The Westminster Assembly and Its Buoyant Legacy

(N.B. The following was originally written for a publication reaching a general Christian audience.)

An Assembly of Divines

As I write, a major publication is rolling off the presses. The five-volume Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly (143-1653) (OUP, 2012), edited by Chad Van Dixhoorn, a publication with which I am honored to have had a part in the role of an assistant editor (for more on my role, see this page), is hitting library and bookstore shelves and already has provoked feverish excitement among a long-expectant audience. Why is there such excitement over a centuries-old collection of speeches and records? One reason is fairly easy to identify: the most famous products of this vast assembly of “divines” or clergymen, the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, have long served as the “subordinate standards” (under Holy Scripture) for churches across the world. For many Christians, then, these are family archives that help shed considerable light on the meaning of vibrant family traditions in faith and practice. After all, this publication will make available (and understandable!) a great deal more of the work of this Assembly than has been seen before, and this includes a hefty amount of the debate material which served as the backdrop for so many of the Assembly’s famous formulations.

Of course, while the Assembly is of great interest to Christians and church officers in the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition across the world, it is also of great interest to historians of the church and of the seventeenth century. The Westminster Assembly (1643-1653) was not only the last, and some would say the culmination, of the great post-Reformation synods; it was also the largest parliamentary committee of the English civil war, framed against the backdrop of terrible political and ecclesiastical conflict which continued throughout the meetings of the Assembly.

But its importance for theology and church order is paramount, and here is where one encounters one of the most valuable features of the Assembly’s work. Indeed it is only here that the work of the Assembly proved to have any real “success.” Yet we should note something truly remarkable about its accomplishment along these lines. Rather than create or revise the teaching of the Church of England, the Assembly was charged to demonstrate how the Church agreed with the Scottish Church and the Reformed churches on the Continent. Beginning, at first, with the given task of reviewing the Thirty-nine Articles but eventually extending to the sum and substance of the faith and polity of the Church, the Assembly had from the start a fixed eye toward public agreement with other churches. This gives the work of the Assembly a recognizable unifying character from beginning to end and, as some have put it, a “consensus” goal on matters of dispute so far as possible. In a day when the unity of faith and life among churches sometimes recedes from view because of (admittedly, often important) differences, the accomplishment of the Assembly is undeniably impressive in this regard, and the more so as one becomes intimately familiar with the many differences and disputes themselves.

The Cloud of Witnesses

But even this unifying drive at the Assembly isn’t the whole story; there is at least one more part of the tale of theological consensus to note. It doesn’t take long before the reader of these Minutes has the strange sense that there is a cloud over this fellowship. And  yet this isn’t a dour feeling at all, for this cloud we sense is the unmistakable cloud of Christian witnesses (Heb. 12:1). Whether the speaker on the floor of the Assembly is a famous theologian or a relative unknown, whether he is young or greatly seasoned by age, one finds over and over again that these divines acted upon their belief in the Church’s catholicity and knew well the texts of the Christian tradition. And so references not only to Calvin and Beza but also to Augustine, Chrysostom, and Gregory abound, so that the unity the Assembly is after takes on expansive, historical, catholic form. The fathers and medievals, and not only Reformers and their immediate progeny, are lively voices in the exegetical and theological debates that led to the some of the most famous of the Confession’s statements.

Christian Hebraism

However, let’s not confuse this catholic spirit at the Assembly with “retrievalism,” either. Once again the text of the Minutes and Papers leads us down a better path of understanding. One example of this is the fascinating place of Christian Hebraism at the Assembly as revealed by the Minutes.

In our day, the use of old Jewish sources in the interpretation of the Scriptures is of course a standard and exciting practice among biblical scholars. By and large it is even taken for granted. Scholars appropriately recognize the value of studies in ancient Jewish culture for understanding the meaning of many biblical texts. This is especially the case for religious writings that reflect uses of the Old Testament before and in the days of Jesus and the Apostles.

But this is also not a new practice at all. The specialist study of Jewish culture and interpretation by Christian theologians, or “Christian Hebraism,” had small beginnings in the medieval period but exploded in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century. And one of the fascinating features of the story of the Westminster Assembly is that it was the first major church assembly of its kind to benefit extensively from this work. The Minutes reflect that this was not an opportunity lost. The debaters often showed evidence of being aware of the very latest developments in Christian Hebraism on the Continent including new work in Hebrew and Syriac as well as Jewish biblical exegesis, and frequently used these new insights in their speeches on the floor.

A Divine Legacy

Much more could be said, of course, but as a final note we might try put the work of the Assembly in general perspective. For all its historically circumscribed features and despite its failure – of sorts – as a permanent fix of English policy in church and society, the Westminster Assembly, we can safely say, is an Assembly for all Christians. Indeed we can say this with enthusiasm. It is truly catholic in spirit inasmuch as it aimed to codify and commend “the Faith once delivered” rather than a provincial slant on that Faith, and to do so in a way all Christians might be able to affirm under the authority of Holy Scripture. In this respect, then, while it has its blind spots and shortcomings, the legacy of the Assembly is an essentially buoyant one on a sea of constant change, and one from which we all could continue to benefit wherever in Christ’s Church we find ourselves.