Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Theology of the Westminster Standards

Anyone interested in either the history of theology or in Reformed theology beyond 5 points and an affirmation of God’s sovereignty would do well to familiarize themselves with the resulting documents of the Westminster Assembly, the Westminster Standards.  The richness of these documents is put on display with J.V. Fesko’s new book from Crossway, The Theology of the Westminster Standards. 

Fesko introduces the reader to the Standards by emphasizing the need to understand them in their context, both of the “who” wrote them and the “when and where” they were written.  Fesko argues that a “challenge to a proper understanding of the Standards is when contemporary historians and commentators read the Standards through the grid of later theological developments.”  So, for this reason, he seeks to help the reader investigate the Standards “in their original context.”

“Early modern Reformed theologians had a slightly different outlook on life and theology than we do today, and despite whatever similarities in doctrine and conviction are shared with theologians in the twenty-first century, the differences can be significant.”

Part of reading the Standards in their context is attempting, as much as possible, to see arguments and interpretations through the eyes of the divines(those who framed the Standards).  While this is difficult, Fesko’s does well to take the reader into the theological world of the 17th century and, because of this, allows the reader to pick up on details of debates, discussions, and controversies that “often pass unnoticed by contemporary readers but were well known to theologians of the period.”

One of these details is an over-emphasis of the influence of the great Genevan reformer that modern readers so often impose upon the Standards, the divines, and early Protestantism as a whole.  Fesko goes to great lengths to slay the caricature, oftentimes wittingly or unwittingly perpetuated by its adherents-especially neo-Calvinists of the YRR variety, that Reformed theology as a whole and the Standards in particular are simply an outworking of the theology of John Calvin. Fesko shows that the divines of the Westminster Assembly quoted from a long list of theologians and traditions in floor debate and that Calvin, in comparison, fared pretty weakly to his counterparts.

Calvin’s esteem and perceived influence has been exaggerated in the present day. While Calvin was certainly influential, the extent of citations and correspondence between Calvin and other Reformers shows that in his own day Calvin was one theologian among many others…claims about Calvin’s supposed influence over the rest of the tradition should be governed not by contemporary estimation of Calvin’s theology but by historical primary-source evidence.

This, needless to say, is in no way to disparage Calvin.  But it is to emphasize the facts that the Standards were not the result of a monolithic school of thought and that there were many theologians and eras of theology that the Standards are indebted to beyond simply Calvin.

I was struck by how well the Standards themselves dealt with nuanced and controversial issues. In many areas the theological precision of the Standards truly stands out.  For example, in formulating the Standards position on the Word of God, the divines went to great efforts to combat the position of Rome on the supremacy of the Church over the Scriptures.

But embedded in this opening paragraph is a crucial element that distinguishes Reformed belief from Roman Catholic convictions and serves as a leitmotif throughout this first chapter on Scripture. Going back to the writings of Heinrich Bullinger (1504–1575) and earlier, Reformed theologians explained the nature of the Word in terms of the verbum agraphon et engraphon, the “unwritten and written word.” This was an important distinction, one that emphasized that God’s spoken Word took precedence over his written Word. It might not be immediately apparent, but giving priority to the unwritten (or spoken) Word of God meant that the Word of God existed first, prior to the church. By contrast, Roman Catholics argued that the church existed first and then created the Word. If the church existed first, then its authority was equal to that of Scripture; but if the Word existed first, then the church, naturally, was the product of the Word and hence subject to its authority.

       Bullinger, for example, writes, “Their doctrine, first of all taught by a lively expressed voice, and after that set down in writing with pen and ink, is the doctrine of God and the very true word of God.”  The Word of God begins not with what is written, which would naturally raise questions related to the Canon, but with what is spoken. The unwritten Word of God gives rise to the written Word of God. This type of distinction appears in the works of those such as Wolfgang Musculus (1497–1563), Bucanus, and Leigh.  It was also confessed quite early in the Reformation in the Ten Theses of Bern (1528), which state, “The holy catholic church, whose sole head is Christ, has been begotten from the Word of God, in which also it continues, nor does it listen to the voice of any stranger” (§ 1). In other words, the divines do not advocate that the Bible itself is a dead letter, a book containing dusty propositions to be affirmed or denied. Rather, the written Word is a vehicle or instrument for the Word of God by which he continually speaks to the church. As Bullinger writes in the Second Helvetic Confession, “God himself spoke to the fathers, prophets, apostles, and still speaks to us through the Holy Scriptures” (1.1). And likewise, the divines affirm that the supreme authority in the church by which all controversies of religion are adjudicated is “no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture” (1.10).

The point here is that the Word produces the church; the church does not produce the Word.

While precise and often quite explicit, one area that Fesko highlights is the “deliberate ambiguity” of the Standards on certain issues, an ambiguity that “can only be discovered by reading the Confession and catechisms in tandem with the minutes of the assembly and works of the period.”  Whether ambiguous or direct, implicit or explicit, Fesko’s research allows the reader to hear much of the floor debate on issues like antinomianism, hypothetical universalism, millenarianism/chiasm, two Kingdoms, the regulative principle of worship, the papacy as antichrist, dual justification, and much more and to see why the divines said what they did…or did not.

