Notes on the Westminster
Confession by J.
The churches in the Netherlands which had seceded from the Protestant state church in 1834 were busy building their own church-life. It was the same later on with the Reformed churches in the Netherlands which, after the Liberation of 1944, had to restore and redirect many activities. You may think of the Theological College, mission and also on the local level there was so much to be done. Questions concerning how to study the Bible in our Study Societies, how the churches should be governed, how do we fulfill our political calling, the education of our children and many other issues had to be dealt with. It all required much prayer, study and action.
Yet, not that long after the Secession of 1834, Helenius DeCock (son of Hendrik de Cock of Ulrum, the Netherlands) published a little booklet giving information about the Presbyterian churches in Scotland with whom the seceded churches had already taken up contact earlier. He tells about their history, their confession (the Westminster Confession), and also how these churches wanted to live in obedience to the Word of God.
It was the same after the Liberation of 1944. Much work had to be done locally and nationally. Still, our fathers did not forget that God also gathers and preserves His Church in other countries and places. The Reformed churches in Holland under God's providential care came into contact with faithful Presbyterian churches in Korea. Already in 1967, our Dutch sister churches decided to establish "ecclesiastical fellowship" with these Presbyterian churches on the other side of the globe. In 1972, Dr. L. Doekes and Rev. P. Van Gurp visited these Korean Presbyterian churches and they wrote an enthusiastic report of their findings. They said, "It was somewhat of a miracle for us to meet in a country so distant and so different in language and culture brothers and sisters in the Lord and churches which can be classified as thoroughly Reformed."
Since that time the Reformed churches in Holland have established ecclesiastical fellowship with several other Presbyterian churches in Scotland and Ireland and they correspond with similar churches in the USA.
The same can be said of the Canadian Reformed churches. Already quite soon after the first Canadian Reformed churches were instituted in 1950 and following years, contact was taken up with Protestant Reformed churches in the USA, and later on with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Korean (Koshin) Presbyterian churches. And in recent years there has also been contact with the Free Church of Scotland with the result that we now also have a "sister-church-relationship" with these churches in Scotland and Canada (One in Toronto, one in Edmonton, three in P.E.I.). Their ministers can preach in our churches, can be called by vacant congregations; we admit each others' members to the table of the Lord and we receive each others' members into the congregation with a valid attestation (Gen. Synod, Lincoln, 1992, Art. 128, page 93).
In all these contacts Reformed churches with their Three Forms of Unity meet believers and maintain ecclesiastical fellowship with churches who do not adhere to those Three Forms of Unity, but to the Westminster Standards. It is therefore no wonder that the Westminster Confession of Faith (which together with the Larger and Smaller Catechisms is one of the Westminster Standards) always has had a great deal of attention. Not that it was discussed all that much, for it can be said that in the Reformed churches of the Netherlands as well after the Secession (1834) as after the Liberation (1944) this confession was considered to be biblically sound and entirely Reformed
(A General Synod of the Reformed churches in Holland accepted in 1967 the statement of a regional Synod that the Westminster Confession of Faith is "a fully Reformed Confession." cf. Acts Synod Coaldale 1977, Art.91). Dr. L. Doekes, for example, wrote an article in 1970 about this confession and called it a Reformed confession. Not that there was no room for improvement; according to him there was! But also his conclusion was: "A careful emendation can only enhance the Scriptural quality of this reformed confession."
First we should watch out for and maybe do away with a misconception, namely the idea that it is in fact the Westminster Confession of Faith which in this respect is the big troublemaker. As if everything would be a lot easier if only there were no churches with that, for us not so well-known, Westminster Confession! If such was the case we would only have to deal with churches who, just like us, have the Three Forms of Unity.
Well, you might as well forget that idea! For it is indeed a misconception. Of course, the immigrant Reformed churches in Canada and the USA, Australia and Africa who came from the Reformed churches in Holland during the 18th and 19th century have the same confessions as us. That is for the most part also the case with churches instituted on the mission fields of the Reformed churches.
But the "problem" of churches having different and various confessions while there indeed is unity of faith among them, that "problem" did not start when the Westminster Confession appeared on the ecclesiastical scene. If we would think that way we do not know our own church history.
Therefore first we'll take a quick look into that history. The Westminster Confession of Faith was published in the year 1647. But already long before that year the Reformed churches in Holland had to deal with the fact that there were a variety of confessions among Reformed churches in different countries. The churches in the Netherlands already quite early in the history of the Reformation (in the year 1561) received their confession in the 37 articles of faith, the Belgic Confession, written by Guido de Bres. A valuable confession! The churches in the Lowlands very soon, already in the first synodical assemblies, adopted this confession and they accepted one another as churches of Christ.
