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The Westminster Conference 2010

Category Articles
Date December 21, 2010

It was good to be at the Westminster Conference again at the American Church in Tottenham Court Road.


Our first session, chaired by Phil Arthur, was taken by Garry Williams from the John Owen Centre, on the subject The English Reformation – Revise, Reverse or Revert?

1. Revise

Historians like Christopher Haigh (English Reformations) want to revise our view of the Reformation. They say that

People were less anti-clerical and pro-reformation than has been thought;
People were slower to embrace change than has been thought;
Mary was more successful than has been thought.

There is no biblical reason for rejecting this reasoning. Haigh points out that the Reformation came in by the merest whisker and there is something in that. At a number of points the revisionists misrepresent previous views to enhance their own position. They do make some good points nevertheless.

1. The revisionists argue that there were pockets of anti-clericalism in England but not universally so as was more the case on the continent. It is also important to note that anti-clericalism is not the same as Protestantism. We cannot dismiss either the enthusiasm for Romanism outlined by Eamon Duffy (The stripping of the altars). He probably exaggerates but he has good evidence. The truth is that there was a mixed scene.

2. As for the speed with which the Reformation came about, there are a number of things to say. A lot of conclusions have been drawn from wills. Christopher Haigh has argued that this gives a distorted view as it focuses on the older and richer citizens. However, this would suggest rather that the Reformation was stronger with younger people.

The impact of the Bible in English is also overlooked as David Daniell has pointed out. Exposure to the Bible is not the same as conversion, but now for the first time the Bible itself was available to people. Daniell does overstate his case (England did not become Protestant under Henry VIII) but his points stand.

We must not underestimate the impact of preaching either. The numbers of graduate preachers significantly grew. Certain colleges became Puritan seminaries.

The lack of opposition, the increasingly Protestant character of the nation, the later resistance to Romanising to the point of beheading the king, also point in the same direction.

3. Eamon Duffy has written a revisionist account of Mary and Pole and others defending them from charges of incompetence. It may well be that there was greater efficiency. However, the book appears to downplay the fact that all this opposition was against something not nothing. Duffy does not defend the killings, although he points out that the idea was widely accepted. He does recognise the uniqueness of it, however – including the fact that it was very different to what happened in Elizabeth’s reign. In fact the more one learns about Mary the more horrifying and disturbing she appears. Duffy’s revision makes things worse rather than better.

The underlying theological issue is that what Mary did is not only unattractive but wrong. Elizabeth was not perfect but she did not take the stand against the truth that Mary did.

To sum up, the revisionists are right and helpful in some respects but they do not lessen the horror of Mary’s acivity.

2. Reverse

Is the Reformation over? by Noll and Nystrom suggests that Rome has changed and that opposition is not what we need now. The book is quite descriptive. It does seem to have in mind the red-neck approach rather than any traditional Protestant approach. They are aware of many differences and seem to think that fraternal relations are possible. They basically say that we can agree with two thirds of the 1994 Catechism and try to work on the positives. However, theology cannot be done in this atomisitic way.

On the crucial issue of justification they point out that we agree that salvation is by faith in Jesus Christ through God’s grace. Notice the lack of ‘alones’. Unlike some they do not suppose we will agree on such matters but follow Jim Packer’s idea that ‘what brings salvation is not any theory . . . but faith itself and Christ himself’. But this is to confuse things. Just because people can believe one thing and say something else does not mean that we can take an ecumenical approach to doctrinal issues. We must remember that we cannot map what we may believe about an individual onto what we say about Romanism and the truth.

Noll and Nystrom acknowledge that what they say is not new. What has made it relevant is the advance of secularism and the need for (what Timothy George calls) ‘an ecumenism of the trenches’. We need to hold our nerve rather, however few we may be.

One final note – Noll and Nystrom see the mass as irrelevant rather than the idolatry that it is.

3. Reversion

To revert to the Reformation is no easy task. We must bear in mind that it was
Established by Parliament.
An authoritarian movement that allowed little room for manouevre.
It was only a partial Reformation anyway. It is Elizabeth’s opposition that froze it where it was.
In the 16th century England was still “Christianised” – not the situation today.
We must not be antiquarian either.

