Monday 30 May 2016

The Westminster Standards for Today

In my view, the Westminster Standards are the best summary of the Christian faith in
the English language. Quite possibly, they are one of the best statements and symbols
of the church’s faith in the whole history of the church. So, why are they
comparatively neglected today in terms of a working knowledge of them, within
family worship, public catechising and in their use by elders?

These Standards comprise three main documents: The Confession of Faith, the Larger
Catechism (196 questions) and the Shorter Catechism (107 questions). Two common
questions which are often raised, relate to their usability and relevance. The language
of the Standards is still published mainly in seventeenth-century Elizabethan English.
I will seek to answer these two questions in this article, while also introducing an
exciting project which aims to provide these dynamic Standards in modern English,
for the English speaking church.

In Sheffield Presbyterian Church (EPCEW) where I minister, we have a weekly
Lord’s Day catechism class at 10.00am to teach the truths found in the Westminster
Standards. It is ironic, that though the Westminster Assembly met in London,
England, that today confessional and evangelical Presbyterianism is so little-known
in England. We pray and work for this to change. The Westminster Larger Catechism
was specifically designed for public teaching by ministers and its doctrine envelops
the doctrine of the church. We do well to remember the famed comment by Samuel
Rutherford as to the necessity for two catechisms instead of one; he contended at the
Westminster Assembly for two, because he believed that it had been very difficult “to
dress up milk and meat both in one dish”. In other words the church needs to know,
use and teach both catechisms for its spiritual vitality. The question remains though:
do we use both for the church?

A side-note is my own personal affection for the Westminster Larger Catechism.
Having taught through it several times to church members, my admiration for this
peerless document and the eternal truths it expresses so well, only grows. As to its
relevance for today’s church, Psalm 100:5 exhorts us that “For the Lord is good; his
steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations”.
In short,
biblical truth and their doctrines are timeless and the Larger Catechism has an
enduring quality about it for that reason. None-the-less its accessibility, along with
the Confession and Shorter Catechism will be significantly enhanced if they are made
available in modern English. Over the last 2-3 years we have been working in
Sheffield with a team of members here, under my oversight and leadership, to put
them into modern English, in the original British edition (instead of the American
Revised edition with changes on the Civil Magistrate). It includes no revisions at all,
but where difficult words are found we have included square brackets occasionally
with the modern English equivalent.

Here is short quiz for lovers of words. Can you guess what these ancient words mean
which are found in the Westminster Standards: Vouchsafes, supererogate; contemn,
oblation; keeping of stews. They mean: promises; go beyond duty; disdain; offering;
and keeping of brothels. This updating of language should “iron-out some wrinkles”
and enhance their usability. Evangelical Press have agreed to their publication and
ongoing work is continuing to this end. The first edition will include seven essays at
the back of the book and these are for the purpose of encouraging all branches of the
church as to their usefulness.

The planned essay titles are: Ligon Duncan “The Westminster Assembly: A
Successful Failure?”; Kevin Bidwell “The Westminster Standards in the Making: A
Spiritual Portrait of one of the Westminster Divines, Stanley Gower”; David Gilbert
“The Westminster Standards and Public Worship”; Iain D. Campbell “The
Westminster Standards and Preaching”; Andrew Young “The Westminster Standards
and the Sacraments”; Chad Bailey “The Westminster Standards and Family
Worship”; Guy Prentiss Waters “The Westminster Standards and Church

In answer to the their relevance and usability. This new production will hopefully
dispel all questions. A local proverb in Yorkshire is “once tasted, never forgotten”. We
pray and look to the Lord for the wider use of the Westminster Standards in the years
ahead. If this project and production can stimulate a recovery of biblical doctrines for
preaching, the right administration of the sacraments, prayer, church government,
public and family worship, then much progress will ensue for the gospel and the
glory of God.

Kevin J. Bidwell is the minister of Sheffield Presbyterian Church (EPCEW). He is
married to a Dutch wife Maria and they have two daughters.
Our church website is

Monday 23 May 2016

The Geneva Bible: Why did it become known as "The Breeches Bible"?

