The Westminster Assembly on Sin, Ignorance and Catechisms

The Westminster assembly (1643-1653) conducted about 5,000 examinations of ministers and candidates for the ministry and it is not likely to be an accident that the Westminster Assembly insisted that a candidate be examined in his ability to work on the human conscience.

In the assembly’s own literature, the word conscience carries moral overtones, as when the Confession of Faith calls for people to do their duty ‘for conscience sake’. The conscience is the early-warning system for detecting idolatry of the heart, and the alarm that sounds when temptation has penetrated human defenses. It had to do with sin.

In the assembly’s writings, the problem of sin appears first in its petitions to parliament, for member’s consciences required them to speak out against unchecked sin in the nation. Predictably, sin was also a major focus of the gathering’s explicitly theological works. A chapter is given to the subject early in the synod’s 1646 Confession of Faith and pithy aphorisms on the subject appear in both of its two 1647 catechisms, designed to help children and heads of households articulate the nature and effects of sin. What is sin? ‘Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God’. What does sin do? It brings humanity ‘into an estate of sin and misery’.

In considering the problem of sin, the assembly explained that the first movements of Adam and Eve in the garden were the grim overture to all the misery that was to follow. The clinical diagnosis of the assembly, basic to the cure of souls, is that all people enter life already ‘dead’ in ‘transgressions and sins’ (Eph. 2:1). Additionally, as the synod’s Confession explained, ‘From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions’. From a state of sin erupts a life of sin.

Not even grace interrupted the full effects of sin. Grace placed a person in a right standing with God. Grace restored a broken relationship, gave peace with God, and guaranteed glory. Grace alleviates, but in this life does not eradicate, the effects of sin. The Confession would stress that ‘This corruption of nature’ that we inherited from Adam, at least ‘during this life’, does remain ‘in those that are regenerated’. Godly divines knew that sin ‘had a shelf-life, and a lingering potency, that perhaps exceeds even the devil’s expectations’.

It was because of their views of the pervasive power of sin, that the assembly stressed the importance of the conscience. Of course, as their 1643 rules of examination suggests, the assembly’s focus on the conscience, as a matter of pastoral practice, was emphasized not merely in its debating Chamber in Westminster Abbey, but also down the hall, in the Jericho Parlour.  The Parlour was the assembly’s center for processing examinees, the place where they would make trial of a candidate’s abilities to ‘work on the conscience’ – to convict sinners of sin.

By 1644 the assembly successfully institutionalized the necessity for pastoral proficiency in conscience-work. Its Directory for Ordination required presbyteries to question a candidate regarding ‘his skill in the sense and meaning of such places of Scripture, as shalbe proposed unto him, in cases of Conscience’. That pastoral involvement in conscience work was needed almost went without saying. Many people suppressed their consciences, and it was a ‘sad symptom’ that people lived in a ‘dangerous and almost incurable condition’ and yet were ‘no more stirr’d by’ their sins ‘then by the body by a draught of smal beer’. Without a pastor’s helps, they might miss the opportunity for repentance entirely.

Understanding human responsibility in conjunction with sinful actions meant that the assembly refused to look for quick solutions to sin. There was no simple way to exorcise indwelling sin in a believer. The fight against sin entailed a change of mind as well as a change of heart. Effective change also required preventative care, the best of which was found in a good biblical education. The two explicitly educational texts designed by the assembly were the Shorter and Larger catechisms. They offered a survey of ‘what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man’.

Nonetheless each catechism was primarily setting out not merely a system of doctrine, but a plan of salvation, guiding sinners away from sin. Many aspects of biblical history and theology proper are ignored in the catechisms while, on the other hand, the necessity and way of salvation structures both texts. First, each catechism brings readers through the historic events of creation, fall and redemption. Then, both catechisms bring the reader through the penetrating demands of God’s law, the penalty earned by law-breakers, and then a call to repentance and faith in Christ.

As a component part of pastoral care, the assembly’s model for catechetical instruction offered a church-based solution designed to address the problem of indwelling sin. Of course, the assembly’s examination question was issued four years before these texts were complete, and merely asked ‘what he thinks of catechizing’. It looked like an open-ended question, but there was only one correct answer. From its first communication to parliament the assembly had insisted that ‘all ministers’ are ‘constantly to catechise all the youth, and ignorant people’. One wonders what the church would look like today if ministers were involved in a similar level of engagement with the young people placed under their charge?

These paragraphs are excerpted and adapted from C. Van Dixhoorn, ‘God’s physicians: models of pastoral care and neglect at the Westminster assembly, 1643-1653’, in Church life: pastors, congregations, and the experience of ephdissent in seventeenth-century England, Eds. M. Davies, A. Dunan-Page, and J. Halcomb (Oxford, forthcoming 2017).

Dr. Chad B. Van Dixhoorn
Chancellor's Professor of Historical Theology, Associate Professor of Church History
Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C.

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