Westminster Confession of Faith
Westminster Confession of Faith that body of doctrines proposed by the Westminster Assembly, and adopted by Parliament in 1646 as the creed of the English Church, and now-the doctrinal basis of almost all Presbyterian churches, A committee, consisting of about twenty-five members, was appointed by the Assembly to prepare matter for a joint Confession of Faith about Aug. 20, 1644. The matter was prepared, in part at least, by this committee, and the digesting of it into a formal draught was entrusted to a smaller committee on May 1-2, 1645. The debating of the separate articles began July 7, 1645, and on the following day a committee of three (afterwards increased to five) was appointed to take care of the wording of the Confession as the articles should be adopted in the Assembly. On July 16 the committee reported the heads of the Confession, and these were distributed to the three large committees to be elaborated and prepared for discussion. All were repeatedly read and debated in the most thorough manner possible in the Assembly. On Sept. 25, 1646, a part of the Confession was finally passed, and on Dec. 4 the remainder received the sanction of the Assembly, when the whole was presented to the Parliament. That body ordered the printing of six hundred copies for the use of members of Parliament and of the Assembly, and that Scripture proofs should be added to the Confession, which was accordingly done. In 1647 the Confession was approved by the Church of Scotland in the form in which it had passed the Assembly, and it was ratified afterwards by the Scotch Parliament. It was passed by the English Parliament in 1648, under the title of Articles of Christian Religion, but with certain changes. The basis of the Confession is doubtless those Calvinistic articles which are supposed to have been prepared by Usher, and in 1615 were adopted by the convocation of the Irish Church.
In the formation of this symbol the Assembly at first undertook to revise the Thirty-nine Articles of the Anglican Church, and proceeded with that work until fifteen articles had been revamped with elements of a more pronounced Calvinistic character and provided with Scripture proofs. The only important change made in this process was the omission of Article VIII, concerning the authority of the three ecumenical symbols. The intention of the synod was to ground every statement directly on Scripture as the only rule of faith, while the Church of England, under Edward VI and Elizabeth, conceded to Catholic tradition, if not in conflict with Scripture, a regulative authority. The Scottish commissioners, however, induced the Assembly to undertake the formation of an entirely new symbol.
In the order and titles of many of its chapters, as well as in the language of whole sections or subdivisions of chapters, and in many single phrases occurring throughout the Confession, the Westminster divines seem to have followed the articles adopted by the Irish convocation. They very seldom determined points, which that body had left open. Their purpose was to express their views in such a way as to obviate objections and secure union rather than division. Hence they introduced nothing into the Confession, which had not been taught in England, Ireland, and Scotland before.
The Confession, under the title of The Humble Advice of the Assembly of Divines, not by Authority of Parliament sitting at Westminster, concerning a Confession of Faith, etc., was printed in London in December, 1646, without proofs, and in May, 1647, with proofs, for the use of the houses of Parliament and the Assembly. A copy of this last edition was taken to Scotland by the commissioners, and from it three hundred copies were printed for the use of the General Assembly there. After being approved by that body, it was published in Scotland with the title of The Confession of Faith Agreed upon by the Assembly of Divines, etc., and while the House of Commons were still considering it, a London bookseller brought it out under the same title in 1648. In the same year it was, with the omission of parts of ch. 20 and 21 and the whole of ch. 30 and 31and with some minute verbal alterations, approved by the two houses, and published under the title Articles of Christian Religion, Approved and Passed by both Houses of Parliament after Advice had with the Assembly of Divines, etc. But, notwithstanding this legal sanction, the latter form is not common; and the Confession continues to be printed in Great Britain in the form in which it was drawn by the Assembly and approved by the Church of Scotland.
The Confession ranks as one of the best Calvinistic symbols. It is clear, incisive, compressed, and provided throughout with Scripture proofs. It treats in thirty-three chapters of all the important doctrines of Christianity, beginning with the Scriptures as the only rule of faith, and ending with the Last Judgment. It has almost entirely superseded the Confessio Scotica of 1560, and is in use among the Presbyterian churches of Great Britain and its colonies, as well as of orthodox Congregationalists and Independents. In America the Confession is received by all similar bodies, with the exception of Article III of ch. 23, which treats of the civil power, and is altered to conform to American conditions. For the doctrines of the Confession and their exposition, see Cunningham, Historical Theology (1862); Hodge, Commentary on the Confession of Faith (1869); Shaw, Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1847); Stark, Westminster Confession (2d ed. Lond. 1864).