Temporal Ceremonies in the Scots Confession

A series hoping to find points of continuity between the “Anglican” position on ceremonies and tradition and that of the broader Reformed churches would surely want to skip the Scottish Confession of Faith, 1560. At least, that’s the common assumption. Indeed, after a cursory read, I myself thought it had little to offer. But thankfully the pedantic angel on my shoulder persuaded me to take a closer look. The Scots too allow for temporal and revisable “ceremonies” in the order of the church, or rather, the kirk.

Chapter 16 of the Scottish Confession defines the Kirk. It states that it is Catholic, which it defines as universal, and invisible, because its true membership is “known only to God.” Chapter 18 then gives the marks by which the true Kirk can be identified in history, and these are three: “the true preaching of the Word,” “the right administration of the sacraments,” and “ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered, as God’s Word prescribes.” This could certainly be read in a disciplinarian fashion. Notice how the first mark is not merely the Word but “the true preaching” of it. And church discipline is said to be prescribed by the Scriptures. It doesn’t seem hard to draw a regulative principle from these marks.

Chapter 18 also appears to reject tradition as a means of clarifying doctrinal disputes. It says that “when controversy arises about the right understanding of any passage or sentence of Scripture, or for the reformation of any abuse within the Kirk of God, we ought not so much ask what men have said or done before us, as what the Holy Ghost uniformly speaks within the body of the Scriptures and what Christ Jesus Himself did and commanded. The clear teaching of the Word of God is the only standard given for deciding doctrinal controversy.

This naturally raises the question of the role of councils hold. Chapter 20 discusses this. The Scots offer a mixed view of councils. They do not “rashly condemn what good men” have decided in church councils, but they also “do not receive uncritically” what comes from those councils. If a council forges “new articles of faith” or if it “make[s] decisions contrary to the Word of God,” then it must be rejected. However, if it “confirms its decrees by the plain Word of God,” then it is to be reverenced and embraced. Therefore, councils are to be public testimonies about the teaching of the Scriptures.

But councils have a second reason for making judgments, according to the Scots. In addition to confirming the doctrine of the Holy Scriptures, councils are also to provide rules for “good policy and order.” Here the Scots Confession says something surprising to the modern reading but entirely consistent with the earlier Reformed tradition. It states, “Not that we think any policy or order of ceremonies can be appointed for all ages, times, and places; for as ceremonies which men have devised are but temporal, so they may, and ought to be, changed, when they foster superstition rather than edify the Kirk” (Scots Confession, chapter 20; Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth Century, ed. Cochrane, pg. 178-179). Notice that “order” here refers to ceremonies. The Scots Confession says that councils may devise ceremonies so long as they do not foster superstition but rather promote the edification of the church. It notes that all such ceremonies are temporal and may be changed when necessary. Many details would certainly need further explanation, but the principle is clear. For the early Reformed Scottish Kirk, some ceremonies in the church were understood to be sanctified human-law customs which could legitimately vary according to time and place.


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