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The Westminster Conference 2006: Day 1

Category Articles
Date December 20, 2006

The 55th Westminster Conference took place at the Friends’ House, opposite Euston Station, London, on Tuesday and Wednesday December 5th and 6th 2006. Almost 200 people were registered including 35 or so for the first time.

1. John Owen’s Doctrine of the Trinity and its Significance for Today

At the opening session (chaired by Erroll Hulse) Dr Robert Letham was the speaker. After 17 years at the pastorate of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, Delaware, he has returned to the British Isles to lecture in theology at the Evangelical Theological College of Wales in Bryntirion. Dr Letham is the acclaimed author of a 550 page book on The Holy Trinity and so had been asked to speak on ‘John Owen’s Doctrine of the Trinity and its Significance for Today.’

Owen is a theologian of mega-stature whose writings have been attracting a measure of attention in recent years while deserving much more. Carl Trueman has demonstrated that the doctrine of the trinity pervades Owen’s whole theology and is essential to understanding it. The main works in which Owen treats the theme of the Trinity are The Death of Death, The Mystery of the Gospel Vindicated (writing against Socinianism which had come to the surface with new confidence in the 1650s), and Communion with the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost; this latter work is based on a series of his sermons and it is a very valuable work. A decade later came Owen’s Commentary on Hebrews and finally there was a popular work, a condensation of doctrine, A Brief Declaration of the Doctrine of the Trinity. There are other works of direct relevance such as his book on The Person of Christ, and his discourse on The Holy Spirit. Even Owen’s work on Justification reflects upon the Trinity.1

Dr Letham traced out the historical development of the doctrine through Nicea (381) and the Cappadocian settlement in the East through its three leading theologians led by Basil the Great. Their foes were the Arians who argued from human experience to God. ‘Were you a Father before your Son was born? No. So neither was God.’ Their weakness was a growing apophatic divide between the divine essence and energies. This jeopardizes the knowability of the divine persons and therefore the correspondence of the economic and immanent dimensions of the Trinity. Then Dr. Letham referred to Augustine’s contribution in the Western church in his classical book on the Trinity. Letham affirmed that Augustine’s views cannot be set against the Cappadocian theologians.

The Eastern church emphasized that the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son without actually using the phrase the ‘procession.’ The Western Church added the word filioque, ‘and the Son’, to the clause in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and subsequently the East and West walked a splintered path. Augustine and his followers argued that the Spirit proceeded from the Father and Son in one act. The east insisted that the Spirit proceeded from Father, that the Spirit cannot thus proceed from Father and Son without blurring the union.

In his theological system Aquinas tended to separate God from the Trinity, the discussion of the triune relations of God coming much later in his teaching, after the discussion of God and his attributes. Aquinas finds it difficult to account for the three persons and he gives his students a more impersonal doctrine of God. Aquinas’ approach has influenced later theological writings – as can be seen in the theological works of Hodge and Berkhof – God is studied first and later in their Systematics, the Trinity.

Owen is classic in the Western sense, overwhelmingly biblical in his approach with much scriptural exegesis. God is one; the one God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit; the Father is the Father of the Son, and the Son is the Son of the Father, and the Spirit is sent by God. Each person is God. If the Son were not pre-existent the Father could not be called the Father in the Old Testament.

Owen is Western, thoroughly commited to filoque. Without the filoque the biblical faith is inconceivable. In his Communion with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit Owen quotes overwhelmingly from the western theologians, but mostly his appeal is to the Bible. His focus is on the three persons which is the western approach rather than the eastern. Owen delights in the trinity; he is almost tritheistic, but Owen insists that when we have communion with the one we have communion secondarily with the other two at the same time. Particular actions are attributed to one of the persons of the Trinity, and yet the others are always involved. Gregory perceptively wrote of the persons of the Trinity, “As soon as I distinguish them I am carried back to one of them. As soon as I consider one of them the glory of the three grows.” In the Trinity neither the three persons nor the unity is prior to the other, for God is absolutely one according to his nature, absolutely three according to his persons. If the real distinction of persons is not maintained then a modalistic understanding of God develops, whereas unless the absolute oneness of divine being is affirmed then tritheism develops.

