The Westminster Confession of Faith is the principle confession of faith for English Presbyterianism. It is also highly regarded by traditional English Baptists, whose own London Confession of Faith is merely a modified version of the Westminster Confession. (1) In this essay, I shall demonstrate that it deviates from orthodoxy in three significant ways – the canon of Scripture, the application of Scripture, and the very Gospel itself. The last of these is the most important deviation and the one on which I shall focus most attention. I have dealt with the first at greater length elsewhere. (2)
Before proceeding, I ought to lay all my cards on the table and acknowledge my own bias. The men who produced the Westminster Confession in 1646 were men of whom I have an extremely low opinion for historical and political reasons. The Westminster Assembly, from which the Confession takes its name, consisted of 121 Puritans who at the time were engaged in unlawful rebellion and sedition against their king, whom they eventually captured and murdered, justifying their wicked actions with their theology. Puritanism in power, was totalitarian and despotic, and fully earned its much-deserved reputation for legalistic Pharisaism, beauty-hating Philistinism, and general life-sucking, joy-killing, spiritual oppressiveness. Historically, Puritanism was the earliest form of English liberalism. (3) From a bad tree like Puritanism, bad fruit is exactly what I expect to find.
One last preliminary step before examining the Confession itself is to define the standard that I shall be applying to evaluate its errors. When I say that the Confession deviates from orthodoxy, I mean Protestant orthodoxy. Protestant orthodoxy includes small-c catholic orthodoxy. Small-c catholic orthodoxy consists of the basic Scriptural doctrines summed up by the early church in the Apostles’, Nicene-Constantinopolitan, and Athanasian Creeds. This form of orthodoxy is held by the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and orthodox Protestant (Anglican, Lutheran, and continental Reformed) Churches, excluding, of course, the portions of these churches that have succumbed to theological liberalism. (4) Protestant orthodoxy also includes the basic truths of the Reformation – that orthodox doctrine is established by the authority of the Scriptures alone (5) and that salvation is a free gift given to mankind on the basis of grace alone, accomplished by Christ alone, and received by faith alone, for which God alone deserves the glory. The orthodox Protestant confessions include the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church, the Lutheran Augsburg Confession (1530), Smacald Articles (1537), and Formula of Concord (1577), and the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) and Belgic Confession (1561) of the continental Reformed Church. On two of the three points under consideration, the Westminster Confession departs from the consensus of these older, orthodox, confessions. On the remaining point it departs from a consensus between the Anglican and Lutheran confessions.
Heresy I: The Canon of Scriptures
The third paragraph of the first chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith reads:
The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the canon of the Scripture, and therefore are of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings.
This was not the viewpoint of the Protestant Reformers, and it is not the position taken in the orthodox Anglican, Lutheran, and continental Reformed confessions. The books that are incorrectly dubbed the Apocrypha here, (6) are the books (7) and additional chapters to books (8) which appear the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures that was supposed to have been produced for Ptolemy II in the 3rd Century BC, but not the Hebrew Masoretic Text. The Masoretic Text is what Rabbinic Judaism has, since some point subsequent to the destruction of the Second Temple, regarded as the canonical text of its Tanakh. The Septuagint is what is quoted as authoritative Scripture in the New Testament, what is quoted as the Old Testament in the earliest extra-Biblical writings of orthodox Christianity, and what was received by the Christian church as its Old Testament. The Protestant Reformers adopted what had been a minority viewpoint in the early church, (9) that the LXX books not found in the Masoretic Text should be regarded as “ecclesiastical books” appointed to be read in churches for instruction and edification but not “canonical books.” N.B. that the “canon” in “canonical books” as used in this context, does not refer to the list of books that belong in the Bible – which includes both the canonical and ecclesiastical books – but the use of the books as a “canon”, i.e., rule or standard, by which orthodox doctrine is established. The Reformers’ position was that the “ecclesiastical books” which were part of what the Christian church had received as its Old Testament Scriptures from the beginning, but whose equality with the “canonical books” was not incontrovertible, were not to be removed from the Scriptures, but were to be treated as a distinct category of books, that would be read liturgically, but could only be used to support doctrines established from the canonical books, never to establish doctrine. (10) Hence, orthodox Protestant Bibles like Lutheran’s German Bible and the Authorized Bible of 1611, include these books, but place them in a separate location between the Old and the New Testament. The Reformers’ position, while it was very much a minority position in the first 1500 years of church history, is still within the bounds of small-c catholic orthodoxy, since it does not remove books from the received Scriptures, and everything in the ecumenical Creeds can be firmly established from the canonical books without recourse to the ecclesiastical. The Westminster Confession’s position is not orthodox, and places those who penned it under the curse of Revelation 22:19.