But just before Guido de Bres wrote "his" confession, the Reformed churches in France had already in their synod of Paris in 1559 drafted and accepted their "own" confession (using an outline which was made by John Calvin to serve the French churches). Those two confessions had much in common. And that was really no wonder either! For Guido de Bres used that French (or Gallican) confession of 1559 as a model when he wrote "his" confession for the believers who were dispersed throughout the Lowlands because of the persecutions. And both confessions, the French as well as the Belgic Confession, show very clearly the influence of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion. You can say that those two confessions were brother and sister. And yet, Guido de Bres and the churches in the Lowlands did not say: let's just copy and take over the French confession. No! Although the churches who wanted to live "according to the purity of the Gospel" in the Netherlands and in France were very close and one in the faith, still Guido de Bres considered the specific situation in the Netherlands of such great importance that he drafted a confession with a distinctive character. (Among other things, the Belgic Confession of 1561 is directed more against the Anabaptists than the French Confession of 1559).
The point is that already very early in the history of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands (and also elsewhere) there were a variety of confessional documents among churches who were one in faith. At that time (naturally, also because of the close mutual relationship) this situation of having different confessions did not create any problems in terms of acknowledging each other as sister churches in the Lord. They acknowledged each others' confession. This was also the case with each others' instruction book, the catechism: on the one hand that of Heidelberg, on the other that of Geneva. Although this variety caused no problems to speak of, it certainly did exist!
There in Dort they all met together, delegates from the different provinces of the northern Netherlands, delegates from England and from the different areas of the German empire (the Palatinate, Hessen, Bremen, Emden, Nassau), and also from Switzerland (Zurich, Bern, Basel, Schaffhausen), while the city-council of Geneva had sent its own delegation.
It still is a moving experience to see a picture of the Synod of Dort in session. The seats of the French delegates remained unoccupied as long as Synod met. A symbol of sadness, but also of unity and fellowship! What a great unity of faith is evident in this synod which gave us our third Form of Unity, the Canons of Dort. It is perhaps going a little too far to call this synod an ecumenical one, or ( as also has been done) a synod of "the Reformed World-church." The French churches were not the only ones absent! Also in those days the churches of Eastern Europe (Hungary, Zevenburgen) were not free to do what they liked to do. But still -- what a wide spectrum we may observe when we watch this ecclesiastical assembly meeting there in Dort!
But that means at the same time that there was a variety in terms of confessional documents, while in the final analysis they all were one in confessing the doctrine of grace over against a religious humanism, with which they were confronted in the controversy with the Arminians.
We will not mention all the confessions which the churches in the Netherlands were confronted with when they in Dordtrecht received all those delegates from the churches abroad. But none of them had the Belgic Confession as a form of unity!
The Church of England, the Anglican Church, which had sent as first delegate a bishop - (quite an unusual figure in a Reformed synod!) expressed its faith in the so-called 39 Articles, which in 1571 had been adopted by the English Parliament (!).
That was a confession closely related to one of the first confessional documents of the Reformation, namely the Augsburg Confession, made by Melanchthon, Luther's most important supporter. It should also be said that also the confession of Bremen was closely related to this confession (and to other writings of Melanchthon). The brothers from the Palatinate had, of course, just as the churches from the Netherlands, the Heidelberg Catechism. But besides the Heidelberg Catechism they also acknowledged as confession the so-called Second Helvetic (or Swiss) Confession of 1566, made by Heinrich Bullinger, who succeeded Zwingli in Zurich. This Second Helvetic Confession became quite an authority not only in the Palatinate, but also in Switzerland and also in Hungary and in Zevenburgen. But Basel had besides this Second Helvetic Confession of 1566 also an old confession of their own which had been made already in 1534. And, what's more, the delegates from Geneva had as their confessional document the Catechism made by Calvin in 1541. This Catechism not only served very early on as an instruction book for the youth of the Church (just as the Heidelberg Catechism), but it also received official status as a Confessional document.
All these churches and all these confessions have been instruments in the hand of God to determine according to the Word of God the confessional direction of the churches as confessed in the Canons of Dort.
What a variety within the unity of faith! Also within the Reformed unity of faith!
This "ecumenical" synod of Dort showed a totally different picture than for example, a Roman Catholic council, as the one held not that long before in Trent. With Rome "catholic" and being-united-as-church means: one leader, one church-head, one and the same doctrine decided upon by the church and verbally similar in the whole church.
