The Westminster Assembly and Its Work - by Dr. C. Matthew McMahon

Articles on the 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith

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A history of the Westminster Assembly and the Westminster Confession of Faith following BB Warfield’s sixth volume in his Works on the subject.

The “Westminster Assembly of Divines” receives its name from the church of Westminster Abbey situated in the western district of London. The Assembly utilized that church up until 1652, five years passed the time that they finished the Standards that they were appointed to set in order. Political war pressed king and country to prudently inscribe matters of religion in order to bind the island of Scotland, England and Ireland together under one affixed standard. Scotland was being forced to use a common prayer book pressed upon them by Bishop Laud, Ireland was under military invasion of sorts by Lord Stafford, and England’s king, Charles I, was battling with Parliament for the country (really this meant it was king Charles and the prelate on one side, and the Parliament and Puritans on the other). Some manner of cohesion must occur in order to settle the island to its proper end – the glory of God. The king had dissolved Parliament previously (deemed “Short Parliament” for its short tenure) and so decided, based on the surrounding conflict, to call together the noblest divines in order to set these Standards before the country. This is really an intensely significant work since it would establish the preparation of formularies intended to serve the Churches in the three kingdoms as a foundation for standardized religion and worship. In doing this, the English Reformation would follow the Swiss Reformation and the Reformed Churches very closely in doctrine and government.

The doctrine of the Church of England was recognized as soundly Reformed, except in matters of worship and church government (two immensely important ecclesiastical doctrines), and needed to be revisited and codified officially for the countries. Scotland, though, had already signed a National Covenant where they had bound themselves together, even upon the pain of war, to submit a right and true government for the church and uphold the true matters of worship before God. In pursuit of this important task, the English Parliament was called together to form committees to decide the fate of the country in this regard, and settle the peace. The Houses (the commons and the lords) then called together the need for an assembly to convene in order to advance further than simply revising the Articles already in print, but to remedy the need for additional reformation of this kind. Long Parliament called the Assembly together to meet for the first time on July 1, 1643. The Scots were invited by way of ecclesiastical need, for they were already a “covenanted nation” based on that National Covenant. Upon arrival, eight weeks into the convocation of the Assembly, the matter turned to setting down the Solemn League and Covenant in which England, Scotland and Ireland would band together, ecclesiastically, in order to remain of one mind on the matters of doctrine and worship. This caused all men (the House of Parliament, the House of Lords, and the Westminster Assembly), to the Presbyterian scheme of government since Scotland had already adopted this as a foundational aspect of the National Covenant. It pledged the nations to uniformity in their religious establishment and assured them toward a uniformity mimicking the model of the establishment already exiting in the Church of Scotland. This was “no loose agreement” but a solemnly ratified treaty between the nations.

There were four parts of uniformity in which the Westminster Assembly came together to ratify. These four parts comprised of church government, a reformed liturgy, a confession, and new catechisms. The most difficult of these was the first: of church government. The Independent controversy was the largest and most exhaustive of the Assembly in its tenure. The reason this was so difficult was the Independent’s desire to adopt an obstructive policy (a filibuster) and set themselves to receive every concession they could from the majority vote to delay the adoption of Presbyterian Church Government, and if possible, to overthrow the entire establishment of such a government altogether. The first part of this form of government was the Directory for Ordination. The Assembly did not have a problem defining the practical role of the pastor, but in terms of governmental structure men held opposite views. The arguments of the dissenting brothers (the Independents and Erastians) were published in a folio version called The Grand Debate Concerning Presbytery and Independency by the Assembly of Divines convened at Westminster by Authority of Parliament. It was published in 1648 after the Westminster Assembly adopted the Form of Presbyterian Church Government.

The most pressing task that the Westminster Assembly engaged in was the preparation of a new form of worship to take the place of The Book of Common Prayer. The document explaining the reformation of this worship was the Directory for Public Worship that was finished in 1644 and, by ordinance of Parliament, established on January 4, 1645 for the island. This included notations on elements of worship, as well as a revision to the psalm book that was officially adopted by the Scottish churches in 1650.

