Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback

Protestant Confessions of Faith

Click to enlarge

Faith, PROTESTANT CONFESSIONS OF.—That the Catholic Church, which claims the prerogative of teaching revealed truth with infallible certitude, should have drawn up articles of faith and demanded for them the internal assent and outward confession of her children, was logical and consistent; but it is difficult to understand with what logic or consistency Protestantism, which proclaimed the Bible, as interpreted by the private judgment of the individual, to be the sole and sufficient rule of faith, could follow her example. It is said that Protestants look upon their doctrinal standards as authoritative only in so far as they agree with the “word of God“; but each sect so imbues its members from early childhood with its peculiar tenets, that long before they are able to read the Bible intelligently, their religious views are fixed. Stray individuals may change their religion and may be able to gather a sufficient number of followers to form a separate communion; but the bulk of the population remain true to the faith of their parents, or of their native land. In the palmy days of Protestantism, it was not the reading of the Bible that held the denominations together, but their respective Confessions of Faith, inculcated by the preachers and enforced under severe penalties by the civil power. As a practical result, the “word of God” was interpreted in accordance with formulae devised by men; the Anglican read into his Bible the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Lutheran the Augsburg Confession, the “Reformed Churches” the Heidelberg Catechism. Each new sect being obliged to prove its raison d’ètre by showing just how far it differed from others, a very large number of Confessions appeared, varying in size from a few articles to long theological treatises. As a rule, the later Confessions are merely modified copies of the older ones, altered to suit local circumstances or personal views.

TYPES.—Since the Protestant revolt originated almost independently, and simultaneously, in Germany and in Switzerland, there has been, from the beginning, a sharp distinction between the Lutheran and the “Reformed” tenets of Zwingli, afterwards merged into Calvinism. The cleavage between Lutheranism and Calvinism goes deeper than the divergence of views concerning the Real Presence in the Eucharist. Luther drifted into heresy gradually. In spite of his hatred of the pope, he preserved a lingering reverence for the Church in which he had been a monk and a priest for so many years. He retained as much of the ancient beliefs and liturgy as could be made to fit into his peculiar views on sin and justification. So adroitly and tentatively were the changes made in Catholic phraseology and worship, that but few of the Lutheran common people felt they had drifted away from the Church of their fathers. Luther himself, in a famous passage, boasted that the eye of the ordinary layman could detect little or no difference between the Lutheran service and the Catholic Mass. As to the theological opinions, the layman was equally deceived; for it was not new for him to be taught that we are saved by the free grace of God through the merits of Christ’s Blood. That the temporal ruler was zealous in the extirpation of “abuses” rather edified than shocked the common man, for a certain jus reformandi had always been claimed, and had frequently been exercised, by Catholic German princes. Quite different was the case with Zwinglianism and Calvinism. Laying no claim to identity or continuity with the ancient Church, the “Reformed Churches” began, generally amidst iconoclastic riots, by rooting out the entire fabric of Catholicism. After the futile attempt of Philip of Hesse, at the Marburg Conference (I-October 4, 1529), to reconcile the German and Swiss Reformers, these went their several ways, hating and reviling each other little less than they hated and reviled the Church of Rome. It is scarcely needless to add that since the collapse of dogmatic Protestantism, its conflicting creeds possess little more than an historical interest. Even where subscription to a Confession is still exacted as a condition for holding office, the ceremony is regarded as a mere formality.

THE LUTHERAN CONFESSIONS.—(I) The oldest and most authoritative of the Lutheran creeds was the Augsburg Confession. It was drafted chiefly by Melanchthon, on the basis of Luther’s Marburg, Schwabach, and Torgau articles, and bore the signature of seven German princes, Elector John of Saxony, his son John Frederick, Ernest and Francis, Dukes of Luneburg, Philip, Landgrave of Hesse, Wolfang, Prince of Anhalt, and of the representatives of the two imperial cities, Nuremberg and Reutlingen. On June 25, 1530, copies of it, in Latin and German, were presented to Charles V, at the diet of Augsburg, and the German version was read aloud before the secular and ecclesiastical Estates of the Empire. Charles retained the Latin copy which he brought with him to Spain, giving the other into the custody of the Archbishop of Mainz. Both seem now to be irretrievably lost. The document ought to have retained its original title of Apologia, for it is an artful attempt to persuade the Emperor and the Estates that in the Lutheran doctrine, “there is nothing discrepant with the Scriptures, or with the Catholic Church, or with the Roman Church, so far as that Church is known from its writers”.

