Westminster Assembly

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The Assembly Subscribes the Solemn League & Covenant [1643]

Dr. Will Barker, former president of Covenant Theological Seminary and professor of church history at the Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, has written of “The Men and the Parties” that comprised the Westminster Assembly of Divines. The full text of this article can be found here: http://www.graceonlinelibrary.org/creeds-confessions/the-men-and-the-parties-by-william-s-barker/, but our post today focuses on the first portion of that article, where Dr. Barker provides a very helpful overview of the five groups which played a role in the history of this great Assembly.

I.  The Parties

Discussions of the Assembly tend to focus on the different parties, often to the neglect of the great unity that existed among the members.  It must never be forgotten that their first concern was for the gospel of Christ and for the unity of all who truly belong to him.  One of the most beautiful chapters in the Confession, “Of the Communion of Saints”, begins: “All saints that are united to Jesus Christ their head by His Spirit and by faith have fellowship with Him…: (WCF XXVI/1).  Further, as teachers they were all Calvinists in theology and could all be called Puritans, depending on the definition of that controversial term.  The main controversy among them was church government and the related matter of church discipline, including the role of the state.  The parties, therefore, are perceived along the lines of church polity:  episcopalian, presbyterian, or congregationalist, with two additional categories being relevant – the Erastians and the Scottish delegation.

Episcopalians

All of the Westminster divines appointed by the Long Parliament in 1643 were ordained ministers in the Church of England, although many had refused to conform to some Anglican practices and some had temporarily gone into exile in the Netherlands.  This means that they had entered the ministry in an episcopal system, and many still favored a moderate episcopacy.  Men such as James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh in Ireland, did not attend the Assembly because it did not have the approval of King Charles I.  Others dropped out in the early stages.  But all were opposed to prelacy, that is, the functioning of bishops like secular princes rather than as the teaching and preaching ministers of the New Testament.  Some who favored a moderate episcopacy remained in the Assembly and were gradually persuaded to prefer the presbyterian position.

Presbyterians

The Presbyterians, who favored a system with parity of the clergy, but with a graded system of church courts so that local congregations were bonded together and in submission to a regional presbytery, and presbyteries were in submission to a national general assembly, were in the majority in the Assembly.  They were of two persuasions, however:  those who believed in presbyterianism by divine right – i.e., that it is the only system prescribed by the New Testament – and those who believed presbyterianism was simply the system most consistent with the principles of church government taught in the New Testament.  The latter was the prevailing view among the English divines at Westminster.

Congregationalists or Independents

Those who favored congregational church government were led by a very able and vocal group that became known as “the five dissenting brethren.”  These five had all gone into exile in the Netherlands in the 1630’s and had close relations with the congregationalists in New England.  These were non-separating Puritans who wanted local church autonomy while still maintaining an association among churches and with the state.  Although the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay enforced the New England congregational way through the civil magistrate, the English congregationalists were led by circumstances to prefer toleration.

Erastians

The Erastians, whose name is derived from a 16th-century Swiss theologian, were not in favor of any particular church polity – episcopal, presbyterian, or congregational – by divine right, but were mainly concerned that church discipline be finally carried out only with the approval of the state.  This view was upheld in the Assembly by a small but learned group and was supported by many in Parliament, which had called the Assembly and whose approval was necessary for the implementation of the Assembly’s decisions.

The Scottish Delegation

As a result of the Solemn League and Covenant, approved by the Scottish Parliament on August 17, 1643 and subscribed by the English Parliament and the members of the Westminster Assembly on September 25, four Scottish ministers joined the Assembly in September of 1643.  These were not voting members but had the right to speak.  In exchange for the assistance of the Scottish army to the Parliamentary forces in the Civil War against the King, the Solemn League and Covenant sought to bring the churches of England and Ireland into conformity to the Reformed religion in Scotland in doctrine, worship, discipline, and government.  The Scottish commissioners, with almost a century of presbyterian history behind them, favored presbyterianism by divine right.

Such were the parties that emerged as church government proved to be the most controversial issue in the Assembly.  Again we should remember that all of the Westminster divines were Calvinists.  As we look back to the Assembly with gratitude primarily for the setting forth of the Reformed faith in the Confession and Catechisms, we should celebrate the doctrinal unity which it had.  Where there was diversity, there was also a spirit of accommodation on the part of many.  Richard Baxter, a contemporary Puritan but not a member of the Assembly, had immense appreciation of its members and its accomplishments.  He later commented that if all Episcopalians had been as Archbishop Ussher, all Presbyterians as Stephen Marshall (the great preacher of the Assembly), and Independents as Jeremiah Burroughs, the divisions of the church might soon have been healed.