The third part of the uniformity of religion was to prepare a confession of faith. The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion were already affixed, and so there was no immediate need to create a new confession. This task was not pressed upon the Westminster Assembly as was the other formularies. The duty of them having to prepare an entirely new confession was later due to the pressure placed on the Assembly as a whole by the Solemn League and Covenant. The Scots could not use their confession of 1560, being as outdated as it was in terms of an occasional document, and so urged the Assembly to form a whole new document that would satisfy the covenant for all three nations. Though this would be a long, drawn out work for them, they were by no means unqualified for the task, having the best and most able ministers and theologians of the church of the day (or possibly any day other than that of the Apostles and our Lord).

The “architectonic principle” of the Westminster Confession of Faith is supplied by the systematic theology surrounding Federal Theology, otherwise known as Covenant Theology. This was the dominant position of the Reformed of the day and it encompassed presenting Reformed Theology in a succinct and amiable corpus. The information in the Confession is subdivided into thirty-three chapters and further sub divisions in each chapter. The chapters are outlined as follows: Chapter I – Of the Holy Scripture; Chapter II – Of God, and of the Holy Trinity; Chapter III – Of God’s Eternal Decree; Chapter IV – Of Creation; Chapter V – Of Providence; Chapter VI – Of the Fall of Man, of Sin, and of the Punishment Thereof; Chapter VII – Of God’s Covenant with Man; Chapter VIII – Of Christ the Mediator; Chapter IX – Of Free Will; Chapter X – Of Effectual Calling; Chapter XI – Of Justification; Chapter XII – Of Adoption; Chapter XIII – Of Sanctification; Chapter XIV – Of Saving Faith; Chapter XV – Of Repentance unto Life; Chapter XVI – Of Good Works; Chapter XVII – Of the Perseverance of the Saints; Chapter XVIII – Of the Assurance of Grace and Salvation; Chapter XIX – Of the Law of God; Chapter XX – Of Christian Liberty, and Liberty of Conscience; Chapter XXI – Of Religious Worship, and the Sabbath Day; Chapter XXII – Of Lawful Oaths and Vows; Chapter XXIII – Of the Civil Magistrate; Chapter XXIV – Of Marriage and Divorce; Chapter XXV – Of the Church; Chapter XXVI – Of the Communion of Saints; Chapter XXVII – Of the Sacraments; Chapter XXVIII – Of Baptism; Chapter XXIX – Of the Lord’s Supper; Chapter XXX – Of Church Censures; Chapter XXXI – Of Synods and Councils; Chapter XXXII – Of the State of Men after Death, and of the Resurrection of the Dead; Chapter XXXIII – Of the Last Judgment. The divines were familiar with the errors prevailing of the day, and answered these by “the ripest fruit of Reformed creed-making.” The Confession is not a polemic, but rather a statement, or confession, of the truth.

The Westminster Assembly did not reinvent the wheel in setting down the formularies of the Confession. Rather, they took as their foundation the Irish Articles of 1615 that had been previously penned by James Ussher. From these Articles they derived the general arrangement of the Confession at large, though they did not copy the Articles in order to scrutinize every phrase, sentence and paragraph to their liking.

The work on this Confession of Faith began August 20, 1644 and was completed in 1646 as a first draft. September 25, 1646 the Westminster Assembly sent the first revision to the House of Parliament for review, and then later, April 27, 1647 added the proof texts. February 7, 1649 the House of Parliament in Scotland ratified it, but in England it took more time. March 5, 1660, it was declared officially the Confession of the English church. Though the English church took time in gaining it as their official stance, it was the Confession of the Presbyterian clergy after its completion. The Independents met at Savoy in 1648 to redraft something more palatable to their taste in terms of Church Government, and completed the Savoy Declaration in that same year. The Baptists, following the Independents by further footsteps, copied the Savoy Declaration to an extent, and ratified their own confession of the same “sort” in 1677 called the London Baptist Confession.

The fourth part of the Westminster Assembly’s labors surrounded the creation of a catechism. Many of the divines had already published a number of catechisms (such as Twisse, White, Gataker, Gouge, Wilkinson, and others). On December 2, 1644 a committee was drawn up to “hasten” the formulation of the catechism. By August 5, 1645 the material for the shorter catechism was up for debate in the Assembly, and by November 27, 1647 it was published. The Larger Catechism was debated and warranted in the midst of these proceedings, believing that the more learned or studious should have a catechism that explained in more detail the fundamentals of the faith. April 15, 1647 the Larger Catechism was debated, and then later that year on October 15th it was completed. The Reformed churches in Scotland upon their completion approved both catechisms, but the Westminster Longer Catechism, strangely, did not receive its approval from the English House at any time.