Positively, we must learn to be pro-active in identifying and training up preachers of the Word of God. This is a challenge to us today.

A decent discussion followed.


I chaired the second session – Guy Davies on Puritan attitudes to Rome. I think it went well. Guy focussed on John Owen and gave us the background to his writings, spoke of his reformed Catholic approach and focussed on Scripture, justification, the Pope and worship. He spoke too of the modern compromise with Rome.

He concluded with a section on engaging with Roman Catholicism today

1] We should not think that the controversy between Evangelicals and Rome has ceased to be a live issue.

i. The attraction of Rome for Evangelicals

In 2007 Francis Beckwith caused something of a stir when he resigned his post as President of the Evangelical Theological Society to return to the Roman Catholic Church. In his book Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic, Beckwith gives his reasons for his return to the Church of his youth. A key factor was his growing sense of unease with sola scriptura. He became convinced this Protestant distinctive as set out in The Westminster Confession involved a disregard for the theological heritage of the Church. But this is not the case. As we have seen, for all its Puritan distinctives, at heart the confession is a work of Catholic theology.

Once Beckwith had jettisoned the principle of sola scriptura (at least as he understood it), he then felt free to accept Roman Catholic practices such as penance and confession, prayers for the dead and purgatory. No doubt Beckwith was misguided in his rejection of sola scriptura, but what he says should give us pause for thought. Worship in some Evangelical congregations seems to consist mainly of songs and choruses composed in the last decade. Often scant regard is paid to the theological heritage of the church. You can understand why some Evangelicals begin to look longingly at Rome with its claims of centuries old unchanging continuity.

The Puritans, with their self-consciously Catholic outlook, provide a welcome corrective to the collective amnesia of contemporary Evangelicals. We need to emphasise afresh that the ecumenical creeds and the teachings of the doctors of the church like Athanasius, Augustine and Aquinas are not the sole possession of the Roman Catholic Church. They belong to the whole people of God. The Reformed churches, of whatever ecclesiological stamp are fully paid up members of the Catholic Church – the true people of God of all nations and times. We hold to the historic Christian faith without the divisive accretions of Rome. The Roman Church and its distinctive dogmas didn’t even begin to exist until the Middle Ages.

Ironically, in returning to Rome, Beckwith and his fellow travellers became less rather than more Catholic.

ii. Rome and the Ecumenical Movement

The Roman Catholic Church is a founding member of the UK’s leading ecumenical body, ‘Churches Together’. Involvement in ‘Churches Together’ activities implies that the differences between Evangelicals and Roman Catholics are relatively unimportant and that we share a common understanding of the truth. We must be prepared to separate from false expressions of ecumenism for the sake of the integrity of our witness to the gospel. But that does not mean we should adopt an isolationist mentality. The gospel that calls us apart from error also unites us in fellowship. Over and against false ecumenism, we must stand alone, together.

2] We must be clear on where we stand.

The Puritans were clear on where they stood in relation to Roman Catholic teaching. They knew what was at stake ““ nothing less than the gospel as revealed in Holy Scripture and understood by the church in all ages.

3] We should engage in theological dialogue with Roman Catholics.

While we might deprecate the ‘Evangelicals and Catholics Together’ initiative, we should not in principle be against dialogue with Roman Catholics. Proper dialogue demands both personal graciousness and honesty on the issues that still divide Evangelicals and Roman Catholics. John Owen ably demonstrated that it was possible to dialogue with a representative of Rome without losing his theological integrity. He was Catholic and critical in his stance towards Roman teachings and yet commendably charitable in his attitude towards Roman Catholic people, whom he wished to see come to a knowledge of salvation. Owen was also willing to learn from Roman Catholic theologians and use their insights in his own work. How might we benefit from critically engaging with contemporary Roman scholarship?

4] We may make common cause with Rome on moral issues, but not co-operate in mission and evangelism

Unlike our Protestant forefathers, few contemporary Evangelicals seem to regard Rome as a threat to our national identity. If anything, we tend to see the Roman Catholic Church as an ally in the fight against moral relativism and the culture of death. I believe in what Francis Schaeffer called co-belligerency. But we must be clear that while we might share common ground with Rome with regard to abortion and euthanasia, and heterosexual marriage, we do not share a common understanding of the gospel of salvation. However, co-belligerency with Rome is complicated by the fact that the Roman Catholic Church is a political as well as a religious institution. Rome has not abandoned its claim that the pope as ‘Vicar of Christ’ is ruler of the nations as well as head of the church.

