Of what use are the the ancient (and not-so-ancient) creeds of the church in the twenty-first century? In late 2019 and early 2020 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at how some of these historic documents, many of which have their origin in some historic church fights, can be helpful in our attempts to walk with Jesus. On February 2, we considered The Westminster Standards written in Britain in the mid-1600’s. We centered our worship on selected verses from Psalm 24 and 2 Peter 1:3-11.
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You may not have heard anything about this, but 45 days ago, the US House of Representatives declared that the President had been impeached, and asked the Senate to remove the President from office. And whether or not that happens, in eight months, there will be an election. Perhaps you’ve seen something about thatin the news. There may be, one might say, some turmoil in our government these days.
Let me ask you this. What if there was a power struggle and polarizing debate that gripped the country not for 45 days, but something longer? Not 8 months. Not even a decade or two. What if you were living in a situation in which “who’s in charge” was a question that people asked for more than thirty years? It’s happened before.
This morning we are continuing our examination of the creeds and the confessions that are found in the Presbyterian Church USA’s Book of Confessions. “The Westminster Standards” are three documents that were written in at Westminster Abbey in London: The Westminster Confession of Faith, the Longer Catechism, and the Shorter Catechism. And, just like the other creeds that we’ve seen, in order to know what’s said, we’ve got to understand a little about the world in which these statements came to be.
The Westminster Confession comes out of a tumultuous time for everyone in England – for the church, the government, individuals – for all concerned. Here’s a bit of historical background.
Charles I assumed the British throne in 1625 when his father, James (the “King James” who sponsored the beautiful translation of the Bible that has come to bear his name) died. Like his father, and his grandmother before him, Charles was a big proponent of a belief system that was called “The Divine Right of Kings”. Everybody knew that the Bible said that humans were special, and this theory asserted that the most special humans were kings and queens. By virtue of being King, Charles said it was up to him – not to the British Parliament, and certainly not to the commoners of England – to define reality.
And so, not long after becoming King, Charles simply dissolved the Parliament. He said that it was unneeded. After all, the only thing that Parliament was good for was enforcing the law and levying taxes, and Charles had plenty of money and a loyal army. For a while. But eventually, the royal coffers began to run low, and Charles, being short of funding, adopted a scheme proposed by a minister in the Church of England. Since the Church of England was a state church, the King was King over the church as well as the country. So Charles began to fine people for missing church – one shilling per offense. There was no parliament to argue with him, and no one had the power to resist. Emboldened by this scheme, Charles tried to forcibly convert all of the people in Scotland from Presbyterianism to Anglicanism – the Church of England. Imagine? Trying to get a whole country of Presbyterians to change…
Well, as you might imagine, that’s when Charles failed. In 1637 Scotland resisted in what has become known as the 1st and 2nd Bishops’ Wars, and, as a part of the truce, Charles was forced to call a meeting of Parliament. Eleven years after he disbanded them, Charles called the Houses of Parliament together. When they arrived in London, they were mostly Presbyterian Puritans, eager to reform not only the country, but the church. They established a committee in 1643 and charged them to come up with a new confession of Faith designed to unify England under a Presbyterian system of government.
This group consisted of 121 “divines” (pastors, mostly), 30 Members of Parliament, and a few Scots observers. And for three years, this team worked tirelessly in a process that was characterized by prayer, fasting, and worship. These people took their jobs quite seriously.
Unfortunately, however, the country was not able to simply wait while the process went forward. The Parliament and the king had begun to argue about many things, and a young man by the name of Cromwell was leading a group of independents who were neither Presbyterian nor Anglican. The Creed was adopted in 1648, but only a year later, Cromwell led the charge to overthrow the King and Charles was beheaded. Cromwell assumed the role of “Lord Protector” and, you guessed it, he disbanded Parliament. It seems as though Cromwell believed in the Divine Right of Lord Protectors just about as much as Charles had believed in the Divine Right of Kings.
Finally, in 1660, Charles II returned from France, overthrew Cromwell’s son, and re-took the throne. Backed by many in Parliament who were afraid of change, Charles II restored the Anglican church and system of government and in one day in 1662, 2000 ministers from the British Church were barred from their churches because of their involvement with Cromwell and the independents.
Can you get a picture of what life must have been like? For more than 30 years, no one was quite sure who was in charge, or why. Sometimes there was no King. Sometimes, there was no Parliament. Sometimes there was both. Sometimes there was neither. Usually, there was civil war, and bloodshed, and always there was fear. And to make matters worse, this was a time of great change and uncertainty in the culture as a whole. Writers like Sir Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke were laying the foundations for the movement known as the Enlightenment. This philosophy questioned truth in a way that had not ever been done; there was a new emphasis on logic and the power of humans to determine their own destinies.
Do you see what I’m saying? Not only was the government a mess, but lifewas messy. There was religious and moral uncertainty. People were genuinely confused as to how to proceed.
And in the midst of all that, this crew of 121 Divines produced the Westminster Confession of Faith. It’s a long document that covers a great deal of ground, but I’d like to point out two emphases for our purposes today.
First, the people who framed this document had a great sense of God’s movement in and through and over history. It was the Creator of Heaven and Earth, not some king or queen, who ruled the world. At a time when so much of the world seemed to be spinning out of control, the Westminster Confession of Faith reminded people that God knows what is happening and is able to sort it all out. What a comforting thought this was to those who were struggling to make sense of their daily lives – because they could see and affirm with certainty that it is not Charles, not Cromwell, but God who reigns.
