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The Westminster Confession and Church Unity

Rev. Angus Stewart


Part 1

"The Nearest Conjunction and Uniformity in Religion"

The assembly of divines or theologians meeting in Westminster Abbey in London in the 1640s was passionately concerned with true church unity.1

King Charles I (1625-1649), with his "divine right of kings," and William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury (1633-1645), with his "divine right of bishops," zealously sought to impose a different sort of unity in Britain: a unity in Erastian, Episcopalian, high church, ritualistic, Romanising Arminianism! Eventually the opponents of Charles I and Laud—Presbyterian Scotland and, south of the border, the Puritans (chiefly for religious reasons) and the parliamentarians (mainly on political grounds)—made common cause against them and their false church unity.

In subscribing to or ratifying the Solemn League and Covenant (1643), the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Parliament of Scotland, both English Houses of Parliament (Commons and Lords) and the Westminster Assembly of divines all pledged themselves to

[1] the preservation of the reformed religion in the Church of Scotland, in doctrine, worship, discipline, and government, against our common enemies; [2] the reformation of religion in the kingdoms of England and Ireland, in doctrine, worship, discipline, and government, according to the Word of GOD, and the example of the best reformed Churches (pp. 358-359).

The oath continues, we "shall endeavour to bring the Churches of God in the three kingdoms to the nearest conjunction and uniformity in religion," before mentioning especially four particulars: "confession of faith, form of church government, directory for worship and catechising" (p. 359). Through "this blessed union and conjunction," we shall endeavour "that the Lord may be one, and his name one, in the three kingdoms" (p. 359).

These are very comprehensive and ambitious proposals for a real and deep Christian unity ("the nearest conjunction and uniformity in religion") that is generational and covenantal ("that we, and our posterity after us, may, as brethren, live in faith and love, and the Lord may delight to dwell in the midst of us;" p. 359) based on biblical and Reformed principles ("according to the Word of GOD, and the example of the best reformed Churches") in all areas ("doctrine, worship, discipline, and government") in the three churches and kingdoms of England (which in those days was understood to include Wales), Scotland and Ireland!

Similarly, the Scottish ministers and elders sent to London were commissioned by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (19 August, 1643) to "further the so much desired union, and nearest conjunction of the two Churches of Scotland and England" in aiding the production of "one Form of Kirk-government, one Confession of Faith, one Catechism, one Directory for the worship of God" (p. 13)—the same four documents mentioned in the Solemn League and Covenant (above), though given different names.

The four desired formularies would ultimately become five, for the Westminster Assembly produced not one but two catechisms varying in length: the Westminster Larger Catechism and the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The cover pages for the five key documents formulated by the Westminster divines (the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Westminster Larger Catechism, the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the Directory for the Publick Worship of God and the Form of Presbyterial Church-Government) all state they are "a part of the covenanted uniformity in religion betwixt the churches of Christ in the kingdoms of Scotland, England, and Ireland" (pp. 17, 127, 285, 369, 395).

Of these five, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (27 August, 1647) correctly identified the "Confession of Faith for the Kirks of God in the three kingdoms [as] being the chiefest part of that uniformity in religion which, by the Solemn League and Covenant, we are bound to endeavour" (p. 14). The Westminster Confession, the General Assembly continued, is the "principal part of the intended uniformity in religion, and ... a special means for the more effectual suppressing of the many dangerous errors and heresies of these times" (p. 15). To this "chiefest" and "principal part" of the desired church unity in the British Isles, the Westminster Confession of Faith, we will turn in our next article but first we shall consider the churchmen who produced it. 

The Westminster Divines

As well as looking to "the example of the best reformed Churches," the Westminster Assembly reflected Reformed catholicity, and sought to further Reformed unity, through its composition (or at least the invitations to attend). Parliament nominated two divines for each English county and one for each Welsh county. There were six Scottish commissioners. Anglican Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland, James Ussher, was invited but did not come. However, the Irish Articles of Religion (1615), largely formulated by Ussher, served as a model for parts of the Westminster Confession.