Heresy II: The Application of Scripture and Christian Liberty
The first paragraph of the twenty-first chapter of the Westminster Confession reads:
The light of nature shows that there is a God, who has lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and does good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.
This is what is known as the “regulative principle of worship” – that true worship of God should include nothing beyond what we are specifically commanded to do in the Scriptures. It is easy to overlook the heresy in this principle. The way it is formulated it sounds good and true – until we compare it to the opposite principle, the “normative principle of worship”, which states that Christian churches are permitted to worship in any way that is not specifically prohibited in the Scriptures. As Richard Hooker put it “Whatsoever Christ hath commanded for ever to be kept in his Church, the same we take not upon us to abrogate; and whatsoever our laws have thereunto added besides, of such quality we hope it is, as no lawe of Christ doth any where condemn.” (11) When this comparison is made it becomes abundantly clear what is lacking in the regulative principle – Christian liberty as taught by St. Paul in Romans 14, I Corinthians 10, the book of Galatians, and, indeed, practically every epistle he wrote. The doctrine of Christian liberty is the basis of the normative principle, which is also the consensus of the Anglican and Lutheran confessions. (12) The continental Reformed confessions are widely believed to dissent from this consensus. Article 32 of the Belgic Confession, for example, is generally regarded as a statement of the regulative principle. The principle is much more explicit in the Westminster Confession, however. When the Belgic Confession declares that churches “ought always to guard against deviating from what Christ, our only Master,has ordained for us” and goes on to say “Therefore we reject all human innovations and all laws imposed on us, in our worship of God, which bind and force our consciences in any way. So we accept only what is proper to maintain harmony and unity and to keep all in obedience to God” this is not as out of harmony with the Anglican and Lutheran position as the Westminister Confession’s “He may not be worshipped…any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.”
Heresy III: The Gospel
The eighteenth chapter of the Westminster Confession is entitled “Of Assurance of Grace and Salvation.” It consists of four paragraphs. The first of these observes that while unregenerate hypocrites may have “false hopes and carnal presumptions of being in the favour of God, and estate of salvation”, nevertheless true believers “may, in this life, be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace, and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God, which hope shall never make them ashamed.” That this is true is clearly stated in the Scriptures (1 John 5:13). It is a Scriptural truth that had long been buried under legalistic late Medieval theology and the recovery of this truth lay at the heart of the much needed Reformation of the sixteenth century. However, in the second and third paragraphs the Westminster Confession retreats from the Scriptural truths of the Reformation and indeed from the Gospel itself: The second paragraph reads:
This certainty is not a bare conjectural and probable persuasion grounded upon a fallible hope; but an infallible assurance of faith founded upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation, the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made, the testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God, which Spirit is the earnest of our inheritance, whereby we are sealed to the day of redemption.
The third paragraph begins by saying:
This infallible assurance does not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties, before he be partaker of it: yet, being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation in the right use of ordinary means, attain thereunto.
If the second paragraph had ended with the words “the divine truth of the promises of salvation” it would have been perfectly sound. It did not end there, however, and by making the “inward evidence” part of the foundation of assurance in addition to the truth of God’s promises, hopelessly confuses the objective basis of assurance with its subjective experience. Consequently, the Confession proceeds to separate assurance from faith, in direct contradiction to Scripture (Hebrews 11:1), the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther, John Calvin, the sixteenth century English Reformers, as well as all of the Lutheran Confessions, the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism. (13)
The Reformers knew that a true and infallible assurance of salvation could only be built upon ground that is firm, solid and unmovable and must therefore be founded upon the Gospel promises of salvation alone. The believer is not to look inward at his own faith, feelings, works, life, and experience, all of which vary, for evidence of his salvation, but to look outward through his faith to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to find his assurance there. His subjective experience of this assurance is his faith in the promises of the Gospel, that is to say his taking those promises to himself as being true on the grounds of the infallible reliability of the God Who made them. It is not a feeling, an emotional experience, or a conclusion to be arrived at through self-examination and reasoning. It is taking God at His Word, i.e., faith. This is what the Reformers meant when they said that assurance is the essence of saving faith. It did not mean that the believer’s experience of assurance could never be clouded by doubt, but that the only sound way to dispel those clouds is by looking outward at Jesus Christ, as He is presented to us in the Gospel, and never inwardly at ourselves. The inner witness of the Holy Spirit is not a ministry of providing additional, internal evidence of our salvation but of establishing, strengthening, and supporting our faith in Jesus Christ through the means of the Gospel.