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A Potential Schism Halted by a Compromise

Initially there was no real problem with the written standards for the Presbyterian Church in America. Ministerial students were simply tested for their learning and soundness in the faith. But a controversy in the mother country soon changed this.  So the question arose, should teaching and ruling elders be required to subscribe to the subordinate standards of the Westminster Assembly in their entirety, or just for their essential truths? The fact that so many officers were still in the process of emigrating to the colonies made this a relevant question for the infant church to resolve.

Conscious of the potential for schism, on September 17, 1729, Jonathan Dickinson became the main proponent against the total subscriptionist party in the church. His argument was simple. He believed the Bible was the sufficient rule for faith and life.  Subscription must be adhered to it and to it alone, not to some man-made summary of it, as good as it might be.

The total subscriptionist side also believed the Bible was all-sufficient for doctrine and life, but were equally convinced that the Westminster standards of confession and catechisms offer an adequate summary of the Old and New Testaments. To receive it and adopt it in its entirely would stop any heresies which may invade the church from either within or without the church.

At the synod in 1729, Dickinson and his followers won the day with what has become known at the Adopting Act of 1729. [Link fixed, 9/17/15 @ 10:23 a.m.] The document stated that on the one hand, there was a clear requirement to receive and adopt the Westminster Standards.  However, if an elder, whether teaching or ruling elder, had an exception to those standards, he was to make known to the church or presbytery his exception. The latter body would then judge whether the exception dealt with essential and necessary articles of doctrine, worship, or government. If it did not, then he could be ordained without official censure or social ostracism.

The entire body of elders gathered at the Philadelphia Synod gave thanks to God in solemn praise and prayer that the resolution of this potential schism had been averted and unity was maintained in the infant Presbyterian church.

Words to live by:  It is always good that disunity should be avoided and unity be maintained. But at what cost, is the question? The compromise here looked good on the surface. But presbyteries and synods and assemblies are made up of fallible men who can, sadly, declare that the basic truths of the Christian religion are not necessary to be held, as is the case now with several liberal Presbyterian bodies.  Obviously, much prayer must be made for those who instruct and rule over us, that God’s Spirit will keep the visible church pure in both faith and life. The true key to doctrinal unity springs from a daily awareness of our own sinfulness, from hearts broken before the Lord in godly humility, Seeking the forgiveness found in Jesus Christ alone.

See also, The Meaning of Subscription, by Rev. Benjamin McKee Gemmill.

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kerr_robertPRev. Robert P. Kerr’s little volume, PRESBYTERIANISM FOR THE PEOPLE, now moves to a short section on Presbyterian theology. There are three chapters in this section: (1) Presbyterian Theology; (2) Peculiarities of Calvinism; and (3) Calvinism and Self-Government. Today we present the first of these three chapters.

Incidentally, Kerr’s book appears to have gone through at least two printings. The PCA Historical Center has a copy with brown cloth boards and gilt lettering, printed in 1883. So much of the work produced for the Southern Presbyterian Church by the Whittet & Shepperson Printing Company had this same appearance—brown boards, typically with beveled edges, and gilt lettering. This then would be the first edition of the book. The Buswell Library at Covenant Seminary also has a copy, but with russet cloth boards and black lettering. This is most likely a later printing, though the same plates were used, as evidenced by the same typographical error in the numbering of Chapter VII. I don’t see that the book has been reprinted since that time.

CHAPTER I.

PRESBYTERIAN THEOLOGY.

“ For we walk by faith, not by sight.”—2 Cor. v. 7.

SALVATION BY FAITH IN A DIVINE SAVIOUR WHO DIED FOR MEN is the great central truth of our holy religion, and it is held by all evangelical Churches. If a man believes this doctrine, he is a Christian, and any denomination which really holds to it is a Christian Church. The differences between evangelical. Churches, while important, are not as the things necessary to the salvation- of the soul.

