Last week we looked at some highlights from our history and I shared how in Dromore in 1724 Rev. Alexander Colville refused to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith, which led to Dromore becoming a Non-Subscribing Presbyterian congregation and likewise, 100 years later in Banbridge, Rev. James Davis resisted attempts to impose Subscription upon Presbyterians and Banbridge also became a non-subscribing congregation
Today I want to explore these things a little deeper.
Many might be asking what exactly is the Westminster Confession of Faith? Why did many ministers and congregations refuse to subscribe to it? What does it therefore mean therefore to be a non-subscriber?
Firstly, we will tackle the question: What is the Westminster Confession of Faith?
Probably the simplest answer is that the Westminster Confession of Faith is a Reformed statement of belief that was drawn up by 121 Reformed English theologians in Westminster during the English Civil War of 1642-1649. It was first published in 1648.
The purpose of this statement of belief was two-fold. Firstly, it had a political purpose which was to secure the help of the Scots against the King by reforming the Church of England into a Presbyterian institution. The second purpose was a religious one, to purify and simplify the religion of the Church of England. Those who advocated these reforms were called Puritans. They wanted a radical, simple and purified religion that would do away with the role and the power of bishops and any rituals and beliefs that the Puritans believed were a throwback to Roman Catholicism.
And so, the Westminster Confession of Faith was part of the political and religious agenda of the Puritans to do away with the Monarchy and to make England into a Republic and to turn the Church of England into a Presbyterian institution.
During the 11 years that England was a Republic, the Westminster Confession was adopted into the legal framework of the Republic, guiding the principles on which the Church of England would be governed. When the Monarchy was restored in 1660, the Westminster Confession of Faith was taken out of law. It was no longer used by the Church of England. But it was still used by Presbyterians and Congregationalists across the British Isles.
If you were to download a copy of the Westminster Confession of Faith from the internet, it would come to about 92 A4 pages. And so it is quite a lengthy document of theology that has 33 chapters covering the following themes:
Holy Scriptures, the Trinity and predestination
The role of the Law, Christian liberty and worship
Civil government and marriage
Church government and discipline
Eschatology – which is a big theological word referring to “the last things” – in other words the end of the world, the last judgement and the resurrection of the dead.
It contains a minimalist conception of worship and contains a very strict understanding of the Sabbath, meaning that the whole of Sunday was to be used for worship with no recreation.
The theological framework of the Westminster Confession of Faith was based on the theology of John Calvin, and therefore on what we would call today: Calvinist Theology.
John Calvin took the Protestant reformation ideas of Martin Luther and he interpreted them in an even more radical way. Some of John Calvin’s ideas were controversial.
What perhaps were some of the most controversial aspects of the Westminster Confession of Faith.
Firstly John Calvin’s concept of Salvation by Grace alone – John Calvin took this idea to it’s furthest extreme. He believed that human beings played absolutely no part in Salvation. He believed that human beings were totally depraved, capable of no goodness of their own. Therefore, human beings could play absolutely no part in their own salvation. Salvation was therefore completely the work of God.
What followed on from this doctrine was probably the most controversial Calvinist idea of all, often called the doctrine of ‘double-predestination’. In this doctrine, Calvin believed that in God’s Sovereign and Inscrutable will, God had chosen or predestined some human beings for Salvation. These lucky people, Calvin referred to as ‘the elect’. While ‘the elect’ were chosen or predestined by God’s Sovereign and Inscrutable will for salvation, the rest of humanity according to Calvin (and the Westminster Confession), were predestined by God for damnation. And for these unlucky people, there was nothing that they could do about this, because God had decided before hand that it would be so. And according to Calvin, nobody but God knows who is predestined for heaven and who is predestined for hell.
Bringing it closer to home, what it means is that of those of us sitting here today, it could be said that some of us have been chosen and pre-selected by God to go to heaven and some of us have been chosen and pre-selected by God to suffer eternal punishment. For those chosen for salvation, this is an act of God’s grace, God’s free gift, but for those predestined for damnation this might all seem a little unjust! But the big problem is, How can you be sure that you are amongst the elect who are going to heaven? In the end, you can’t be sure, there is no assurance because only God knows.