Likewise, three prominent New England churchmen (John Cotton, Thomas Hooker and John Davenport) were requested to participate in the Westminster Assembly but were unable to attend. William Barker notes, "Two members of the Assembly had spent time in New England," John Phillips and Sir Henry Vane, Jr., who had been Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for a year.2

It would appear that the Westminster divines included at least three brethren of French or Huguenot blood: Philippé Delmé, minister of the French-speaking congregation at Canterbury (a superadded divine), and Samuel de la Place and John de la March, ministers of the French Church of London, representing the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey respectively.

The Westminster Assembly also included "one of Dutch or German descent," "two or three Irishmen" and "some who, to avoid the persecutions of Laud, had left their native land for a time and acted as pastors to the congregations of English exiles and merchants in Holland."3

Indeed, Alexander Mitchell reckons, for Alexander Henderson—the main drafter of the Solemn League and Covenant, the Moderator of several Scottish General Assemblies (1638, 1641, 1643) and the undoubted leader of the Scottish delegation—"the closer union of the churches in Britain was chiefly valued … as a step towards securing the closer union of all the Reformed Churches."4

The Westminster Assembly was "a matter of great interest to the Reformed Churches on the Continent."5 S. W. Carruthers notes that the Westminster Assembly corresponded with Reformed ministers, churches, classes and synods in the Netherlands (Walcheren, Zeeland, N. Holland, Amsterdam, Utrecht, Gelderland, etc.), Germany (Hamburg and Hesse), Switzerland (Geneva and Zurich) and France, as well as the Protestant Churches in Transylvania (today we would say Hungary and Romania), Poland, Sweden and others.6 The Assembly of divines in London even wrote to the Dutch churches to thank them for their contributions for the Protestants in Ireland (January, 1645).

However, the Westminster divines were not agreed on everything. The first main difference concerned church polity. Most of the Episcopalians who were invited by Parliament, being royalists and supporting Charles I, did not turn up, but there were a few at Westminster who held to Episcopalianism (a church hierarchy with archbishops, bishops, etc.) or a more moderate form of it. There was also a small, self-conscious party of Independents (who denied binding authority to broader church assemblies), led by the "Five Dissenting Brethren" (Thomas Goodwin, Philip Nye, Jeremiah Burroughs, William Bridge and Sidrach Simpson). But most of the Westminster divines, including all the Scottish commissioners, were Presbyterians, as were a majority of the parliamentarians. However, most of the Presbyterian theologians held to divine right (jure divino) Presbyterianism, whereas Parliament favoured Presbyterianism on more pragmatic grounds.

The second major issue was the relationship between the church and the state. All the Westminster divines held that there should be an established state church (whether Presbyterian, Episcopalian or Independent) but some were Erastians to various degrees (giving the civil magistrate unbiblical authority in church government and discipline) and most of the English Parliament was decidedly Erastian.

The differences on church polity (Presbyterianism, Independency and Episcopalianism) and state authority over church government and discipline (Erastianism, non-Erastianism and shades between them) obviously were complicating factors in hammering out two of Westminster’s formularies: the Directory for the Publick Worship of God and, especially, the Form of Presbyterial Church-Government. But with the Confession of Faith—and even more so with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms—the Westminster divines "were less impeded by differences among themselves."7 While giving some examples of debates and dissenting voices in drafting the Confession, "on the whole," notes William Beveridge, "the unanimity" was "marvellous" and "remarkable."8


1 All page references, unless otherwise indicated, are to The Westminster Confession of Faith (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1985), which book also includes the Westminster Larger Catechism, the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the Directory for the Publick Worship of God, the Form of Presbyterial Church-Government, the National Covenant, the Solemn League and Covenant, etc., as well as pertinent parliamentary acts plus acts of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
2 William Barker, Puritan Profiles (Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 1996), p. 259.
3 Alexander F. Mitchell, The Westminster Assembly: Its History and Standards (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1883), p. 117.
4 Ibid., p. 104.
5 S. W. Carruthers, The Everyday Work of the Westminster Assembly (Greenville, SC: Reformed Academic Press, 1994), p. 63.
6 Ibid., pp. 63-72.
7 B. B. Warfield, The Westminster Assembly and Its Work (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000), p. 55.
8 William Beveridge, A Short History of the Westminster Assembly (Greenville, SC: Reformed Academic Press, 1993), pp. 90, 91.