Among the Lutherans it was quite different than with Rome. But also with them there is still a strong binding of all churches to the same confessional documents (the situation is the same now as in 1580). This has without any doubt to do with the central position of that one person Martin Luther whose opinions were generally speaking decisive (some times wrongly so!).
But among the Reformed churches we see unity in doctrine while there is variety in confessions.
That certainly was the case. More about that later. Then we also will look at the specific function of the Westminster Confession, which was written not that long after the Synod of Dort.
But from the history of our "own" Reformed churches we can for now already learn one lesson: since these churches believe that the Lord Jesus Christ gathers his people by his Spirit and Word in many different historical situations and from many countries with different languages, there is the possibility of churches having also different confessions while this does not harm the unity of faith and neither hinders them to practice and maintain that unity of faith.
In the Netherlands we have experienced that in a difficult struggle for the sake of the truth of the gospel. For in the Synod of Dort, the Reformed churches with the help of foreign sister churches rejected the errors of the Arminians. Those foreign sister churches were one in faith with the Dutch Reformed churches. They were also willing to defend that faith, and they maintained the confession of God's free grace and eternal election. One in faith, although they did adhere to different confessional documents!
We raised the question whether this situation never resulted in tensions considering the presence of so many delegates from churches abroad. Did this never cause conflicts?
It might be very helpful especially when we consider the origin of the Westminster Confession in 1647 to pay a bit more attention to those tensions at the Synod of Dort.
Not everybody at Synod was happy with this initiative. There was fear that in the end things would still go in a wrong direction. It had always been the Remonstrants (Arminians) who did not want to speak of a real binding to the Confessions. Therefore they always propagated that every Synod always again had to subject the whole Confession to a revision. Reformed people had always opposed this idea. The Confession must be checked in the light of the Word of God. But the members of an ecclesiastical assembly are bound to the Confessions as adopted by the churches, since these churches summarized their faith in God's Word in those Confessions. When someone would submit an objection on a specific point of the Confession, he may of course expect that his objection will be judged only with the standard of God's Word. But the Reformed churches have always refused to declare a moratorium on the binding to the confessions as long as they were in revision. That's why some at the Synod of Dort were afraid of this initiative to submit the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism to a general examination, which proposal (don't forget!) was put on the table of Synod by the national government as well.
But the misgivings disappeared when it became clear what the purpose of this examination was.
The Arminians had continually complained and said that quite a bit of criticism could be voiced against the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, and that the Reformed churches in the Netherlands with these confessions had isolated themselves from churches in other countries.
Now the Dutch churches had a golden opportunity to ask the delegates from these other countries openly: how do you judge and evaluate our confessions? Dealing with the Arminian controversies, all the delegates had already shown a beautiful and fundamental unity. It would do a lot of good when the brothers from abroad clearly indicated that they could wholeheartedly agree with the Confession as it was maintained here in the Netherlands by the churches and the believers, also in times of bloody persecutions!
And indeed, the brothers from afar responded positively to the request of their brothers in the Netherlands. They did not take it lightly but did a thorough job! In the 146th Session they could inform Synod that the Confession of the churches in the Netherlands in all points of doctrine agrees "with the truth expressed in Holy Scripture" and is also in accord "with the Confessions of other Reformed churches." Then there follows the admonition voiced by the brothers from the churches abroad "to persevere steadfastly in this orthodox, God-pleasing and simple Confession of Faith, to pass it on unadulterated to the next generations, and to maintain it faithfully until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." That was a great moment in the history of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands! We may say that the Three Forms of Unity of the Reformed churches of the Netherlands are ecumenically confirmed. The churches in Europe which followed the direction of Reformed protestantism have together wholeheartedly endorsed the confession of the churches in the Netherlands!
It is true: I took a little detour! But may I for a while continue to do so? For then you will understand better later on why it is so important for us today in the English-speaking world that such a Confession as the Westminster was born.
The story of the Synod of Dort seems to be an account of only peace and harmony!
However, that is not the complete picture! They did not agree on everything! For when the matter of the examination of the Belgic Confession was to be dealt with by Synod, the chairman, the Reverend Johannes Bogerman, did make one exception. Not only the formulation and wording of the points of doctrine would not be discussed, also the government and polity of the Church would be kept out of the discussion. That would be discussed after the brothers from abroad had left Synod! And this did not only concern the Church Order. For Bogerman mentions explicitly the Articles 31 and 32 of the Belgic Confession as the ones which do not have to be "examined." When you look up those articles you see that they deal with the offices and with the order and discipline of the Church. And we read in Article 31 that beautiful confession which is a death-blow to all hierarchy (under which the churches had suffered when they were still living in the Roman house of slavery):
"Ministers of the Word, in whatever place they are, have equal power and authority, for they are all servants of Jesus Christ, the only universal Bishop and the only Head of the Church."
