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.

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Union with Christ (Letham): 2

Incarnation

Good job describing Jesus’s real humanity.  I wonder if he will enter the debate of Jesus’s assuming a fallen nature.

He has an excursus on the Nestorian debate.  I will point out that Letham, contra to popular attacks on Reformed thought, understands Nestorius’s teaching that the prosopon was formed as a result or conjunction of the two natures (24).   No Nestorian claimed that there were two Persons of Jesus.

He does acknowledge some of the rhetorical and conceptual shortcomings of Chalcedon.   It “left the concept of the hypostatic union unclear” (28).

Enhypostasis

Drawing heavily upon Meyendorff, Letham has a lucid account of enhypostasis.  “Because Christ’s humanity has divine life hypostatically, we can–in union with Christ–receive divine life by grace and participation” (32).  This buries the contention that the Reformed reduce all of salvation to justification and forensicism.

Union with Christ: Letham (Resurrection)

Paul’s language connections “sharing” with “resurrection” (Phil. 3:10).  “Christ suffered because of who he is.  We suffer because we are one with him” (Letham 130).

Union with Christ in Death and Burial

I Thess. 4:13-17;  “hope for Paul relates not to uncertainty, but to futurity” (133).  God will make good on his promises in the future (interesting suggestions for the doctrine of assurance).

Some thoughts

The resurrection of Christ is a legal, judicial verdict.   He was raised for our justification.

 

Union with Christ: Letham (4)

Covenantal Representation

“There is a legal aspect to union with Christ” (57).  He introduces the theme of corporate solidarity: Josh. 7:1-26).  “Individuals are not identified in isolation: they are A the son of B the son of C of the tribe of D” (58).

Atonement

Substitution.  OT sacrificial ritual in Lev. 4-5

Representative.  All Jesus does he does on our behalf.

Letham finishes this chapter with a survey of Reformed and Puritan thought on Union.  Outstanding comments on Justification by faith only.  Gives a good rebuttal to Thomas Torrance who accused the Confession of bifurcating justification and union.

Union with Christ: Letham (5)

Transformation.

Lane Tipton: “Union with Christ allows Paul to speak in relational and judicial categories simultaneously, without conflating either into the other.”  “Union with Christ and Justification,” in Justified in Christ: God’s Plan for us in Justification, ed. K. Scott Oliphant (Fearn, Ross-Shire, UK: Mentor, 2007), 38.

Jesus’s resurrection is a forensic verdict (Horton).

Ordo Salutis

Explores Gaffin’s comments on the ordo.

Theosis

Humans remain human while deified.  “It is union and communion with the persons of the Trinity” (92).  While Letham is giving the East a fair reading, it must be acknowledged that the Palamite strands of Eastern Orthodoxy revert to an impersonal, energetic union.  See the comments by Vladimir Moss.  Romanides writes, “But in Patristic tradition, God is not a personal God. In fact, God is not even God. God does not correspond to anything we can conceive or would be able to conceive,” Patristic Theology (Uncut Mountain Press: Dalles, Oregon, 2008), pp. 139-140.

What is truly meant by the Athanasian claim that “man becomes God?”   According to Norman Russell, “It is either to emphasize the glorious destiny originally intended for the human race, or to explain that the biblical references to ‘gods’ do not encroach upon the uniqueness of the Word made flesh” (Letham 92-93, quoting Norman Russell, The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition, 168).   If that is all that is meant, then the Reformed tradition has no real argument, but would better see that under the teaching of “glorification.”

Metochoi (Partakers):  we are called to glory.  This is not alien to Reformed thought but sometimes it doesn’t receive enough attention.  It would be interesting to link this with the OT concept of the glory-cloud.  Points to our destiny.

Letham then quotes numerous sources (almost to overkill) pointing out that the Reformed had a rich and nuanced appreciation of Union with Christ (102-122).

  • Per Calvin, the Spirit unites the spatial difference between us and Christ in the Eucharist (Comm., 11 Corinthians; CO, 49:487, in Letham, 105; see also Institutes, 4.17.10).  “That a life-giving power from the flesh of Christ is poured into us through the medium of the Spirit, even though it is at a great distance from us, and is not mixed with us.”  Here Letham seems to contradict part of his narrative.   He notes (correctly) for Calvin that we participate in God’s attributes, not his being (107).  However, earlier he said that the Greek (Palamite?) view does not see theosis as participation in God’s attributes (92, “Nor, on the other hand, is it simply communion with God’s attributes.”  If, however, Letham means for the East that the communion with the persons is also a communion with the attributes, then there is no real contradiction.  Even still, I have my doubts that the East can truly avoid collapsing the communion with the Persons into a communion with the energies (see comments by Moss and Jenson).
  • Contra detractors, Calvin affirms that the body and blood of Christ are substantially offered.  He simply explains the mode: the Holy Spirit transfuses the flesh of Christ to us (Theological Treatises, 267).  We just reject a local presence.
  • Letham is aware of the Nestorian charge and sense that Calvin drifted there at times, given his comments on 1 Corinthians 15:27-28.   But see Richard Muller’s response to Jurgen Moltmann on that point.
  • Per Polanus there is a real sacramental union and a conjunction between signum and res.