Part 2

The Westminster Confession on the Church

In keeping with the directives of the Solemn League and Covenant (1643), the Westminster divines fervently sought a thoroughly biblical and doctrinal church unity for the Reformed churches of the British Isles.

The Westminster Confession’s opening chapter, "Of the Holy Scripture," is, in my opinion, the greatest creedal statement anywhere on the truth of God’s inspired Word. Philip Schaff states, "No other Protestant symbol has such a clear, judicious, concise, and exhaustive statement of this fundamental article of Protestantism."1

The other chapters, broadly speaking, treat God and man (ch. 2-6), Christ and salvation (ch. 7-20), and the church and the last things (ch. 21-33).

In chapter 25, "Of the Church," the Westminster Confession affirms the unity of the invisible, catholic or universal church, as consisting "of the whole number of the elect that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the head thereof" (25:1). The next article states that the unity of the visible, catholic or universal church, embraces "all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, together with their children; and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation" (25:2).

To the visible, catholic church, "Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints in this life, to the end of the world" (25:3). It is in the degree of faithfulness or unfaithfulness in exercising or administering these things ("the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God") that "particular churches … are more or less pure" (25:4). The following three marks or notes of the true church are listed: "according as [1] the doctrine of the Gospel is taught and embraced, [2] ordinances administered, and [3] public worship performed more or less purely in them" (25:4).

The next article makes the following evaluation based upon the marks: "The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan" (25:5). The chapter concludes with a condemnation of the pontiff of Roman Catholicism: "Nor can the Pope of Rome in any sense be head [of the church]; but is that antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the church against Christ, and all that is called God" (25:6).

The next chapter, "Of the Communion of Saints," stresses the spiritual union and communion of believers with Christ and, therefore, with each other. This communion among the saints includes fellowship in "love," "gifts," "graces," "duties," "worship," etc. (26:1-2). "Which communion, as God offereth opportunity," the Confession continues, "is to be extended unto all those who in every place [including saints throughout the British Isles and in the continental Reformed churches] call upon the name of the Lord Jesus" (26:2).

This Christian unity and communion of saints in profession, worship and love is not only intensely spiritual and truly catholic; it is also costly. Believers "are obliged to the performance of such duties, publick and private, as do conduce to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward man" (26:1) and "are bound" to perform "such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification; as also in relieving each other in outward things, according to their several abilities and necessities" (26:2). But this is not, Westminster affirms, to fall into communism (26:3)!

The next three chapters of the Westminster Confession succinctly present the Presbyterian and Reformed doctrine of the two sacraments (ch. 27): baptism (ch. 28) and the Lord's Supper (ch. 29). Obviously, these three chapters are contrary to Romanism (especially 27:3-4; 28:5-6; 29:2-8), like all the chapters of the Confession. Lutheran baptismal regeneration (28:5-6) and consubstantiation (29:7) are also opposed. Contra the Baptists, "the infants of one or both believing parents are to be baptized" (28:4) and immersion is "not necessary," for "baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water on the person" (28:3).

The religious uniformity in the British Isles proposed by the Westminster Confession is rooted in the truth not only of the church and its fellowship (ch. 25-26) and the Christian sacraments (ch. 27-29), but it is also preserved and maintained by godly church discipline (ch. 30) and authoritative broader assemblies (ch. 31).

Notice how the following two articles on faithful church discipline and broader church assemblies, respectively, present biblical church authority as serving true church unity:

Church censures are necessary for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren; for deterring of others from the like offences; for purging out of that leaven which might infect the whole lump; for vindicating the honour of Christ, and the holy profession of the gospel; and for preventing the wrath of God, which might justly fall upon the church, if they should suffer his covenant, and the seals thereof, to be profaned by notorious and obstinate offenders (30:3).

It belongeth to synods and councils ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the publick worship of God, and government of his church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same: which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission, not only for their agreement with the word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God, appointed thereunto in his word (31:3).

The Westminster Confession on God’s Absolute Sovereignty

The unity proposed by the Westminster Confession is especially rooted in the truth of Jehovah’s gracious and sovereign choosing of the "elect" and "invisible" church (25:1) and His "gathering and perfecting" of the saints in faithful, "visible" churches (25:3).

