Book Review: Confessing the Faith, by Chad Van Dixhoorn
Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith: A Reader’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2014. 512 pps, $27.00.
During the 1640s, a group of godly and learned Christians met in London to perform a number of tasks: revising the 39 Articles, examining candidates for ministry, authoring two catechisms, and writing a statement of faith. Originally called The humble advice of the Assembly of Divines, now by authority of Parliament sitting at Westminster, concerning a confession of faith, this document became known as the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). The years of debate among these Puritans gathered in London coupled with decades of diligently studying Scripture and historical theology made the participants at the Westminster Assembly a remarkable and estimable group of Christians.
THE WESTMINSTER CONFESSION IS USEFUL FOR ALL CHRISTIANS
It is readily apparent how the Confession these men produced is important to Presbyterians yesterday and today. But what can a non-Presbyterian learn from the WCF? Congregationalists meeting in the Savoy Palace in 1658 London found it a useful document and adopted it with modifications as A Declaration of the Faith and Order owned and practiced in the Congregational Churches, or the Savoy Declaration for short. Thirty years later, a group of Reformed Baptists also met in London to make another round of changes to the WCF. From this meeting in 1689 came the Second London Baptist Confession, which is still used by a number of Baptists today. As one who believes Scripture unequivocally teaches believers’ baptism as well as congregational polity, there are certainly parts of the WCF I disagree with. Nonetheless, there are so many sections where I’m in hearty agreement.
Christians from varying denominations today, too, can learn from the Westminster Assembly’s remarkable love and knowledge of Scripture. In supporting their Confession, the Westminster Divines provided a staggering 2,500 scriptural references.
In the roughly four centuries since its composition, the WCF has elicited countless commentaries. Chad Van Dixhoorn’s Confessing the Faith (CTF) is one of those. It’s marked by an exposition of the Confession and a devotional tone. This latter aspect, coupled with the Confession’s rich theology of God, Scripture, Jesus, salvation, and so much else, make CTF an exceptional read, beneficial to Christians of many theological persuasions.
CTF approaches the WCF in six distinct ways. First, Van Dixhoorn uses the Confession’s own Scripture proofs in discussing each section of the WCF. The commentary tends to quote from the proofs in roughly the same order that the divines adduced them. Second, CTF is informed by the divines’ original writings and contains footnotes to some of these works. Third, the commentary is guided by historical context, which is sometimes mentioned explicitly. For example, in discussing the ostensibly arcane topic of oaths, Van Dixhoorn mentions both the original ecclesiastical context and the fact that the divines received a reminder of their oath every Monday morning (298; WCF 22.1; similarly, see comments on WCF 24.4 on page 329).
Fourth, CTF often begins a section by summarizing recently discussed content and logically connecting the discussion of previous paragraphs with the present section. For example, the discussion of WCF 29.3-4 begins with the following comment: “Having defined the essence of the supper in paragraphs 1 and 2, the Confession gives directions for its celebration in paragraphs 3 and 4” (390; similar examples can be found on 21, 33, 37, 67, 87, 123, 125, 135, 181, 190, 193, 200, 263). Fifth, CTF approaches the Confession not as a launch-pad for Van Dixhoorn to discuss his own theology or even Reformed theology in general. This methodology differs from a number of other commentators. For example, A.A. Hodge contends WCF 6.3 teaches that “Adam was both the natural and federal head of mankind” (The Westminster Confession, (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2002), 110). Similarly, in R.C. Sproul’s commentary on the phrase “immortal souls” in WCF 4.2, Sproul attacks ideas in the WCF that he asserts are “rooted in Greek philosophy” rather than historic Christian theology even though he admits that the divines themselves did not believe these Greek ideas (Truths We Confess Vol 1, 134). On the few occasions where Van Dixhoorn critiques the Confession or diverges from its theology, he makes his views clear and seeks to avoid confusing his opinion with that of the divines.
For example, Van Dixhoorn states that American Presbyterians “rightly took issue with the final clause” in WCF 20.4 (272), and the original text of WCF 6.3 “is a little too egalitarian” (88). Similar comments can be found in the discussion of WCF 23 on pages 314, 316, and 320. Sixth, CTF is not an academic commentary on the theology of the Westminster Confession. Whereas both JV Fesko’s The Theology of the Westminster Standards and Robert Letham’s The Westminster Assembly provide fascinating academic and historical commentary, Van Dixhoorn eschews these approaches. On only a few occasions, footnotes offer some academic analysis.
Finally, CTF’s approach is marked by a devotional tone. Van Dixhoorn attempts to reflect on Scripture in a way that’s consistent with the prevailing interpretations of the divines and yet spiritually edifying for Christians today. In speaking to the painful subject of an infant death, instead of simply teaching about “elect infants,” Van Dixhoorn ends his discussion with a touching comment: “Let us remember that our children were his before they were ours” (WCF 10.3, p. 155). These are the words of a pastor encouraging his flock, not a professor enlightening his students. Likewise, Van Dixhoorn comments on the permission of the original sin: “Some say that God’s permission of the first sin is a great mystery, and so it is. But it is a small mystery indeed when compared with the real wonder of God’s providence—that he would provide his only Son to bear our sin and suffer our punishment” (76).
These pastoral exhortations exemplify his devotional approach. For this reason, I found myself repeatedly reading sections aloud to my wife and emailing quotations to friends for their encouragement and edification.
In Confessing the Faith, Van Dixhoorn clearly accomplished his goal of guiding readers through the WCF and giving them an understanding of the Divine’s original intent. Given this purpose, it would be unfair to criticize CTF either for disagreements with the Confession’s theology or for not putting forward an academic or historical commentary on debated points of the Confession such as the controversy over creationism, the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, hypothetical universalism, or lapsarian views.
Nonetheless, in reading CTF along with both JV Fesko’s The Theology of the Westminster Standards and Robert Letham’s The Westminster Assembly, I kept wondering “what does Van Dixhoorn think on this?” Given that he spent years doing groundbreaking research on the Assembly, he sits in a unique position to opine. Since his PhD thesis “Reforming the Reformation” is not easily available, Van Dixhoorn would benefit the church today by writing a longer book on the history and theology of the Assembly.