Westminster Assembly in historical context

I posted my article The Wicked Westminster Confession to The Fighting Fundamental Forums some time ago. The following is what one person named “Ask Mr. Religion” said regarding my interaction with the teachings of the Westminster men:

Of course, when you can interact at the same level with Shaw and/or Hodge on the same topic, perhaps some may even consider what you have to say.


There is also Shedd (“Calvinism: Pure and Mixed”), Letham (“The Westminster Assembly”), G.I. Williamson (WCF for study classes), Hetherington (“History of the Westminster Assembly”) and Chad B. Van Dixhoorn (“Reforming the Reformation”; transcribed minutes of the Assembly).

David Dickson, who was a contemporary of the WCF men wrote, “Truth’s Victory over error.” Gordon H. Clark wrote on the Westminster Confession in his piece, “What do Presbyterians believe?” and one scholar I’ve corresponded with said that the book should have been called, “What do hypercalvinists believe?” Doug Wilson also has some comments on the WCF at his “blog and magblog” site.

Not all of the works cited above are commentaries (some are histories for example). I have interacted with some of the above titles, but is it not more important to interact with the actual documents themselves? Robert Letham points to the problem of anachronism in Hodge’s commentary. One critique of commentators in general and Hodge more specifically, is the following:

“Many earlier commentators tended to use the Westminster Confession of Faith as a springboard for a discussion of their own theology. This is true of popular manuals, but it is also the case with more serious ones. For example, at one notable point, A.A. Hodge describes, not the theology of the Confession, but the later Princeton theology. In considering the statements in WCF 6 that the sin of our first parents is imputed to their posterity since they are the root of all mankind, he writes of the sin of Adam being imputed since God constituted him the federal head of the race. His point may be true, and it can be argued from the rest of the Westminster documents, but it is not what chapter 6 is saying. Hodge ignores the confessional statement at this point and presents his own position. Moreover, in the same chapter he expounds the idea that Adam was under probation in the garden and would have been confirmed in blessedness if he had obeyed. Whatever its merits, and however it can be established as representing the theology of the Assembly, this idea is not present in the text he is attempting to explain (Robert Letham, “The Westminster Assembly,” p. 5)

Letham says that while Shaw’s commentary is “useful” (p. 6), it neglects the English context:

“We noted B.B. Warfield’s dismissive comment on the Assembly’s debates on the Thirty-Nine Articles, which were, he says, “marking time.” Overall, the English context has been neglected. Most commentaries usually provide a brief historical introduction to the Assembly, but thereafter ignore the historical context as a factor in interpretation. Robert Shaw is better than some, but still he views it from the Scottish perspective (Robert Letham, “The Westminster Assembly,” p. 47).

The point here is that even those engaging in the rigors of academia (e.g., Robert Letham) have problems with how men like Hodge and Shaw have interpreted the Westminster Confession. As I wrote the WCF article, I sought to read what the actual framers wrote in light of the historical context and in view of the Scriptures that they cited, rather than to write my article in light of someone else’s interpretation of the Confession.