According to Owen the Son takes on a human nature which had no prior existence of its own. Owen takes the full statement of the Nicean creed and he applies it to Christian living and pastoral piety, and thus he is in line with Calvin. Our communion with the Holy Spirit is with his actions and access to the Father – through Christ we go to God, and this is by the Holy Spirit. When one person is worshipped all the Godhead is worshipped. We Christians breathe a Trinitarian atmosphere and Owen constantly emphasizes this.

Owen integrates the covenant of redemption, the atonement and justification. Persons that are distinct are involved in covenant; the Father and Son have a federal relationship. The Son is of the Father and from the Father. The will of God the Father is one, but the incarnate Christ has two wills, human and divine. The persons of the Godhead act reciprocally to one another. Owen makes no mention of the Spirit when he considers the Father and the Son’s covenant. This is the weakness of the west in considering the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is seen more as a bond of love between Father and Son – as if those two members of the Godhead need bonding.

Owen may help us out with Islam and with evangelism in general. The doctrine of the Trinity is true; it sheds light on God. We start our Christian lives in baptism with the Trinitarian formula. In evangelism we say that Jesus Christ is Lord; if you have the Son you also have the Father. God has a new covenant name – the Triune God. Our knowledge of God is rooted in the Trinity. What a subject! We poor faithful attenders at the Westminster Conference sought to look as if we understood the Godhead, plagued by our longing for coherence. What questions! Is each Person the whole God? What constitutes the divine substance? Is the answer to that question is the one being of God? Or is it the three primary substances of Father, Son and Spirit and the one primary substance of the personalized divine essence? Are more social and communitarian models a legitimate development of Trinitarian doctrine? What is the divine simplicity? In a Westminster Theological Journal of three years ago Robert Letham took Robert Reymond to task for not getting it straight in his Systematic Theology, and now in the current Calvin Theological Journal Thomas Thompson, professor of religion at Calvin College, takes Robert Letham to task for not getting it right in his The Holy Trinity; In Scripture, History, Theology and Worship.

2. Thomas Cranmer and the Anglican Enigma

Gordon Murray of Felixstowe gave this address on Cranmer while Stephen Clark was the chairman.

The late fifteenth and early sixteenth century was a period of immense confusion in England. Rebellion was in the land and thousands were killed; hundreds lost their lives for their religious convictions. Contradictory religious formulae were presented to the members of the Church of England and the people were required to be believed. Cranmer through it all followed a course of reform. How far did he succeed? For more information books such as Marcus Loane in his Masters of the English Reformation5 and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation are most accessible. There are other valuable specialized books.

Thomas Cranmer was probably born in 1489, educated at Jesus College, came across exegesis of the Bible, Lutheran views, and saw the abuses of the professing church. He was a diligent scholar, wide reader, and a close annotator. He was picked out for diplomatic duties, and his European travels as an ambassador enriched him. Henry was desperate for a male heir; he had daughters. In 1529 Henry heard Cranmer suggesting consulting the theologians at the universities on his divorce. The rightful head of the church in every nation was the monarch, so Cranmer concluded. After his first wife died Cranmer married again; so he had made a breach with clerical celibacy. Cranmer was soon appointed Archbishop of Canterbury and immediately pronounced Katherine of Aragon’s marriage to the king null and void. Cranmer had to keep his own marriage secret. He had to make an oath of loyalty to the pope but qualified it acknowledging the king’s authority in his realm. So Henry married Anne Boleyn and this made Queen Katherine’s daughter Mary illegitimate. In 1534 in the Act of Supremacy the king was declared the only supreme head of the church and in 1535 Thomas More was executed for not submitting. Cranmer remained loyal to the crown whatever the fortunes of the reformation party were. He believed that only by royal sanction could there be success for the Protestant cause.

