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Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly

Category Book Reviews
Date November 13, 2017

In 2012, a new five volume edition of the minutes and papers of the Westminster Assembly (1643-52) was published (Oxford University Press). This was the fruit of years of work by Rev. Chad Van Dixhoorn. This monumental work will probably form the basis for study o the Westminster Assembly for the remainder of this century and beyond. It returns to primary source material underlying the Westminster Standards, which are among the world’s foremost statements of the Christian faith.

In the foreword, John Morrill writes: ‘I am confident that all users of this edition will be richly rewarded so long as they have the patience to read the introduction and to treat the volumes holistically, drawing on all parts of it’ (page xi).

Volume 1 lays down a ‘road map’ for what follows: the glossary, map, and list of country abbreviations are very useful. A list of abbreviations used in the work is contained in the Readers’ Guide (pages 99-105), and this is essential because it is impossible to follow the footnotes without it.

The highlight of the first volume is Chad Van Dixhoorn’s ‘Introduction’ (pages 1-87). My impression is that the section on ‘The Solemn League and Covenant and the Scottish Commission’ (pages 23-27) will be quoted often. Chad Van Dixhoorn writes that Robert Baillie’s letters ‘almost sensationalize the theologians of the Scottish commission as an elite strike-force — a four-man band of trained specialists rushed into Westminster Abbey to rescue hapless English Presbyterians held hostage by a coalition of congregationalists, Erastians, and moderate Episcopalians’ (page 24). He evaluates the folklore and tradition that has surrounded the commissioners with care and clarity.

The ‘Biographical Dictionary’ (pages 106-47) supplies historical portraits of key Assembly figures. Readers will observe the absence of entries for John Owen, Thomas Watson, and Oliver Cromwell. The first two, Owen and Watson, were remarkable theologians. But none of these men were part of the Assembly (Owen and Cromwell are both included in the famous painting of the Assembly by J.R. Herbert).

Perhaps two of my favourite inclusions are the ‘Register of Citations’ (pages 148-61) and the ‘Leading Assembly Contributors’ (Appendix 13, pages 212-13). The former lists the names of all authors cited by the divines. Augustine, Calvin, Chrysostom, Cyprian, and Tertullian, are prominent; but the list will inspire us to more study as we discover how often they cited such men as Theodore de Beze, Thomas Cartwright, Johannes Piscator, and William Whitaker. Appendix 13 (Leading Assembly Contributors) provides a kind of league table of the twelve men who spoke most, with Stephen Marshall (‘the Irenic Presbyterian’) at the top, with 465 speeches, followed by Lazarus Seaman, and Cornelius Burges.

Van Dixhoorn agrees with S.E. Ahlstrom that the Assembly’s Confession became ‘by far the most influential doctrinal symbol in American Protestant history’, and he states that the Westminster Standards are considered by many to be ‘the finest and most enduring statements of early modern Reformed theology’ (pages 86-7).

With this in mind, let me give a brief sketch of the remaining volumes. The second (687 pages), third (791 pages), and fourth (897 pages) volumes are the minutes of the sessions from August 4, 1643 to April 24, 1652. The fifth volume (472 pages) is comprised of supplementary material including letters by the Assembly. It is completed with a compendium of the plenary sessions with dates, Scripture and Apocrypha citations. Also there are three separate indices for subjects, places, people, and names.

Reading the minutes (volumes 2-4) will dispel any romantic illusions abut the work of the Assembly. Day after day the divines discussed and debated many aspects of doctrine, including church government. The work was obviously arduous, tiring, challenging, and at times difficult. They were thorough, vigorously committed to orthodoxy, and educated with rich learning.

A snippet of the erudite contributions can be sampled by a speech given by Thomas Gataker during a discussion on the remission of sins and justification. He refers to continental Reformed confessions and to theologians Caspar Oblevianus, Johannes Piscator, and Abraham Scultetus. He expounds the word ‘justify’ from English, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. His comments are replete with biblical references, and his conclusions are searching. He discerns the theological nuances between finely balanced teachings of remission of sins, justification, and reconciliation (2.43-45). Reading Gataker should be an antidote for anyone who is suffering from theological pride.

Towards the end of this second volume there is the record of the intense debate regarding matters of church government and the locus classicus text of Matthew 18:17 ‘tell it to the church’. The question was: ‘It the locus of church authority and ex-communication in the final court of the local church congregation, the church’s elders, or the regional elders together to form a presbytery’ This was not a new discussion, it had been rumbling among the English Separatists such as Robert Browne, John Robinson, and John Smyth, to name a few, from the 1590s. Vociferous dissent was expressed against the Presbyterian Church of England majority in the Assembly on the issue of the final seat of church authority by Philip Nye, Thomas Goodwin, William Bridge, and others (2.493-684).

This was no ‘minor key’ in the debates on the floor of the Assembly. In the minutes, it covers almost 200 pages of Volume 2. In reading these congregational proponents, it appears evident that these men are contending for a particular formation of church government, yet they are labelled as ‘Congregationalists’ and not ‘Independents’ by Van Dixhoorn (session headings, 493, 507, 518, 617 as examples). However, their display of ecclesial principles that lean to independency raises questions. It is beyond the scope of this review to drill down deeper into this theological matter, but the editorial decision to remove the pejorative label ‘Independent’, a word actually never found recorded in the debates, in favor of ‘Congregational Presbyterians’ is probably helpful.

While the end of volume 2 and most of 3 are taken up with the ‘grand debate’ on church government, as labelled by Robert S. Paul (The Assembly of the Lord), there are other theological themes running concurrently as work on the Confession of Faith continued. It appears that the work of the assembly picks up speed in Volume 4, even though the details of much discussion  are not always recorded because it was conducted in committees. This volume spans the period 1646-1652 and the culmination of months of debate, fasting, prayer, speeches, and discussion comes to fruition with the completion of the Confession of Faith, the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, besides the examination of hundreds of ministers of the Church of England, responses to Parliament, and overseas correspondence with continental Reformed churches.

What can be learned from these minutes and papers of the Westminster Assembly?

One valuable lesson can be gleaned from observing the breadth of opinion in the Assembly on many points, and seeing how it established clearly defined parameters of doctrine. The Assembly’d documents were the outcome of consensus and not of a single theologian’s teaching. This should guard us from assuming that our own brand of the Reformed church is the only pattern to be followed. On the other hand, their theological settlements are timeless, and a fresh return to their agreement in the Directory for Public Worship would cause us to question the validity of many contemporary ‘ winds of doctrine’ on the subject.

Another lesson to be embraced is that of listening to others in debate. Open and vigorous discussion, anchored in historical, systematic. and biblical theology should not be supressed.

The Assembly conducted its business in painstaking detail, without undue haste, and in correspondence with the continental Reformed churches. There appears to have been a broad European consensus of the Reformed church, and this Assembly stood firmly in the same lineage, with healthy theological relationships outside of Great Britain.

I commend these volumes, and I recommend that churches consider making this resource available to its ministers and elders and every thoughtful Christian.

Of Further Interest

    Book cover for 'Confessing the Faith'

    Confessing the Faith

    A Reader's Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith

    by Chad Van Dixhoorn


    price From: $8.50
    Avg. Rating
    5 out of 5

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    In 2012, a new five volume edition of the minutes and papers of the Westminster Assembly (1643-52) was published (Oxford University Press). This was the fruit of years of work by Rev. Chad Van Dixhoorn. This monumental work will probably […]

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