THE THEOLOGICAL PRODUCTIONS OF THE WESTMINSTER ASSEMBLY.
IT has been suggested repeatedly, that in order to render this work a full History of the Westminster Assembly, it ought to contain, at least, a brief sketch of its theological productions. This was not at first thought necessary, because as its chief production was the Confession of Faith, and as that was held to be almost universally known, there did not appear much need for any thing more than the mention of its name. But in deference to the opinion of others, a distinct chapter is now added to this edition, containing the suggested outline.
After having spent a few weeks in discussing the doctrines of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, the Assembly was required by the Parliament to direct its deliberations to the important topics of Discipline and a Directory of Worship and Church Government. On the 17th day of October 1643, accordingly, the Assembly took into consideration, first, the subject of Government. The whole matter was very fully argued, chiefly on scriptural grounds, during the remainder of that year, and throughout the whole of 1644, with numerous delays and interruptions; and when completed was not ratified by the English Parliament, but allowed to lie dormant in the hands of the Committee of Accommodation till June 1646. But a copy of it was transmitted to Scotland, laid before the General Assembly, and approved by that body on the 10th of February 1645. It contains a very distinct statement of the supremacy of Christ, of the Church, of its Office bearers, of Congregations and their Office bearers, of Church Courts and their jurisdiction through all their ascending gradations, – Sessions, Presbyteries, Provincial Synods, and General Assemblies, – and of all that relates to the Ordination of Ministers. These topics are all succinctly and clearly stated, and supported by proofs from Scripture. No other proof, by reasoning, or reference to tradition, or the practice of primitive Christianity, or of other Churches, is given; because the Assembly regarded nothing as having any authority in regard to the Church but the Word of God. But if any person should wish to know the reasoning of the Assembly on the subject of Church government, he may find them in their fullest form in the volume commonly designated "The Grand Debate."
The Directory of Public Worship was another of the strictly theological subjects which engaged the attention of the Westminster Assembly. As the whole Prelatic system had been abolished before the Assembly met, and as the enforcement of its Liturgy and ceremonies had already been the cause of such prolonged contests and excessive afflictions in England, till nearly all its truly evangelical ministers had been forced to join the Puritans, and in doing so had already adopted a purely scriptural form of public worship, the Assembly had little to do but to state, in their own well-weighed and concise terms, a Directory of Public Worship in which nearly all were already agreed. This was accordingly done during the course of 1644, its various topics being taken up from time to time, in the intervals between their discussions on more controverted matters. The Directory was transmitted to Scotland along with the subject of Church Government, and approved by the General Assembly on February 3, 1645. It will be found in the common editions of the volume usually designated the "Confession of Faith," from the most important portion. The topics of the Directory need not be here either enumerated or explained; but we may be permitted to recommend its very careful and repeated perusal by all ministers, and all who are preparing for the office of the ministry. They will find it both full of sound and well-expressed instruction, and eminently suggestive, – much more so, we anticipate, than they would readily expect.
When the Assembly was about to begin the important task of preparing a Catechism, it was suggested that it would be more prudent first to prepare a Confession of Faith, and then the Catechism might be so constructed as to contain no doctrinal proposition but what was in the Confession, and thereby be a preparatory training for the subsequent study of that graver work. The mode in which the Assembly carried on its work has been already described, and need not be repeated, further than by stating that a re-arrangement of the committees was made with express reference to the framing of the Confession, so that the primary committee, appointed to prepare and arrange the main propositions which were to be submitted to the Assembly, was composed entirely of its most able and learned divines.
These were, Dr. Hoyle, Dr. Gouge, Messrs Herle, Gataker, Tuckney, Reynolds, and Vines, with the four Scottish commissioners, Henderson, Rutherford, Baillie, and Gillespie. Henderson was already well prepared for entering on this most important task, having been requested by the General Assembly of the Scottish Church, in the year 1641 to draw up a new and full Confession of Faith, which the Church might adopt; and although this had not been actually produced, yet the subject had been thereby placed definitely before his capacious mind, and must have frequently engaged his thoughts.
These learned and able divines began their labors by arranging, in the most systematic order, the various great and sacred truths which God has revealed to man; and then reduced these to thirty-two distinct heads or chapters. These were again sub-divided into sections; and the committee formed themselves into several sub-committees, each of which took a specific topic, for the sake of exact and concentrated deliberation. When these sub-committees had completed their respective tasks, the whole results were laid before the entire committee, and any alterations suggested, and debated till all were of one mind, and fully agreed as to both doctrine and expression. And when any title or chapter had been thus thoroughly prepared by the committee, it was reported to the Assembly, and again subjected to the most minute and careful investigation, in every paragraph, sentence, and even word. All that learning the most profound and extensive, intellect the most acute and searching, and piety the most sincere and earnest, could accomplish, was thus concentrated in the Westminster Assembly’s Confession of Faith, which may be safely termed the most perfect statement of Systematic Theology ever framed by the Christian Church.
