The Westminster Confession into the 21st century
THE WESTMINSTER CONFESSION INTO THE 21ST CENTURY
Essays in remembrance of the 350th anniversary of the Westminster Assembly, volume 3
Edited by J. Ligon Duncan, III
Mentor. 550 pages. £22.99
This is the third volume in a series of essays devoted to Reformed theology from Calvin to the present day, with special reference to the Westminster Assembly (1643-52).
The Assembly, in its Confession and Catechisms, produced the most extensive and developed Reformed confessional statements; it is also of major significance for a crucial point in English social and political history. Some contributors refer directly to the Assembly, some comment tangentially, while others write of something quite different. As with any anthology, the quality is uneven. However, these volumes are sufficiently large to contain much of value.
Recently, our knowledge of the Westminster Assembly has been hugely enhanced by the work of Dr. Chad Van Dixhoorn, who transcribed the complete record of debate and unearthed many original documents and letters of the divines. He put some of this material into his seven-volume Cambridge PhD thesis. Shortly, the complete papers of the Assembly are to be published by Oxford University Press in five volumes of 880,000 words. This shifts our view of the divines’ work away from a previous focus on church government to one on theology. Apart from two contributions by Van Dixhoorn himself, the articles here date from earlier times or ignore what he has done.
There are some very worthwhile offerings; space permits mention of only a few. Apart from Van Dixhoorn on the Assembly’s work and its plenary sessions, Robert Norris correctly stresses the importance of the early debates on The Thirty-Nine Articles, in contrast to scholars like Warfield. John Fesko and Guy Richard write on natural theology and the Westminster Confession. The Brazilian scholar Valdeci Santos addresses the contribution of the Confession to missiology, an important and neglected theme, by means of a discussion of chapter 14 on saving faith. Donald MacLeod writes on the New Perspective on Paul, challenging it incisively from a wide range of angles. Derek Thomas argues intriguingly that the Assembly’s statement on the order of God’s decrees was intended to satisfy both infra- and supralapsarians; but he lacks hard evidence from the debates. Duncan himself defends covenant theology from a range of criticisms. Will Traub presents a balanced appraisal of Karl Barth’s evaluation of the Confession. On the other hand, Wayne Spear’s two articles on the Lord’s Supper in Calvin and Westminster are, from a variety of angles, less than convincing.
For anyone — ministers, students, thinking Christians — interested in Reformed theology or the Westminster Assembly, this is a valuable contribution. It is by no means the last word on the subject but, as a stimulus to further thought and reading, it is to be valued.
Dr. Robert Letham,
a minister in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in England and Wales,
lectures at WEST