Warfield — Is the Shorter Catechism worthwhile?
All Rights Reserved. The Westminster Assembly. Back to Second Reformation page. Popular Features. New Releases. Notify me. Description Excerpt from History of the Westminster Assembly of Divines Divines, by whose labours were produced the Confession of Faith, the Directory of Public Worship, the Form of Church Government, and the Catechisms, which have so long been held as the Standards of the Presbyterian Churches through out the world.
Select Works on the Westminster Assembly (32 vols.)
Especially in such a time as the present, when all distinctive Presbyterian principles are not only called in question, but also misrepresented and condemned, such a want has become absolutely unendurable, unless Presbyterians are willing to permit their Church to perish under a load of unanswered, yet easily refuted, calumny. And as the best refutation of calumny is the plain and direct statement of truth, it is by that process that I have endeavoured to vindicate the principles and the character of the Presbyterian Church.
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An Excerpt from The History of the Westminster Assembly of Divines - by William Hetherington
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Praise for the Westminster Standards
Elizabeth David Starkey. Spitfire John Nichol. The Anarchy William Dalrymple. The Plantagenets Dan Jones. The Wars of the Roses Dan Jones. Philip Nye and Religious Liberty The remark has frequently been made, accompanied with expressions of surprise and regret, that no separate historical account of the Westminster Assembly of Divines has yet been written.
Every person who has directed his attention to the events of the seventeenth century, whether with regard to their civil or their religious aspect, has felt that it was impossible fully to understand either the one or the other line of study, without taking into view the character of the Westminster Assembly, the purpose for which it met, and the result of its deliberations. Yet, notwith- standing this universally felt necessity, the subject has never received an adequate investigation, and consequently still remains in such obscurity as renders it exposed to every kind of misrepresentation.
Some have regarded it as comparatively an isolated event, not very influential on those around it, and serving chiefly to display, in a com- bined form, the characters of the men and measures of those times ; others have viewed it as the abortive attempt 2 HISTORY OF THE of a parcel of narrow-minded and yet ambitious fanatics, serving to reveal their dangerous pretensions, and then, by its failure, exposing them to deserved ridicule.
The mere student of civil history will doubtless see little in it to attract his notice, engrossed, as his attention vail be, by the schemes of politicians and the din of arms ; while, on the other hand, the mere theologian will generally be little disposed to regard any thing about it, except its productions. But the man who penetrates a little deeper into the nature of those unrevealed but powerful influences which move a nation's mind, and mould its destinies, will be ready to direct his attention more profoundly to the objects and deliberations of an assembly which met at a moment so critical, and was composed of the great master-minds of the age ; and the theologian who has learned to view religion as the vital principle of human nature, equally in nations and in the individual man, will not easily admit the weak idea, that such an assembly could have been an isolated event, but will be disposed earnestly to inquire what led to its meeting, and what important consequences followed.
And although the subject has not hitherto been investi- gated with such a view, it may, we trust, be possible to prove, that it was the most important event in the century in which it occurred ; and that it has exerted, and in all probability will yet exert, a far more wide and permanent influence upon both the civil and the religious history of mankind than has generally been even imagined.
We shall then be in a fit condition to investigate the proceedings of the Assembly itself, to understand their true character, to mark their direct bear- ing, and to trace their more remote results.
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Whether Henry actually began to entertain conscientious scruples respecting the lawfulness of his marriage with Katherine of Arragon, his brother Arthur's widow, before he became enamoured of Anne Boleyn, or whether his in- cipient affection for that lady induced him to devise a method of being released from his wife, is an inquiry of no great moment in itself, except as to its bearing on the character of the monarch. Suffice it to state, that the King consulted the Archbishop of Canterbury, and required him to procure the opinions of the bishops of England on the subject.
All, with the exception of Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, declared that in their judgment it was an un- lawful marriage. But as a Dispensation had been obtained from the Pope, before the marriage took place, it became necessary to procure a Papal recognition of the intended divorce ; which was a matter of no little difficulty, both because such a measure would seem to invalidate a previous Papal Bull, to the discredit of the doctrine of infallibility, and because there would arise a serious question respect- ing the legitimacy of the Princess Mary, and offence might be taken by the King of Spain.
All these dangers were clearly seen by Cardinal Wolsey ; who, accordingly, with- out venturing directly to oppose the King's desires, con- trived to cause delays, to procure evasive answers, and to protract the proceedings by every method which fear of the issue could prompt and deep craft could devise. At length 4 HISTORY OF THE Cranmer, till then a comparatively unknown man, sug- gested, that, instead of a long and fruitless negotiation at Rome, it would be better to consult all the learned men and universities of Christendom, to ascertain whether the marriage were unlawful in itself, by virtue of any Divine precept; for if that were proved, then it would follow, that the Pope's Dispensation could be of no force to make that lawful which God has declared unlawful.
