G.I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R, 2004. Pp. xii + 409. $16.99 (paper). [Reviewed by the editor.]
This reprint of the book first published in 1964 is likely the best contemporary commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith.
It is intended particularly for classes that study the Presbyterian creed. The author calls the book a “study manual.” Treatment of each chapter, or section of a chapter, is followed by questions that point the reader or student to the main teachings of the chapter. These questions are briefly answered by the author at the end of the book.
G.I. Williamson is a well-known pastor and theologian in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
Overall, the explanation is a faithful exposition of the articles of the Confession by one who is committed to the system of theology it contains. The treatment of predestination in chapter 3, for example, is a clear, uncompromising explanation and defense of the Reformed doctrine of predestination, reprobation as well as election.
Among the explanations of particular teachings of the Westminster Confession that are especially interesting to one whose standards are the “Three Forms of Unity” are the following. Although he embraces the doctrine of a covenant of works with Adam, Williamson does not express himself whether the creed intends that Adam could have earned, or otherwise obtained, the higher, heavenly life that is ours in the covenant of grace.
Commenting on Westminster’s ambiguous statement, “This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith,” the author ambiguously declares, “Infallible assurance is not of the essence of saving faith” (p. 175; emphasis added). Does fallible assurance then belong to the essence of faith? And what might a “fallible” assurance possibly be? Is not a “fallible assurance” an “uncertain certainty”?
Williamson approves the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s revision of the article identifying Antichrist as the pope. Ominously, he grounds his approval partly in a preterist interpretation of II Thessalonians 2(with appeal to Christian Reconstructionist Gary DeMar!).
According to Williamson’s explanation of Westminster’s chapter on eschatology, the Westminster Confession of Faith is open to postmillennialism.
Williamson is to be faulted for gratuitously inserting his, and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s, false doctrine of the offer of salvation as a desire of Christ, in saving grace toward them, for the salvation of reprobate persons. Williamson introduces the doctrine at a point where it clashes violently with the text of the creed itself. The creed is teaching that the grace of Christ in the application of redemption is particular, limited, and efficacious, as in the accomplishment of redemption. “To all those for whom Christ hath purchased redemption, he doth certainly and effectually apply and communicate the same; making intercession for them, and revealing unto them, in and by the Word, the mysteries of salvation; effectually persuading them by his Spirit to believe and obey” (WCF, VIII, 8).
Williamson’s commentary on the article declares that “Christ freely and sincerely offers salvation to all who hear the gospel, whether they are elect or not” (p. 109). His appeal to Matthew 23:37makes plain that Williamson has in mind a gracious desire, or will, of Christ to save all men without exception. This is the teaching of universal, resistible, saving grace.
Universal grace is in flat contradiction of the article. Universal grace is destructive of the system of doctrine contained in the Confession as a whole. The system of doctrine contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith is the truth of particular, sovereign (irresistible) grace.
Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death, by Richard Marius. Cambridge, Massachusetts/London, England: Harvard University Press, 1999. Pp. xv + 542 (cloth). Reviewed by the editor.]
Richard Marius is not a kindred spirit to the subject of this study. Marius is, by his own admission, an Erasmian—tolerant, skeptical, peace-loving, anti-dogmatical, everything Martin Luther was not, indeed everything Luther hated. Marius deplores Luther’s uncompromising stand for the Reformation gospel against Rome and his vehemence in condemning all who attacked that gospel. Marius tells his reader at the outset that he views Luther as a “catastrophe in the history of Western civilization” (p. xii). Marius is not a believer.
But the author knows his man. He has done the reading in Luther’s writings and the research in the secondary sources. With a scholar’s honesty, helped by a strong attraction to Luther in spite of himself, Marius has written one of the finest books on the early Luther. The work is a splendid combination of biography and analysis of Luther’s theology. Although the last chapter contains a brief account of Luther’s death, the book ends with Luther’s great controversy with Erasmus over the bondage of the will in 1525, some twenty years earlier.
