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The Assembly Subscribes the Solemn League & Covenant [1643]

Dr. Will Barker, former president of Covenant Theological Seminary and professor of church history at the Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, has written of “The Men and the Parties” that comprised the Westminster Assembly of Divines. The full text of this article can be found here: http://www.graceonlinelibrary.org/creeds-confessions/the-men-and-the-parties-by-william-s-barker/, but our post today focuses on the first portion of that article, where Dr. Barker provides a very helpful overview of the five groups which played a role in the history of this great Assembly.

I.  The Parties

Discussions of the Assembly tend to focus on the different parties, often to the neglect of the great unity that existed among the members.  It must never be forgotten that their first concern was for the gospel of Christ and for the unity of all who truly belong to him.  One of the most beautiful chapters in the Confession, “Of the Communion of Saints”, begins: “All saints that are united to Jesus Christ their head by His Spirit and by faith have fellowship with Him…: (WCF XXVI/1).  Further, as teachers they were all Calvinists in theology and could all be called Puritans, depending on the definition of that controversial term.  The main controversy among them was church government and the related matter of church discipline, including the role of the state.  The parties, therefore, are perceived along the lines of church polity:  episcopalian, presbyterian, or congregationalist, with two additional categories being relevant – the Erastians and the Scottish delegation.

Episcopalians

All of the Westminster divines appointed by the Long Parliament in 1643 were ordained ministers in the Church of England, although many had refused to conform to some Anglican practices and some had temporarily gone into exile in the Netherlands.  This means that they had entered the ministry in an episcopal system, and many still favored a moderate episcopacy.  Men such as James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh in Ireland, did not attend the Assembly because it did not have the approval of King Charles I.  Others dropped out in the early stages.  But all were opposed to prelacy, that is, the functioning of bishops like secular princes rather than as the teaching and preaching ministers of the New Testament.  Some who favored a moderate episcopacy remained in the Assembly and were gradually persuaded to prefer the presbyterian position.

Presbyterians

The Presbyterians, who favored a system with parity of the clergy, but with a graded system of church courts so that local congregations were bonded together and in submission to a regional presbytery, and presbyteries were in submission to a national general assembly, were in the majority in the Assembly.  They were of two persuasions, however:  those who believed in presbyterianism by divine right – i.e., that it is the only system prescribed by the New Testament – and those who believed presbyterianism was simply the system most consistent with the principles of church government taught in the New Testament.  The latter was the prevailing view among the English divines at Westminster.

Congregationalists or Independents

Those who favored congregational church government were led by a very able and vocal group that became known as “the five dissenting brethren.”  These five had all gone into exile in the Netherlands in the 1630’s and had close relations with the congregationalists in New England.  These were non-separating Puritans who wanted local church autonomy while still maintaining an association among churches and with the state.  Although the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay enforced the New England congregational way through the civil magistrate, the English congregationalists were led by circumstances to prefer toleration.

Erastians

The Erastians, whose name is derived from a 16th-century Swiss theologian, were not in favor of any particular church polity – episcopal, presbyterian, or congregational – by divine right, but were mainly concerned that church discipline be finally carried out only with the approval of the state.  This view was upheld in the Assembly by a small but learned group and was supported by many in Parliament, which had called the Assembly and whose approval was necessary for the implementation of the Assembly’s decisions.

The Scottish Delegation

As a result of the Solemn League and Covenant, approved by the Scottish Parliament on August 17, 1643 and subscribed by the English Parliament and the members of the Westminster Assembly on September 25, four Scottish ministers joined the Assembly in September of 1643.  These were not voting members but had the right to speak.  In exchange for the assistance of the Scottish army to the Parliamentary forces in the Civil War against the King, the Solemn League and Covenant sought to bring the churches of England and Ireland into conformity to the Reformed religion in Scotland in doctrine, worship, discipline, and government.  The Scottish commissioners, with almost a century of presbyterian history behind them, favored presbyterianism by divine right.

