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The Theology of the Westminster Standards by J. V. Fesko: A Review Article

Jeffrey C. Waddington

The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context and Theological Insights, by J. V. Fesko. Wheaton: Crossway, 2014, 441 pages, $28.00, paper.

It is a good time to live and be a student of the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. The outstanding work of Chad Van Dixhoorn and associates has greatly added to our understanding of the political and religious contexts for the calling and operation of the Westminster Assembly (the “synod of London,” as it is also known). Van Dixhoorn’s high level of scholarship is beginning to filter down to the pews. John Fesko, academic dean and professor of systematic and historical theology at Westminster Seminary California, has provided the church with a fine study of our secondary standards with his Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context and Theological Insights.

Fesko’s study is appropriately titled since he provides helpful and fascinating background detail, opening up for the reader broader vistas of understanding. The author does not merely provide background information of the political circumstances that gave rise to the assembly’s work (i.e., the English Civil War and the rise of antinomianism in the greater London metropolitan area), he explains the issues that mattered to the assembly divines and concepts and methods that were perhaps second nature to the divines but are no longer so for us. We think we know the standards, but Fesko sheds warm light on the chapters of the confession and the questions and answers of the catechisms. Once we have read this volume, we will not want to read the standards in an ahistorical sense ever again.

The book is made up of thirteen chapters preceded by a preface, acknowledgements, and table of abbreviations and followed by a select annotated bibliography and three indices. Unfortunately, we can only give a passing sense of the book here. In the introductory chapter (23–31) Dr. Fesko outlines the present circumstances that have given rise to the writing of this study. The author explains the importance of being familiar with the original historical context of our doctrinal standards, of reading the confession and catechisms as highly nuanced consensus documents, of emphasizing primary over secondary sources, and he explains the plan of the book. All of this is helpful to let the reader know what he is in for.

In the second chapter Fesko gives a brief but clear overview of the historical and theological setting of the assembly (33–63). As many of our readers no doubt already know, in the Reformation politics and religion were intimately and inextricably intertwined. This was still the case more than a century after the commencement of the English Reformation under Henry VIII. What may surprise us is the highly charged eschatological atmosphere of the assembly. Many thought the Reformation would usher in the end of the world. Additionally, theological pluralism was the rule of the day. The divines were widely read in these theologies and were intimately familiar with errors and heresies. Many of these are targeted without being explicitly named in the standards. Finally, the assembly is rightly understood as a Reformed assembly that sought to be a functioning part of the larger continental Reformed community. Fesko points out that Calvin was one among a multitude of significant theological voices but by no means the only or even most important voice.

Chapters 3 through 12 cover the thirty-three chapters of the confession and the multitude of questions and answers in the two catechisms. Fesko exposits the doctrine of Scripture (65–93), God and the decrees (95–124), covenant and creation (125–167), the doctrine of Christ (169–205), justification (207–238), sanctification (239–266), the Law of God and the Christian life (267–297), the church (299–334), worship (335–362), and eschatology (363–394) all with historical sensitivity and added light that makes studying the standards seem like an exciting new adventure even for those of us who have known them for many years. The conclusion (395–397) provides a concise wrap-up of the study, briefly hitting on salient points.

Before concluding this review, I need to offer a few criticisms and observations. I need to confess up front that I do not write as an expert on the historical background of the Westminster Standards but as a minister who has subscribed to them ex animo. First, I make the general observation that the author builds upon the ground-breaking scholarship of Richard Muller and his school. This makes perfect sense as Muller and his associates have done a yeoman’s service to the church and the academy by correcting multiple misunderstandings of the Reformed Scholastic tradition especially as it relates to the work of John Calvin. Muller has been right in challenging the so-called “Calvin versus the Calvinists” school of thought where Calvin is seen as the gold standard and all others in the Scholastic tradition as defectors from that high point.

