Reformed Confessions: The Scottish Confession of Faith (1560)

John R. Muether

Following the death of Mary, the Roman Catholic Queen of England, John Knox returned to Scotland in 1559 from his exile in Geneva and Frankfort. On August 1, 1560, the Scottish Parliament put him to work when they directed the “six Johns” (Winram, Spottiswoode, Willock, Douglas, Rowe, and Knox himself) to compose a “sum of doctrine.” The confession was presented to Parliament only four days later, where it was quickly ratified, with dissent from only a few Roman Catholics. (The same authors would then take several months to collaborate on the [first] Book of Discipline in that same year.)

Knox was the primary author, and, according to biographer William Stanford Reid, “the principal influence was undoubtedly Genevan” (the Institutes and catechism of John Calvin and the Confession of the English Congregation of Geneva). Still, Reid noted, the confession was written specifically with the needs of Scotland in mind.”[1] This can be seen in the brief preface. Composed in a moment of “rest and liberty,” the authors anticipated days of persecution still ahead: “We embrace the purity of Christ's evangel, which is the only food of our souls; and therefore so precious unto us, that we are determined to suffer the extremity of worldly danger, rather than that we will suffer ourselves to be defrauded of the same.”

Such colorful language continues in the body of the confession, where evidence of its hasty composition appears in its unevenness and repetition. Shorter than many of its confessional contemporaries, the Scottish Confession mentions some Reformation doctrines (such as sanctification) very briefly and some others (such as justification) not at all. Still other articles have a decidedly redemptive-historical character to them (see the excerpt below that describes the unfolding of the promise of redemption in the Old Testament).

A stress on ecclesiology is another notable feature. The church is indispensable for salvation: “out of this Kirk there is neither life nor eternal felicity” (article 16), and the confession distinguishes the “spotless bride of Christ” that is the true Kirk from the “horrible harlot” that is the false Kirk (article 18). The former is characterized by true marks or “notes,” where discipline is included with true doctrine and sacraments.

The official recognition of the Reformed faith in Scotland awaited the abdication of Mary Queen of Scots in 1567. Ministers were required to subscribe the confession by 1572. In 1580, the King’s Confession (so named because it was signed by King James VI of Scotland and also called the “Negative Confession”) was added in fear that Roman Catholicism would be reestablished in Scotland. “Abhor[ing] and detest[ing] all contrary religions and doctrines,” this work supplemented the Scottish Confession by rejecting doctrines not in agreement with it. The Scottish Confession continued as the confessional standard until the Church of Scotland adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith in 1647.

An Excerpt: Article 4 – The Revelation of the Promise

We constantly believe that God, after the fearful and horrible departure of man from his obedience, did seek Adam again, call upon him, rebuke and convict him of his sin, and in the end made unto him a most joyful promise, that “the seed of the woman should bruise the head of the serpent,” that is, that he should destroy the works of the devil. This promise was repeated and made clearer from time to time; it was embraced with joy, and most constantly received by all the faithful from Adam to Noah, from Noah to Abraham, from Abraham to David, and so onwards to the incarnation of Christ Jesus; all (we mean the believing fathers under the law) did see the joyful day of Christ Jesus, and did rejoice.

The Sequence of Confessions

Sixty-Seven Articles of Ulrich Zwingli (1523)
Tetrapolitan Confession (1530)
First Helvetic Confession (1536)
French Confession of Faith (1559)
Scots Confession (1560)
Belgic Confession of Faith (1561)
Heidelberg Catechism (1563)
Second Helvetic Confession (1566)
Canons of the Synod of Dordt (1619)
Westminster Confession & Catechisms (1643)

John R. Muether serves as a ruling elder at Reformation Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Oviedo, Florida, dean of libraries at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, and historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Ordained Servant Online, May 2017.

[1] W. Stanford Reid, Trumpeter of God: A Biography of John Knox (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982), 192.

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Ordained Servant: May 2017

Watch Your Language

Also in this issue

Cultivating Christ-Honoring Speech in Church Courts (Proverbs 15:1–4)

The Importance of Stagecraft for Worship Services

Geerhardus Vos: The Biblical Theology

The Doctrine of the Covenant and Testament of God by Johannes Cocceius

Time and the Bell

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