Such were the parties that emerged as church government proved to be the most controversial issue in the Assembly.  Again we should remember that all of the Westminster divines were Calvinists.  As we look back to the Assembly with gratitude primarily for the setting forth of the Reformed faith in the Confession and Catechisms, we should celebrate the doctrinal unity which it had.  Where there was diversity, there was also a spirit of accommodation on the part of many.  Richard Baxter, a contemporary Puritan but not a member of the Assembly, had immense appreciation of its members and its accomplishments.  He later commented that if all Episcopalians had been as Archbishop Ussher, all Presbyterians as Stephen Marshall (the great preacher of the Assembly), and Independents as Jeremiah Burroughs, the divisions of the church might soon have been healed.

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Today we come to Chapter VIII of PRESBYTERIANISM FOR THE PEOPLE. In this chapter our author, Rev. Robert P. Kerr, gives us a glimpse of a late nineteenth century ecumenical effort among Presbyterians world-wide. How the ecclesiastical landscape has changed in the intervening years! Today, the World Reformed Fellowship and the International Conference of Reformed Churches are the two global ecumenical works formed by conservative Presbyterian and Reformed denominations. 

CHAPTER VIII.

THE GENERAL COUNCIL.

This assembly is composed of delegates from the various Presbyterian or Reformed churches throughout the world. It held its first regular meeting in Edinburgh, Scotland, in July, 1877, and will meet triennially in different countries. It has no authority over the churches belonging to it, but can only advise. It is intended to show the world that the various branches of the Presbyterian family are one, to bring their united influence to bear against sin, to help and encourage feeble churches, and to arrange for the formation of native churches among the heathen, gathering into them the converts of the missions of the various Presbyterian churches.

The formation of this body was earnestly desired by the Reformers of the sixteenth century, but was not effected until quite recent times. Much good has already come from the alliance of very many of the divisions of the Presbyterian body, and still greater results are confidently expected.

The following is a catalogue of the organizations holding the Presbyterian faith and order represented by this council:

CONTINENT OF EUROPE.

AUSTRIA.
Evangelical Reformed Church of Hungary.
Reformed Church of Moravia.
Reformed and Evangelical Church of Bohemia.

BELGIUM.
Union of Evangelical Congregations.

FRANCE.
Synod of the Union of Evangelical Congregations.
National Reformed Church.

ITALY.
Waldensian Church.
Free Church of Italy.

GERMANY.
Free Reformed Church of Germany.
Old Reformed Church of East Friesland.

NETHERLANDS.
Reformed Church of the Netherlands.
Christian Reformed Church of the Netherlands.

SPAIN.
Spanish Christian Church.

SWITZERLAND.
Berne French Church.
Evangelical Church of Neuchatel.
Reformed Church of Canton de Vaud.
Free Church of Canton de Vaud.
Reformed Church of Geneva.

UNITED KINGDOM OF GREAT BRITAIN AND IRELAND.

ENGLAND.
Presbyterian Church of England.

IRELAND.
Presbyterian Church of Ireland.
Reformed Church of Ireland.

SCOTLAND.
Established Church of Scotland.
Free Church of Scotland.
United Presbyterian Church
Reformed Presbyterian Church.
Original Secession Church.

WALES.
Calvinistic Methodist (Presbyterian) Church.

BRITISH COLONIES AND DEPENDENCIES.

CANADA.
Presbyterian Church in Canada.

CAPE OF GOOD HOPE.
Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa.

CEYLON.
Presbytery of Ceylon.

EASTERN AUSTRALIA.
Synod of Eastern Australia.

NATAL.
Dutch Reformed Church.

Presbytery of Natal.
Christian Reformed Church of South Africa.

NEW HEBRIDES.
Mission Synod of New Hebrides.

NEW SOUTH WALES.
Presbyterian Church of New South Wales.

NEW ZEALAND.
Presbyterian Church of New Zealand.

ORANGE FREE STATE.
Dutch Reformed Church of Orange Free State.

OTAGO AND SOUTHLAND.
Presbyterian Church of Queensland.

SOUTH AUSTRALIA.
Presbyterian Church of South Australia.

TASMANIA.
Presbyterian Church of Tasmania.

