Why Study the Westminster Assembly?

Chad B. Van Dixhoorn

New Horizons: October 2010

The Westminster Assembly

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Last year my wife announced that I had been studying the Westminster Assembly longer than the gathering had met. She was amused. I had been working on the Assembly for eleven years; the Assembly had met for ten. In defense of myself, I should say that I discovered recently that the Assembly actually met for eleven years. But since it took me another year to figure this out, Emily's point still stands: this has taken a while.

When a person spends a decade of life working on a single project, it requires some justification. Really, what is so special about the Westminster Assembly anyway? Since this is a question that I am often asked, and since by now I ought to have an answer, I want to provide the readers of New Horizons with that answer. Elsewhere and on another occasion it might be appropriate to mention some of the failures of the Assembly. Here and now I wish to catalogue six reasons why various people, myself included, continue to find the Westminster Assembly an event worthy of their attention.

A Great Story

The first reason why the Assembly is worth noticing, is that it is a great story. The Westminster Assembly—what foreigners then called the "Synod of London"—was in many ways the high point of the Puritan experiment. The synod came after years of suffering by godly people, and although some of that suffering was self-induced through bad decisions and ill-timed confrontations, most of it was not. Indeed, the plight of the godly, never good, had reached one of its all-time lows in the 1630s. But then, unexpectedly, events in England, Scotland, and Ireland conspired together to produce a war, and the war called for a religious solution to the religious problems, and eventually an Assembly of 121 godly divines (theologians) was called, plus thirty political observers.

The Assembly opened on July 1, 1643, and from that point forward the gathering was celebrated or hated as the mastermind behind a revolution in the church—but never ignored. Members of the Assembly were paraded down London's streets and feasted at banquets. People across Britain and Europe sought the Assembly's patronage and approval. Everyone from an unknown Muslim to an aristocrat hoping to secure the English throne made their way to Westminster Abbey to meet with the Assembly or to ask permission to hear them debate. People wrote from Europe to present the Assembly with their cases of conscience. Printers tried to get the rights to the Assembly's productions and pirated them if they could not. Booksellers promoted the works of Assembly members, and newspapers reported their activities—or, in the absence of any real news, simply made something up.

The assembly had been called by the English Parliament to reform the doctrine, liturgy, and discipline of the Church of England, and it did much more than it was asked. It reformed the church and the universities. From birth to marriage to the grave, no ceremony or symbol was left untouched. Its impact, after the signing of a Solemn League and Covenant with England's neighbors to the north and west, was also felt in Scotland and Ireland.

Often at great risk to themselves, their families, and their property, Assembly members continued to meet through three civil wars, notable London riots, and one showdown with Parliament. Set in an ancient abbey, across the street from the rebel parliament and a constant fairground of activity, the Assembly enjoyed a storybook setting and enough messy drama and high politics to entertain Christians and non-Christians alike. Perhaps that is why much of the work on the Assembly has been supported by the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust, and is to be published by a university press. The Assembly was a major player in one of the most significant decades in British history, and historians recognize a good story when they see one.

An Unusual Assembly

The second reason why the Assembly is fascinating is that it left behind a documentary record almost unparalleled in the history of Christianity. Most of the work of the Christian church is done by ordinary people, but most of its history is told through the lens of great theological heroes. The reason for this, in part, is that the records of synods and councils are often sparse. Heroes have biographers; church councils do not. Celebrated people often leave behind their writings, whereas councils leave a creed, some canons or resolutions, and perhaps their votes and less significant decisions.

The Westminster Assembly is different. Most of the men who attended were not already legends in their own day. Membership at the Assembly made a reputation, not the other way around. The Assembly is remembered more than its participants—not least because one of the synod's scribes spent much of his time working as the Assembly's historian. In thousands of pages, he not only recorded Assembly decisions, but also speeches, comments, and the arguments of individual members. In a treasure trove for historians and biographers alike, he left a record of events and a window into personalities that is unique, or virtually unique, in the history of Christian synods and councils.

The Assembly also produced dozens of papers, petitions, and directories, along with two confessions (one shorter, one longer) and two catechisms (one shorter, one longer). The extant minutes document almost two thousand examinations of preachers for churches, fellows for colleges, and heretics for heresy. More than twice that number came before the Assembly.

The surviving record, it must be said, will never be easy to read, nor is it complete. Some sessions have multiple accounts, some hardly anything at all. Some debates are summarized in a line, some in thousands of words. But if one adds to the Assembly's own records the journal of an Assembly member discovered in 2001, we now, at least, have information about every day that the Assembly met, excepting the last year of its meetings, where we have newspaper reports only. Nonetheless, the story of the Westminster Assembly can be told like few other stories of major Christian assemblies, and for this reason, too, it is worthy of our attention.

Surprising Relevance

In the third place, the Westminster Assembly is useful—especially when compared to some other turning points in Christian history—because of the surprising contemporaneity of its events. Many aspects of the Assembly's situation were much like our own.

The English civil wars of the 1640s and early 1650s, especially the first and longest war, led to a peculiar time in English social and religious history. One result of a government in Oxford (the King's) pitched against another in Westminster (Parliament's) was a lack of control over the printing press. The existence of two governments did not make printers twice as careful about what they published. Some of the political ideas that circulated were seen as revolutionary. Others, sometimes promoted by the same people, were judged heterodox theological ideas. Some were new, many were old, but for whatever reason, London's muddy streets had somehow proved, by 1643, to be an ideal seedbed for sectarian ideas. The war served as a stimulus to social and religious radicalism and raised new challenges for reform-minded people.

