Thursday, August 20, 2015

An Expert's Tour through the Westminster Confession

Chad B. Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith: A Reader’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, 2014.

Reviewed by Dr. Ryan McGraw

Chad van Dixhoorn once described a dream of his in which he was puzzling over the handwriting of the original minutes of the Westminster Assembly. In his dream, as he agonized over making out the writing, Samuel Rutherford put his arm around his shoulder and comforted him by promising to help him work through the documents. The next best thing to having Rutherford, or another member of the Assembly, guide you through its proceedings would be to have Chad van Dixhoorn lead you by the hand through the Westminster Confession of Faith. Van Dixhoorn is an internationally respected scholar on the theology of the Westminster Assembly who has likely spent more time with the writings of the members of the Assembly than anyone living. In Confessing the Faith, he combines his expertise as a scholar with his skill as a pastor to produce a layperson’s guide to understanding and using the Westminster Confession in light of Scripture. This makes this a must-have volume for anyone desiring to study the Westminster Confession of Faith.

The text of this book follows the 33 chapters of the Confession itself. While Van Dixhoorn limits his citations of primary sources, his explanation of what the Confession means draws from his extensive knowledge of this material. He teaches the theology of the Confession from the proof texts that the divines used themselves. It has become a widespread half-truth to say that we should not make too much of the proof texts in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms because Parliament required the Westminster divines to include proof texts against their wishes. However, many people miss the fact that after settling each doctrinal expression, the Westminster Assembly debated what proof texts of Scripture were most appropriate to substantiate each proposition. Their reticence to fulfill Parliament’s mandate did not result in hastily chosen Scripture passages destined to puzzle modern readers, but they were concerned that each Scripture citation required careful explanation (xxv). Van Dixhoorn’s method of teaching the theology of the Confession using these texts both enables readers to understand how its authors understood Scripture and why they used it rightly and how each doctrine and text applies to believers today. This makes Van Dixhoorn’s book deceptively simple and ideally suited to leading church classes on the Confession of Faith and for devotional purposes.

The simplicity and brevity that constitute the strengths of this work result in some unintended weaknesses. The largest difficulty is that while Van Dixhoorn states, “This is not a book intended to reflect the author’s own theological interests or preferred emphases” (xiv), he also notes, “this commentary does, from time to time, first state the assembly’s own perspective on an issue and then argue against it” (xxi-xxii). The book reads as though the author is writing and teaching theology to a modern audience. Though his method is purportedly historical, as the statement above and the general style of the book indicate, it is not purely historical. Both perspectives are needed, but it is often difficult for readers to distinguish them in this work. While this reviewer can think of no more reliable guide than Van Dixhoorn to lead a reader through the Westminster Confession of Faith, the absence of footnotes directing to primary sources gives the impression that we must simply take his word for it that his comments are historically accurate. Documenting his sources would have made this book much longer. Moreover, this reviewer is biased to believe that a scholar such as Van Dixhoorn has things right. Professing to present the historical meaning of the Confession with little proof as to why this is what its authors meant requires great faith from readers. Van Dixhoorn has earned a high degree of trust in this area, but he is not infallible and he deprives readers of the tools needed to test his assertions.

Even with this rather serious criticism, Van Dixhoorn’s work is (surprisingly) the first full-scale commentary on the text of the Westminster Confession from an historical perspective. In a time when the church needs desperately to recover historical clarity regarding her teaching coupled with rediscovering the biblical foundations on which her teaching alone rests its authority, this study is not only much needed, but long overdue.



This review first appeared in the July 2015 issue of Puritan Reformed Journal.