In the formation of the catechisms it is worthy to note that Herbert Palmer, one whom Baillie says was the best catechist of the day, may have been primarily responsible for submitting his own previously written catechism in which the Westminster Assembly used as a foundation. However, it is true that the first question of the Shorter Catechism was drawn from Calvin’s Genevan Catechism from a century earlier.

We see, then, that the church established in Scotland was far more receptive and ripe for a full receiving of the uniform principles of religion than England was, especially in terms of the slow acceptance of the Standards over her political history. This lag in reception for England was certainly not due to the improper work completed by the Assembly, but more akin to political upheavals that hindered the country to rightly set their minds to taking up the Solemn League and Covenant which they had formerly vowed. The rise of Independency by force, not conviction, by Oliver Cromwell and the usurpation of the army were the hindrances to fulfilling the Covenant drawn up by the kingdoms of Scotland, England and Ireland under the Solemn League.

How was the confession made? As stated previously, there was a solemn engagement of the three kingdoms to come together for the purpose of setting down formularies for the kingdom of Scotland, England and Ireland. After the Solemn League and Covenant was taken, the aim of the Assembly turned from a simple revision of the Thirty-nine Articles, to a complete overhaul of setting down proper standards that could be mutually accepted by all the Reformed churches.

The Assembly appointed three committees that took up the various heads of doctrine to lay out a proper framework for them, and these in turn would report back to the great committee. The reason for such a division lay specifically in the committee’s abilities to take portions of doctrine, which were not specifically given to the entire assembly to debate all at once, and divide them into workable sections. These sub-committees in turn reported back to the great committee, and they in turn would give a report to the Assembly. At that time problems, questions, disagreements, and debates would take place on the floor that entitled the divines to hash out every word, phrase and clause of the Confession. The Confession was actually drafted and then finished on November 26, 1646.

Though the Confession itself was finished, the proof-texts that were needed to prove its doctrinal soundness were taken up afterwards. Mr. Wilson, Mr. Gower and Mr. Wallis were appointed to this task, and presented the proofs to the House of Commons and House of Lords on April 29, 1647. While it was being prepared, the Confession was known as “a Confession of Faith” and then “the Confession of Faith” when it was finished.

The formulation of the third chapter of the Confession, on the decrees of God, was a hotly debated topic which Baillie says, “We had long and tough debates about the decrees of election; yet thanks to God all is gone right according to our mind.” There was a difference of opinion between the infralapsarians and the supralapsarians and certain thoughts and ideas surrounding the doctrine of reprobation.

It is well documented in the Assembly that the third chapter of the Confession was specifically modeled after the Irish Articles. The debate then surrounded what one should keep, add or change. The title of the Irish Articles was “Of God’s Eternal Decree and Predestination,” where the Confession retained only “Of God’s Eternal Decree.” There was even some subsequent debate about using the word “decree” in the singular or plural to emphasize a true theology.

The third chapter first dealt with God’s decrees in general, and then later moved onto decrees specifically in terms of predestination and reprobation. Debates surrounded sections one through three on certain phrases and clauses, no debate encompassed section four, and only small debate surrounded section five. It was around the ordo salutis in section 6 that causes the greatest debate in this chapter. It was here that the lapsarian views began to determine which order the decrees should fall. Here the Assembly agreed, though with much discussion, to render the chapter a more generic Calvinism rather than asserting a particular degree of lapsarianism. They did, however, take great pains to be sure of refuting, by positive truth assertions, the position of Arminianism, and Amyraldianism. Calamy, unfortunately, did pose a certain form of Amyraldianism surrounding the “sufficient for all but efficient for the elect” model of thinking about the atonement, where Gillespie and Rutherford repudiated this and saw the atonement as simply resting on its divine intentions. In final form, this section demonstrated an affinity to explaining the ordo salutis instead of the ordo decreetum. All of this proves that much labor and intensive care was taken in framing every part of the Confession.

