The Reformation was a struggle over the essentials of the faith. Protestants had to articulate their understanding of biblical teaching. In this sense, the Reformation confessions were a natural flowering of the Protestant commitment to the Bible.
THE WESTMINSTER STANDARDS
The high mark of confessions, though, was the Westminster Standards, which comprises the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, the Directory of Public Worship, and the Form of Church Government. The confession served as a new expression of Reformed orthodoxy, while the two catechisms mimic Luther’s commitment to providing a manual for both clergy or adults (Larger Catechism) and children (Shorter Catechism). In terms of length and depth, no Reformation or post-Reformation confessional standard rivals that of the Westminster Assembly. Its history, though, comes out of the struggle over Puritanism within the English church.
Since the time of Henry VIII (r. 1509–47), the English church had embraced only an essential confession—first the Forty-Two Articles (1552), later pared down to the Thirty-Nine Articles (1563). Though these articles were fully Protestant in theology, they did not clarify the church’s commitment to principles of worship and did not specify a position on controversial doctrines such as ecclesiological leadership structures or the presence of Christ in communion. Much of the failure in the English church to write a more comprehensive confession was not due to hesitation but to inability created by the violent swings between Protestant and Catholic allegiances under Henry’s two children, Edward VI and Mary I. For much of the sixteenth century, the Anglican Church did not have the luxury to write a lengthy, unified confession. By the time of Elizabeth I, not a few in England believed the earlier necessity of a limited confession to be a virtue. Shorter confessions might curtail the number of doctrinal squabbles that were emerging, for example, between Reformed and Lutheran leaders in Europe. Bishops such as Matthew Parker—though committed to the Reformed faith—began to express concern at the growing voice for the English church to alter its position on worship, vestments, doctrine, and other liturgical practices. The result of this tension provoked the emergence of Puritanism, first under Elizabeth and then increasingly under James I. The label applied to the impulse to seek further reform rather than to a clearly defined movement. Yet all Puritans shared in the frustration at the hesitation of bishops and political leaders to reform the English church further.
By the time of Charles I, the situation was rather grim. Under Elizabeth and James, the plight of Puritans was often that they were ignored, though they were hardly persecuted. Charles, though, embodied a more aggressive stance against Puritans. In the end, strife between Parliament and king issued in the English Civil War (1642–51).
The Puritans won the struggle, led by the heroic efforts of Oliver Cromwell—whose statue today still sits squarely in front of Parliament. During the war, Parliament ordered Puritan leaders (and a few Scottish consultants) to convene an assembly to expand the Thirty-Nine Articles into a full confession that matched other confessions in Europe. The Westminster Assembly made an honest effort to base their work on the Thirty-Nine Articles, but it soon found this model too constricting, and so started from scratch.
This context of the struggles against Charles and the need for further reform explain the length and depth of the Westminster Standards. Rather than being seen as an attempt to summarize all doctrine, the Standards should be seen instead as an explosion of pent-up energies within Puritanism to define English Reformed doctrine and practice. Blood had been shed and voices silenced, and now that those voices were loosed from their confines, they felt it their duty to expound not only on their
doctrinal position but on worship, discipleship, and a bevy of other issues in the life of the church. (to be continued)
Dr. Ryan Reeves is assistant professor of historical theology and assistant dean of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Jacksonville, Fla.