Q: Is it true that the Westminster Assembly did not include proof texts in the first version of the Confession of Faith presented to the English parliament, and only added them when ordered to do so by the parliament? If this is so, would it not point to the fact that the Westminster Assembly was simply using the Scripture to support their system of doctrine rather than deriving the doctrine from Scripture? Could this also perhaps explain why in my personal study of the Confession, I find that many of the proof texts given seem to be out of context and do not support the confessional statements at all?
Let me begin by affirming that it is true that the first edition of the Confession submitted to the Parliament (on 4 December 1646) did not have any proof texts. It was the House of Commons which ordered the Assembly to add proof texts in the margin. Their motives, however, were suspected. The House of Commons were largely made up of Erastians who opposed the teaching of the Confession on the Church Government and the relationship between Church and State. The order to add proof texts could both delay the adoption of the standard, and perhaps give occasion for further debates on the issues of contention.
The divines, therefore, complied with the order rather reluctantly, begun new rounds of debates for the proof texts and submitted an edition with proofs on 26 April 1647. Though the motivation was not exactly noble, most would agree that the inserting of these proofs greatly enhanced the usefulness of the Confession, particularly for lay members of the Church.
Why did the divines not add proof texts in the first place? In their reply to the House of Commons, in which they agreed to accede to the House’s request, the divines gave three simple reasons why they omitted the proofs in the first place: Firstly, they were originally tasked to revise the 39 Articles of the Church of England, which did not have any proof texts. Secondly, the Confession was already large,—by necessity,—and so to add the proofs would make it a very large volume. Thirdly, in their own words: “Because most of the particulars, being received truths among all churches, there was seldom any debate about the truth or falsehood of any article or clause, but rather about the manner of expression or the fitness to have it put into the Confession” (Alexander F. Mitchell, The Westminster Assembly: Its History and Standards [SWRB, reprinted 1992], 367–8).
So, in answer to your second question: yes, when the divines were adding the proof texts, they were using Scripture to support a system of doctrine, which was already agreed upon. However, we must not be too quick to jump to the conclusion that therefore the divines were misusing the Scripture and that their theology was not derived from the Scriptures. We must remember that, firstly, the Assembly was tasked to produce a Confession, not a systematic theology or a biblical theology textbook. Secondly, the reason why there was such a consensus of theology among the divines (at least in the points of doctrine that entered the Confession) was because these doctrines were in the first place derived from the Scripture. Thirdly, although the proof texts were not indicated, when the statements of the Confession were first debated, all propositions, except those which were agreed to be unambiguously taught in Scripture, had to be defended using the Scriptures (read, for example, the debate on the subject of appeals in the case of church discipline in Minutes of the Westminster Assembly [SWRB, reprinted 1991], 49–62).
Finally, I would simply point out that your observation that “many of the proof texts given seem to be out of context and do not support the confessional statements” really illustrates another reason why the Assembly did not insert proof texts in the first place. This is vaguely hinted when the Assembly noted that to include the proof texts would make the Confession a very large volume. The fact is, many points of the doctrines in the Confession cannot simply be proved directly using a few isolated Scripture texts. Take for example, in the doctrine of Freewill in WCF 9.1: “God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that it is neither forced, nor by any absolute necessity of nature determined, to good or evil.” All Reformed theologians and such as Augustine and Martin Luther will agree that this is a biblical doctrine. But what proof texts can one cite from Scripture? The divines cited Matthew 17:12; James 1:14; Deuteronomy 30:19. If we want to be picky, we could say that each of these verses are taken out of context, and that from them purely we cannot really construct WCF 9.1. But this does not mean that the statement is therefore unbiblical. I am sure any of the divines would have been able to give several reasons and quote more than a dozen verses to support this doctrine. Or take the confessional assertion that “Dipping of the person into water is not necessary” in baptism (WCF 28.3). The divines inserted Hebrews 9:10, 19–22; Acts 2:41; 16:33; and Mark 7:4. When a theologian or someone who knows the original language reads these verses, he will probably understand why these proof texts were offered. But as a lay person reading these verses one by one, you may get more and more frustrated trying to understand why these verses are used.
Well, what do we do? My counsel is simply this: Remember that the Westminster divines were men who knew the Bible much more than most living theologians and ministers of the Gospel today. The 4,900 references,—covering every book of the Bible except the short Obadiah and Philemon,—cited by the Assembly in the entire standard, ought to give us an idea of the depth and breath of their learning. And it ought to cause us to be very reluctant to impute any errors on them, much less to approach the Confession with a suspicion that it propounds a man-made system of doctrines onto which the Scripture is forced-fitted. Such being the case, instead of rejecting any of the doctrines of the Confession because you cannot find it in the proof-text, I would suggest that you hold on to it, and then seek out your pastor to clarify the verses, or to read a good commentary on the Confession such as Shaw’s or A.A. Hodge’s.