Truth According to Scripture
March 31, 2016
A quest for “Truth According to Scripture” drove the Westminster "divines" (theologians) and should drive us today. Why? Because it’s biblical.
When Paul left the church in Ephesus, he warned that false teaching would arise (Acts 20:29-30). Sure enough, it did, and Paul’s beloved congregation soon became divided by “vain” doctrine. What did Paul command Timothy, who was sent to the church, to do in the face of this false teaching? To train himself in the truth (1 Tim. 4:7). To pursue knowledge of Christ. Paul knew that the antidote for false teaching was sound doctrine–and for Paul, growing in the knowledge of that truth was not an option; it was a requirement. He warned the Ephesians that if they remained unskilled in their knowledge, they would be “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning” (Eph. 4:14).
Not unlike Ephesus in the 1st century, England in the early years of the 17th century was exploding with new and strange doctrines. These decades saw the rise of Quakers, antinomians, Arminians, Levellers, and Fifth-Monarchy Men, all intent on gaining a following. The reformers of this era knew what Paul taught—that sound doctrine was the key weapon to wield against falsehood. Thus, as early as 1641, repeated petitions were sent to the House of Commons to appoint “a general synod of the most grave, pious, learned and judicious divines of this island.” These men were to take the current documents of the Church of England and revise them to be more in line with scripture as the documents did “necessarily require a further and more perfect Reformation.” The reformers lamented that the current lack of knowledge of the truth in the nation dishonored God and they asked Parliament “most speedily” to consider how to set up Christ more gloriously.
Parliament called the Westminster Assembly as a result of these petitions. Parliament tasked the Assembly with “settling” the Church’s doctrine “as shall be most agreeable to the Word of God” and according to the example of the “best Reformed churches.” Anything found in the old documents “contrary to sound doctrine and the power of godliness” was to be revised. After much labor, the divines produced a carefully worded and theologically precise Confession of Faith and catechisms, designed to be used throughout the nation for the instruction and growth in knowledge of everyone, from the theology professor at Cambridge to the children of the poorest laborer. The divines knew that producing clear, rich, and deep theological statements was the best way to lead to a reformation of the hearts and minds of men and women.
Training is hard work! It involves effort and toil; Paul tells Timothy that it is a battle. In their pursuit of reformation, the Westminster divines endured great hardship. King Charles I, at war with Parliament, declared that anyone who dared attend the Assembly faced imprisonment. Yet the Assembly met anyway. For 10 long years, the divines searched for the most accurate wording of theological truths while violent, and sometimes fatal, riots related to the war occurred outside Westminster Abbey. Assembly members continued to meet and live in London, while their families, loved ones, estates, and churches underwent rough treatment by troops. The divines faced an ultimate affront in 1660 when the restored monarchy rejected their work and re-instated Anglican episcopacy. The Confession of Faith was publically burned and repudiated by England’s leaders as the Church of England returned to pre-1640 theology.
Today, the rejection of truth continues and false teaching abounds. Many do not see value of pursuing the hard work of training their minds in the beauty and complexity of theological truths—they favor a “simple gospel” devoid of doctrinal weight. Yet, in the face of false teaching, we must run to sound doctrine, not away from it. Paul commands it; the Westminster divines did it; we must do it too. As we actively seek for further reformation, we grow in our knowledge of Christ and so bring God glory, who called us out of darkness into the knowledge of his Son.
Dr. Whitney G. Gamble
Assistant Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies
Providence Christian College, Pasadena, California