In the preliminary deliberations of the committee the Scottish divines took a leading part, for which they were peculiarly qualified; but no report of these deliberations either was or could be made public. The results alone appeared, when the committee, from time to time, laid its matured propositions before the Assembly. And it is gratifying to be able to add, that throughout the deliberations of the Assembly itself, when composing, or rather formally sanctioning, the Confession of Faith, there prevailed almost an entire harmony. There appear, indeed, to have been only two subjects on which any difference of opinion existed among them. The one of these was the doctrine of election, concerning which Baillie informs us that they had "long and tough debates;" the other was about the leading proposition of the chapter entitled, "Of Church Censures," viz., "The Lord Jesus, as King and Head of his Church, hath therein appointed a government in the hand of Church officers, distinct from the civil magistrate." This proposition the Assembly manifestly intended and understood to contain a principle directly and necessarily opposed to the very essence of Erastianism, and it was regarded in the same light by the Erastians themselves; hence it had to encounter their most strenuous opposition. It was, however, somewhat beyond the grasp of the lay members of the Assembly, especially since their champion, Selden, had in a great measure withdrawn from the debates after his signal discomfiture by Gillespie; and consequently it was carried triumphantly, the single dissentient voice being that of Lightfoot, the other Erastian divine, Coleman, having died before the conclusion of the debate. The framing of the Confession occupied the Assembly somewhat more than a year. After having been carefully transcribed, it was presented to the Parliament on the 3d of December 1646. The House of Commons required the proof by Scripture texts to be added. This also was done, and a completed copy again laid before the House on the 29th day of April 1647. Finally, on the 27th of August 1647, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland passed an act approving the Confession of Faith, with a caveat in the concluding sentence of that act, guarding against some portions of it which might be construed as yielding too much to the authority of the civil magistrate. This Act will be found in all the common editions of the Confession of Faith, and deserves to be noticed.
There have been many objections urged against the use of Creeds and Confessions of Faith; but almost the only objection which is now attempted with any degree of confidence, is that which accuses Confessions of usurping a position and authority due to divine truth alone. This objection itself has its origin in an erroneous view of what a Confession of Faith really is, and wherein the necessity of there being a Confession consists. That necessity does not lie in the nature of the truth revealed to man; but in the nature of the human mind itself. A Confession is not a revelation of divine truth, – it is "not even a rule of faith and practice, but a help in both," to use the words of the Westminster Confession itself; but it is a declaration of the manner in which any man, or number of men – any Christian, or any Church – understands the truth which has been revealed. Its object is, therefore, not to teach divine truth; but to exhibit a clear, systematic, and intelligible declaration of our own sentiments, and to furnish the means of ascertaining the opinions of others, especially on religious doctrines.
The Christian Church, as a divine institution, takes the Word of God alone, and the whole Word of God, as her only rule of faith; but she must also frame and promulgate a statement of what she understands the Word of God to teach. This she does, not as arrogating any authority to suppress, change, or amend anything that God’s Word teaches; but in discharge of the various duties which she owes to God, to the world, and to those of her own communion. Since she has been constituted the depositary of God’s truth, it is her duty to him to state, in the most distinct and explicit terms, what she understands that truth to mean. In this manner she not only proclaims what God has said, but also appends her seal that God is true. Thus a Confession of Faith is not the very voice of divine truth, but the echo of that voice from souls that have heard its utterance, felt its power, and are answering to its call. And, since she has been instituted for the purpose of teaching God’s truth to an erring world, her duty to the world requires that she should leave it in no doubt respecting the manner in which she understands the message which she has to deliver. Without doing so, the Church would be no teacher, and the world might remain untaught, so far as she was concerned. For when the message had been stated in God’s own words, every hearer must attempt, according to the constitution of his own mind, to form some conception of what these words mean; and his conceptions may be very vague and obscure, or even very erroneous, unless some attempt be made to define, elucidate, and correct them. Nor, indeed, could either the hearers or the teachers know that they understood the truth alike, without mutual statements and explanations with regard to the meaning which they respectively believe it to convey. Still further, the Church has a duty to discharge to those of its own communion. To them she must produce a form of sound words, in order both to promote and confirm their knowledge, and also to guard them against the hazard of being led into errors; and, as they must be regarded as all agreed, with respect to the main outline of the truths which they believe, they are deeply interested in obtaining some security that those who are to become their teachers in future generations shall continue to teach the same divine and saving truths. The members of any Church must know each other’s sentiments; must combine to hold them forth steadily and consistently to the notice of all around them, as witnesses for the same truths; and must do their utmost to secure that the same truths shall be taught by all their ministers, and to all candidates for admission. For all these purposes the formation of a Creed, or Confession of Faith, is imperatively necessary; and thus it appears that a Church cannot adequately discharge its duty to God, to the world, and to its own members, without a Confession of Faith.
