Westminster 101February 01, 2020
by Chad Van Dixhoorn
This post is excerpted from the ESV Bible with Creeds and Confessions
The Westminster Confession of Faith was written in 1646 by a gathering of pastor-theologians. They met in Westminster Abbey during England’s bloodiest civil war, and it is from the name of the abbey (or from the English Parliament, meeting in the city of Westminster) that the confession derives its name. From the perspective of most Reformed Christians, England’s Reformation had been left incomplete by Queen Elizabeth. Given that war had broken out in part for religious reasons, the English Parliament chose to call an assembly of theologians to advise it concerning the reform of the English church, especially in its worship and government. The so-called Westminster Assembly, meeting from 1643 to 1653, ended up changing the church’s theological texts, too. Helped by Scottish theologians from the autumn of 1643, the texts written by the assembly ended up being endorsed more heartily and used more faithfully by that northern church and its missionaries than they ever were in England.
The Westminster Confession of Faith became the dominant confession of Reformed Christianity. Terms and phrases found in the Confession almost immediately became the preferred parlance of English-speaking Reformed churches, and when Congregationalists, Baptists, and Methodists wished to create confessional or catechetical texts of their own, they often resorted to revising and reissuing works produced by the Westminster Assembly.
In thirty-three chapters, the Westminster Confession of Faith builds on the foundations of the Christian faith (the self-revelation of God, God’s character, and God’s decree) to the outworking of his decrees in creation and providence. Of special interest in the realm of providence is the history of humanity’s fall in Adam and rescue in Christ, our new representative. Redemption accomplished by Christ is outlined in one chapter before redemption applied by the Holy Spirit is detailed in many more.
The chapters of the Westminster Confession of Faith are clustered in a manner generically similar to that of the Thirty-nine Articles, the second Helvetic Confession (a Swiss confession of the 1560s), the Irish Articles of 1615, and Protestant systems of doctrine generally, with the structure of the Apostles’ Creed always in the background. Thus chapters on the church, the sacraments, and eschatology conclude the confession, with chapters on the civil magistrate mixed in as well.
Presbyterians in the New World embraced the confession but found two ideas expressed in the original document particularly problematic. The first was that the civil magistrate had a duty to defend and promote gospel truth. The second was that civil magistrates should exercise godly control by calling synods or councils, even to the point of guiding the work of synods to ensure that they decide matters “according to the mind of God.” After decades of permitting ministers to take exception to these statements in the Confession, American Presbyterians, meeting in Philadelphia in 1788, concluded that the civil government should not “in the least, interfere in matters of faith.”
The Westminster Catechisms (both written in 1647) offer questions and answers covering a full range of doctrinal topics, but with special focus on the doctrine of salvation and the Christian life. The voice of the catechisms is, for the most part, in the third person, declaring what God’s Word says, instead of the first person, sharing what Christians believe. Nonetheless, passages often carry a tone of praise, awe, or exhortation.
The catechisms are designed to be companion texts to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Together they form a relative rarity in the Reformation: a confessional-catechetical package designed to fit together. In fact, parallel presentations of the 1646 Confession and the 1647 Catechisms show extensive verbal dependence of the later texts on the earlier: the Shorter Catechism leans on the Larger; the Larger Catechism is derived largely from the Confession.
Of these three texts, the Larger Catechism is the least known and most forgotten in the church today. The Larger Catechism is actually the lengthiest text among the Westminster Standards. What is more, its statements benefit from an additional year of the Westminster Assembly’s debates. The Larger Catechism offers the ripest fruit of the assembly’s deliberations but lives in the shadows of the Confession of Faith. Admittedly, its formulations mostly mirror that of the confession, yet there are places in which it further develops its ideas in the confession, not least in the ethical realm. In fact, unique to the Larger Catechism is a thoughtful interpretive guide to the Ten Commandments, putting into words the principles of interpretation commonly used among Reformed theologians.
The structure of the catechisms is at once more straightforward yet also subtler than that of the confession. On the face of both catechisms is a programmatic statement: “What do the Scriptures principally teach? The Scriptures principally teach, what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man” (WLC 5; WSC 3). The remainder of each catechism discusses who God is and what he has done. The catechisms then explain what Christians must do in response.
Nonetheless, if this is their overt structure, it is also true that both catechisms follow a traditional pattern of expounding the Apostles’ Creed (although the creed is not mentioned explicitly), the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. This structure is significant, as the focus on the law and on Christian piety gives these texts moral and spiritual emphases not found in the Westminster Confession. As well, the Larger Catechism offers an ecclesial perspective distinct from the more individualist emphasis of the Shorter Catechism, resulting in an accent on the practical importance of church life for the Christian community.
The Shorter Catechism is almost entirely a byproduct of the Larger but with a more personal focus, often considering the individual where the Larger Catechism considers the church. Christians using the Westminster Standards are best served when they use each of the documents as it was intended. The Westminster Confession serves as a quick-reference guide for careful statements of Christian doctrine. The Larger Catechism is intended as a teaching tool for churches and families, covering matters of faith and life. The Shorter Catechism is a tight summary of classic Christian doctrines, capable of being memorized even by a child.
One of the reasons the Westminster Catechisms have been so well received has to do with their suitability for memorization. Three features stand out. First, each question follows logically after the one preceding it. Second, and to an extent not previously seen in major catechisms, each question can be understood on its own terms without reference to a prior sequence of questions and answers. Finally, each answer offers an aphorism that can be understood independently from the question asked. For example, “There are three persons in the Godhead; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory” (WSC 6); “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone (WSC 33).
The Shorter Catechism is well known for its crisp statements of key Christian doctrines. But its claim to fame is found in the questions and answers that bookend the whole and encapsulate a vision for the Christian life. First, “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever” (WSC 1). And, at the end, “What doth the conclusion of the Lord’s prayer teach us? The conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer, which is, For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen, teacheth us to take our encouragement in prayer from God only, and in our prayers to praise him, ascribing kingdom, power, and glory to him; and, in testimony of our desire, and assurance to be heard, we say, Amen.” (WSC 107).
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