Scotland in 1689, and then in due course for American Presbyterians as well.” (Ahlstrom, p. 131)

This gives us a sense of the reach of Westminster. In colonial and early America no other Confession had as much influence in shaping what became normative American Protestantism. In Sydney Ahlstrom’s magisterial 1972 A Religious History of the American People he writes, “As followed or adapted by later groups and churches, the Westminster Confession would become by far the most influential doctrinal symbol in American religious history.” (Ahlstrom, p. 131)

And, in 1844 Philip Schaff, the German Reformed historian of American religion, recognized without hesitation that “the reigning theology of the country is neither that of the Heidelberg Catechism, nor that of the Augsburg Confession, nor that of The Thirty-Nine Articles. It is the theology of the Westminster Confession. (Living Theological Heritage, p. 552)

Having said that, the context in which Westminster was used changed dramatically from its original project as a religious standard for a nation, voted on by an act of Parliament. In the new American reality, there was first a begrudging tolerance of other Christian groups by dominant groups, and eventually the emergence of “denominationalism,” something Schaff described to his colleagues when he returned to Germany.

In New England Congregationalism Westminster didn’t achieve the heft and authority it obtained in Presbyterianism. The Congregational Way fiercely defended the right and responsibility of each local congregation to determine its own affairs, call and dismiss its ministers, and write its own church covenant.

But we do know that Jonathan Edwards affirmed it. He maintained a long-standing correspondence with divines from both England and Scotland. John Erskine, a Church of Scotland minister, sent Edwards hundreds of books to aid the American’s theological research.

When Edwards was voted out of his pastorate in Northampton, he wrote a letter to Erskine regarding the offer of a possible call to a pastorate in the Church of Scotland;

“. . You are pleased, dear Sir, very kindly to ask me whether I could sign the Westminster Confession of Faith, and submit to the Presbyterian form of church government; and to offer to use your influence to procure a call for me to some congregation in Scotland. I should be very ungrateful if I were not thankful for such kindness and friendship. As to my subscribing to the substance of the Westminster Confession, there would be no difficulty: and as to the Presbyterian government, I have long been perfectly out of conceit with our unsettled, independent, confused way of church government in this land. And the Presbyterian way has ever appeared to me most agreeable to the Word of God, and the reason and nature of things, though I cannot say that I think that the Presbyterian government of the Church of Scotland is so perfect that it can’t in some respects be mended.” (Thanks to Kenneth Minkema of the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale Divinity School for sharing this letter with me.)

For those claiming Edwards as a Presbyterian on the basis of this letter I suggest we might take it with a grain of salt. Edwards was Congregationalist royalty; his father and grandfather were Congregational pastors, and he had just been voted out of his pastorate by his congregation. He had every reason to feel disaffected from congregational polity.

In the end, Edwards didn’t go to Scotland, he went to John Sargent’s mission to the Mohican Indians living in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. I have more than a casual interest in Edwards, as I am an active member of the First Congregational Church of Stockbridge, where Edwards was the second pastor.

I think of Edwards as a pivotal character from Puritanism to what follows in New England Congregationalism. Edwards had soaked in the New Learning that flourished in the century before he was born in 1703. He was a man of science, a close observer of nature, and a philosopher of natural science. He read Isaac Newton and John Locke, yet these did not lead him to skepticism or pure rationalism. He saw God’s providential hand in all the workings of the natural world.

The tension between head and heart, between reason and what Edwards called “the religious affections” is as old as the church itself. Edwards managed to keep them in balance. He approved of the revivals of the Great Awakening, but condemned their excesses. Edwards himself, was a key figure in the movement, and his writings defending the revivals were instrumental in bringing them to the attention of Puritans in England and Scotland.

But the revivals were one of the first challenges that the Westminster Confession faced in the New World. The old orthodoxy in New England generally rejected the revivals and split the Congregational Churches into Old Lights and New Lights. Similarly, the awakening split the Presbyterian church in two in the early 1740’s as evangelical “New Side” Presbyterians turned against more orthodox “Old Sides.”