The Westminster Assembly has been understood in that light as an egregious example of departure from Calvin at significant points. Fesko properly reminds us that Calvin was a brilliant theologian in his day, but he was one among many giants. We should not confuse the profound contemporary influence of Calvin with his having the same standing in his own day or at the time of the assembly. Point well taken. However, the author makes this point on multiple occasions. One gets the impression that Fesko is not only trying to correct a misapprehension about Calvin’s standing and influence in his own day but that he is also trying to diminish Calvin’s position in our day. There is a reason why Calvin is a classic. This is a theological verdict and not merely a historical one. Perhaps Calvin has had an outsized influence upon Reformed theology because he is theologically significant. On the other hand, it may simply be a matter of happenstance and what books have been translated out of Latin. Having said all this, it is undoubtedly correct that we ought to refer to ourselves as Reformed rather than Calvinistic since Calvin is one among a whole constellation of excellent and learned theologians within our heritage.

Second, Dr. Fesko offers a fascinating discussion of hypothetical universalism (187–205). It is a fact that there were members present in the assembly who held this view, and the author notes the complexity of the matter and the various views that fall under the label of hypothetical universalism. My concern is not with the details of the discussion. Muller has brought this issue to our attention as well so we are familiar with it. My concern is theological more than historical. As I have already noted, it is a fact that members of the assembly held to a variety of views that can be classified as forms of hypothetical universalism.

However, beyond doing us the favor of reminding us that at the time of the assembly hypothetical universalism was a live option, one gets the sense that there is also at work here a theological agenda. The contemporary view is too narrow perhaps. Church history hopefully involves an increasingly more precise and improved understanding of the Scriptures and theology. In other words, should we try to turn back the clock and broaden our confessional views on this? Maybe so. Maybe not. That is a matter for exegetical, biblical, and systematic theology. Historical theology has done us the service of reminding us that at one point hypothetical universalism, at least in some of its variations, was acceptable. We can’t unring the bell as they say. We know that there were pre-Nicene forms of Trinitarian theology and views of our Lord’s hypostatic union that predate Chalcedon. Does that mean we want to resurrect them to offer them as legitimate alternatives to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and Chalcedonian Formula? We recognize that there is development in theology and that we need to be historically sensitive to this. Would it be right to judge earlier formulations by later standards? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that if a later development actually is an improvement and refinement and correction to earlier views, we would not want to revert to the earlier formulations. No, in the sense that we will recognize earlier formulations as defective but not necessarily erroneous or heretical.

Third, and finally, Fesko discusses the putative influence of the theology of Jonathan Edwards on the typical understanding of God’s decree and the relation of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility (97–99). Fesko affirms that Edwards denies contingency and secondary causality in creation which are in fact affirmed in the confession.[1] Fesko builds on a lecture recently given by Richard Muller at the Jonathan Edwards Center at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and later published in the online journal Jonathan Edwards Studies.[2] As an Edwards scholar myself, I remember listening to the Muller lecture and not being quite satisfied with its accuracy. More recently it has been demonstrated that Edwards in fact did hold to both contingency and secondary causality.[3] This is a minor point in the argument of the chapter, but since we are aiming for historical and theological contextual sensitivity, more work should be done in this area including a reading of a broader swath of Edwards’s literary corpus.

None of the above criticisms vitiates the excellence of the book as a whole. I recommend John Fesko’s work to church officers and congregants as well. Fesko’s work now joins Van Dixhoorn and Letham on my bookshelf providing a historically and theologically sensitive study of the Westminster Standards.

Endnotes

[1] I am indebted to the work of Scott Doherty and Michael Preciado for insights into the issue. Doherty has written an excellent as of yet unpublished analysis of Richard Muller and Paul Helm on Edwards’s lack of agreement with the confession at this point. See his “Edwards Unflattened: The Rich Landscape of Causality in Jonathan Edwards’ Freedom of Will: A response to Muller and Helm on Jonathan Edwards’ View of Free Will.” Preciado is currently working on a PhD dissertation on the subject as well.

[2] Richard A. Muller, “Jonathan Edwards and the Absence of Free Choice: A Parting of the Ways in the Reformed Tradition,” Jonathan Edwards Studies 1, no.1 (2012), cited in Fesko, 98n6.

[3] Related to this is undoubtedly Edwards’s purported embrace of the doctrines of continuous creation and occasionalism. Continuous creationism is the idea that the universe is created anew every moment so that the standard distinction between creation and providence appears to be denied. Occasionalism is the view that God is the only causal agent at work in the universe. If this is so, then secondary causality is denied. These two distinct doctrines are often fused together in the secondary literature.

Jeffrey C. Waddington is an Orthodox Presbyterian minister serving as stated supply of Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, January 2016.

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