Book Review: Anthony Burgess on the Law in Reformed Scholasticism
July 20, 2017
Stephen J. Casselli, Divine Rule Maintained: Anthony Burgess, Covenant Theology, and the Place of the Law in Reformed Scholasticism (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2016). 188pages. [Book/ebook]
The function God’s law in Scripture has always raised difficult theological questions. With the advent of modern exegesis and theological methods, the proposed options for understanding divine law have only multiplied. In this climate, historical theology often challenges contemporary assumptions and pushes us beyond the bounds of current proposals. Stephen Casselli’s work on Anthony Burgess does all of these things and more. Since Burgess was a prominent member of the Westminster Assembly, this book helps explain the teaching of the Westminster Standards on God’s law, bringing a vital strand of the Reformed tradition into contemporary debates.
Casselli’s book is a useful introduction to Westminster’s teaching on God’s law. In six concise chapters, he introduces his topic, sets Burgess in his historical context, and then treats in order creation and law, the law in the Mosaic covenant, and the law/gospel distinction, followed by a conclusion. His findings include ideas such as the law as an expression of God’s nature, natural law and moral law, the threefold division of God’s law, the threefold use of God's law, the Mosaic covenant as a covenant of grace, and the law and the gospel as expressing primarily the relationship between the Old Testament and the New. He delves deeply and broadly into British Reformed theology, introducing English readers to a wide array of important resources. Though Casselli writes historical theology, he does so with his finger on the pulse of today’s church by singling out law and creation (including the nature of natural law), law and covenant, and law and gospel (139-143). One of the most useful features of his analysis is his observation that Burgess distinguished between the law as a reflection of God’s character and the law as a covenant (61). This distinction undoubtedly undergirds chapter 19 in the Westminster Confession of Faith (“on the law of God”). The tendency in much modern theology to ignore or to deny this distinction renders this chapter in the Confession virtually unintelligible.
Though Divine Rule Maintained is well written and useful, some points require greater clarity. For example, Casselli treated natural law as virtually synonymous with moral law. Yet James Bruce shows helpfully in his recent work on Francis Turretin that natural law referred to natural relationships between God and people and between people and one another as created by God. The content of moral law was identical with natural law, but the relationship between them is that of underlying principle and its outward expression. A related issue is how Casselli classifies Reformed uses of law. Though he notes most of the vital components of Reformed teaching, such as the threefold division of law (moral, ceremonial, and judicial), the threefold use of the law, the law as a covenant of works, the law as the Old Testament, and the law as distinct from the gospel, he does not always distinguish these categories clearly. The most prominent example of this is his chapter on the law and the gospel, in which he states without explanation that Burgess treated the law as the Old Testament and the gospel as the New. While hinting at the fact that Lutherans dichotomized law and gospel regarding justification and showing that Reformed authors agreed with them over this point, he does not illustrate adequately how and why Reformed authors modified the law/gospel distinction. This reviewer has written elsewhere that Reformed authors treated the law as reflecting God’s character, which led to natural law as reflecting God’s relation to his creatures, which then led to moral law as its outward expression. This moral law was the bedrock of the three divisions and three uses of law. The gospel created these uses and divisions of the law. This raises the related issue that in Reformed theology, law as opposed to gospel referred to various things. It could refer to the covenant of works as opposed to the covenant of grace. It could refer to the Old Testament versus the New Testament. Or, it could refer to the Mosaic covenant versus the new covenant. The complexity of treating the law in Reformed theology reflected the diversity of the uses of law in Scripture. What Casselli highlights rightly is the close relationship between the law and covenant theology. However, his study raises a number of unanswered questions regarding the above Reformed uses of law. This may result from the virtual absence of Latin Reformed dogmatic works, without which readers lose some of the precise distinctions within Reformed orthodoxy as well as its international character.
Casselli’s book on Anthony Burgess on the nature and function of divine law cannot solve today’s theological difficulties. Scripture alone can serve this purpose. However, his work shows us that contemporary voices on the subject are not the only ones worth hearing. The church needs books like this one in order to help her read the Bible better by lifting her gaze from her current outlook to the horizon of church history. Though the church is not infallible, yet since Christ continues to direct her “by the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture” (WCF 1.10), we do well to hear what she has had to say.