Faith in Focus

A Significant Anniversary : 1647

Anniversaries tend to be important to our culture and we make a big fuss of people on their birthdays and other significant events in our lives and the life of our families. But there are also anniversaries that have a far greater significance. One event that happened 350 years ago should be one of those points of remembrance for Presbyterian or Reformed Christians.

On August the 27th 1647, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland officially adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith as its subordinate standard. This was the first Church to do so. The Scottish Parliament later ratified their decision. It was not until March the 5th 1660 that the English Parliament, having altered certain sections of the Confession ratified the confession as the public Confession of the Church of England. However, with the demise of the protectorate and the restoration of the monarchy the Confession was soon ignored by the English established Church. Nevertheless, the Confession has had a significant impact on the non-conformist Churches in England.

350 years is a long time and we can easily forget the men whose labours we benefit from. I suppose they would prefer it that way as humble servants of Christ. But there is good reason to remember the 121 divines as they were called, who made up the assembly along with the ten Lords and twenty commoners. Among them there were Anglicans (Episcopalians who favoured Church government by bishops), Presbyterians (Who favoured government by presbyters or elders), Independents (Congregationalists who favoured government by the congregation), Erastians (Who wanted to allow the State authority over the Church) along with six Scottish commissioners (Only four attended) who took an active part in the Assembly, but who were not allowed to vote or to sign the Confession at its completion.

The Assembly got its name from the Westminster Abbey in London. It first began its work in Henry the VII chapel at the rear of the Abbey, but because of the colder weather, it later shifted to the Deanery attached to the Abbey and met in a room called Jerusalem Chamber.

The Assembly met by order of Parliament in 1643 on July 1st. It was a creature of the famous long parliament, which sat from 1640 to 1653. King Charles 1st had a grip over the Church that really made it an instrument of the Crown. This English Church was also a Church controlled by a hierarchy (Prelates or Bishops), in a manner little different from the Roman Catholic Church it had allegedly reformed. On the other side were the Puritans, those who sought to purify the Church's doctrine and worship and who were very much associated with the Parliament. This Parliament was intent on ridding the Church of those elements, including its form of government, that both prevented the completion of reformation and assisted in entrenching the power of the King.

The Parliament finally abolished Prelacy (Church Government by Prelates) in 1643. There was also a recognition that a form of national Church government needed to be put in place to replace the one abolished. And so, without the King's consent, Parliament called a Synod or Assembly to fulfil its main purpose, which was described in Warfield's account of the Assembly and its work (The Works of B.B. Warfield, p.13) thus,

'"To consult and advise" with Parliament, as it may be required to do, in the Parliament's efforts to substitute for the existing prelatical government of the Church, such a government "as may be most agreeable to God's holy word, and most apt to procure and preserve the peace of the Church at home, and nearer agreement with the Church of Scotland and other Reformed Churches abroad…and to vindicate and clear the doctrine of the Church of England from all false calumnies and aspersions."'

We now know that politically things deteriorated badly and quickly during this period, with the demise of the King and the rise of Cromwell and the Protectorate. All this in God's providence assisted in enabling the Assembly to complete its task of preparing the Confession of Faith, the larger and shorter catechisms, the directory for public worship and the form of presbyterial Church government by early 1647. As we have already noted it was only a few months later that the Confession was adopted as the official subordinate standard of the Scottish Church.

The Scottish commissioners had played a significant part in the formation of the Confession which had as a major model the Irish Articles of 1615. The two best known of the Scotchmen were George Gillespie and Samuel Rutherford. They both were said to be men of extraordinary theological ability. William Barker records in his Puritan Profiles (p. 110), evidence for this claim. "One story has the Assembly stymied in its producing an answer to the question (Q. 7 in the Larger catechism) 'What is God?' Supposedly Gillespie was called upon to pray, and he began, "O God, thou who art a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in thy being, wisdom, power holiness, justice, goodness, and truth', thus producing the Catechism's famous answer. Another story is told how he rose somewhat reluctantly to speak in opposition to an Erastian John Seldon, a famous classical scholar. Seldon had sought "to demonstrate that Matthew 18:15-17, the passage under dispute, contained no warrant for ecclesiastical jurisdiction, but concerned the ordinary practice of the Jews in their common civil courts." Barker records (p.111) that Seldon's speech was so compelling that none seemed prepared to answer it until the young Gillespie arose. Gillespie summarised the speech, simplified Seldon's arguments for the Assembly and proceeded to completely refute his argument point for point. "The Erastian leader is reported to have exclaimed in bitter mortification" 'That young man, by this single speech has swept away the learning and the labour of ten years of my life.'" Gillespie had been seen writing notes during Seldon's speech and it was thought that he was preparing an answer and carefully noting what Seldon was saying. But those sitting next to him saw in his note book that he had only written the words "Lord send light, Lord give assistance, Lord defend thine own cause." Tragically Gillespie died a few months after the adoption of the Confession by the Scottish Church.

