Scripture and Worship: Biblical Interpretation and the Directory of Public Worship

The dust that can be seen swirling in the distance is the aftereffects of Richard A. Muller's scholarly avalanche. He has marshaled mountains of historical evidence to bury the various twentieth century agenda-driven "Calvin against the Calvinist" schemes devised to drive a wedge between the great Reformer and the period known as "orthodoxy" or "Protestant scholasticism" (roughly 1560-1725). Sometimes motivated by ecclesiastical considerations (e.g. Jack B. Rodgers and Donald K. McKim), or by neo-orthodox biases (e.g. J.B. and T.F. Torrance), or by evangelical distaste for the logic of the Reformed system (e.g. R.T. Kendall and R.J. Gore, the latter cited in Ward's article), each is buried, along with a host of unnamed others, exposed as ignorant of the sources, particularly of the tradition of exegesis and theology behind the work of the Westminster Divines (the main concern in his essay).

Scripture and Worship is the first of a promised series of studies to be published by Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia's Craig Center for the Study of the Westminster Standards. The series will be published under the title of "The Westminster Assembly & the Reformed Faith." Carl R. Trueman, Chairman of the Craig Committee, will serve as editor.

The aim of the series, as explained by Trueman, is to promote the study of the Westminster Standards in light of the "scholarly revolution" that has taken place in the last twenty years concerning "the nature and development of Reformed theology in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries" (vii). Yet the motive that drives the production of this series is not merely antiquarian. "Our desire," says Trueman, "is that this approach will free the past from the shackles and constraints of the agendas of the immediate present and thus allow voices from history to speak meaningfully to the world of today" (vii).

The problem which Trueman hopes to correct is the silencing of the Reformed tradition generally and the Westminster Confession of Faith specifically by those who wish to remain Reformed, or even Confessional, without having to affirm the distinctive details which violate their preferences (e.g. double-predestination, regulative principle of worship, Sabbatarianism, etc.). Typically these modern dissenters have sought to embrace Calvin or the continental theologians while accusing the British Protestant scholastics who wrote the Westminster Standards (in Trueman's words) "of shallow proof-texting, of the over-systematizing of doctrine, of logic-chopping, and of plain theological ignorance" (ix). Once characterized in this way, the Standards may be dismissed as norms for the faith and practice of the church today while still claiming Calvin's mantle.

This approach, in its various forms, is buried by Muller in his essay "Scripture and the Westminster Confession," which is Part I of Scripture and Worship. He brings to light the forgotten and virtually unstudied English Annotations, that is, the 2400 folio-sized pages of exegetical and interpretive comments commissioned by the same Parliament that commissioned the Westminster Standards. First published in 1645 and reaching final form in 1657, the Annotations were written by men who were among the top biblical scholars of the day (e.g. William Gouge, Edward Reynolds, Thomas Gattaker), men with international reputations, men in constant dialogue with the sixteenth century Reformers and with then current continental Reformed theologians, and several of whom were also members of the Westminster Assembly. They wrote the Annotations, as Muller puts it, out of "the already sizable and significant Reformed exegetical tradition" (19). Moreover the Annotations provide "a highly proximate index to the understanding of Scripture behind the doctrinal definitions and the biblical proofs found in the confessions and catechisms" (5).

Muller commends the older scholarship of Warfield, Schaff, and McNeill, all of whom grasped the continuity between Calvin and seventeenth century Reformed orthodoxy. But he scorns those more modern theologians such as Rogers and the Torrances who have argued what Muller labels the "discredited" outlines of the "Calvin against the Calvinists" school. He dismisses their respective work as "misreadings" of the Westminster Standards, as "ahistorical," as "resting as a lording-over of the documents with heavy theological biases" and as "quite unsupportable" (37,38). He considers T.F. Torrance's work on Scottish Theology "so tendentious and anachronistic in its theological judgments as to be without value as a historical study" (9, n.6). He finds Rogers and McKim, in their pretentious survey of church history (in Authority & Interpretation of the Bible) simply "misreading" seventeenth century intellectual history in such a way as "betrays an unwittingly anachronistic set of assumptions" (41, n.38; 43). This work, he says, must be repudiated "as quite unsupported by the sources" (41). Similarly, R.T. Kendall's finding in Calvin's comments on John 17:9 an implied universal atonement is a "rather odd," even a "rather silly argument" (66). Muller has demonstrated conclusively, even, we would argue, irrefutably, a biblical, exegetical, and theological continuity between Calvin and the Westminster Divines. His concluding comments on the Westminster Standard's biblical proofs sum up his findings well:

"the pattern of citing biblical proofs found in the confessional standard was not a form of rank proof-texting, as has sometimes been alleged of the Westminster Standards and of the theological works of the seventeenth-century orthodox in general. Rather, the confession and the catechisms cite texts by way of referencing an exegetical tradition reaching back, in many cases, to the fathers of the church in the first five centuries of Christianity and, quite consistently, reflecting the path of biblical interpretation belonging to the Reformed tradition as it developed in the sixteenth century and in the beginning of the seventeenth" (81).

Rowland S. Ward contributes Part 2 of Scripture and Worship, an essay entitled "The Directory for Public Worship," out of much the same perspective as Muller. Ward argues that it is "inherently improbable" that the Westminster Divines who produced the Directory were ignorant of Calvin's views of worship or those of their Reformed contemporaries on the continent, an idea proposed years ago by Horton Davies (in Worship of the English Puritans), and endorsed even by J.I. Packer in his essay on "The Puritan Approach to Worship" found in A Quest for Godliness. The English Puritans studied Calvin carefully and were in constant dialogue with the continental Reformed theologians (see Muller, pp 9, 38ff, on the same point). The Directory should be seen as a thoughtful compromise between the Independents (e.g. Goodwin, Owen, Burroughs) who wanted no fixed forms, and the majority who wanted guidelines and helps for ministers, as well as a measure of uniformity in the church's worship, but who also rejected the rigidity of the Prayer Book.

Ward notes the distinction between elements, form, circumstances, and rubrics, adding documentation to T. David Gordon's discussion in the Westminster Theological Journal in the 1990's, and more recently in response to R.J. Gore's Covenantal Worship (2002) in 2003. Ward concludes, "There does not appear to be any substantial difference between Calvin and the seventeenth-century English Puritans, if one excepts the more radical Independents" (104).

Ward concludes his section of Scripture & Worship with an extended survey of each of the elements of worship as described in the Directory. He reviews prayer (noting that fully 25% of the Directory is devoted to the content of public prayer!), reading of Scripture, preaching, singing, and the administration of the sacraments. It is surprising, though Ward does not comment on it, that whereas the Confession includes "religious oaths" as a regular element of worship, the Directory does not (WCF, XXI.5, XXII.1).

Years ago Hughes Old said of those who were claiming the "continental" view of the Sabbath over against that of the Confession, that they must mean the "continental Catholic" view, allowing no disjunction between the Reformed in Britain and those in Europe proper. For those who have been wearied by the countless agenda-driven attempts to drive a wedge between Calvin and the Puritans, or pit "continental" views against Westminster's, this is a massive and long-overdue rebuttal. Muller's contribution is the more original and substantial (behind this essay stands his encyclopedic 4-volume project, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics), but Ward also makes a valuable contribution. I highly recommend this book.

Richard A. Mueller and Rowland S. Ward / Phillipsburg: P&R, 2007  
Review by Terry Johnson, Senior Minister, Independent Presbyterian Church, Savannah, GA