There never has been a period in which the Christian Church has been without a Confession of Faith, though these Confessions have varied both in character and in extent. The first and simplest Confession is that of Peter: "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." That of the Ethiopian treasurer is similar, and almost identical: "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God." This Confession secured admission into the Church; but without this, admission could not have been obtained. It was not long till this simple and brief primitive Confession was enlarged; at first, in order to meet the perverse notions of the Judaizing teachers, and next, to exclude those who were beginning to be tainted with the Gnostic heresies. It then became necessary, not only to confess that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, but also that Jesus Christ was come in the flesh, in order to prevent the admission, and to check the teaching, of those who held that Christ’s human nature was a mere phantasm or appearance. In like manner the rise of any heresy rendered it necessary, first, to test the novel tenet by the Word of God and by the decision of the Holy Spirit, and then to add to the existing Confession of Faith a new article, containing the deliverance of the Church respecting each successive heresy. Thus, in the discharge of her duty to God, to the world, and to herself, the Church was constrained to enlarge the Confession of her Faith. But this unavoidable enlargement ought not to be censured as unnecessarily lengthened and minute; for, let it be observed, that it led to a continually increasing clearness and precision in the testimony of what the Church believes, and tended to the progressive development of sacred truth. Further, as the need of a Confession arises from the nature of the human mind, and the enlargement of the Confession was caused by the successive appearance and refutation of error, and as the human mind is still the same, and prone to the same erroneous notions, the Confession of Faith, which contains a refutation of past heresies, furnishes, at the same time, to all who understand it, a ready weapon wherewith to encounter any resuscitated heresy. The truth of this view will be most apparent to those who have most carefully studied the various Confessions of Faith framed by the Christian Church. And it must ever be regarded as a matter of no small importance by those who seek admission into any Church, that in its Confession they can obtain a full exhibition of the terms of communion to which they are required to consent. The existence of a Confession of Faith is ever a standing defense against the danger of any Church lapsing unawares into heresy. For although no Church ought to regard her Confession as a standard of faith, in any other than a subordinate sense, still it is a standard of admitted faith, which the Church may not lightly abandon, and a term of communion to its own members, till its articles are accused of being erroneous, and again brought to the final and supreme standard, the Word of God and the teaching of the Holy Spirit, sincerely, humbly, and earnestly sought in faith and prayer.
The first thing which must strike any thoughtful reader, after having carefully and studiously perused the Westminster Assembly’s Confession of Faith, is the remarkable comprehensiveness and accuracy of its character, viewed as a systematic exhibition of divine truth, or what is termed a system of theology. In this respect it may be regarded as almost perfect, both in its arrangement and in its completeness. Even a single glance over its table of contents will show with what exquisite skill its arrangement proceeds, from the statement of first principles to the regular development and final consummation of the whole scheme of revealed truth. Nothing essential is omitted; and nothing is extended to a length disproportioned to its due importance. Too little attention, perhaps, has been shown to the Confession in this respect; and we are strongly persuaded that it might be very advantageously used in our theological halls as a textbook. This, at least, may be affirmed, that no private Christian could fail to benefit largely from a deliberate and studious perusal and re-perusal of the Confession of Faith, for the express purpose of obtaining a clear and systematic conception of sacred truth, both as a whole, and with all its parts so arranged as to display their relative importance, and their mutual bearing upon, and illustration of, each other. Such a deliberate perusal would also tend very greatly to fortify the mind against the danger of being led astray by crude notions, or induced to attribute undue importance to some favorite doctrine, to the disparagement of others not less essential, and with serious injury to the harmonious analogy of faith.
There is another characteristic of the Westminster Confession to which still less attention has been generally directed, but which is not less remarkable. Framed, as it was, by men of distinguished learning and ability, who were thoroughly conversant with the history of the Church from the earliest times till the period in which they lived, it contains the calm and settled judgment of these profound divines on all previous heresies and subjects of controversy which had in any age or country agitated the Church. This it does without expressly naming even one of these heresies, – the great Antichristian system alone excepted, – or entering into mere controversy. Each error is condemned, not by a direct statement and refutation of it, but by a clear, definite, and strong statement of the converse truth. There was, in this mode of exhibiting the truth, singular wisdom combined with equally singular modesty. Every thing of an irritating nature is suppressed, and the pure and simple truth alone displayed; while there is not only no ostentatious parade of superior learning, but even a concealment of learning the most accurate and profound. A hasty or superficial reader of the Confession of Faith will scarcely perceive that, in some of its apparently simple propositions, he is perusing an acute and conclusive refutation of the various heresies and controversies that have corrupted and disturbed the Church. Yet, if he will turn to Church history, make himself acquainted with its details, and resume his study of the Confession, he will often be surprised to find in one place the wild theories of the Gnostics dispelled; in another, the Arian and Socinian heresies set aside; in another, the very essence of the Papal system annihilated; and in another, the basis of all Pelagian and Arminian errors removed. Thus viewed, the Confession of Faith might be so connected with one aspect of Church history as to furnish, if not a text-book according to chronological arrangement, in studying the rise and refutation of heresies, yet a valuable arrangement of their relative importance, doctrinally considered. And when we advert to the fact, that owing to the sameness of the human mind in all ages, there is a perpetually recurring tendency to reproduce an old and exploded error, as if it were a new discovery of some hitherto unknown or neglected truth, it must be obvious that were the peculiar excellence of our Confession, as a deliverance on all previously existing heresies, better known and more attended to, there would be great reason to hope that their reappearance would be rendered almost impossible, or, at least, that their growth would be very speedily and effectually checked.
