The Westminster Assembly of Divines - Part I

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Excerpts from William Symington, ‘Historical Sketch of the Westminster Assembly of Divines,’ in Commemoration of the Bicentenary of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, by the Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Scotland, Glasgow, 1843.

The Westminster Assembly, it is well known, was convened by an ordinance of Parliament. In the year 1641 the ministers of London had petitioned both Houses to use their influence with the King to obtain a free Synod, for the purpose of taking under consideration the state of the country in regard to religious matters. The Grand Remonstrance of December 1 contained the following clause: ‘We desire that there may be a general Synod of the most grave, pious, learned, and judicious divines of this island, assisted with some from foreign parts, professing the same religion with us, who may consider of all things necessary for the peace and good government of the church.’ A Bill to the same effect, afterwards introduced into the Treaty of Oxford, was rejected by King Charles. And, after various unsuccessful attempts to obtain the royal concurrence, the Parliament found themselves compelled to convene the Assembly on their own responsibility, which accordingly they did by turning the bill into an ordinance.

An Advisory Assembly

In forming an accurate idea of the constitution of the Westminster Assembly, several elements must be taken into account: the character which it held, the authority by which it was called, the circumstances of the country at the time, the individuals of whom it was composed, and the end which it was designed to accomplish. It is, first of all, to be distinctly observed that the Westminster Assembly was not a church court. Its character was deliberative, consultative, advisory, not judicial or ecclesiastical. The very title of the ordinance has these words, ‘to be consulted with by the Parliament.’ The concluding sentence sets this matter at rest: ‘Provided always, that this ordinance or anything therein contained, shall not give unto the persons aforesaid, or any of them, nor shall they in this assembly assume to exercise any jurisdiction, power, or authority ecclesiastical whatsoever, or any other power than is herein particularly expressed.’

The Assembly, accordingly, assumed no authoritative power, claimed no right to enact or enforce, but professed only to hold consultation, to offer advice, to set forth opinions, without arrogating to itself any other influence over the sentiments and consciences of others than what necessarily belonged to the evidence, rational or scriptural, by which the statements put forth were supported. It was a Convocation rather than a Synod. This ought to be distinctly marked, and kept constantly in view. The circumstances of the case were such as to preclude its having an ecclesiastical character, agreeably either to the Prelatical (that is, the Episcopal), to the Presbyterian, or to the Independent form of church polity.

It is true that some things, which in another state of affairs might have properly fallen within the province of ecclesiastical courts, were transacted by the Assembly. Erroneous publications, particularly of an antinomian complexion, were examined and condemned, and the authors of them virtually censured. Trial discourses, by persons designed to supply the churches of the sequestered ministers, were heard and pronounced upon from time to time. But the Assembly, after the members had expressed their opinion, took no farther judicial step, but referred the ordination of the individuals in question to a committee appointed for this purpose, consisting of the ministers of London, who were invested with this power on the reasonable ground, that ‘in extraordinary cases something extraordinary might be done, keeping always so near to the rule as may be.’ Such things as these, however, did not, and could not, change the nature of the Assembly. And even had it, in its proceedings, deviated in some degree or for a time from its proper constitution – which we are not to be understood as conceding, excepting for the sake of argument – such deviation could not have sufficed to invest it with the quality of an ecclesiastical court, in express contravention of the enactment to which it owed its existence, and which, of course, must be held decisive of its true constitutional character.

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