The Lutherans teach (Art. I) the Nicene belief in God and the Trinity; (Art. II) Original Sin; (Art. III) the Incarnation; Death and Resurrection of the Son of God; (Art. IV) Justification by Faith. By leaving out the obnoxious word sola (alone), the article might be glossed in a Catholic sense. They believe furthermore (Art. V) in a Divinely appointed ecclesiastical ministry, no mention being made of Luther’s universal priesthood of believers. They teach (Art. VI) that “faith should bring forth good works, and that men ought to do the good works commanded by God, because it is God‘s will, and not on any confidence of meriting justification before God by their works”, as if any one had taught differently. In Articles VII and VIII, “On the Church“, instead of asserting the heresy of an invisible Church, they define it to be “the congregation of saints [the German version has it the assembly of all the faithful], in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments rightly administered”. They condemn the Donatists and others who held that the ministry of evil men is useless and inefficacious. In Article IX, “On Baptism“, they teach that it is necessary to salvation, and that infants are to be baptized. The famous Article X reads as follows: “Of the Lord’s Supper they teach that the Body and Blood of Christ are truly present and are distributed to those who eat of the Lord’s Supper, and they reject the contrary teaching.” Here Luther’s theory of companation is sedulously slurred over. Art. XI teaches that private absolution must be retained, though in confession it is not necessary to enumerate all sins committed.

Art. XII, “On Penance“, teaches that those who fall, after Baptism, may obtain the remission of sins, whenever they repent, and that it is the duty of the Church to absolve the repentant. Penance, they teach, consists of two parts, confession and faith. In the hazy Article XIII, “On the use of the Sacraments“, they “condemn those who teach that the Sacraments justify ex opere operato, without teaching that faith in the remission of sins is requisite in the use of the Sacraments“, which statement shows how scant was Melanchthons acquaintance with Catholic doctrine. Art. XVI, “On Ecclesiastical Orders”, limits itself to the harmless assertion that “no one should publicly teach in the Church, or administer the Sacraments, unless he be rightly called.” Art. XV, “On Ecclesiastical Rites“, retains such rites “as may be observed without sin” instancing “fixed holy days, feasts and such like” but “consciences are not to be burdened by such things, as if necessary to salvation.” Art. XVI inculcates the duty of obedience to civil rulers. Art. XVII deals with the Last Judgment. Art. XVIII, “On Free Will“, is a bold departure, on the part of Melanchthon, from Luther’s fundamental heresy of the enslaved will of fallen man. “They teach that man’s will hath some liberty to work a civil righteousness, and to choose such things as reason can reach unto; but that it hath no power to work the righteousness of God or a spiritual righteousness, without the Spirit of God.” This sounds Catholic enough. Art. XX repels the accusation that the Lutherans “forbid good works”, and falsely accuses the Catholics of relying on good works for justification. Art. XXI teaches that we should honor the memory of the Saints, but not invoke their aid.

They conclude the doctrinal part of the Confession with the words: “This is about the sum of our doctrine,” with the protest of agreement with the Roman Church given above. “We have no dogmas”, Melanchthon wrote to the papal legate, July 6, “which differ from the Roman Church. Moreover, we are ready to submit to the Roman Church, if Rome, with the leniency she has at all times shown to all nations, will consent to overlook and keep silence on some slight matters which we cannot alter, even if we wished to do so. We reverence the authority of the Pope of Rome“, etc. Meanwhile Luther was denouncing “the Pope and his crew” as “veritable devils”, and Melanchthon styled the pope “an Anti-Christ, under whose rule they would be like the Jews under Pharaoh in Egypt” (Janssen, History of the German People, tr. St. Louis, 1903, V, 254). The “slight matters”, which Rome was asked to connive at, are enumerated in seven articles in Part II of the Confession, with such prolixity that we can scarcely blame the emperor if during the reading on a hot day he fell into a slumber. They are grouped under the headings of (I) Communion under both kinds; (2) The Marriage of Priests; (3) The Mass; (4) Compulsory Confession; (5) Distinction of Meats, and Traditions; (6) Monastic Vows; and (7) The Authority of Bishops. To any one who had followed the course of the Lutheran revolution, it must have been amusing to read the following statement: “Our churches are wrongfully accused to have abolished the Mass. For the Mass is retained still among us, and celebrated with great reverence, yea, and almost all the ceremonies that are in use”—evidently the omission of the Canon was a slight matter—”saving that with the things sung in Latin we mingle certain things sung in German.”

We have given this synopsis of a document often spoken of, but seldom read, to show the spirit in which it was drawn up. It has been aptly termed a political campaign document, calculated to impress the Estates that the Lutherans, themselves supremely intolerant towards Catholics, should be permitted to proceed in peace in the uprooting of the ancient Faith. The Confession was accompanied with a Preface, written by Chancellor Bruck of Saxony, in which the engagement was made that should the controersy not be settled at the Diet, the signers were “ready to compare views and defend their cause in a general, free, and Christian Council”. What this engagement amounted to was made manifest later on when the council convened at Trent. The studied moderation, not to say disingenuousness, of the Augsburg Confession is said to have deceived some members of the Diet, as to the importance of the issue at stake between Catholics and Lutherans; but it could not deceive such veteran controversialists as Eck, Wimpina, Cochlus, and the other theologians to whom Charles referred the document for discussion.

In a remarkably calm and able “Answer”, afterwards called “Confutation”, they analyze the Confession, giving praise and censure where either is due.