In terms of the Westminster Assembly’s view of the doctrine of Holy Scripture, it should be evident that no council has ever forged a document more appealing to precision than the Westminster Confession of Faith section one. This chapter seemed to have been framed with more care than any other. A committee was assigned to structuring this chapter that included such men as Dr. Reynolds, Mr. Herle, and Mr. Newcomen. They took much of the chapter from the consensus of Reformed Theology on this subject. They utilized such sources as Calvin, Cartwright, Ball, Du Bue, and other continental teachers. However, as with most of the first half of the Confession in general, the proximate source was the Irish Articles.

An outline following the model of the first chapter may be as follows:

I. The Necessity of Scripture, § 1.

1. Reality and Trustworthiness of Natural Revelation.

2. Insufficiency of Natural Revelation.

3. Reality and Importance of Supernatural Revelation.

4. Its complete Commitment to Inspired Scriptures.

5. Consequent Necessity of Scripture.

II. The Definition of Scripture, §§ 2 and 3.

1. Extensively: The Canon, § 2a.

2. Intensively: Inspiration, § 2b.

3. Exclusively: The Apocrypha, § 3.

III. The Properties of Scripture, §§ 4-7.

1. The Authority of Scripture, §§ 4 and 5.

A. The Source of the Authority of Scripture, § 4.

B. The Proof of the Authority of Scripture, § 5.

(a) The Reality and Value of the External Evidence.

(b) The Reality and Value of the Internal Evidence.

(c) The Necessity and Function of the Divine Evidence.

2. The Perfection of Scripture, § 6.

A. Absolute Objective Completeness of Scripture, for the purpose for which it is given.

B. Need of Spiritual Illumination for its full use.

C. Place for Christian Prudence and Right Reason.

3. The Perspicuity of Scripture, § 7.

A. Diversity in Scripture in Point of Clearness.

B. Clear Revelation of all Necessary Truth.

C. Accessibility of Saving Truth by Ordinary Means.

IV. The Use of Scripture, §§ 8-10.

1. In Relation to Its Form and Transmission, §8.

A. Primary Value and Authority of the Originals.

(a) The immediate Inspiration of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures.

(b) Their Providential Preservation in Purity.

B. The Right, Duty, and Adequacy of Translations.

2. In Relation to Interpretation, § 9.

A. Scripture Alone the Infallible Interpreter of Scripture.

B. The Single Sense of Scripture.

3. In Relation to Controversies, § 10.

A. Scripture the Supreme Judge in Controversy.

B. Scripture the Test of all Other Sources of Truth.1

The Confession first expounds the necessity of Scripture demonstrating the reality and trustworthiness of the natural revelation of God. This is the groundwork for the proof of the necessity of the written Scriptures. These written records are not merely records, but the actual revelation of God for the better preservation and propagation of the intent and will of God in precept.

Having demonstrated the need for written revelation, the Confession then defines “Holy Scripture” and to disavow anything that is not Holy Scripture. This definition is framed by the written approval of the books of the Old Testament and the New Testament, but excluding the Apocryphal books as non-canonical. Inspiration, then, is a clearly distinguishable trait in these works and in the revelation of God. This is something that can be measured (thus “canon”). “The Westminster Confession contains in itself, therefore, the material by which we may be assured that the inspiration, which it affirms in our present sections to be the characteristic of all the Biblical books, was conceived by it as constituting the Scriptures in the most precise sense, the very word of God, divinely trustworthy and divinely authoritative in all their parts and in all their elements alike.”2

The Confession asserts that the Word of God is to be believed based on the information already given in the preceding sections of the Confession. Because it is inspired, the Scriptures are the Word of God. In this way, the Scriptures exercise moral authority over the lives of men lawfully. Men, though, are not so constituted to believe the Word of God because they are fallen and their hearts are darkened. They do not want to yield to it. It is not that the Word of God lacks evidence, but man needs to be changed in order to understand and receive what he is reading in the Word of God. This only comes through the illumination of the Holy Spirit of God.