Closely connected with this excellence of the Confession of Faith is its astonishing precision of thought and language. The whole mental training of the eminent divines of that period led to this result. They were accustomed to cast every argument into the syllogistic form, and to adjust all its terms with the utmost care and accuracy. Every one who has studied the propositions of the Confession must have remarked their extreme precision; but, without peculiar attention, he may not perceive the exquisite care which these divines must have bestowed on this part of their great work. This may be best shown by an instance. Let us select one from chapter 3, "On God’s Eternal Decree," sections 3 and 4: "By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life, and others foreordained to everlasting death. These angels and men thus predestinated and foreordained," etc. The expressions to which we wish to draw the reader’s attention are the words predestinated and foreordained. A hasty or superficial reader might perceive no difference between these words. But if so, why are they both used? for there is no instance of mere tautological repetition in the concise language of the Confession. But further, let it be well remarked that the word "predestinated" is used only in connection with "everlasting life," and the word "foreordained" with "everlasting death." And when the compound form of the proposition is assumed, both terms are used to represent each its respective member in the general affirmation. Why is this the case? Because the Westminster Divines did not understand the meaning of the terms predestination and foreordination to be identical, and therefore never used these words as synonymous. By predestination they meant a positive decree determining to confer everlasting life ; and this they regarded as the basis of the whole doctrine of free grace, arising from nothing in man, but having for its divine origin the character and sovereignty of God. By foreordination, on the other hand, they meant a decree of order, or arrangement, determining that the guilty should be condemned to everlasting death ; and this they regarded as the basis of judicial procedure, according to which God "ordains men to dishonor and wrath for their sin," and having respect to man’s own character and conduct. Let it be further remarked, that while, according to this view, the term predestination could never with propriety be applied to the lost, the term foreordination might be applied to the saved, since they also are the subjects, in one sense, of judicial procedure. Accordingly there is no instance in the Confession of Faith where the term predestination is applied to the lost, though there are several instances where the term foreordination, or a kindred term, is applied to the saved. And let this also be marked, that the term reprobation, which is so liable to be misunderstood and applied in an offensive sense to the doctrine of predestination, is not even once used in the Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. Later writers on that doctrine have indeed employed that word, as older writers had done, and had thereby furnished occasion to the opponents of the doctrine to misrepresent it; but the Westminster Divines cautiously avoided the use of an offensive term, carefully selected such words as were best fitted to convey their meaning, and in every instance used them with the most strict and definite precision. Many other examples might be given of the remarkable accuracy of thought and language which forms a distinguished characteristic of the Confession of Faith; but we must content ourselves with suggesting the line of investigation, leaving it to every reader to prosecute it for himself.
Another decided and great merit of the Confession consists in the clear and well-defined statement which it makes of the principles on which alone can securely rest the great idea of the coordination, yet mutual support, of the civil and the ecclesiastical jurisdictions. It is but too usual for people to misunderstand those parts of the Confession which treat of these jurisdictions, – some accusing them of containing Erastian concessions, and others charging them with being either lawless or intolerant. The truth is, they favor no extreme. Proceeding upon the sacred rule, to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s, they willingly ascribe to the civil magistrate a supreme power in the State, – all that belongs to his province, not merely with regard to his due authority over the persons and property of men, but also with regard to what pertains to his own official mode of rendering homage to the King of kings. It is in this latter department of magisterial duty that what is called the power of the civil magistrate circa sacra – about religious matters – consists. But there his province ends, and he has no power in sacris – in religious matters. This is most carefully guarded in the leading proposition of chapter thirty: – "THE LORD JESUS, AS KING AND HEAD OF HIS CHURCH, HATH THEREIN APPOINTED A GOVERNMENT IN THE HAND OF CHURCH OFFICERS, DISTINCT FROM THE CIVIL MAGISTRATE." The leading Erastians of that period, learned and subtle as they were, felt it impossible to evade the force of that proposition, and could but refuse to give to it the sanction of the Legislature. They could not, however, prevail upon the Assembly either to modify or suppress it; and there it remains, and must remain, as the unanswered and unanswerable refutation of the Erastian heresy by the Westminster Assembly of Divines. In modern times it has been too much the custom of the opponents of Erastianism tacitly to grant the Erastian argument, – or, at least, the principle on which it rests, – by admitting, or even asserting, that if a Church be established, it must cease to have a separate and independent jurisdiction, and must obey the laws of the State, even in spiritual matters; but then declaring, that as this is evidently wrong, there ought to be no Established Church. There is more peril to both civil and religious liberty in this mode of evading Erastianism than is commonly perceived; for if it were generally admitted that an Established Church ought to be subject, even in spiritual matters, to the civil jurisdiction of the State, then would civil rulers have a direct and admitted interest in establishing a Church, not for the sake of promoting Christianity, nor with the view of rendering homage to the Prince of the kings of the earth, but for the purpose of employing the Church as a powerful engine of State policy. That they would avail themselves of such an admission is certain; and this would necessarily tend to produce a perilous contest between the defenders of religious liberty and the supporters of arbitrary power; and if the issue should be the triumph of Erastianism, that issue would inevitably involve the loss of both civil and religious liberty in the blending of the two jurisdictions, – which is the very essence of absolute despotism. Of this the framers of our Confession were well aware; and therefore they strove to procure the well-adjusted and mutual counterpoise and cooperation of the two jurisdictions, as the best safeguards of both civil and religious liberty, and as founded on the express authority of the Word of God. It never yet has been proved, from either Scripture or reason, that they were wrong, although their views have been much misunderstood and grievously misrepresented.
