Throughout the twentieth century, it was not uncommon for well-meaning believers in evangelical circles to say things like, “No creed but Christ; no book but the Bible.” There is a seeming plausibility to this statement since Scripture alone is the only infallible rule of faith and practice. However, church history reveals that the Christian church has long perceived a need for creedal doctrinal statements (e.g., the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed, the Athanasian Creed, etc.). During the era of the Protestant Reformation, there was an increasing need for doctrinal clarity on account of the spurious teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. The Westminster Confession of Faith has long been the most well-known and most frequently appealed to Protestant confession of the seventeenth century. There are numerous reasons why believers should commit to a diligent study of the Westminster Confession of Faith. The first is its historical background; the second, its biblical priority; the third, its doctrinal fidelity; and the fourth, its spiritual applicability.
Among the documents produced by the Westminster Assembly are the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Larger Catechism, the Shorter Catechism, and the Directory for the Public Worship of God. These writings were the collaborative work of 131 of the most theologically astute Protestant minsters and professors in the United Kingdom in the seventeenth century–among whom were Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and independent pastors and theologians. The assembly also consisted of thirty combined laymen from the House of Commons and House of Lords, and a Scottish delegation of advisory commissioners. From 1643–1649, the assembly met for a total of 1163 sessions. It was convened at the behest of the English Parliament with the express purpose of setting out a succinct summary of Protestant doctrine. Parliament had tasked the assembly with revising the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England.
Given the ecumenical nature of the members of the assembly, the Westminster Confession of Faith was a cooperative document–the product of men with a variety of theological beliefs coming together to articulate a unified statement of the Christian faith. This makes the Westminster Confession of Faith one of the most theologically mature and uniquely important documents in church history.
Certain individuals have charged those who rigorously adhere to the Westminster Confession of Faith with exalting it above the Scripture. However, such accusations are baseless in light of the clear teaching of the opening chapter of the Confession. Edmund Clowney has helpfully explained:
The whole Westminster Confession depends upon its teaching about the Bible itself. . .Indeed, the recovery of the teaching of the Bible about itself was the key to the liberation brought about by the Protestant Reformation. Does the final authority rest in the church or in the Bible? The first chapter of the Westminster Confession presents its clear witness to the authority of Scripture out of a sense to answer that question biblically.
The divines brought their opening chapter to a close with a statement about their belief in the supremacy of Scripture. They wrote,
The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture. (WCF 1.10)
In 1647, Scripture proofs were added to the divines’ articulation of the doctrines of the Christian faith. This act further revealed their utter commitment to the final and ultimate authority of Scripture.
The members of the Westminster Assembly were not seeking to reinvent the wheel of biblical interpretation. Rather, they were building on the labor of pastors and theologians throughout the history of the church. This is evident from their articulation of Nicene Trinitarianism in their chapter, “Of God, and of the Holy Trinity,” where they stated,
In the unity of the Godhead there be three Persons of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. The Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son. (WCF 2.3)
It is equally seen in their defense of Chalcedonian Christology in the chapter, “On Christ the Mediator,” where they wrote, “Two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion” (WCF 8.2).
While the divines were building upon the central doctrinal formulations to which the church had long adhered they were also correcting and refining existing theological formulations as a result of their polemics with the Roman Catholic Church. One cannot understand the importance of the Westminster Confession of Faith without recognizing the pervasive engagement with and refutation of many of the doctrinal errors of Rome. One very clear example of this aspect of the Confession of Faith is found in the divines’ chapter, “Of the Lord’s Supper.” In the second paragraph of that chapter, they wrote:
In this sacrament Christ is not offered up to His Father, nor any real sacrifice made at all for remission of sins of the quick or dead, but a commemoration of that one offering up of Himself, by Himself, upon the cross, once for all. . .so that the popish sacrifice of the mass, as they call it, is most abominably injurious to Christ’s one only sacrifice, the alone propitiation for all the sins of the elect. (WCF 29.2)
Insomuch as it preserved and built upon foundational Christian doctrines, while refuting and refining other widely accepted erroneous doctrines, the Westminster Confession of Faith is recognized as one of the most doctrinally careful and precise Creeds and Confessions of the Protestant Reformation.
The Westminster Confession of Faith is no cold or sterile theological document. Rather, it is full of experiential application of biblical doctrine. One cannot read the divines’ chapters on adoption, sanctification, saving faith, repentance unto life, good works, perseverance, and assurance of grace and salvation (chs. 12–18) without noting the deeply practical and pastoral ways in which the doctrinal truths of Scripture have a bearing on the lives of God’s people. These chapters contain ample examples of experiential Calvinism. While the Confession of Faith is not a devotional document per se, there is a consistent devotional component to its doctrinal expositions.