Cranmer was his own man; he spoke well of Anne Boleyn to the king when she was found guilty and condemned to death. Cranmer also spoke up for Thomas Cromwell but to no avail and he was another who was beheaded. When Edward VI succeeded his father real advance was made in reform. When he died Mary had the strongest claim to the throne, but Northumberland persuaded Lady Jane Grey to be Edward’s successor. Cranmer thought Mary had the right, but he submitted to the dying Edward’s strong persuasions and supported Lady Jane Grey. When Mary came to the throne in 1553 she arrested him, but he professed his commitment to the throne still. He was condemned to death for treason, but the sentence was not carried out. Under the renewed heresy laws of 1555 he was tried in Oxford and was convicted and degraded. He was forced to watch the burning of Latimer and Ridley

The great issue facing the English church was the authority from which it derived its practices. The Reformers emphasized the Bible. ‘Which or whose interpretation?’ asked Rome, adding, ‘Infallibility is the gift to the Roman church and this full understanding is lacking in the Protestant church.’ In recent years the fruit of no theological discipline in the protestant church is evident. We are in disarray and do have problems of interpretation.

Would there have been a greater unity under any other leadership at the time of the English Reformation? I think not. Cromwell failed. The government of the Anglican church is another issue. Are bishops essential? Are they a good thing or not? Cranmer thought they were a good thing, not essential. He had no problem with those who had not received Episcopal ordination when he met the continental reformers. What of a state church? Through historical influences it came about. Communion with the Bishop of Rome united those churches. The pope provided the cement holding the churches together.

What change took place in Cranmer’s thinking regarding doctrine? Osiander the Lutheran reformer was related to Cranmer’s second wife, Margaret. Cranmer had begun as a believer in the ‘real presence’ but then was influenced by Scripture to accept the Lutheran position on holy communion. Cranmer took a long time to arrive at his final Reformed position. However, when he was interrogated in Oxford he said he had viewed the Lord’s Supper in just two ways, the Roman and the Reformed. It was as though he had not considered the position on the Supper of Lutheranism; maybe he had forgotten his time with it.

Cranmer wanted reform to be slower; he was not happy with Hooper’s driving reformed convictions, but Cranmer certainly denied the doctrine of transubstantiation. Think of the complete death of Christ in the past and our communion with him – this was Cranmer’s message. He did not think any sinner could take Christ for another sinner. The mode in which Christ was present was as follows, that he was present in the feast. He believed that the doctrines at the heart of the mass undermined the gospel. He laid down his life for these views; they were so important to him. Cranmer saw human sinfulness and bondage. Only the grace of God could save man. Before justification none of our works were accepted in the sight of God. All our hopes are in the work of Christ.

Justification is a focus of controversy still today. Some have cast doubt on the reformers’ formulae on justification but Cranmer held that the reformed doctrine set forth the true glory of Christ and pulled down the vain glory of man.

In Cranmer’s infant baptism formula there is ambiguity, affirming all who are baptized have been regenerate or born again. If we are baptized this is our unity. Cranmer believed only elect infants would be saved. He beqeathed to the Church of England Protestant articles and a Protestant prayer book.

The Church of England was not fully reformed; it needed more work done to it. Many in the country were deep-seated believers in Rome. Elizabeth as the monarch held the nation together. Cranmer had probably gone as far as he could go in reformation. He left a broad unity, and later attempts to reform it were to bring forth more division. Cranmer wanted to see the Lord’s people coming together and Calvin wanted to help him.

Cranmer and his reformers were used by God to bring about a great change in the church. His liturgy has much to teach us about reverence and pointed prayer, for at its centre it declared glory to be given to God. Would we be prepared to die as they were for Christian convictions?

