Friday, October 29, 2010

The Westminster Assembly: Reading its theology in historical context, by Robert Letham

The Westminster Assembly: Reading its theology in historical context,
Robert Letham, P&R, 2009, 399pp

This book does exactly what it says on the cover, which is read the theology of the Westminster Assembly (1643-52) in its historical context. That is a necessary task as the Assembly was occasioned by certain historical circumstances and consideration of this fact is an indispensable aid to understanding its work. The writer draws upon Chad Van Dixhoorn's research into the minutes of Westminster debates to help piece together the historical background and get a handle on the nuances of theological discussion that took place in the Assembly sessions.

At the outset of the Civil War the Assembly was tasked by Parliament with vindicating and revising 39 Articles of the Church of England. This aspect of the Assembly's work has not always been given due recognition, but Letham demonstrates that the Westminster documents drew heavily on the 39 Articles. Other influential sources for Westminster Assembly's confessional theology include the Irish Articles, the writings of the continental Reformers and the historic creeds of the early church. The Westminster Confession and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms are a distillation of Reformed Catholic theology. Yes, the Assembly went out of its way to refute the errors of Roman Catholicism, but that does not mean that its outlook was sectarian, paying little regard to the theological heritage of the church. The Assembly's teaching on the Trinity is informed by the Council of Nicaea and its treatment of the Person of Christ bears the hallmarks of Chalcedonian orthodoxy. However, unlike 39 Articles, which in article 8 affirm the the Apostle's Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed, the Westminster Assembly fails to explicitly endorse the creedal tradition of the Church. Letham sees this as a weakness on the Assembly's part that was out of kilter with the general attitude of the continental Reformed Churches.

Some have been critical of the work of the Westminster Assembly, regarding its documents as a betrayal of the earlier theology of the Reformers. Amongst others, Karl Barth, the Torrance brothers and R.T. Kendall have charged the Assembly with scholastic regression, over and against the more purely biblical approach of Calvin. However, as Letham points out, this scenario has been comprehensively refuted by the work of Richard Muller, Paul Helm and others. Calvin was steeped in the medieval scholastic tradition and those who followed in his wake (including the Westminster divines) continued to utilise the resources of scholastic thought. But contrary to what some critics have claimed, the Assembly was not guilty of trying to draw up an elaborate system of doctrine based on logical deduction from basic theological axioms such as predestination or the covenant of grace. While the material in the Assembly's documents is presented in logical order, its main preoccupation was with biblical exegesis rather than abstract theological reasoning.

Letham is a sympathetic interpreter of the productions of the Westminster Assembly, and is careful to guard against an anachronistic understanding of its theology. Developments in later Reformed thought on matters such as covenant theology, the imputation of Adam's sin and the imputation of Christ's active righteousness in justification should not be read back into the Assembly's work. Several detailed excursus are devoted to tracing lines of doctrinal development in these areas. Interestingly, the issue of whether Christ's active obedience is imputed to the believer was a subject of some hot debate in the Assembly sessions.

In his exposition of the theology of the Assembly, Letham devotes attention not simply to the Westminster Confession, but also to the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. The Assembly's work needs to be seen as a whole, as one document may provide a corrective to the emphasis of another. Some have complained that the Confession does not give sufficient attention to the believer's union with Christ in its treatment of salvation, preferring to focus on the ordo salutis. But this lacunae is offset by the Larger Catechism, in which salvation is discussed very much in terms of union with Christ. While Letham is generally supportive of the theological stance of the Assembly, he is not afraid to be critical, singling out the failure of both Catechisms to mention the love of God. He also takes exception to Wesminster's treatment of assurance, which,  he believes, in making full assurance seem so difficult to attain, fails to reflect the confident note of the New Testament.

I'm a Reformed Baptist, rather than a Presbyterian. I believe that the Independents were right to revise the Assembly's doctrine of the Church in their Savoy Declaration (1658) and that Particular Baptists were correct in further amending Westminster's teaching on baptism in the Second London Baptist Confession (1689). Indeed, Letham's discussion of the convoluted debates over paedobaptism in the Assembly sessions only serve to confirm the difficulty of finding a biblical basis for the baptism of infants. Nevertheless, I am grateful for the work of the Westminster Assembly, which provided a  solid Reformed Catholic basis upon which Particular Baptists could build in drawing up their own confession of faith. Robert Letham has given us an excellent introduction to the Assembly, placing its work in the proper historical setting. His exposition of Westminster's theology from Holy Scripture to Death, Resurrection and Judgement is thoughtful and thorough, appreciative without being naively uncritical. No one will come away from his reading of the Assembly's literature without their understanding of its Confession and Catechisms being deepened and enriched. Highly recommended.

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