Melanchthon retorted with an “Apologia” which Lutherans generally regard as their second symbolic book; Charles refused to accept it, because of the violent language used against the Catholic Church. Since Melanchthon looked on the “Confessio Augustana” as his private property, he continued ever after to comment on it, and revise the text to suit his wavering views. Most notorious, and the source of endless controversies amongst Lutherans, was the altered edition of 1540, issued at a time when Melanchthon was under the spell of Calvin. Art. X lost its Catholic tone and was made to read that “with the bread and wine the Body and Blood of Christ are truly exhibited to those who eat in the Lord’s Supper”, a statement to which a Calvinist might subscribe. We must not, however, throw too much blame on Melanchthon and other preachers; the political magnates have to be considered.

THE SMALCALD ARTICLES.—Any hopes of a reconciliation which were founded on the studied moderation of the Augsburg Confession were rudely dispelled seven years later when the Protestant Estates, assembled at Smalcald, spurned the pope’s offer of that General Council for which, with more than dubious sincerity, they had clamored so long, and commissioned Luther to expound the articles in which they differed from the Roman Church. Following the general lines of the Augsburg Confession, Luther, by injecting his strongest anti-papal virus into the document, changed it from an olive-branch into an open declaration of war with the Catholic Church. The pope and the devil are identical; the Mass is the dragon’s tail, producing all sorts of abominations and idolatries; purgatory is a Satanic delusion, etc., etc. When asked to affix his signature to this insane effusion, Melanchthon did so, with the proviso that “if the pope would admit the gospel, we might permit him, for the sake of peace and the common concord of Christendom, to exercise by human right, his present jurisdiction over the bishops, who are now or may hereafter be under his authority.” The princes, resenting this covert attack upon their spiritual sovereignty, compelled the weak man to write a pamphlet denouncing the pope as anti-Christ.

The Formula of Concord.—Scarcely were Luther’s remains placed in the tomb than, as he had foreseen, fierce contentions broke out among the preachers, which shook the Lutheran Churches to their foundations. The earliest of these theological battles raged about the person of Melanchthon, who in his later years departed more and more openly from the two most important tenets of his master; on the subject of free will in fallen man, he approached closely to the Catholic position; regarding the Eucharist he became ever more Calvinistic. He also incurred the reproaches of the orthodox by accepting, with modifications, the “Interim Religion” of Charles V. In course of time, new topics of controversy rose to divide the theologians, until, in 1570, Jacobus Andreae could write “that there were scarcely a couple of preachers among them who did not disagree about some article or other of the Augsburg Confession” (Janssen, op. cit., VIII, 403). Tired of their endless wranglings, which were as destructive of moral and social as of religious order, the Elector Augustus of Saxony proposed to cut the knot “by princely edict”. He suggested to the Lutheran princes to convene an assembly to which each would bring his own code of doctrine. From all these different formulae they would then, with the help of a few amicable theologians, construct a general code which should be printed, and should be considered binding on the whole body of preachers. This convention was held at Torgau, in June, 1576. In addition to twelve Saxon divines, whom the Elector had cowed into submission, there were present, Andre, Chemnitz, Chytraeus, Musculus and Koerner.

A new “Formula of Concord”, known as the “Torgau Book”, was drawn up entirely in the spirit of Luther, eliminating Calvinism and Philipism. This book not being favorably received by several princes, Augustus summoned a fresh convention in the monastery of Bergen, near Magdeburg, where several alterations were proposed. As finally revised, the “Formula of Concord” was sent to the princes to be promulgated and enforced. Augustus of Saxony, John George of Brandenburg, and other princes, gathered their preachers together and compelled them publicly to subscribe their signatures, “not only with their hands, but with their hearts”. Many of the princes repudiated the book; the King of Denmark threw his copy into the fire. The only Lutherans at the present day who attach any importance to it are in Missouri. The “Formula” is divided into two parts (I) the Epitome, and (2) the Solida Declaratio. The Epitome sums up Luther’s “pure doctrine” in succinct form; the second part goes over the same ground more at large. Although the “Formula” begins with the stereotype Protestant declaration that the Bible is “the only rule and norm” of faith, yet, as Dr. Schaff remarks, it quotes Dr. Luther “as freely, and with at least as much deference to his authority, as Roman Catholics quote the Fathers”.

CONFESSIONS OF THE “REFORMED” CHURCHES.—The so-called Reformed creeds, of which thirty or more are extant, are based on the radical tenets of Zwingli and Calvin. We can only notice the most important of them. The Confessio Tetrapolitana.—As the Strasburg preachers, Bucer and Capito, inclined to the Zwinglian view of the Eucharist, they were shunned by the Lutherans at the Diet of Augsburg (1530), and were not allowed to sign the Augustana. They therefore drew up a separate Confession, following the general lines of the Lutheran document, a copy of which had been given to them by Philip of Hesse. Bucer touches upon several topics that Melanchthon had cautiously avoided, among them “the invisible church”, the rejection of tradition and of images. The Mass is denounced as “an intolerable abomination”. Art. 18, “On the Eucharist“, is given so enigmatically, that it is impossible to discover the real meaning. After great trouble the Strasburgers were able to secure the adhesion of three Southern German towns, Constance, Memmingen, and Lindau. From these four cities the Confession obtained the name of Tetrapolitan. It was delivered to the Emperor, July 9. Charles refused to permit it to be read at the Diet, and commissioned the Catholic theologians to confute it. It was printed in the autumn of 1531 at Strasburg, together with a “Vindication”. It did not long remain in authority, for the towns subscribed to the Augsburg Confession in order to join the Smalcald League. Zwingli himself sent to the Diet, July 1530, a Confession of Faith in which he openly denied the Real Presence, and denounced purgatory as “an injurious fiction which sets Christ’s merits at naught.” He also, shortly before his death, sent a Confession to Francis I.

