Much has changed since the 17th century. As we read the Westminster Standards that fact is not always at the forefront in our analysis and understanding. Author J.V. Fesko opens up the context of the writing of the Standards in his TheTheology of the Westminster Standards. Utilizing new data now available on the internet Fesko delves into the major issues and persons that revolved around the writings of the Divines. As Fesko notes, “A benefit of reading the Standards within their original historical and theological context is that the contemporary reader learns how to read a confession of faith. In the present day those who employ confessions of faith often fail to understand that confessions can be highly nuanced documents. The running joke in Presbyterian circles is, “Put three Presbyterians in one room and you’ll get five different opinions.” This humorous observation is equally true of Reformed theology in the early modern period.” (J. V. Fesko. The Theology of the Westminster Standards (Kindle Locations 342-346). Crossway.) Further, “…Early modern Reformed theologians had a slightly different outlook on life and theology than we do today, and despite whatever similarities in doctrine and conviction are shared with theologians in the twenty-first century, the differences can be significant.”(J. V. Fesko. The Theology of the Westminster Standards (Kindle Locations 339-341). Crossway.) Thus, a proper understanding of the historical context and the mindset of the key players is vital.
There are too many fascinating insights this work highlights to explore in this brief review, but let me point out a few that were enlightening to me and likely to you the reader. For example, though John Calvin was often referred to in the debates on various points, he was by far not the “go to” theologian for the Divines. Many past & contemporary 17th century theologians were cited and even those with opposing theological viewpoints. Hence we see that the Divines were not “Calvinists.” They were all learned, thoughtful, godly men who contended for the truth in their own manner. To label them Calvinists is completely false and leads to much misunderstanding.
Fesko begins by setting the stage with the historical context. War, religion and politics were all intertwined in the 17th century and at least a fair understanding of the existing and recent events prior to the convening of the Divines is necessary to apprehend the backdrop to the assembly. Here the author does an admirable job for the reader.
From there, Fesko launches into the Doctrine of Scripture, God and the Decree, Covenant and Creation, The Doctrine of Christ, Justification, Sanctification, The Law of God, The Church, Worship and Eschatology. This is not small work. Though comprehensive it is not exhaustive according to Fesko.
In each chapter the decisive debates are laid out noting the key arguments, the key players and the conclusion resulting in the precise wording of the Westminster documents (at least as it was originally written). Some of the interesting points brought to light were that there were two parties in the debates over justification; those who believed in the active obedience of Christ and those who did not. There were 70 speeches against the active obedience and 176 in favor. In the chapter on sanctification the reader receives a thorough definition of the various forms of antinomianism and the arguments cited against it. Did you know there was virtually no one of a premillennial disposition during this period? And, it wasn’t as crazy as we may think to label the pope as the antichrist. This is all such fascinating stuff I found myself often glued to my Kindle.
As Fesko notes in his conclusion, “Historical context is all-determinative for understanding the theology contained in the Westminster Standards. As helpful and necessary as popular commentaries on the Standards are, a contextually sensitive reading of the documents must first be established. What political and theological concerns did the divines have, and how do these concerns appear in the Confession and catechisms? Who were the dialogue partners of the divines, whether positively or negatively?” (J. V. Fesko. The Theology of the Westminster Standards (Kindle Locations 9586-9589). Crossway.) We cannot ignore the historical context of the assembly any more than we can ignore the historical context of Scripture. This work starts the reader down the road to more intensive study of the Westminster Assembly and its work. Extensively footnoted with general and Scripture indices as well as an annotated bibliography, this book is a superb foundation.
Crossway has provided a complimentary copy of this book through Beyond the Page.