The Westminister Assembly (1643-1649)

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken September 26, 1999

Throughout this year we have been having a series of Windows on the World concerning the last millennium in church history. Each month we take an important person or a significant event from one of the last ten centuries: the Crusades of the twelfth century, the Diet of Worms from the sixteenth century, and so forth. Also, for our Hymn of the Month, we sing a hymn either written or composed in the same century. This month we come to the seventeenth century. (If you want to earn some extra credit, see if you can figure out exactly why I chose “The Sands of Time Are Sinking” for our Hymn of the Month.)*

Of all the things that happened during the seventeenth century, the most important for Presbyterians was the Westminster Assembly, which met from 1643 to 1649. During those years, the “Westminster Divines”–as they were called, because they were experts in “divinity,” which meant “theology”–prepared the theological documents which form the basis for Presbyterian theology and practice to this day.

Unfortunately, many Presbyterians are relatively unfamiliar with the Westminster Standards and the history behind them. That history contains a number of surprises. For one thing, the Westminster Assembly met during time of war. Those were the days of the English Civil War, when Parliament was fighting against Charles I. As battles were won and lost all over Britain, the Westminster Divines patiently went about their work from one year to the next.

Here is another surprise: The Assembly met at the request of Parliament. The Puritans in England and the Presbyterians in Scotland had joined forces against the Crown, especially because Charles I had tried to impose many Roman Catholic practices on the Anglican church. The Scottish Presbyterians and the English Puritans were allies; however, there were some theological differences between them, so Parliament asked the best theological minds in Britain to agree on a doctrinal statement for both countries. In the end, more than one hundred English pastors and theologians, aided by thirty members of Parliament (both lords and commoners) and a crack team of six scholars from Scotland, were named to the Assembly. Around seventy of them were able to participate on any given day, and they met at Westminster Abbey in London; hence the name: “Westminster Assembly.”

The progress of the Assembly was slow, largely because their rules allowed for unlimited debate. Yet the Westminster Divines eventually produced five major documents:

  • a Form of Government to help organize the church in the Presbyterian way, which means “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40), under the spiritual authority of elders;
  • a Directory of Worship to help praise God in the biblical way, conducting services “according to the Word of God”–by his design rather than man’s desire;
  • a Confession of Faith to explain biblical doctrine in a systematic way; and
  • two catechisms for teaching theology through questions and answers: the Shorter Catechism for those who were “common and unlearned,” and the Larger Catechism for those “of understanding.”

Two of these documents are printed in the back pages of our Trinity Hymnal. The Westminster Confession of Faith starts on page 847. (Incidentally, every household ought to own a copy of the Trinity Hymnal. In addition to the tremendous devotional value of having so many great hymns to read and sing, there is the added benefit of having a copy of our confession for easy reference.) The Confession is followed by the Shorter Catechism, which starts on page 869. One interesting note about the Shorter Catechism: The Westminster Divines first produced the Larger Catechism, but Parliament sent it back and asked the Assembly for something easier to understand.

Obviously, Window on the World is not the place to teach the whole theology of the Westminster Standards. But I do want to tell you what kind of theology it is. It is orthodox theology. The Westminster Standards contain the essential biblical truths about God and man that all Christians everywhere have always professed: that there is only one God, who exists in three persons, who made everything there is, and who saves us by his grace. It is Reformed theology; that is to say, it is the theology of the Protestant Reformation. The Westminster Confession of Faith was written after the church had an entire century to spend learning and perfecting the doctrine taught by Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the other Reformers. Reformation theology, which is based on the Bible alone, teaches that salvation comes by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. The Westminster Standards are also covenantal in their theology. They are centered on God’s covenant of grace with his people. Finally, they are evangelical in their theology. They proclaim the good news of salvation from sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

There is one final surprise about the Westminster Standards: Despite the fact that they were written in London, they never held very much influence in England. Eventually the monarchy came back into power, the Puritans were defeated and persecuted, and the church reverted to Anglicanism. Yet the work of the Westminster Divines has long remained the standard for Presbyterians and also many Baptists in Scotland, America, and Korea. Therefore, it is sad to see them gradually fall into disuse in our culture. Children no longer learn their catechism and adults no longer know their confession, which is a tragic loss.

I want to close with a story to illustrate the practical value of knowing Presbyterian doctrine. The story comes from B. B. Warfield (1851-1921), the great Princeton theologian. It concerns a Christian man who traveled West during the days of the pioneers. One day he found himself in the middle of a gunfight in a wild western town. The whole town was in an uproar, but he saw one man who–despite all the commotion–remained calm, cool, and collected. The traveler was so amazed at the man’s composure that he said to himself, “Now there is a man who knows his theology.” At this he walked up to him and asked the first question in the Shorter Catechism, “What is the chief end of man?” The man answered correctly, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” On the basis of Warfield’s story, I commend to you the Westminster Catechisms and Confession of Faith as a theology suitable for every situation in life.

* “The Sands of Time Are Sinking” is based on the writings of Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661), one of the most eminent theologians among the Westminster Divines. I believe it is the only hymn in the Trinity Hymnal with a Westminster connection.

[For more information about the history of the Westminster Assembly, see William Barker, Puritan Profiles (Mentor, 1996), and John L. Carson and David W. Hall, eds., To Glorify and Enjoy God (Banner of Truth, 1994). For help studying the Westminster Standards themselves, use A. A. Hodge, The Confession of Faith (1869; repr. Banner of Truth, 1958), and Thomas Vincent, The Shorter Catechism Explained from Scripture (1674; repr. Banner of Truth, 1980).]

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