The Westminster Assembly

By Sean Tong, 26 Jun 2020

The Westminster Assembly

It’s a freezing day in January 1642, and John Hotham the Senior can feel something in the wind. A nation divided, a Parliament in chaos, the coming of war. But he can’t stand here surveying the city of Kingston-upon-Hull, he needs to get on. Within Hull is a large store of munitions which the King, Charles I, has ordered him to seize with the ongoing conflict going on between the king and Parliament. His son, ever obedient to the king, has immediately set about collecting the munitions. Hotham needs to stop him. He’s going to take charge of Hull and prevent the king from entering to get his weapons of war.

So began the English Civil Wars. But this conflict within our land was brewing well before then. And in ways that has ordered the landscape of our churches across Scotland and England ever since.

Between 1629 and 1640 Charles had not called Parliament and was ruling on his own, this became known as ‘The Personal Rule’ or the Eleven ‘Years’ Tyranny.’ During this time Charles organised the church around High Anglicanism. This did not go down well with the Puritans. The Puritans were Protestants who wanted to reform the Church of England away from practices more in tune with the Catholic church. Antagonism came to a head, when Charles appointed William Laud as Archbishop of Canterbury. Laud was accused by the Puritans of attempting to reintroduce Catholicism into the Church of England.

Meanwhile, across the border in Scotland, Charles was also ruffling feathers. The church in Scotland was more in line with the Puritans in England. In their Presbyterianism they also sought to move away from the practices of Rome and governed their church in a way that worship was supported by God’s Word. These Scottish Presbyterians found themselves having their system of church governance interfered with by Charles.

But the winds of change were about to catch up with Charles. His interference in the Scottish church ironically led to the end of his Personal Rule. So determined was he that the church in Scotland should have bishops as in England, he used military intervention to try to impose it on the Scots. This became known as The Bishops’ Wars. To fund these wars, he needed taxes. To get taxes through he needed Parliament to sit again. After a fiasco leading to Parliament sitting for only three weeks (The Short Parliament), Parliament eventually sat again (The Long Parliament). Unfortunately for Charles a number of Puritans were a part of this Parliament and they wanted change. The wheels of revolution were now gaining pace.

And this is where the beginnings of the Westminster Assembly find themselves. The Long Parliament summoned the Westminster Assembly (a diverse group of 120 theologians) to reform the church. The aim was to decide how to reform the church and its doctrinal standards. This included any corrections that might be needed towards existing church structures, worship and the teaching of the church. Edmund Calamy, an English Presbyterian, was one of those theologians, years previously he had urged the House of Commons ‘to reform the reformation itself’. This is what the Puritans had longed to do. A number of Scottish Presbyterians were also invited – they had a deep interest in church reform in England, hoping it would also help to safeguard the teachings of the church in Scotland. Now, amidst the carnage of the English Civil War this assembly met for the first time on 1st July 1643.

The Assembly did a lot of work thrashing out how the church should be reformed and what action needed taking. They would end up meeting from 1643 right through to 1653. During this time they drafted directions for church government, published a guide of public worship, issued statements on doctrine, corresponded with foreign churches, authorised two catechisms (the Shorter and Longer Catechisms – a series of questions and answers that help people to learn the truths in the Bible), and wrote a new confession of faith (The Westminster Confession of Faith). It is these two catechisms and the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) that have become known today as the Westminster Standards. The end product of the Assembly was worth celebrating then and is today. We owe a lot to the Assembly for the number of churches there are now across England and Scotland that take the Bible seriously, and look to it to inform how the church worships and how our lives should be directed by what the Bible says. Indeed, in his book ‘Confessing the Faith’ Chad Van Dixhoorn claims that ‘all who [look through] its pages [the WCF] will find a sure-footed summary of truth for life’.[1] This is because throughout its pages the WCF takes great pains to declare what the Bible teaches.

The Confession’s opening pages rejoice in the wonder of God’s revelation of himself in the world and in the Word. Whole paragraphs linger over the fullness and clarity of the Scriptures. With devotion and delight, the confession goes on to consider the God who reveals himself in all his perfections. Chapter by chapter the WCF traces the great history of our redemption, the grim realities of the Fall, God’s gracious covenants with man, the stunning reality of salvation for those in Christ and our sure hope of eternal life.

According to Dixhoorn, ‘it is because of the clarity of this gospel presentation all its parts that the WCF finds itself in the first rank of great Christian creeds’.[2] I couldn’t agree with him more. But we mustn’t think of the WCF as being something more valuable than God’s Word itself. No. Why it is so great for us is precisely because it drives us back to God’s Word. It helps us meditate and chew over the great truths of the Bible – even the ones that we sometimes find difficult to understand. I encourage everyone to read the confession. Now I know that may seem like a daunting task. Really Sean, are you asking us to read a text from nearly five hundred years ago? Yes, I am. But don’t let that discourage you. I promise you, reading the WCF is worthwhile. It’s also organised into short sections, making it easy to pick and read a short bit at a time. It has been hugely beneficial to me in my walk with the Lord, and always steamrolls me back into God’s Word.

I will finish with what I consider to be the WCF’s three great strengths.

  1. Its chapters are clear and concise. This is several years’ work by 120 theologians compressed into nice and tidy chapters. Great truths condensed for the benefit of all and not just for the few clever theologians.
  2. It’s a useful guide to reading the Bible. The paragraphs within are treasure troves of help to believers in understanding the Bible, as well as scriptural words and phrases.
  3. It deals with fundamental doctrines that are difficult. Now Sean, you’ve just told me that this won’t be difficult! Why have I put this as a strength? What I mean is that it doesn’t shy away from doctrines that are difficult for us in understanding and/or believing. I believe that both new Christians and seasoned theologians will find this aspect of the WCF useful. This is what the confession does – it introduces doctrinal ideas; outlines how we see them in God’s Word and then helps the reader confess these doctrines in a thoughtful way.

In my next blog post I will be going through how the Westminster Confession of Faith is themed and taking a summary of the truths that the confession contains and how it is useful to us as believers.

[1] Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith: A Reader's Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2014), xviii.
[2] Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, xviii.