 Fesko’s work on the imputation of the active obedience of Christ (IAOC) is a microcosm of the scholarship of this work.  Fesko’s attention to detail is second to none in this chapter and he makes his argument forcefully and graciously.  He compares the number of speeches for and against IAOC, he lists objections to IAOC and then the positive case made for it.  He also engages the implicit case against IAOC based on removal of “whole” and a comma that was mistakenly omitted from copies, as well as the cultural context of “obedience and satisfaction” as passive and active obedience.  In all of this, Fesko does not leave the novice in the dust and keeps the reader’s interest piqued.

Fesko presents the entire book in historical context.  He begins by looking at the assembly itself and what led to these theologians being gathered to amend the 39 Articles.  After introducing the historical context of the calling of the Westminster Assembly in 1643, Fesko proceeds to look at specific issues addressed in the Standards in light of debates at the Assembly and its immediate context because,

Historical context is all-determinative for understanding the theology contained in the Westminster Standards. As helpful and necessary as popular commentaries on the Standards are, a contextually sensitive reading of the documents must first be established. What political and theological concerns did the divines have, and how do these concerns appear in the Confession and catechisms? Who were the dialogue partners of the divines, whether positively or negatively?

So, I can definitely make the point that The Theology of the Westminster Standards is a pleasure to read.  While it gets pretty deep at points, Fesko seems to take care to never leave those without formal theological education in the wake of his scholarship.  While I am sure there are many who could/would argue the historical and/or theological nuances of Fesko’s conclusions, I am definitely not informed enough to even think of trying.  However, as one with relatively little interaction with the Westminster Standards prior to this work, I can assure you that this is a wonderful introduction to the history and theology of the Westminster Standards and time well spent for anyone with the least bit of interest in the British Reformation or Protestant theology. 

Fesko says from the beginning that the “aim of this study is to set the Standards in their original historical setting and explore the world of the seventeenth century…(and) my hope is that this brief exploration of the marvelous world of seventeenth-century Reformed theology will be interesting, instructive, and edifying for saints living in the twenty-first century and beyond.”

This is exactly what has been accomplished.  Fesko provides the reader with an historical theology of the Westminster Standards that will serve the Church for a long, long time. 

*I received a copy of this book for review purposes.

J. V. Fesko (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is academic dean and associate professor of systematic and historical theology at Westminster Seminary California. In addition to serving as an ordained minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, he is the author of a number of books related to the Reformation, including What is Justification? and Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine.


            “One of the ways of demonstrating the abiding relevance of our confessions is to understand the conversations and debates from which they emerged. John Fesko has done precisely this. Digging around each plant in the Westminster garden, Fesko exposes the rich soil that still nourishes our faith and practice. I picked up this book expecting to find a resource to be consulted, but found myself reading the whole work through with rapt attention. There is gold in these hills!”
            Michael Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics, Westminster Seminary California; author, Calvin on the Christian Life
“Finally we have a solid analysis and an expert portrayal of the theology of the Westminster Standards in which the time of its writing and its direct influence are also described. John Fesko has gathered an enormous amount of information that makes this book a sourcebook par excellence. He does the church and its theology a great favor with this overview, helping us to understand the Westminster Confession and catechisms not only in their theological context, but also in their relevance for today.”
            Herman Selderhuis, Professor of Church History, Theological University of Apeldoorn; Director, Refo500, The Netherlands

            “Drawing upon a significant body of recent research, John Fesko has written an admirably clear and accessible study of the teaching of the Westminster Confession. By situating the successive chapters in their original seventeenth-century setting, he provides an informed exposition of their content and significance. This study will be immensely useful not only for theological students, but for all who require a better understanding of the most important Reformed confession in the English-speaking world.”
            David Fergusson, Professor of Divinity and Principal, New College, University of Edinburgh
          “Seldom has an exposition of the Westminster Standards been as useful as John Fesko’s Theology of the Westminster Standards. Dr. Fesko understands the necessity of placing these monumental documents in their proper contexts. He has uncovered a massive amount of contemporary literature and expertly explains the theological statements of the Standards in the light of these works. For everyone interested in confessionalism, this is an essential volume. It will be a standard work for decades to come.”
            James M. Renihan, Dean and Professor of Historical Theology, Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies

            “Fesko’s volume is an outstanding and very welcome addition to the growing field of literature on the Westminster Confession of Faith. In these pages Fesko goes straight to the primary sources, skillfully mining relevant sixteenth- and seventeenth-century texts in order to explain the historical and theological developments leading up to the assembly. Moreover, he provides fresh and insightful analysis of the theology of the Confession itself. Do you want to grow in your knowledge and understanding of the Reformed faith in general, and the theology of the Westminster Confession in particular? If the answer is yes, then pick up and read this marvelous book. I heartily commend it!”
            Jon D. Payne, Presbyterian Church in America church planter, Charleston, South Carolina; Visiting Lecturer, Reformed Theological Seminary; Series Editor, Lectio Continua Expository Commentary on the New Testament

            “This book is awesome!”
            Josh R. Skinner, Marketing Czar/Office Morale Monitor at TheTrailer Guys, Church Member at Calvary Baptist Church, Author of A Review of J.V. Fesko’s The Theology of the Westminster Standards