So, the Confession, birthed as a document of unity, became the focus of a series of controversies and schisms. The Confession became used as a “subordinate standard” required by all office holders in the Presbyterian church. Hence, it became the doctrinal gatekeeper for ordination. The revivalists, while seldom openly denying it, looked more for a changed heart and evidence of regeneration. Thus begins an American tension that remains to this day.

From the Great Awakening right into the 20th century there were periodic controversies, splits and schisms involving the Westminster Standards. Heresy trials were not uncommon.

In the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century supporters of the revival tended to abandon the tenets of Old Calvinism enshrined in Westminster. The Congregationalist Nathanial Taylor and the Presbyterian Charles Grandison Finney repudiated Calvinist determinism, among other doctrines. Charles Hambrick-Stowe reminded me that Finney became a Congregationalist to avoid having to deal with a heresy trial.

Later in the 19th century there was more controversy surrounding the introduction of the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation recently introduced from Germany. In 1892 Charles Augustus Briggs, the Professor of Biblical Studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York was brought up on heresy charges for denying the infallibility of Scripture.

In the early 20th century, the Modernist-Fundamentalist Crisis shook Princeton Seminary, split the Presbyterian Church in America, and let to the creation of Westminster Seminary and the founding of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

The Westminster Confession was at the center of these battles. It has been revised and amended numerous times, and among the twenty or more Presbyterian denominations it functions differently. The challenge is how to use a 17th century confession as the “subordinate standard.” Some groups continue to employ it as their doctrinal gatekeeper for church officers.

The United Presbyterian Church USA, the largest Presbyterian denomination, put Westminster in a Book of Confessions, along with the ecumenical creeds and other confessions, such as the Barmen Declaration of 1934, which challenged the German Christians who supported Hitler and the Nazi regime. Critics say this move made Westminster no longer the subordinate standard but just one of many confessions.

So, we must admit that part of Westminster’s legacy is as a church divider. Many churches that hold to a strict view of the confession have resisted or abstained from church unions. For example, here in New England we have two Congregational denominations that did not join the United Church of Christ. Many Presbyterian churches did not join the United Church of Canada, and in the United Kingdom some Congregational churches did not join the United Reformed Church, a union of Congregational and Presbyterian congregations.

What other assessments might we make of the Confession’s legacy? I’ve been in conversation with my daughter about it. She is the pastor of an historic New England Congregational church. I was proud of her a decade ago when she was the only Congregationalist her year to complete the Reformed Certificate at Yale Divinity School. She is proud of our Reformed heritage, but she has a more robust hermeneutic of suspicion than I about it. She reminds me that all of the “learned, godly, and judicious Divines” were white men, and would not have recognized her ordination.

There are many 17th century assumptions which are “baked in“ to Westminster: that ministers are men, that Christian marriage is between a man and a woman. The relationship between church and state and the relationship between the sexes were markedly different in the 17th century than they are in the 21st. In my country today there are vigorous theocratic movements overtly or covertly aligned with white supremacy that seek “A Christian America.” And there are contemporary “complementarian” theologies and ideologies that deny the equality of men and women and argue for strict gender roles.

And the New World to which Westminster came with so much influence was construed in a very different light then than it is today. Perry Miller writing in the Preface to his classic Errand into the Wilderness refers to the “narrative of the movement of European culture into the vacant wilderness of America.” (Miller, p. vii) The problem was that the wilderness was not vacant, but inhabited by numerous indigenous peoples.

This is close to home for me because of my congregation’s complicated historical relationship to the Stockbridge Mohicans, who were forcibly exiled to Wisconsin.

And as rightly proud as Congregationalists are of our forebears’ support for abolition in the 19th century, we are less aware that there were many enslaved people in colonial New England. Jonathan Edwards himself owned several slaves, although he spoke against the slave trade.

Reformed Confessionalism has often aligned itself with powerful ruling elites, as for example in South Africa during apartheid. Theologian John de Gruchy has challenged Reformed communities, especially those who have aligned themselves with the dominant political powers, to break free from “the ‘Constantinian captivity which has been part of the legacy of the Re­ formed tradition since the sixteenth Century.” (Goroncy, p. 66)

So, we see, that assessing any legacy requires discernment and the sifting of that which is faithful to Jesus Christ and his Gospel and that which is not. We don’t abandon or disregard the past, for that is part of God’s gift as well.