The Confession of Faith has often been accused of advocating intolerant and persecuting principles. It is, however, in truth, equally free from latitudinarian laxity on the one hand, and intolerance on the other. An intelligent and candid perusal of chapter twenty, "On Christian Liberty, and Liberty of Conscience," ought of itself to refute all such calumnies. The mind of man never produced a truer or nobler proposition than the following: – "God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are in anything contrary to His Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship." The man who can comprehend, entertain, and act upon that principle, can never arrogate an overbearing and intolerant authority over the conscience of his fellow man, much less wield against him the weapons of remorseless persecution. But there is a very prevalent, and yet very false, method of thinking, or pretending to think, respecting toleration and liberty of conscience. Many seem to be of opinion that toleration consists in making no distinction between truth and error, but regarding them with equal favor; which was precisely the theory of Nye and his brethren, and also of Cromwell – till they were in possession of power, but no longer. This opinion, if carefully analyzed, would be found to be essentially of an infidel character. Many seem to think that by liberty of conscience is meant, that every man should be at liberty to act in every thing according to his own inclination, without regard to the feelings, convictions, and rights of other men. This would, indeed, be to convert liberty into lawlessness, and to make conscience of licentiousness. But the Confession proceeds upon the principle that truth can be distinguished from error, right from wrong; that though conscience cannot be compelled, it may be enlightened; and that when sinful, corrupt, and prone to licentiousness, men may be lawfully restrained from the commission of such excesses as are offensive to public feeling, and injurious to the moral welfare of the community. If this be intolerance, it is a kind of intolerance of which none will complain but those who wish to be free from all restraint of law, human and divine. Nothing, in our opinion, but a willful determination to misrepresent the sentiments expressed in the Confession of Faith, or a culpable degree of willful ignorance respecting the true meaning of these sentiments, could induce any man to accuse it of favoring intolerant and persecuting principles. Certainly the conduct of those who framed it gave no ground for such an accusation, though that calumny has been often and most pertinaciously asserted. On this point also it would be well if people would take the trouble to ascertain what precise meaning the framers of the Confession gave to the words which they employed; for it is not doing justice to them and their work to adopt some modern acceptation of a term used by them in a different sense, and then to charge them with holding the sentiment conveyed by the modern use or misuse of that term. Yet this is the method almost invariably employed by the assailants of the Confession of Faith. It may be readily admitted that the Westminster Divines used expressions in reference to what was called "unlimited toleration" which were not only strong and severe, but harsh, and susceptible of being so construed as to have a persecuting aspect, – expressions which would not now be used. But let it be also remembered, that these expressions were not employed against the principle of toleration itself, rightly understood. They were aimed against that licentiousness which was claimed as a cover to immoralities too horrible to be named, and to civil misdemeanors, perpetrated in the name of religion, fatal to the very existence of society. The avowed toleration of such atrocities by an Assembly of Divines would have amounted to nothing less than a proclaimed dissolution of all law, civil, moral, and religious, human and divine.
A few remarks may be made with regard to the plan according to which the Confession is constructed. A Confession of Faith is simply a declaration of belief in religious truths, not scientifically discovered by man, but divinely revealed to man. While, therefore, there may fairly be a question whether a course of Systematic Theology should begin with disquisitions relative to the being and character of God, as revealed, or with an inquiry what Natural Theology can teach, proceeding thence to the doctrines of Revelation, there can be no question that a Confession of Faith in revealed religion ought to begin with that revelation itself. This is the plan adopted by the Westminster Confession. It begins with a chapter on the Holy Scriptures; then follows four chapters on the nature, decrees, and works of God in creation and providence: and these five chapters form a distinct division, systematically viewed, of the Confession. The next division relates to the Fall and consequent miserable condition of man, the Remedy divinely provided, its nature, mode of application, and results as effectually applied: and this division, beginning with the sixth chapter, ends with the eighteenth. The next two chapters, relating to subjects of such deep and comprehensive importance as the Law of God and the Liberty of Conscience, may well be regarded as themselves constituting a third division. The fourth, beginning with the chapter on Religious Worship, and proceeding with the various relations between the visible church and the world, contains eleven chapters, from the twenty-first to the thirty-first, inclusive of both. The two remaining chapters, looking forward to the future so far as that has been revealed, conclude the Confession. This plan, when rightly understood, appears, as we venture to think, as perfect as any uninspired production can well be, and it is so because it closely follows the course and language of inspiration.
Some captious objections may be made to a few expressions which have either become obsolete, or have undergone a change of meaning by the modifications incident to every living language in the lapse of time, and by the progress of cultivation. But any slight obscurity thus occasioned may be easily removed, either by referring to the writings of that age, or by the insertion in modern editions of two or three glossarial notes. In one instance there may seem to be a collision between the statement of the Confession on the subject of Creation, and the discoveries and deductions of Geology; but as this is not greater than the apparent disagreement between the Bible and Geology, it will of course be removed whenever the Mosaic record and Geology have been reconciled; till then, those who subscribe the Confession of Faith are in no worse condition than those who believe the Bible, and may safely allow science to prosecute its investigations without anxiety and alarm, confident in this, that when these apparently conflicting inquiries have been fully elucidated, it will be found that the truth of God’s works has but confirmed the truth of God’s Word.
A plan similar to that already described was also employed in preparing those admirable digests of Christian doctrine, the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, and so far as can be ascertained, by the same committee. For a time, indeed, they attempted to prosecute the framing of both Confession and Catechisms at once; but after some progress had been made with both, the Assembly resolved to finish the Confession first, for reasons already stated. By this arrangement they wisely avoided the danger of subsequent debate and delay. Various obstacles, however, interposed, and so greatly impeded the progress of the Assembly, that the Catechisms were not so speedily completed as had been expected. They were at length presented to the House of Commons, the Shorter on the 5th of November 1647, and the Larger on the 14th of April 1648. Both were transmitted to Scotland, carefully examined by the General Assembly, and approved, – the Larger by an Act passed on the 2d July 1648, and the Shorter, on the 28th July 1648.
