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The Westminster Assembly of Divines, The Grand Debate.

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Naphtali Press – 2014. d.w. 424pp.

Introduction & Analysis by Rowland S. Ward. 44pp. Edited by Chris Coldwell. Indices, Annotated Bibliography, Appendix on the theological resources of the Westminster Assembly.

This work contains a lesser known set of documents produced by the Westminster Assembly of Divines, arguing for and against the Presbyterian form of church government. Discontented with the majority’s Presbyterian views, the Congregationalist members produced dissenting papers to which the Assembly replied, giving a more detailed view of the matters debated than the snatches of information recorded in the Assembly’s Minutes.

Presented in five sections The Grand Debate includes the following exchanges between the Congregationalist ‘dissenting brethren’ and the Presbyterian majority of the Assembly: I. Reasons against the proposition that many churches may be under one Presbyterial government from the example of the church at Jerusalem, and the Assembly’s reply; II. Reasons against … from the example of the Church at Ephesus, with the Assembly’s reply; III. Reasons against the subordination of church synods, with the Assembly’s reply; IV. Reasons against the Assembly’s limitation on the power of individual congregations to ordain, with the Assembly’s reply; V. Four papers by the Congregationalists presented in the committee formed to come to an accommodation, with answers by the representatives of the Assembly.

The text has been edited for modern spelling and usage. The bibliographical references have been traced. Notes have been added throughout keying the text to the Assembly Minutes, Gillespie’s notes, Lightfoot’s journal, and other sources. Cross references linking the arguments in the dissenting brethrens’ papers to the Assembly’s replies and vice versa have been added in the margins. All the Latin has been translated marginally or in footnotes.

In the original text the Assembly quotes and often summarizes and paraphrases the Independents’ argument without any distinction—all set in the italic face, as was all other emphasis. Much of this over-italicization has been removed for this edition. Any apparent quotations appear within double quotation marks. Obvious paraphrases, proposed objections, or words placed in the mouth of the opponent are set within single quotation marks.

An appendix presents an updated version of research into the theological resources available to the Westminster Assembly, presenting in better form the Assembly’s working library borrowed from Archbishop Laud’s study, and adding reference to the personal libraries of William Greenhill and Lazerus Seaman.

 


 

How the Lord would have his visible church organized and governed may not interest all evangelicals today but it was a question of great practical and doctrinal interest in the British Isles, in the period leading up to and including the Westminster Assembly in the 1640s. Presbyterians and Congregationalists should especially appreciate the publication of these papers as they shed much light on the concerns (e.g., Christian liberty and the limits of ecclesiastical authority) that animated both movements in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This first edition of The Grand Debate, since 1648, of those papers circulated at the Assembly, with its excellent introduction by Rowland Ward, is much to be welcomed by all who would know the background of the language adopted by the Assembly and who wish to take a peek through this window into the working of the Westminster Divines.
R. Scott Clark, Professor of Church History and Historical Theology, Westminster Seminary California.

The Westminster Assembly’s Grand Debate is not reading for the timid or easily distracted. With that out of the way, I commend it to the teachers and pastors of the church. For every one who believes that God loved the church and gave her gifts, this book is well worth the read. Did God care enough to instruct Christ’s church in how she should be ordered for her betterment and beauty?  Is there such a thing as jure divino church government? Many in the history of the church have believed so. A goodly number have even suffered for this cause. This book displays the arduous work of men, godly men, who believed God had spoken to the Bride about her order, and, thus, her well-being on this earth. If we believe that the gospel message is primarily communicated through the church, then her well-being in all respects is essential. One cannot be for preaching the gospel to the world, and care nothing for the church and her decency and order. The Grand Debate displays the concerns of Congregationalists and Presbyterians as they were debated during the Westminster Assembly. The 21st century reader will not only learn history here, but ecclesiology that touches matters of the soul. This book will force the patient and discerning reader to examine his own heart and his love for the brethren; even those with whom he may disagree. We are called to unity in the Holy Scriptures and this volume, though polemical in degree, stands in that apostolic tradition.
C. N. Willborn, Adjunct Professor of Historical Theology, Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

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