5] A never-ending battle against error for the sake of the truth.

The Puritans fought on two main fronts. They battled against Socinian rationalism and Roman Catholicism. We also need to fight on more than one front. Yes, we must do battle against modern and postmodern attacks on the gospel. But we must never forget that Rome remains a powerful enemy of genuine Christianity. As long as we value the truth as it is in Jesus we cannot afford to give up the fight against the false teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. In this conflict we do not take to the field in a position of weakness as if Rome has church history on her side and we Evangelical Protestants are the ‘Johnny-come-latelys’. We enter the fray not as sectarians, but Reformed Catholics, contending for the faith once delivered to the saints.


The final session of the day was David Gregson on The 1611 English Bible: an unlikely masterpiece.

1. A thousand years of the Bible in Latin in England.

An abundance of translations from the original into English from Tyndale on but only after a thousand years of Latin. Draconian laws existed against reading the Bible in English when it was available. With the Renaissance, the invention of printing and the Reformation things began to change.

2. The revolution brought about by Tyndale’s work of translating the Bible into English.

3. Other 16th century translations into English:

1537 Miles Coverdale completed Tyndale’s task and produced a complete English version.
1538 John Rogers and Matthew’s Bible.
1539 The Great Bible.
1560 The Puritan Geneva Bible.
1568 The Bishops’ Bible by Matthew Parker was an attempt to usurp the Geneva Bible’s place – no great fans.

4. The Hampton Court Conference of 1604

The Puritan millenary petition lobbied James for reforms in the church that they felt were unbiblical. James and the Puritans were on a collision course and so a conference was arranged in order to seek peace under the chairmanship of James. For most of the time it looked as though there was nothing for the four Puritans as against the 18 others present. For some reason John Reynolds suggested a new translation and James seized on this as a way forward. This was the only positive outcome from the conference. What a bizarre origin.

5. The six companies of translators and the instructions they were to follow.

Each company was to be based in Cambridge, Oxford and Westminster, each company taking a portion of the Bible and apocrypha. James with Archbishop Bancroft set out 15 instructions for the 47 translators. The idea was to revise the Bishops’ Bible and make use of the existing translations where necessary. James was very keen that marginal notes should not appear. Old ecclesiastical terms were to be kept (eg church not congregation). There is no suggestion that inspiration or holiness was needed.

6. Some individual translators.

Lancelot Andrewes is typical of those who were simply on their way up the career ladder. An absentee minister, the interrogator of separatist Henry Barrow who was executed, he was not someone who we would be sympathetic to.

Laurence Chaderton is typical of others who were truly godly. A faithful preacher and an educator of Puritan ministers he is the exception rather than the norm.

7. The final touches to complete the work.

The companies began in 1604 and ended between 1608 and 1610. Further committee work was then done and some further revisions made. A eulogy to James was added and then the epistle dedicatory (translators to the reader) by Miles Smith. Oddly, when he quotes Scripture he quotes the Geneva!

8. The use of the Textus Receptus.

This is the 1550 text of Etienne in Paris and is largely based on Erasmus. This is the majority text from Byzantine manuscripts. We should be grateful fo the TR but there is no biblical argument for this text being anything special of itself.

9. The English used by the translators of the 1611 Bible.

One problem confronting the translators was that the Greek of the New Testament is common or koine not classical. The translators appear to have been unaware of this. As Alister McGrath points out, many comment on the rarefied and grand language of the AV, but it is often the language of the translators not the original. For Daniell and others the AV is a step down from Tyndale’s rugged English. Latinisms and High Church language abound. It would seem that the use of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ is an attempt to create a solemnity.

10. How the 1611 version replaced the Geneva Bible.

Success did not come overnight, but great efforts were made to promote the KJV. Even in the 1750s it was still being criticised. In America it was taken up by the settlers and has been treasured ever since.

