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The Westminster Assembly (so called because of its meeting place) was summoned by the English Parliament in 1643. Its mission was to advise Parliament in restructing the Church of England along Puritan lines. To the assembly were invited 121 ministers (the "divines"), 10 members of the House of Lords, 20 of the Commons, plus 8 nonvoting (but influential) representatives of Scotland, which was allied to the English Parliament by a treaty, the "Solemn League and Covenant." Different views of church government were represented, presbyterianism being the dominant position. On theological matters, however, there was virtual unanimity in favor of a strong Calvinistic position, unequivocally rejecting what the assembly saw as the errors of Arminianism, Roman Catholicism, and sectarianism.
The assembly's Confession of Faith, completed in December, 1646, is the last of the classic Reformed confessions and by far the most influential in the English-speaking world. Though it governed the Church of England only briefly, it has been widely adopted (sometimes with amendments) by British and American Presbyterian bodies as well as by many Congregational and Baptist churches. It is well known for its thoroughness, precision, conciseness, and balance.
Notable elements are: (1) The opening chapter on Scripture, called by Warfield the best single chapter in any Protestant confession. (2) The mature formulation of the Reformed doctrine of predestination (chs. III, V, IX, XVII). It is noncommittal on the debate between supra- and infralapsarianism, but teaches clearly that God's will is the ultimate cause of all things, including human salvation. It teaches the doctrine of reprobation in very guarded terms (III. vii. viii.). It is careful to balance this teaching with a chapter on human freedom (IX). (3) The emphasis on covenants as the way in which God relates to his people through history (VII, esp.).
(4) Its doctrine of redemption structured according to God's acts (X-XIII) and human response (XIV-XVII), thus underscoring its "covenantal" balance between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. (5) Its Puritan doctrine of assurance (XVIII), a strong affirmation, yet more sensitive than other Reformed confessions to the subjective difficulties believers have in maintaining a conscious assurance. (6) Its strong affirmation of the law of God as perpetually binding the conscience of the believer, even though certain ceremonial and civil statutes are no longer in effect (XIX), balanced by a careful formulation of the nature of Christian liberty of conscience (XX). (7) Its Puritan view of the sabbath, regarding the day as a perpetual obligation, contrary to Calvin's Institutes and other Reformed writings. (8) The first clear confessional distinction between the visible and invisible church (XXV).
J M Frame
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)
D. Laing, ed., The Letters and Journals of Robert Baillie; S. W. Carruthers, The Westminster Confession for Today; W. Hetherington, History of the Westminster Assembly of Divines; A. Mitchell and J. Struthers, Minutes of the Sessions of the Westminster Assembly; J. Murray, "The Theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith," in Scripture and Confession, ed. J. Skilton; B. B. Warfield, The Westminster Assembly and Its Work; G. I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes.
After the Westminster Assembly completed its work on the confession, it focused its attention on preparation of a catechism. Its early attempts were frustrated, and a consensus developed that two catechisms would be needed, "one more exact and comprehensive, another more easier and short for new beginners." The Larger was intended for pulpit exposition, while the Shorter was intended for the instruction of children. These were completed, the Shorter in 1647 and the Larger in 1648. Both function as official standards of doctrine in many denominations today within the Reformed tradition. The Larger has, to a considerable extent, fallen into disuse, while the Shorter has been greatly used and loved, though many have found it too difficult to be an effective teaching aid for children.
The theology of the catechisms is the same as that of the confession. The catechisms (especially the Shorter) also share the confession's conciseness, precision, balance, and thoroughness. Neither breathes the warm, personal spirit of the Heidelberg Catechism, but it may be argued that some of the answers are equally memorable and edifying. Both are structured in two parts: (1) what we are to believe concerning God, and (2) what duty God requires of us. The first part recapitulates the basic teaching of the confession on God's nature, his creative and redemptive work. The second part contains (a) exposition of the Decalogue, (b) the doctrine of faith and repentance, and (c) the means of grace (word, sacrament, prayer, concluding with an exposition of the Lord's Prayer).
The Larger is sometimes thought to be overdetailed, even legalistic, in its exposition of the law. One emerges with an enormous list of duties that are difficult to relate to the simple commands of the Decalogue. There is truth in such criticisms, but those who urge them often fail to realize the importance of applying scriptual principles authoritatively to current ethical questions. Whatever we may think of their conclusions, the Westminster divines provide us with a good example of zealousness at that task.
J M Frame
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)
G. I. Williamson, The Shorter Catechism.
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