I have to say that I have received much positive interest regarding my earlier blog post on the Geneva Bible. How we need a richer knowledge of church history! The Geneva Bible has an esteemed history and its influence upon the Reformed and Protestant world has been incalculable. It was the main Bible exported by the Puritans to North America and there it took on the unusual nickname of "The Breeches Bible". Does anyone know why?

Its translation takes on much of Tyndall's thought and I cannot say if this is from Tyndale, but it is certainly memorable. In Genesis 3:7 in record of the Fall of Adam and then indeed mankind, we read this from the Geneva Bible:

"Then the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig tree leaves together, and made themselves breeches".

Breeches meaning an old English term for trousers. These would have covered their private parts and thus covering their nakedness. It is certainly a bold and memorable translation, we have to say.

Well, at least you are informed on something that is more than mere trivia. When we consider the nickname of the Geneva Bible we are then constantly reminded of the Fall of Man. Listen to Paul the apostle speaking of this Fall in Romans chapter 3:9-20.

What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

We may wonder then, what hope is there? Romans 3:21-24 supplies the answer.

"But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus".

Monday 16 May 2016

Praying for the next Generation of Called, Trained and Godly Christian Ministers

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he [Jesus] said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.” Matthew 9:36-38.

There is a danger of complacency in conservative evangelical churches. It is a complacency that manifests itself by failing to take seriously the imperative of the Lord Jesus Christ here, to pray for competent labourers to be raised up in the church. There is a vain assumption that Christian ministers are always available, as it were "on tap". This is wrong. The church need to pray for, identify, train, equip and support competent and called men for Christian ministry.

From a biblical and Reformed point of view we need an educated ministry where men are trained in essay writing in a range of systematic and historical topics, the biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew, and with front line pastoral internships to ensure that they are 'rooted and grounded". Essay writing is an important skill as it helps a man to argue a point which is what preaching involves, though preaching is an oral event. A man needs to have proven himself in the church, not least to be able to preach before he can consider ministry and this testing process is vital and it should be carried out responsibly by local elders and a presbytery.

Do you pray for labourers to be raised up? Do you cry out to the Lord of the harvest for shepherds to be called and sent forth? If not why not? It is costly to train men in terms of time, money, sacrifice and the energy involved, but what happens if we shrink back in this area? I preached a sermon yesterday on this subject and the link is:

If you sense a call to Christian ministry in a solid doctrinal context, then I would love to hear from you and please contact me via our church website (

Monday 9 May 2016

Enjoying being a Christian!

The first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism is probably the best definition of Christianity I have come across. What does it say?

Question 1: What is the chief end of man?
Answer: Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.

It is the intention of our Lord who has redeemed Christians, that they enjoy being a Christian. Sometimes we get so uptight that we can lose our Christian joy. Have you lost your joy and enjoyment of the Christian life lived out within the context of a Christian Church? If so, ask yourself why? For some they need to cast their cares on the Lord (1 Peter 5:7), for others perhaps they have allowed things to crowd out the big picture to "enjoy" the Lord forever. I hope that this blog post can be pastorally helpful for many.

What does the same question say in the Westminster Larger Catechism?

Question: What is the chief and highest end of man?
Answer: Man's chief and highest end is to glorify God and fully to enjoy him forever.

One of the Bible proof texts given here is from John 17:21-23 (I have included 17:20): “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me".

What a joy to be a Christian? The unity of the body of Christ is so important, but sometimes people, especially Reformed persons, they can become so fixed on every detail of doctrine (and doctrine is very important), that they lose their spiritual joy. When this happens they need to come back to "base-camp", metaphorically speaking and learn again to walk with Christ in humility and enjoy his company.

Psalm 16:11 "You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore".

Monday 2 May 2016

The Geneva Bible: A Forgotten Treasure

Rev David Cross and his wife Barbara Cross worked in the field of church planting in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in England and Wales. They have since returned to their native USA and Barbara has written this excellent article. It is published with their kind permission. The Geneva Bible has been too long overlooked in terms of its historical significance.

