John R. Bower. The Confession of Faith: a critical text and introduction

John R. Bower. The Confession of Faith: a critical text and introduction. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2020. Hardback. 415pp. ISBN 9781601782434.

For as long as anyone can remember, the text of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) has been the purview of the Carruthers: pere et fils. That is until now, when the mantle has been taken up by John R. Bower, adjunct professor of church history at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh and associate professor of pediatrics and microbiology/immunology/ biochemistry at Northeast Ohio Medical College. Taking the torch from the younger Carruthers, Samuel, who was also a medical doctor, Dr. Bower has given us a critical text comprised of the wording of the first printed edition of the whole WCF to which he has attached the most accurate list of the Scripture Proofs to date. According to the accepted numberings, this is the text of Edition 2 with the prooftexts from Edition 3, checked against Edition 7. For a working text of the WCF, this is almost as good as it gets. Later, I shall explain why. For the present, what will the purchasers of this book receive for their money?

After the contents, foreword, prefaces, etc., there is an introduction to the workings of the Westminster Assembly as it dealt with articles of faith. Starting with the Assembly’s work on revising the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, Dr. Bower takes us through the committee structure which supplied drafts for debate, the creedal documents which appear to have had the most influence upon the divines, the move from revising an existing doctrinal statement to the creation of a new one, and brief introductions to each chapter of the WCF which give some insights from the Minutes about particular words or phrases used and the issues behind them. There is not much which is new here. The service which Dr. Bower has done us is gathering this material together between two boards.

The remainder of the introduction is taken up with the process of getting the WCF from its final manuscript form to its printed form and with bibliographical details: the sort of things that make up the bulk of S. W. Carruthers’ 1937 work and B. B. Warfield’s essay “The Printing of the Westminster Confession”. If you are in a hurry to get to the text of the WCF, then you can skip this bit. If, on the other hand, the whole process of getting the WCF from the debates into your hands interests you, then it is well worth reading.

The next section of the book is the critical text with the prooftexts listed in the outer margin. If you are used to the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland edition of the WCF with the page split between the text and the referenced portions of Scripture, you will find that the text of this edition is much clearer, but you will need to have a Bible to hand.

The critical text is followed by a section which has what Dr. Bower calls the four authoritative texts. These are the first printed edition of the WCF which has chapters one to nineteen, the manuscript of the full WCF given to the House of Lords, the second printed edition which has all thirty-three chapters, and the third printed edition which has all thirty-three chapters plus the prooftexts. The four texts are ordered in columns, two to a page, and set to allow comparison.

The remainder of the book is made up of a table showing where material found in the Irish Articles of 1615 is found in the WCF, a critical text of the Divines’ revision of the English Articles (the first work which the English Parliament set them), then bibliographies, a glossary, and the usual indices.

There is a lot of material in this book. Not all of it will be relevant to your everyday use, but it is there for when you need it.

Having described what the author has written, we now come to that part of a book review in which the reviewer outlines the book, in his opinion, the author ought to have written, or the book which the reviewer would have written were he the author. There is not much to say here. In fact, there is only one point over which to quibble: the question of authority. Regarding the book, this is a very petty quibble. Regarding the use which might be made of this book, it is a quibble of some substance. Let me explain.

Dr. Bower speaks of authoritative texts by which he means the four texts which he has used as his authoritative sources in recreating the text of the WCF as it left the Assembly. To quibble about his use of the words text and source in that context is indeed petty. However, to speak of authoritative texts in the wider context of the discussion to which this book and the series of which it is part are contributions, could imply that the Assembly and, therefore, the WCF have an authority independent of the body which brought the Assembly into being. There are times that we must be reminded, as Dr Bower does show in his introduction, that the WCF is, after all, “The humble advice of the Assembly of Divines, now by authority of Parliament sitting at Westminster, concerning a confession of faith ….”.

Dr. Bower uses the word synod as a synonym for assembly. Synod can mean an advisory council; but for most of us, the immediate connotation is an ecclesiastical governing council. As we read this book, we must resist the temptation to give the Westminster Assembly ecclesiastical status. It was not a representative body of the Church of England, nor of the church in England. The Westminster Assembly was a creature of the Long Parliament. Parliament dictated who its members were, and upon which matters they could consult and advise. This does nothing to denigrate the members of the Assembly or their work. It reminds us of the conditions under which they laboured; and it reminds us of what they understood themselves to be doing. Nevertheless, we must be careful not to drag the Westminster Assembly into our comfort zone by putting a gloss over its Erastian origins and parameters.