The Confession summaries the Bible’s teaching concerning the Triune God:

[He] is alone in and unto himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which he hath made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting his own glory, in, by, unto, and upon them: he is the alone fountain of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom, are all things; and has most sovereign dominion over them, to do by them, for them, or upon them, whatsoever himself pleaseth (2:2).

This includes God’s unconditional, double predestination, consisting of eternal election and reprobation (3:3-8), as well as Jehovah’s all-embracing providence which "extendeth itself even to the first fall, and all other sins of angels and men, and that not by a bare permission, but such as hath joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding, and otherwise ordering, and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation, to his own holy ends" (5:4).

"Christ's one only sacrifice [is] the alone propitiation for all the sins of the elect" (29:2) for His "perfect obedience," "sacrifice" and "reconciliation" are "for all those whom the Father hath given unto him" (8:5). "To all those for whom Christ hath purchased redemption, he doth certainly and effectually apply and communicate the same; making intercession for them" (8:8).

"All those" and "those only" who are "predestinated unto life" are effectually called (10:1) and these alone are justified (11:1), adopted (12:1), sanctified (13:1) and preserved by God (17:1-2). "The elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls" (14:1) and given by the Lord the "evangelical grace" of "repentance unto life" (15:1) and so do good works as those "created in Christ Jesus thereunto" (16:2).

The Westminster Confession itself summarises,

As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so has he, by the eternal and most free purpose of his will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore they who are elected being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ; are effectually called unto faith in Christ by his Spirit working in due season; are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by his power through faith unto salvation (3:6).

The next sentence presents the truth negatively: "Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only" (3:6). As the Confession explains, fallen man has no "free will" (9:3) and so those "not elected" can "never truly come unto Christ, and therefore cannot be saved" (10:4).

The Judgment Day is for the vindication of the absolutely sovereign God: "The end of God's appointing this day is for the manifestation of the glory of his mercy in the eternal salvation of the elect, and of his justice in the damnation of the reprobate, who are wicked and disobedient" (33:2).

A Bastion Against "Many Dangerous Errors and Heresies"

The Westminster Confession’s superb statement of scriptural truth—and all I have given above is a mere summary—also established it as a great bastion against false doctrine. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (27 August, 1647) rightly recognised the "Confession of Faith," required "by the Solemn League and Covenant," as the "principal part of the intended uniformity in religion [in the British Isles]" and "a special means for the more effectual suppressing of the many dangerous errors and heresies of these times."2

Scottish Commissioner, George Gillespie declared,

The Confession of Faith is framed, so as it is of great use against the floods of heresies and errors that overflow that land; nay their intention of framing it was to meet with all the considerable Errors of the present tyme [i.e., time], the Socinian, Arminian, Popish, Antinomian, Anabaptistian [i.e., Anabaptist], Independent errors, etc. The Confession of Faith sets them out, and refutes them, so far as belongs to a Confession.3

Clearly, the Westminster Confession was and is a great Reformed creed serving Christ's church and its unity. But how was it implemented in the British Isles in the years after its formulation? Was its lofty vision of religious uniformity realized in established Presbyterian churches in Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland? And have the churches in the British Isles since then maintained the truth of the Westminster Confession? But answering those questions would require a survey of the churches of Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland, for a period of over three and half centuries since the Westminster Assembly, something beyond the scope of these two short articles.

1 Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, vol. 1 (New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1877), p. 767; cf. B. B. Warfield, The Westminster Assembly and Its Work (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000), pp. 155-156.
2 The Westminster Confession of Faith (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1985), pp. 14, 15.
3 Quoted in Warfield, Op. cit., p. 58, n. 99. To Gillespie’s list, David Dickson, in the first commentary written on the Westminster Confession (1684), would add many others: Greeks (i.e., Eastern Orthodox), Lutherans, Erastians, Libertines, Quakers, Enthusiasts, Judaisers, etc.—to name just some of them (Truth’s Victory Over Error [Burnie, Tasmania: Presbyterian’s Armoury Publication, 2002]).