A conference arranged by NAPARC. was held in London, England, September 23–25,1993, to celebrate the work of the Westminster Assembly, 350 years ago. One of our contributing editors, Dr. W. Robert Godfrey, too, a guest speaker at the conference and he writes our lead article on the Westminster Assembly and this year’s celebration. “Clips” from the speeches of two other speakers are also featured in this issue.
It is important that all of us as Reformed Christians become more aware and appreciative of the Westminster Standards even if they are not part of those adopted by our own denomination (such as the CRC). The times in which we live are mandating a much closer union between members of various Reformed and Presbyterian bodies. A closer look at the Westminster Standards which are embraced by our brothers and sisters in close fellowship with us, wiIl aid greatly in enhancing our mutual quest for communion. The Editors
The majority of the Reformed churches in the world today are descended either from the Dutch Reformed tradition or from the British Reformed tradition. The Dutch Reformed have spread their confessional standards—the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort—to many parts of the world. So have the British Reformed. But while the Dutch Reformed standards were written in several parts of Europe in quite different times and circumstances (between 1559 and 1619), the British Reformed standards were written between 1643 and 1649 in the difficult circumstances of the English Civil War. These standards are known as the Westminster Standards produced by the Westminster Assembly.
THE WESTMINSTER ASSEMBLY
The Westminster Assembly was not actually a church assembly, but rather an assembly called and authorized by the English parliament. It served at the pleasure of parliament and reported to parliament for approval for its actions. The Assembly derived its name from the place of its meetings: the precincts of the Westminster Abbey in England. The first meetings were in the Henry VII Chapel in the Abbey itself and the meetings later were moved to a room adjoining the Abbey known as the Jerusalem Chamber (see photo).
The Westminster Assembly initially had only English delegates, but was later augmented by Scottish commissioners. These delegates produced very remarkable documents that have deeply influenced the course of Presbyterianism around the world. The Assembly prepared the Westminster Confession of Faith as well as the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms. It also prepared a Form of Church Government, a Directory for Public Worship and a Psalter.
The political environment in which the Assembly met was polarized and increasingly violent. By 1643 the parliament had become the focus of opposition to King Charles I in his efforts to rule without parliament. The supporters of parliament’s rights were often Puritans religious establishment in England. Puritans wanted a reform of the church to simplify the ceremonies and worship of the church and to emphasize the church’s Calvinism. English Puritans received support from Scottish Presbyterians as King Charles tried to impose bishops and a prayer book on the Church of Scotland. The result of this conflict was civil war in which the King was defeated and finally executed in 1649.
Although the parliament and the Westminster Assembly were dominated by Presbyterians, under Oliver Cromwell the parliamentary army became strongly congregationalist. Cromwell became Lord Protector of England (1653–1658) and ended hopes of a Presbyterian England. England restored an episcopal church when the monarchy was restored under King Charles II in 1660.
The work of the Presbyterians at the Westminster Assembly, then, had its great impact not in England, but in Scotland and northern Ireland. There Scottish and Scot-Irish Presbyterians eagerly embraced the documents of Westminster and carried them to the New World and around the globe.
The National Association of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches (composed of the Christian Reformed Church and five Presbyterian denominations—NAPARC) decided that it would be good to honor the Westminster Standards on the occasion of the 350th anniversary of the beginning of the Assembly. A conference was held in London, September 23–25 this year to celebrate the work of the Assembly through worship and lectures. Three worship services and nine lectures examined and rejoiced in the great heritage of Westminster.
THE CELEBRATION CONFERENCE
The conference began in a very special way. The opening service was held in Westminster Abbey itself. The Abbey is probably Britain’s most famous and most important church. It is the burial place of many of Britain’s most famous subjects and is the site of the coronations of its monarchs. Some five hundred people gathered for the worship service where God was praised in hymn and psalm. James Montgomery Boice, pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, preached a powerful sermon on the sovereignty of God. He spoke from Daniel 4 on how God vindicated His glory by His judgment on Nebuchadnezzar.
The worshipers were greeted by a member of the Abbey clergy who reminded us that a church had stood on that spot for over 1000 years and that since the sixteenth century the church had been Anglican, except for the period in the middle of the seventeenth century when the Presbyterians came and drove the Anglicans out. He welcomed the Presbyterians back—but hoped they would not stay too long.
The next day the conference met in an historic church—Westminster Chapel—a few blocks from the Abbey. This independent church was pastored in the past by G. Campbell Morgan and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. The current pastor is R.T. Kendall.
The 225 registrants heard six lectures on various aspects of the Assembly’s works. William Barker and Samuel Logan from Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia spoke on the participants, work, and variety of views at the Assembly. John Richard de Witt, pastor of Seventh Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, spoke of the difficult issue of church government before the Assembly. Wayne Spear of the Reformed Presbyterian Seminary in Pittsburgh lectured on the doctrine of Scripture in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Douglas Kelly of Reformed Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, spoke of the great importance and influence of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. I spoke on the spiritual vitality of the Westminster Larger Catechism and the need to revive its use.
