‘Confessing the Faith’ – A Review by Barry Shucksmith
A review by Rt Revd Dr J Barry Shucksmith of Confessing the Faith: A Reader’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith by Chad Van Dixhoorn.1
The Westminster Assembly took place in 1643 – a synod appointed by the Long Parliament to reform the English Church. Parliament issued an ordinance to allow the Westminster Assembly, after the first attempt failed to receive Royal Assent. The Conference consisted of clergy and laity. These fell into four groups: (1) Episcopalians; (2) Presbyterians; (3) A small group of Independents; and (4) Erastians – believers in the right of the State to intervene in ecclesiastical matters.
The men had been well chosen and were widely representative of the prevailing theological views. Later they were joined by five clerical and three lay Commissioners from Scotland. The Assembly began by revising the ‘Thirty-nine Articles of Religion’ but the appearance of the ‘Solemn League and Covenant’ led to the construction of a completely new statement – the ‘Westminster Confession’. At the same time a ‘Directory of Public Worship’ and two Westminster Catechisms were prepared.
Unlike as in Scotland, these documents were only temporarily and partially accepted in England. Over four centuries, significant changes have been made and, today, there appears to be considerable movement away from the clear biblical doctrines of these precious historic confessions. This is another good reason for a fresh, contemporary, and thoroughly helpful exposition of the ‘Westminster Confession of Faith’. It has appeared on the Christian market in a timely manner, and we are grateful both to the author and the Banner of Truth Trust.
Chad Van Dixhoorn serves as Associate Professor of Church History at Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington DC. He was recently elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in recognition of his five-volume work on the Westminster Assembly. Carl R Trueman, Paul Woolley Professor of Church History, Westminster Theological Seminary, adds a supportive and glowing Foreword to the book, while Professor Dixhoorn explains his reason for writing this volume on the thirty-three doctrinal topics of the Confession. A skilful, yet economically worded, introduction deals with the Westminster Assembly (1643-1653), ‘The Westminster Confession of Faith’ (1646) – an introduction and explanation for the modernised text – which sits alongside the original. There is a brief theological apology for using John Bower’s critical edition of the Assembly’s 1640s text, complete with scriptural proof-texts. Indeed the author is indebted to Dr Bowers for the confessional text as it appears.
This is a very readable book which makes studying doctrine enjoyable, heart-warming, and a devotional treat. Far from being weighty and laboured, one is left desiring more on some major sections and sub-sections. However, I’m sure busy Christians will be grateful for a refined and achieved balance between old and new definition, clear understanding, and crisp explanatory observations.
Confessing the Faith can do far more for spiritual understanding, intellectual growth, and genuine biblical maturity, than some books which are too readily available. To master the ‘Westminster Confession’, and to self-apply it, or to incorporate its revelatory gems into Spirit-inspired Sabbath day teaching, will do much to move the church forward. And this, at a time when apostasy and multi-faith confusion predominate. These truths are more needed than ever, and have often been the harbingers of mighty spiritual revivals. Young, and perhaps older, candidates for Christian ministry could do little better than turn Dr Dixhoorn’s valuable work into a preparatory course, before arriving at the Theological or Bible College door. The first priority of a preacher is to expound Holy Scripture, but the flesh will hold together better if the skeleton is firm and secure!
You can talk about religious experience all you wish, but if it does not have doctrinal roots, it is like cut flowers stuck into the ground. They will soon wither and die. (W.G.T. Shedd)
For knowing the gathered and essential truths of Holy Scripture, few books can better the ‘Westminster Confession’. It makes for a strong advocate and a perspicuous preacher. Similarly, Dr Dixhoorn’s volume is not only for the pulpit but tailored to suit the pew as well. It begins with the foundations of Holy Scripture – the true Protestant position. It follows through the decrees of God – showing how God is sovereign in all matters. Even before the foundations of the earth. The Son, Saviour, and Salvation are next, with facilitated explanation of the place for saving faith, repentance, good works, the perseverance of the saints, assurance, and grace, shown as being over all.
What confusion there is today, not only among unbelievers but also in the Christian Church! What is God’s Law? How does it fit into the 21st century? Is it still relevant and does it apply to those who are already saved by grace? Even more urgent is an exposition of Worship. What is worship? The Sabbath day – has it any place in 2015? What other means of grace exist for the spiritual health of individuals and church alike?
Pertinently, we live in times when Central Government is beginning to interfere in family and church life! What are its limits and bounds? What are the duties of a Christian in respecting those in authority? Marriage? Divorce? All are big issues today. As for the Church, do we know what a true and godly Assembly is? What about discipline, one of the primary marks, according to the Reformers and those of Westminster fame, who drew up the Confession a century later. Fellowship, Sacraments, Baptism, Lord’s Supper, Church Censure, even Synods and Councils are given a fresh work-over in a balanced and illuminating style. The closing eschatological section, chapters 32-33 of the Confession, are basic and brief. Yet, they are sufficiently beefy to satisfy the average seeker, and, surely, to whet the appetite for more?
This is the kind of fundamental stuff which should be of interest to all Christians. There is no requirement to speed-read. It can be tackled and benefited from by acquiring a copy, making it personal, and reading a few pages, along with the Bible and prayer, daily. ‘The Westminster Confession’ needs no recommendation from this reviewer – almost four hundred years in print is sufficient recommendation for anyone. I shall often consult Dr Dixhoorn’s volume, and prayerfully and sensitively use it. One small disappointment – the apparent rejection of the pope as the chief Antichrist. My recommended antidote for this – read Bishop Christopher Wordsworth’s (Bishop of Lincoln, 1807- 1885) book, Is the Papacy Predicted by St. Paul?, obtainable from the Protestant Reformation Society (Harrison Trust).
Although Dr Chad Van Dixhoorn’s work is highly recommended, it should be noted in Confessing the Faith: A Reader’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, the author cites from the King James Version (KJV), New International Version (NIV), English Standard Version (ESV), New American Standard Version (NASB), and offers his own translation where warranted.
A Reader's Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith
A review by Rt Revd Dr J Barry Shucksmith of Confessing the Faith: A Reader’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith by Chad Van Dixhoorn.1 The Westminster Assembly took place in 1643 – a synod appointed by the Long […]
From English Churchman, with permission.