The First Confession of Basle, also called of Müllhausen because adopted by that city, was drafted in 1531 by Oecolampadius and after his death elaborated by his successor, Oswald Myconius. It was promulgated by the city authorities of Basle, January 21, 1534. It is a brief document, moderate in tone and calculated to conciliate the Lutherans. The text, as we now possess it, was revised in a Calvinistic sense in 1561. Of more importance is the Second Confession of Basle, known also as the “Helvetica Prior“. In the “Wittenberg Concord” Luther had forced his peculiar views, regarding the Eucharist, on Bucer and several other mediating preachers. The formula was reluctantly accepted by the Southern German towns, whose only protection was to be admitted into the Smalcald League; but it was rejected by the independent Swiss. At the same time, it was recognized that some means should be devised of healing the dissensions among the Protestants, now that the convening of a General Council was in prospect. It was resolved to draft a new Confession which should be presented to the council as the national creed of the Protestant Cantons. An assembly met at Basle, January 30, 1536, composed of the most prominent Swiss preachers and delegates from Zurich, Bern, Basle, Schaffhausen, St. Gall, Mülhausen, and Biel. A committee consisting of Henry Bullinger, Oswald Myconius and Simon Grynus, was commissioned to draw up the document. It was written in Latin, and a free German translation made by Leo Judd was adopted by the meeting. Its tone is decidedly Zwinglian, but on the disputed points of the sacraments and the Lord’s Supper there is an evident effort to approach as near as possible to the Lutheran phraseology.

A copy of the Confession was brought to Luther by Bucer; and it was a great surprise to the Swiss that the Wittenberg reformer declared himself satisfied with it. Luther’s change of attitude was due partly to the political needs and wishes of the Smalcald princes, and partly to the altered phraseology of the Confession on the subject of the sacraments, due to the growing influence of Calvin. Whereas the Zwinglian flatly denied the corporal presence of Christ in the Eucharist, Calvin preached His “spiritual presence,” which really amounts to the same thing. The “Helvetica Prior” remained for some years the national creed of the Swiss Protestants; but it was superseded in 1566 by the “Helvetica Posterior”. This latter document was originally the private confession of Henry Bullinger of Zurich; but it was formally accepted as a symbolic book by nearly all the Reformed Churches of Europe. It follows the main lines of the earlier confessions, but is much lengthier, and more in the nature of a theological treatise. It is the storehouse from which later framers of Reformed Confessions have copiously drawn. These documents of Calvin have been looked upon as of dogmatic authority, viz. “The Catechism of Geneva” (1541), the “Consensus of Zurich” (1549), which in twenty-six articles expounds Calvin’s views on the sacraments, and the “Consensus of the pastors of the Church of Geneva” (1552), which proclaims the Calvinistic dogma of absolute predestination.

The Gallicana, for the use of the French Protestants, was the first of the purely Calvinistic Confessions. The original draft was made by Calvin himself. It was revised in various synods, from the first of Paris (1559), to the seventh National Synod at La Rochelle (1571), from which latter town it drew its popular name of “the Rochelle Confession“. Its Calvinism is undiluted, and it offers all the peculiar doctrines of that innovator. The Roman Church comes in for a fair share of vituperation, for its “corruptions”, “superstitions”, and “idolatries” “Nevertheless”, it says, “as some trace of the Church is left in the papacy… we confess that those baptized in it do not need a second baptism.” This concession does not imply that “idolaters” are to be tolerated; for the Author of just government “has put the sword into the hands of magistrates, to suppress crimes against the first as well as against the second table of the Commandments of God.” This Confession remained in authority among French Protestants, until the Voltairianism and Rationalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries deprived it of all value. In the thirtieth General Synod of the Reformed Church of France (June 6 to July 10, 1872), the only approach to a Confession of Faith that could be made was the adoption by the slender majority of sixteen votes of the following vague resolution:

“The Reformed Church of France, on resuming her synodical action, which for so many years had been interrupted, desires, before all things to offer her thanks to God, and to testify her love to Jesus Christ, her Divine Head, who has sustained and comforted her during her successive trials. She declares, through the organ of her representatives, that she remains faithful to her principles of faith and freedom on which she was founded. With her fathers and her martyrs in the Confession of Rochelle, and with all the Churches of the Reformation in their respective creeds, she proclaims the sovereign authority of the Holy Scriptures in matters of faith, and salvation by faith in Jesus Christ, the Only-begotten Son of God, who died for our sins, and was raised again for our justification. She preserves and maintains, as the basis of her teaching, of her worship and her discipline, the grand Christian facts represented in her religious solemnities, and set forth in her liturgies, especially in the Confession of sins, the Apostles’ Creed, and in the order for the administration of the Lord’s Supper.”