By retreating from this doctrine, the Westminster Confession retreated from the Gospel itself. The New Testament Gospel, properly understood, is exactly what its name in both English and Greek suggests. (14) It is not a set of instructions or commandments that we follow in order to save ourselves. It is God’s good news or glad tidings to a world of men and women lost in their sins and trespasses about how He has given them a Saviour Who has done everything necessary to save them. It is all about Jesus, (15) Who He is - the Christ, the Son of the Living God (John 20:31), and what He has done - died for our sins, was buried, and rose again the third day (1 Corinthians 15:1-8). In the Gospel, justification (being proclaimed righteous in the court of divine justice) and everlasting life are proclaimed to be gifts, given in Christ freely to everyone who believes in Him (Jn.3:14-18 4:7-26, 5:24, 6:27, 29, 35-40; Rom 3:24-26, 4:3-5, 6:23; Eph. 2:8-9). The Gospel presents a triumphant Saviour, Who has accomplished a finished salvation, that is sure and certain, to the sinners whom it invites to trust that Saviour. It is a perversion of that Gospel to tell people that they must look partly to Christ, and partly to something in themselves, in order to find peace and hope. (16)
In the first two of the heresies we have looked at, Puritanism’s Westminster Confession took the teachings of the sixteenth century Reformers, that the ecclesiastical books from the LXX should not be appealed to in order to establish doctrine and that doctrine was to be established on the authority of Scripture alone, to extremes that were much further than the sixteenth century Magisterial Reformers were willing to go, by removing the ecclesiastical books from the Bible altogether, and compromising Christian liberty by insisting that everything be removed from Christian worship as popish, man-made inventions, that was not specifically authorized by Scripture even if it was not forbidden in Scripture either. In the third of the heresies, the Puritan Confession stepped backward from the Reformation into the darkness of legalistic uncertainty against which Luther and Calvin had protested.
(1) The Second London Confession of 1689, that is, that replaced the London Confession of 1644 which predated the Westminster Confession by two years. The Congregationalists had modified the Westminster Confession to incorporate their views of church government in the Savoy Declaration (1658), the Second London Confession modified it further to incorporate the Baptist view of baptism. In North America, the Philadelphia Confession of Faith of 1742 was a reissue of the Second London Confession, with two new articles, and thus also a slightly revised version of the Westminster Confession.
(2) In the essay “What Books Make Up the Bible?”: http://thronealtarliberty.blogspot.ca/2018/03/what-books-make-up-bible.html
(3) After the English Civil War, the murder of King Charles I, the interregnum and the despotic dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell, and the Restoration of the monarchy and Church of England, the Puritan side in these conflicts developed into the Whig party in Parliament, the first liberal party, whereas the Royalists became the Tories.
(4) For the last thousand years, of course, the Eastern churches have disagreed that the Western churches hold to this kind of orthodoxy, and vice-versa, each regarding the other as being in excommunicable heresy. The disagreement is over a difference between the Greek and Latin texts of the second Creed. It does not pertain to any of the matters we will be looking at here however.
(5) This is the true meaning of sola Scriptura – “by Scripture alone.” The idea that Scriptures can and should be interpreted privately without regard to the Creeds, the ecumenical Councils, and the teachings of the Fathers and Doctors of the church, is more properly called “solo Scriptura”. The former is the doctrine of orthodox Protestants, the latter of radical Protestant extremists.
(6) The term Apocrypha dates back to the early church, and the Westminster Confession’s statement would be correct if it were referring to the same books the Church Fathers were talking about. The Church Fathers, however, used the term to refer to a completely different class of writings.
(7) Tobit, Judith, I and II Maccabees, Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon, and the books that are called III and IV Esdras in Bibles in which Ezra and Nehemiah are titled I and II Esdras, and I and II Esdras in the Bibles that use the titles Ezra and Nehemiah.
(8) The Song of the Three Children, the story of Susannah and the Elders and the story of Bel and the Dragon, from the Book of Daniel, additional chapters to the Book of Esther, the Prayer of Manasseh which is appended sometimes to II Chronicles and sometimes to the Psalms in ancient manuscripts, Baruch which was considered part of the Book of Jeremiah in the first few centuries of the Church but was later treated as a separate book, and the Epistle of Jeremiah.
(9) As discussed in my previous essay, referenced above in footnote 2, this was originally a regional viewpoint in Alexandria, Egypt, of which St. Athanasius was the most orthodox voice, but which later found limited support outside Alexandria in St. Jerome, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, and Rufinus of Aquileia.
(10) Note the very different tone of Article 6 of the Belgic Confession. “The church may certainly read these books and learn from them as far as they agree with the canonical books” is not of the same spirit as “therefore are of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings.”