The Scripture is also complete. It holds perfection to its parts and extent. There is nothing lacking in it. The necessity to supplement the Scriptures is denied. Otherwise, men would have to call into question the wisdom of God in telling His people they have everything that pertains to life and godliness, yet, they still need something more. Rather, the Scripture, as it stands, is the only rule of faith that men need. Scripture is not “a rule of faith” or a sufficient rule of faith” but the rule and only rule that God has given men. This though presents men with the task of studying the Scripture so that they obey not only what is expressly set down in the bible, but also necessarily deduced from it by necessary inference. This, then, makes the Scriptures the only rule for doctrine, faith, practice and the rule of the church. That does not mean that confessions are of no use, but rather, that the Confession itself demonstrates the reality that men should study in order to come to a unified knowledge of what the truth states in the Word of God. Without a Confession or Creed, the church cannot function because it would never formulate what it believes the Bible to say.

It is in this Word that there is sufficient information (the divine will of precept) to be saved. The Word, then, is the axiom by which the Spirit works in order to save men from their darkness. This revolves around the perspicuity of the Scriptures, or the clarity by which seekers may find salvation. Truth is within the reach of all who look to the Scriptures for the will of God regarding salvation. A sufficient understanding of the Scriptures may be obtain by any who read it, from the scholar to the ploughboy, but that does not avow that ploughboys are scholars of the Word. It does mean that the perspicuity allows all men to read and find salvation. “In a word there is combined here an adequate recognition of the profundity of the Scriptures and their occasional obscurity, with an equally clear assertion of the popular character of the Word of God as a message to every on of His children”3

The Confession then explains certain corollaries as to its use for the Christian (sections 8-10). There is a right to the Scriptures to be placed in the vernacular language so that the Word may bless all nations. This means translation work must be accomplished for the church to accomplish her goals and commission to evangelize. This then argues the proper place of the church of God in relation to the Scriptures. The original autographs are immediately inspired of God and all subsequent translations must take heed to translate carefully from those translations in order to arrive at the Word of God. The former are immediately inspired where God providentially cares for the latter through the centuries. The transmission of the text has been kept pure based on the extent of the manuscripts the church holds. It lies complete and perfect in every way. However, the church does not hold the original manuscripts. That argues the completeness of God’s providence, not the lack of inspiration of the texts transmitted. The pure text, then, is to be found by a compendium of all manuscripts rather than simply from one copy.

The interpretation of Scripture logically follows all this in the Confession. What they said in framing this portion is not defining the hermeneutical principles and science of interpretation. Rather, they desired the practical use of the Scriptures in the hands of the ploughboy to be made known. If men would take the time to read carefully and compare Scripture with Scripture, then they would be able to come to a full knowledge of salvation as transmitted to them by God. This then moves into the finality of the Scripture where the Spirit of God is the One who speaks in every part of Scripture and is the Supreme Judge in every controversy in religion. The Supreme Judge is not Scripture itself, but the Holy Spirit speaking through Scripture. Here the Spirit is placed as the means by which the Scripture may be known. There is now no other way to inquire of God, but only from His Word and by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Westminster Assembly also put together a more comprehensive doctrine of the inspiration of scripture than did the Reformers, or rather, they set it down in a different manner than the Reformers had previously done for various purposes. Though men like Briggs seem to befuddle the view of the Assembly, nevertheless, a careful observation of the Confession demonstrates their systematic orthodoxy on the subject. The Assembly’s position is not one of divine dictation, but of concursus and synergism. They taught the verbal or plenary inspiration of the original Scriptures. Dr. Briggs has attempted to take Puritan quotations to demonstrate that they did not believe in divine inspiration, however, the quotations he utilizes are contextually dubious from the start, and misinterpreted by him as a result.

In opposition to Dr. Briggs, the divines have innumerable quotations that demonstrate the truth that the Westminster Assembly was committed to plenary inspiration. For example, Rutherford says, “The Holy Ghost saith; he declares that the writers of the New Testament were immediately inspired.”4 Briggs also appeals to Baxter, a leading divine of the time though not on the Westminster Assembly by his own choice (and later regretted it), but Baxter’s own words demonstrate his orthodoxy on this point in line with the Assembly, “Though the apostles were directed by the holy Ghost in speaking and writing the doctrine of Christ, so that we know they performed their part without errors, yet the delivering down of this speech and writings to us is a human work, to be performed by the assistance of ordinary providence.”5