The Heidelberg Catechism, published in 1563 by order of the Elector Palatine, Frederick III, was generally accepted by Calvinists throughout the world as a faithful and authoritative exposition of the faith of the Reformed Churches. It was written by two professors at the Heidelberg university, Zachary Bär (commonly known as Ursinus) and Caspar Olewig (Olevianus). It was drawn up with the twofold purpose of furnishing a manual of Christian doctrine and serving as a public profession of faith. In 129 questions and answers, it treats of man’s sin and misery (3-11), the redemption by Christ (12-85), and the gratitude of the redeemed (86-129). The second part is the largest, as it gives an explanation of the Apostles’ Creed and the sacraments. The third part deals with the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. The general tone of the document is moderate, with the exception of the truculent 80th question, for which the professors are not responsible; for it did not appear in the first edition, and was later inserted by the fanatical Elector. Since it has been in no small measure the source of Protestant anti-Catholic intolerance, it is worth while to lay it before the reader:

“What difference is there between the Lord’s Supper and the Popish Mass? The Lord’s Supper testifies to us that we have full forgiveness of all our sins by the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which he himself has once accomplished on the cross; and that by the Holy Ghost we are engrafted into Christ, who with his true body is now in heaven at the right hand of the Father, and is to be there worshipped. But the Mass teaches that the living and the dead have not forgiveness of sins through the sufferings of Christ, unless Christ is still daily offered for them by the priests; and that Christ is bodily under the form of bread and wine, and is therefore to be worshipped in them. And thus the Mass, at bottom, is nothing else than a denial of the one sacrifice and passion of Jesus Christ, and an accursed idolatry.”

Dr. Schaff doubts the “wisdom of inserting controversial matter into a catechism”; but strangely enough pronounces, that “it must be allowed to remain as a solemn protest against idolatry” (Creeds of Christendom, I, 536). If the central dogma of the Catholic worship is really idolatrous, what is the harm in proclaiming it as such in a Confession of Faith? The Heidelberg Catechism was translated info all the languages of Europe, and into several extra-European tongues. It obtained great authority in Scotland and England; but during the following century it was supplanted by the Westminster Confession. It was introduced into America by the Dutch and German Reformed churches, and is said to be now more highly prized by the American Reformed Churches than by the Germans in the Fatherland.

The Confessio Belgica is venerated as of symbolic authority, together with the Heidelberg Catechism, by the Reformed Churches in Belgium, Holland and their offshoots throughout the world. This document, consisting of thirty-seven articles, was written in French about 1561, by Guy de Bray, assisted by other preachers. The intentions of the authors, we are told by one of themselves, was not to issue a new creed, but to prove the truth of their belief from the canonical writings. They follow closely the Confessio Gallicana, seeking to support their theses by texts of Scripture. Translations were made into Dutch and Latin, and the document was submitted to Calvin and many other Reformed divines. In 1562 a copy was transmitted to Philip II with a letter protesting the innocence of the innovators from crime and rebellion. In the opinion of Calvinists, the wrecking of churches and maltreatment of priests and nuns were not crimes but imperative duties. Art. 36 admonishes magistrates of their obligation “to remove and prevent all idolatry and false worship; that the kingdom of anti-Christ (i.e. popery) may be destroyed.” The Confessio Belgica was revised and adopted by the successive synods in the Netherlands, until finally the Synod of Dort, in its 149th session (April 29, 1619), subscribed to it as the public creed of the Reformed Churches. The Synod of Dort, the most representative gathering of the Calvinists, was convened by the authority and at the expense of the States-General. It opened its sessions at Dort, or Dordrecht, November 13, 1618, and concluded its labors after 144 sessions, May 9, 1619. In addition to the Dutch and Belgians, there were delegates from Great Britain, the Palatinate, Hesse, and Switzerland. The delegates chosen by the French Huguenots were forbidden by the crown to leave France. The occasion of this international gathering was the defection from pure Calvinism of the Remonstrants (see Arminianism). Since the members of the synod were orthodox on the subject of predestination absolute, the condemnation of the Remonstrants was a foregone conclusion. The canons were framed in the most unbending form, and 200 ministers who refused to subscribe were deposed. Although the foreign delegates attached their names to the canons of Dort, yet, outside of the Netherlands, these were never regarded as authoritative. In England, especially, there was fierce opposition, and from rival pulpits the pros and cons of God‘s (or Calvin’s) eternal decree were thundered into the ears of the bewildered people.

The numerous Minor Reformed Confessions, such as the Marchica (Brandenburg), the Hungarian, the Bohemian, and the Polish, being of a local and for the most part of an ephemeral nature, need not detain us. For an account of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Anglican Church the reader is referred to the article Anglicanism. When the American colonies achieved their independence, the Anglicans in America, until then subject to the Bishop of London, formed themselves into “The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America” and, after lengthy debates, in a General Convention held at Trenton, New Jersey, 8-September 12, 1801, adopted the Thirty-Nine Articles, omitting in Art. 8 the Athanasian Creed and making such other alterations as were demanded by the changed political conditions. They retained the offensive coda to Art. 31, in which “the sacrifices of Masses” (i.e. the public worship of the vast majority of Christens) are denounced as “blasphemous fables and dangerous deceits”; but in later editions the milder statement is substituted, that Transubstantiation “hath given occasion to many superstitions”. Episcopalians, also, have not yet eliminated from their articles the calumny (Art. 22), that the “Romish” doctrine sanctions the “Adoration, as well of Images as of Relics“.