But on this very important matter there was a radical difference between the Dutch churches and the English state-church, the Anglican Church. As far as the doctrine was concerned this church was at that time indeed Reformed. But that could not be said with regard to the government of the church. The English state-church had indeed cut all ties with Rome. But for the rest the hierarchical order was still intact. There was an archbishop and many other bishops, and subject to them were the presbyters and deacons. And the King of England, who at last chose a position against the Arminians, was a fervent champion of an episcopal form of church government in the strictest sense of the word (i.e. the bishop is a successor of the apostles). Those who in England opposed this system were even severely persecuted! The first delegate from England in the Synod of Dort was (take note!) also a bishop!
And although he was not formally acknowledged as such by the Synod, in reality that happened quite often. He was considered and treated as the chairman of the delegates of the foreign churches. He was regarded to be the most important one (even as regards financial reimbursement). There were only a few members of Synod who dared to disagree with him. Here we should make honourable mention of Professor Gomarus, who at a certain point in the discussion made the remark: "In this meeting it is not ecclesiastical position that counts, but arguments."
It was indeed a beautiful moment when the churches from abroad wholeheartedly expressed their agreement with the confession of the Dutch churches. But at the same time we must say that it was a weak moment, for here an essential point of difference was shoved off the table of Synod!
The weakness of that moment showed up immediately when they discussed the Belgic Confession. The representatives from England first received the floor. The bishop was the spokesman, and in his speech he took exception to the words we just quoted from Article 31, that there is equality among the Ministers of the Word, who are all servants of Jesus Christ, the only Bishop of the Church. That was according to him not in agreement with antiquity (i.e. with the practice of the early Christian church). He challenged the scholars in Synod to prove the contrary. Was the cause of all their church-troubles in the Netherlands not the absence of an episcopal church government, with the result that there were so many men, so many minds?
Nobody in Synod responded to the challenge of the bishop. They all stuck to the "agreement" (not to discuss the Articles 31, 32 of the Belgic Confession). But that meant that the bishop could have the impression that the brothers at Synod in their hearts were convinced of the excellency of the episcopal system of church-government.
And thus the Reformed churches of the Netherlands passed up an opportunity to encourage their brothers in England who being guided by the Holy Scripture opposed the ecclesiastical hierarchy found there.
Also in a Reformed synod errors are made!
But things go wrong when part of the confession is suppressed by taking it out of the discussion out of fear for trouble.
It also has to be emphasized that all this did not just concern a minor and not so important part of church polity. The Reformed churches have clearly stated in their Church Order that those kind of things may never be a reason to reject churches abroad (see our Article 50 C.O.). But here at the Synod of Dort the confessional heart of the government of the Church was at stake. The Articles 30-32 of the Belgic Confession are, so to speak, the confessional foundation on which the Church Order is built.
Now we should not too easily criticize the Synod of Dort. One could say much to excuse the brothers and to defend them. We won't speak about that now. It was correct and wise that in the serious conflict with the Arminians the brothers kept up the fellowship with the English church. We have to judge these matters in the light of their own time. The English state-church (in spite of its many weaknesses) was at this time still a church which wanted to confess the truth of the Scriptures. Today the situation is totally different in this respect. But then it was still an open question of how things would develop in these churches. Such a situation requires great caution and patience.
However, it was definitely wrong that a very important matter was not allowed to be discussed.
At that time of trouble the churches in the Netherlands did indeed receive support from England. But Holland did in this respect not lend support to the brothers who in England wanted to obey Holy Scripture.
Therefore it is a remarkable development, that in that same England shortly after the Synod of Dort was held in the Netherlands, a confession was drafted -- and that is the Westminster Confession, a confession which broke with the episcopal form of government, and which also in other aspects meant an important step into the direction of the churches on the European continent.
Now we also see how things are connected.
In Dort the idea still was that the articles of faith on church government could be left out of the discussion "for the sake of peace and harmony." In England, however, in the period after Dort "the church leaders" seemed to go more and more in an Arminian direction and the Calvinistic content of the Anglican confession ( the 39 Articles) met with increasing resistance.
How close the Anglican Church under Archbishop Laud came again to the Roman Catholic doctrine is clear from one example. Already before he became Archbishop of England he ordered that the altar in the church had to be honoured with curtsies. It carried "the body of Christ," did it not? But it was not necessary to pay the same respect to the pulpit. For from there just the Word was proclaimed!