Sometime in the 1980s I was delighted to visit the birthplace of one of my heroes – Abraham Lincoln. Adding to my excitement was seeing Lincoln family Bible in which his birthday was recorded. The guide told us that it was a Geneva Bible. I was curious. “What was a Geneva Bible?” Though I had a BA degree in Biblical Education I had never heard of the Geneva Bible. My interest was greatly stirred and through many years I have enjoyed getting to know more about this translation of the Bible that predated the King James Bible by 51 years and which, for many reasons, was far superior.
The story behind the Geneva Bible began in 1553 when Queen Mary, (often called “Bloody Mary”) the daughter of Henry the 8th, came to the throne. Her mother Catherine of Aragon, divorced by Henry, had been a fervent Catholic and it was Mary’s great desire that England be returned to the fold of the Roman Church. She was not satisfied with the minor “reforms” made early in her reign, such as dismissing married clergy and the restoration of Catholic doctrine. Becoming totally frustrated by the lack of progress in the country becoming solidly Catholic she began a severe persecution of Protestants. Ultimately, around 300 hundred Protestants were martyred, many being burned at the stake.

Many of the greatest scholars and theologians (as many as 800) began to flee for their lives to Switzerland and Germany. A large number settled in Geneva, under John Knox, the pastor of the English Church and John Calvin, pastor of the French church. Under the protection of the Genevan civil authorities it was determined to produce an English Bible that would not need the official license of the King of England, but more important than that, to produce a Bible that would meet the needs of the common people. This had been the desire of the William Tyndale, one of the first men to translate the whole Bible into English. He had said, “If God spare my life ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plow, shall know more of Scripture than thou doest.” (1522, Foxes Book of Martyrs).

Previous English Bibles were very large and very expensive. Added to this was the idea that a Bible translation must be in “holy language” – language that was already becoming outdated. (Court Records in County Durham in the north of England show that “you” had replaced “thou” by 1575.) Also there was the tradition that the Bible must be printed in large black Gothic letters modelled on written script – lettering that made it difficult to read. Now the decision was made to print it in Roman type – a more modern print and much easier to read.

The men who had fled to Geneva desired the same thing as Tyndale. They knew that what was needed was a Bible that was affordable and could be read by the common man. The first translation, produced in 1557, was New Testament. Most of the work was a revision of Tyndale’s 1534 edition. The work was done by Willian Whittingham, who had married the sister of John Calvin. Immediately after the New Testament edition was finished work began on a translation of the entire Bible. The Geneva Bible was the first English version in which all of the Old Testament was translated directly from Hebrew.
The Geneva Bible was, for the very first time, mass produced, mechanically printed and available for the general public. Bibles in the past were only to be used in churches. This Bible was made available directly to the general public. Another thing that made it desirable was its size. It was about 6½ by 9½ inches which made it easy to hold and carry.

John Calvin had stressed to his followers, especially to ministers, “the need to accommodate to the ability of the individual.” This led to another attractive feature of the Geneva which was its illustrations. It had maps of the Holy Land. It had pictures of Biblical stories such as showing the garments of the high priest. It also came with helpful cross referencing – something very new in Bibles. Along with these there was an introduction to each book in the Bible. It also was the first English Bible to be divided into chapters and verses.

Perhaps the best known feature of the Geneva Bible is the marginal notes. Where there were “hard places” in the Bible passages there were explanations given on the side of the text. These “notes” by reformers such as John Calvin and others were written with the idea of helping to interpret the Scripture for the common man. However, they became controversial as they were written from the reformed and Calvinistic perspective, though there were fewer so called “Calvinistic notes” than the enemies of the Geneva Bible would have us to believe. It is no exaggeration to say that the Geneva Bible was the world’s first “study Bible.”

It was also the first Bible printed in Scotland. The Geneva Bible was printed by an Edinburgh published called Thomas Bassandyne and was dedicated to James of 1st England (who was also James 6th of Scotland). The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) ordered that a copy must be in every parish church. The Scottish government decreed that not only every parish church have a copy but every home over a certain income must purchase it.
For several generations it was the most popular Bible in the English speaking world, being the most read from 1560 until its last publication in 1644. Well might we ask why is it almost unknown today?

