Confessions in the Life of the Scottish Kirk | David Fergusson

In what follows I shall examine the history of allegiance to the confessions of the Reformed faith in the Scotland before attempting to draw some lessons from this for today. The Westminster Confession of Faith has been the Church of Scotland’s subordinate standard of faith for several centuries– the Bible is its principal standard – but it has fallen into decline both in terms of its legal status and its practical function. This process moreover has been underway for the best part of three centuries.

After the Reformation in 1560, the Scots Confession was the subordinate standard of faith adopted by the church in Scotland. This, however, was replaced in 1647 by the Westminster Confession which was drawn up by the Assembly of the Westminster at the behest of the Long Parliament. Originally intended to provide a uniform system of church government, worship and doctrine for the British Isles, it exercised its influence primarily north of the Scottish border.

The Westminster Confession, together with the Catechisms, provided the church with a statement of Reformed religion set within the framework of federal Calvinism. It is dominated by the doctrine of double predestination, and the covenant scheme by which the eternal decrees are executed in time. It also reflects a preoccupation with the Christian life and the mid-seventeenth century horror of antinomian theological trends. As a consensus statement of Reformed faith, the Westminster Confession displays a remarkable clarity in its patient and temperate exposition of the articles of the Christian faith.

In the larger Presbyterian communions – the United Presbyterian Church, the Free Church, the United Free Church, and the Church of Scotland – we find a tendency in the 19th century to weaken the formula of subscription from the stringent 1711 version. This required licentiates and ordained ministers to own and believe the whole doctrine contained in the Confession to be the truths of God, and to the utmost of their power to assert, maintain and defend its doctrine. This strong adherence is steadily eroded by a series of measures that were introduced over a period of almost two centuries.

The first rupture in adherence to the Westminster Confession took place in the Secession Churches with their anxieties around the extent of the powers granted to the civil magistrate. Hence in 1797 the Associate or Burgher Synod introduced the so-called preamble to the questions put to an ordinand. ‘Whereas some parts of the Standard-books of this Synod have been interpreted as favouring compulsory measures in religion, the Synod hereby declare that they do not require any approbation of any such principle from any candidate for licence or ordination.’ (1)

This was matched in the USA by the drafting of new sections on the role of the civil magistrate by a Scot John Witherspoon who was the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence. In the spirit of the first amendment to the constitution, a new third paragraph to Chapter 23 stated that as ‘as nursing fathers, it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the Church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest. (2)

These changes to the de iure role of the Westminster Confession, however, were marginal by comparison with the theological upheaval that took place in Victorian Scotland when both the United Presbyterian Church (1879) and the Free Church (1892) passed Declaratory Acts which, at the very least, set the Confession in a different light. These acts are similar in important respects. They reveal late-nineteenth concern with the Confession’s teaching on election, atonement, total depravity, the eternal destiny of the heathen, and its comparative neglect of the importance of overseas mission.

The Declaratory Acts claim that the Confession’s teaching on predestination and redemption is consistent with the love of God for all humankind, the divine desire that none should perish, the sufficiency of the work of Christ for all, and the offer of the gospel to all. These acts were incorporated into the constitution of the United Free Church in 1900 and the united Church of Scotland in 1929. Alongside the clause in the preamble at the service of ordination permitting liberty of opinion on such points of doctrine as do not enter into the substance of the faith, a new formula of subscription now read, ‘I believe the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith contained in the Confession of Faith of this Church’.

Since 1929, the Church of Scotland has approved two statements of faith. The first of these was in 1935 and was the product of a committee led by H. R. Mackintosh. It is a clear and instructive document but shows little trace of any of the more distinctive themes of 17th century federal Calvinism, although its approach to most doctrines is recognizably Reformed. (3) It is a serious, measured and impressive exposition of the faith but in dealing with divine sovereignty, the doctrine of God and the work of Christ it tends to follow the theology of the Declaratory Acts and Articles Declaratory rather than the Westminster Confession. A further statement was approved in 1992 by the General Assembly, and reproduced inside the back cover of the 1994 Book of Common Order. Whatever one makes of it, it is hard to discern there the direct influence of the Westminster Confession, and even its enunciation of Reformed themes is at best muted.

In the Church of Scotland, we are now in the lamentable position of having as the de iure subordinate standard of faith, a confession which de facto is neither respected nor studied. It is no longer read by Divinity students except in those optional courses which deal with Scottish theology. Ordinands are not subject to any examination of their knowledge of the Confession, while thousands of elders have not the slightest knowledge of the provenance or content of the Confession to which they have subscribed at ordination.

