The Westminster Assembly and the Debate about the Word

The Westminster Assembly and the Debate about the Word

Someone in the Jerusalem Chamber had asked if it was a pastor's duty to read the Scriptures publicly in the weekly worship services of the church. It was November 1643, and the Westminster Assembly was trying to build a biblical system of church government from the ground up. In the summer months of 1643 the gathering had been revising an existing text of the Church of England, the Thirty-nine Articles. But in late September a Solemn League and Covenant had been signed between the English and Scottish parliaments, drawing the two rebel parties into a military and ecclesiastical alliance and a setting them on a course of church reform. From early October the assembly, at the behest of parliament, had turned its attention to the subject of church government, and the creation of new texts for the two churches, and for protestant Ireland also. Church government requires church officers, and a discussion of church officers entails a discussion of what they are to do - such as a possible role in leading worship, which is how the gathering got around to discussing the public reading of the Scriptures.

Assembly members Thomas Temple (1602-1661) and Thomas Gataker (1574-1654) insisted that it was the preacher's duty, and his alone, to read the Bible in public worship. This could have been a relatively inconsequential comment if the two Thomases had not added that the preacher is to read because the reading of the Scriptures is the preaching of the Scriptures. In recent memory, the people who argued that Bible reading was a form of Bible preaching blurred lines as a way of defending those ministers who read the sermons of others and did not write and preach their own. The equation of reading with preaching was a traditionally anti-puritan argument, promoted by Laudians, who were among those who "would have the word only read, and that there should be no preaching or expounding of it." Members of the assembly were disappointed to hear the argument articulated by their peers and they produced a variety of arguments in response, all ready at hand. Charles Herle (1598-1659) pointed out that in Nehemiah 8, reading and preaching are distinguished. Stephen Marshall (1594/5-1655) declared that Temple's argument that whatever ordinance works faith is the minister's special duty was illogical: people were saved when women and children read the scriptures and that did not make these women and children ministers. Joshua Hoyle (bap. 1588, d. 1654), who would often express alarm with Gataker's ideas, declared that his former teacher's equation of reading and preaching was "dangerous." Herle and Thomas Wilson (c. 1601-1653) also argued that faith is ordinarily worked by preaching of the Scriptures, not reading. Romans 10, and the series of questions found in verse 14, were sufficient, for them, to establish the necessity of preaching: "How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?"

Wilson's view, not unheard of in godly circles, was that no more of the Bible should be normally be read in a worship service than the minister was able to preach in his sermon, since the Scriptures needed to be explained and pressed home to the hearts of the hearers. William Bridge (1600/1-1671) agreed, and his revealing comment that he was unwilling to call it sin to read more than one preached, testifies to the strength of his conviction. That kind of assertion, in turn, disturbed William Price (d. 1666), who insisted that he was not "an advocate for an Illiterate Clergy" but that he could not "with patience heare the reading of the word of God soe much undervalued as I have this morning." There was skill in reading it and profit in hearing it. Wilson, the object of these remarks, answered that his "vehemency" in making his point was not "passion" - and he toned down his argument considerably.

In an effort to explain his earlier comments, and in strong opposition to Wilson's inculcation of a dependency on preaching, Gataker noted that puritans only played into the hands of papists when they promoted such a low view of the "bare reading" of the Scriptures. He was no admirer of recent trends in the church, but were not Protestants the supposed champions of the Bible's perspicuity and sufficiency? What is more, Gataker showed (at least to his own satisfaction), that the New Testament revealed the people of God reading sections too long to preach, and he noted that the Apostle Paul insisted that his letters to be read in the churches. No one at the assembly doubted that these letters were indeed Scripture.

The force of these arguments was indirect, but nonetheless significant. One way of demonstrating that the Scriptures could be read profitably by themselves, without explanation, was to permit a larger portion of the Bible to be read publicly than is preached publicly. The practice of reading a portion of Scripture that was not preached could be edifying, advocates argued; it was also an apologetic against Roman Catholic views on the alleged insufficiency of the Scriptures, and most assembly members were willing to argue that more of the Scriptures might be read than preached in a typical worship service. There were also other practical concerns to take into account: Philip Nye (bap. 1595, d. 1672) was concerned that to restrict the passage read to the passage preached would not sufficiently expose people to the breadth of the Scriptures. Others agreed, and Herbert Palmer (1601-1647) expressed his pleasant surprise that so many in the assembly were in favour of "public reading" - that is, reading beyond the passage preached, for "In committy it is denied."

The extent of the passage read could exceed the portion preached. But the original question remained: who is to read the Scriptures in a service of worship? Obviously some people thought that only the preacher should do it. Some assembly members thought anyone may do it. Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680) thought that the pastor could do it if no one else was available. Conversely, Cornelius Burges (d. 1665) thought the pastor should do it unless he was not available but, even then, the pastor must ensure that it be done well by whoever was charged with the responsibility. A number of members argued that a special class of person read the Scriptures in the days of the Old Testament and that this suggested that ministers of the gospel should do it in the days of the New. Wilson countered that arguments based on the reading and preaching practices of the Levites (such a those in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah) could not be straightforwardly be applied to New Testament ministers. This was an hermeneutical concern that others shared, even if they did not arrive at the same outcomes as Wilson. The majority of the assembly was convince that some kind of "public person" must read the Scriptures, whether it the pastor, or someone to whom the pastor would delegate to the task, such as a deacon or sexton or candidate for the ministry. But the majority also concluded that the reading of the Scriptures was not an absolutely essential part of a minister's office. It could not definitively be proved from Scripture. And the existence of physically, rather than spiritually blind preaching pastors (mentioned by both Richard Heyrick [1600-1667] and Hoyle) proved that one could be an effective minister without engaging in the public reading of Scripture.

