Saturday, January 22, 2011

William Twisse, Supralapsarianism, and the Westminster Confession of Faith

The Westminster Abbey in London, England, where 120 Puritan divines gathered to write the Westminster Confession of Faith in the years 1643-1649.

Here's a post that might interest the church history buffs who read Reepicheep. For my doctoral studies I recently did a paper on the first "prolocutor" (moderator) of the Westminster Assembly. His name was William Twisse and by all accounts a remarkable man. The paper is long, so I'll modify it and present it in several posts over the next week or two. I am sure only a handful of my readers are familiar with "supralapsarianism", which is OK, you'll know more about it soon enough.

Any presbyter familiar with the workings of a church session, regional presbytery, or national assembly knows the importance of the elder who serves as moderator. The Westminster Assembly was one of the greatest gatherings of learned Divines the Church has ever witnessed. Despite there being a diverse make up of ministers and doctors on the Assembly, one man was chosen to be the first prolocutor with no contest in the Parliament and hardly a peep from over 120 Divines. Such an individual must have been extraordinarily endowed with God’s gracious gifts to be equipped for such a task. The man chosen by both houses of Parliament to moderate the Westminster Assembly was Dr. William Twisse, the Oxford educated long time pastor of Newbury. As universally respected as Dr. Twisse was, it is interesting to note his controversial position with respect to the decrees of God. Dr. Twisse was a supralapsarian. This study will consider three topics- first, it will introduce the person and minister who served as the Assembly’s first moderator. Second, this study will consider his supralapsarian position in comparison with the more widely held position among the Reformed- infralapsarianism. Finally, this study will endeavor to consider how Dr. Twisse’s position regarding the decrees of God did or did not effect the Westminster Confession of Faith.

In this post I'll provide a brief recap of the historical situation leading to the Westminster Assembly. Future posts will consider William Twisse, supralapsarianism, and the Westminster Confession of Faith.

A Brief Historical Background for the Westminster Assembly

Turbulent storms can wipe out whole crops and seem to mark a period of disarray and hopelessness, however such tempests also reveal which objects possessed strong foundations. Superficial things cannot withstand the gail force and so crumble and are washed away. Those ancient things with well dug footings and those mammoth trees with roots running deep may give the appearance of distress during a hurricane, but they will live to see another day and provide the first of the building materials for the time right after the storm.

Such was the case with the pillars of the Christian Church known the Puritans. They were born in difficult, tempestuous times that called for great personal and collective sacrifice. Man tried to thrust upon him silly and superstitious innovations that were more a show of an earthly King’s power than any kind of praise offering unto God. The strong trees known as the Puritans were battered and distressed during these times of pressured conformity and growing angst between the English King and the people’s Parliament. The times of persecution that came upon the Puritans most markedly occurred in the early 17th Century. Those Divines who did not buckle grew strong in conviction and spiritual power during those early decades of the 1600's.

The spiritual storm that had fallen was Romanism and the ravaging effects of Popery. Europe was being torn asunder. But in the midst of the storm a rescue effort was unfolding as Reformation touched each of the nations and their churches. The Puritans were part of the fruit of the Reformation and they were planted in Scotland, England, and Ireland at God’s appointed time. For when the eye of the storm moved over England it was clear Anglicanism as it had been established was in need of similar reform as Romanism. The Puritans would become the strong structure to withstand all the political, social, and ecclesiastical whirlwinds that came upon Great Britain in the 17th Century. As Adam's progeny they were not created strong. The Puritans were made strong by the work of the second Adam applied to them and honed in the fires of persecution, oppression, sickness, and discomfort. Such were the early years of the 1600’s in Great Britain.

Through the fires of oppression under King James, Charles I, and the haughty Archbishop Laud the pastors of England were faced with a clear choice of allegiance- the Word of God or the word of men. Those who chose the Word of God suffered greatly, but were made strong by God’s grace in preparation for something truly great.

In 1617 King James made the Declaration of Sports (also known as the “Book of Sports”) which listed the various “sports” deemed acceptable on Sunday. It served more as a mockery of Puritanism while also being a statement of the King’s perceived absolute sovereignty. The Puritans, in great numbers, rejected and opposed the Book of Sports leading to much hardship, but much strengthening of conviction as well. The declaration was renewed in 1633 by Charles I with the willing assistance of his ecclesiastical henchman, Archbishop Laud. For the next seven years the Puritans were forced out of churches they had long pastored because of the Book of Sports and their unwillingness to oppose the Word of God in favor of the word of man. The storm was raging against these reformers of the church with no end in sight.

