The Westminster divines were compromisers

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I love reading a good book, the type that keeps you reading till the end. A recent book by Hunter Powell, The crisis of British Protestantism: Church power in the Puritan Revolution, 1638-44, reminded me of the importance of good scholarship not only for the academy, but also for the church. It kept me reading till the end and taught me a great deal about my Presbyterian history.

The Westminster Confession of Faith is a complicated document in some respects, with an even more complicated history. Presbyterians should love the Westminster standards, which stand as the high-water mark of theology in the seventeenth century (though the Savoy divines did make some "latest and best" additions in 1658).

While we still debate issues surrounding the soteriological topics in the confession (such as the IAOC), we rarely examine the ecclesiological aspects of the Confession. This is regrettable. 

There were intense ecclesiological debates at Westminster as the Puritans involved tried to redefine England's National church. A lot of received wisdom needs to be (and has been in scholarly circles) turned on its head. 
 
What we find is that the same intellectual rigour applied to texts surrounding issues such as justification, were also applied to the texts surrounding church government. Painstaking exegesis was a hallmark of debate among the divines. Those who wrote the Confession were constantly arguing from Scriptural texts, not just citing older Creeds.  

While the Puritans knew that church government was secondary in terms of orthodoxy, it was the church that protected orthodoxy from drifting into heterodoxy.
 
Many of our assumptions about men such as Rutherford, Gillespie, Goodwin, and Burroughs are based on the conclusions made in one of the greatest compromise documents in the history of the church, the Westminster Standards. People who don't see the Standards as full of compromise - though, also full of polemic against heterodoxy - generally haven't done much scholarly work on the Standards and thus offer an a-historical, a-political, and a-theological reading of the text. 

Methodologically, the theoretical work of 'the Cambridge School', particularly the work of the Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge, Quentin Skinner, is important for this studying the Westminster Standards. Without suggesting that 'the Cambridge School' invented these ideas - though, Skinner in particular has articulated these ideas better than others - John Coffey has accurately noted that this 'school' criticizes 'both the "idealist" tendency to study the Great Books without reference to the circumstances in which they were written, and the "realist" approach which sees ideas as the causally determined offspring of their social, economic or psychological context. They argue for a method of reading historical texts which respects the intention of the author and is aware of the linguistic, political or ecclesiastical context in which he was working. This method is important for understanding the intentions of the divines at Westminster. 

We see that there were a number of versions of Presbyterianism that were competing for attention in the Jerusalem chamber, and that the final product was written in such a way that wouldn't alienate Presbyterians with a more clerical bent from those who had more 'congregational' inclinations.   
 
Puritanism has also been understood in an "Anglo-centric" manner. As a result, we have missed the fact that it was the English who stood outside the Continental Reformed tradition, whereas the Scots and the Congregationalists had the most in common with the Continental Reformed. One just has to read the Owen of Holland, Gisbertus Voetius, to see where his sympathies lay when he examined the debate in England and New England. 
 
In connection with the above, Powell's book is the first to take a careful look at the Minutes of the Assembly and untangle the exceedingly complex and erudite debates that took place between the Westminster divines. Powell gives us a framework for how to understand the Minutes and the men who wrote them.  Robert Paul attempted to do this with a blow by blow account of the Minutes; but in doing so he introduced a whole host of false assumptions that still impact the way we think about the church.
 
One thing we learn is how seriously these men took the church, and how carefully they thought about it. With the little regard our seminaries and churches give to this topic, it would be good for us to learn something. Personally, I'd recommend spending the $100 on the book mentioned above, especially Presbyterian ministers who take the Confession seriously. I love the diversity of the Reformed tradition, but I also love the way that diversity is kept in tact by Confessions such as the WCF.

Not surprisingly, even on ecclesiology, the WCF is a Presbyterian compromise document. Our divines were "compromisers." 

I don't normally make it through to the end of a book, but Powell's book was a notable exception. It is one of the most fascinating reads of the year for me. (I did not receive a copy of this book, but these are just honest thoughts). He does not make mere assertions, but vigorously argues his case with a lot of evidence. I'd expect nothing less from a Cambridge-trained scholar who went to Westminster Seminary (though regrettably remains a Baptist).
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Update: Compromise: 1. a settlement of differences by mutual concessions; an agreement reached by adjustment of conflicting or opposing claims, principles, etc., by reciprocal modification of demands.

Westminster, Regensberg, Chalcedon, Dort, etc., all provide us with plenty of evidence of compromise for the sake of producing a document in order to unify people who don't agree on all details of theology. I wonder if anyone who denies the divines made all sorts of compromises have actually published on the Westminster Assembly or read carefully the Minutes?
Posted May 6, 2015 @ 2:03 PM by Mark Jones
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