Westminster & Preaching: The Work of Preaching

The work of the Westminster Assembly (1643-1653) in London, England involved the furtherance of the gains of the Protestant Reformation in the domains of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Called by Parliament amidst a civil war between parliament and the king (Charles I), the Westminster Assembly was initially given the job of revising the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles before it was assigned the more demanding work of creating a Confession of Faith, the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, a directory for church government, a directory of public worship (with a subdirectory on preaching), and a directory for ordination. What may be less well known is that while the assembly was technically not a church court, but a parliamentary advisory committee of sorts, it did conduct business that usually falls to church courts within the Presbyterian form of church government.

Today we possess a wealth of books and articles on the Westminster Assembly and its historical and theological context, and have unparalleled access to the primary sources upon which so many helpful contemporary studies are based. We suffer from an embarrassment of riches. Recently, Chad Van Dixhoorn has produced a fascinating historical study of the Assembly and the its overhaul of the training of ministers and the ministry of preaching. His God’s Ambassadors: The Westminster Assembly and the Reformation of the English Pulpit, 1643-1753 is worth its weight in gold. The same can be said of his many other contributions to our understanding of the background of and the texts produced by the Westminster Assembly, including his five-volume minutes of the assembly.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects to the practice of pastoral ministry in seventeenth-century England was its failure to properly emphasize the preaching ministry of the clergy. The Church of England in this day basically maintained the traditions of the Middle Ages in making the administration of the sacraments the heart of pastoral ministry rather than the reading and proclamation of the Word of God. We may sum up the focus of Anglican ministry in that day and age as sacerdotal. That is, the regular day in and day out work of the pastor was centered on the administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. To say this is sacerdotal is to note that the observance of these ordinances did not ordinarily involve their subordination to the Word of God. This subordination of the sacraments to the Word is manifest in the biblical explanation typically offered before the observance of these rites in Presbyterian and Reformed churches of various sorts. Additionally, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper would involve the so-called fencing off the table from unworthy participants. That is, the Lord’s Supper is for those who have professed faith in Christ and the intent to follow his Word in all things. This is one practical form that the subordination of the sacraments to the Word of God takes. To put it another way, the Word alone (as used by the Holy Spirit) is involved in the creation of faith whereas the sacraments are used to strengthen faith.

Additionally, it should be noted that in the Church of England at the time to be ordained to the clerical ministry did not give one the right to preach God’s Word. Preaching required a further or different license from the local bishop. Not all ministers were given licenses to preach and some who were given such licenses were not ordained ministers. The church separated what ought never to be separated: the Word and sacraments. Both are ordained by God for his people, to build them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

Among other things, the Westminster Assembly made sure that preaching was put front and center in corporate public worship. This was how it was in the early church, and this was how it would be once again. The Word would now be systematically read aloud and explained in worship in ways it had never been before, at least not kingdom wide in the UK. The Scriptures were to be read and exposited according to their sensus literalis or literary sense. This included recognizing types and shadows in the Old Testament pointing forward to the person and work of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. Preaching was to be Christ-centered and expositional. These were great improvements indeed.

As the Lord’s providence would have it, the efforts of the Westminster Assembly failed to take hold in their initial English context. The interregnum would pass away and the crown would return as would prelacy to the church. However, the reformation of preaching and theology which the texts produced by the Westminster Assembly represent did not go the way of all flesh. God raised up churches in Scotland, Ireland, the American colonies and elsewhere wherever Presbyterian planted itself. There the Word of God was preeminent and its proclamation paramount. The Reformation began in Wittenberg, but it was furthered in London and continues this day wherever the Word of God is heard and obeyed, especially in those churches which conscientiously hold to the Westminster Standards or similar Reformed confessional documents.

Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum.  Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.

Jeffrey Waddington