I want to talk about the role of tradition in the church. Jaroslav Pelikan quotes an ancient epigram that rightly says, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead: traditionalism is the dead faith of the living” (Jaroslav Pelikan, Vindication p. 65).

Tradition is a powerful repository of the corporate faith of the Christian church down through the ages. In a secular analogy the British political philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797) called the social contract in society a “partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” (quoted in Pelikan, Melody, pp. 254-255). 

The great G. K. Chesterton expressed a similar notion about the life of the church through the ages: “Tradition is only democracy extended though time. Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead” (Orthodoxy, 1908).

In my view, the wise Christian will look on confessions as plumb lines for one’s own belief. They provide a way of looking at God’s revelation in Scripture through the eyes of other generations. Sometimes their insights may have to be adapted or even discarded. But often if we take the time to understand them, we will find ourselves “growing into” beliefs that formerly seemed obscure or incomprehensible. While what “I believe personally” is important, there is also a faith of the Christian Church that is passed on from generation to generation through its creeds and confessions and other pieces of tradition. And both the individual Christian and the church must be careful to avoid an amnesia that will deprive them of this great treasure chest of accumulated Christian truth and insight.

Another helpful frame for this conversation is the Reformed principal of Semper Reformanda. (I want to thank my Australian friend, theologian Jason Goroncy, for pointing this out to me.) In its long version Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda it means “the reformed church [must] always be reformed.” It is the important idea that that the church must continually re-examine itself in order to maintain its purity of doctrine and practice. The Westminster divines, themselves, in their Directory of Public Worship (1645), also spoke of God’s call for “further reformation.” And the Scots Confession of 1560 also made plain that any church confession was strictly subordinate to Holy Scripture, that “interpretation or opinion of any theologian, kirk, or council” which is found to be “contrary to the plain Word of God” is to be corrected by such and that such was expected to be a continual process undertaken by a listening church.

Part of this principal is that every confession comes out of a particular context in a particular place at a particular time. Reformed theology at its best is more concerned about the “who” than the “how.” To confess Jesus Christ is accept the invitation to ask two specific questions: “Who is Jesus Christ today?” and “What is he doing in the world?”

This specificity of time and place also takes place in an eschatological frame, for we live between the times of “the already and the not yet.” To honor the works of the past must not prevent us from looking to the future that God in Christ is bringing about.

I think that the fact that we are having this conversation is itself a good thing. Such a conversation pulls us out of preoccupation with our own time and is culturally subversive (in a good way.) It helps us from being “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14) that is thrown at us by our culture. Engagement with the Westminster Confession of Faith, like engagement with any great classic, reminds us of the insights and perspectives of another time, and helps shed light on our own. In our own time we need to hear from our Christian forebears as we try to faithfully be the Church of Jesus Christ today. Amen.

(A video of this webinar is available on YouTube here.)

Bibliography

Ahlstom, Sidney. The Religious History of the American People. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1972.

Anderson, Clifford B. and McCormack, Bruce L., editors. Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 2011.

Bonomi, Patricia U. Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society and Politics in Colonial America. New York: Oxford University Press. 1986.

Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy. 1908.

Gordon, Bruce. Calvin. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2009.

Hall, David D. The Puritans: A Transatlantic History. Princeton: Princeton University Press.2019.

Hofstadter, Richard. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. New York: Vintage. 1962.

Goroncy, Jason. “Semper Reformanda as a Confession of Crisis” in Always Being Reformed: Challenges and Prospects for the Future of Reformed Theology.

Mead, Sidney E. The Lively Experiment. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.

Mead, Sidney E. The Nation with the Soul of a Church. New York: Harper and Row, 1975.

Miller, Perry. Errand into the Wilderness. Cambridge: Belknap Press., 1956.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Melody of Theology.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Vindication of Tradition. New Haven: Yale, 1984.

Schaff, Phillip. The Creeds of Christendom. Volume III. Harper and Row, 1931

Walker, Williston. The Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism. Pilgrim Press, 1991.

Zikmund, Barbara Brown, Editor. The Living Theological Heritage of the United Church of Christ. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1992.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.