There is no space to describe the acumen of the rest of these remarkable men, but they proved to be the greatest gathering of divines in the history of the Church since the days of the Apostles and produced a series of documents that even today many of us believe cannot be improved upon. Richard Baxter, a contemporary described this illustrious company in this way,

" The divines there congregated were men of eminent learning and godliness and ministerial abilities and fidelity; and being not worthy to one of them myself, I may the more freely speak that truth which I know, even in the face of malice and envy, that as far as I am able to judge by the information of all history of that kind, and by any other evidence left us, the Christian world since the days of the apostles had never a synod of more excellent divines (taking one thing with another) than this Synod and the Synod of Dort."

Evidence of their acumen is seen in the way they dealt with the sensitive theological issues that confront anyone trying to write a Confession of Faith. Today some would have us believe that the Confession was a document of compromise. And to support this notion, they correctly cite the fact that the Confession carefully avoids the supralapsarian/infralapsarian controversy and does not discuss different millennial views. But this is not the whole story. On the subject of Holy Scripture, those who would like to suggest that prophecy or revelation are still for today find no support in the Confession. The possibility of new revelation is excluded by the clear statements of the Confession. The Divines guarded against the two heresies of Rome and the Pentecostals of the day who respectively taught that there was a living voice (Namely the Pope and the Magisterium) in addition to the Bible and ongoing extra-biblical special revelation. There were also Amyraldians there who had a faulty view of the atonement. Their views were soundly silenced. The same is true of the Erastians. They can hardly be said to have

gained a victory or compromise for their position in this most Presbyterian of Assemblies.

A Factor for Unity

The Confession is also a vital document for today and may in the Lord's providence prove to be the significant factor in calling Christians back to Scripture alone. Today the wider Church has lost the notion that Scripture alone is the rule for life and doctrine. One of the great principles re-discovered at the time of the Reformation was the idea that all men could understand the teaching of the Word of God because of its clarity or perspicuity, and that those illuminated by the Holy Spirit could understand the Word savingly. That is to say that they could discern the teaching of the Bible that showed how to be saved - how to become a Christian.

Of course, what was controversial about this was that it overthrew the Roman Catholic dogma that the Church was needed to interpret the Scriptures. In fact Roman Catholicism had thought that it was positively dangerous for an ordinary person to have the Bible in his own language in case he misinterpreted it and was led astray from the truth. The clergy jealously guarded their Latin Bibles, even if some of them couldn't read Latin. Darkness was ever present and encouraged.

But the light of the gospel could not be hidden for long and when the Reformation recovered the great truths and established faithful Churches, they did so on the basis that the truth could be clearly discerned from the Word of God by ordinary people. The system of salvation, at least, was clear, although they did not deny that there were difficult passages in the Bible that were beyond the comprehension of the uneducated. Nevertheless they believed that the Bible was a river which was safe enough for a mouse to wade in, and deep enough for an elephant to swim in.

One of the compelling arguments of the Roman Catholics was that if ordinary men and women were going to be allowed to interpret the Bible on their own, then there would soon be a proliferation of sects, because there would be many interpretations. But this is where the Westminster Confession and its influence gives a lie to that idea. On the face of it the Roman Catholic charge might be considered proven by the large number of Protestant denominations and independent Churches, but several things need to be noted in response to such an observation.

The Roman Catholics themselves can be seen as a gathering of assorted sects. In other words there are significant differences of opinion on a wide variety of matters within the Roman Catholic Church. That is as true today as it was in the 17th Century. Even when they rejected the Scriptures as being a supreme authority, they still didn't agree among themselves whether that judge was the Pope or the Pope along with the other teachers in the Church. The proliferation of Presbyterian or Reformed denominations can be explained, in many cases, by a lack of submission to the teaching of the Word of God, whose essential principles were clear to all parties. There is no justification for several Presbyterian/Reformed groups in New Zealand today when they agree on the teaching of the Confession, and yet disagree on non-essential minor matters.