In the present condition of the world it is well that there should be several denominations. There is more work done, and better work, than if all Christians were in one organization. Now, it would be difficult to maintain the subdivisions necessary for efficiency without differences of opinion. There must be various centres of thought around which men may rally. There is a certain theological system called Arminianism, another called Calvinism, and there are different systems of government and modes of worship, all of which contribute to form the denominations into which, under the providence of God, the Church has been divided. ’The unity of the Church may be sufficiently realized by magnifying our common belief in the great truths of redemption, and in exhibiting at all times a charity, greater than faith and hope, which will shut the mouths of our enemies and command the respect of the world. One of the best signs of our times is the fact that most denominations now recognize one another’s churchship and work together harmoniously for the glory of Christ in the redemption of mankind.

But it is necessary that each division of the great army of Christians should be instructed in the things peculiar to itself, and ought not to be considered uncharitable if it exhibits and defends those distinctive institutions which give it being. There is also need of a brief exposition of Presbyterian doctrines, from the fact that there has been some misunderstanding among other peoples as to what we really believe. For example, we have been accused of teaching the damnation of infants who die in infancy. Though such a statement may seem unnecessary, it is now most emphatically made: The Presbyterian Church holds and teaches that all who die in infancy are saved.

The following is given as a general outline of Presbyterian theology. Some parts of it are taken from an old formula, of unknown authorship, and two articles from the Westminster Catechism;

SUMMARY OF DOCTRINES.

I. There is one God, the Creator, Preserver and Governor of the universe, who is possessed of every natural and moral perfection.

II. This God exists in three Persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, the same in essence and equal in all divine attributes.

III. The Scriptures contained in the Old and New Testaments were given by inspiration of God and furnish a perfect rule of faith and practice.

IV. God created Adam perfectly holy and constituted him the representative of all his posterity, suspending their moral character and legal relation to his probationary conduct.

V. In consequence of Adam’s fall all mankind are in a state of total moral depravity and are under condemnation.

VI. The Lord Jesus Christ, who is God and man, by his sufferings and death has made atonement for the sins of the whole world.

VII. Through the atonement salvation is freely offered to all sinners in the gospel; and though they are free to accept, yet they naturally reject, this gracious offer, and refuse to come to Christ that they might have eternal life.

VIII. God the Spirit, by an act of special sovereign grace, renews the hearts of all the elect and causes them to accept the salvation of the gospel.

IX. The foundation of the elects’ forgiveness and redemption is the atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ, received and rested on in faith.

X. God promises to preserve from final apostasy all who have been renewed in their souls, and to conduct them, through sanctification and belief of the truth, into the kingdom of glory.

XI. All men who hear the good news of the gospel and come to Christ will be saved. God from all eternity has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass, and yet man is free to accept or reject God’s offers of mercy.

XII. God has appointed a day, at the end of the present order of things, in which he will judge the world in righteousness by Jesus Christ, who will receive those that believe on him into everlasting happiness and sentence the wicked unto everlasting punishment.

XIII. The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament, wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine according to Christ’s appointment, his death is showed forth, and the worthy receivers are, not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment and growth in grace.

XIV. Baptism is a sacrament wherein the washing with water in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost doth signify and seal our in-grafting into Christ and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s.

XV. It is required of the officers in the Presbyterian Church to accept the system of doctrines of the Confession of Faith, but persons are admitted as ‘private members on a simple profession of faith in Christ, a promise of obedience to him and conformity to the rules of the Church. Whatever admits a man into heaven ought to admit him into the communion of the Church on earth.

The greater part of this system of doctrine is held by all Christians, but there are a few important points in which we differ from other denominations.

The Presbyterian system of theology has been called Augustinian because it was first fully elaborated by Augustine in the fifth century, and Calvinistic because its greatest modern expositor was John Calvin, in the sixteenth century. The most complete statement of these doctrines was made by the Westminster Assembly of Divines, in the seventeenth century, in a “Confession of Faith ” which has become the standard of nearly all English- speaking Presbyterians.

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Westminster Confession Approved by Church of Scotland

You may ask upon reading the title of this contribution, why are we thinking about adoption of the Westminster Confession of Faith, when the whole This Day in Presbyterian History blog deals with Presbyterian history in the United States?  And that is a fair question.  But it is quickly answered by two considerations. First, this Reformed standard—The Westminster Confession of Faith—was, with few changes, the subordinate standard of all the Presbyterian denominations in the United States.  And second, the Scots-Irish immigrants who came over to this country in its earliest days held strongly to this Reformed creedal statement.