During his long months of trial Cranmer vacillated for a while; his academic mind self examining; he was elderly, his mind not as sharp as it had been; he was shut up in jail, and then one day taken out and brought to an Oxford College to sample urbane academic life but then taken back to prison. After such pressures he signed a number of recantations through fear of suffering and through loyalty to the royal supremacy. No mercy was shown to him and in Oxford his public repentance was expected, but as the climax, and on the eve of his execution his clear-sightedness and divine fortitude returned and he went to the stake on 21 March 1556, denying his recantations. His hand was first to be punished, ‘my hand shall be first to be burnt,’ and he publicly refused ‘the pope and all his false doctrines.’ At the stake he cried out Stephen’s words, to the effect that he saw Jesus at the right hand off God …

3. The Azusa Street Phenomenon

The final paper on the first day of the Westminster Conference was given by Stanley Jebb of Truro. Graham Harrison was the chairman.

In 1906 two events hitting California received international publicity – the San Francisco earthquake and what began to take place at the Los Angeles Azusa Street Mission. The latter began in April 1906 under the leadership of a black holiness preacher, William J. Seymour. The Mission itself consisted largely of black people with a sprinkling of whites. A journalist on April 18 writing in the local paper dismissed it. Another who went there described a dozen people sitting in a timber and plaster storeroom on a circle of planks placed on empty kegs. Seymour spoke and a couple of people spoke in tongues. The press spoke against it, but others felt it was God speaking to the nation at the time of the earthquake. The place rapidly filled and more whites came.

Why do we need to remind ourselves of this incident? It is widely regarded as the beginning of the Pentecostal and charismatic movements. Maybe today there are 500 million Pentecostals and charismatics, and this was one of the first manifestations of tongues-speaking.

1. How did it begin?

In the spring of 1905 a split took place in a Baptist church in Los Angeles where a second work of grace was being taught. A shop-front meeting was started, and a member of the church who went to Texas heard William J. Seymour. He was becoming a Pentecostal and the woman recommended him to become their new pastor in California. He arrived and was soon resisted when he spoke in tongues and he went from one home to another holding meetings and speaking. People began to speak in tongues, crowds grew and his supporters moved to 312 Azusa Street. They used no hymn books; there was informality, prayer and testimonies, a dozen in the midweek meeting grew to 100 at the weekends. Reports appeared in the papers and spread around the world. Its supporters claimed that the presence of God was there. For a while it was the largest congregation in the city of Los Angeles, but it died out almost as quickly, hanging on after 1915 when the congregation were tiny. Then the building was condemned and razed to the ground in 1929.

2. What personalities were there?

Charles Fox Parham, 32 years old, of Houston had encouraged what was later called the Pentecostal movement putting together the basic tenets of the Apostolic Faith Movement – healing through the atonement, pre-millennialism, entire sanctification, tongues as evidence of Spirit baptism, and the imminent return of Christ, etc. In Topeka he had a ‘healing home.’ Tongues, he claimed, was for every Christian and the latter rain was going to be poured out. The sign of speaking in tongues was the mark of Holy Spirit baptism. One of the girls at his meetings spoke what was thought to be Chinese, and in the next months half of them had spoken in tongues. William J. Seymour came under Parham’s influence. He was 35 when the Azusa Street phenomenon took place, and he was the son of slaves. It was in Houston that he attended the Bible School which Parham had started, (Seymour himself was from a Wesleyan Holiness background). Then through this Los Angeles woman he received a call to the work which eventually become Azusa Street.

3. Background social phenomena.

Immigrants had brought their own backgrounds with them. New churches were a commonplace event in Los Angeles. Revivalism was characteristic of those days. The spiritual and social rootlessness, rapid industrialization and large growth of the cities destabilized the church. Millions were entering the USA and heading west. In the first decade of the 20th century 8 million people came.

Tongue speaking was not that rare. Edward Irving had spoken with tongues, and even Mormons did. Finney was teaching a second baptism of the Spirit and the 1904 revival in Wales had created hope that new life would characterize the 20th century church. Eleven months earlier in a Methodist church in Pasadena a local revival had broken out. Campbell Morgan wrote a booklet on the Welsh revival and that helped spread the news through the USA. In 1905 Evan Roberts was written to three times and he replied on each occasion and assured California that they were praying for America in Wales. India was also a scene for revival at this time. The Azusa St Mission encouraged Pentecostal churches locally and throughout the USA.

