After Presbyterianism was established as the form of government within the Church of Scotland in 1690, and Episcopalianism legally recognised in 1712, the issue of the spiritual freedom of the church became the single most important issue in Scottish church life. Over the next two centuries the relationship between church and state was at the heart of many ecclesiastical controversies. Certainly, there were doctrinal aspects to these controversies. However the establishment principle always influenced the outcome of any controversy because the dominant church, against which other protestant bodies were constituted, was privileged and protected by act of Parliament. But the church was also under the effective oversight of Parliament and civil jurisdiction. This was demonstrated during the Ten Years’ Conflict. Although the General Assembly of 1838 claimed that ‘in all matters touching the doctrine, government or discipline of this Church her judicatories possess an exclusive jurisdiction founded on the Word of God,’ the civil courts consistently rejected this claim by passing judgements conflicting with the church’s Veto Act of 1834. (Cameron 1993: 816)
Oversight of the church by Parliament included the church’s doctrine. Scottish kings and governments had always had an interest in the church, but this doctrinal precedent was forged at the Reformation when the Reformation Parliament accepted the Scots Confession in 1560. The Confession had been commissioned by English diplomats trying to influence the political crisis of 1559-60. Its ratification was part of an ongoing process between church and state in the reformation of Scotland. The Scottish government also commissioned the First Book of Discipline, which was approved by the Privy Council in January 1560-1. However, on Queen Mary’s return from France, and in the decades of strife that followed, both it and the Second Book of Discipline were never fully recognised by Parliament.
The struggle over the government of the church became a British issue after 1603, and it was the English Parliament that commissioned the Westminster Assembly in June 1643 with the aim of uniting the Church of England’s doctrine and practice with that of the Church in Scotland and other European churches. The Westminster Confession was adopted by the General Assembly of 1647, and the Scottish Parliament ratified it in 1649. After the Cromwellian occupation and the Stuart Restoration, the Revolution Settlement of 1688 offered the Presbyterians an opportunity to regain power within the church. In 1690, the same act of Parliament restoring Presbyterianism reaffirmed the Westminster Confession as the foundational document of the Church of Scotland. An act of the General Assembly in October 1690 brought the Westminster Confession back to prominence by judging it necessary ‘that all probationers licensed to preach, all entrants into the ministry, and all other ministers and elders received into communion with us in Church government, be obliged to subscribe their approbation of the Confession of Faith.’ (Heron 1982: 18) Subscription became a feature of church life as a measure against Episcopalianism and Jacobitism. By 1711, ministers were required to sign up to the Confession in its entirety, and at ordination assent to a formula of subscription, a form of initiation that exists to the present day. The context of these developments remained the Church of Scotland’s fear of English Tory attempts to destroy the church settlement described in the Revolution Settlement and the Act of Union 1707.
During the next two centuries unqualified subscription to the confession remained part of the process of becoming a minister or elder in the Church of Scotland. The Westminster Confession was retained as the subordinate standard of faith in the church without any serious objections. This is not to ignore the secessions and controversies of the 18th century. The secessions tended to be based upon disputes about the role of the establishment’s power within the church. Theological controversies in the Church of Scotland usually worked within the framework of the confession. For example, both sides in the Marrow Controversy claimed to uphold Westminster standards. What did become apparent was a general unease with the Westminster Confession, especially in the second half of the 19th century. Some of its doctrines became questionable because of the application of Enlightenment principles that had reconstructed the foundations of intellectual thought and textual criticism. It was impossible for ministers and theologians to ignore this movement. In fact, they were often the pioneers of enlightenment approaches to history and philosophy. Although there are stories of ministers subscribing to the confession ‘errors excepted’ (Macdonald 2004: 170), it was not until the 1870s that there was a change to subscription that would affect the Church of Scotland’s official position.
In 1879, the United Presbyterian Church adopted a Declaratory Act setting out its understanding of the place of the Confession in the life of the church. The act articulated concerns over the interpretation of some key doctrines in the Confession, especially the doctrine of predestination. It introduced the idea of liberty of opinion on ‘matters not entering into the substance of the faith’, illustrating this with reference to the six days of creation in chapter 4 of the Confession. The Free Church followed this example in the mid 1890s. The established church also expressed concern about its confessional subscription. With use of the Barrier Act in 1888, it eventually amended its formula of subscription from the rigid 1711 formula to the 1693 version. This change meant that ministers and elders now only acknowledged that the doctrine contained in the Confession was true doctrine, whereas the 1711 formula equated ‘the whole doctrine of the Confession’ with ‘the truths of God’ contained in the Bible. But even if the Church of Scotland had some sense of unease about its Confession, it was clear that there were legal difficulties hindering a more significant change. The established church was bound to the law of the land. It was not free to amend its confession out with existing legislation without the consent of Parliament. The consequences of union and division within the Presbyterian churches in Scotland would resolve this problem.