Both Goodwin and Baxter hailed John White, one of the most profound of the Westminster Assembly Divines, as having written one of the most excellent works on inspiration in print. His view is that of the Assembly’s verbal inspiration. Lightfoot is another of the same caliber in setting forth a doctrine of plenary inspiration. Warfield says after reading these men, “The Scriptures are thus the product of the energy of God operating on certain selected men endowed for their production. It follows, of course, that they contain all the will of God.”6 Out of this doctrine of the canon, no new revelations are to be expected, and of the books chosen in the canon inspiration is the criteria in which sets their inclusion. This would also imply the exclusion of anything not inspired, of which these men dismissed the Apocrypha. Lightfoot says, “The Spirit of God inspired certain persons, whom He pleased, to be the revealers of His will.”7 This demonstrating that the will of God contains no errors. The distinction, then, must be made between revelation and inspiration. Revelation is direct impartation of truth from God where inspiration is the divine work of securing the correct communication or record of the truth. Lightfoot insists correctly that this does not mean it is a dictation from heaven to men, but rather a writing filled with the writer’s personality though carried by the Holy Spirit. It is so carried that “the very letters are from the Spirit.”8 This moved into the authority of the Scripture as logically unavoidable. This was the same view of all the Reformed of the day: as Scripture is inspired, so it is authoritative based on that inspiration. This deems it infallible (unable to fail on any point in which it speaks) and inerrant (without any error).

Along these lines of being critical to the text, Lightfoot was actually a remarkable conservative textural critic. He was intimately involved in text transmission, critical language study, and various textural questions stemming from various texts and branches of manuscript transmission. In this way he was an invaluable asset to the Westminster Assembly. He certainly did not deny that there were some difficulties in Scripture. But he did deny that they were mysterious, or had the inability to be explained. Quite in the opposite direction he said that though they may exist, they were purposefully placed there by the Holy Spirit for an expressed reason, and are discoverable to the diligent student. “In his sermon on the “Difficulties of Scripture,” he tells us that the Holy Ghost purposely introduced difficulties into the Scripture to challenge serious study of them; that they are all capable of solution; and that it is our business, and it will be our profit, to search out the solution and their lessons.”9

After the Westminster Standards were completed, they were published. It was printed four times privately (possibly more) before its completion. This was strictly for the use of the Assembly for its formulation and authorization. Parliament ordered that the Confession be printed in part while they continued to work on it, and after it was completed Baillie took a copy of it to Scotland for proofing by the Parliament there. By the act of the General Assembly in Scotland, it became a printed public document, though in England, it was only used privately in the Assembly until later. When it was published, and put into the hands of the people, it proved to be a very popular work and at once became the object of great demand. Forty editions were printed before the end of the seventeenth century. At first, it contained only the Westminster Confession of Faith. Later other parts were added in.

In Scotland, however, it seems a much more zealous and efficient printing capacity took form. As Warfield documents rightly, their version contained, “1. Preliminary matter, consisting of two introductory letters and a number of Ordinances and Acts. The introductory letters are (a) the Commendatory Letter ” to the Christian Reader, especially Heads of Families,” signed by forty-four Puritan Divines, and (b) “Mr. Thomas Manton’s Epistle to the -Reader.” The Or­dinances and Acts include: (a) The Ordinance of the Lords and Commons, July 12, 1643, convening the Westminster As­sembly; (b) the Act of the Scottish Assembly, August 19, 1643, appointing Commissioners to the Westminster Assem­bly; (c) the Promise and Vow taken by the Members of the Westminster Assembly; (d) a List of the Divines who met at that Assembly, and of the Commissioners of the Church of Scotland; (e) the Act of the Scottish Assembly, August 27, 1647, approving the Confession of Faith; (f) the Acts of Par­liament, February 7, 1649, and 7th June, 1690, ratifying the Standards. 2. The Text of the Confession and Catechism Adjoined matter, viz.: (a) The Sum of Saving Knowledge with the Practical Use thereof; (b) the National Covenant (c) the Solemn League and Covenant; (d) the Acknowledgement and Engagement; (e) the Directory for Public Worship; (f) the Form of Presbyterial Church Government; the Directory for Family Worship. Lastly, 4. The Table that contains the main contents of the volume — the Confession Catechisms—may not be lost amid the accretions gathering about them, it is usual to put them into larger type than is used for the preliminary and adjoined matter, although opening Commendatory Letter and the Form of Government are also ordinarily accorded the honor of this larger type.”10 Since its publication in 1728 as a complete set of Standards, the Confession has not changed in its printed content.