VICTORIA.
Presbyterian Church of Victoria.

UNITED STATES.
Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. (Northern).
Presbyterian Church in the United States (Southern).
Reformed (Dutch) Church in America.
Reformed (German) Church in the United States.
Associate Reformed Synod of the South.
General Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church.
Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America.
United Presbyterian Church of North America.
Welsh Calvinistic Methodist (or Presbyterian) Church in America.

These Presbyterian bodies scattered all over the globe, including above forty millions of people, have at last, in “The General Alliance of Reformed or Presbyterian Churches,” found a tie which binds them together. It is proposed thus to combine our forces, to magnify our grand institutions of government and theology, and to remove the stigma of discord which has so often been affixed to the Presbyterian name.

But there is a higher name than Presbyterian. It is CHRISTIAN. Under that name all the followers of Christ at last shall be ONE.

Next Saturday, with Chapter IX, we will come to the topic of Deacons.

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Distinctive Calvinism

The wording of the postal telegram in 1933 was simple enough to Rienk Bouke Kuiper, who was president of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.   Printed in all capital letters, it said, “UPON THE UNANIMOUS RECOMMENDATION OF THE FACULTY AND THE TRUSTEES OF WESTMINSTER SEMINARY IN SESSION MAY NINTH BY A UNANIMOUS VOTE HAVE ELECTED YOU TO THE CHAIR OF PRACTICAL THEOLOGY.  THE SECRETARY OF THE BOARD WILL SEND YOU FULL INFORMATION.  WE HOPE AND PRAY THAT YOU MAY BE LED TO ACCEPT THIS POST.  (signed) C. E. MACARTNEY, SAMUEL CRAIG, T. EDWARD ROSS, (for the board).

[Note: Today, in electronic communications, it is commonly thought that the use of “all caps” is a form of shouting.  Such was not the case in the 1930’s. The typewriters used in radio and telegraphic communications up through World War II were “all cap” writers, typing the message out in all caps on strips of paper that were then glued to a telegraph form. That was just the system of the day.]

R. B. Kuiper was not unknown to the faculty and trustees of this new Presbyterian seminary in Philadelphia.  He had served the first year of its existence as professor of Systematic Theology, but then had left it to become the president of Calvin College.  Now he was being asked to return two years later to become the professor of practical theology.  The prospective teacher had all the spiritual gifts necessary for such a post.

Born January 31, 1886 in the Netherlands to a ministerial father, the family had emigrated to the United States so the father could take a congregation in Michigan of the Christian Reformed Church.

Later, R. B. Kuiper was educated at the University of Chicago, Indiana University, and with a diploma from Calvin Theological Seminary, he  finished up his training at Princeton Seminary in 1912.

After this latter instruction from some of the finest minds of the Presbyterian world, such as B.B. Warfield, R.B. Kuiper began his ministry in the pastorate, serving several congregations in Michigan. He would have all that was necessary to be a pastor of practical theology from that experience.

Below, the Westminster faculty as composed upon Kuiper’s arrival, 1933-34.

R.B. Kuiper answered the telegram’s invitation in the affirmative  and went to Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, where he taught for 20 years.  One of his students remarked that he had the gift of making the profound simple as he proclaimed the whole counsel of God.

Among that broad span of the whole counsel of God, and one which seminary professors and students often fail, is the area of Reformed  evangelism.   Listen to his words in his book “To be or Not to Be Reformed.”  He wrote “May God forbid that we should become complacent about our progress in evangelism!  Our zeal for evangelism is not nearly as warm as it ought to be.  Our evangelistic labors are not nearly as abundant as they should be.  Our prayers for the translation of souls from darkness into God’s marvelous light must become far more fervent.” (p. 77)   What R. B. Kuiper wrote fifty years ago is no  less true in our day.   Ask yourselves the question?  Am I a zealous evangelist?

Words to Live By:  “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the LORD, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.” The apostle Paul, Acts 13:48 (ESV)  “Divine election, and it alone, guarantees results for evangelism.”  R.B. Kuiper

Pictured above: Some of the courses taught by R.B. Kuiper in his first year at Westminster.

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