The fascinating story of Luther’s early life is told well. It was a life of struggle and warfare. Interwoven with the account of Luther’s life are a lively, lucid presentation and examination of Luther’s teachings about the Bible; about justification; about the Roman Catholic Church; about the state and revolution; about marriage; about predestination, and more.
Almost always, Marius gets it right, even when he obviously does not agree. Luther had no sympathy for the revolutionary peasants because his gospel proclaimed a heavenly kingdom, not an earthly one. In the controversy with Erasmus, Luther confessed divine sovereignty as the indispensable requirement for the salvation of sinners. Marius’ clear understanding of the place of good works in Luther’s theology exposes the confusion of Reformed scholars who accuse Luther of antinomism and correct his supposed weakness by making good works conditions of righteousness and salvation. Marius regards as “one of Luther’s most powerful thoughts” that “the ability to do good works seems to be an honor that we gain only because God picks us out to perform them” (p. 166).
The unbelieving Harvard historian expresses Luther’s—and the Reformation’s—doctrine of the Christian life of good works perfectly.
If I love someone and am assured of that person’s love for me, I do not go to a rule book to see what bargain I must strike, what deeds I must perform, what dragons I must slay to provoke a love I already feel. Those human relations where someone says, “Do this, and I will love you,” are cold and mechanical. Under conditions of trade and bargain, one can never be certain of love at all. If I know that someone loves me, I can enter a warm human bond and have real freedom. I do not have to prove my love by constant effort. Yet what sort of freedom is it? It is obviously not a freedom to do anything contrary to the nature of love itself. I am not free to slash my beloved’s tires, to beat his children, to poison his dog, or to burn his house down. I am bound by love, but it is a bondage that I do not feel as bondage. For Luther, the cross proved for all time how much God loves us. Because they are assured of God’s love, true Christians spontaneously act in immeasurable gratitude to the Christ who has redeemed them (pp. 267, 268).
The thesis of the book, stated as the sub-title, is convincing. Luther’s great struggle was neither with the pope nor with the devil. He despised the pope as the mere creature of scheming men and the false church. He reveled in the conflict with the devil, mighty foe of Christ and His church. Satan cannot stand before the Word of God. “One little word shall fell him.” But Luther was fiercely tempted to fear death—destructive, inexorable, mysterious, awful death. The death Luther was tempted to fear is the dreadful Word of the holy God against the guilty sinner. Are we not all tempted, our life long, to tremble before this enemy, this “king of terrors”? Against this terror, there is one, and only one, defense: the gospel of righteousness by faith alone that Luther restored to the true church. Putting death out of mind, as Marius proposes, does not work. There are too many cemeteries.
Liberally sprinkled throughout the book are apt, gripping, sometimes hilarious quotations of Luther. There are also many shrewd observations about the Reformer. For example, Luther “never had much talent for apology” (p. 266).
Above all, the book is a study of the man. From this outstanding treatment of the greatest of the Reformers emerges the figure of a mighty man of God, sinner though he was. The viewpoint of the author does not signify. In a measure accorded few others, Christ graced Martin Luther with profound insight into the gospel, a keen sense of the worth of that gospel, and the heroic courage—especially the heroic courage—to stand for the gospel against false church and hostile state, high and low, friends and foes, men and devils.
Tenth Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia, by Allen C. Guelzo, William S. Barker, Paul S. Jones. Ed. Philip Graham Ryken. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R, 2004. Pp. 239. $24.99 (cloth). [Reviewed by the editor.]
Those who have benefited from the influential ministry of James Montgomery Boice will enjoy this history of the prestigious Tenth Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia. So will older readers who remember the radio broadcasts of Donald Grey Barnhouse and Eternity magazine. Both men were pastors for many years of Tenth Presbyterian Church. The book devotes long chapters to the life and ministry of both of them.
The book commemorates the 175th anniversary of Tenth Presbyterian Church.
