2007December13, Thursday

The Anglican WCF

Posted in Random Thoughts, The Church at 9:57 by Trey Austin

So i was doing my devotional reading in the WCF this morning (HA! just kidding—i do my devotional reading in Calvin ;-), and it occurred to me that the Westminster Confession of Faith isn’t so much a Presbyterian document as it is a Puritan Anglican document.

Remember: the Westminster Assembly met during and at the direction of the Long Parliament (seated from 1640-49), which was a Parliament that brought about the English Civil War. Yes, this Parliament agreed to the Solemn League and Covenant (to dissolve both monarchy and prelacy in England, Scotland, and Ireland to preserve the Reformed Religion), but they did so only under threat that the Irish Romanist forces would join with English ones loyal to the King. Also, remember that, while Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud was imprisoned and later put to death (under the direct action of Parliament) and there was no Archbishop of Canterbury from 1645, but there was still prelacy in place in the Church of England, with a Bishop of London serving until the army expelled Parliament in 1649, and with a Bishop of York in place until 1650. This is important, because the WCF was published in 1647 by the more balanced Parliament (not the more extreme Rump Parliament that had been forcibly purged of those members opposed to deposing the King).

The thing that got me thinking about this was not only the fact that the WCF was written as a Confession of Faith for the Church of England to replace (or improve) the 39 Articles, but also that, in reading the WCF, there is nothing that explicitly establishes Presbyterianism in any way whatsoever. Chapter 31 of the original WCF speaks of Synods and Councils, but of what specific officers compose them, and of the nature of “particular” synods (i.e., regional councils, as opposed to “general”) no direction is given. And, what is more important, nothing is said at all relating to a specific form of government of the Church of England, certainly not the disestablishment of the Episcopacy. Really, all you have when it comes to the WCF is a Puritan document, and there were lots and lots of Puritans who held to and happily lived under Episcopacy.



  1. tempe said,

    This is a very interesting post. It is funny, as one of the books I am currently reading (Scripture and Worship by Muller and Ward) says something very similar in some ways.

    According to Rowland Ward, we make a mistake because we equivocate the term “Presbyterian.” Ward quotes Richard Baxter as saying, “An Man that was for a Spiritual serious way of worship (though he were for moderate Episcopacy and Liturgy) and that lived according to his Profession, was commonly called a Presbyterian, as formerly he was called a Puritan, unless he joined himself to Independents, Anabaptists, or some other Sect which might afford him a more odious Name.” Ward adds, “If Baxter is correct, then these ‘Presbyterians,’ though notable for both learning and spirituality, were not necessarily Presbyterians as we understand the term. All but one had been episcopally ordained.”

    The fact that the WCF was squelched in Anglican England but rose to prominence in Presbyterian Scotland probably did a great deal to influence its use as a Presbyterian document.

  2. Garrett said,

    Which explains why it has the feel of a Broad Church document (though explicitly Calvinistic). It also explains all the variety of theological positions by divines and contemporary Puritan (that’s such an elastic category for the 17th Century) thinkers. Anglicans, even Puritan ones, are surprisingly broad. Neo-Puritans aren’t.

  3. Trey Austin said,

    Garrett, i think that’s a good distinction: between original Puritans and Neo-Puritans. Of course, for extreme TRs today, there isn’t such a distinction, because they are convinced that they believe everything that the original Puritans did. But the sad thing is that they have such a narrow field of Puritans, and many of them, technically, weren’t Puritans. Baxter was a Puritan, but Owen wasn’t, that’s because Baxter was actually part of the CoE, but Owen was an Independent. Yet, Baxter’s views and emphases are poopooed (except his “Reformed Pastor”), while Owen’s views are played up. Just shows where modern-day, self-proclaimed Puritans (i.e., “Neo-Puritans”) get their theological emphases.

  4. tempe said,

    Trey, I would be cautious about using labels and resorting to stereotypes when addressing those who may disagree with you. Certainly, you don’t not want to be labeled an “Fver”; I do not see how referring to others as “extreme TRs” and “neo-Puritans” is that much different. It would seem that views even amongst “extreme TRs” would be about as diverse as those among the various “FVers” (with different emphases, of course).

    Nor is the generic labeling always true. I know of a pastor, who you would almost certainly call a neo-Puritan (an “opponent” once referred to this pastor as a “roundhead”, if that’s any indication), who once recommended Baxter’s Directory to me. Perhaps the reason that Baxter’s theological works are not read much is because of his neo-nomian views (even Ward, whom I quoted above, refers to Baxter as “a great pastor but not a good theologian”). With regard to Owen, I find him to be unnecessarily tedious and very difficult to plow through his writings. I enjoyed his “Glory of Christ”, but he was writing that near the end of his life and the “sentimental” nature (for lack of a better word) shows through. Suffice it to say that Owen is not the first Puritan I would reach for on the bookshelf.

    But, then again, maybe you don’t consider me a TR — just a neo-Covenanter! 😉

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