The consistent policy of the Archbishop in the direction of Rome caused a climax in the conflict with the Reformed segment of the church. The explosion came when an attempt was made to bring also the Calvinistic and Presbyterian Scottish people, among whom the Reformer John Knox had fought the good fight, to ecclesiastical submission. The episcopal system of church government had to bring uniformity to those in Scotland as well. And also there the people had to turn away from the sober liturgy of the Reformation.
This attempt turned into a failure. In 1638 in Edinburgh, the Scottish people joined together in a Covenant to oppose the Anglican liturgy forced upon them. They pledged to defend "the true Reformed religion." Also in England the civic and ecclesiastical opposition grew and reached a climax. The English parliament took a strong stand against the King and his religious advisers, especially the Archbishop of Canterbury. And with or without the cooperation of the King, parliament wanted to maintain and restore the unity with Scotland. That implied that church-wise and confessionally they did not want to see a split between the church in Scotland, where the Calvinism of John Knox was dominant, and the church in England.
However, it is very clear indeed that all this was a drive to reform the Church. The King and the Archbishop with his ecclesiastical hierarchy led the churches in the direction of Rome, at any rate a direction which led the churches back to the Middle Ages, and which wanted to undo the Reformation of the Church.
Parliament refused to go this way. Concretely that meant no closer contact with Rome, but more fellowship with the church in Scotland, and also with the other Reformed churches.
When later the English and Scottish did come to an
agreement they established together the Solemn League and Covenant. The
main purpose of this Covenant was to guarantee the freedom of the church
in England (over against the power of the King). The Reformed religion
had to be maintained. It had to come to a Reformation with regard to the
doctrine of the church, the worship services, the discipline and the church-government
according to the Word of God and the example of the Reformed churches.
This last point is important. The drive to reform the church in England
was very clearly a movement towards the other churches of the Reformation!
Over against the schismatic pushing of King, bishops and ecclesiastical
hierarchy, here the real ecumenical nature of the Reformation is evident.
In the various countries where the Reformation came to pass, the concrete
situations may have been very different, but they did not want to lose
the unity of the faith. In their own situation they knew themselves united
with "all those who in every place call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ"
(1 Cor. 1:2). Earlier in this article we spoke already about the double
motive, namely that among the Reformed churches unity of the faith can
coincide with a distinction and variety with respect to confessional documents.
This is also evident in the history of the origin of the Westminster Confession.
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As such it would not have been impossible to continue the revision of the Anglican confession, the 39 Articles. Neither was it unthinkable that they had tried to find themselves in the Scottish confession of 1560. The main objection to this was that this confession was strongly influenced by the time in which it was made. Neither was it recommendable that the Reformation of the church of England become a Scottish affair! And thus it was considered better to draft a new confession.
From 1643 till the end of 1647 they were working on this confession, and several months were also used in 1647 to add Scripture references. In Scotland it was adopted by the churches in that same year by the Synod of Edinburgh. There this confession replaced the Scottish Confession of 1560. In the next year the Westminster Confession of Faith was also approved in England by parliament.
It is a delight to study how the Westminster Assembly fulfilled its mandate. For also within this gathering there were tensions and disagreements!
In the first place it should be said that this Assembly did not try in a revolutionary way to come up with something totally new. In making a new confession they tried to build on that which their own historical situation presented to them. It is very clear that the brothers made use of the so-called Irish Articles which were drafted by the theologian James Ussher in 1615. This confession had already quite extensively spoken about the divine decree of election. The whole set up of the first part of the Westminster Confession is derived from these Articles. The Assembly also thankfully used the assistance of the Scottish commissioners. But it is also clear that they continually kept an eye on the confessions of other Reformed churches, namely those on the European continent. There were different opinions among the Reformed believers also with respect to the doctrine of God's eternal election. That was the case in the Synod of Dort in the Netherlands in 1618 and 1619. No less in the Westminster Assembly in England. But just as in the Synod of Dort the Reformed representatives closed ranks, so it was in England. They found a formula to confess together their faith in the God who before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4) merely out of grace has chosen in Christ a certain number of people to salvation.
But it should also be said that the Confession of Westminster wanted to be timely, taking into account what was going on at that time in the church. Also in this respect they carefully saw to it that they remain loyal to the Holy Scripture. In those days there was among the Reformed believers (especially in France) a segment which did not want to revive Arminian opinions, but on the other hand they did all their best to soften up the "harshness" of the doctrine of Dort. But the Westminster Assembly did not follow this direction in any way. They also made a positive attempt in this ecclesiastical confession to confess the doctrine of the covenant.
