The lure of the state
The Westminster Divines saw themselves as giving support to the state (in the form of Parliament) in its hoped-for establishment of the Reformed religion in England. Church and state were to join hands as two ‘ministers’ of the land, the church ministering true religion, and the state granting to the church privileges, by outlawing or discriminating against deviant religious groups, and quelling any expressions of lawlessness or civil unrest vented against the church, should there be any. On this view the external peace of the church is the responsibility of Parliament, in its role as the promoter of the King’s peace, of ‘law and order’. It must be remembered that the Westminster Assembly was not an assembly of any visible church, like a general assembly of a presbyterian church that was summoned annually, but was called and facilitated by the Parliament for this purpose, for getting it off the ground. It was a political creation, doing the bidding of Parliament, as the central spine of this pact, which was to be embodied in the Solemn League and Covenant, testifies.
For its part the church by law established was to teach its hearers the standards that the Bible expected of them in their behaviour. Interest, including scholarly interest in this period, is currently stressing that all of a sudden the Puritans became bothered about antinomianism (See for example the discussion in Bob Letham, The Westminster Assembly, 295f. and especially footnote 10.), leaving Arminianism to take second place, as the Synod of Dort had faded. Why was this? My hunch is that this targeting of antinomianism has less to do with the Divines’ concern to protect the nature and efficacy of justification and sanctification, their distinctness yet inseparability, than with showing to their new partners, the House of Commons, that they were ready to play their part in upholding public ‘order’, while in turn being happy to see the Commons legislate for such order.
So anything that seemed that it might upset the peace, like the teaching of the antinomians, was controverted with gusto, though it would seem, at least with the benefit of hindsight, that trouble would come, if it came, from the radical sects than from a group of fairly harmless-looking ‘antinomians’ such as Crisp and Eaton. It would be difficult to distil an avowal of licentiousness or incitement to vice from their writings. Nowadays the threat of antinomianism is considered in the context of the Gospel Coalition, then from the context of the civil peace of England. There is a difference. But it makes the current stress by some on the place of the law in sanctification rather incongruous. That, at least, is what I'm arguing.
The law and the catechisms
In the last post we noted the three-fold uses of the law according to the Reformed – as a means of conviction of sin, as a means for promoting civil peace, and as a rule of life for Christians. What we find as we turn the numerous pages of the Larger and Shorter Catechisms that are devoted to the expositions of the Ten Commandments is a blurring of these three uses. To start with, in the exposition of the law, matters to do with ‘public order’ are intertwined with the law as a rule of life for Christians, and the whole exposition of the law, its place in the Catechism, is prior to and preparatory to, the exposition of the gospel. So in the Larger Catechism the exposition of the Decalogue is followed by questions 152 and 153.
Q,152, What does every sin deserve at the hands of God? A. Every sin, even the least, being against the sovereignty, goodness and holiness of God, and against his righteous law, deserveth his wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come, and cannot be expiated but by the blood of Christ.
Q.153, What does God require of us, that we may escape his wrath and curse due to us by reason of the transgression of the law? That we may escape the wrath and curse of God due to us by reason of the transgression of the law, he requireth of us repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ, and the diligent use of the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of his mediation.
First the law, and then the gospel. The entire section on the law is held to be preparatory to the gospel, the first use of the law. Then follows an exposition of the means of grace. In the case of the Shorter Catechism, the link questions are 82-85. But the section has material on the other two uses, intermingled in its exposition of the law, but without explicitly distinguishing one use from any other, as far as I can see.
A theological mess
So the entire project of promulgating ‘law and order’ in the church through its catechisms, and therefore in a large part of the realm of England, is a theological mess. The ‘uses’ of the law were conflated, and expressed in the language that consciously borrowed from the OT judicial law on the one hand, and Christ and the apostolic teaching on the 'inwardness' of the law on the other. The Westminster Standards became law in Scotland, though as we know not in England and Wales. So the people in the Scottish pews were taught inter alia that removing ancient landmarks deserved the wrath and curse of Almighty God. Presumably under these circumstances few laid a finger on ancient signs, at least until the 19th century when the Highlands were cleared in the interests of the sheep, and not only landmarks, but entire communities were ‘removed’. But that’s another story.
In England those who one day were crafting the moral standards of a would-be presbyterian state Church found themselves the next day forming uneasily-tolerated minority groups, though the presbyterians mostly became unitarians. As far as I can see the Westminster standards, if they were used among these dissenting groups, remained untouched . No one seems to have seen the incongruity of sects using the Westminster Standards which avow the sentiments of an established church, especially in the Catechisms of those Standards. My hunch is that the Catechisms were forgotten. Are there any records of them being taught and learned, vehicles of Presbyterian and Independent education, at the end of the 17th century? Were they ever reprinted in England in the eighteenth century?
Nevertheless, when presbyterianism was exported through such as the emigration of the dispossessed from the Highlands of Scotland and others, to what became the US, the sectarian ethos of this branch of evangelical Protestantism remained even in the nineteenth century. The church recognised the separation of church and state, but the catechisms were meant for consumption in a state church. No one ever seems to have thought this state of affairs was odd. The Westminster standards were a job lot, largely untouched and untouchable, apart from the business of the state and church which affected the Confession. In the 19th century, when efforts to revise the Westminster Confession in churches in the US made conservatives less and less inclined to contemplate action that would rock the ark. And so – to come rapidly to the present - in 2014 we witness solemn discussions on the place of the law in sanctification, very much a state-church view of sanctification, but by now involving not only the children of 17th presbyterians and independents, but of baptists too.The newly-established Evangelical Presbyterian Church in England advertises itself as adhering without qualification to the Westminster Standards, as far as I can see.(http://www.epcew.org.uk/index.html) But maybe the catechisms are ignored by this denomination, continuing the practice, or lack of practice, of their dissenting forbears in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The significant point is that because of the dominance of the state church mentality the legacy expresses itself regarding Christian living as chiefly the keeping of the moral law by the promotion of a sense of duty, not by the implantation and inculcation of virtues which are the fruit of new spiritual life.
I know, I know, anxious souls are by this time asking, Whatever has happened to William Ames? I am coming to him, and to his rather different emphases (so it seems to me) on the nature of sanctification. We shall look at Ames next time.