The Westminster Assembly: A Parachurch?
March 7, 2016
The response to my piece on the Ligonier statement was interesting. So far I haven't seen any critical engagement with the content of my criticisms, though many have asked why I did not also critique the statement for not affirming the eternal generation of the Son.
I suppose I could also have brought attention to the fact that the "creedal" part of the Ligonier statement omits Christ's enthronement - a major emphasis in the NT, where Ps. 110 is quoted over and over. Both the Apostles' Creed and Nicene Creed mention Christ's enthronement ("seated at the right hand"), but the Ligonier creed inexplicably moves from ascension to return. Former Creeds mention this significant event, but Ligonier leaves it out, which appears to be a strange omission, indeed.
There have been a few who have wondered whether Ligonier is doing something similar to what the Westminster Assembly did in the 1640s. When someone first raised this idea with me I was incredulous. Nonetheless, if these are honest questions seeking answers I thought it might be good to address this point further.
The Westminster Assembly was charged by Parliament with Reforming the Church of England. Parliament desired that the divines at Westminster propose corrections that needed to be made to the national Church's structures, worship, and teaching.
As far as Westminster is concerned, it was work being done by the church as the church. Approval (or lack thereof) of its documents isn't necessarily required to make the process a church activity. It was in fact adopted by the Church of England (1648) entitled: "Articles of Christian Religion approved and passed by both Houses of Parliament after advice had with the Assembly of Divines."
There ought to be no debate that this was the work of the church at the behest of the government, in line with historic Presbyterian church-state relations (i.e., establishment principle). In fact, as far as Scotland is concerned, the Westminster Assembly functioned like an irregular synod. Confessions in the mid-seventeenth century were meant to counterbalance and complete a national church settlement. Today, this type of Confession would be somewhat irrelevant because of the separation of church and state, which is why it is not wise to compare a modern-day parachurch organization with the Westminster Assembly.
In England there was a single Church during this period. Protestant Nonconformity officially begins in 1689, though the Great Ejection happened in 1662 when many Puritans were ejected from the church of England. So before that, during the time of Westminster, you have Confessional documents being crafted at various times (e.g., A New Confession, 1654) and in various ways by church of England ministers for the National church. These confessions would have ecclesiastical authority - at least, in intent - in terms of effecting discipline and safeguarding orthodoxy.
At the Westminster Assembly ministers were examined for ordination. The divines were to settle the liturgy and ecclesiology of the Church of England. They were to protect Reformed doctrine against the various heresies that had arisen during the early part of the seventeenth century. In a sense, they exercised the keys of the church in some of what they did at Westminster. A parachurch organization today simply doesn't ordain or examine candidates for ordination, even if it decides to write statements on orthodoxy.
Importantly, we know who wrote the Westminster documents. In many cases, we know who the key players were in some of their debates in how they came to formulate new statements on matters such as ecclesiology or justification. You can see the fingerprints of certain divines on the Confession. In addition, 120 theologians were part of the process at Westminster, a fine sampling of some of the best theological minds in the world at that time.
But how was the Ligonier Creed constructed? Is it in any way representative of anyone? Am I to assume that Steve Nichols or R. C. Sproul or their Teaching Fellows all agree with the documents?
My criticism of the documents is offered in the hope they will at least amend some of the infelicitous language found in the documents. If the documents and "Creed" must exist, then surely Ligonier will want to make them as theologically sound as possible? Some of the changes required would be easy to make. In addition, I'm asking for more context on who wrote these documents and of whom they are representative.
As for whether the documents include a "Creed" ("We confess the mystery and wonder..."), I think any reader will have to acknowledge that part of what Ligonier offered reads exactly like a Creed, as Carl Trueman noted. Even if the intention of Ligonier was to call it something else (i.e., "a statement"), the reception of it by others indicates that most people view it as another Creed. Why else were influential bloggers suggesting it could be read in a church service, and why have some churches already used it as a creed in their worship services?
I was also led to believe from a reliable source (i.e., one in authority) at Ligonier that it was in fact a Creed. It was referred to me, in writing, as a Creed. If I was misguided in my criticisms by calling it a "Creed", it was only because it looks like a Creed and I was told it was a Creed. Plus, i the explanatory essay, we read: "Ligonier humbly offers this statement for the church. From the early centuries, Christians have used creeds in the church's liturgy. It is hoped that this statement might serve the same purpose."
So to return to the question raised at the beginning of this post, to compare Ligonier's intentions with the intentions of Westminster is to compare apples and oranges, even if some in favour of one insist on calling the other, that is, Westminster a parachurch. Insisting on calling Westminster a parachurch should not act as a smokescreen for the fact that what was produced by Ligonier was a decidedly average piece of theology.
In the end, I have to say that I agree entirely with the Preface, written by R.C. Sproul. Regrettably, the rest of the statement simply does not live up to the aims of the Preface. In fact, the document is not only lop-sided, but imprecise and sloppy. Consequently, my admiration for Nicea, Chalcedon, Heidelberg, Dort, and Westminster has only increased in light of recent events. And I suppose that is a good thing.