First, it was either ignored or hated by many authorities in the Church of England. Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, disliked it, not because of its translation, but because of its side notes. He complained to Queen Elizabeth about the “diverse prejudicial notes” (Calvinistic) in the Geneva Bible. In spite of his dislike people kept on buying the Bible even some Catholics who wanted to read the Word of God for themselves.

Second, when King James 6th came to England, having ruled Presbyterians in Scotland. (a group he despised) he had an agenda, “to destroy, discredit or displace” the Geneva Bible by any means. James disliked Presbyterianism because He hated the fact that Presbyterians had no room for bishops. To his mind bishops, who ruled the church, and kings who ruled the country, went along in perfect unity. Not to have bishops would threaten his kingship.
James believed strongly in “the divine right of kings” – the idea that only God was above a king in authority. Some of the notes in the Geneva Bible commented on the fact that there were times when a “tyrant king” could be overthrown. He held that there was never a time that a king could or should be overthrown because of his “divine right.”

The Puritans of England knowing that James had come from a county with strong Puritan convictions were hoping that James would help in the establishment of a national Presbyterian church. But that was the farthest thing from James’s mind. At the point of his arrival in England his strong hatred of puritan ideas was unknown. Richard Bancroft, Bishop of London, took it upon himself to further persuade James that the monarchy was dependent upon the Church of England’s Episcopal system – not the Presbyterian system where there was no supreme head.

In 1604 James called a church conference at Hampton court for the purpose of trying to promote unity between the Puritans and the Church of England. John Reynolds, leader of the Puritan contingent, put forth some of their demands – all of which were rejected. However, later John Reynolds voiced a Puritan demand that “one only translation of the Bible was to be declared, authentical and read in churches.” Some believe that his hope was to secure approval for the Geneva Bible to be authorised as the only Bible to be read aloud in church.

Now James saw his chance to get rid of the Geneva Bible. He declared that he “had yet to see a Bible well translated into English,” and gave his opinion that of all the Bibles, “the Geneva is the worst.” James then directed that the “best learned in both universities should start to work on a new translation.” One key rule for the translation of the KJV was, “No Marginal Notes at all to be affixed, but only for the explanation of the Hebrew or Greek Words.” This was his way of getting rid of the notes in the Geneva Bible with a Calvinistic slant as well those notes stating that “tyrant kings” could be removed. He decreed that “special pains be taken for a uniform translation, which should be done by the best learned men in both Universities, then reviewed by the Bishops, presented to the Privy Council, lastly ratified by the Royal authority…"
By 1611 the new Bible was completed. In England it continues to be known generally as the “Authorised Version” while in America it goes by the name of the “King James Bible.”

Did the New KJV immediately replace the Geneva Bible? No! The reaction to the KJV was “generally negative in tone.” For over 50 years the Geneva Bible still sold much better than the KJV. It was the Bible of Shakespeare (There is no evidence to show that he ever used the KJV.) It was the Bible of John Milton, Sir Water Raleigh, John Bunyan, and was the Bible brought by the Pilgrim Fathers and the early settlers to America. Even those most associated with the translation of the King James Version and political enemies of the Puritans like Archbishop Laud and Bishop Bancroft often took their texts for their sermons from the Geneva Bible!

One of the greatest causes of the Geneva Bible falling into disuse came when Charles 2nd became king after the Commonwealth rule of Oliver Cromwell. The Geneva Bible was seen as the Bible of the Puritans and the KJV the Bible of kings and the establishment. Thus the KJV became the established translation of the new restoration of the monarchy. – How sad that one of the greatest English translations fell into disuse.

If you were to come into our home, you might stop to look at various pictures hanging in our family room but pass right by a framed text that seems almost unreadable. To us this is the prize of the prints that hang there. It is a page from an original Geneva Bible given to us for our 50th wedding anniversary by our daughter who knew my love and interest in this great historic Bible. The page was chosen because it contains my life testimony verse, Psalm 16: 6, “The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places: yea, I have a faire heritage.”