Cranmer prosecuted the scheme which he had suggested so successfully, that he procured, both from the English universities, and from nearly all the learned men in Europe, answers to the effect, that the King's marriage Avas contrary to the law of God. These answers were laid before the Parliament, which met in January , and assented to by both Houses, as also by the Convocation of the Clergy, which was met at the same time.
Still the Pope had not consented ; and the hostility between him and Henry was necessarily increased by what had taken place regarding the proposed divorce. Henry was not disposed to pause now, till he should have secured his power over the clergy; and as they were all implicated in some of Wolsey's pro- ceedings, which had been declared to have involved him in a praemunire, they were held to be amenable to all its penalties. Their danger rendered them submissive, and in the Convocation at Canterbury, a petition was agreed upon to be offered to the King, in which he was styled, " The Protector and Supreme Head of the Church and the Clergy 1 Burnet's History of the Re formation, vol.
In May , he informed the House of Commons that he had learned that all the prelates, at their consecration, swore an oath quite contrary to that which they swore to the Crown — so that it seemed they were the Pope's subjects rather than his ; referring it to their care to take such order in it that the King might not be deluded. The prorogation of the Parliament prevented the immediate collision be- tween the civil and the ecclesiastical powers, which the investigation of that point would have caused ; but it was now abundantly evident on what the King had bent his mind.
The question respecting the Pope's supremacy was now the subject of inquiry and discussion throughout the kingdom ; and at length it was formally brought before Parliament, and on the 20th of March , a Bill was passed, abolishing Papal supremacy in England, and de- claring the King to be the Supreme Head of the Church of England ; and in the following June, a circular letter was sent by the King, not only to all the bishops, but also to all the justices of the peace, requiring the universal pro- mulgation of the decree respecting the abolition of the Pope's supremacy and the recognition of his own ; and em- powering the civil functionaries to ascertain whether the clergy did their duty sincerely.
The Westminster Assembly of Divines - The Westminster Presbyterian
And it rendered it at once a matter of utter impossibility for the Church of England to prose- cute its own reformation according to the deliberate judg- ment of its most enlightened members, whatever might be their opinion of the requirements of the Word of God. To this fatal dogma of the King's supremacy and headship of the Church of England may be directly traced nearly all the corruptions of that Church, and nearly all the subse- quent civil calamities of the British Isles.
Eor it would not be difficult to prove, that there can be no security for either civil or religious liberty in any country where the supreme civil and ecclesiastical jurisdictions are both pos- sessed by the same ruling power. It matters little whether the ruling power be ecclesiastical, holding the civil subor- dinate to it, as does the Papacy ; or civil, holding the ecclesiastical subordinate, as in the case of Henry and his successors ; for in either case the result is a despotism, under which the people must sink into utter degradation, or against which they are provoked, from time to time, to rise in all the dangerous fierceness of revolutionary con- vulsion.
But it is enough merely to suggest this view at present ; it will demand more particular examination in future stages of our inquiries. It was no difficult matter to convict these Popish institutions of such crimes and abominations as are not fit to be mentioned, " equal," says Burnet, " to any that were in Sodom ;" so that their suppression was but the sweeping away of a great moral nuisance, too loathsome any longer to be endured. It served, at the same time, as a measure by which the King's coffers were replenished, some of his favourites enriched, and the better part of the nation gratified by the removal of a system of enormities which had been long regarded with extreme detestation.
About the same time, it was resolved that the Bible should be translated into English, and pub- lished for the instruction of the community ; though this was strenuously resisted by a large proportion of the clergy, and carried only by the influence of Cranmer and the Queen. The fall of the Queen, which took place soon after, threat- ened to retard the progress of reformation, and the Pope attempted a reconciliation with the King. But Henry had no inclination to subject himself again to Papal control; and, following Cranmer' s advice, he proceeded to make further changes.
In the year , the Convocation were induced to agree to certain articles of religion, which were accordingly promulgated on the royal authority. In these articles, the standards of faith were declared to be — the Bible, the Apostolic, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds, and the decrees of the first four general Councils, without re- gard to tradition or the decrees of the Church ; and the doctrine of justification was declared to " signify remission of sins, and acceptation into the favour of God, that is to say, a perfect renovation in Christ ;" but auricular confes- sion was held to be necessary, the corporal presence of 8 HISTORY OF THE Christ in the sacrament was maintained, doing reverence to images and praying to saints were approved of, and various other corruptions and mere ceremonial observ- ances were left untouched.
But while the Reformers were re- joicing in this apparently rapid progress of the good work, their hopes were suddenly cast to the ground, and their prospects darkened. The very next year, the King on the pretext of putting an end to controversies in religion, re- quired a committee to be appointed for the purpose of drawing up articles of agreement, to which all might con- sent.
The committee could not agree, and the subject was brought before the House of Lords by the Duke of Norfolk, who named six articles for discussion. Notwith- standing the opposition of Cranmer, these articles were passed, and all the kingdom commanded to receive them, the penalty of opposition being imprisonment, forfeiture of property, or death as heretics.