Several weeks ago I took a look at the Three Forms of Unity (Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort) as examples of the earliest Reformed confessional statements that still have widespread usage today. These documents were of Dutch origin, the first two written in the 1560’s, with increasing acceptance through the Netherlands and other parts of Europe. In the early 1600’s they were established as authoritative statements of Dutch Reformed Theology.
Although I didn’t mention it in my previous post, another early Reformed confession is the Second Helvetic Confession, also written in the 1560’s, by Henry Bullinger, with widespread acceptance throughout Switzerland and other germanic countries.
However, probably the most widely recognized doctrinal statements of the Protestant church are the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. These were developed in the 1640’s in England. The historical background (aside from coming about 80 years later) is rather different, due partly to the political environment at the time.
The break of the English church from the Roman church in the 1530’s was driven more by political desires than theological differences, but it created an environment that allowed the theological moorings of the church to veer away from Roman Catholicism. As the Archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of Henry VIII, Thomas Cranmer drafted the first doctrinal statements of the Anglican Church that distinguished the Church of England from the Roman church. It took a while for the English church to find its identity (during the reign of “Bloody” Mary I, it moved back towards Catholicism), but when Queen Elizabeth I came to power in 1558, she established a church that was entirely distinct from the Roman Catholic church. The Thirty-Nine Articles become the official doctrinal statement that defined the distinctive “middle path” (via media) of the Church of England, which was no longer Roman Catholic, but not as Lutheran or Reformed as the Reformation churches on the European continent.
With the break from the Roman Catholic church complete, the debates in the Church of England became less “Catholic vs. Reformed” and more “Episcopal vs. Puritan.” Episcopacy retained characteristics more similar to Catholicism, while Puritanism desired further reform, and favored presbyterian or congregational polity. The Puritan faction of Parliament attempted to enact further reforms to the Church, but found themselves stymied by King Charles I and his supporters. Finally in 1643 (without the assent of the king), Parliament appointed the Westminster Assembly to undertake the restructuring of the Church. Although it was intended to encompass episcopal influences as well as presbyterian, congregational, and others, the episcopalians did not participate, and the presbyterians were the majority.
Initially tasked with revising the Thirty-Nine Articles, the assignment was shifted to that of formulating the basis of a church that would be “nearer agreement with the Church of Scotland and other Reformed Churches abroad.” (The Protestant Church in Scotland, under the influence of John Knox, and the Scots Confession that he and others wrote in 1560, shared much in common with the theology of John Calvin.)
The resulting Westminster Confession, Shorter Catechism, and Larger Catechism (plus a few other documents) that the Assembly produced were adopted by the Church of England for a short period of time, being revoked in 1660. However, they were adopted by the Church of Scotland and remain the definitive doctrinal standards for many Presbyterian denominations and other Reformed groups.