While there are suggestions that Calvin was close to the East, I think Letham overplays that point (115).  However, Letham is correct to criticize Michael Horton’s claim that we participate in the energies of Christ (Horton, Covenant and Salvation, 285, 302). The East does not mean by energies what Horton means by it.

Union with Christ (Letham)

Creation

“Triadic manner of earth’s formation represents God’s character. He is a relational being” (11).  We see Spirit of God and Speech of God.

Man in the image of God.   Letham spins the Greek image-likeness into First and Second Adam.  All of humanity shares the image with First Adam.   Christ, the Second Adam, is also the image of God.   Regenerate humanity participates in this image.   Letham tries to claim this is what the Greek Fathers said, but he doesn’t offer any references and it doesn’t appear that they said this.  They said all of humanity is created in the image but must achieve the likeness of God.  I like Letham’s proposal. I just don’t think this is what the Greek Fathers said.

So ends chapter 1.  It’s well-written, if somewhat simple in style, and makes good points.  I simply dispute that the Fathers mean what Letham means by it. I think Letham’s model is superior.

Be not glib in speaking of the fathers

As far as Presbyterian scholarship goes, Robert Letham is probably the best.   He’s actually read (if not always understood) the Church Fathers and their leading interpreters, usually going across traditions to understand them (something unheard of in Calvindom).   His book on Eastern Orthodoxy, while deeply flawed at the basic level of argumentation, is mainly  backhanded praise for Orthodoxy (I still don’t know how the Reformed church didn’t bring him up for trial for that book; Leithart has been grilled for less).

Speaking psychologically of others is dangerous, for who can see inside another’s head?  (Incidentally, that sentence refutes all of psychology as a scientific discipline; as magical arts psychology might have some validity, but not as “science”).   That said, I think I know why Letham continues these backhands of Orthodox fathers.  First, we must consider some things Letham has said.  In his other books Letham has come very close to denying the heart of Western theology: The Filioque.  He admits most of the problems in Western theology (and offers no real solution), which seems to lean him towards Orthodoxy.  Letham sees the difficulty of his position.

Anyway, to the passage in question.   It is found in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church periodical New Horizons.  Letham is offering a list of books to read on Christology.  He mentions St Cyril of Alexandria’s On the Unity of Christ and has this to say of Cyril, “One of the Church’s most brilliant theologians and most vicious thugs,” p.13).  I know I should be careful in speaking of elders in the Church, but should not the elders be careful in speaking of the holy fathers?

This is wrong on so many levels.  For one, I have worked with thugs and Cyril is not one of them!  If Cyril is a thug for out-politicking Nestorius, then John Calvin is a mafia don for what he did to Servetus!*  Why is Letham calling Cyril a thug?  It seems like Cyril played unfairly with Nestorius, having called a council while Nestorius was still traveling to it.  As John McGuckin makes clear, Nestorius was already summoned by the emperor and delayed leaving; therefore, Cyril was justified in his actions.

Just because Cyril looked overly efficient in marginalizing Nestorius doesn’t mean he was a thug.  Nestorius ridiculed popular piety (and Orthodox belief), used hair-splitting distinctions, and spoke on a quasi-scholastic level that few could understand.  He was destined to lose this battle.  Cyril didn’t engage in thuggery; he simply allowed Nestorius to show himself for what he really was.

*Most Orthodox people like to rail on Calvin for what he did to Servetus and Geneva.  While I have no love for Calvin or Geneva, I’m not too bothered by the fact.  Calvin had little political power in Geneva (he wasn’t even a citizen of the city!) and was unable to do most of what he wanted in the city (he couldn’t even have communion on a weekly basis for the city authorities forbade it).   Anyway, it seems the Code of Justinian made idolatry on Servetus’ level a capital crime.

Sources

Letham, Robert. “Four Favorites:  Books on Systematic and Historical Theology.”  New Horizons April 2011: 13. Print.