In 1900, the Free Church and the United Presbyterian Church united to form the United Free Church. But a minority within the Free Church opposed the union, and claimed that they were entitled to the all the assets of the church. After four years of legal action the House of Lords ruled in favour of the minority group – all the property of the pre-union Free Church was granted to them. To resolve the situation a Parliamentary Commission was set up. Eventually, an equitable distribution of the property was achieved through the Churches (Scotland) Act, 1905. But this act also contained a section that allowed the formula of subscription to the Westminster Confession in the Church of Scotland to be a matter for the church itself. By 1910, the church had approved a new formula for ministers and elders, which required “acceptance of the Confession as the Church’s Confession together with profession of belief in ‘the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith contained therein.’” (Heron 1982: 27)
Union between the Church of Scotland and the United Free Church was based on a long process beginning in 1910 and culminating in the re-union of 1929. Resolving the two issues preventing union required further Parliamentary legislation, as well as extensive negotiation between the churches to agree a constitution for the new body. After agreement was reached in both General Assemblies, the ‘Articles Declaratory of the Constitution of the Church of Scotland in Matters Spiritual’ were incorporated into the Church of Scotland Act, 1921. Spiritual independence and national recognition of religion were expressed within the Articles. The Church of Scotland retained its status as the established church, but it also gained the freedom to alter its relationship to its own doctrinal standards, in line with the United Free Church Act, 1906. ‘Liberty of opinion in points which do not enter into the substance of the faith’ was also retained within the new constitution, but the Westminster Confession remained ‘the principal subordinate standard’ of the church. (Murray 1993: 142,144) The inevitable compromises involved in the union negotiations created a situation where the church’s official doctrinal statement was a mid-17th century document, yet no member of the church was in any way bound to believe or confess allegiance to anything in it apart from undefined ‘fundamental doctrines of the Catholic faith’ within a trinitarian and Protestant framework. This freedom and ambiguity would characterise all subsequent discussions of the church’s confession, and it created a constitutional justification for avoiding the amendment or replacement of the Westminster Confession as the subordinate standard.
Although the constitutional place of the Confession has not changed since 1929 there have been attempts to raise the issue. In an article in the Scottish Journal of Theology, 1966, the Very Rev Dr Nevile Davidson described two reasons why the Confession was out of place in the contemporary church and suggested four options to replace the existing confessional position. His argument was based on the widespread assumption that the Church no longer held to the substance of the theology of the Confession. The most significant episode for change began with a move at the General Assembly of 1968, starting an exploration and debate within the church that lasted until 1974. J.K.S. Reid was successful in his deliverance, seconded by Nevile Davidson, that the Panel of Doctrine be requested to consider the place of the Westminster Confession ‘as the subordinate standard of the Church’s faith and to the reference to it in the preamble and questions used at ordination, with a view to offering guidance to the Church.’ (Church of Scotland 1968: 173) One year later the Panel of Doctrine reported that the situation was indeed unsatisfactory. But it did not recommend replacing the Confession. Instead, its report suggested that the idea of a subordinate standard should be abandoned. Rather, a new Preamble, containing a short statement of fundamental doctrines, should be attached to the current Formula that ministers and elders subscribe to on ordination.
These proposals were found to be acceptable, and after two years of consultation with Presbyteries and Kirk Sessions, the Panel of Doctrine presented an overture to the General Assembly of 1972 with the final draft for a new Preamble and the agreed amendments to the Articles Declaratory. When the changes were brought to the General Assembly of 1974 for final approval, there was a lengthy debate that demonstrated considerable opposition to the proposed changes. Although it was successful in opposing the changes the opposition was not unified. There were at least two arguments against the changes. A technical and legal challenge was made against the proposals, and in the minds of many delegates this must have raised the possibility of a situation similar to the Free Church Case of 1900-04. In the words of one commentator, ‘the critics argued that to depart from the Westminster Confession of Faith as the Church’s principal subordinate standard would be to challenge the provisions of the legislation leading to the Union of Parliaments in 1707, which, they claimed, permanently safeguarded the position of the Confession.’ (Heron 1982: 77) The validity of the argument did not matter so much as the threat of further legal interference in the life of the church to resolve its business. The second argument against the charges was articulated in an amended counter-motion proposed by Andrew Herron and seconded by Duncan Shaw. This moved that the Church should wait for a new statement of faith before proceeding with the matter. The counter-motion was carried by a majority of 292 votes to 238.
No new statement of faith has ever been accepted as a formal confession to either replace the Westminster Confession, or define the fundamental doctrines of the faith. A proposal to change the Articles in connection with the Church’s doctrine was a result of two questions put to the Procurator by Professor Tom Torrance at the General Assembly of 1983. The answer to these two questions confirmed that there was no liberty of opinion for the Church in respect of the first Article of the constitution. Torrance then moved that the Panel on Doctrine be asked to prepare a new preamble and formula articulating this position. But again there was hesitation, this time on the part of Presbyteries, to support action that would amend Article Two by adding to the principal subordinate standards the Apostles’ Creed and the Scots Confession. (Murray 1993: 138) The status quo remained and has not changed since this last significant attempt in 1985.