It was Burges who saw a way to make peace with almost everyone through a simple declaration that the reading of the Scriptures itself is a "public ordinance" of God. This formulation honoured the idea that the reading of the Scriptures was a stand-alone component of a worship service. And it implied, without actually saying so, that a public officer in the church ought to read the Scriptures. Burges was also trying to correct the idea (current only among the godly) that "reading is denyed to be the ordinance of Christ, without exposition." A clutch of divines spoke in favour of the phrase, and the day after he proposed it, Burges could say that it "apeared to be the sence of the Assembly." Wilson was not happy, and Bridge found reason to hesitate: even if the reading of the Scriptures was an ordinance of God, was reading beyond the scope of preaching it an usual feature? or was it a "standing ordinance," one which would form a normal part of weekly worship? But almost everyone else concurred with Burges.

In defining the office of a pastor, the assembly was, one vote at a time, constructing a rudimentary draft of a Directory for Church government, and it is there that the assembly's conclusions can be found. The portion treating the office of a pastor includes sections on blessing the people, administering the sacraments, praying (which was seen to be an especially close partner in ministry to preaching), and ruling in the church. However the description of the pastor's office begins with statements about the reading and the preaching of the Scriptures.

The assembly voted that "the publick reading of the word in the congregation is an holy ordinance in Gods church" (using Burges's phrase) even "though there follow no immediat[e] explication of that which is read" (addressing Temple's and Gataker's concern). Could this reading could be delegated to any public person? In the end, the assembly thought not, for it declared "that the public reading of the Scriptures belongs to the pastors office." This was another victory, and a surprising one, for Temple and Gataker. Behind the scenes Temple had patiently guided the assembly to this position - probably only one of many occasions where his skill in either drafting a document or presenting its scriptural support worked in his favour.

Nonetheless, the discussion was not quite over. It was the assembly's practice, following any debate about the substance of a matter (such as the minister's duty to read the Scriptures, or to preach), for the gathering to enter a second phase of discussion, in which the assembly officially adopted the best scriptural support for the position that they had successfully voted. The assembly's votes on the reading responsibilities of the pastor follow this pattern with the resolution voted first in Session 89, and the biblical support adopted in a later session:

Sess. 89. Nov. 6. Res.: That the publick reading of the Scripture belongs to the pastors office. Sess. 90. Nov. 7: Ord.: 1. That the Priests and Levites in the Jewish Church were trusted with the publick reading of the word, as is proved. Deut. 31:9, 10, 11; Nehem. 8:1, 2, & 13. Ord.: 2. That the ministers of the Gospell have as ample a charge & commission to dispense the word as well as other ordinances, as the Priests & Levites under the Law. Proved Isai. 66:21; Matt. 23:34 where our Saviour intituleth the officers of the New Testament whom he would send forth by the same names of the Teachers of the old. Ord.: These propositions shall be brought to prove, That therefor (the Duty being of a morall nature) it followeth by just consequence, that the public reading of the Scriptures belongs to the pastors office. Wilson, who disagreed with the majority position that the pastor was particularly charged to read the Scriptures, sat at the back of the room, warning his colleagues that it would "be hard" to prove from Scripture what they had now voted. The presence of nay-sayers like Wilson, always present at the second stage of the assembly's debates, no matter what the topic, served a useful function in forcing careful, rather than overly crude or creative scriptural justifications for the ideas held by the majority party. In this case Wilson argued that the pastor is not uniquely called to publicly read the scriptures, for priests and Levites were "not tipes of ministers, but of Christians." It was a thoughtful comment - but not the one that won the day, and the assembly determined that reading the Scriptures was a ministerial duty.

Significantly, in concluding that the public reading of the Scriptures is a ministerial task, the assembly did not appeal to direct examples, but argued instead that it reached its conclusion "by just consequence." Curiously, and parenthetically, it added that the duty to read publicly was "of a morall nature." Lazarus Seaman (d. 1675), who was the strongest advocate for the delegation of reading to any public officer, and not simply to the pastor, found something slippery in the assembly's argument, and protested that a "moral equity" was hardly enough to make reading the scriptures a pastoral duty. Many months later Temple, speaking for a committee during the drafting of the directory of Public worship, softened the statement of the assembly, both meeting Seaman's objection and answering Bridge's earlier question: he explained that only when people conceive of the regular reading of the Word as an office, is it the minister's office. This was a conditional statement that offered an expansive concession to Bridge and those of his persuasion. As students of the assembly and its texts will recognize, it was neither the first nor the last time that the assembly would use such careful wording!

This article is an extract and adaptation from Chad Van Dixhoorn's forthcoming book, God's Ambassadors: The Westminster Assembly and the reform of the English pulpit, 1643-1653. Footnotes, references, and fuller discussions of this subject are found there.