The day was concluded with a worship service in which Joel Nederhood preached on the preeminence of Christ. The day had been long, but we were stirringly reminded of the greatness and goodness of the work of Christ for our redemption. Dr. Nederhood spoke of his own discovery anew of how powerfully the Westminster Confession presented Christ and His glory. The last day of the conference was held at St. Margaret’s Church, a large and beautiful church built right next to Westminster Abbey. As we gathered there on September 25, 1993, speakers reminded us that exactly 350 years ago—on September 25, 1643—the parliament and the Assembly had met together in that church to worship God and to sign the Solemn League and Covenant. This covenant was an alliance between England and Scotland to advance the cause of Calvinism and the reform of the church according to the Word of God. On the basis of this covenant the Scottish commissioners joined the Westminster Assembly.
In this historic church we heard two lectures. One by Iain Murray of the Banner of Truth Trust on the principles of Reformed worship presented in the Westminster Directory of Public Worship. The other was an address by Robert Norris, pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., about the powerful preaching that inspired and sustained the Assembly in the years that it met. We also had opportunity to visit the Jerusalem Chamber and hear readings from letters written by some of the Scottish commissioners describing events at the Assembly.
After these presentations we adjourned to the Church House Conference Center in the grounds of the Abbey for a celebration luncheon. Jay Adams, Associate Reformed Presbyterian pastor and professor at Westminster Seminary in California, spoke on the influence of Westminster. He noted how for centuries in many parts of the world the Westminster Standards have nurtured the faith of Reformed people.
The conference concluded in St. Margaret’s Church with a worship service following the principles of the Westminster Directory. We sang Psalter texts prepared by the Assembly without musical accompaniment. The singing was glorious. Then Eric Alexander, pastor of St. George’s Tron Church in Glasgow, preached on the application of redemption. He exalted the grace of God and the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in bringing Christ and His benefits to the elect.
The conference proved to be a marvelous time of reflection, learning, worship and fellowship. It reminded us that God has done great things for His people in the most difficult of times through those who stood forthrightly for His truth. Let us hope and pray that the powerful religious work done at Westminster may continue to motivate us to faithful service for the Lord. Let us harness Westminster’s wisdom for advancing the Lord’s work through us today.
Dr. Godfrey, president of Westminster Seminary in Escondido, CA, was a speaker at the 350th anniversary celebration of the Westminster Assembly held in London, England, September ‘93.
Dr. Wayne Spear, Professor of systematic theology and homiletics at Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA
The Assembly spent nearly three years in producing the confession which came to bear its name, from August 1644 through April 1647. The confession embodied the Reformed faith as developed in Geneva by 10M Calvin and passed on by such British theologians as Whitaker (the theologian quoted most frequently in the debates), Perkins, and Ames. The Westminster Confession of Faith was unique among the confessions of the Reformation in using covenant theology as a basic theological framework.
The Christian education materials of the seventeenth century were catechisms. Several members had published catechisms of their own before the Westminster Assembly met. It was natural, then, that the Assembly would provide for instruction in the doctrines of the confession by way of catechism. After an extensive effort to write a single catechism, the Assembly decided upon two: a short and plain one for those who were “common and unlearned,” and another for those “of understanding” (Mitchell, Westminster Assembly, p. 418).
The Larger Catechism was debated between April and October of 1647. It is known chiefly for the minute detail of its exposition of the Ten Commandments. It has many beautiful features which deserve to be better known. For example, it echoes the Heidelberg Catechism in treating obedience to God’s law as the way in which a regenerate person may express thanksgiving for God’s grace in doctrine of revelation and on the church (missing in the Shorter Catechism). The application of redemption is treated under the themes of union and communion with Christ, emphasizing the experiential dimension of Christian faith.
The Shorter Catechism was prepared beginning in August 1647, but debated for only a brief time in later October and November before being approved. The Shorter Catechism was in Scotland the most popular and perhaps the most influential of the Westminster Assembly’s products. It is therefore ironic that the Scottish commissioners had very little to do with its composition; most of them had returned home before the catechism came before the Assembly.
Dr. John Richard de Witt, pastor, Seventh Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, MI
The second great principle in Presbyterian and Reformed church government concerns the exercise of Christ’s kingly office over His people. Within the context of the Westminster Assembly, this came strikingly to the fore in the struggle which the divines of the Assembly had to wage with an Erastian parliament: it was a battle for the autonomy of the church. What was at stake in the contest of the Westminster Assembly with the English Parliament was no longer simply the formal principle of the authority of the Scriptures, vitally important as that was to any Puritan divine. The issue had become more complex than that. It was now a matter of the kingship of Christ over His own church…The question was: Who is the supreme ruler in the church? Is it the civil magistrate, whether monarch or parliament? Or is it none other than Jesus Christ Himself, ruling directly over and in the church in a government distinct from the civil magistrate?…
The Confession of Faith makes it sufficiently clear that the overwhelming majority of the divines stood in the tradition of Cartwright and the sixteenth century Presbyterian Puritans: “There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ” (XXV/6). And it was just at this point that the bitterest and most difficult of the Assembly’s clashes with parliament had to be fought out…The claim of the Assembly upon which this opposition at length became focused was that of the right of the church to censure and suspend from the communion of the Lord’s table those who were guilty of scandalous sins. The Commons were willing to approve lists of offenses for which such suspension would be permitted; but they were decidedly not willing to entrust such power, without the limitation of a catalogue of sins together with the right of those adjudged guilty of them to appeal beyond the church to the civil authorities, into the hands of a parochial eldership. At the same time the Assembly refused to accept any limitation upon what it conceived to be the right of the church by divine institution. It was for the divines of Westminster, as for the admonitionists and Thomas Cartwright, a question of the kingly office of Jesus Christ, into which the magistrate had no right whatever to intrude.