It is not necessary to state the systematic method of the Catechisms, as that has been done with regard to the Confession, which they closely followed, with one very important exception, – the Catechisms contain nothing relative to Church government, but are purely doctrinal. This might arise very naturally from the consideration, that as a catechism is intended chiefly for the use of children, it ought not to contain any thing unsuited to their period of life and stage of mental development. This very prudent omission has already been productive of the most beneficial results, from the ready access which it secured to all parties who agreed in doctrine, but contended fiercely on the subjects of form and government. Results, even more beneficial than ever, may be hoped for as likely to arise from the same happy omission. Scottish Presbyterianism, split asunder as it is into three great sections, yet all retaining their hereditary regard for the Shorter Catechism, so long used as the very basis of Scottish education, may yet combine in determining that it shall not cease to be universally employed in conveying religious instruction to the minds of their children, and their children’s children through all succeeding generations. Such a result would itself secure that the labors of the Westminster Assembly had not been in vain.
There is one anecdote connected with the formation of the Shorter Catechism, both full of interest and so very beautiful that it must not be omitted. In one of the earliest meetings of the committee, the subject of deliberation was to frame an answer to the question, "What is God?" Each man felt the unapproachable sublimity of the divine idea suggested by these words; but who could venture to give it expression in human language! All shrunk from the too sacred task in awestruck, reverential fear. At length it was resolved, as an expression of the committee’s deep humility, that the youngest member should make the attempt. He modestly declined, then reluctantly consented; but begged that the brethren would first unite with him in prayer for divine enlightenment. Then in slow and solemn accents he thus began his prayer: – "O God, thou art a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in thy being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth." When he ceased, the first sentence of his prayer was immediately written by one of the brethren, read, and adopted, as the most perfect answer that could be conceived, – as, indeed, in a very sacred sense, God’s own answer, given to prayer and in prayer, descriptive of himself. Who, then, was the youngest member of the committee? When we compare the birth-dates of the respective members of the committee, we find that George Gillespie was the youngest by more than a dozen years. We may, therefore, safely conclude that George Gillespie was the man who was thus spiritually guided to frame almost unconsciously this marvelous answer.
The only other productions of the Westminster Assembly were controversial rather than theological, although much directly religious truth is contained and earnestly enforced in those productions. They have been already mentioned, namely, "The Reasons of Dissent, together with the Answers of the Assembly;" which work is also known by the title of "The Grand Debate." Closely connected with this is another but much smaller work, entitled, "Answer to a Copy of a Remonstrance," etc. This production is now very rarely to be met with, and deserves to be republished, as a complete vindication of the Assembly against the insinuations of their opponents then and detractors since. I have already stated my strong conviction that the work entitled "Jus Divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici; or, The Divine Right of Church Government," although bearing to be "By sundry Ministers of Christ within the City of London," if not directly the production of the Assembly, at least contains the answer prepared by them to the queries concerning the jus divinum proposed by the Parliament. A subsequent examination and comparison of this work with other kindred works by members of the Assembly, strongly confirms that opinion, which I would thus express: – The Jus Divinum of the city ministers appears to me to be both virtually and substantially the Assembly’s Answer to the Parliament, containing actually that very Answer as prepared by them; but with such additional amplifications in statement and illustrations, by the city ministers themselves, as might both render it more complete and fit for publication as a distinct work on the subject, and at the same time entitle them to publish it on their own responsibility. This work well deserves to be republished, with such explanatory notes as might adapt it to the present age; for the principles which it states and advocates have not yet been received as they ought, – as they must and will, before there can be a reign of righteousness and peace.
We have already made some remarks on the necessity for the existence of Creeds and Confessions, and the important purposes subserved by these subordinate standards; and we resume that view for the purpose of stating the inference to which it ought to lead. Since a Church cannot exist without some Confession, or mode of ascertaining that its members are agreed in their general conception of what they understand divine truth to mean; and since the successive rise of heretical opinions, and their successive refutation, necessarily tend to an enlargement of the Confession, and at the same time to an increasing development of the knowledge of divine truth, ought it not to follow that the various Confessions of separate Churches would have a constant tendency to approximate, till they should all blend in one harmonious Confession of one Church general? No one who has studied a Harmony of Protestant Confessions can hesitate to admit that this is a very possible, as it is a most desirable result. When, further, we rise to that spiritual element to which also our attention has been directed, we may anticipate an increasing degree of enlightenment in the Christian Church, bestowed by the Holy Spirit, in answer to the earnest prayers of sincere and humble faith, which will greatly tend to hasten forward and secure an amount of Christian unity in faith and love far beyond what has existed since the times of the apostles. Entertaining this pleasing idea, we might expect both that the latest Confession of Faith framed by a Protestant Church would be the most perfect, and also that it might form a basis of evangelical union to the whole Church. To some this may seem a startling, or even an extravagant idea. But let it be remembered, that, owing to a peculiar series of unpropitious circumstances, the Westminster Assembly’s Confession of Faith has never yet been adequately known to the Christian Churches. By the Scottish Church alone was it fully received; and in consequence of the various events which have since befallen that Church, comparatively little attention has been paid to the Confession of Faith till recent times. It is now, we trust, in the process of becoming more known and better understood than formerly; and we feel assured that the more it is known and the better it is understood, the more highly will its great and varied excellences be estimated. This will tend, at the same time, to direct to it the attention of other Churches; and we cannot help anticipating the degree of surprise which will be felt by many ingenuous minds, that they had remained so long unacquainted with a production of such remarkable value.