(11) Richard Hooker, Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie, Book III, xi, 13.
(12) Article XX of the Thirty-Nine Articles and Article XV of the Augsburg Confession.
(13) Article IV of Luther’s Augsburg Confession reads “Also they [the “our churches” mentioned in Article I - GTN] teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ's sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ's sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight.” Philip Melanchthon, commenting on this Article in his Defense of the Augsburg Confession, wrote: “But that faith which justifies is not merely a knowledge of history, [not merely this, that I know the stories of Christ's birth, suffering, etc. (that even the devils know,)] but it is to assent to the promise of God, in which, for Christ's sake, the remission of sins and justification are freely offered. [It is the certainty or the certain trust in the heart, when, with my whole heart, I regard the promises of God as certain and true, through which there are offered me, without my merit, the forgiveness of sins, grace, and all salvation, through Christ the Mediator.]” (brackets and parentheses are part of the translation) Similarly, in the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord we read: “This faith is a gift of God, by which we truly learn to know Christ, our Redeemer, in the Word of the Gospel, and trust in Him, that for the sake of His obedience alone we have the forgiveness of sins by grace, are regarded as godly and righteous by God the father, and are eternally saved.” (III.x) The Lutheran tradition never departed Luther’s teachings on this in the way that Puritanism and the Westminster Confession departed from Calvin’s. Therefore we find the same equation of faith and assurance in C. F. W. Walther’s The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1928), Francis Pieper’s 4 volume Christliche Dogmatik, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1917-1924), John Theodore Mueller’s 1 volume Christian Dogmatics, an epitome of Pieper’s work published in English by the same publisher in 1934, and Robert D. Preuss’s Getting into the Theology of Concord (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1977). That John Calvin agreed with the Lutheran position is attested in numerous places in his own writings. In the Institutes of the Christian Religion, he famously wrote “In one word, he only is a true believer who, firmly persuaded that God is reconciled, and is a kind Father to him, hopes everything from his kindness, who, trusting to the promises of the divine favor, with undoubting confidence anticipates salvation” (III.ii.16) Similarly, in his Commentary on 2 Corinthians, he writes “In the second place, it serves to prove the assurance of faith, as to which the Sorbonnic sophists have made us stagger, nay more, have altogether rooted out from the minds of men. They charge with rashness all that are persuaded that they are the members of Christ, and have Him remaining in them, for they bid us be satisfied with a “moral conjecture,” as they call it — that is, with a mere opinion so that our consciences remain constantly in suspense, and in a state of perplexity. But what does Paul say here? He declares, that all are reprobates, who doubt whether they profess Christ and are a part of His body. Let us, therefore, reckon that alone to be right faith, which leads us to repose in safety in the favor of God, with no wavering opinion, but with a firm and steadfast assurance.” Amusingly, it is in his remarks on 2 Corinthians 13:5 that this is found. This verse was and is a favorite proof-text of the Westminster Puritans and the vast majority of theologians who would identify as “Calvinist” for the idea that believers need to be constantly examining themselves for evidence of their salvation. Calvin himself, understood correctly, that in this verse St. Paul was calling on his readers, not to look for evidence of their salvation in themselves, but to look to their own saving faith as evidence of the work of God in his, that is to say, St. Paul’s, ministry. The idea that we must look to ourselves for evidence of our own salvation was condemned by Calvin, who, in arguing against “semi-Papists” who taught that we must ever alternate between hope and fear, as we alternately look at Christ and ourselves, insisted that “If you look to yourself damnation is certain” and that we ought only to consider ourselves in our union with Christ. (Institutes, III.ii.24) In another famous passage from his Institutes he declared “But if we are elected in him, we cannot find the certainty of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we look at him apart from the Son. Christ, then, is the mirror in which we ought, and in which, without deception, we may contemplate our election.” (III.xxiv.5) The Heidelberg Catechism is in full agreement with Luther and Calvin. Its answer to Question 21, “What is true faith?” is: “True faith is not only a sure knowledge by which I hold as true all that God has revealed to us in Scripture; it is also a wholehearted trust, which the Holy Spirit creates in me by the gospel, that God has freely granted, not only to others but to me also, forgiveness of sins, eternal righteousness, and salvation. These are gifts of sheer grace, granted solely by Christ’s merit.” Nor is there any departure from this doctrine in the Belgic Confession. The Canons of the Synod of Dort (1618-19) however, depart from the consensus of Lutheran and early Calvinist orthodoxy in the same way the Westminster Confession does. For an excellent discussion of how this deviation from Reformational orthodoxy took place see R. T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979). For a presentation and defense of the original Reformation doctrine against the Puritan heresy written from a Calvinist viewpoint see Prof. David J. Engelsma, The Gift of Assurance, (South Holland, Illinois: Evangelism Committee of the Protestant Reformed Church, 2009). Engelsma aptly condemns the Puritan heresy in the following words: “The Puritan doctrine of assurance is a form of salvation by works. A doctrine of works is necessarily also a doctrine of doubt.” (p. 12)
(14) Gospel is a contraction of the Old English “godspel”, formed from adding good (originally spelled with one long o) to spel, which meant story, message, or tidings. The Greek εὐαγγέλιον is formed the same way and with the same meaning.