The Scottish ConfessionBy the year 1560, Protestantism in Scotland, through the aid of English gold and troops, had gained complete ascendency. Losing no time, the Protestant “Lords of the Congregation”, convened a revolutionary Parliament of the estates of the realm, at Edinburgh, August 1, whose first act was to repudiate the Catholic religion, and commission John Knox and other preachers to compile a new creed. Familiar with the Swiss Confessions, Knox performed his task in four days. The document, amended by the leaders, was submitted to Parliament and with very little discussion and a mere handful of dissentient votes, ratified by the estates, August 17 Though repudiated by Queen Mary, who was at the time in France, it was imposed upon the people as the religion of Scotland and the exercise of the ancient worship was forbidden under penalty of confiscation, exile, and death.

The “Confessio Scotica”, or “Confession of the Faith and Doctrine belevet and professit be the Protestantis of Scotland“, begins with a brief preface, in which the writers “take God to recorde in our consciences, that fra our heartis we abhorre all sectis of heresie and all teachers of erroneous doctrine.” They do not claim to be infallible. “Gif onie man shall note in this our Confessioun onie Artickle or sentence repugnand to God‘s halie word” they “do promise unto him satisfactioun fra the mouth of God, that is, fra his holy scriptures, or else reformation of that quhilk he sal prove to be amisse.” This hypothetical admission of fallibility, so remarkable in a Calvinistic document, was practically harmless; for no one ever convinced John Knox that he was in error.

The Confession presents, in twenty-five articles, a summary of the Christian Faith as held by the Scottish Protestants. The articles follow broadly the lines of the Apostles’ Creed. They are written in a vigorous, original, and, for a document proceeding from the pen of Knox, in an extremely moderate style. The moderation was obviously due to the necessity of securing, if possible, for the sake of legality, the signature of the Catholic sovereign. Although the ground tone of the Confession is Calvinistic, yet the Calvinistic tenets are not set forward with prominence. It is only when treating of the “Kirk” and the Sacraments that the “Papistical Kirk” and the Catholic doctrine of the Holy Mass are denounced and misrepresented: “The notes, signes, and assured tokens whereby the immaculate Spouse of Christ Jesus is knawen fra the horrible harlot, the Kirk malignant, we affirme, are nouther Antiquitie, Title usurpit, lineal Descence, Place appointed, nor multitude of men approving ane error.” In addition to the usual Protestant notes of the true Church, viz. “the trew preaching of the Word of God” and “the right administration of the Sacraments“, the Confession assigns a third element peculiar to the Scottish Kirk, i.e. “Ecclesiastical discipline uprightlie ministered, as Goddis Worde prescribes, whereby vice is repressed, and vertew nurished”. The development of Presbyterianism was a lucid commentary on the new principle herein tentatively propounded. In Art. 24, “Of the Civile Magistrate”, the Confession proclaims openly the duty of suppressing the Catholic religion. “To Kings, Princes, Rulers and Magistrates, wee affirme that most chieflie and most principallie the conservation and purgation of the Religioun apperteinis; so that not onlie they are appointed for Civill policie, bot also for maintenance of the trew Religioun, and for suppressing of Idolatrie and Superstioun whatsoever.”

After the forced abdication of Queen Mary in 1567, Parliament again proclaimed the Confession as the creed of “the only true and holy Kirk of Jesus Christ within this realm”; and it remained the doctrinal standard of the Scots, until superseded by the Westminster Confession. In the estimation of the Presbyterian preachers, the Confession of Knox was sadly defective; it had failed to denounce with sufficient vigor the Roman Antichrist. This omission was deemed particularly unfortunate about 1580, when the young King James VI had fallen under the spell of his French kinsman, Esme Stuart, upon whom the king had bestowed the earldom of Lennox, and who reigned supreme in his councils. It was probably at the suggestion of this able and unscrupulous politician, that James commissioned the preacher John Craig to draw up the most violent condemnation of Papistry that ever issued from a Calvinistic pen. It is known to historians as the King’s Confession, sometimes as the “Scotica Secunda”, later, when the religious conflicts in Scotland turned on the question of prelacy in general, as the “National Covenant”. After endorsing the Confession of Faith in 1560, it proceeds to “abhor and detest all contrary Religion and Doctrine; but chiefly all kind of Papistry in general and particular heads”, among others, “the usurped tyranny of the Roman Antichrist upon the Scriptures of God, upon the Kirk, the civil magistrate, and consciences of men; all his tyrannous laws made upon indifferent things, against our Christian liberty;… his five bastard sacraments, with all his rites, ceremonies, and false doctrine added to the ministration of the true sacraments without the Word of God; his cruel judgment against infants departing without the sacrament; his absolute necessity of baptism; his blasphemous opinion of transubstantiation; his devilish mass; his blasphemous priesthood; his profane sacrifice for sins of the dead and the quick; … his worldly monarchy and wicked hierarchy; his three solemn vows; his erroneous and bloody decrees made at Trent, with all the subscribers and approvers of that cruel and bloody band conjured against the Kirk of God.” This “Confession” was subscribed by James and his Court at Edinburgh, January 28, 1581; afterwards by the Presbyterian Assembly and by persons of all ranks. It remained for generations the strong spiritual pabulum which fortified the Scottish people against Papistry, until men began to think for themselves.