It is no wonder that from many quarters this Confession has been praised as one of the richest and ripest fruits of the Reformation and of the confessional development thereafter. One of the authors of the history of the confessional documents of the Christian church describes this confession correctly as follows: "It exhibits the consensus of the Reformed Churches on the Continent and in England and Scotland." The members of the Assembly in all their labours always kept in mind the promotion of the unity of the churches.
It is to be deplored that what seemed to be the strength of the Westminster Assembly, namely the leadership and the protection of the civic government, already quite quickly turned out to be its weakness, especially in England. Parliament still did approve the confession. But it never was accepted in the church of England, mainly because when the confession was finalized, the political situation had changed again. A strong warning for the church never to lean on the "strong arm" of the civil government!
In England the Confession was adopted only by some independent groups of believers.
It was different in Scotland as we already saw. There this Confession is truly still the confession of the Church of the Reformation. And from Scotland and England it came to the new world of America. There it became the Confession of the Presbyterian world. For from America (also through the work of mission) it has gone out all over the world and reached all continents. Just as the English language became an international language, so the Westminster Confession received international and world-wide recognition.
That is how also the churches in the Netherlands were confronted with it when they explored a closer relationship with the Korean Presbyterian churches. And we in Canada kept hearing about the Westminster Confession when contacts were established with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Free Church of Scotland, and those same Korean Presbyterian churches. The Westminster Confession has under God's providential care become the Reformed confession with the greatest international recognition!
In conclusion we would like to give a brief survey of the contents of this Westminster Confession, and then also ask the question whether there are no phrases in it which, in spite of everything with which we agree, are indeed questionable. Then we can also consider how we have to react in such instances.
In Ch. 1 it speaks about Holy Scripture. Then follows in Ch. 2 the confession of the Triune God, while Ch. 3 deals with his eternal decree.
After Ch. 4 and 5 have spoken about creation and God's providence and Ch. 6 about the fall, sin and the punishment of sin, there follows in Ch. 7 a striking chapter (especially for us), namely the one about the covenant of grace, and the distinction and the unity between the covenant in the old and new dispensation. Ch. 8 is a fitting and suitable continuation which speaks about Christ, the Mediator.
The Confession continues in Ch. 9 speaking about free-will and in Ch.10 through 18 successively about effectual calling, justification, adoption, sanctification, saving faith, repentance unto life, good works, perseverance of the saints, and the assurance of grace and salvation.
Then in Ch. 19 the law of God is extensively dealt with, and related to this in Ch. 20, Christian liberty. In the subsequent chapters the Westminster Confession deals further with specific commands of the law. First, Ch. 21 pays attention to religious worship, and the sabbath-day, in Ch. 22 the topic is lawful oaths and vows, in Ch. 23 the God-ordained civil magistrate, and in Ch 24 marriage and divorce.
Next the Confession speaks in Ch. 25 and 26 about the doctrine of the church and the communion of saints and then in Ch. 27 through 29 the doctrine of the sacraments, baptism and the Lord's Supper, and in Ch. 30 church censure. This part is closed off with an exposition on synods and councils in Ch. 31.
The closing chapters make profession of the state of men after death, and of the resurrection of the dead (Ch. 32) and the final chapter speaks of the last judgment.
This is quite a dull and dry record of titles!
But if you will take the time to consider all the topics which are dealt with, you will clearly see that what in our churches is divided over three confessional documents, here is taken together and dealt with in one continuous document.
Considering the topics dealt with in the first large
part of this Confession, there is indeed some similarity with our Belgic
Confession (although there is here and there some difference in the order).
In this Confession also topics are dealt which with us are confessed in
the Canons of Dort, e.g. the perseverance which we confess separately in
Ch. 5 of the Canons of Dort. And in the middle section of this Confession
(Ch. 19-24) many subjects are dealt which we confess in the third part
of our Catechism where the law of God as a rule for our life of gratitude
is explained in the Lord's Days 34-44. In the closing articles of the Westminster
Confession on the church, the sacraments, the resurrection of the body
and the last judgment, there is again an obvious resemblance with the articles
27-37 of the Belgic Confession.
