The Westminster Assembly and the Debate about the Word

July 02, 2018

by Chad Van Dixhoorn

Someone in the Jerusalem Chamber had asked if it was a pastor’s duty to read the Scriptures publicly in the weekly worship services of the church. It was November 1643, and the Westminster Assembly was trying to build a biblical system of church government from the ground up. In the summer months of 1643, the gathering had been revising an existing text of the Church of England: the Thirty-nine Articles. But in late September, a Solemn League and Covenant had been signed between the English and Scottish parliaments, drawing the two rebel parties into a military and ecclesiastical alliance and a setting them on a course of church reform. From early October, the assembly, at the behest of parliament, had turned its attention to the subject of church government, and the creation of new texts for the two churches, and for protestant Ireland also. Church government requires church officers, and a discussion of church officers entails a discussion of what they are to do—such as a possible role in leading worship, which is how the gathering got around to discussing the public reading of the Scriptures.

It was November 1643, and the Westminster Assembly was trying to build a biblical system of church government from the ground up.

Assembly members Thomas Temple (1602–1661) and Thomas Gataker (1574–1654) insisted that it was the preacher’s duty, and his alone, to read the Bible in public worship. This could have been a relatively inconsequential comment if the two Thomases had not added that the preacher is to read because the reading of the Scriptures is the preaching of the Scriptures. In recent memory, the people who argued that Bible reading was a form of Bible preaching blurred lines as a way of defending those ministers who read the sermons of others and did not write and preach their own. The equation of reading with preaching was a traditionally anti-puritan argument, promoted by Laudians, who were among those who “would have the Word only read, and that there should be no preaching or expounding of it.” Members of the assembly were disappointed to hear the argument articulated by their peers and they produced a variety of arguments in response, all ready at hand. Charles Herle (1598–1659) pointed out that in Nehemiah 8, reading and preaching are distinguished. Stephen Marshall (1594/5–1655) declared that Temple’s argument that whatever ordinance works faith is the minister’s special duty was illogical: people were saved when women and children read the Scriptures and that did not make these women and children ministers. Joshua Hoyle (bap. 1588, d. 1654), who would often express alarm with Gataker’s ideas, declared that his former teacher’s equation of reading and preaching was “dangerous.” Herle and Thomas Wilson (c. 1601–1653) also argued that faith is ordinarily worked by preaching of the Scriptures, not reading. Romans 10, and the series of questions found in verse 14, were sufficient, for them, to establish the necessity of preaching: “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?”

Wilson’s view, not unheard of in godly circles, was that no more of the Bible should normally be read in a worship service than the minister was able to preach in his sermon, since the Scriptures needed to be explained and pressed home to the hearts of the hearers. William Bridge (1600/1–1671) agreed, and his revealing comment that he was unwilling to call it sin to read more than one preached, testifies to the strength of his conviction. That kind of assertion, in turn, disturbed William Price (d. 1666), who insisted that he was not “an advocate for an illiterate clergy” but that he could not “with patience hear the reading of the Word of God so much undervalued as I have this morning.” There was skill in reading it and profit in hearing it. Wilson, the object of these remarks, answered that his “vehemency” in making his point was not “passion”—and he toned down his argument considerably.

The equation of reading with preaching was a traditionally anti-puritan argument.

In an effort to explain his earlier comments, and in strong opposition to Wilson’s inculcation of a dependency on preaching, Gataker noted that puritans only played into the hands of papists when they promoted such a low view of the “bare reading” of the Scriptures. He was no admirer of recent trends in the church, but were not Protestants the supposed champions of the Bible’s perspicuity and sufficiency? What is more, Gataker showed (at least to his own satisfaction), that the New Testament revealed the people of God reading sections too long to preach, and he noted that the apostle Paul insisted that his letters to be read in the churches. No one at the assembly doubted that these letters were indeed Scripture.

The force of these arguments was indirect, but nonetheless significant. One way of demonstrating that the Scriptures could be read profitably by themselves, without explanation, was to permit a larger portion of the Bible to be read publicly than is preached publicly. The practice of reading a portion of Scripture that was not preached could be edifying, advocates argued; it was also an apologetic against Roman Catholic views on the alleged insufficiency of the Scriptures, and most assembly members were willing to argue that more of the Scriptures might be read than preached in a typical worship service. There were also other practical concerns to take into account: Philip Nye (bap. 1595, d. 1672) was concerned that to restrict the passage read to the passage preached would not sufficiently expose people to the breadth of the Scriptures. Others agreed, and Herbert Palmer (1601–1647) expressed his pleasant surprise that so many in the assembly were in favour of “public reading”—that is, reading beyond the passage preached, for “In committy it is denied.”

. . . continue reading at Reformation 21.

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