A case in point would be what is called Edition 7, the amended text of the WCF which the Parliament of England approved and passed in 1648. Dr. Bower does not consider it to be an authoritative source; so, he says that it is not an authoritative text, but an official edition. Within the context of the book, that makes sense. However, in today’s jaded world, where the adjective official has connotations of propaganda, spin, and cover-up, a reader might be prompted to ask, “So, what is the real edition?”

Now that time and space have removed us from the Long Parliament’s reach, we can line up the K-Cups and chat about an answer. Would it be Edition 2 or Edition 3? If you don’t like Parliament picking and choosing the advice it would take, how do you feel about it ordering the Assembly to add prooftexts? However, living in Parliament controlled England in 1648, Edition 7 was official, authoritative, and real; it was the “Articles of Christian Religion, approved and passed by both Houses of Parliament, after advice had with the Assembly of Divines by authority of Parliament sitting at Westminster.”. Those who sold reprints of Edition 3, that is those who allowed access to the advice which Parliament had rejected, incurred that body’s displeasure.

Dr Bower, then, drawing from four authoritative sources, has given us a definitive text of the advice which the Westminster Assembly gave to the Parliament of England concerning a confession of faith. It requires another step for that advice to become that confession of faith.

Were we able to travel from Westminster to Edinburgh with Robert Baillie, we should see an example of this. Baillie brought a copy of Edition 2 to Edinburgh in the January of 1647 and presented it to the Commission of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. When the General Assembly met in the August of that year, in its third session, it heard reports from Baillie and George Gillespie on the progress of the Westminster Assembly in furthering the desired covenanted uniformity. It also decided to erect a committee to examine the confession of faith. The text of the WCF was read twice publicly in the General Assembly and on three occasions (sessions 4, 13, and 19) commissioners were invited to bring any doubts about or objections to it before the committee. To aid in this work, the Assembly ordered 300 copies of the WCF to be printed. Evan Tyler printed 300 copies of Edition 3, presumably brought to Scotland by Gillespie who came home later than Baillie. (This printing is known as Edition 4.) The WCF was adopted by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland on the 27th of August, in session 23, when it passed of the Act Approving.

However, in adopting or approving the WCF, the General Assembly carefully weighed the advice of the Westminster Divines and did not take all of it without qualification. The Act tells us the confession of faith which was adopted: Edition 2 which was brought to the Commission of Assembly in the January of 1647. It tells us that the Assembly thought that it was agreeable to the Scriptures and that it did not contradict the existing doctrinal standards of the Church. As the Act was in part a book review, it disappointedly points out that the WCF did not address the several sorts of ecclesiastical officers and assemblies. Then it concludes with a statement describing how parts of chapter 31, section 2, are to be understood: basically, the first part of the section is understood to deal only with churches not yet constituted (this covers such situations as that in England with the calling of the Westminster Assembly); and the second part of the section is understood to cover any magistrate reluctant to call ecclesiastical assemblies, not only those who might be described as open enemies (here the General Assembly has in mind the situation which confronted the Church of Scotland during the reigns of James VI & I and Charles I). It is the General Assembly’s understanding of the passage, not the passage itself which is authoritative.

Earlier, I said that for a working text of the WCF, this is almost as good as it gets. Dr. Bower has given those of us who trace our line through that General Assembly of 1647 the authoritative text of the WCF: Edition 2, the text of his critical text. Unless the denomination to which you belong has declared otherwise, it is to this text of the WCF that your adopting acts, denominational testimonies, and ordination vows refer. Even if you are bound to the American revisions of 1788, it is Edition 2 which should have been revised. Now you no longer need to visit one of a select number of libraries to read it; nor do you need to get a photocopy of it from one of those libraries as I did from the nice people at the National Library of Scotland thirty years ago. You can get it, and a lot more, when you purchase this book.

I said almost because I do not need the prooftexts. I am not saying that I have not used them, nor am I saying that I have not benefited from their use. I am saying that they are not part of the authoritative Edition 2. Further, I am saying that most ecclesiastical constitutional documents give authority to their subordinate standards because they summarise the teaching of Scripture on the points treated. Ordinands, then, own the Confession of Faith as adopted by the denomination to which they belong as the confession of their faith because it is founded upon the Word of God. By that, they are not signing off on the prooftexts. They are saying that the WCF as approved by their denomination, to the extent that it covers a doctrine, is an accurate expression of their personal understanding of what the Bible teaches: teaching that is not drawn merely from prooftexts, but from that which is expressly set down in Scripture, from that which might be deduced by good and necessary consequences from Scripture, and/or from the general rules of the Word.

