Monday, December 9, 2019

Theology of the Westminster Standards, by J.V. Fesko

My own relationship with the Westminster Standards is one of a long sweeping love affair. I grew up in the Nazarene church and was exposed to very little theology that I remember. After coming to the Reformed faith and hearing about the Westminster Standards I knew I wanted to be part of a denomination that really believed in these standards. Fast forward to today, and I am a pastor in the Presbyterian Church. I see the Westminster Standards as my confession. I don't see it as a boundary or as a straight jacket, but as the confession of what I really see the Scriptures teaching.

Having said that, reading The Theology of the Westminster Standards is pure joy for me. Now, I must confess: I have been sitting on this book now for a couple of years. It isn't that I haven't been interested in the book whatsoever, but simply the result of my own completion of seminary and a consequence of the busyness of my own beginnings as a new pastor.

I remember that almost the same year Fesko's book came out, Chad Vandixhoorn also released his own commentary on the Westminster Confession through Banner of Truth (Confessing the Faith). At the time, given Vandixhoorn's work on the minutes of the Westminster Assembly I expected Vandixhoorn's book to be what Fesko's book ended up being, and I expected Fesko's book to be what Vandixhoorn's book ended up being. When I read both of them they were a pleasant surprise, each fitting very different niches. I can confidently say both books complement one another quite nicely.

The biggest difference I would note between these books is that Fesko's book gets far deeper into the background of discussions amongst the participants of the Assembly than Vandixhoorn's does. Fesko is interested perhaps most of all in making sure one understands the time in which the Westminster Confession was written, and even the debates which created the milieu the Divines inhabited.

Fesko is not exhaustive in what he covers. He doesn't deal with the catechisms' exposition of the ten commandments. He doesn't deal with other issues that are peripheral to the Standards' theology. Instead, Fesko intentionally focuses in this book on what he calls "key subjects." If someone is looking for a passage by passage commentary on the Standards I do recommend Vandixhoorn's excellent book Confessing the Faith.

What are "key subjects" in the Westminster Standards according to Fesko? One merely needs to look at the Table of Contents, but one could broadly say that they are the basic loci of theology: Doctrine of Scripture, Doctrine of God and the Decrees, Justification, Sanctification, the place of the Law in the Christian life, and Worship among other subjects.

I will mention that I especially found Fesko's exploration of Worship to be insightful and helpful. Having him explain the ways that the magistrates enforced and required attendance at worship services containing elements not commanded in Scripture was illuminating for understanding why the Directory of Public Worship was not and is not (with some exceptions) seen as binding on the church. I was not aware until I read this book that some opposed the writing even of the DPW for fear it would become another Book of Common Prayer.

One comes away from the book with two simultaneous reactions: on the one hand, gratitude for the clear explanation of the teaching of Scripture that we find in the Westminster Standards: on the other hand, a realization that the Westminster Standards were a consensus document signed by men, many of whom had quite a diverse range of views.

I did receive a complimentary copy of this book as part of my agreement to provide an honest review.