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Are the Westminster Standards Contrary to the Reformers?

westminster-abbey-1235681In the book, Scripture and Worship, Muller and Ward analyze some of the exegetical background of the confession and debates surrounding the writing of the Directory of Public Worship. They also argue against suggestions that the confessions and catechisms were a rejection or distortion from the original thought of the Reformers. How can this be measured? The most fruitful way is in tracing the exegesis of Scripture between the Reformers and the generation of Reformed Orthodoxy, the context the Westminster Standards were created in.

The first essay focusses on comparing Annotations upon all the books of the Old and New Testament, a two volume exegesis of the entire Bible with over 2,400 pages, (English Annotations) with the Westminster Standards. It is important to note first of all that there is no official relationship between the two works. Cornelius Burgess (one of the major members of the Assembly) argued against associating the Annotations with the Westminster Assembly. It is true that some of the members who compiled the Annotations were members of the Westminster Assembly, but the Assembly never ordered the work, nor did it review the finished product. 

The projects had two similar aims as projects of Parliament, to stabilize religion in England. The English Annotations (finished in 1645) were a product of traditional Reformed exegesis and historical interpretations and were helpful in providing an index of Scriptural proofs for the doctrinal definitions behind the Westminster Standards, though they were never the official work of the Assembly. With this understanding in place it is therefore expected that a continuity exists between the confessions and the preserved teachings of the Reformers. In these continuities one is able to see the understanding of Scripture that continued from the time of the Reformation.

In the English Annotations there are some insightful examples of translation preferences of the members who worked on the Annotations. One example is Hosea 6:7, which is often cited as a basis for the covenant of works. A Reformed doctrine that affirms Adam being created and placed in covenant with God. However, in Hebrew the word “Adam” can also mean “man” and therefore there has to be some interpretation done with the translation when the words are found in the text. In Hosea 6:7 is an example.

“But they like men have transgressed the covenant: there have they dealt treacherously against me.” (Hosea 6:7 KJV)

and in the ESV

“But like Adam they transgressed the covenant;there they dealt faithlessly with me.” (Hosea 6:7 ESV)

The Genevan Bible and the Authorized Version both say “man” but in the margin of the Scriptures the Annotations add “Heb. like Adam”. They were seeing Hosea 6:7 as a statement referring to the covenant with Adam, an example where interpretation affected (correctly) translation.

Secondly the Annotations show that the Protestant tradition drew on earlier interpretive traditions. They lack citations but they use interpretive traditions from the Reformers, older medieval commentators, and the church fathers. This continuity is important to note because it demonstrates a “highly nuanced and variegated continuity” not flat as those who would want to pit Calvin against the Calvinists would argue.

The Westminster Standards defined their doctrinal formula in relation to traditions as seen in the Annotations and commentaries of the era showing they were in a distinct continuity with the Reformation. A study of the Westminster Standards in light of the context shows continuity between the Reformers and the Reformed Confessions and also the developing thought of Reformed Orthodoxy. Therefore it is safe to say that when you interpret the confessions you are understanding the exegetical and doctrinal heritage of the Reformation received and preserved by the English and Scots Reformers of the mid-seventeenth century.

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