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The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context (Westminster Assembly and the Reformed Faith) Paperback – November 2, 2009
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"Avoiding anachronistic and misleading attempts to make the Assembly's work more 'relevant' to our times, the author has positioned that work firmly and clearly in its own time, with the paradoxical result that the Assembly's debates and decisions come to life again and speak powerfully to us today." --Robert B. Strimple, Ph. D., President Emeritus and Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology, Westminster Seminary California
"Letham has put us all in his debt by giving us a solid and thorough introduction to the Westminster Assembly that brings its debates to life and shows why the confession and catechisms it produced have become the touchstone of Reformed theology in the English-speaking world." --Gerald Bray, Beeson Divinity School
"Typical of Bob Letham's writings, 'The Westminster Assembly' is comprehensive in its grasp. . . . The book will appeal to theological professors as an ideal seminary text, to ministers as a handy guide for preaching and teaching, and to lay people as a tool to become historically and theologically informed." --Joel R. Beeke, Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary
About the Author
Robert Letham (MAR, ThM, Westminster Theological Seminary; PhD, Aberdeen University) is professor of systematic and historical theology at Union School of Theology in Bridgend, Wales, and the author of a number of books, including The Holy Trinity, The Lord's Supper, and Union with Christ.
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Top Customer Reviews
A couple of quick and random observations:
1.) My biggest takeaway is the large diversity of views at the Assembly. This is not the impression you get from a lot of folks in the PCA. The debates were long and often heated, and at times the final language won by small margins. And yet, those on the "losing side" were not excluded from the Assembly. They were allowed to participate in crafting the rest of the document. Thus, the strict subscriptionism cannot be defended. It's historical anachronistic.
2.) I had no idea there were English hypothetical universalists at the Assembly (Calamy being the most outspoken, but Seaman, Marshall and Vines are mentioned as supporting this position). Note that hypothetical universalism is not the same as actual universalism. Hypothetical universalism wants to push back against particular (or limited) atonement, suggesting that Christ's death has affect for the whole world, and not just those whom he saves. Faith is the only thing missing for someone to procure the effects of the death of Christ. At any rate, it seems the Assembly included "4 pointers" and didn't tar and feather them.
3.) There was a HUGE debate on the imputation of the active obedience of Christ.
4.) Letham does not think highly of TF Torrance's work on the Assembly. Letham seems to think Torrance kind of mailed it in.
5.) The debates around the Sacraments were also interesting. Seems clear that while most Assembly members favored sprinkling, some preferred immersion and few wanted to exclude any of the three modes of baptism: pouring, sprinkling, or immersion.
6.) The regulative principle was meant to be a "freeing principle" rather than a restrictive one. Assembly members were objecting to Anglican policies of enforcing the Book of Common Prayer and other liturgical elements on ministers and their churches. The Assembly didn't reject these things wholesale, but they crafted their statements on worship to make Scripture the sole judge and prescriptor of "right worship.
An example: Today many people would say that a denial of the Active Imputation of Christ's Righteousness would put someone out of the pale of the "Reformed Faith," or at least, put someone at odds with the Westminster Confession of Faith. But Letham carefully points out that there was a minority (yet respected) position at the assembly which did in fact reject Active Imputation, and the assembly felt that they should not be excluded, and therefore worded the Confession in such a way as to include that minority position. They believed that this minority position does NOT put one of the of the pale of Reformed orthodoxy.
Reading this work helped me understand that the Westminster Assembly was often less narrow than many of today's "TRs" (Truly Reformed) who draw tighter lines of orthodoxy than their forefathers.
The strength of this work is that it makes use of and interacts with the most recent scholarship on the Assembly - specifically the new edition of the minuets of the Assembly which are supposed to be forthcoming. Dr. Letham also details the relation of the Assembly's Productions (i.e. the Confession of Faith, the Larger and Short Catechisms, etc.) to the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church.
The weakness of the book, I felt, was its introductory material. Dr. Letham repeatedly emphasizes the need to see the Assembly in its 'English Context'. He feels that scholars and historians have over-emphasized the relevance of the Scottish Commissioners, while failing to credit the English Divines (the official voting members) for their efforts. Yet he provides far less historical background to the Assembly then some of the authors he criticizes - William Heatherington for one - and in his attempts to give the English Divines the credit they deserve, Dr. Letham does a disservice to the uninformed reader by downplaying the true significance of the Scottish Commissioners in the Assembly's debates and committees.
Over all, I would recommend this book as an aid to understanding the Westminster Assembly. I would caution those unfamiliar with the topics dealt with in the work however, not to feel that they've mastered the subject once they've read this work. It is good, but as I would wager Dr. Letham himself would agree, this is a very big topic indeed - a fascinating blend of history at its most dramatic with theology most profound - and one book simply cannot cover all the material, no matter how qualified the author or thorough the effort.