An Interview with J.V. Fesko on the Westminster Standards
The next best thing to reading a classic, is reading a literary guide that respects, explains, and inspires you to read again a classic with fresh eyes. My hope is that J.V. Fesko’s recent book The Theology of the Westminster Standards will do exactly that. We’ve invited Dr. Fesko to give us a brief guide to his guide of these classic standards of Reformed Orthodoxy.
For those of our readers not familiar with the Westminster Standards, could you give us a brief description of what they are, when they were produced, by whom, and why?
Seventeenth-century England was racked by significant political turmoil. The king, Charles I, wanted to solidify his political power by uniting the kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland under his reign, which was political and theological. As head of the Church of England, Charles directed his bishops to impose the Book of Common Prayer upon the churches of Scotland. To say the least, the Scots would have nothing of it. They believed that Charles and Archbishop Laud wanted to force Roman Catholicism, popery, upon them. The Scots rebelled and started a war. Charles convened the infrequently gathered Parliament in order to secure funds to raise an army, but he did so in a highhanded way, which created political rifts that resulted in civil war. In the wake of Charles’ departure from London with loyal members of parliament (MP) in tow, the remaining MPs knew they too needed to unite the three kingdoms, politically and theologically. The English needed the Scottish army to fight the king, and the Scots wanted Presbyterianism in the three kingdoms. The English were looking for a military and political alliance, and the Scots for a theological one. The child of this political and theological union was the Westminster Assembly. Parliament called an assembly of theologians, divines according to seventeenth-century terminology, to unify the worship and theology of the three kingdoms under one common confession of faith and church order.
The divines initially sought to revise the Thirty-Nine articles but eventually determined to write an entirely new confession, catechisms, and church order. They produced a set of documents, which we now know as the Westminster Standards. The Standards consist of the Confession of Faith, Larger Catechism, Shorter Catechism, and Directory for Public Worship. From one vantage point, the Westminster Standards represent a failed project—Parliament was unable to unite theologically the three kingdoms. Charles I was executed, but Charles II eventually assumed his father’s throne and reconstituted the Church of England. Many of the Westminster divines were ejected from their pulpits with the restoration of the monarchy. Despite the dark clouds of failure that rolled over the theological landscape, there was a silver lining in these forboding developments. Today, many churches around the world confess and employ the Westminster Standards, and they have been translated into numerous languages. The history of the origins of the Westminster Standards proves an old medieval axiom: God draws straight lines with crooked sticks. Parliament may not have united the three kingdoms, but they provided Christians throughout the world with one of the best and concise statements of the Christian faith. Moreover, the Westminster Standards have found life beyond Presbyterian circles, with Congregational and Baptist versions of the Confession, and a Baptist version of the Shorter Catechism, edited by Charles Spurgeon.
The contemporary relevance of the Westminster Standards is demonstrated not least by the fact that it continues as the doctrinal authority of many confessional bodies. Yet what are the dangers of referencing them without taking into account the four hundred year gap between when they written and now?
We continue to profess the faith once delivered to the saints. The same gospel promises and justification, for example, that brought Abraham, the great patriarch of Israel, the forgiveness of sins and imputed righteousness of Christ, is the same faith outlined in the Westminster Standards, and it is the same faith we continue to profess today. But in spite of the substantive agreement throughout the ages, to quote the Bob Dylan song, “The times, they are a’changin.’” In other words, though we share a common faith, the church has spoken of it in slightly different ways. We all speak English, but seventeenth-century theologians have a different accent and use different words. I think all too often we gravitate to the portions of the Standards that we understand and recognize and skip over other parts. What, for example, is general equity (WCF 19:6)? What do the divines mean when they invoke the term contingency (WCF 3:1)? Why on earth would they confidently assert that the Pope is the antichrist? When we can answer questions like these, then we will be better equipped to employ the Standards in our own setting. We can only truly understand the Standards when we do our best to step back in time and read them in their original seventeenth-century setting. We have to walk in the shoes of a Westminster divine so we can accurately grasp what the Standards teach. When we do this, I believe we will gain a much greater appreciation for the clarity, concision, precision, and doctrinal fidelity of the Westminster Standards.