4. Good or Bad Thing in Azusa Street or Mixed?

Being slain in the Spirit and speaking in tongues were two features. None among them was sounding an alarm and writing a book of counterfeit miracles. Are there any such books written about counterfeit spirituality amongst the Pentecostals? Slaying in the Spirit could well have been due to some alien force. Autosuggestion, group peer pressure were certainly there, but there was no teaching about demonic forces, and the dangers of deception. Then in Azusa Street mediums and spiritists began to attend and took part.

Parham was asked to come there from Texas because Seymour was getting out of his depth, as these spiritualistic manifestations had broken out. But Parham was also working to gain control of Zion Steet north of Chicago where 6000 people lived and the main auditorium had 8000 seating-room. The leader there had announced that he was Elijah.

Parham was concerned about what was happening in Azusa St but Seymour rejected his counsels. Even hypnotism was observed, and Parham’s opposition resulted in his being thrown out. He soon formed another mission.

5. The Aftermath

The final years of Parham were dark; he was accused of sodomy and was alienated from the movement. The last 20 years of his life he lived quietly. For 3 years Azusa Street flourished and then two of Seymour’s officials left and took the mailing list with them. He could not get in touch with his supporters. But 1915 he made himself bishop and when his wife died the building was sold to pay tax bills. Both Parham and Seymour finally rejected the mark of tongues as a sign of the Spirit – that is, the phenomena of Azusa Street itself.

Most evangelicals agree that some things that happen in every revival are weak and sinful. Speaking in tongues has rarely accompanied revival, but in Azusa Street it was the most prominent feature, its sine qua non. Being slain in the Spirit is not found as a spiritual phenomenon in the Bible. Why were spiritualists and mediums at home in Azusa Street Mission if the Spirit of God were there? How can we summarize these events?

1. Great lack of preaching and teaching
2. No attempt to try the spirits – as Jonathan Edwards.
3. No attempt to maintain order.
4. Danger of personal experiences and crystallising them into doctrine.


1. Great emphasis upon prayer.
2. Holiness was emphasized before the revival. Do we emphasise it?
3. Do we teach our people to be discerning?
4. Genuine revival was going on in Los Angeles but alongside it much that was unacceptable.


  1. The Trust publishes Owen’s Works in 16 volumes,2 and also several of his treatises – abridged – in the Puritan Paperbacks series. The Death of Death in the Death of Christ is published as a separate paperback.3 The Commentary on Hebrews is available in 7 volumes.4

      The Works of John Owen

      16 Volume Set

      by John Owen

      price $358.20
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      The 55th Westminster Conference took place at the Friends’ House, opposite Euston Station, London, on Tuesday and Wednesday December 5th and 6th 2006. Almost 200 people were registered including 35 or so for the first time. 1. John Owen’s Doctrine of the Trinity and its Significance for Today At the opening session (chaired by Erroll […]

    • The Death Of Death In The Death Of Christ
      price $15.30
      Avg. Rating


      The 55th Westminster Conference took place at the Friends’ House, opposite Euston Station, London, on Tuesday and Wednesday December 5th and 6th 2006. Almost 200 people were registered including 35 or so for the first time. 1. John Owen’s Doctrine of the Trinity and its Significance for Today At the opening session (chaired by Erroll […]

    • Hebrews by John Owen


      7 Volume Set

      by John Owen

      price $138.60
      Avg. Rating


      The 55th Westminster Conference took place at the Friends’ House, opposite Euston Station, London, on Tuesday and Wednesday December 5th and 6th 2006. Almost 200 people were registered including 35 or so for the first time. 1. John Owen’s Doctrine of the Trinity and its Significance for Today At the opening session (chaired by Erroll […]

    • Masters of the English Reformation
      price $25.20
      Avg. Rating


      The 55th Westminster Conference took place at the Friends’ House, opposite Euston Station, London, on Tuesday and Wednesday December 5th and 6th 2006. Almost 200 people were registered including 35 or so for the first time. 1. John Owen’s Doctrine of the Trinity and its Significance for Today At the opening session (chaired by Erroll […]

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