The nature of Tenth Presbyterian is intriguing. The church is determined to be Calvinistic. It has always emphasized expository preaching. The church frees capable preachers from many pastoral duties so that they can devote themselves to preaching.
At the same time, the church works aggressively in a big city.
In addition, the church has played a prominent role in evangelical and Calvinistic circles nation-wide, and even worldwide. A contributing factor has been its size and resources. The church numbers about one thousand members.
The book tells Tenth’s story well.
Not Reformed at All: Medievalism in “Reformed” Churches, by John W. Robbins and Sean Gerety. Unicoi, Tennessee: The Trinity Foundation, 2004. 153 pages. $9.95 (paper). [Reviewed by the editor.]
Not Reformed at All exposes the theology of Douglas Wilson. The book responds to Wilson’s Reformed is Not Enough: Recovering the Objectivity of the Covenant. Since the theology of Wilson is essentially that of the movement of covenantal universalism now troubling conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches in North America, Not Reformed at All exposes the entire movement in which Wilson is a leading figure.
I use “exposes” advisedly. Robbins and Gerety show, not only that Wilson’s theology is not Reformed according to the Reformed confessions, but also that it is lightweight. It is not rooted in the Reformed tradition. What roots it has in the past are planted in medieval thinking. Hence, the book’s subtitle. In addition, Wilson’s theology is illogical, contradictory, and incoherent. Much of his teaching is mere assertion—”pontificating”—rather than demonstration from Scripture and the confessions. As if this were not bad enough, Wilson’s signature style, unworthy of the gospel, is a “facile glibness and an adolescent smart-aleckness.”
Emperor Wilson of Moscow has no clothes.
At its heart, the book is a criticism of the covenant theology of the “federal vision,” as its proponents like to call it. What sets this criticism apart from almost all others is its penetration to the root of the heresy: the teaching of universal, conditional, resistible, losable covenant grace. Most other criticisms of the theology of the “federal vision” are content to address the denial of justification by faith alone. For whatever reason, they steer clear of the doctrine of the covenant out of which the teaching of justification by faith and works arises, according to the teachers of the false doctrine themselves.
Robbins and Gerety take hold of the heresy at its root. “It is appalling that at this late date, some glib writer who claims to be Reformed can assert that the Covenant of Grace is made with elect and reprobate alike—and be widely believed” (p. 118).
In the course of their refutation of Wilson’s covenant theology, the authors prove from Scripture and the Reformed creeds that the covenant, its promise, its blessings, and its salvation are particular—for the elect in Christ alone.
This is God’s sovereign Covenant of Grace, and it is wholly efficacious; no one and nothing can thwart it. This Covenant is made exclusively with Christ and the elect, to whom alone the promises of life and salvation belong. At this state in his extended argument [in Romans], Paul uses the doctrine of election (individual, of course) to defend God against the charge that he has not kept his covenant promises to the Jews, and his Word is of no effect. Paul’s argument is, in summary, that God had made no promises of salvation to all the children of Abraham, nor even to all the circumcised, but to his chosen people only. Just as God’s election is of some only, and Christ died for some only, so in the Covenant of Grace the promise of salvation is to some only. The Covenant is not a promise to all men, not even to all those that are circumcised or baptized, but only to those chosen by God in Christ from before the foundation of the world. Paul writes: “But it is not that the Word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, ‘In Isaac your seed shall be called'”
(pp. 92, 93).
There is astute reference to the biblical theology that plays a powerful role at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia and elsewhere in promoting the covenant doctrine of the men of the “federal vision.”
Christian theology is eternally true, firmly settled, and rigorously systematic; and it precedes all events. It is God’s thoughts that produce events. Wilson’s error, of course, is not unique to him; it is an error at the heart of the Biblical theology/redemptive history movement, which makes the chronological order in which God revealed truth to men more basic and more important than the logical order the truths themselves possess in God’s mind (p. 97).