Along with this doctrine, Calvin and the Westminster Confession believed in what is called ‘Limited Atonement’. By this Calvin believed that Christ did not die for all, rather, Christ only died for the elect. In other words Christ only died for those whom God had chosen to save.
It is probably these doctrines, the total depravity of human beings and the doctrine of double predestination and the doctrine of Limited Atonement that were the primary doctrines that made many ministers and congregations refuse to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith.
Closely allied to the Calvinist Doctrine of Double Predestination is the idea of God’s Sovereign Will. In the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith, God "freely and unchangeably ordained whatsoever comes to pass." In other words, whatever happens in this world, is all the will of God. And this raises some uncomfortable questions: Is Putin’s invasion and bombing of Ukraine freely and unchangeably ordained by God? What about the bombing of the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester? The list could go on… Is this perhaps a dangerously simplistic notion to say that everything that happens is the will of God?
One of the earliest critiques of Calvinist doctrine came from a reformed theologian from the Netherlands. His name was Jacob Arminius and he died in 1609. But in the last years of his life, he was open about his criticism of Calvinist Doctrine especially regarding Double-Predestination. When he died, his supporters broke away from the Dutch Reformed Church and formed a Church community called the Remonstrants, which is significant, because around 200 years later, when the Non-Subscribers were booted out of the General Synod of Ulster, they formed the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster. I suspect that in using the word Remonstrant, they were making a statement showing that they were in agreement with Jacob Arminius’s criticism of Calvinism.
In this regard, theologically speaking, many NSPCI churches probably have more in common with many Methodists rather than Subscribing Presbyterians, because John Wesley the founder of Methodism also aligned himself with the theology of Jacob Arminius.
But it perhaps needs to be acknowledged that for some, their disagreement with the Westminster Confession of faith went deeper than just a disagreement with Calvinism. As I mentioned last week in Banbridge, many of the Non-Subscribers were connected with the New Light movement of the Belfast Society, which consisted of mainly Presbyterian Ministers who would gather together to read and explore the Scriptures and Theology together. For many of them, in their careful reading of the Scriptures, they had begun to question the doctrine of the Trinity itself believing that it couldn’t be supported by Scripture. Those who held such a position were called Arian’s and some used the term Unitarian. But that is a discussion for next week’s sermon.
It needs to be noted that in the end, the Non-Subscribers here in Ulster, led by the Henry Montgomery in 1830, when they formed the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster, they were not only specifically rejecting attempts to force them to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith, they were rejecting any attempt to force any man made creed or statement of belief upon Christians as a whole. They believed that one of the key founding principles of the Protestant Reformation was the belief in Freedom of Conscience. As I said last week, how could Luther have confronted the abuses of Rome if he had not followed his own private judgement and his own freedom of conscience. Without freedom of conscience and private judgement, the Protestant Reformation would never have happened. It is the unspoken, underlying principle upon which much of the rest of the Reformation rests.
In the old NSPCI Catechism, question 35 asks: What is meant by Protestantism? The answer is: Protestantism is the religion of those who, holding to the headship of Jesus Christ, the sufficiency of Scripture, and the right of private judgement, reject the authority of the Papacy.
It would seem that what many of the early Non-Subscribers probably would have contended was that by forcing people to subscribe to the Westminster Confession, both John Calvin and the Westminster Confession had become a new kind of papacy, by a new name that was once again inhibiting freedom of conscience and the right of private judgement. And these principles of freedom of conscience and the right to private judgement they believed were enshrined in three passages of Scripture:
In 1 Thess. 5:21 Paul urges the Christians to use their own private judgement when he says to them: “Test / Prove all things; hold fast to that which is good”.
In Romans 14:5 Paul at the end of a lengthy argument writes that “each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.”
And lastly, in II Corinthians 3:17 the verse that appears on our NSPCI logo: “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty / freedom”.