The Westminster Confession.—In the Reformed Churches of English speech, all the earlier standards were practically supplanted by the “Westminster Confession of Faith” and the “Longer” and “Shorter Catechisms”. These documents, together with a “Directory of Worship”, were the fruits of the long labors of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, convened in Westminster Abbey by authority of the Long Parliament at the opening of the Civil War. After the abolition of prelacy in September, 1642, the religious condition of England was completely chaotic. In order to stem the evil, Parliament by an ordinance dated June 12, 1642, “thought fit and necessary to call an Assembly of learned, godly and judicious divines, to consult and advise of such matters and things, touching the premises, as shall be proposed unto them by both or either of the Houses of Parliament, and to give their advice and counsel therein to both or either of the said Houses, when, and as often as they shall be thereunto required.” Lest any of these invited “divines” should be tempted to dispute the omnipotence of Parliament, they are admonished that “this ordinance, or anything therein contained shall not give unto the persons aforesaid, or any of them, nor shall they in this Assembly assume to exercise, any jurisdiction, power, or authority ecclesiastical whatsoever, or any other power, than is herein particularly expressed”. The ordinance provides that forty members shall constitute a quorum; “that William Twisse, Doctor in Divinity shall sit in the chair.” Should he die, or be “letted, Parliament shall appoint’ his successor.” Furthermore, “in case any difference of opinion shall happen amongst the said persons so assembled, touching any of the matters that shall be proposed to them, as aforesaid, that they shall represent the same, together with the reasons thereof, to both or either the said Houses respectively, to the end such further directions may be given therein as shall be requisite in that behalf.” The ordinance mentions by name one hundred and twenty-one “divines”; but, as if these were not sufficiently muzzled, it adds ten lords and twenty commoners as “lay assessors”. On June 22, King Charles, from Oxford, issued a decree condemning the proposed assembly, annulling beforehand all its proceedings, and prohibiting his subjects from taking any part in it. This had the consequence of keeping nearly all the Episcopalians away, thus placing the Puritans in supreme control. The assembly was formally opened in King Henry VII’s chapel in the historic abbey; but since no matter for discussion was submitted to the divines by the Parliament, and they were inhibited from taking the initiative, an adjournment was taken until the following week, when, as its first task, the assembly was ordered to revise the Anglican “Thirty-nine Articles”, “for the purpose of simplifying, clearing, and vindicating the doctrines therein contained”. Ten weeks were devoted to this work; the divines had remodeled the first fifteen, when they were ordered to lay aside the “Articles” and engage in matters of more pressing importance to the Parliament. The war with King Charles was proceeding with disastrous results to the Parliamentary party. Success seemed possible only through the aid of the Scots.

Now the Scots demanded, as an indispensable condition of alliance, “the reformation of religion in the kingdoms of England and Ireland, in doctrine, worship, discipline and government, according to the Word of God, and the example of the best reformed Churches”. In other words, they insisted upon the adoption by the English of Presbyterianism in its integrity, a system repugnant to the national instincts and traditions of Englishmen. But there was no alternative, except the collapse of the rebellion. A “Solemn League and Covenant”, framed by the Presbyterian preacher, Henderson, was sworn and subscribed by the Scottish and English Parliaments, by the General Assembly of Scotland, and by the Westminster divines, and afterwards by the lords and commons of both nations. To aid the inexperienced English divines in drawing up Presbyterian formularies, six Scottish commissioners, four preachers and two laymen, were sent to Westminster, with authority to take part in the discussions, but without votes. On October 12, 1643, the Assembly received an order from the Lords and Commons to forthwith confer and treat among themselves, of such a discipline and government as may be most agreeable to God‘s Holy Word, and most apt to procure and preserve the peace of the Church at home, and nearer agreement with the Church of Scotland and other Reformed Churches“. Also, “touching and concerning the Directory of Worship, or Liturgy, hereafter to be in the Church“. This order was the signal for protracted and at times bitter disputes between the Presbyterian majority and the Scottish commissioners on the one side, who advocated the adoption of the full Presbyterian machinery of Church government, and on the other the Independents and the Erastians, the former of whom argued for the complete independence of each separate congregation (see Congregationalism) while the latter opposed any kind of jurisdiction independent of the civil power. Although the Independent members numbered scarcely a dozen, and the Erastians were fewer still, their influence was vastly in excess of their numerical strength; for the Independents were in close touch with Cromwell’s army and the Erastians could count on the sympathies of an Erastian parliament. Into the details of this debate, we need not enter. While it was still raging, an order was sent down to the Assembly “to frame a Confession of Faith for the three kingdoms, according to the Solemn League and Covenant”. This task presented no extraordinary difficulties; all the Puritan factions were) as regarded matters of doctrine, more or less strictly Calvinistic, and there was not one Arminian in the assembly. Moreover, the Westminster divines had copious material to work upon in the numerous Reformed symbols already in existence. The Confession occupied their attention from August 20, 1644, until September 25, 1646, when the first nineteen chapters were sent to the Commons, and a few days later a duplicate copy was presented to the House of Lords. The Lords gave their assent to “The Humble Advice of the Assembly of Divines”, so the title ran; but the Commons refused to take definite action until they had the complete Confession before them. This took place on December 4, 1646. A limited number of copies was printed for the use of the Parliament and the assembly; but the House of Commons, probably to gain time, demanded that each assertion should be supported by Scriptural texts. This was promptly done by the divines (April 29, 1647); whereupon the Commons ordered 600 copies, “and no more”, to be printed. This edition was received as authoritative by the Scottish Church and Parliament, and was regarded by Presbyterians generally as their authentic Confession of Faith. But in the eyes of the Erastian Parliament of England, it was simply “The Humble Advice of the Assembly of Divines”, convoked by its authority, and valueless without its sanction. After intermittent discussions, which extended above a year, the Parliament, June 20, 1648, ordered an expurgated edition to be printed by its authority, in which every reference to the spiritual jurisdiction of the Church is carefully eliminated.

