‘If Christ fulfilled the law, we are not bound’: The Westminster Assembly Against English Antinomian Soteriology, 1643-1647
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Gamble, Whitney Greer
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This thesis analyses how and why the Westminster Assembly (1643-1653), the Long Parliament’s advisory committee for religious matters, attempted to suppress antinomianism, one of the fastest-growing radical religious movements of the early seventeenth century. The Assembly addressed antinomianism in its dual capacity as an arm of Parliament and, in its own self-understanding, as a body of theologians tasked with religious reformation. In the eyes of the Assembly, antinomianism presented a two-fold threat. Socially, antinomianism had the potential to bring anarchy and disorder: the Assembly responded to this threat by examining antinomian ministers, forming its own antinomian committee, and liaising with Parliament to determine whether antinomians should be branded as heretics with concomitant civil punishment. Theologically, for the Assembly, antinomianism encompassed more than simply the belief that obligation to the Ten Commandments had passed away; it contained a complex structure of soteriology that was fundamentally at odds with the Reformed tradition. Working in the overarching backdrop of the rise of English Arminianism, the divines debated soteriological questions raised by antinomianism, issues at the heart of the Reformation such as: the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, the continued effectiveness of the moral law, the nature of Christ’s propitiatory work of redemption, the role and timing of justifying faith, and the relationship between sanctification and justification. The Assembly’s 1643 debates over antinomian theology, conducted as it revised the Thirty-nine Articles, produced revised Articles, which formed the foundation for the Assembly’s 1646 Confession of Faith. The Assembly then used the Confession of Faith to present a concise but comprehensive refutation of antinomian theology. The study uncovers the significance of antinomianism for contextualising the Assembly’s debates, and thus advances and nuances current perception of both the Westminster Assembly and English antinomianism. Analysis of debates carried out on the floor of the Assembly provoked by antinomian theology reveals that, while the divines as a whole disagreed with antinomian tenets, they were far from united in their understanding of basic soteriological definitions and were also divided over the best way to thwart antinomianism. A detailed investigation of this state of affairs enhances interpretation of the Assembly’s documents, such as the Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms, which in and of themselves do not reveal the theological uncertainties and tensions present in the Assembly. The study also offers a new example of the Assembly functioning as a regulatory body. This thesis draws on a substantial new pool of primary material: The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly (edited by Chad van Dixhoorn, OUP 2012, 3200 pages), the first full critical edition of the Assembly’s debates; also, the first volume of Assembly member John Lightfoot’s journal, recently transcribed, which supplies the only record of crucial exchanges between the Assembly and antinomian theologians. A major contribution of this thesis, working with these new resources, is to demonstrate how the Assembly interacted far more with antinomianism than previous scholars have thought. The thesis breaks new ground by using both theological and historical methods to provide a fine-grained contextual account of the Assembly’s debates and actions against antinomianism.