The Assembly at the Abbey
On July 1, 1043 the delegates to the: Westminster Assembly gathered for the first time. One hundred twenty-one theologians or “divines" joined 30 lay representatives meeting in the environs of Westminster Abbey in London. The Assembly is best known for the work it did in writing confessional summaries of the Reformed faith. The Confession of Faith prepared at Westminster has had a profound spiritual impact through the years on Presbyterian, Congregational, and many Baptist churches. Its Shorter Catechism has been memorized by generations of people over three centuries. It is therefore appropriate for us to pause and remember the 350th anniversary of this remarkable assembly.
The Westminster Assembly was not a typical church council. The delegates were appointed by the English parliament. Even its agenda, the result of years of intense debate and frustration, was established by the parliament. Indeed, the Assembly was part of the political upheaval that rocked England in the 1640s. Civil war and the execution of the king were the historical backdrop for this notable gathering.
From the calling of the Long Parliament in 1640, the Puritan majority in parliament had confronted King Charles with demands for political, economic, and religious reform. The confrontation escalated to civil war in 1642. The king's initial successes on the battlefield faded, and in 1646 he surrendered to Scottish forces allied to the English Parliament. The king was executed in January 1649 - just a month before the Westminster Assembly completed its work. Religion in the 17th century was not relegated to the private world; it had public ramifications.
In August 1643 the alliance of English Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians through the Solemn League and Covenant added five theologians and three laymen to the Westminster Assembly. Before the Scottish delegates arrived, the Assembly worked at revising the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England as a new confession. But after they arrived, the Assembly set aside the confessional work, turning instead to its most controversial concern: church government. The Assembly initially devoted much time and energy to this issue. The parliament abolished government by bishops in the Church of England in 1643. What form of government should replace it? The clear majority in the parliament and in the Assembly were Presbyterians, but an influential minority were Congregationalists. Much effort was given to working out a compromise between these two positions. The effort failed. The Assembly recommended a Presbyterian form of government for England, but the ascendancy of Congregationalists in the army, led by Oliver Cromwell, squelched this recommendation. Only in Scotland did Presbyterianism triumph.
The Assembly next turned its attention to the subject of worship. Worship had been a serious concern for Puritans from their beginnings. They were distressed that the Church of England had retained forms and ceremonies of the Roman Church that could not be justified biblically. They wanted worship in England to conform to the biblical simplicity of the other Reformed churches of Europe. They wanted to be free of an imposed prayer book that bound their consciences. The Assembly produced the Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God as a guide for the worship of the churches. It remains a clear presentation of the radically Word-centered character of Puritan worship.
Work on the Confession of Faith began in the summer of 1644. The first draft was completed two years later and accepted by the par1iament in 1647. The time invested on the confession was extraordinary, but so too was the result. In 33 chapters the full range of Christian truth is summarized, beginning with the doctrine of Holy Scripture and culminating in the Last Judgment.
When the work on the Confession was completed, attention turned to the preparation of a catechism. Catechisms had long been used as guides to teaching and preaching. They set forth doctrines in a question and answer form to make it easier to grasp and remember those truths. Traditionally catechisms were organized around expositing the Apostles' Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord's Prayer. Westminster followed this tradition, except that instead of expositing the Apostles' Creed, it discussed Christian doctrine more generally.
Early in 1647 the decision was reached to write two catechisms. The Shorter Catechism presented the truths in 107 questions and answers. The answers are brief and positive, beginning with the famous question, "What is the chief end of man?" The answer: "Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever." From that theocentric beginning the rest of the catechism unfolds the great works and ways of God.
The Larger Catechism is nearly five times longer. The 196 questions and longer answers are much fuller than the Shorter Catechism. The Larger Catechism was designed to be used with adults and contains more historical and polemical material than the Shorter. It has been rather neglected among Presbyterians in recent times, but it contains much valuable writing.
One notable feature of the Westminster standards (Confession and catechisms) is the prominent role given to the covenant. By the middle of the 17th century, the doctrine of the covenant had developed from its seed form in early Reformed theology to an elaborate system. The relationship between the covenant of works with Adam and the covenant of grace in Christ had become a key for Reformed Christians to interpreting the Bible and to understanding the work of Christ.
The greatest accomplishments of the Westminster Assembly - its directory, confession, and catechisms - are available to Christians today. They carry with them rich insight into the Word of God and help for thoughtful Christians. They are not always easy reading. Their formulations sometimes must be chewed on to release their nutritional benefit. But they abundantly reward the Christian who makes the effort. The Puritans of the 17th century were some of the most careful, faithful, and profound students of the Bible in the history of the church. The Westminster standards represent a summary and distillation of their labors.
Surely the best way to celebrate the anniversary of the Westminster Assembly is to read and ponder its work.
First published in Tabletalk, September 1993.
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