Why study the Westminster Confession

I wrote this a number of years ago but it applies to why we should study confession and why confessions are important given a recent twitter conversation:

Why should we study the Westminster Confession of Faith?

Ben Williamson

Before we ask why study the Westminster Confession of Faith it would probably be helpful to explain what it is. The Westminster Confession of Faith is the basis of faith for reformed Presbyterian Churches all over the world including IPC. It was written by the Westminster Assembly who produced it and other documents between June 1643 and February 1649. So why study this document?

I want to give six reasons to study the Confession.

Studying the Westminster Confession of Faith encourages us to be

1. Biblical
Many people ask as you begin to study the Confession ‘Surely your time would be better spent just studying the Bible, that’s more important isn’t it?’ The problem is if you got a group of Christians together and asked ‘Do you believe in the Bible?’ they would say ‘Yes’. But suppose you asked ‘Do you all agree on everything?’ you would soon discover they did not. Even in IPC we have some disagreements. The question is why? If we all believe in the Bible why do we not all agree? The point is although we all believe in the Bible we do not all agree on exactly what the Bible teaches. On issues of salvation the Bible is absolutely plain and I am sure we would all agree. But on other issues we must work hard to understand exactly what the Bible teaches. How does the Confession help? Well the Confession is not infallible so we can’t say it has all the answers but it is an expression of what the divines believed the Bible to say. As we study it we are driven to Scripture to decide whether what the Confession says is right or wrong. If we study the Confession properly whether we agree with it or not we should be forced to engage with Scripture and seek to understand exactly what Scripture teaches. If we think Scripture agrees with the Confession then it has helped us. If in the end conclude Scripture teaches something contrary to the Confession it has still helped us as we have found out what the Bible says on that issue. If we are concerned with Biblical truth then the study of the Confession will help us to understand that truth more.

2. Systematic

Systematic theology is when we look at what the Bible says as a whole about a particular issue. The Confession is a systematic theology. We all have a systematic theology, what we think the Bible says on particular issues. The study of the Confession will challenge, develop and refine our current systematic theologies. The first time I studied the Confession I found it very helpful. It briefly summarised the reformed Presbyterian position on many issues I had never really thought about. We all have our little theological ‘hobby horses’ which we talk or think about all the time. But the studying the Confession forces us to think about things we would not have done otherwise. To enquire what the Bible says about a whole range of topics. As we study it we may discover whole areas which we had not thought about but which are important to our spiritual lives.

3. Historical

The Lord has given us the Church of God, we are not meant to understand the Bible in isolation. We all know the experience of looking at a passage on our own and then discussing it in a group and coming to understand it more clearly. Others may see things that we have missed. This isn’t just true in understanding specific passage but also on issues on which the Bible as a whole speaks. Some people say today that study and reading is not that important. But if you have ever discussed your faith with someone then you cannot hold that view without being incredibly arrogant! As we read books it is like we are discussing theology with that particular author. If we read good books then it is like we are talking to people far more intelligent, gifted and godly then we are ever likely to meet. This is why it is important be historical, to read books by great Christians of the past. Otherwise we will loose their insight and not gain from the benefit of living after they did. When we study the Confession it is as if we sit down with the 300 or so divines who drew it up and thrash out ideas with them. As we form our thoughts we learn and benefit from their great wisdom.

4. Humble

There is a temptation today to look down on historical writings believing that everything in them that is useful has somehow been reproduced in a latter work. This shows massive disrespect to great men of the past. We must study the Confession with the divines as our teachers. As we read it we will see that they have great insight and understanding. We must treat them like we treat all Bible teachers. Not as infallible but with respect.

5. Thinking 

I hope that we have seen through this short article that the value in the Westminster Confession of Faith is not just in and of itself but in the study of it. If we are to study the Confession it will be hard work. But the harder we work, chasing up the proof texts and thinking through their arguments the more valuable our study will be. Hopefully studying the Confession will get us thinking. When I studied it for the first time it gave me a basis for much of my thinking since. There are areas of theology that since studying the confession I have spent more time looking into, to understand more clearly. It can be launch pad for a lifetime of theological and biblical studies.

6. Godly

Doctrine should never be parted from living. Our prayer should be that as we study the Confession we don’t just know more about being Presbyterian but that we grow to know and love God and live for him more. Over the past few terms in our Confession class we have been in awe at God’s gracious love towards us, we have once again come to love the word of God, we have seen our destitute state before God because of our sin and much more. I hope our lives have changed. I hope we study the bible with more vigour knowing how wonderful it is that God chose to communicate with us. I hope our faith is stronger knowing how secure we are in the covenant of God. I hope we have grown in godliness in response to what we have seen God has done for us. My prayer is that would continue and by studying the Confession we would be shaped by God’s word. And that others would see the benefits of sitting down at the table with the Westminster Assembly!

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