The Westminster Confession in the Church Today

Written by A. J. C. Heron (ed.) Reviewed By Gerald Bray

These two books, appearing as they do within a year of each other, offer a unique opportunity to make a comparative study of the doctrinal climate in the two national churches of Great Britain. The Scottish book deals almost exclusively with that church’s confession of faith; its English counterpart discourses much more extensively and examines the very nature of corporate believing itself.

It is a remarkable fact that, despite the many vicissitudes which have afflicted Scotland and its church since the final establishment of Presbyterianism in 1690, the Westminster Confession of Faith, composed largely by Puritan members of the Church of England, remains the legal standard of that church’s doctrine. The book gives a lively account of the history, taking the reader back to leaders and events scarcely now remembered. It concentrates heavily on the legal position of the Confession, which is weaker than an outsider might suppose, and examines its particular theology in some detail.

The teaching of the Confession is laid bare in a very useful summary by Sinclair Ferguson, and an equally valuable critique is offered by James Torrance. It is interesting to note that his chief complaint seems to be that the Confession does not say enough, e.g. about the work of the Holy Spirit, and not that it says too much. Not all Scotsmen will agree with the positions presented, and it is good that four ministers offer their personal assessments at the end of the volume. There is also a series of brief notes on the confessional position of overseas Presbyterians, though sadly Canada and the African continent are missing.

What strikes the outside reader immediately is how like the eighteenth century the current position in the Church of Scotland is. The kirk appears to consist of moderates and evangelicals, each of whom is about equally represented here. The general tone is conservative, and more than one contributor to the volume expresses unease at covert departures from the Confession which are winked at by the authorities. It is astonishing, and refreshing, to read the following from the rather moderate Francis Lyall (pp. 68–69): ‘It is … quite extra-ordinary how many listen to the Preamble and then subscribe that formula without having read the Confession. It is quite improper for such later to discover that they do not like what is in the Confession, even with the various Declaratory Acts, and to seek to displace it. They should resign. Any other course is sheer dishonesty, which cannot make for the health of the Church.’

Turning to the Anglican document, the reader is transported to another world. Only one of the contributions, that by Dr Wright on the Thirty-Nine Articles, bears any comparison with the Scottish book; Dr Wright even goes so far as to say that tolerance of those who deny fundamental articles of faith could lead to conscientious withdrawal on the part of those who take them seriously. He is not as blunt as Mr Lyall, but his position can only be described as unbending when compared with the rest of the book.

Virtually all the contributors are preoccupied with ‘corporate believing’, a notion which they equate with a broad consensus among church-goers and well-wishers as to what the church should be about. At times a discordant note is struck, as when John Taylor claims that baptismal regeneration is the inarticulate conviction of the general run of Anglicans. On the whole however, the book has a sure touch for describing what cultured Englishmen of goodwill are prepared to tolerate. Unlimited forgiveness and a denial of eternal punishment are insisted upon, not because they can be supported from Scripture, but because traditional orthodoxy offends the current moral consciousness at these points. The best piece is Canon Vanstone’s assessment of the non-churchgoing parishioner, and a whole chapter is devoted to George Eliot, not a leading theologian, of course, but an example of the influence which even an agnostic rebel can have on the corporate mind of a national church.

Literary allusions abound, with Plato and Aristotle being accorded a respect hardly matched by that paid to the Bible, a book not actually quoted until page 188! There is a great deal of religious sociology: myth, story, liturgy and ritual are categories of thought which recur on every other page. The westward position at communion and the widespread use of cremation have affected the way we believe, though quite ho w is something the authors find hard to ascertain. The reader is seldom sure what the various authors are getting at, but then certainty in matters of faith is a phenomenon restricted to the sectarian subculture (not wholly absent from the Church of England) which is supposed to be foreign to the broad mass of Anglicans.

If the book has to be summed up in a few words, it must be said that it leaves the impression that its authors are mostly agnostic gentlemen, well-disposed towards religion and convinced that the church must continue its good work, but with no real awareness of what the Christian faith is all about. The idea that Scripture is a revelation from God calling men to a conversion which demands intellectual submission to its authority is completely lacking. The words in italics are nowhere to be found, nor is any interpretation of faith offered which takes them into account. The enormous diversity of contemporary Anglicanism is almost invariably viewed as a sign of vigour, not of disobedience to the Word of God and the traditions of the church.

A comparison of the two volumes leaves this reviewer thinking that Scotland’s church is in a far healthier state than England’s, an impression which recent theological writing does nothing to dispel.

Gerald Bray

Gerald Bray is research professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, where he teaches history and doctrine. He is a minister in the Church of England and the editor of the Anglican theological journal Churchman.