If the Scriptures were perspicuous and most of the doctrines could be easily discerned and understood by all men, then we would expect to see the various Christian Churches having a great deal in common. And this is what we do see in the 17th century. The independents or congregationalists adopted the Confession as the Savoy Declaration in 1658, "while", in the words of B. B. Warfield, "subjecting it to a revision which in no way affected its substance." Today when we look at the Baptist Churches we expect to find them rejecting the substance of the Confession, particularly the doctrine of salvation. It is true that most Baptist Churches in New Zealand are Arminian in their theology, but this is by no means true of all Baptists. And it certainly wasn't true in the 17th Century. There were general (Arminian) Baptists, but the strongest Baptist groups were particular (Calvinistic) Baptists. Charles Spurgeon is a famous 19th century example of a Calvinistic or Reformed Baptist and only one of many. These latter Baptists adopted the Westminster Confession, having subjected it to some alterations in line with their views on Baptism, as we would expect. They adopted it as early as 1677.

The Westminster Confession and its clones soon spread around the world and was the most widely accepted confession of the Protestant Churches even well into the 19th Century. All of this confirms, as I have suggested, that there was a great deal of unanimity as to what the Bible actually taught. But if this is the case, how do we explain the situation that we see around us today? Indeed it seems that very few Churches would want to claim that they agreed with the teaching of the Westminster Confession. There are a number of reasons for this. One is the influence of the enlightenment, which exalted reason over revelation. From the 19th century on the Bible was subject to an approach that said "Human reason is autonomous over the Bible." Instead of the Bible dictating the terms, man's reason became the supreme authority and gave rise to what became known as theological liberalism. This has infected the so-called mainline Churches, but it has also had an impact on the thinking of many who would claim to be evangelicals. The authority of the Bible has been undermined in surprising ways among those who claim to have a high regard for the Bible as the Word of God.

A strong argument can be presented that shows that there has been an increasing acceptance of a lower view of Scripture among evangelicals. And it doesn't matter who you are, whether a professed liberal or evangelical. As soon as you place Scripture under the judgement of men you open the door to new doctrines, because you are no longer bound by Scripture. You are able to pick and choose the bits that fit in with a new principle of interpretation that you bring with your low view. Instead of interpreting Scripture with Scripture, you are actually interpreting Scripture with your own fallen reason.

John Wesley exemplifies this process. Wesley couldn't reconcile human freedom and God's sovereignty so instead of comparing Scripture with Scripture, he adopted an approach that reflected his unwillingness to sit under Scripture. He decided that the best way to solve his problem was to draw lots. We know that predestination got the short straw. So here was a man who claimed to accept the Word fully as the Word of God and yet he showed by his actions that he did not. Many today labour under the same misapprehension that they are being faithful to the Word; while in reality they are only bringing their own prejudices to find confirmation there - often with reckless disregard to grammar and context. The Westminster Divines found such ideas unthinkable. They knew that the former ways by which God had revealed Himself had now ceased; and that now we were bound by the Word and the Spirit in their inseparable connection.

Pentecostalism can sustain this charge also. Experience interprets Scripture and not Scripture. Their psychologically induced "tongues" becomes, in their view, the miraculous languages of Acts or 1st Corinthians. The "healings" they experience tell them they possess that miraculous gift. And the visions and dreams and prophecies that they experience justifying, for them, their claims to new revelations - revelations that often go contrary to Scripture.

Neo-orthodoxy or Barthianism is another approach to the Bible that has infected many. While claiming to be the antidote to liberalism, it was liberalism dressed up in new clothes. The Bible is not the final authority for these folk either.

And so it is not surprising that today we have such doctrinal confusion abounding. Over against this state of affairs the Westminster Confession loudly proclaims Sola Scriptura. In teaching the principles of interpretation that it does, all those who accept these same principles consistently, will arrive at a common doctrinal understanding.

If this is true, then the Confession is indeed vitally important today. The Confession has gleaned from Scripture the way we are to approach Scripture. All the controversies, it can be argued, that have arisen in the modern Church, are a result of different principles of interpretation being applied to the Bible. Today as much as in any former time we need the biblicism of the Westminster Standard in our approach to Scripture. If we were consistent in this as Christians, we would discover that we had everything in common.


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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / / revised October 97 / Copyright 1997