Confessions in the Presbyterian Church

John Roxborogh


How Confessions function for the church today is a product of what they were trying to say and how we decide to relate to them. With old confessions and new we have to address intention and relationship.


Reformed churches wrote a lot of confessions in their early history to say what sort of Christians they were. Churches emerging out of a turmoil of religious choice needed to define themselves, including over against one another. Lutherans, Calvinists, Anabaptists and Catholics all needed statements about their points of difference to justify their separate existence. These confessions later get used for other purposes - theological cohesion, passing on the tradition, and restraining innovation.


Confessions are one way of saying who we are and what we believe. They can be personal: "I confess that Jesus is my Saviour and Lord". They can sum up who we are together as a Christian church. Ancient creeds like the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed belong to the universal Church. They can be very formal documents, they can be spontaneous, but they always exist first of all for a particular need at a particular time. They can be statements shared in worship to evoke faith and give identity. They can function as legal documents binding leadership and church to a particular theological understanding. They may prove to have enduring relevance. They may not.


Theological statements are not the only documents needed to say who we are. We also need statements on organisation and leadership, and on acceptable patterns of worship. At the Reformation, theology, organisation, and worship all needed to be spelt out if the church was to be reformed. We are also defined by what we do, especially by the story of our mission outside of our own community.


In the Presbyterian tradition we have a Book of Order to say how we are organised, the Directory for Worship (previously called the Book of Common Order or of Common Worship - think of “order of service”), to say how we worship, and the Westminster Confession, as a statement of belief. Ministers and elders relate to these documents by signing the Formula (in the light of the Declaratory Act), which says they accept these documents with the proviso in the Declaratory Act that they do not have to agree with things in the Westminster Confession that are not part of the fundamentals of the Reformed faith. The Formula covers the three areas of theology, organization and worship. A difficulty is that on its own it seems to many people they are signing up to too much, but when the provisos of the Declaratory Act are added it can appear they are signing up to too little.


When the Formula was drafted core Christian beliefs did not seem to be in doubt. In the late 19th century the major Presbyterian churches in Scotland, starting with the United Presbyterians in 1879, and then the Free Church of Scotland in 1892 and the reunited Church of Scotland in 1929 acted to resolve widely felt problems with the Westminster Confession. These first “Declaratory Acts” were followed by the Synod of Otago in 1893. In America some Presbyterians rewrote parts of the Confession they did not like, but in Scotland and New Zealand it was felt to be easier to change the relationship of ministers and elders to the Confession than to change the Confession itself. It is interesting that it was some more evangelical bodies who first moved to modify their relationship to the Confession, though later there were those who saw the Westminster Confession as both symbol and substance of the Reformed faith. How did we get into this situation?


The scholarly French Reformer, John Calvin (1509-1564), was trained in law and philosophy and his Institutes of Christian Religion began as a catechism which was expanded and restructured to deal with controversies which arose during his time at Geneva before he died in 1564. Written in Latin and translated into French and polished throughout his life it provided a comprehensive statement of Reformed thought which remains readable and relevant. It is a key factor in the ongoing influence of his ideas. Calvin also wrote Ecclesiastical Regulations in 1541 which he negotiated with the Genevan city council. He provided a model pattern of worship based on what he had experienced in Strasbourg.  He also set up an academy which trained pastors from all over Europe. His theology, system of organisation, and emphasis on education and the Christian discipline of society as a whole is part of our spiritual DNA. John Knox from Scotland was one of those deeply influenced by his time with Calvin, but there were also others from Holland and Hungary as well as France who carried Calvin’s teaching and example with them and developed it in other political contexts.


After Knox returned to Scotland, he shared in the writing of the Scots Confession and the First Book of Discipline in 1560 to chart what the Reformed church in Scotland should believe and how it should be organised. His primary concern with worship was to ban the mass and to follow the model (Knox's Liturgy) he had developed earlier in Frankfurt and Geneva. After his death in 1574 Scottish Church organisation was further solidified in a Presbyterian direction following the Second Book of Discipline (1578). The first Presbytery, Stirling, began meeting in 1581.


During the English Civil War the English Parliament set up a committee to revise the English Book of Common Prayer’s 39 Articles, but in 1643 the Solemn League and Covenant brought Scotland on to the side of Parliament in its struggle with Charles I and the “Assembly of Divines” was augmented with Scots commissioners and given a wider brief to prepare a confession and other documents for the church nationwide. The Westminster Confession, its two catechisms, and its documents on worship and organization were adopted by the General Assembly in Scotland, replacing the Scots Confession of 1560. Modified versions of it were later accepted by British Congregationalists and British Baptists.


But not Anglicans. The death of Cromwell and the return of Charles II returned episcopacy to both Scotland and England and followers of the Covenants were persecuted. Thirty years later after William of Orange was offered the crown Scottish Presbyterians offered him loyalty whilst Scottish Episcopalians refused to renounce their vows to the previous King, James VII. As a result Presbyterianism was reinstituted in 1690. The Church of Scotland as the “church by law established” was once again Presbyterian in government and the Westminster Confession was the document to hand which defined its theology. It was a great victory for Scottish Presbyterians, but it also made it difficult to revisit what was in the Confession.


Although questions arose, including for theology students, the Confession was not a focus of serious debate in either the Free Church (from 1843) or the Church of Scotland, or at first among the other Presbyterian groups whose members were among the migrants coming to New Zealand from 1840 onwards. The significant exception to this in the story of Scottish theology was John Mcleod Campbell whose work on the Atonement has been rediscovered by James and Thomas Torrance, but he made less impact in his lifetime. Thomas Chalmers who led the Free Church left out of his affirmation of the Confession the bits which appeared to restrict his freedom to offer salvation in Christ to all. Others shared this concern, and something of Chalmers' tendency to let the problems go, but fifty years later the same result was achieved by the Declaratory Acts.


Today we are looking at other solutions again to the question of how we indicate what is the theology that defines who we are, what are the sorts of documents that we need for that, and how we should relate to them. It is widely accepted that as a "subordinate standard" the Westminster Confession on its own is of limited value. When we have new theological questions, or even old ones, we draw on all the resources available to us and make the best decisions we can. The Confession barely registers as a guiding source for our need to be faithful in our own time, and it is clear we need to reach a theological solution to our theological concerns as the political one we have inherited has run its course.


The committee which reported in 2002 believed that despite differences in the church, there is a mind and a will to express our faith together and that the context for that should be one of worship. It also believed that it is impossible to understand who we are without reference to the Westminster Confession and that it, alongside other confessions which have arisen in Reformed history (including the Scots Confession and the Barmen Declaration), need to be explicitly affirmed in an appropriate way.



This statement was prepared as an historical background for and appears on the page


Websites (The Order of Geneva or Knox's Liturgy)