Whenever I read the puritans complain about how spiritually dark and theologically fragmented their times were, I used to be quite shocked and skeptical. Surely, they lived in an era of greater religious probity and unity than our own pluralistic and secular age. Are the similarities between our ages greater than the differences, or vice versa?
I think we moderns have a tendency to idealize the past. We look at the chaos in our own day and see the apparent green pastures and serenity of the seventeenth century. We think, “If only I could have lived during the composition of the Westminster Standards, a time when everyone was united in their convictions and theology.” We must realize that, as popular as such a notion is, it is rooted more in desire and imagination than in reality. Imagined ideals are calm and peaceful; history is chaotic, violent, and filled with sin. Every age, including seventeenth-century England, has been marred and defaced by wicked unbelievers and well-intentioned but nevertheless sinful saints. Yes, the Westminster Standards are a monument to doctrinal unity, a goal to which the church in every age should strive. But this unity was an acheivement, not of unity of conviction on every point, but out of love, compromise, and sacrifice.
The minutes of the assembly amply attest to the sometimes bitter and arduous debates that marked the efforts to birth the Standards. The divines knew where to draw lines in the sand and when to draw circles, when to say, “Thus far and no further,” and when to allow principled diversity on many different doctrinal issues. Many portions of the Standards are expressions of brilliant ambiguity—the Standards state a truth but in such a way as to allow men of different conviction to affirm it. For example, the Confession states, “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam” (7:2, emphasis). We may not realize it, but this is an instance of principled ambiguity. There was debate among the divines as to whether the life promised to Adam and Eve was eternal life or prolonged life in the garden. Rather than declare one another heterodox, the divines worded this phrase in such a way so that both parties could affirm it. The divines exercised wisdom and knew what was essential and where the areas of disagreement were. We have much to learn from the divines in this area.
We must realize that there has never been a golden age in church history. We are just as sinful as previous generations. The divines conducted their labors in the midst of civil war, lived with threats of terrorism, the encroaching menace of false doctrine, even Islam, and regularly wrestled with questions regarding the proper limits of governmental authority vis-à-vis the church. In a word, their world was just as chaotic as our own. Once we recognize this, we can learn much from their own engagement of these complex and challenging issues.
Your survey of the Standards is selective, not comprehensive. What is your reasoning behind the selection of topics from the Standards you cover?
My dream was to write a comprehensive, line-by-line, commentary on the Standards, but I am also a realist. Such a project would take a decade or more and would likely fill many loquacious volumes. I wanted, therefore, to write a book that would be accessible and useful for the church, so I aimed for a much more modest project. I chose the topics that I did because, as I researched the history and theology of the Standards, they were the subjects that seemed to occupy much of the assembly’s time and debate. Topics like justification and sanctification sat on the front burner for the assembly, as did worship and the relationship between church and state. As you can imagine, if you have run off the king and are engaged in a civil war, you would want to deliniate the boundaries of political and ecclesiastical power and authority. In our own day we debate the question of whether the President of the United States is a Christian and whether his profession of faith is genuine. In the seventeenth-century, on the other hand, the debate was about whether the king was head of the church or simply just one of its members subject to ecclesiasitcal, not political, authority. I treated the topics, therefore, that, in my judgment, seemed to warrant the most attention.
I believe one charge you attempt to lay to rest at various point in this book is that the authors of the Standards may have been unduly influenced by some form of early modern rationalism. What are the typical examples of this so-called rationalist bent, and what would be your overall response to them?
Some historical scholarship in the mid- to late-twentieth century made the claim that the Westminster divines were given to speculative rationalism because they treat the doctrine of predestination in the earliest portion of the Confession rather than under the topic of salvation, where John Calvin treats the subject in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. While such an accusation may be common, it rests upon at least two faulty reasons.
