“Westminster Confession of Faith”

by John M. Frame

This article is taken from Walter Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 1168-9. Used by permission of Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, copyright 2006. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Publishing Group. http://www.bakerbooks.comhttp://www.BakerPublishingGroup.com.


Westminster Confession of Faith (1647). The Westminster Assembly (so called because of its meeting place) was summoned by the English Parliament in 1643. Its mission was to advise Parliament in restructuring the Church of England along Puritan lines. To the assembly were invited 121 ministers (the “divines”), 10 members of the House of Lords, 20 of the Commons, plus 8 nonvoting (but influential) representatives of Scotland, which was allied to the English Parliament by a treaty, the “Solemn League and Covenant.” Different views of church government were represented, presbyterianism being the dominant position. On theological matters however, there was virtual unanimity in favor of a strong Calvinistic position, unequivocally rejecting what the assembly saw as the errors of Arminianism, Roman Catholicism, and sectarianism.

The assembly’s Confession of Faith, completed in December, 1646, is the last of the classic Reformed confessions and by far the most influential in the English-speaking world. Though it governed the Church of England only briefly, it has been widely adopted (sometimes with  amendments) by British and American Presbyterian bodies as well as by many Congregational and Baptist churches. It is well known for its thoroughness, precision, conciseness, and balance. Notable elements are: (1) The opening on Scripture, called by Warfield the best single chapter in any Protestant confession, (2) The mature formulation of the Reformed doctrine of predestination (chs. III, V, IX, XVII). It is noncommittal on the debate between supra- and infralapsarianism, but teaches clearly that God”s will is the ultimate cause of all things, including human salvation. It teaches the doctrine of reprobation in very guarded terms (III, vii, viii). It is careful to balance this teaching with a chapter on human freedom (IX). (3) The emphasis on covenants as the way in which God relates to his people through history (VII, esp.). (4) Its doctrine of redemption structured according to God’s acts (X-XIII) and human response (XIV-XVII), thus underscoring its “covenantal” balance between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. (5) Its Puritan doctrine of assurance (XVIII)—a strong affirmation, yet more sensitive than other Reformed confessions to the subjective difficulties believers have in maintaining conscious assurance. (6) Its strong affirmation of the law of God as perpetually bimding the conscience of the believer, even though certain ceremonial and civil statutes are no longer in effect (XIX), balanced by a careful formulation of the nature of Christian liberty of conscience (XX). (7) Its Puritan view of the sabbath, regarding the day as a perpetual obligation, contrary to Calvin’s Institutes and other Reformed writings. (8) The first clear confessional distinction between the visible and invisible church (XXV). J. M. Frame

See also Westminster Catechisms; Confessions of Faith.


Bibliography. D. Laing, ed., The Letters and Journals of Robert Baillie; S. W. Carruthers, The Westminster Confession of Faith; G. Hendry, The Westminster Confession for Today; W. Hetherington, History of the Westminster Assembly of Divines; A. Mitchell and J. Struthers, Minutes of the Sessions of the Westminster Assembly; J. Murray, “The Theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith,” in Scripture and Confession, ed. J. Skilton; B. B. Warfield, The Westminster Assembly and Its Work; G. I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes.

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