The storm broke, if only for a relative moment, in 1640. As King Charles and Archbishop Laud attempted to move the Church of England closer to Romanism and her superstitious rites and rituals, a reaction began to swell among the churches that had been faithfully pastored by Puritans since the days of Henry and the great split from Rome. Discontentment with Charles I and his reign pushed England to the brink of war. The Royalists (those loyal to the King) sided against the supporters of Parliament. In 1640 the Long Parliament charged Laud with treason and moved to imprison him later that year. Civil war broke out in England between the two factions and lasted (in two different stints) from 1642-1649. This seven year period, though appearing like a chaos of sorts, was actually a brief storm clearing for the Puritans. The Parliament was favorable to the Puritans and called upon them to reform the Church of England by first going back to her roots, the 39 Articles of Thomas Cranmer. The Parliament issued a summons of sorts to call the great Divines of England, Scotland, and Ireland to produce a document that would unify the three kingdoms. The purpose of these posts is not to offer a thorough history of the Westminster Assembly, but rather to show the stormy backdrop and it’s brief break that allowed strong foundations to be built upon in a timeless way.

Years of purifying through the fires of oppression and persecution had produced a small army of eminent Divines specially suited to answer the call of Parliament. Over 120 Divines traveled from England, Scotland, and Ireland to join a great Assembly in London tasked with a monumental goal. Yes the storms of war swirled around England during the time of the Westminster Assembly, but make no mistake- for the Puritans the tempest of religious persecution had waned just enough for them to accomplish something amazing. From 1643 to 1649 Divines worked diligently to reflect biblical fidelity in doctrine, worship, and government and bring unity to the Church of three kingdoms. Never was there a time like this for Puritans, and quite possibly for Christianity.

The next post will introduce you more fully to William Twisse, the first moderator of the Westminster Assembly of Divines.


Woody Woodward said...

This will be an interesting discussion. Looking forward to taxing my pea sized brain. But have to admit, Supralapsarianism, that’s a might big word for this Okie to follow. I tried to look it up in my three Bible dictionaries but drew a blank so I goggle it.
Pastor how close is this definition to what we hold to?
"Supralapsarianism is the view that God, contemplating man as yet unfallen, chose some to receive eternal life and rejected all others. So a supralapsarian would say that the reprobate (non-elect) vessels of wrath fitted for destruction (Rom. 9:22) were first ordained to that role, and then the means by which they fell into sin was ordained. In other words, supralapsarianism suggests that God's decree of election logically preceded His decree to permit Adam's fall—so that their damnation is first of all an act of divine sovereignty, and only secondarily an act of divine justice."
This view is most often contrasted with Infralapsarianism (also known sometimes as "sublapsarianism") which suggests that God's decree to permit the fall logically preceded His decree of election. So when God chose the elect and passed over the non-elect, He was contemplating them all as fallen creatures.”

Roger Mann said...

I think a better explanation of the order of the divine decrees is given by Vincent Cheung:

The decree for God to be glorified comes first, and to achieve this, the decree is made that Christ would subdue all things and deliver them to the Father. In order to achieve this, the decree is made that Christ would save a chosen people out of fallen humanity to become his fellow heirs. In order to achieve this, the decree is made that fallen humanity would be divided into the elect and the reprobates. In order to achieve this, the decree is made that humanity would fall into sin. Then, in order to achieve this, the decree is made that God would create humanity. This is the order of purpose and design. The order is reversed in execution, so that it begins with creation and culminates in God's glory...

Supralapsarianism is the biblical and rational order. Infralapsarianism confuses logical conception with historical execution, so that not only is it contrary to fact, but it makes nonsense of some of the divine decrees. For any given decree, it leaves the purpose of the decree unspecified until the next decree. But then there is no reason for the present one, so that it becomes arbitrary. Thus infralapsarianism is blasphemous by implication, since it insults God's intelligence and denies his rationality.

Infralapsarians retort that supralapsarianism undermines God's justice, but to assert this they smuggle in a private and unbiblical standard of justice, one that rejects God's absolute sovereignty and violates strict logical inference, and then evaluate the eternal decrees by it. Their attempt to defend God's subservience to a human standard of justice turns out to be a subversion against his sovereign and divine justice, and a denial of even a simple ability for logical planning and arrangement in the mind of God. Hence their objection commits another act of blasphemy.

The entire article is well worth reading!