The Westminster Confession of Faith Study Book: A Study Guide for Churches

Article by   January 2006

"Brief summaries of Christian doctrine are of great use to young beginners. The principles of the oracles of God brought into a little compass in creeds and catechisms have, like the beams of the sun contracted in a burning glass, conveyed divine light and heat with a wonderful power" (Matthew Henry).

The Westminster Confession of Faith Study Book: A Study Guide for Churches by Joseph Pipa is the latest of a series of excellent resources on the Westminster Standards published by Christian Focus Publications (and its imprints Mentor and Christian Heritage). Other material by CFP include classics such as Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith by Robert Shaw and An Exposition of the Shorter Catechism by Alexander Whyte, and the recent multi-volume series The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century edited by J. Ligon Duncan. All of these works are tremendously helpful for anyone wanting to better understand the Westminster Confession and Catechisms and are highly recommended.

However, The Westminster Confession of Faith Study Book is slightly different from the above volumes. It is not your typical theology tome. Dr. Pipa does not trace the history of the assembly nor analyze the finer points of doctrine in the confession. Rather, he provides an in-depth, user-friendly guidebook to the biblical foundations of the WCF. In other words, this book is a tool for discipleship.

The purpose of this study guide is to foster Christian growth within the context of the local church. Pipa writes, "I have written this material to train Christians in the basic doctrines and practices of biblical Christianity. The study is a series of inductive Bible studies keyed to the Westminster Standards" (7-8).

A Guide to the Guide

The facts

Pipa's book is divided into three sections: 1) the student's workbook, 2) the teacher's guide, and 3) eight appendices.

The student's workbook is comprised of 26 lessons which roughly correspond to a chapter in the WCF (which has 33 chapters). Each lesson provides assigned reading from the Bible and the confession, memory work from Scripture and the Shorter Catechism, and a series of inductive Bible questions relating to a specific topic (e.g. God's Providence and Your Life, Communicating the Gospel, God's View of Work and Property, Life in the Congregation, etc.). According to Pipa, a lesson may take an individual approximately "one and a half to two hours" to complete (8).

The teacher's guide supplies answers to the questions asked in each lesson and suggestions for discipleship. Pipa states, "The teacher/mentor holds the student accountable to complete the lesson and the memory work and helps the student work out plans to deal with the various applicatory elements of the material" (9).

Appendices 1-6 provide the full texts with Scripture proofs of the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Larger Catechism, the Shorter Catechism, and the Three Forms of Unity (the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordt). Though the study is "keyed" to the Westminster Standards, churches from Dutch and Reformed backgrounds can easily adapt this material to accommodate their standards. The final two appendices are a "Personal Information Sheet" which helps an individual identify gifts and abilities that may be useful in a local church context and a "Bible and Sermon Record Keeper" for taking notes. Appendices 8 and 9 will soon be available to download for free in PDF format at www.christianfocus.com.

The strengths

The immediate strengths of Pipa's book are its usability and accessibility. This book can be utilized in various settings: personal study, one-on-one discipleship, small group discussions, family worship, Sunday school, campus ministry, elder and deacon training, etc. The author even suggests that this material could be used for curriculum in home-schooling or in a Christian school (8).

Pipa makes each study relevant, understandable, and practical. He subtly diffuses the myth that the confession is dry and lifeless by constantly emphasizing its usefulness for daily Christian life. For example, Lesson 2 entitled "The Study of God's Word" (15-20, 126-135) concisely outlines four basic principles for interpreting the Bible: identify the context, identify the type of literature, look at cross references, and the analogy of faith. The chapter ends with a test case on Matthew 6: 9-15 and suggestions for listening to sermons. Likewise, Lesson 19 on "Marriage and Family" (83-86, 239-245) raises important biblical questions about the complimentary roles of a husband and wife that could serve as an excellent resource for newlyweds or for pastors engaged in marriage counseling. Both of these lessons are taken straight from the confession and applied to everyday Christian experiences. From the doctrine of the Trinity and covenant theology to sharing your faith and raising your children, this book is a study of how Christians are to glorify and enjoy God in all of life.

Most importantly, the strongest feature of this book is that the studies are biblically based. Pipa effectively uses the Westminster Standards as a lens for studying the Bible. Throughout each lesson, he shows that the confession and catechisms are not objects of theological speculation but tools for Scriptural reflection and application. In other words, the documents of Westminster become devotional aids for reading, studying, discussing, and living the word of God.

The weaknesses

Overall, Pipa's book is an excellent resource for discipleship and a trustworthy guide to the WCF. The following observations are intended for your consideration and are not meant to detract from the strengths of this book.

The lessons seem long. For some people, 2-4 hours per study may be a little much (i.e. 1-2 hours for preparation + 1-2 hours in a discipleship relationship). However, a teacher can reduce the length of the study by assigning certain questions from each lesson.

The choice of dividing the material into 26 lessons appears somewhat arbitrary. Why not provide at least one lesson on each chapter of the confession? If the goal was to develop a short discipleship course, why not write six lessons or ten or twelve? By providing a lesson on each chapter of the confession, the division of the lessons could then be left to the teacher and student(s). But with this structure, the lessons seem to be arranged by what Pipa deemed most important. For example, the decision to conflate the chapters on adoption and assurance in the confession into one lesson (Lesson 14: Adoption and Assurance, 62-65, 207-213) is unfortunate. The wealth of pastoral insight of these chapters in the confession deserves fuller attention. Nevertheless, the 26 lessons in this study guide provide more than enough material for rich, substantive discipleship.

Pipa's user-friendly format is sometimes confusing and even condescending. For example, in reflecting on Martin Luther's famous statement that justification is "the doctrine by which the church stands or falls," Pipa ambiguously states, "Luther called this truth the doctrine of a standing or falling church" (58, 201). Is justification the doctrine of a standing/falling church or the doctrine by which the church stands/falls? Pipa does clarify his definition, "justification deals with man's sin problem - it cancels the debt of sin, declares us not guilty and enables God to accept us as righteous" (59, 202). But why create a hint of confusion by summarizing an all-to-clear quote? Why make the reference and not supply the citation? Likewise, in the same chapter, Pipa raises an important question from 2 Corinthians 5:21, "What is the two-fold imputation described here?" But then he parenthetically adds, "(You might need to look up imputation in a dictionary.)" (59, 203). While the pastoral concern behind the comment is admirable, the suggestion for someone to look up a potentially unfamiliar word may come across as somewhat patronizing. However, these examples are the exceptions and not the norm.

Occasional minor typographical errors were found (9, 30, 37, 86, 137, 150, 177, 183). In addition, an appendix with (or at least a reference to) the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith may have been appropriate for those who are non-Presbyterian but Reformed. Nevertheless, with the exception of Lessons 22 and 24 on the church and baptism, this material could easily be used in a Baptist or Congregational church with little alteration.

The Verdict

Joseph Pipa's The Westminster Confession of Faith Study Book is a practical, confessional, and devotional tool for studying the Bible. His book helps fill the regrettable void of theologically sound yet easily accessible discipleship literature. Dr. Pipa is to be commended for providing local churches, especially within the Reformed and Presbyterian community, with a non-threatening, straightforward study aid to the WCF. His subtitle to the book is fitting: it is a "study guide for churches."

 

Joseph A. Pipa - Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2005
Review by John Tweeddale 


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