It is probably the control and content assigned to the doctrine of double predestination which makes the Westminster Confession objectionable to the majority of ministers, elders, and members of the Kirk. For this reason there is little prospect of the Church of Scotland turning the clock back to re-embrace Westminster orthodoxy. Indeed, if one were looking for a theological rallying point around which most ministers and elders could unite, a plausible candidate would be outright opposition to the key doctrine in the Kirk’s subordinate standard. This is a desperate position for a Reformed Church to find itself in, although the apparent equanimity with which it is accepted suggests that the predicament has not been adequately recognised. Why might this be?

The principal reason why the church has failed to reform its doctrinal standards is the absence of any consensus as to what would constitute an improvement. There have been various attempts over the last thirty years to reformulate the church’s confessional position but a satisfactory resolution seems further away than ever. The Church’s current confessional position is unsatisfactory for the reasons noted above. The Declaratory Acts appear to contradict the Confession. The ‘substance of the faith’ is an elusive phrase. The confession is seldom studied and invoked in the life of the Church. (4) An attempt in 1984 to introduce a ‘bundle’ of confessions including the Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, Scots Confession and Westminster Confession was defeated by a majority of Presbyteries.

The Westminster Confession may under present conditions actually be hindering the Church of Scotland’s understanding of its Reformed identity. In turning away from Westminster orthodoxy it risks losing sight of those theological themes which characterise the Reformed tradition and which remain within the Confession. It is the only expression of Reformed theology formally recognised by the church yet on account of its doctrine of God it has more or less been abandoned in contemporary preaching, teaching and doctrinal articulation. Nonetheless, in our practice and doctrine we are probably more Reformed than we realise.

The emphasis upon the sovereign grace of God, the unique authority of Scripture, the church as marked by word and sacrament, conciliar forms of church government, and a Reformed understanding of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are still central to much of what we say and do. The sovereignty of God is powerfully expressed in the metrical Psalms, and public worship is still built around the reading and preaching of the Word of God. A scrutiny of our various Books of Common Order will reveal this. All this need not be promoted in an anti-ecumenical spirit. On the contrary, if we are to continue to make a contribution to the ecumenical movement at the theological level, it will be through offering the best insights of our tradition.

My own view remains that a group of confessions which together reflect the range of convergent themes in the Reformed tradition may prove more useful for education, study and doctrinal self-understanding. In this respect, at any rate, the Presbyterian Church of the USA seems to be in a better position than its older relative. The current Book of Confessions of the PCUSA contains eleven creeds, confessions and statements: the Nicene Creed; the Apostles’ Creed; the Scots Confession; the Heidelberg Catechism; the Second Helvetic Confession; the Westminster Confession and both catechisms; the Barmen Declaration; the Confession of 1967, and the Brief Statement of Faith approved in 1991. Together these confessions give theological shape to the church and ordinands promise to be guided by them in their thinking. They include, moreover, contemporary affirmations of the faith which attempt to reformulate the themes of the tradition in a modern context. (5)

Whatever the disadvantages of a college of confessions, the status quo is not an option that offers theological integrity for the Church of Scotland for the twenty-first century. The Westminster Confession might be better appreciated if set within the context of a book of key Reformed documents. Our Reformed identity might be more suitable characterised by the inclusion of statements from other times and places, including our own. The education of ministers and congregations might be further enhanced by a book which offered rich resources for study and reflection. At any rate, the way ahead will only be charted when we return to serious discussion and engagement with issues which were once crucial to our forebears.

(1) Cited by C. G. McCrie, The Confessions of the Church of Scotland, Edinburgh, Macniven & Wallace, 1907, 238. For a fuller discussion of the historical and theological role of the Westminster Confession in the Church of Scotland see Alasdair I. C. Heron (ed.), The Westminster Confession in the Church Today, Edinburgh, St Andrew Press, 1982.
(2) The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.):Part I, The Book of Confessions, Louisville, 1994, 151.
(3) The statement was based on an earlier version published by the United Free Church in 1921. The text together with commentary is reproduced in J. G. Riddell’s What We Believe, Edinburgh, Church of Scotland Committee on Publications, 1937.
(4) The fact that a new Declaratory Act, initiated by a Bridge of Allan elder, was passed almost unnoticed in 1986 confirms the lack of awareness and interest in the status of the Confession. The new act explicitly distances the Kirk from its vituperative remarks on Roman Catholicism.
(5) At present, active consideration is being given to adding the Belhar Confession (1986).

David Fergusson – Professor of Divinity (University of Edinburgh) and the Principal of New College

Numer 2(2) 2013, 18.06.2013