What We Believe
i

Confessing the Faith by Chad Van Dixhoorn

Robert Letham

Ordained Servant: April 2015

Catechizing

Also in this issue

A Dozen Reasons Why Catechizing Is Important

Rediscovering Catechism by Donald Van Dyken

Grounded in the Gospel by Packer and Parrett

The Heart Is the Target by Murray Capill

Catechism

Confessing the Faith: A Reader’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith Chad Van Dixhoorn. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2014, xxvi + 484 pages, $30.00.

In his foreword, Carl Trueman correctly says that “Chad has spent more time and devoted more attention to the minutiae of the Confession than anyone else has ever done, excepting perhaps the Westminster delegates themselves. There is no safer or more learned guide to the Confession.” With that this review could conveniently end. Nevertheless, for the sake of a fuller explanation we shall continue.

By now there can scarcely be a reader of this journal who is unaware of the massive work that produced the complete minutes and papers of the Westminster Assembly, published in five volumes by Oxford University Press. Chad Van Dixhoorn was the editor and driving force behind this, assisted by a range of others. It was based on his PhD dissertation at the University of Cambridge, which—on top of the dissertation proper—extended to seven volumes that included the minutes and a large rediscovered section of the journal of John Lightfoot, a particularly learned member of the Assembly. Much of this material was produced from the virtually indecipherable seventeenth century shorthand in which the records of Assembly debates were written. Paleographical assistance was required.

The final Oxford University Press volumes include all extant papers, correspondence and other incunabula, together with a range of indexes. It has spawned a number of recent studies on aspects of the Assembly’s theology, on the theology of the Confession and Catechisms taken together in context, and on the theological and historical background to the Confession.

None of this is evident in the commentary before us. The scholarship is hidden, the learning worn lightly. The book is what it claims to be—a guide for the reader of the Confession who, one must assume, has little time for the details that underlay its production. It is all the more valuable for that. Van Dixhoorn simply expounds the text; his learning is evident, for those able to recognize it, in the clarity, accuracy and astute nature of his comments. This is a work of vast scholarship, presented in the most judicious manner, without the trimmings. As such it should become the standard work for consideration of the Confession and will be particularly needed for ministers, elders, and the general church member.

There have been other commentaries on the Confession over the years, some more scholarly, others designed for a popular readership. We know what they are; they have done yeoman service. However, none exemplify the rigor and accuracy of Van Dixhoorn’s work. I made a number of spot checks on particular aspects of the Confession where a sophisticated treatment of historical context, theological nuance, seventeenth- century word usage, and the inter-relationship of a range of theological co-ordinates is needed to pry open the intention of the divines. In each instance, Van Dixhoorn handles such questions clearly and deftly. This is not a critical edition, in the sense that he expounds the text rather than probe some of its weaknesses; the intent of the book and the nature of its readership govern the whole.

Here and there, on a very few occasions, one might differ but usually only in a matter of nuance and presentation. Notwithstanding, one matter relates to the question of civil disobedience. Van Dixhoorn’s exposition of the chapters on civil liberty and the civil magistrate inculcate obedience and submission to governing authorities. In this he echoes the words of the Confession in their surface meaning. He backs this up by reference to Paul in Romans 13 and Peter in 1 Peter 2. Yet the Assembly was a commission of Parliament at a time when it was at war with the King. Clearly the divines believed in the rightness of taking up arms against Charles on the grounds that he had usurped powers that were not his; their participation in the Assembly was at the risk of their lives, knowing that if Parliament were to be defeated they themselves would be liable to be tried for treason. There is a subtext to the Confession’s comments on these matters. The adjective “lawful” in Confession 23:4 (“It is the duty of people … to obey their lawful commands”) carries enormous weight in this context. Charles, Laud and their friends were seen as acting unlawfully; Parliament was free from this constraint. Moreover, Parliament was regarded as taking up arms lawfully in defense of its constitutional rights, which went back as far as Magna Carta in 1215.

That is all. I highly commend this book. As Carl Trueman states, it should be read and used by all elders, by Sunday school teachers, and church members.

Robert Letham, a minister in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in England and Wales, teaches Systematic and Historical Theology at Wales Evangelical School of Theology, Bridgend, Wales. Ordained Servant Online, April 2015.

Publication Information

Contact the Editor: Gregory Edward Reynolds

Editorial address: Dr. Gregory Edward Reynolds,
827 Chestnut St.
Manchester, NH 03104-2522
Telephone: 603-668-3069

Electronic mail: reynolds.1@opc.org

Submissions, Style Guide, and Citations

Subscriptions

Editorial Policies

Copyright information

Ordained Servant: April 2015

Catechizing

Also in this issue

A Dozen Reasons Why Catechizing Is Important

Rediscovering Catechism by Donald Van Dyken

Grounded in the Gospel by Packer and Parrett

The Heart Is the Target by Murray Capill

Catechism

Download PDFDownload MobiDownload ePubArchive

CONTACT US

+1 215 830 0900

Contact Form

Find a Church