In the United States the Confession was received with great expectation since the early colonists had little by way of printing presses. It was midsummer of 1648 when it did reach the shores of America, and the Confession “published at the synod in London” was distributed. Later in that same year, after the Savoy Declaration was published, the New England Independents moved from the Westminster Confession of Faith to the Savoy Declaration as it made its way to the Americas as well. The Westminster Confession of Faith would not be printed in America until the latter part of the eighteenth century. It was formally printed by the Presbyterians on the printing press of Benjamin Franklin in 1745 and was put together in a book no less than five hundred and eighty-eight pages long. In 1789 one thousand copies were printed, then in the next edition two thousand, then four and five thousand, and it has grown ever since. In 1870 no less than eighty thousand were printed, and from 1839 to 1900 more than 224,000 copies were printed and distributed. Eighty-eight editions of the Confession were printed up to the turn of the century in 1900.

In terms of the translations of the Westminster Confession of Faith, it was originally published in English, Latin, German (1648), and Gaelic (1725). It was not widely translated until 1842 by the American Presbyterians, and eleven different versions were put to printing. It is unfortunate, though, that the translations themselves into various languages were not put together as precisely as the English and Latin versions of the seventeenth century. This caused some misrepresentation, though the main body of material is communicated to the reader. Modifications to the Confession were relatively minor, except in those cases where a denominational schism places emphasis on a need to change a certain doctrine; such was the case among the Independents and Savoy Declaration, the American Congregationalists, and the English Baptists who copied the Savoy Declaration to suit an Independent polity and a “covenantal,” but not Reformed view of the sacraments and Covenant Theology. No change was so heretically radical as when the Cumberland Presbyterians took place until they leavened the Confession with Arminian tenants. They basically overthrew the Reformed Doctrine of the Sovereignty of God.

Not much has been said about the Catechisms, and so at this point, finally, mention will be made of the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The Shorter Catechism is a reflection of Reformed Doctrine from beginning to end. It begins with the question, “What is the chief end of man?” Its answer, “To glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” This question, as profound as it stands, was not original with the Assembly, but most likely borrowed from John Calvin’s Genevan Catechism. Dr. A.F. Mitchell suggests that we may even look behind Calvin to Leo Judae’s Latin Catechism, but this would be incorrect because Judae did not publish his catechism until 1541, after Calvin’s publication of the Genevan Catechism years previous.

Calvin is the ultimate source of the opening question and answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. It is obvious, though, that such a theological sentiment was not unique with Calvin, but belongs to the heart of every Christian who thinks about their faith in Christ and the joy they receive from knowing the only begotten Son of the Most High. It is a concise expression of the whole Reformed conception of the significance of human life. Not only does man glorify God, but those who are elected from the foundation of the world by His glorious grace are able to enjoy their communion with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in daily living, and into eternity. No man is truly Reformed on this point unless he conceives of man not merely as destined to be the instrument in the Divine glory, but also as destined to reflect the glory of God in his own consciousness, or, to exult in God. These thoughts, then travel back to Calvin’s teacher – Augustine – where he exemplifies the same sentiments in his Confessions. “Thou hast made for Thyself, O Lord: and our heart is restless till it finds its rest in Thee…Let God be all in all to thee, for in Him is the entirety of all that thou lovest.”

[1] Warfield, Benjamin B., The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, The Westminster Assembly and Its Work, vol. 6, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981) Pages 191-192.

[2] Ibid, Page 204.

[3] Warfield, Benjamin B., The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, The Westminster Assembly and Its Work, vol. 6, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981) Page 233.

[4] Warfield, Benjamin B., The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, The Westminster Assembly and Its Work, vol. 6, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981) Page 270.

[5] Ibid, Page 273.

[6] Ibid, Page 280.

[7] Ibid, Page 285.

[8] Ibid, Page 298.

[9] Ibid, Page 313.

[10] Ibid, Pages 344-45.

Bible Verse:

“For the lips of a priest should keep knowledge, And people should seek the law from his mouth; For he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts,” (Malachi 2:7).

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