16 November 2009

Husk and Kernel: The Assembly at Westminster

I've been perusing Bob Letham's new book on the Westminster Assembly, reading portions here and there as items catch my eye. There's all kinds of helpful discussions in it, but I wanted to highlight a few criticisms he makes, mostly because I think they symbolize how helpful this book can be in demythologizing the Westminster Confession. Sometimes one gets the impression that certain confessionalists think the writing simply fell from the sky. This almost always leads to unfortunate hermeneutics.

Yet it is proper, Letham writes, "to attempt to interpret a text in its original context. A striking example of carelessness, of failure to do basic homework, that renders a contextual reading improbable is this extract from the introduction to a recent popular treatment…" (p. 48; Letham then goes on to quote a paragraph from John Gerstner's Guide followed up with a succinct correction). These kinds of correctives are scattered throughout the work. Consider the following about WCF 6 (on humanity and sin) as exegeted by A.A. Hodge in his well-known Handbook: "…neither the Confession nor the Catechisms speak of our first parents being placed on probation…nonetheless, [Hodge] goes to great lengths to expound the idea in his comments on this very point" (198–99). Letham does think, however, that the doctrine can be defended from the Assembly's documents; he's just pointing out sloppy exegesis—"Hodge ignores the text of the Confession at this point and instead expounds his own theology ["Princeton doctrine of the imputation of Adam's sin on the ground of a federal relationship"] as if these words in this section did not exist" (p. 199).

Maybe most importantly, Letham notes on more than one occasion that "Reformed theology was a relatively broad stream, and differences among those swimming in it were recognized and accepted" (p. 84). Indeed, even on the subject of hypothetical universal atonement (!), its "supporters continued to play their part in the Assembly…and were not blackballed for their views. The Assembly was not a partisan body within the boundaries of its generic Calvinism, but allowed differing views to coexist" (182). It seems to me, in light of this, that the authors of the somewhat recent spate of blog posts about what it means to be "truly Reformed" should take note. That is, they should be mindful that subscription to the Confession as is currently understood in contemporary Presbyterianism is just that—contemporary. The Confession was not fashioned for a particular denomination within a societal context of church-state separation; rather, it was intended to unite the realm (England, Scotland and Ireland) and her church. As such, it's a lowest-common-denominator Reformed document with the specific purpose of uniting a bunch of different people, and thus various views on a host of subjects (e.g., covenant of works and hypothetical universal atonement) were tolerated. Now, it may be a non-sequitur to suggest that Reformed folk today ought to follow suit, but at least the burden of proof lies with the strict subscriptionist.

Still, poor assumptions persist. On the one hand, we've got those who continue to suffer under the impression that it's Calvin versus the Calvinists when it comes to the Confession. Letham picks on Torrance a little bit to this end (who regarded the development of covenant theology in the seventeenth century "as a distortion of the earlier, pristine theology of Calvin, Knox, and the Scots Confession"): "Furthermore, [Torrance] imposes on the the Assembly the idea of a controlling central dogma—the dual framework of a covenant of works and a covenant of grace—whereas the idea of central dogmas only emerged in the nineteenth century, among German scholars, and was far from the minds of the Westminster divines" (p. 85).

"On the other hand," Letham writes, "many right-wing Presbyterians today interpret the Westminster Confession in detachment from the history of the Reformed church and its classic confessions. The militant adherents of the hypothesis that the days of creation were of twenty-fours duration are a prime example [Letham footnotes his "In the Space of Six Days," WTJ 61 (1999): 149–74]. Neglect of this context is a barrier to understanding" (p. 85).
At any rate, with the forthcoming publication of the mulitvolume critical edition of the Assembly's minutes (of which Letham had in advance, in the form of Van Dixhoorn's seven-volume Cambridge thesis on this subject), I suppose other works about this will start popping up across the landscape (as perspectives on the Assembly will no doubt be reassessed). If The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context is any indication, this bodes well for those churches who consider themselves heirs of the Assembly and its Confession today.


Bobby Grow said...

Looks interesting, I'll have to give it a read for sure.

Kevin Davis said...

Yeah, I'll have to get this. Thanks for the summation. I've been impressed by Letham's work before...of course, that's what I expect from an Aberdeen grad.

David said...

Hey there,

Thanks for this post. I will certainly try and track down the book.

I work at a Reformed Seminary, and one of the profs here said that if Calamy was to stand before his credentials committee he would not be accepted.

What Letham is saying is encouraging in that it looks like the academic community (as seen by the work and comments from Muller and Trueman for example)is moving beyond the sectarianism that's been the norm for a few decades now; even though its still burning in the blog-world.

Its also about time we got beyond all the "central-dogma" stuff too. Muller's approach is more balanced, even if one may not agree with all of his conclusions.

Again thanks,

Chris Donato said...

@ Kevin, yes, Letham's on my watch list, ever since the publication of his The Holy Trinity—in my opinion one of the best treatments in long, long time from his particular circles. (His Through Western Eyes is also a great read.) Aberdeen, indeed. ; )

Chris Donato said...

Hi, David. That could be said about a whole host of our Reformed forebears. In certain southern Presbyterian circles, Warfield himself wouldn't pass!

Maybe the shift we're seeing isn't so much a shift but an ethos that has come to the fore: Letham and Trueman, for example, are of a particular Presbyterian denomination that has not gotten bogged down in ways certain other denoms have (DG Hart notwithstanding). I too hope this trend continues.

Totally agree about Muller as well. I think he's got a 'blindspot' or two. But that's not coming from me; I don't have the chutzpah to back that up.

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