In his wonderful book on the Westminster Assembly, Robert Letham says this:
“In short, the Assembly, within limits, was inclusive rather than exclusive. It sought to reach the widest measure of agreement possible, within acceptable limits of doctrine and practice” (Letham, The Westminster Assembly, p. 117).
In many ways I think this should serve as the model of reformational ecumenicity. This is the kind of thing that I believe orthodox Reformed believers need to learn how to pursue. There is a trick to it, going in both directions.
If you protect your doctrinal puritypuritypurity, you wind up with a denomination that is kind of a museum piece, slumbering peacefully in its glass case. But if you go the doctrine-divides-Christ-unites route, you wind up with a kind of unity that does not quite know who this Christ is supposed to be, for to say something about it would kind of land you in the middle of some doctrine. And that would divide the body. But we are not quite sure what the body is either. I hear the Buddhists are doing something interesting these days . . .
The fact is that the center of the Westminster Assembly was so obvious that we easily overlook the fact that it had edges. The Assembly is identified by its center, and not by its edges. The exact shape of the United States is changing all the time, as the tide goes in and out. Nevertheless, Nebraska remains right where it is. We should labor to identify the Reformed heartland, and take our time working our way out to the beaches.
There were guys at the Assembly who didn’t hold to the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, there were differences on church government, there were hypothetical universalists present and voting, and so on. And they were all apparently good with it.
Our modern form of tending to orthodoxy errs (in my view) by running concertina wire around the edges instead of building up the center. This is not to say that border security should be entirely neglected (of course it should not), but that is not where the central action is. The central action should be — and this is admittedly my own view — at the center.
If the hypoethetical universalists had been run out of the Assembly, I think we would have had a much more sectarian (and less useful) document. But if the hypothetical universalists had gained control of the center of the Assembly, and if they had defined the center, I venture to say that the only moderns who would know of them would be niche historians.
Reformed denominations, coalitions, movements, conference networks, and publishing houses would therefore do well to tend to the center. Identify the center, and identify with the center. Think of it as a cornhusker orthodoxy.