How would you encapsulate the Bible’s teaching with both precision and beauty? In this episode, Barry Cooper introduces us to a classic expression of Reformed theology: the Westminster Standards.
Let me take you back to seventeenth-century England—1643, to be precise.
King Charles I was increasingly hostile to the Puritans and their Reformed theology. And members of Parliament—many of whom were Puritans and Puritan sympathizers—were becoming increasingly aggrieved by the king. They were convinced that there was still a lot of work to be done in the Church of England, that it still needed to be reformed in light of Scripture.
Although the English Church had separated itself from Rome during the English Reformation more than one hundred years earlier, the Puritans felt it hadn’t gone far enough. So, with that in mind, Parliament called upon Reformed theologians to meet at Westminster Abbey. Their job was to advise Parliament on issues of worship, doctrine, government, and discipline in the Church of England.
Despite a royal proclamation prohibiting its meeting, the assembly first met on 1st July, 1643, at the Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey, before later moving to the abbey’s Jerusalem Chamber.
This Westminster Assembly consisted of 151 men, which included twenty laypeople from the House of Commons and ten from the House of Lords.
The assembly lasted officially until 1649, although it continued to meet occasionally until 1652. And those present certainly did not slack during that time. Over the course of the six years between 1643 and 1649, they met 1,163 times.
The documents they produced are known as the Westminster Standards, namely:
- the Westminster Confession of Faith
- the Larger and Shorter Catechisms
- the Directory for the Public Worship of God (which is a sort of liturgical manual)
- and the Form of Presbyterial Church Government (which describes how churches ought to be structured and governed)
Within the assembly, there were different opinions on how churches should be governed, but despite that, the assembly was uniformly Calvinistic in terms of doctrine.
Remember, this is only about one hundred years after the first edition of Calvin’s Institutes and about 120 years after Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, but the work the Westminster Assembly produced is generally considered to be the fullest flowering of Reformation thought. The documents are characterized by exquisite precision and beauty, such that nearly four hundred years on they are still seen as a classic expression of Reformed theology.
Perhaps the most widely known and repeated sentences in all of their work is the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and it’s a terrific example of the precision and beauty we’ve been talking about:
Question: What is the chief end of man?
Answer: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
But there’s a twist ending to all this. Just over a decade later, the documents produced by the Westminster Assembly were repudiated by the Church of England during the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and episcopal church government was reinstated in England.
And yet the fruit of the Westminster Assembly continues to be widely revered and embraced by Reformed Christians the world over.
As the late Professor John Murray of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia put it: “The work produced by the Westminster Assembly has lived and will permanently live. The reason is obvious. The work was wrought with superb care, patience, precision, and above all with earnest and intelligent devotion to the Word of God and zeal for His glory. Sanctified theological learning has never been brought to bear with greater effect upon the formulation of the Christian Faith. While it would be dishonoring to the Holy Spirit to accord to these documents a place in any way equal to the Word of God either in principle or in practical effect, yet it would also be dishonoring to the Holy Spirit, who has promised to be with His church to the end, to undervalue or neglect what is the product of His illumination and direction in the hearts and minds of His faithful servants. Other men labored and we have entered into their labors.”