The Westminster Confession of Faith was formulated by the Westminster Assembly of divines (i.e, pastors and theologians) in the mid-seventeenth century, meeting at Westminster Abby in London, England.  To the one hundred and twenty divines, primarily from the Church of England, were added nine Scottish divines from the Church of Scotland.  While the latter were seated as non-voting members of that Assembly, still their presence was felt in very effective ways during the six-year study that produced this confessional standard.

When it was adopted by the Parliament in England, it then went to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, where it was adopted without amendment onAugust 29, 1647.  It then became the summary of the teachings of the Old and New Testaments which was adopted by both the teaching and ruling elders, as well as the diaconate in each local church, in every Presbyterian and Reformed church deriving from that tradition. Small changes have been made by conservative Presbyterian bodies in our United States which do not affect the overall doctrinal contents of the Confession. The majority of those changes were made in 1789. You can ask your pastor for more information about those changes.

The historic importance of this document is one reason why we have daily reference to it in this devotional guide, as we seek to make our friends more knowledgeable of its magnificent statements.

Words to live by: Most of the Presbyterian denominations do not require their lay members to take vows which speak of their adoption of these historical creedal standards in order to join the church.  Yet a careful study of, and acceptance of this Confession of Westminster will give you a solid foundation for understanding the doctrine and life of the Word of God.  We urge you to do so, perhaps asking for a class in your church on it, or just studying it yourself for your personal and family benefit.

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Presbyterians ought to know Presbyterianism.

Our series earlier this month, TEN REASONS FOR BEING A PRESBYTERIAN, was well received. So taking that encouragement, our plan is to now present each Saturday for the remainder of this summer a chapter from the little book PRESBYTERIANISM FOR THE PEOPLE, by the Rev. Dr. Robert P. Kerr. Today we present Chapter I.

kerr_robertPThis little volume is not for theologians. There are many abler and more elaborate works on Presbyterianism written for them. It is for the people—the busy, earnest people, who have neither the time nor the taste for an extensive study of this subject, but who ought to know—at least, in a general way—what Presbyterianism is, what it has been in the past, what it believes and teaches. In his pastoral work the author has often wished for such a book, and he earnestly hopes that this one may help supply what he believes to be a real need of the Church. For it he asks the blessing of God and the favor of the people.—R.P.K.
[Robert Pollock Kerr, 1850-1923, pictured at right]

CHAPTER I. — THE STUDY OF PRESBYTERIANISM.

The Presbyterian Church, including all its branches, is the largest Protestant organization in the world. Its communion embraces people of every civilized nation, and it is recognized as one of the great forces of Christendom. Its members have acted a distinguished part in literature, philosophy, science, art and government, as well as in religion, and many of the great names of history are found on its rolls. It has been identified with nearly all great movements looking to the advancement of the highest interests of mankind, in Church and in State. Liberality and breadth of vision have at all times characterized this branch of the Church of Christ. The Presbyterian Church has never been sectarian in its treatment of other denominations, but has acknowledged the churchship of all bodies which hold the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, offering fellowship even to those who would not hold fellowship with it, receiving their members at its communion-table and their ministers into its pulpits.

Indeed, in many cases, Presbyterians have been so liberal as to neglect the study of their own peculiar institutions. Thousands of them are in ignorance of the history of their Church and of the high place it holds among the denominations. A boastful spirit is not to be desired, but Presbyterians ought to know Presbyterianism. They have been noted for the study of the great doctrines of religion rather than of forms of government and worship or of their own peculiarities. In other words, they have studied Christianity more than they have studied Presbyterianism. This is right, but they have gone too far. In doing one they should not have left the other undone. The Shorter Catechism, which was drawn up, in connection with other standards of doctrine, by the Westminster Assembly, in London, in 1646, and which is our great theological text-book, is so thoroughly unsectarian that it has been freely used by other denominations for the instruction of the young, and in some instances by persons who did not know that it was a Presbyterian catechism; for the word “Presbyterian” does not occur in the book.

The study of Presbyterianism need not make men bigoted or exclusive, but should contribute to their efficiency in the grand army of God. The cavalry ought to understand cavalry tactics, the infantry and artillery should master their own respective departments, and all should fight harmoniously, side by side, for one great end.

It is hoped that the perusal of these pages may not tend to sectarianism, but that it may help some Presbyterians to a better understanding of the peculiarities of the Church to which they belong. These peculiarities refer to government and doctrine, and may be described as ecclesiastical republicanism combined with Calvinistic theology.. The subject will be examined under these two divisions, prominence being given to the former, as that is our own peculiar possession, Calvinistic theology being held by several other churches in common with our own.

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