The Religious Context of the Westminster Standards (Fesko)

The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context and Theological Insights By J. V. Fesko cover image

Although it goes without saying, the Westminster Assembly (1643-1653) met during a certain historical situation in England. Among other things, this means that a proper understanding of the Westminster Standards (the Confession and Catechisms) includes knowledge of the historical context in which they were written. For example, in his book The Theology of the Westminster Standards, John Fesko starts out by discussing the historical and theological context of the Westminster Assembly. What was the political situation in England in the early to mid seventeenth-century? What about the social aspects of life in England during these years? And what was the religious context in England? These are the questions Fesko answers in his helpful opening chapter.

Here’s one part of Fesko’s chapter that is worth mentioning. It has to do with the religious chaos in England during in the early to mid-seventeenth century.

It would be a mistake to think that the only perceived theological threat against the Reformed faith in England was the Roman Catholic Church. Rome was certainly the antichrist in the minds of many Reformed ministers in seventeenth-century England, and therefore it was one of the chief foci of theological polemic. However, theology did not exist on a continuum with Roman Catholicism on the left and Reformed theology on the right. Rather, early modern England, especially London, was a hotbed of religious pluralism that included but was not limited to Arminians, Anabaptists, antinomians, enthusiasts, Erastians, Familists, Brownists, Papists, Quakers, Socianians, and the like. One work that documented the various sects and theological groups was that of heresiographer Thomas Edwards (1599-1647), “Gangraena,” which was a catalog of errors, heresies, and blasphemies extant in London between 1642 and 1646. In this three-part work Edwards provides a list of errors and relevant passages from the person or group advocating the doctrinal error.

For example, in the third part of his work, Edwards discusses the error of the anthropomorphites, those who believed that God had a physical body, as well as those who believed that the narrative of Adam’s fall was merely an allegory. Westminster divine and Scottish advisor Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661) wrote a similar work entitled “A Survey of the Spiritual Antichrist.” In it he explains and refutes Familism, a sixteenth-century antinomian sect, as well as the teaching of other antinomians of the period, including John Saltmarsh (d. 1647), William Dell (d. 1664), Tobias Crisp (1600-1643), and John Eaton (1575-1630). To say the least, English religious culture was fragmented, and the divines of the Westminster Assembly sought to bring theological uniformity in doctrine and practice.

John Fekso, The Theology of the Westminster Standards, p. 54-55.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)