Letham’s Westminster Assembly

With this volume Letham has established himself as the leading English-speaking Reformed theologian.

HOLY SCRIPTURE

Letham gives the basic Reformed understanding of Scripture.

Continuationism

It’s there, albeit in a mild form.  Letham notes that William Bridge, George Gillespie, and John Knox received (or claimed they did; or others claimed they did) prophetic revelation.  Letham is quick to point out this is only “providential” illumination of Scripture (127).  Letham is correct that the Assembly felt no need to deal with this issue (nor would they have affirmed it), but other studies clearly demonstrate that the Scottish Reformation (both in its First and Second phases) saw manifestation of prophetic gifts beyond that of simply “illuminating” Scripture.  When Cargill and Cameron prophcied the deaths of certain (specific) wicked men, they weren’t merely “applying” the general sense of Scripture.  If “prophecy” means illumination, then every pastor is a prophet!  In which case prophecy is still valid today, but nobody reasons that way.

Part of the Reformed world’s problem here is the presupposition that every prophetic utterance necessarily carries the full binding of God with it.   In another place Wayne Grudem shows that is simply not the case.

God the Holy Trinity

Without passions…

Letham is aware that a hard division on God’s not having passions must take into account the fact that the Incarnation brought into true union with humanity.  Jesus experiences human thoughts, human emotions, etc (162).  Letham is certainly on the correct path, but the problem is much deeper (and this isn’t a slam against Reformed Christology;  all Christological traditions hailing from the Chalcedonian definition must face this problem:  does our definition of what it means to be a person today include self-reflection?  If it does, then we are on the road to Nestorianism. If it doesn’t, is it really coherent to speak of person anymore?)

Letham gives a competent discussion on Creation, though one that will annoy many.  He admits, contra many Klineans, that the divines likely held to six solar days, yet he points out that the more pertinent goal was to reject Augustine’s view of instantaneous creation.  Further, what we must also admit, no matter where we land on this discussion, is that the divines did presuppose a geocentric cosmology which saw theology in spatial terms.  Indeed, one wonders if George Walker even knew that the world is spherical (Letham 191 n.50).

Christ and covenant

“Condescension”

  • Makes the Klinean meritorious reading strained.
  • CoW, while perhaps the correct reading, is not necessary to maintain Reformed theology.  It was developed over time and if Kline’s reading is correct, then huge swathes of Reformed theology would have proved defective before Westminster (233).

Covenant of Redemption?

Letham highlights a number of problems.  While he doesn’t note the problem of person, if person does not include mind (which is usually subsumed under nature), then does it make sense to speak of three individuals who all share the same mind making an agreement?  I’m not saying it is a wrong idea, and the CoR certainly preserves a few key values, but it does have problems.

Assurance

Great section on assurance and he places these (sometimes) painful discussions in their pastoral context, which context is often lost on critics of Reformed assurance.  For the record, I agree with Goodwin pace Owen on the Spirit’s sealing.

Law, Liberty, Church and Eschatology

Great section on Law and Liberty–and he avoids getting involved in the painful theonomy disputes.  Letham shows how the RPW should be read and interpreted in light of the Laudian imprisonment and persecution of Reformed believers.  On another note, he points out how the Presbyterians really failed on clinching and continuing the “liberty of conscience” victory it justly won.   I will elaborate:

Did the Solemn League and Covenant bind the consciences of those who didn’t vow it?  Said another way, was Cromwell later on obligated to establish Presbyterian government?  If he was, how does this square with what (Covenanter) Samuel Rutherford said, “It is in our power to vow, but not in the church’s power to command us to vow” (quoted in Letham 299)?  Maybe the two points don’t contradict each other, but the tension is certainly strained.

And it appears the Presbyterians couldn’t maintain this tension.  They chose to deal with the tyrant Charles I and supported (to their fatal regret later) the pervert Charles II.  Cromwell’s victory at Dunbar is fully justified.

Conclusion:

This isn’t a commentary on the Confession.  It is a theological exploration of the historical circumstances behind it.  Letham’s scholarship is judicious, measured, and quite frankly awe-inspiring.

Cromwell, the Covenanters, and a Critical Reflection

This is a hard post to write, not only because I am not entirely certain where I stand on this issue, but that the answer to this question appears for force the answers to a number of other questions.  My goal in this post is not to vindicate Cromwell.  I want to add clarity to a few key moments in English history where Cromwell clashed with the Covenanters.  Ecclesiastically, I side with the Covenanters.  While I have an appreciation for many Independents, I think it is problematic.   Further, the Covenanters’ testimony during the Killing Times is nothing short of awe-inspiring.  However, some problems remain and I will try to explore these:

  1. Cromwell may be a covenant-breaker, but how was Scots’ aligning with Charles II not a similar violation of the Covenant on the grounds of allying with malignants?   While Rutherford may have had distaste for Cromwell, I think he realized this very point (cf Coffey, 251).
  2. If (1) is true, and if Covenanting Scots had even fought against Charles I and his bishops previously, as they had (Fissel:  1994), then on what grounds can later Covenanter tracts condemn Cromwell as “the Usurper?”
  3. Following (2), isn’t it likely that Cromwell would have left alone Presbyterian Scotland had they not crowned a Stuart Monarch?  Cromwell, being a military and political genius, saw it as cementing a Stuart (and probably quasi-papist, Charles II’s swearing to the Covenant notwithstanding) political power to his north, which would have been a danger.  Cromwell didn’t necessarily want to invade Scotland for invasion’s sake.  The Scots had already proved their mettle earlier and have even defeated some of Cromwell’s lieutenants earlier. Indeed, even when Cromwell brought the bulk of his army to Scotland, he found himself in a terrible trap.  Inexplicably, the Scots abandoned their military vantage point, met Cromwell on equal footing, and lost their army, and soon their liberty.  Precisely who is at fault here?
  4. Following (3), even a Covenanter like Maurice Grant admits that Cromwell’s occupation of Scotland silenced many church disputes and allowed the church to flourish spiritually (Grant, 37).
  5. This is not to say that Cromwell was 100% in the right.  It is sad that Christopher Love was executed.  Assuming he was innocent of those charges, exactly how was correspondence with Catholic monarchs in Europe supposed to be viewed by Cromwell?   I say this as someone who loves Thomas Watson, for example.

Works Cited

Coffey, John.  Politics, Religion and the British Revolutions: The Mind of Samuel Rutherford (Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History).
Fissell, Mark.  The Bishops’ Wars: Charles I’s Campaigns against Scotland, 1638-1640 (Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History).
Grant, Maurice.  The Lion of the Covenant: The Story of Richard Cameron.