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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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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.
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.
Letham is aware that a hard division on God’s not having passions must take into account the fact that the Incarnation brought into true union with humanity. Jesus experiences human thoughts, human emotions, etc (162). Letham is certainly on the correct path, but the problem is much deeper (and this isn’t a slam against Reformed Christology; all Christological traditions hailing from the Chalcedonian definition must face this problem: does our definition of what it means to be a person today include self-reflection? If it does, then we are on the road to Nestorianism. If it doesn’t, is it really coherent to speak of person anymore?)
Letham gives a competent discussion on Creation, though one that will annoy many. He admits, contra many Klineans, that the divines likely held to six solar days, yet he points out that the more pertinent goal was to reject Augustine’s view of instantaneous creation. Further, what we must also admit, no matter where we land on this discussion, is that the divines did presuppose a geocentric cosmology which saw theology in spatial terms. Indeed, one wonders if George Walker even knew that the world is spherical (Letham 191 n.50).
Law, Liberty, Church and Eschatology
Great section on Law and Liberty--and he avoids getting involved in the painful theonomy disputes. Letham shows how the RPW should be read and interpreted in light of the Laudian imprisonment and persecution of Reformed believers. On another note, he points out how the Presbyterians really failed on clinching and continuing the “liberty of conscience” victory it justly won. I will elaborate:
Did the Solemn League and Covenant bind the consciences of those who didn’t vow it? Said another way, was Cromwell later on obligated to establish Presbyterian government? If he was, how does this square with what (Covenanter) Samuel Rutherford said, “It is in our power to vow, but not in the church’s power to command us to vow” (quoted in Letham 299)? Maybe the two points don’t contradict each other, but the tension is certainly strained.
And it appears the Presbyterians couldn’t maintain this tension. They chose to deal with the tyrant Charles I and supported (to their fatal regret later) the pervert Charles II. Cromwell’s victory at Dunbar is fully justified.
This isn’t a commentary on the Confession. It is a theological exploration of the historical circumstances behind it. Letham’s scholarship is judicious, measured, and impressive.