Robert Letham’s book, The Westminster Assembly: Reading its Theology in Historical Context (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2009) paves a road back to the thoughts, conversations, and debates that shaped the Westminster Confession of Faith and its sister documents. Letham is no radical revisionist, but rather an ordained OPC pastor and historical theologian, who is a full-time lecturer at the Wales Evangelical School of Theology. His credentials as a confessional historian and theologian in the English Presbyterian tradition are simply immaculate.
The problem with reading the Westminster standards today is not only the language barrier between the 2010s US & the 1640s England, but also the centuries of reinterpretation and misinterpretation that stand between us and the Westminster divines (the authors of the standards). If you have ever picked up the WCF, the WLC, or the WSC and felt a sense of uncertainty about what exactly they were trying to get at, Letham is here to help. If you have ever believed that you perfectly understood the doctrines (and the boundaries of the doctrines) outlined in the Standards, then Letham is here to show you how wrong you are.
Letham sets up the book with an introduction into the situation in England which gave rise to the confessions. He charts both the Reformational developments in the country and the immediate political crisis of the English Civil War in wonderful prose. The majority of the book is structured around the doctrinal organization of the Westminster Confession, where Letham attempts to understand both what the authors meant, and how that lines up with prevailing interpretations.
The occasion for Letham’s WA is the recent research on the minutes of the proceedings by Chad B. Van Dixhoorn, which reveals a very different document than had been imagined by interpreters in recent centuries. The Standards, says Letham, must not be read as a kind of exhaustive theology, but as a consensus statement crafted so as to affirm the essentials of Reformed doctrine in such a way as to allow for relatively broad inclusion of belief. I say “relatively broad” because it is quite broad to Letham’s target audience of conservative Presbyterians, but would be considered narrow by the mainline Presbyterian church.
The following examples of relative breadth should suffice to illustrate the point.
· Calvinism: Letham argues that the Westminster Assembly was comprised of members who were “varied in outlook within a generic Calvinism,” who sought to articulate a confession which was faithful to the Reformed tradition, yet to avoid some of the excesses and stringencies of the continental Reformed confessions (3).
· Covenantal theology: Westminster’s position on covenants is deliberately cautious not to overstate theological speculation as fundamental doctrine. As Letham demonstrates, by avoiding the language of “covenant of redemption” the Divines successfully bypassed the impulses of many to attempt to peer into the pre-temporal being of God, and thus avoided all hints of tri-theism implied therein (236).
· Communion: The language of Westminster offers a very similar picture to Calvin’s discussion of being offered Christ even as you are handed the bread. Letham summarizes, “This section teaches the same as Calvin, that there is a true feeding on Christ in the Eucharist, not in a physical manner, but by the Holy Spirit. This is a real and true feeding, a communion that sustains and nourishes us and so brings about our growth in union with Christ” (354). Thus he attempts to steer our interpretation of Sacraments away from a memorialist view, and toward the doctrine of real presence sometimes regarded today as “too Catholic.”
Though Letham approaches the actions of the Westminster divines with reverence, he can at times be quite critical. For instance, he notes the paucity of confessional material on the question of church unity and love, and writes that “its neglect bespeaks a guilty collective conscience” (323).
This book is for people who want to gain a fresh understanding of the confessional documents of the Presbyterian Church, and are willing to slog through some thick stuff to get there. As historical theology goes, WA is very readable. If you are intimidated by it but still interested, then I would recommend reading the highly accessible introduction and trying out some of the doctrines that most interest you.