(15) When John the Baptist and Jesus Himself preached a message they called a Gospel the content of that message was “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand”. This version of the Gospel was addressed to national Israel and meant that the Kingdom of God promised in the Old Testament prophets had finally arrived. This too, was all about Jesus because it was in the Person of Jesus, as Christ the King, that the Kingdom of Heaven was present.
(16) In Westminster Puritanism the “decisionism” that pervades contemporary evangelicalism has its genesis. While the immediate ancestor of evangelical decisionism is the nineteenth century American evangelist Charles Finney, whose teachings the Puritans would have – rightly – regarded as hopelessly tainted with Pelagianism, Puritanism itself took the first step in transforming saving faith from the receptive response to the Gospel of simple belief or trust into an act of the will. Hence their departure from the Reformers on the matter of assurance. In Puritan doctrine, saving faith was not distinguished from other faith merely by its object, Jesus Christ as presented in the Gospel. It also differed from ordinary belief, according to the Puritans, by including the element of repentance, which they defined as the sinner’s decision to abandon his sinful ways and to obey God’s commandments. This was a compound error. It confused both repentance and faith with their results, and reverses the Reformers’ teaching about repentance and faith, namely that it was the presence of faith that made the difference between saving and non-saving repentance rather than the other way around. In Luther’s theology, repentance could refer either to contrition, which was not necessarily saving, or the entirety of conversion which included both contrition and faith in Jesus Christ. Apart from faith in the Gospel, contrition could not save. Furthermore, contrition was not an act of the will. It was the realization that one’s sins had earned for one’s self the just condemnation of God and was itself a product of believing God, in this case believing what He says in the Law. The Law, properly used, was an instrument of grace, preparing men for the reception of the Gospel, by destroying their confidence in their own goodness and revealing to them their hopeless lost estate of sinfulness and therefore their need for the salvation proclaimed in the Gospel. Contrition, by itself, was a repentance that could not save, because salvation is proclaimed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and received by faith in that Gospel, not by faith in the Law. It was the addition of faith in Jesus Christ as revealed in the Gospel, that turned contrition into saving repentance, i.e., conversion. The hymn writer, John Newton, described the way God’s grace works through the Law and Gospel to produce conversion in the famous words “’twas grace that taught my heart to fear [contrition produced by the Law], and grace my fear relieved [faith produced by the Gospel].” Conversion, with its two elements of contrition and faith, was not a term limited to the initial reception of salvation, as it usually is in contemporary evangelicalism, but referred to the ongoing ministry of the Law and Gospel in the hearts of believers throughout their lives, and the moving of the will to abandon sin and obey God’s commandments was not part of conversion, but its outcome. If the Gospel promises do not speak to the impenitent, as the Reformers taught, this was not because the decision to change one’s ways was either a co-condition with belief of receiving salvation or a part of saving faith, but because impenitence, the stubborn refusal to consider changing ones ways, comes from self-satisfaction, the considering of self to be good enough and not needing change, which attitude contradicts the message of both the Law and the Gospel. Such self-satisfaction and confidence in one’s own goodness had to be broken down in the heart before faith in the Gospel could form there. The Reformers warned, however, against the danger of placing faith in our own contrition that ought to be placed in Christ alone. See Dr. Martin Luther, Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, (1520), in particular the section on the Sacrament of Penance. Note especially “Beware, then, of putting your trust, in your own contrition and of ascribing the forgiveness of sins to your own sorrow. God does not have respect to you because of that, but because of the faith by which you have believed His threatenings and promises, and which wrought such sorrow within you. Thus we owe whatever of good there may be in our penance, not to our scrupulous enumeration of sins, but to the truth of God and to our faith. All other things are the works and fruits of this, which follow of their own accord, and do not make a man good, but are done by a man already made good through faith in the truth of God” (4:9) See also Preuss’s excellent summary of this subject in Chapter XII, “The Work of The Law and Gospel: Repentance”, pages 62-63 of Getting Into the Formula of Concord.
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