Such a result would be the realization of the great idea entertained by the leading members of the Westminster Assembly, and especially by the Scottish commissioners, – with whom, indeed, it originated. No narrow and limited object could satisfy the desires and anticipations of these enlightened and large-hearted men. With one comprehensive glance they surveyed the condition of Christendom and the world, – marked its necessities, and contemplated the remedy. Thus they formed the great, and even sublime idea of a Protestant union throughout Christendom; not merely for the purpose of counterbalancing Popery, but in order to purify, strengthen, and unite all true Christian Churches; so that, with combined energy and zeal, they might go forth, in glad compliance with the Redeemer’s command, teaching all nations, and preaching the everlasting gospel to every creature under heaven. Such was the magnificent conception of men whom it has been too much the fashion to stigmatize as narrow-minded bigots. It is not in the heart of a bigot that a love able to embrace Christendom could be cherished, – it is not in the mind of a bigot that an idea of such moral sublimity could be conceived. It may be said, no doubt, that this idea was premature. Premature it was in one sense, for it could not be then realized; but the statement of it was not premature, for it was the statement of the grand result which ought to have been produced by the Reformation. In still another sense it was not premature, any more than it is premature to sow the seed in spring from which we expect to reap the autumnal harvest. The seed must be sown before the harvest can be produced, – the idea must be stated before it can be realized. It must then be left to work its way into the mind of man, – to grow, and strengthen, and enlarge, till in due time it shall produce its fruit in its season.
May it not be hoped that the fruit-bearing season is at hand? A time of refreshing and revival has come; the lethargic sleep of a century has passed away; the awakening throb of Christian life is high and warm; and again, snapping her benumbing bands asunder, the Church is going forth on her heavenly mission with renewed energy and power. All things seem hastening forward to some mighty change or development. On all sides the elements of evil are mustering with almost preternatural rapidity and strength. Popery has, to an unexpected degree, recovered from its deadly wound and its exhausted weakness, and is putting forth its destructive energies in every quarter of the world, especially in the high regions of political intrigue and diplomatic management. Numerous and startling are the coincidences which are appearing between the period of the Westminster Assembly and the present time. So strong are these, that they force upon a reflecting mind the thought that all human events move in revolving cycles, one age but producing a renewed aspect of the past. In England the dread aspect of Laudean Prelacy has re-appeared – called, indeed, by a new name, but displaying all the formidable characteristics of its predecessor – the same in its lofty pretensions, in its Popish tendencies, in its supercilious contempt of every other Church, and in its persecuting spirit. The civil government appears to be impelled by something like infatuation, and is introducing, or giving countenance to, measures that are darkly ominous to both civil and religious liberty, as if hastening onward to a crisis which all may shudder to contemplate. The masses of the community are in a state ripe for any convulsion, however terrible, having been left for generations uneducated and uninstructed in religious truth. The Scottish Ecclesiastical Establishment has been rent asunder; its constitution has been changed, or rather subverted; and those who firmly maintained the principles of the Westminster Assembly have been constrained to separate from the State, in order to preserve these principles unimpaired. The true Presbyterian Church of Scotland is again disestablished, as she has been in former times; but she is Free – free to maintain all those sacred principles bequeathed to her by reformers, and divines, and martyrs – free to offer to all other evangelical Churches the right hand of brotherly love and fellowship – free to engage with them in the formation of a great evangelical union, on the firm basis of sacred and eternal truth. Surely these concurring events are enough to constrain all who are able to comprehend them, to long for some sure rallying ground on which the defenders of religious truth and liberty may plant their standard. Such a rallying ground we think the Confession of Faith would afford, were its principles carefully considered and fully understood.
But revolving cycles, though similar, are not identical. Each has in itself some characteristics of a peculiar nature, and to that extent part of its characteristics may terminate in its own period, and part may survive and expand into the new revolving movement. Thus, while the course of human events is one of revolving cycles, one tends to produce another, and that to expand and perfect what it received, and also to transmit its own new influences to its successor, – all combining to carry on the ripening and widening movements that make the world’s history. The truth of this view may be seen by closely marking the characteristics of the conflict which shook the nations two hundred years ago, and that which has begun to shake them now. At the Reformation, the idea of separate and coordinate jurisdictions, civil and ecclesiastical, was introduced; but the supreme civil power wished to combine and possess both, and this gave rise to what has been called Erastianism. At first, however, the conflict was waged chiefly respecting uniformity in matters external, and submission to all civil decrees concerning rites, ceremonies, vestments, and common prayer. Subsequently, it related to a still more important point – discipline. On all these matters the unscriptural encroachments of the civil power were resisted, – not so much, in some instances, because of their importance, as because of the principle which they involved. But the recent, and still present and pending struggle, regards the actual assumption of supremacy by civil courts over spiritual courts as such; and is therefore of a much more formidable character than that in which our ancestors were engaged. The ancient contest was founded ostensibly on the desirableness of national uniformity in public worship; the modern is founded ostensibly on the fact of endowments, and on the civil rights which such endowments are said to involve or confer. The ancient contest was waged on the ground of the royal prerogative; the modern, on the ground of abstract law. In the ancient struggle the two kingdoms of England and Scotland strove to preserve both civil and religious liberty; and though for a time both seemed lost, yet the result was, the complete gaining and establishing of the former by the Revolution of 1688, and the full settlement of the British Constitution: in the modern struggle religious liberty has yet to be asserted, defended, and secured, and that, too, against a power in many respects more formidable than any that has hitherto been encountered by the Christian Church – the power of abstract law, in what is assumed to be a free country, and in which religious toleration is understood to be maintained. Hence it is, that whatever even seems to oppose the decisions of courts of law, must expect to be overwhelmed with reproach and contumely; as if human law were infallible, and whatever opposed it were necessarily wildly and intolerably wrong. The Erastianism of human law is Erastianism in its most pernicious and terrible aspect; and if triumphant, can end in nothing but the entire destruction of religious liberty, and consequently of true religion itself. Its direct aim is the abolition of spiritual courts; and so far as Establishments are concerned, it has succeeded; for that is no true spiritual court which either cannot meet without the permission of the civil authority, or where not merely its decisions can be reviewed and reversed by one of a different character, but where the judges themselves can be punished for their conscientious judgments. And since the Lord Jesus Christ instituted a government in his Church, the loss of spiritual courts is the loss of that government, and necessarily the loss of direct union with the Head and King of the Church, – which is, in other and plainer words, the loss of spiritual life and true religion.
