Westminster Theology in Historical Context
Updated: Feb 18
Letham does a wonderful job of clarifying the salient historical factors that should be considered in evaluating the theology of the Westminster standards. In chapter 4, for example, he sets forth what he considers to be important sources of the Assembly’s theology. He first notes the influence of James Ussher and the Irish Articles of 1615. The Articles essentially set forth the basic arrangement of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Much of the theology of the Articles likewise makes its way into the Westminster documents.
Be that as it may, I was most interested in Letham’s contention that the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England also represent an important source for the Westminster divines. Letham notes, “The Thirty-Nine Articles are strongly–robustly–Calvinist in nature.” When Parliament authorized The Westminster Assembly, they first of all tasked it with revising the Thirty-Nine Articles. Letham observes that the proposed revisions of which we have record show very little alteration.
To be sure there are differences to be noted between the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Westminster theology. But Letham argues that the differences are, in great measure, best explained by the differing historical contexts in which they were produced. The Articles were written in 1563, nearly one hundred years prior to the Westminster Assembly. They are more contemporary with the Scots Confession (1560) or the Heidelberg Catechism (1563). Even so the Westminster divines regularly took over the language of the Articles, sometimes verbatim but more often in substance.
Letham proceeds to compare the Thirty-Nine Articles, article by article, with the Westminster documents. After this thorough comparison, he concludes:
The Thirty-Nine Articles were a major source for the Assembly, if not the major source. The Assembly is solidly in line with the English Reformed tradition. If the Assembly documents are like a sumptuous cheesecake, the solid, crunchy crust is Cranmer. If we were to suppose them to be a succulent piece of deep-fried plaice, the chips, salt, and vinegar come from the earlier English Reformed tradition. Or, to change the metaphor, if the work of the Assembly is a living being, the Articles provide the backbone and the nervous system.
Right, so what does all of this mean? It means that the theology of Westminster can be seen as continuation of the Anglican Reformational theology. It substantially maintains the trajectory of the Reformation in England. My understanding of Anglicanism is that there has been, from the outset, an uncomfortable tension between Catholic theology and Reformation theology within the church. For my Anglican friends who appreciate the ecclesiology of the Anglican church, I would urge them not to forget the rich Reformation theology that came to expression in Westminster. They should hold tightly to it because that theology, if Letham is correct, is an important part of their heritage as well.