Dr. Bower has given us a major contribution to the history of the Westminster Assembly and its times. In doing so, he has also contributed to the study of historical theology. There is, however, a third field of study to which his work contributes, even though indirectly: that of ecclesiology. The history of the adoption and use of the WCF is a subject beyond the scope of his book. Nevertheless, historical and historical theological discussions do have a bearing on the position of the WCF in churches today. An example of this is Alexander Mitchell raising the question of whether the Westminster Divines placed all forms of Hypothetical Universalism beyond the pale and how that might affect his friend, Thomas J. Crawford.

In his introduction, Dr. Bower mentions Calamy expressing his view of hypothetical universalism and defending it against Reynolds and Rutherford. His is a brief summary of the debate, but he gives an accurate representation of the balance of speakers for and against and the gist of the arguments. Others have given the debate on this subject greater prominence; and the arrival of this critical text of the WCF is an occasion to bring out the old questions. After examining the history and the historical theology, the question is asked: Did the Westminster Divines actually place hypothetical universalism beyond the pale of acceptable opinions? That question, however, is often followed by another: If hypothetical universalism were acceptable to the Westminster Divines, should it not be acceptable to us?

The first question has been answered by several writers. If a consensus exists, it might run something like this:

1. There was a tradition of Hypothetical Universalism among influential Reformed theologians in England which predates and differs from that of the Franco-Scottish Hypothetical Universalists, Cameron and Amyrauld.

2. There was also a particularist tradition in England.

3. Both traditions were represented in the Westminster Assembly.

4. The English Hypothetical Universalists came off second best in the debate.

5. The wording of the Westminster Confession is most easily understood as favouring particularism.

6. The wording of the Westminster Confession excludes Franco-Scottish Hypothetical Universalism.

7. The wording of the Westminster Confession gives no positive support to the English Hypothetical Universalists, yet the degree to which it might exclude them is open to question.

One argument for the inclusion of English Hypothetical Universalism within the pale of acceptable belief is that Calamy was not disciplined by the Assembly for holding the views that he did. The problem with such arguments is that the Assembly had no power to discipline its members; Parliament did that.

Another argument is that Calamy did not dissent from the final wording of the relevant sections of the WCF. Anthony Tuckney might be able to explain why. Tuckney said that it was his understanding that the WCF would not be personally sworn or subscribed to, but rather, it would be the public doctrine of the Church of England, not to be openly preached or written against. With that understanding, conforming to a majority opinion would not necessarily provoke such a crisis of conscience as would require a dissent. At the end of the day, the WCF gave Calamy the free offer of the gospel and a particularist application of the atonement. He would have to be very careful in presenting, or to keep quiet about, his views on how the atonement and the free offer were connected. Perhaps that was something with which he could live. Also, a formal dissent would probably mean getting Parliament involved.

Yet another argument is that the WCF is a consensus document and that most if not all the views expressed by members of the Assembly are within its pale. The WCF is a consensus document, but the consensus is not one intended to entrench the idiosyncrasies of English religion but to show that the reconstituted Church of England belonged at the heart of the international Reformed community.

When the WCF was printed, it did not have the Assembly’s minutes as footnotes. As we might say of a child’s maths problem, they did not show their working. The text positively expresses a particularistic position. For those in England, it looked like particularism was the Church’s official doctrine; Arminianism (whether that of John Goodwin or of Archbishop Laud) and foreign Hypothetical Universalism were excluded; and the English Hypothetical Universalists would have to accommodate themselves to the new situation. For those outside of England, it looked like particularism was the WCF’s doctrine and the views of Arminius, Cameron, Amyrauld, and, in Scotland’s case the Aberdeen Doctors, were excluded. If they thought of English Hypothetical Universalism as distinct from its Franco-Scottish forms, they probably thought that, with the influence of the WCF, it would wither on the vine. It was, after all, a time of transition.

This brings us to the second question: If hypothetical universalism were acceptable to the Westminster Divines, should it not be acceptable to us? Given that there is not complete agreement about how acceptable hypothetical universalism was, the question might be reframed: To the extent that hypothetical universalism was acceptable to the Westminster Divines, should it not be acceptable to us? This brings us back to Mitchell. The Scottish understanding of the WCF was strictly particularistic. It was the position argued for by Rutherford and Gillespie in the debates at the Westminster Assembly. It was the orthodox position in post-1647 controversies: The Marrow, Gib versus Mair, Campbell of Row, Morison, and Brown and Balmer. The extent to which hypothetical universalism is acceptable depends on the adopting body not the personal opinions of individual Westminster Divines.

This is a well-produced book, as one would expect from this publisher. The fonts and layout make it a joy to read. If there is a drawback, it is that in the middle of a history/historical theology book there is a reference work: the critical text. Pages 193 to 239 will receive a disproportionate amount of use. I look forward to seeing the edges of those pages mellow and wonder at which page this book will fall open.

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