The Westminster Confession and Church Unity
"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
 the preservation
of the reformed religion in the Church of Scotland, in doctrine,
worship, discipline, and government, against our common enemies; 
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
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
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
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
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
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.
William Barker, Puritan Profiles (Great
Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 1996), p. 259.
Alexander F. Mitchell, The
Westminster Assembly: Its History and Standards
(London: James Nisbet & Co., 1883), p. 117.
Ibid., p. 104.
S. W. Carruthers, The
Everyday Work of the Westminster Assembly
(Greenville, SC: Reformed Academic Press, 1994), p. 63.
Ibid., pp. 63-72.
B. B. Warfield, The Westminster Assembly and Its
Work (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000), p. 55.
William Beveridge, A Short History of
the Westminster Assembly (Greenville, SC:
Reformed Academic Press, 1993), pp. 90, 91.
The Westminster Confession on the Church
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.
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."
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
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  the doctrine of the Gospel is
taught and embraced,  ordinances administered, and  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
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).
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
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"
"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
"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
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"
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."
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.
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
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.
The Westminster Confession of Faith (Glasgow: Free
Presbyterian Publications, 1985), pp. 14, 15.
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