Confessing the Faith (Book Review)

There is a manly tobacco shop (is that a tautology?) in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania where a few of my friends visit about twice a year for a guy hangout day.  Upstairs in the smoking lounge is where all the deep discussion of work, family, life, and politics unfolds.  With this particular group of buddies, theology is usually one of the hobby horses we ride.  A couple years ago when we were splitting theological hairs—the fine threads that can only appropriately be argued over a pipe full of flavored shredded tobacco—off in the corner someone noticed a fellow puffing on a cartoonishly-shaped horn pipe as he flipped through the pages of the newly published (at the time) Confessing the Faith: A Reader’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith (CTF).  If you travel in the circles I and my friends do, we immediately pegged him as a likely Presbyterian pastor.  We were right!

Before you get the idea that CTF is technical theological minutiae, let me assure you it is not.  Rather than another commentary or study guide on the Confession (WCF), author Chad Van Dixhoorn, a recognized and renowned expert on the Westminster Assembly and its published documents (the WCF, and the accompanying Larger and Shorter Catechisms), the author has chosen to write a devotional guide to this historic and monumental Puritan-era Christian confessional document.  In this sense it is more warm and contemporary than the best WCF books printed in previous generations, such as Williamson’s and Hodge’s works.  This is one reason why those who have read earlier books on the WCF should consider getting CTF.  Another reason is it stays closer to the actual text of the WCF, rarely veering off course to follow rabbit trails such as millennial eschatological charts and positions.  But the best reason to dive into CTF is the author’s credibility.  Van Dixhoorn spent his doctoral study years poring through the mass of handwritten minutes of the Westminster Assembly’s business.  Although CTF is not his doctoral analysis and thesis (those are published in expensive scholarly tomes mostly inaccessible to the average Christian), it is the mature fruit of that study.  CTF came about through years of the author’s weekly study class lecture notes being revised and refined for use in devotion, instruction, and worship.  Thankfully we are the beneficiaries of his long labor of love.

Just as the WCF is arranged in 33 brief “chapters” (the length of each varies, with some weighing in at just one paragraph), CTF follows the same pattern of 33 book-length chapters.  These are helpful arranged in larger sections to orient the reader to the logical flow of the WCF.

  1. Foundations (chapters 1-2)
  2. The Decrees of God (3-5)
  3. Sin and the Savior (6-8)
  4. Salvation (9-18)
  5. Law and Liberty (19-20)
  6. Worship (21-22)
  7. Civil Government and Family (23-24)
  8. The Church (25-31)
  9. The Last Things (32-33)

I’ve used CTF in a number of venues with various audiences.  First, I read through it preparing lessons for an adult Sunday School class on the theology of the WCF.  The class was well attended although the number seemed to depend on the spirituality of the subject.  For example, not many people came the weeks we discussed “Lawful Oaths and Vows” and “Synods and Councils.”  Can you blame them?  :-)  Second, a younger friend and I met periodically to read and discuss one chapter at a time.  That hour of working through theological and practical Christian life implications was rich.  Third, I and the other elders at my church are using CTF as a textbook to facilitate leadership training in a small group environment as leaders and students read the material beforehand to come prepared to ask questions or give comments.  We anticipate many useful discussions about the broad and narrow themes of Reformed theology as we seek to raise up leaders biblically and theologically equipped for service in the local church.  I don’t think this is merely a function of just unpacking the material in the WCF on baptism.  The author does that, but he goes deeper as a pastor would gently counsel a new believer or a mature Christian convinced of the Baptist position of this sacrament.  CTF contains many excellent chapters, but this one might be the best—possibly worth the price of the book (if you can get it on sale!).

A few formatting features of CTF are quite helpful as the reader navigates his way.  First, the historic text of the WCF is always printed alongside in parallel column the Modern Version (MESV).  As a “non-constitutional” version drafted by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the MESV is not a revision like the American Revised Confession of Faith (1788).  It is a modest attempt to update the syntax and language of the original that is now nearly 400 years old.  I’ve read the original text several times, but its antiquated sentence structure and phrasing make it less understandable that the MESV.  More thorough readers will do best to read both versions, but most will find reading the MESV will suffice and not cause any problems understanding the devotional commentary.

Second, each chapter of CTF includes the kinds of subheadings common in modern books.  These are not clever, merely descriptive, as their function is to orient the reader to what particular paragraphs in the chapter are about.  As a pastor and teacher I found these invaluable in comprehending the WCF and as a pedagogical aid.  Again, the author field-tested this material a couple times in adult Sunday School classes, and it shows in the simple text of the subheadings.

Third, footnotes are kept to a minimum, and when they are employed they straight-forwardly contribute to understanding the history of WCF interpretation, the biblical link to the WCF doctrinal position, the author’s divergence from the WCF’s position, or the Westminster Assembly’s discussion/debate of a topic.  Yes, it is news to many admirers of the WCF that it was largely produced in committee and adopted as a consensus document.  Translation: disagreement existed among the Assembly’s pastors, theologians, and presbyters, not merely in regard to “fringe doctrines” but occasionally also on a few key points of theology.  And the dissenters did not return home under church censure or bearing a heterodox label (except perhaps for those who followed Richard Baxter in his novel position on justification).