The second key emphasis to which the Westminster Confession points is the Authority of Scripture. These folks held clearly to the fact that it was God’s Holy Spirit who caused the Bible to come together, and it was only with the help of that same Spirit that we can presume to interpret what it was saying. The Westminster Confession points to Jesus as the center of Scripture, and in a response to the discussions of their day, they noted that scripture is not a scientific textbook, but rather a gift that God has given to God’s children. And these scriptures, says the Creed, are accessible to all – you don’t need to be a theologian to understand the message of reconciliation and truth that is found the Bible.
So that’s what it was like then. That’s what it was like when the BBC, or some other predecessor CNN or Fox News said that the race for control in England was “too close to call” for about 30 years or so. What difference does all of that make today? Isn’t all of that simply musty old history that will gradually disappear over the ages?
Maybe. But I tend to agree with Mark Twain, who is reported to have said, “History rarely repeats itself, but it very often rhymes.
Think about our day and culture. Is this an age of change? Do we live in a time of political, religious and moral uncertainty, when there are people all around us who have conflicting claims about what is true and what is right? Do you have to make decisions every single day about how to use your time, your energy, your technology – that would mystify your grandparents? If so, you have more in common with the folks in Britain in the 17th century than you thought.
And you do. Thus, it would behoove us to consider the truths discovered by those divines so many years ago – not because they will exactly match our situation, but because they are a part of the Body of Christ that has gone through this, and we can learn something from them.
What would it mean for our world, for instance, if we were to hold to a high view of the sovereignty of God? What if we took seriously the words of Psalm 24 – “The Earth is the Lord’s…”? When I talk about “the sovereignty of God”, what I mean is simply this: that every human, at every moment of our lives, is in a relationship with the Living God. There is no human who is not in the Divine Image; there are no people who are outside of God’s care. No one is alone. No one is cast off. God cares about where we’ve been, and about what we do. And, as Christians, we are learning to look to Jesus to discover what it means to live under the rule of God. We receive our identities and live into the world that God has created and defined.
What set Jesus apart? Why do we worship him? Is it that he was smarter, more attractive, or more powerful than anyone else? No, it was the fact that he was totally and completely obedient to God. Jesus is God for Us. He is Us for God. Jesus said that he was “the way” to God; that he is the means by which God is most fully present with us. It is in Christ that we find the best means to submit ourselves to the authority of God in our lives and the world.
In our day, as in the days of the Westminster Divines, there are those who find that, well, inconvenient. Mostly, we think, we want our religion to bring us a set of ideas, or even better, a nice sense of warmth and peace. We don’t really want to get all involved in the intricacies of a real relationship with Jesus, who seems to expect us to or be something in the world.
C.S. Lewis expressed this difficulty well. He spoke of
…an elderly acquaintance of about eighty, who has lived a life of unbroken selfishness and admiration from the earliest years, and is, more or less, I regret to say, one of the happiest men I know. From the moral point of view, it is very difficult!… As you perhaps know, I haven’t always been a Christian. I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.
The end of faith is not to make me happy or ensure that my life is perfect. The main point, it seems to me, is expressed well in the shorter catechism’s first question: “What is the main purpose of humanity?” “To glorify God and enjoy God forever.” That is, first we bring glory to God – how? Through obedience and service – like we saw in Jesus of Nazareth. Then, in that context, we are given the ability to enjoy God – that is, we rest in and find meaning in God’s presence and purposes. “We glorify God by living in obedience to God’s will, and enjoyment comes as a by-product”.
And now to look at the second emphasis of the Confession – the authority of Scripture. What do you think about the Bible? Back when the Confession was written, most folks didn’t have very many, if any books. But you? You’ve got dozens. Maybe even hundreds. What’s a bible? What’s one more book claiming to have truth?
Did you know that one of the most profitable industries in the US right now is the “Self-Help” movement? We spend $11 billion a year on self-improvement programs and products. I am reminded of the words of the late George Carlin, who said, “If you’re looking for self-help, why would you read a book written by somebody else? That’s not self-help. That’s help! There’s no such a thing as self-help. If you did it yourself, you didn’t need help.”
He might be on to something. We all crave affirmation and direction, and yet so much of what we are dying to know is given to us in the rich library of scripture. I can’t tell you how many times someone has come to me and wanted to know what God’s will for their lives was. I would start to speak about the lost son or the woman who was healed, and they come right back at me, “Look, pastor, if all I wanted was a little Bible reading, I’d have stayed home. What I want to know is, what is God’s word to me?”
Too often, we in our world set aside this great volume of God’s word because we’re waiting for some sort of special delivery invitation. Peter has it right when he tells his friends that we have everything we need to know – we just need to apply it in our lives. God has spoken – a great and encouraging word – to our world. We gather to know and love the scripture as a means to know God’s will for our lives, because it is primarily through the scripture that the Word of God is revealed.
How will the impeachment drama in Washington end? Who’s the president going to be in six months or a year? You don’t know. I sure don’t. We don’t have much control over that, do we? Not any more than a typical Englishman did when he heard that Parliament was being dissolved, or reconstituted. But you know what? In the most immediate sense, it doesn’t really matter. No, not because Presidencies and Parliaments aren’t important, but because you are called to be the person that God wants you to be in spite of the decisions of congress or the President.
The King, the Parliament, the President, the political party – none of those entities get to define you. God, in great power and wisdom, has created you and given you specific abilities. Will you use those gifts to seek God’s best and to serve others now? Glorify God in your life. Obey, and seek to enjoy, the ways that God is revealing new things to you. And be a light in your world. Amen.
 The Grand Miracle and Other Selected Essays on Theology and Ethics from God in the Dock (Ballantine, 1970), p. 33
 Jack Rogers, in Presbyterian Creeds: A Guide to the Book of Confessions (Westminster Press, 1985) p. 166.