This has proved to be a simply wonderful stroke of Providence, although no orthodox person at the time of the Assembly would have thought so. The Assembly was confronted with a huge variety of deviant theologies, not simply the traditional foes of Roman Catholics and "High Church," "hard-hearted" Episcopalians. Suddenly it was not enough to deal with traditional errorists. Sceptics, atheists, antinomians, and "Spirit-led" fanatics of all sorts were attacking the Assembly and the Christian faith. Respect for learned ministers disappeared almost overnight. Assailants labored to find just the right phrase to express their contempt for "the holy fatherhoods" and "the reverend and most sanctified assembly."

Assembly members were privileged to speak into this context in the 1640s—a context much more like our own than that of, say, the 1630s. This challenging context has given the writings of the Assembly a surprising freshness to generations of readers. Many people who have suffered from some of the worst side effects of evangelicalism and have subsequently stumbled across the Westminster Confession of Faith or Catechisms have wondered why these old texts speak so clearly to their current issues. A focus on the Assembly in its historical context helps us see why.

Doctrinal Discoveries

Creed-making assemblies do not make doctrine, they discover it. Despite the Reformation's great leap forward in understanding the Bible, inconsistencies and errors in thought persisted among many Reformed ministers. Scratch some of them hard, and you would find a medieval theologian with a Protestant veneer.

The Westminster Assembly provided an opportunity for men to ask their questions, expose their ignorance, learn from one another, and in the process become more Reformed. They debated the law, the gospel, Christology, the Trinity, justification, faith, repentance, adoption, grace, and glory. They hammered out the best support for biblical doctrines, answers to their opponents, and—very significantly—the best way of expressing those doctrines. The members of the Assembly, all of them learned men, held to an astonishing variety of formulations and expressions of what they considered to be biblical truth. Many of them appear to have clarified their ideas, or at least better understood their Reformed brothers, through their years at the Assembly.

My fourth reason for spending time with the Assembly was that it gave me—and could give you—an opportunity to listen in on a thoughtful conversation about almost every aspect of systematic and practical theology, from the problem of perfectionism in the Christian life to the difficulty of deciding whether there is an office of "widow" in the church, to the challenge of ministering to people with the plague.

A Solid Trust in the Scriptures

The fifth reason why the Assembly is worthy of our attention is its thorough study of the Scriptures. Long before the Westminster Assembly was convened in July 1643, leading Puritans knew that they needed more than a dawn raid on the traditions of the English church. They needed a war. They had to completely eradicate the church's unbiblical elements and erect a strong doctrine of Scripture, properly applied.

The Westminster Assembly needed to create clear statements about what Holy Scripture is—as it did in the opening chapter of the Confession of Faith. It also had to state what Scripture is for and how it is to be used—as it did in its two catechisms, the directory for worship, and the directory for church government. And then it had to clarify how Scripture applies to matters of doctrine, life, worship, and church government—as it did in a chapter on the liberty of conscience and in its various directories.

The minutes of the Assembly are filled with references to Scripture. All arguments needed to be supported by Scripture. It is impossible to read the records of the Assembly and not come away with the impression that these men loved God's revelation of himself, that they knew it, and that they knew it to be "living and active." They expected to shape others by wielding the Scriptures properly.

It seems imperative to me that any body of Christians setting out to write a confession of faith needs to have the highest confidence in God's gracious self-revelation. The Assembly rejected offers of artificial light from the self-identified spiritual giants of their day, they remained open to all natural light when deciding matters in the realm of wisdom and prudence, and they endeavored to judge all things by the divine light found in Scripture. Study the Assembly and you will see how difficult this can be—and how important.

Landmark Texts

The final reason why I study the Assembly is my interest in its landmark confessional and catechetical texts. I'm a minister, and it seems to me that a minister needs to be both steeped in the Word of God and familiar with the best statements of faith produced by the Christian church. These are prerequisites for usefulness to the church. My confession is the Westminster Confession of Faith as revised in some parts by early American Presbyterians. When introduced to these texts as a young adult, I became increasingly interested in knowing enough about the Assembly, its members, and the seventeenth century that I could enjoy reading the Westminster Confession of Faith with historical sensitivity. Eventually my hobby became my job.

Along the way, I found out that the Assembly produced more than a hundred other petitions, letters, and explanatory documents, many of which have survived. Some of these are significant texts in their own right, but I often find myself reading them in order to understand more precisely those greater texts now known as the Westminster Standards.

A million-word edition of the Assembly's records, both its minutes (which record speeches) and a documentary calendar (which reproduces most of the assembly's papers) is now with a publisher. With the introduction, appendixes, notes, and many smaller introductions and summaries throughout the edition, it offers a do-it-yourself history of the Westminster Assembly. I am hopeful that others will find these texts as helpful to read as I have myself. I also hope that time spent with the Assembly will help readers appreciate a confession of faith so rich in theology and full of scriptural truth.

The author is associate pastor of Grace OPC in Vienna, Va. Reprinted from New Horizons, Oct. 2010.

New Horizons: October 2010

The Westminster Assembly

Also in this issue

A Forgotten Founding Father

Chronicles of a Reforming Church: Part 3: Choosing the OPC

French Creek Blessings

How's Your Church's Website?

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