This series of books introduces readers to historical figures and backgrounds surrounding the Assembly that produced the Westminster Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms. As the church approaches four-hundred years after the production of these documents, she must grapple with the fact that she needs to understand the different world in which they arose in order to keep using them today. Whitney Gamble’s contribution to this series is particularly important because she shows ably how the threat of antinomianism shaped the concerns of the Westminster divines and the documents that they produced at virtually every turn. Antinomianism did not necessarily mean the same thing in the seventeenth-century as it does now. Yet Gamble’s thorough contextual study of this issue will help readers both understand the theology behind the Westminster Standards and see parallels to contemporary issues that face the church today.
This book is well-written, thoroughly researched, and clearly argued. Gamble wisely begins the narrative of antinomianism well before the first meeting of the Westminster Assembly, which turned its attention heavily to this topic for the first two months of its meetings. She appeals to how various authors used David’s sin, repentance, and restoration to illustrate the different theological positions involved (conclusion). This provides readers with a clear point of comparison that makes this study easy to follow. Antinomians, such as John Eaton, argued that God saw sin in David, but that he no longer does so in believers, because David belonged to the old age rather than to the new covenant (16). They also argued that faith was a means of realizing that one had already been justified rather than an instrument through which one receives justification (50-54). Gamble traces the initial effort of the Westminster divines to revise the Thirty-Nine Articles and their subsequent fresh formulation of issues such as justification, faith, repentance, and good works. She shows the thorny issues involved in the interrelationship between these doctrines and provides a faithful roadmap of the theological options available at the time. She concludes on the one that the Assembly’s work was largely a failure in that the Westminster Standards did not become the confession of the English church, yet, on the other hand, the continuing influence of these standards on the church world-wide is staggering (157). If antinomianism is integral to the history of these documents, then this study provides essential background to understanding what they mean.
Many of Gamble’s findings are important for historical and for contemtporary theology. For example, her assertion that associating the Sinai covenant with the covenant of works was a traditional antinomian move, while requiring some careful qualifications, is an important point in the historical development of Reformed covenant theology. She even challenges the valuable findings of Mark Jones on this point, arguing for a lesser degree of diversity within the Assembly over the nature of the Mosaic covenant as an administration of the covenant of grace (139). Gamble’s historical work will bring a fresh voice to the table in contemporary discussions of such issues. This is also true in relation to the question as to whether or not faith is a condition of the covenant of grace. Antinomians regarded treating faith as a condition of the covenant as legalism and they tended to dismiss imperatives in the Scriptures by relegating them to promoting the conviction of sin (50). What made the antinomian error so dangerous was that most of what the antinomians had to say was true. The covenant of grace depended wholly on Christ and not on believers or on their faith. The Holy Spirit did create an obedient disposition in Christians, making obedience natural and a matter of course. However, this did not remove the biblical realities that believers were united to Christ by faith and that they were “children of wrath” before they embraced him. Teaching that salvation does not depend on our faith is not the same thing as saying that Spirit-supplied faith is not a condition of entrance into the covenant of grace and of interest in Christ (144). Moreover, the fact that Christians are delivered from the law does not negate the fact that the Spirit writes the law on their hearts as they hear, study, and practice its teachings. This is a great benefit of union with Christ and one of the primary objects of redemption in Christ. Like most historical and contemporary errors, antinomianism was mostly right in what it asserted. Yet the places in which it was incomplete had, and continue to have, massive theological and practical implications. Gamble’s study has potential for clarifying such discussions.
There is one significant weakness in this work. It is interesting that the author aimed initially to study debates between John Owen and Richard Baxter, yet, in the end, Baxter receives no mention and Owen only one passing reference. Gamble stresses the debates and writings of the Westminster divines to the neglect of the broader theological context, both in England and on the continent. This makes it more difficult for readers to understand where theological debates at Westminster fit in the broader Reformed world. For example, when treating the imputation of Christ’s active obedience, her analysis of the Assembly’s conclusions are sound, but it is surprising that she makes no reference to the background of this debate in the international controversy that started between Johannes Piscator and Theodore Beza. Her analysis of the Westminster Assembly’s minutes and related documents is superb, but the narrow context that she sets limits the reach of her work.
Studies like this one can help readers better understand the meaning of the Westminster Standards. The relatively recent publication of the Assembly’ Minutes and Papers adds a new dimension to such studies. While delving into these documents is not a sufficient cause of creating a broad picture of the development of the thought standing behind these doctrinal standards, it is a necessary one. Gamble’s book takes us one step closer to doing so in relation to a vital issue that touches many areas of the Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms.