The Divines' Intent
Sidney D. Dyer
We should never underestimate the value of the Assembly's work. In a day when theological precision is so desperately needed, we should praise God that he raised up the Westminster divines (ministers) to produce a superior compendium of biblical truth.
By whom do you suppose the Westminster divines primarily intended their work to be used? It may surprise you to learn that they desired their work to be used primarily by the heads of households to instruct their families. This is evident from the original preface and the one written by Thomas Manton for the second edition of the standards in 1658.
The Original Preface
The title of the first preface is, "To the Christian Reader, Especially Heads of Families." This title shows that the Assembly wanted their work to be a resource for heads of households to use in family instruction. Parents, and especially fathers, reading this title, would have understood that the remarks in the preface were directed principally to them.
The opening sentence expresses grief over the flood of errors, blasphemies, and profaneness that had swept through England, and then it ends with: "So, among several other sins which have helped to open the floodgates of all these impieties, we cannot but esteem the disuse of family instruction one of the greatest."
The opening paragraph goes on to explain that "the two great pillars upon which the kingdom of Satan is erected, and by which it is upheld, are ignorance and error." It further points out that the potential extent to which godly parents can have a positive influence on their children is demonstrated by "their special influence on them in respect of their authority over them, interest in them, continual presence with them, and frequent opportunities of being helpful to them." This potential is also demonstrated negatively "from the sad effect which, by woeful experience, we find to be the fruit of the omission of this duty."
Examples of godly parents are listed: Abraham, Joshua, the parents of Solomon, the grandmother and mother of Timothy, and the mother of Augustine. The text behind the example of Abraham is Genesis 18:19. Notice the words "in order that" and consider the reason why the Lord knew Abraham: "For I have known him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice, that the Lord may bring to Abraham what He has spoken to him." The text behind the example of Joshua is Joshua 24:15: "But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord." David had his weaknesses as a father, but his instruction to Solomon, as a youth who would soon oversee the building of the temple, gives us some indication of his fatherly influence. Solomon could hardly have been any older than twenty, and may have been only in his late teens at this time. David's charge to Solomon to build the temple appears in 1 Chronicles 22:6-16. His further instructions to Solomon are in 28:9-10, 20-21. The godly influence of Solomon's parents is indicated by his comments at the beginning of the book of Proverbs: "My son, hear the instruction of your father, and do not forsake the law of your mother" (1:8). Solomon most likely penned these words while recalling the instruction he had received from his parents.
The texts behind the examples of Timothy's grandmother and mother are 2 Timothy 1:5, where they are named, and 2 Timothy 3:14-15, where Paul writes, "But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus." In his Confessions, Augustine tells how his mother, Monica, who taught him Christian doctrine, wept and prayed for his conversion.
The preface offers twofold advice for heads of families. "The first concerns heads of families in respect to themselves; that as the Lord hath set them in place above the rest of their family, they would labour in all wisdom and spiritual understanding to be above them also." In order to press this duty on fathers, the preface adds that "it is an uncomely sight to behold men in years babes in knowledge; and how unmeet are they to instruct others, who need themselves to be taught." It goes on to explain why knowledge is so desirable and quotes texts from the Geneva Bible, such as Proverbs 19:2, "Without knowledge the mind cannot be good," and Hosea 4:6, "My people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge." The preface then warns against Satan's deceptive devices and reiterates the need to pursue biblical knowledge.
The "second advice concerns heads of families, in respect of their families." The most sobering statement in the preface reads: "What a dreadful meeting those parents and masters must have at the great day, with their children and servants, when all that were under their inspection shall not only accuse them, but charge their eternal miscarrying upon their score."
Thomas Manton's Preface
Manton was not one of the Westminster divines, but he was one of the clerks of the Assembly. His preface echoes much of what is contained in the original preface. He begins: "I cannot suppose thee to be such a stranger in England as to be ignorant of the general complaint concerning the decay of the power of godliness, and more especially of the great corruption of youth. Wherever thou goest, thou wilt hear men crying out of bad children and bad servants; whereas indeed the source of the mischief must be sought a little higher: it is bad parents and bad masters that make bad children and bad servants."
Manton proceeds by explaining why the devil seeks to subvert Christian families. He mentions that
the devil knows that the best way to crush the kingdom of Christ "in the egg" is "by the perversion of youth, and supplanting of family duties." He goes on to say that "at family duties he striketh with the more success, because the institution is not so solemn, and the practice not so seriously and conscientiously regarded as it should be, and the omission is not so liable to notice and publick censure." The last statement Manton makes regarding the devil is that "if he can subvert families, other societies and communities will not long flourish and subsist with any power or vigour; for there is the stock from whence they are supplied both for the present and future."
Manton points out that "by family discipline, officers are trained up for the Church, 1 Tim. iii. 4, One that ruleth well his own house." This is one of the significant benefits of fathers instructing their families in biblical truth and using the Westminster standards. When Christ gives gifted men to his churches to serve as pastors and ruling elders, they are better prepared if they were instructed by godly fathers and are teaching their own children.
A major section of Manton's preface is a portion of a letter written by an unnamed divine. Manton mentions that the author first expressed his sorrow over the deplorable condition of the church and then presented the cause and cure: "Among others, a principal cause of these mischiefs is the great and common neglect of the governors of families, in the discharge of that duty which they owe to God for the souls that are under their charge, especially in teaching them the doctrine of Christianity." The letter goes on to describe how fathers bring their children for baptism, promise to teach them the gospel and to raise them in the nurture of the Lord, but break their promises. The author adds that "this covenant-breaking with God, and betraying the souls of their children to the devil, must lie heavy on them here and hereafter."
At the close of this letter, the author commends the work of the Assembly to Christian families, urges fathers to study it first for themselves and then teach it to their families, "according to their several capacities." He points out that if fathers do this, their children "will be able to read other books more understandingly, and hear sermons more profitably, and confer more judiciously, and hold fast the doctrine of Christ more firmly." The author's concluding advice was for fathers to let their children "read and learn the Shorter Catechism, and next the Larger, and lastly the Confession of faith."
The Assembly did its work over a century before the establishment of Sunday school in England around 1780. Sunday school now supplements, but does not supplant the duty of parents, and especially fathers, to teach their children (see Deut. 6:1-7; Prov. 1:8; Eph. 6:4). Parents, let us by God's grace make better use of the Westminster standards in the training of our children, for the divines' intent was a matter of divine intent.
The author, an OP minister, teaches at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He quotes the NKJV. Reprinted from New Horizons, March 2007.