First, placement of a doctrine within a confession or theological work is not all determinative. One must take into account the different literary genres—a confession of faith versus an introductory doctrinal manual for theological students based upon Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. What do the respective documents substantively claim about the subject, in this case, predestination? Are there any substantive differences between Calvin and the Confession? We should also connect the doctrine of predestination with the rest of the theological system and related doctrines. When we do this, we quickly discover that the Confession advocates the doctrine of divine permission of the fall, a category that Calvin rejected. Moreover, Calvin advocates a fully double predestination, two separate decrees—election and reprobation. Whereas the Confession only speaks of single predestination, a decree of election, and preterition of the non-elect. The differences are minute, but certainly demonstrate that placement alone does not determine the significance or function of a doctrine.
Second, critics seem to ignore the fact that the Confession begins with the doctrine of Scripture, a topic that Calvin never treats under a separate locus in his Institutes. This does not mean that Calvin thought any less of Scripture than the divines, but it does point out that, contrary to the erroneous accusation of rationalism, the divines firmly believed that Scripture was the ultimate and chief authority in Scripture. All one needs to do is read the third question of the Shorter Catechism to grasp this fundamental conviction: “What do the Scriptures principally teach? A. The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.” The Westminster divines were likely guilty of a number of sins but rationalism was not among them.
Could you give a brief biographical sketch of some of the most outstanding members of the Westminster Assembly and perhaps some works of theirs that we should be acquainted with to understand better the Standards?
There were over one hundred Westminster divines, so picking some standouts puts me in the place of the team with a limited number of first round draft picks! Decisions, decisions. While not wanting to slight the other luminaries of the assembly, two divines come to mind. The first is Thomas Goodwin (1600-80), one of the Independent (Congregational) divines at the assembly. Goodwin was one of the more notable contributors to the assembly’s debates and was one of the more outspoken proponents of the imputed active obedience of Christ. He often brought calm and insight to the sometimes turbulent discussions in the Jerusalem Chamber in Westminster Abbey. In addition to his contributions to the assembly’s labors, we can benefit greatly from his collected works, which cover a range of topics including sermons, christology, justification, and the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.
A second noteworthy divine is Samuel Rutherford (ca. 1600-61), one of the Scottish representatives. He was highly esteemed and had a reputation for having a sharp theological mind. He too contributed greatly to the assembly’s work, but was especially a noteworthy participant in the debates over church polity. Rutherford was among those who wanted the lines between church and state clearly drawn. He was personally imprisoned by the king for his refusal to use the Book of Common Prayer in his ministry, so he was severely aware of the abuses of political power. In this respect, Rutherford’s work, Lex Rex, is an important contribution to understanding the Confession’s statements on church and state and the doctrine of the two kingdoms. Rutherford’s works on antinomianism and covenant theology, A Survey of the Spiritual Antichrist (1648) and The Covenant of Life Opened (1655), are notably rich and insightful works well worth reading and studying.
An honorable mention, and one likely unknown to most, is Edward Leigh (1602-71). Leigh was an MP during the time of the assembly, though there is no record that he ever formally participated in any of the debates or efforts to compose the Standards. Nevertheless, he undoubtedly knew many of the divines and was part of the process of authorizing them. He lived the history. But Leigh was more than an MP; he was an insightful theologian too. He wrote a massive systematic theology, his Body of Divinity (1662). This is one of the most comprehensive and annoted systems of theology from the period. Leigh is both learned, practical, and theologically rich. His Body of Divinity offers a topographical map to the various doctrines, debates, and opinions of the day. Anyone who wants to learn about seventeenth-century theology would do well to devour Leigh’s work.
J.V. Fesko is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He served in church planting and pastoral ministry for more than ten years. His research interests include the integration of biblical and systematic theology, soteriology, and early modern Reformed theology. Fesko’s most recent publications include, The Theology of the Westminster Standards, Songs of a Suffering King, and Beyond Calvin: Union with Christ and Justification in Early Modern Reformed Theology. His scholarly essays have appeared in various books and journals including Reformed Theological Review, Journal of Reformed Theology, Church History and Religious Culture, Calvin Theological Journal, Trinity Journal, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, and the Westminster Theological Journal. Dr. Fesko and his wife, Anneke, have three children and reside in Escondido.
Matthew Claridge is an editor for Credo Magazine and is Senior Pastor of Mt. Idaho Baptist Church in Grangeville, ID. He has earned degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Cassandra and has four children: Alec, Nora, Grace, and Julie.