As to its contents, the Westminster Confession of Faith, is the most elaborate, as it is the latest of the Reformed creeds. In thirty-two chapters, divided into sections, it labors to give a full and logical exposition of Christian doctrine as understood by the Reformed Churches. Chap. i, “Of the Holy Scripture” gives a list of the inspired books, including the deutero-canonical books of the New Testament and rejecting the “Apocrypha” of the Old. “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the authority of any man or church, but wholly upon God“. “The Supreme Judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in Whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Ghost speaking in the Scripture.” Chap. ii repeats the ancient doctrine “Of God and of the Holy Trinity“. Chap. iii, “Of God‘s Eternal Decree“, teaches that “God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass”. The divines strive to ward off the obvious objection to this fatalistic tenet by denying that it makes “God the author of sin”, or that violence is offered to the will of the creature. Yet, in the same breath, they insist, that “He hath not decreed anything because He foresaw it as future”, and that “by decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestined unto everlasting life, and others foreordained to everlasting death”. The elect, who fell in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, effectually called and eventually saved; but “neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified and saved, but the elect only. The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of is own will, whereby He extendeth or withholdeth mercy as He pleaseth, for the glory of His sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by, and ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice.” The “Confession” judiciously warns the preachers that “the doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care”. In Chap. v, “Of Providence”, we find the unintelligible utterance, evidently having in view the Supralapsarians, that God‘s providence “extendeth itself even to the first fall, and all other sins of angels and men, and that not by a bare permission, but such as hath joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding”. Chap. x, “Of Effectual Calling”, teaches that “all those whom God hath predestined unto life, and those only” are effectually called and saved. “Others, not elected, although they may be called by the ministry of the Word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit, yet they never truly come unto Christ, and therefore cannot be saved.” Chapter xxi, “Of Religious Worship and the Sabbath Day”, differs from the Continental creeds by adding the injunction that the Sabbath is to be kept holy by observing “a holy rest all the day from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations”, and that a man be “taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy”. Chap. xxii, “Of Lawful Oaths and Vows“, gives the divines an opportunity for denouncing “popish monastical vows” as “superstitious and sinful snares”. Chap. xxiii, “Of the Civil Magistrate” (one of the chapters expunged by the Parliament), states that “the civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and the Sacraments or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; yet he hath authority, and it is his duty to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed”. In the American revision, this is made to read that “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” etc. In Chap. xxiv, “Of Marriage and Divorce“, “such as profess the true reformed religion” are admonished that they “should not marry with infidels, Papists, or other idolators”. Divorce is permitted on grounds of “adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the Church or civil magistrate”. Chap. xxv, “Of the Church“, speaks in no complimentary terms of the “Pope of Rome“, who is denounced as “that Antichrist, that man of sin and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the Church against Christ, and all that is called God“. The doctrine of the Sacraments differs in nothing from the earlier Calvinistic creeds. Chap. xxix, “Of the Lord’s Supper”, proclaims that “the Popish Sacrifice of the mass”, as they call it, “is most abominably injurious to Christ’s one only sacrifice”, whilst the doctrine of transubstantiation “is repugnant, not to Scripture alone, but even to common sense and reason; overthrowing the nature of the sacrament; and hath been and is the cause of manifold superstitions, yea, of gross idolatries”. These are the main features of the “Westminster Confession of Faith” which are of interest to a Catholic. For many generations, the “Westminster Standards”, viz., the Confession and the Catechisms, leavened the religious thought and controlled the conduct of the Presbyterians of Scotland, Ulster, and America. They were also accepted, with modifications of various sorts, Congregationalists, the Regular Baptists, and other newer sects.


Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!