The cycle in which we live displays much of the impress of its predecessor, and has also duties, advantages, and perils of its own. It may not be now either premature or too late to cherish the hope of at length accomplishing the Christian enterprise for which the Westminster Assembly met together; and of realizing the great idea which filled the minds of its most eminent Christian patriots. The wide diffusion of knowledge, the rapid communication of thought and action from clime to clime, and the very progress of events in the world’s history, have rendered many a mighty undertaking of easy achievement now, which, two centuries ago, was utterly impossible. And what was gained then furnishes now a vantage-ground on which the struggle may be more propitiously waged. Civil liberty and religious toleration are citadels not certainly impregnable, but not easily to be reduced. It is equally the duty and the interest of all who value these to unite in their defense; for the loss of them to one class of British citizens, or to one Church in Britain, would issue in the loss of them to all. Let but the attempt be made, in the spirit of faith, and prayer, and sincerity, and love unfeigned, and there may now be realized a religious union embracing all true Christians.
The errors which prevented the success of the Westminster Assembly may be to us beacons, both warning from danger and guiding on to safety. In their case, political influence and intrigue formed one baneful element of deadly power. Let all political influence be distrusted and avoided, and let political intrigue be utterly unknown in all our religious deliberations. In times of trouble and alarm, "Trust not in princes, nor in the sons of men," with its divine counterpart, "Trust in the Lord, and stay yourselves upon your God," should be the watchword and reply of all true Christian Churches. Dissensions among brethren, groundless jealousies, and misconstructions, and want of openness and candor, were grievously pernicious to the Westminster Assembly. If the Presbyterians and the Independents could have banished the spirit of dissension, expelled all petty jealousy, and laid their hearts open to each other in godly simplicity and sincerity, all the uniformity that was really necessary might have been easily obtained. And if all truly evangelical Christians, whether they be Presbyterians, or Independents, or Baptists, or Methodists, or Episcopalians, such as some that could be named, would but give full scope to their already existing and strong principles and feelings of faith and hope and love, there could be little difficulty in framing such a Christian union, – term it Presbyterian or Evangelical, so that it be truly scriptural, – as might be able, by the blessing and the help of God, to stem and bear back the growing and portentous tide of Popery and infidelity, that threaten, with their proud waves, once more to overwhelm the world.
Has not the time for this great evangelical and scriptural union come? It is impossible for any one to look abroad upon the general aspect of the world with even a hasty glance, without perceiving indications of an almost universal preparation for some great event. The nations of the earth are again still – not in peace, but, like wearied combatants, resting on their arms a brief breathing space, that, with recovered strength and quickened animosity, they may spring anew to the mortal struggle. During this fallacious repose there has been, and there is, an exertion of the most intense and restless activity, by principles the most fiercely hostile, for the acquisition of partisans. Despotism and democracy, superstition and infidelity, have alike been mustering their powers and calling forth their energies, less, apparently, for mutual destruction, according to their wont and nature, than in order to form an unnatural coalition and conspiracy against the very existence of free, pure, and spiritual Christianity. Nor, in one point of view, has Christianity been recently lying supine and dormant. Many a noble enterprise for the extension of the gospel at home and abroad has been planned and executed; and the great doctrines of saving truth have been clearly explained and boldly proclaimed, with earnest warmth and uncompromising faithfulness. A time of refreshing also has come from the presence of the Lord, – a spirit of revival has been poured forth upon the thirsty Church, and the hearts of Christian brethren have learned to melt and blend with a generous and rejoicing sympathy, to which they had too long been strangers. Can all these things be beheld and passed lightly over, as leading to nothing, and portending nothing? That were little short of blind infatuation. What they do fully portend it were presumptuous to say; but it is not difficult to say for what they form an unprecedented preparation. What now prevents a world-wide evangelical and scriptural union? "All things are prepared; come to the marriage." "If ye love ME, love one another." "Because HE laid down his life for us, we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren." Had these been fully the principles and rules of conduct of the Westminster Assembly, its great idea might have been realized. Let them be those that animate and guide all Christian Churches now. They have been felt in our great unions for prayer; they should be felt by all who venerate and can understand the standards of the Westminster Assembly. And if they be, then may we not only accomplish the object of its Solemn League and Covenant, concur in its Confession of Faith, and realize its great idea of a general evangelical union; but we may also, if such be the will of our Divine Head and King, be mightily instrumental in promoting the universal propagation of the gospel, and drawing down from above the fulfilled answer of that sacred prayer in which we all unite, – "THY KINGDOM COME : THY WILL BE DONE IN EARTH, AS IT IS IN HEAVEN."