Confession and History: The Measured Tones of a Confession
If you have a copy of the Westminster Confession of Faith open it up. Take a minute to peruse it. Now, let me ask you a question. Historically what can you tell me about the time of the Confession? Yes, you could probably tell that the language is a bit archaic and the authors liked long sentences but what history does it divulge? If you said, "Next to nothing" you would be correct. Now, that is astounding when you think about the volatility of the period surrounding the meetings of the Westminster Assembly. Yet, the gaze of the Westminster divines does not rest on the explosiveness of the times but on the truths of the Bible, which transcend any time in history.
Think for a minute about the Assembly's historical context. Between the years of 1625 and the first meeting of the Westminster Assembly on July 1, 1643 a great deal had transpired. Charles I had summoned no fewer than six Parliaments but with little result to his favor. For example, in 1625, Charles needed money to fund the Anglo-Spanish War and so wanted to raise taxes. However, Parliament, under the control of the Puritan Party, did not grant him permission. This was a sea change! No parliament had ever denied such a request. Therefore, from the second Parliament in 1626 to the fifth in 1640 (known as the Short Parliament) relations between the king and Parliament deteriorated. The Parliament of 1629 condemned Roman Catholicism and therefore Henrietta Maria, the Roman Catholic wife of King Charles. What is more, when Charles tried to dissolve the Parliament, the chair, John Finch, was held forcibly in the chair and three resolutions were passed condemning the monarch and his governing of the realm!
Charles even tried his hand at governing without Parliament between 1629 and 1640. But by 1640 Charles needed their support and Parliament recognized the strength of their position. This time Charles, under force, agreed not to dismiss Parliament without their consent, he accepted bills that condemned his mode of government and he received the Root and Branch petition, which called for the abolition of episcopacy.
Well. All of that and more went on during the time leading up to the Assembly. I didn't even mention the political intrigue of Charles or of his execution by Parliament for the crime of high treason in January 1649. These were unstable and explosive times. Yet, the Westminster Confession of Faith breathes different from these historical moments. The document possesses a certain composure that is distinct from the unrest happening in England, Scotland, and other parts of Europe at the time.
For example, the Confession says, "It is the duty of people to pray for magistrates, to honour their persons, to pay them tribute and other dues, to obey lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority for conscience sake."[i] In fact, even when they challenge a position held by the monarch they simply say, "There is no other head of the Church, but the Lord Jesus Christ."[ii]
Now, here is a question that needs asking, why is this the case? The reason is simple. Sinclair Ferguson, one of my old seminary professors, said it something like this in class, "The Assembly believed that there are certain unshakable truths to be found in God's word and people would be edified not by the application of the gospel to the peculiarities of the times but by an understanding of that gospel which is unchanging in every time in which people lived."
We need to learn this lesson. As we head into uncertain and unstable times, we would do well to breathe in the air of the old Jerusalem Chamber that we might hold fast to those same unshakeable and unchanging truths so that we might apply them to people despite the changing times.
Jeffrey A. Stivason has been serving the Lord as a minister of the gospel since 1995. He was church planter and now pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA. Jeff is the Managing Editor for Place for Truth.