The Grand Debate

The Grand Debate

The Westminster Assembly of Divines, The Grand Debate. December 2014. 424 pp. Retail: $52.40. Sewn hardbound, dust jacket, Introduction & Analysis by Rowland S. Ward. 44pp. Edited by Chris Coldwell. Indices, Annotated Bibliography, Appendix on the theological resources of the Westminster Assembly. OUT OF PRINT.

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.


Professors Alan Strange, C. N. Willborn, & R. Scott Clark

Recent years have witnessed a marked increase of interest in Calvinistic soteriology, much of it from those self-identified as “young, restless, and Reformed.” A corresponding interest in Presbyterian ecclesiology and polity remains largely dormant among these Reformed novitiates. Additionally, a not insignificant number of Christians in communions other than Reformed and Presbyterian ones who do not style themselves as restless have embraced soteriological Calvinism. Thus there is the need for Reformed and Presbyterian works that speak not only to the question of salvation but also to matters pertaining to the church and its organization. As Presbyterians, we do not permit ecclesiology to swallow soteriology, as does Rome, nor do we marginalize ecclesiology, as do many evangelicals in the current day. We affirm the importance of both soteriology and ecclesiology and desire that those who come to the Reformed faith espouse both.
The Westminster Assembly of Divines certainly concerned itself with both soteriology and ecclesiology, not only in the doctrinal standards that it adopted but also in 1645 in the “Form of Presbyterial Church Government” and the “Directory for the Publick Worship of God.” As a part of addressing matters ecclesiological, the Assembly engaged, beginning on 2 February 1644, in what became known as the “Grand Debate,” the dispute between the Presbyterians and the Independents, particularly the “Five Dissenting Brethren” (Thomas Goodwin, Philip Nye, Jeremiah Burroughs, William Bridge and Sidrach Simpson). There were a series of papers presented by both sides in the debate. The Independents argued in the negative a series of propositions: that presbyteries were proved from the churches at Jerusalem and Ephesus; that there was a due subordination of church synods; and that ordination should be performed by a presbytery. The Committee for Accommodation sought to compose the differences which were sharp, with politics and the success of Cromwell’s army, which favored the Independents, playing no small part in the negotiations.
The important papers addressing the details contained in this significant debate have long been unavailable. In this splendid volume, ably edited by Chris Coldwell and helpfully introduced by Rowland Ward, these important papers are once again made available to modern readers. One might wonder why dusty old historical artifacts as these merit our attention.  They do because the church needs to be reformed in all her doctrine, including ecclesiology. This beautifully produced and well-bound volume should garner interest and pay rich dividends to those who study them. This is the fullest expression of the differences between those who both otherwise hold to the same doctrinal standards but differ as to church government. Much remains in our own day to address with respect to ecclesiology and many people who are convinced Calvinists with respect to soteriology are not such with respect to ecclesiology. This is the perfect volume for such, or for any, who would see the biblical roots of Presbyterianism. Examine The Westminster Assembly’s Grand Debate carefully and you’ll learn more than you’ve ever known about why we are Presbyterians and not Independents.
Alan Strange, Professor of Church History, Registrar, and Theological Librarian, Mid-America Reformed Seminary, Dyer, Indiana.

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.

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