An unexpected jewel I uncovered while reading CTF was the author’s treatment of the WCF’s doctrine of baptism.  When it comes to this beloved, disputed, and regrettably very divisive doctrine of baptism, most books that only include a chapter treatment of baptism are more declarative, less explanative, and rarely apologetic.  Van Dixhoorn manages to do all three with his signature devotional style.  While he addresses his believers-baptism brothers with (in my estimation) Christ-like love and respect, he does an excellent job of dealing with many controversial issues associated with baptism.  So much so that this chapter could serve as a useful booklet, pamphlet, or article.  This

One of the things I love about Van Dixhoorn’s writing is, if I may coin a phrase, its “quotability.”  At numerous places in my copy of CTF, there are highlights, bracketed text, underlinings, and marginal notations.  Some of my favorites are his chapter conclusions that are “textbook” Christian exhortations, and good ideas for words to use in writing worship service benedictions:

[The Trinity] “is a doctrine which as implications for all of life.  It is the oneness of God the Spirit, God the Son and God the Father that the Apostle Paul invokes when he is calling the Ephesian Christians to unity.  For ‘there is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in all’ (Eph 4:4-6).  In order that we might grasp this truth better, and celebrate it together, let us gather often to worship, in unity, the only true God—praying that the Father, by the grace of his Son, would bless us by his Holy Spirit.” Chapter 1, p. 40.

“And as God has assured us in Paul’s letter to the Romans, ‘we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose’ (Rom 8:28).  Do you love God? Then you be must sure that his holy, wise, and perfect providence will work for your good and his glory.” Chapter 5, p. 80

“In a very real way, this [mediatorial] work was already begun while Christ was on earth; for ‘having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross’ (Col 2:15).  We, of course, could never express such wrath or exercise such judgment in an appropriate way—at least not while we are in this world.  That is why we leave judgment to God: because he does all things well.  Our Lord Jesus Christ overcomes all his enemies, all our sin, and even death itself as he does all things—in a manner that is in perfect harmony with his wonderful arrangement of the world, and in a way that exposes the unsearchable greatness of our mediator.” Chapter 8, p. 131.

“Pray in advance that we will repent of our sins when they are still thoughts, and before they develop into words and actions.  But if we do not, we can be sure that it will ‘bring temporal judgments upon’ ourselves, for we will be judged and disciplined by our own Lord ‘so that we will not be condemned with the world (1 Cor 11:32; cf. Psa 89:31, 32).  And how is it that our sin can bring only temporal judgments on ourselves?  How is it that we can receive the Lord’s discipline, designed for our restoration and preservation?  Because in love the Father chose to bring our eternal judgments upon his Son.” Chapter 17, p. 223.

“Let us be aware of our own needs and strengths as well as those of others, and then remember the maxim that our Lord left with the Pharisees: ‘it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath’ (Matt 12:12).  If we remember the Sabbath day, worshiping our Lord and aiming to do good—if this is the longing of our hearts, with God’s help, we cannot go far wrong.  And if we do err, we can turn to the Lord of the Sabbath, who rose one Sunday morning so that sinners would find life and look forward to an eternal rest with him and all his people.” Chapter 21, 295.

“Nonetheless, well beyond the healthy desire to break free from destructive habits, better than the hope that we will not bring shame to his name when he returns for the final time, we want to welcome our Lord.  There is a note of joyful expectation in the final line of this confession that reflects the joyful and blessed hope of the Scriptures.  Christians are not braced for the coming of the Lord, anxiously worrying about his arrival.  We are eager for his coming, hoping to be the generation that will hold the door open for him (Luke 12:36).  And since it is sure that he is coming momentarily, as God counts his moments, we always want to be praying, ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’ Come quickly (Rev 22:20).”  Chapter 33, p. 444.

That fine fellow my friends met in the smoking lounge was onto something.  Presbyterian pastors don’t usually take up and read the WCF in our leisure time because we use it in preparation for ministry and in our continuing ministerial work.  But our pipe-puffing brother knew something I didn’t at the time.  CTF is worth your devotional time.

Resources

What is the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF)?

WCF with linked scriptural proofs

CTF Study Guide

WCF and its Modern English Study Version (MESV) in parallel columns

WCF Powerpoint slides exploring the Theology of the Westminster Confession

American Revisions to the Westminster Confession of Faith as Adopted (for example) by the OPC and PCA

Additional documents associated with the Westminster Assembly

History of the Westminster Assembly of Divines

App for tablets and smartphones: Christian Creeds and Reformed Confessions

About the author

Minutes and Years: The Westminster Assembly Project: An Interview with Chad Van Dixhoorn

Dr. Chad Van Dixhoorn curriculum vitae

Chad Van Dixhoorn sermons and talks

Reviews

9 Marks

Amazon

AP magazine

Goodreads

Meet the Puritans

Nathaniel Claiborne

Ordained Servant (OPC online journal)

Puritan Board

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