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That is of course true of every confession. We touched upon that already a few times: among the Reformed churches there exists a rich variety of confessional documents (more so than among the Lutherans and especially in the Roman Catholic church), while still all these Reformed confessions reflect a great unity of faith. When we now apply that to the Westminster Confession then that means in the first place that we should be happy about that. We can learn from each other! There are undoubtedly several instances where "our" Three Forms of Unity show (especially the Belgic Confession and the Catechism) that they still are closer to the beginning of the Reformation: in a simple and clear way the Good News of Jesus Christ is confessed over against Roman Catholic heresies and Anabaptist errors. The Westminster Confession was born at a later date. In choice of words and in a slightly scholarly way of reasoning it resembles more our Canons of Dort. But this also has an advantage! This Confession reflects a serious study of important matters which could be dealt with again as a result of the Reformation. But it took a while before certain convictions became generally accepted so that they specifically could be dealt with in the Confession. All confessions dating from the time of the Reformation speak about justification by faith, "the free will" and the total depravity of the natural man. That is (so to speak) something taken for granted. But it took time and continued study of Scripture before eyes were opened to see the crucial importance of the covenant and the history of the covenant. The Westminster Confession may in this respect reap in the harvest of what others had been sowing!
This Confession speaks in its first articles respectfully about Scripture and its authority. The authority of Scripture is not based "upon the testimony of any man, or church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof." That is why the Bible has to be received as the Word of God. More so than in our article 5 of the Belgic Confession, the Westminster Confession deals extensively with the reason why we acknowledge the divine authority of Scripture. It mentions in this context the testimony of the church, the heavenly nature of Scripture and the majesty of style, but decisive is the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness "by and with the Word in our hearts."
On the other hand the Westminster Confession speaks more soberly about the holy Trinity than our Confession does in articles 8 and 9 but it is certainly not less Scriptural.
In the majority of sections there is certainly an overriding resemblance with the Confession to which we here in Canada are bound as our Christian and ecclesiastical standard of faith.
But there are points of doctrine where the Westminster show its own colour. Sometimes you notice that the specific situation from which this Confession originates played a significant role. That's why the fourth commandment and the observance of the day of the Lord (Ch. 21) gets much attention, much more than in the Heidelberg Catechism. This can be easily explained when you keep in mind the situation at that time! In the Anglican Church of those days Sunday was no day of rest and sanctification in the assembly of God's people. It had turned into a day of debauchery. That's what the Reformed people, the Puritans, protested against. But the question can be raised whether the Westminster Confession did not get a slightly legalistic trait from this. For as it is this Confession says with regard to the Lord's Day, that it is God's command for "all men and all ages not only to observe an holy rest all the day from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations, but also are taken up, the whole time, in the public and private exercises of His worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy."
Another point is that the Westminster in the chapter on the covenant occasionally uses terms which do indeed raise questions. It is a beautiful thing that this Confession expressly speaks about the covenant God had with man already before the fall into sin. Here one can ask whether the term covenant of works is the right choice in distinction from the covenant of grace. This wording leads so quickly to the dangerous idea that Adam before the fall into sin could have earned eternal life by his own performance. We should say that also then it was God's favour to promise Adam eternal life in the way of obedience. But such a questionable wording does not have to be a stumbling block, also because the Westminster Confession is very clear in confessing that establishing the covenant was a deed of God's good pleasure and "voluntary condescension." What this confession says further on is a bit more difficult. Then it states that in his covenant God freely offers life and salvation unto sinners, requiring of them faith in Him, "while God promises to give His holy Spirit to all those that are ordained unto eternal life to make them willing and able to believe" (Ch. 7). Speaking about God's promises this way the question can be raised whether we do not run the danger of making a distinction between a general promise of salvation and a specific promise only to the elect.
And so more questions could be raised. The Westminster makes in Ch. 25 somewhat of a distinction between the invisible church (the total number of God's elect) and the visible church (consisting of all those who profess the true religion and their children). That visible church is then the same as "the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation."
We will mention one more point. In Chapter 32 the
Westminster Confession refutes correctly the doctrine that the soul of
man after death dies or sleeps. This Confession is also in line with Scripture
when explaining that immediately after death the great separation takes
place: the believers being received into heaven there waiting for the full
redemption, and the unbelievers being cast into hell and utter darkness,
being reserved to the judgment of the great day. However, confessing that
the soul returns to God who gave them, the Westminster uses as argument
that the soul has an immortal subsistence. Now it may be true that in theology
very often people have spoken about "the immortal soul," but that still
does not make it right! It is contrary to Scripture which clearly teaches
that only God alone has immortality (1 Tim. 6:16), and that we, when we
die in the Lord, will receive immortality. That will happen when the trumpet
sounds and the dead are raised. (1 Corinthians 15 :52,53,54).
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Does that now mean that we have to reject as sister Churches those churches which already for ages adhere to this confession, and thus have professed the Name of God and of the Lord Jesus?
It is my firm conviction that this is not the case.