The place of the Confession is still discussed in the church. In 2002, the subject was raised in an article in Life and Work, the Church of Scotland’s monthly record. (‘Dogged by Doubt’ Lorna Hill. Life and Work, April 2002, p17.) It demonstrates that little has changed since 1929. A significant motivation for proposing a new or amended confession remains church union and ecumenicalism in the form of the Scottish Church Initiative for Union (SCIFU). But the continuing anomalous position of the confession as the church’s subordinate standard brings with it familiar analysis from a range of commentators. Academics and church people are quoted in Hill’s article questioning the usual areas of the Confession that seem unacceptable in the church today. Conservative opinion is recognised but even David Searle, a leading evangelical, admits that the Confession is not perfect: ‘I still think the Westminster Confession is a very, very fine statement of Christian doctrine though obviously there are certain aspects of it that one wouldn’t want to stand by.’ The only good reason for not pursuing change seems to be fear of division. David Wright, an academic, and an evangelical churchman, comments to the effect that any plan to scrap or replace the Confession would be ‘a profoundly divisive exercise.’ The article ends with the twin observations that ‘consensus on the issue seems an almost impossible feat’, and the future promises ‘stormy times ahead’ for the church over the issue. Although writing in a different context, former moderator and current Principal Clerk of the General Assembly, Finlay Macdonald agrees: ‘The time is coming when the Church should take up the unfinished business of 1974.’ (Macdonald 2004: 183) Since the church has recently withdrawn from SCIFU there have been no attempts to readdress the place of the confession in the church’s constitution.
Perhaps an example of self-fulfilling prophecy, the Life and Work itself provides evidence that Hill’s article is accurate. In correspondence following the article it is confirmed that theological problems with the Confession are generally recognised. One letter expresses the view that the doctrine of double predestination, which was not referred to directly in Hill’s article, is ‘far more objectionable’ than the main problem that Hill had cited about the Confession, the remarks about Roman Catholicism and the Papacy. (Life and Work, May 2002, p29) With reference to the Confession’s chapter 16, Of Good Works, another correspondent comments: ‘the big point is that the Confession is in many respects a theological disaster.’ (Life and Work, June 2002, p26)
But other articles, and the correspondence generated by them, illustrate the divisive nature of the issue. An article by Andrew McGowan, ‘Evangelicalism in the Kirk: A Manifesto’, contains the following words: ‘When being ordained in the Church of Scotland, ministers are asked to affirm their commitment to the Bible as the Word of God and to the theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith… a wonderful expression of evangelical, biblical theology.’ (Life and Work, August 2002, p32) In the context of this essay the reaction to McGowan’s comment is not surprising. Letters in Life and Work, October 2002, explain the limits of subscription, and the church’s commitment to the Word of God contained in the Scriptures, opposed to McGowan’s evangelical equation of ‘the Bible as the Word of God.’ However, two letters published in the following month are even more pertinent. Reacting to McGowan’s call for an evangelical pressure group within the church, one reader comments: ‘If pressure is to be brought to bear on the beliefs of non-evangelicals, the main battlefield will no doubt be the Westminster Confession.’ (Life and Work, November 2002, p27) Over the page, another correspondent uses the Confession’s description of the afterlife to query the conclusions of an article on the nature of hell. (‘Is Hell Real?’ Life and Work, September 2002, p9.)
Two opposing attitudes to the Confession are evidenced in correspondence in Life and Work covering at least three different aspects of church life. It is arguable that the Church of Scotland has demonstrated a singular lack of doctrinal cohesion over the last century. One implication of this is a lack of unity that stifles progress towards shaping the organisation of the church for existence within a rapidly changing society. But there are other implications. If the Kirk is unable to define its doctrine and belief apart from retaining anachronistic creeds and confessions, how can it relate to other Christian churches? Failure to revise the Kirk’s confession in the 20th century is surely part of the reason for the broken dreams of greater church unity that inspired many church people in the 1950s and 1960s.
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1993 Theology Edinburgh: T&T Clark
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Davidson, N. 1966 ‘The Westminster Confession of Faith’ Scottish Journal of Theology (Vol 19) pp309-318
Heron, A.I.C. (ed) 1982 The Westminster Confession in the Church Today Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press
Herron, A. 1985 Kirk by Divine Right Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press
Lyall, F. 1980 Of Presbyters and Kings Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press
Macdonald, F.A.J. 2004 Confidence in a Changing Church Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press
Murray, D.M. 1993 Freedom to Reform: the ‘Articles Declaratory’ of the Church of Scotland 1921 Edinburgh: T&T Clark
Murray, D.M. 2000 Rebuilding the Kirk. Presbyterian Reunion in Scotland 1909-1929 Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press