Why do some Christians use the Westminster Confession while others use the Three Forms of Unity?
Coming out of the Reformation there were different branches, but they all agreed on a couple of things. They agreed that they were against Catholicism. They agreed on the five solas of the Reformation. They were committed to the sovereignty of God. Because of sola Scriptura, they were committed to preaching the Word. So, they had all that in common, but there really were different branches of the Reformation.
There were the Lutherans, and the Lutheran church was initially the evangelisch, or the “of the gospel” church in Germany. Their standard was the Augsburg Confession, and later the Book of Concord, which includes the Augsburg Confession and some sermons on it. So, the Book of Concord is the Lutheran confession for the Lutheran church.
When you go to the Swiss lands, that’s where you technically had the Reformed church. The Reformed church holds to the Three Forms of Unity. That’s largely the continent, and you’ve got to go over to the United Kingdom for the Westminster Standards.
The Westminster Standards were written over 120 years after the Reformation got started. There in England was this Reformed group that had their roots going back to Knox. Knox was trained under Calvin in Geneva and then went back to Scotland. There was the Scots Confession, which I love because this text was written by five guys, and all five were named John. I just picture them sitting around the table saying, “John; no, the other one; no, the other one.” So, the “Johns” wrote the Scots Confession, and that just happened providentially. Then you also have the Westminster Standards.
The Westminster Standards became the confession of faith for the Presbyterians, for the various Puritan groups, and for the Congregationalists, who were called “Independents” in old England and “Congregationalists” in New England. They made some tweaks to the Westminster Standards. The Baptists followed the Westminster Standards with the London Confession of Faith, which is mostly the Westminster Standards. They changed the church polity, the church and state issues, and the baptism language. So, the Westminster Standards came to be the confessional standards for those Puritan groups in the United Kingdom.
What we see in these various Reformation confessions is something we sometimes miss—we didn’t have a Reformation, but reformations. There were substantive branches of the Reformation and minor disagreements on issues of church polity or church practice. The application of the Sabbath, for example, is a valid distinction that some see between the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Standards.
So, those are some of the differences, but don’t let the differences fool you—there was massive substantive agreement in the Reformation.
This transcript is from a live Ask Ligonier event with Stephen Nichols and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, just visit Ask.Ligonier.org or message us on Facebook or Twitter.