I briefly give you three grounds for this conviction:
In the first place if we did that, we would completely deny our own history as Reformed Churches. For the Reformed Churches have always acknowledged as sister churches in Christ such churches which according to the truth have confessed the Reformed faith with the words of this Westminster confession. If we want to break with that past we have to come up with very solid grounds!
Secondly: we mentioned above that we do not have to ask such critical questions of the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort (confessions to which our officebearers and churches are bound) as we do of the Westminster Confession. That does, however, not mean that we can call our confessional documents divine and perfect (goddelijk-volmaakt) in all formulations. We may say that they in all points of doctrine are in harmony with God's Word. But that does not mean that you affirm every formulation as being correct and never allow any emendation. To mention only one example, Prof. C. Trimp has argued extensively that the term "outward preaching" in the Canons of Dort Ch.3/4.12 (see also 3/4.11) has good qualities, especially in the struggle against the Arminians. But he also argues that the distinction "outward" (namely for the preaching of the Word) and "inward" (for the decisive work of the Holy Spirit) is nevertheless a faulty one. For according to him it can so easily be used to minimize God's mighty work in and through His Word coming from the outside to us, and consider the preaching of the Word as something which is just "outward" and as such not that important.
I agree wholeheartedly with Prof. Trimp on this point. And when the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands modernized the language of the confession, they did change this formulation, which was well meant but could be abused. Often the question is: what is meant with a certain word or formulation? What is the point they want to profess (with perhaps imperfect words)? That is the way we read our own confessional documents. With Holy Scripture always in the background. We take into account the often limited possibilities to confess God's multifaceted truth and we ask for the meaning of what has been expressed by those particular phrases. But if that is true of "our" confessions then we should also use the same standard when considering the confessional documents of churches with whom we are one in the faith.
And in the third place: also when there will be certain points where there will always be some difference, then it should be considered whether it is not commendable to discuss such specific points with each other in a brotherly fashion with the prayer that the Spirit of the Lord will guide us together so that we may both grow in the knowledge of faith. With regard to these points it should be possible to find each other peaceably and harmoniously in a common formula which does not carry the baggage of past difficulties but in which these churches by together respectfully listening to the Word of God, which is the truth for all times, make an attempt to come to an agreement serving the upbuilding of the Church of the Lord and the praise of his holy Name.
It would be such a delight that, when meeting with
one another (as now is the case in the ICRC, the International Conference
of Reformed Churches) there would be an opportunity not to criticize each
other and then thereafter quickly return each to his own home, but to serve
each other on the way to the future of our Lord, who until thus far has
guided us and brings us together in order that we also confess together
the Name of Christ, Head of His people and King of His congregation. That
the world may believe that the Father has sent His Son (John 17:21).
2 [Return]Fides Quadrat Intellectum (the Student Association at the Theological University in Kampen, the Netherlands) Almanac, 1970, p.189.
3 [Return] The original reads: "...het welcke met de waerheydt van Godes geopenbaerde Woort, oft met de Confession van anderen Gereformeerde Kercken niet al te wel en soude schijnen te accorden."
4 [Return] Original: "...met de waerheyt in de heilighe Schriftuere uytgedruckt." And also, "...met de Confesiien van andere Gereformeerde Kercken wel accordeerde."
5 [Return] "...in dese rechtsinnige Godsalighe en eenvoudighe Confessie des geloofs stantvastelije te willen volherden, deselve den na-comelinghen onvervalscht te willen naerlaten, ende tot de comste toe onses Heeren Jesu Christi, onvervalscht te willen bewaren."
6 [Return] Later on also the churches in France which could not be represented at the Synod expressed their wholehearted agreement with this judgment. The Heidelberg Catechism also received unswerving endorsement from the brothers from the other churches.
7 [Return]The Acts mention only these two articles. Perhaps also Article 30 was excluded (as appears to be the case from other sources).
8 [Return]This school of thought had its centre in the Theological Seminary in Saumur, France and its main proponent was Moses Amyraldus (1596-1664).
9 [Return] Creeds of Christendom (Vol. 1), Philip Schaff, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, p.766.
10 [Return]Cf. Bezield Verband, C. Trimp, Kampen, 1984, p.226.
11 [Return] This could perhaps happen most often
when the Westminster Confession in its chapter on synods (Ch. 31) states
that decisions, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with
reverence and submission, not only for their agreement to the Word of God,
but also for the power whereby they are made. We note with gratitude that
also in this Confession agreement with the Word of God is the decisive
factor, but it is a bit difficult to understand that immediately after
that agreement with God's Word, the authority of the ecclesiastical assembly
is mentioned! At this point it shows how difficult it is to shake hierarchy,
while the Westminster Confession did totally eliminate the episcopal system
of church government.