11. The 1611 version was never authorised.

There is no authorisation. It could have been burned in the Whitehall fire of 1618. ‘Appointed to be read in churches’ means suitable for that purpose. The phrase AV is apparently not used until 1824.

12. The 1611 English Bible – an unlikely masterpiece.

Many great passages. It has been stated that 83% of the NT and 76% of the OT in the KJV is actually Tyndale. We give thanks for the KJV. Hallelujah!


The opening paper on day 2 of this year’s Westminster Conference was given by Sam Waldron on The Uneasy Relationship of Repentance and Sola Fide in the Reformed Tradition

He began provocatively by speaking of how he had noticed similarities between Calvin and Norman Shepherd, the successor to John Murray at Westminster Seminary, eventually dismissed from his post because of the division his views on salvation were causing. We were given an outline of the paper.

Introduction: Method of Treatment

I. Reactions to Legalism

A. Sola Fide and Repentance in Calvin

B. Faith and then Repentance in the Marrow Men

1. The Marrow Controversy and the Marrow Men

2. The Distinctive View of Faith and Repentance of the Marrow Men

C. Faith and Then Repentance in the Sandemanians

II. Reactions to Easy-Believism

A. Repentance and then Faith in R. L. Dabney, A. W. Pink, and D M Lloyd-Jones*

B. Repentance and Sola Fide in Norman Shepherd

III. Resolution: Repentant Faith and Believing Repentance

A. Historical Representation: Spurgeon, Ryle, Gerstner, and John Murray

B. Relational Considerations

Response to Calvin
Response to the Marrow Men
Response to the Sandemanians (and Easy-Believism)
Response to Dabney, Pink, and Lloyd-Jones
Response to Shepherd

*It was suggested in the discussion that Lloyd-Jones shifted on this one to putting faith first.

This was a very thorough, sometimes difficult paper helping us to think this issue through. Perhaps John Murray spoke best when he said,

Repentance is the twin sister of faith – we cannot think of the one without the other, and so repentance would be co-joined with faith.


The fifth paper was challenging. This was not the fault of the speaker, Daniel Webber, but of the subject – The Centenary of the Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910 – something about which we knew very little and which was a depressing event from an evangelical point of view.

Led by John Mott, an American Methodist layman, supported by Joseph Oldham, a Brit who had worked in India, the Conference believed with a naive optimism that the world was on ‘the threshold of a global expansion of millennial proportions’ and could be won for Christ in that generation.

It really was the precursor of the World Council of Churches and was not called ecumenical only because at that point there were no Romanists or Orthodox involved, although Anglo-Catholics were and they had a disproportionate influence (such as getting evangelisation of the world changed to evangelisation of the non-christian world). Leaning on Brian Stanley’s book, Mr Webber took us through the events of the time (1215 delegates with some 6000 or 7000 present all told) and then pointed out how the conference was doomed from the start in that it included Anglo-Catholics, was resolute in avoiding doctrinal issues, had no appetite for the fourth self (self-theologising), was not really Protestant and was pre-occupied with unity rather than mission. Instead of being an outward looking missionary conference it was an inward looking group dominated by liberalism.


The final session of the conference was the usual biographical paper with no discussion. Malcolm MacLean gave an excellent paper on Andrew Bonar. He took us through the salient biographical detail and then focused on five areas – his preaching, prayer life, love of Christian literature, loyalty to the church and heart for evangelism. His prayer life came as something of a challenge to me.

Mr MacLean concluded with four further points, highlighting Bonar’s

Realism about himself
Deep humility
His eagerness to make progress and his use of self-examination to that end
His great love for Christ, a love that made him like his Master

So another conference over. It was good. About 130 attended. It is a little on the older side, I guess. Clearly many people who got the bug for attending years back are continuing to come. Others no doubt are not sure if they can spare two days in December and £50 and more if they live far from London to cover costs. The American Church has its drawbacks and next year we are off to a new venue, Regent Hall, Oxford Street.

The programme then will be:
Christian Liberty and the Westminster Assembly
The covenanting experience
Obadiah Holmes
Socinianism then and now
Puritanism – where did it all go wrong?
John Eliot

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