The Confession of Faith: A Critical Text and Introduction
John R. Bower, The Confession of Faith: A Critical Text and Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2020). Cloth. $40.00. 415pp.
Recent years have witnessed a bumper crop of historical resources to study the Westminster Standards. The most recent contribution comes from John R. Bower, adjunct professor of church history at Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Bower has written The Confession of Faith: A Critical Text and Introduction. This is a companion to his earlier publication, The Larger Catechism: A Critical Text and Introduction (Reformation Heritage Books, 2010), which is part of a larger series, the Principal Documents of the Westminster Assembly, published by Reformation Heritage Books. Bower’s work is a welcome contribution for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, Bower has produced a critical edition of the text of the Westminster Confession, collating the various editions and manuscripts so that students of the Standards can see what minor changes and alterations exist in the various copies of the Confession. Most readers of the Confession likely encounter the document in the back of the Trinity Hymnal, for example, or perhaps the edition published by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church or Presbyterian Church in America but have little to no knowledge of the various manuscript and published editions. This critical edition of the Confession will likely be of great interest to specialists and church historians.
Second, in my judgment, the best feature of Bower’s book is the introduction to the Confession. Most introductions spend a few pages explaining the origins and aims of a book, but Bower’s introduction is much more expansive. He spends 195 pages explaining how the Confession came into existence, describing the process of how the divines wrote each major section, the debates that embroiled them, and how they determined the final wording of key sections. What commends his introduction is that it provides an index to the assembly’s strategic debates. For those who do not possess the resources or time to mine the costly Oxford edition of the Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly (about $1,200), or read the analysis presented in Robert Letham’s The Westminster Assembly (P & R, 2009), Bower’s survey is the perfect remedy. For students, for example, who want to find the specific portion of the assembly’s minutes where they debated various doctrines, Bower’s introduction is the ideal road map.
Third, Bower’s introduction rightly contextualizes the assembly within the broader framework of early modern Reformed theology. The divines were not a theological island but wanted to connect with the larger Reformed world. Bower demonstrates the Reformed catholicity of the Confession by drawing the connections to other confessions of faith, such as the Irish Articles (1615) and the Second Helvetic Confession (1566). He also shows how the divines referenced the Harmony of Reformed Confessions, which gave them access to both continental Reformed documents and Lutheran confessions of faith. The use of these confessions was part of the assembly’s ethos, which appears in the Solemn League and Covenant (1643). The Solemn League and Covenant called upon the churches of England, Scotland, and Ireland to reform their churches “according to the Word of God, and the Example of the best Reformed Churches.” In other words, students of the Confession cannot rightly understand it apart from its historical theological context.
Fourth, Bower has a number of useful appendices in this book, including a select bibliography of primary and secondary sources, a comparative table that shows the parallels between the Confession and the Irish Articles, a Scripture index that indicates where the confession cites various biblical texts, and a glossary of archaic English terms. The glossary is a most welcome appendix, as it undoubtedly assists readers in understanding terms that are no longer in common usage or have had a shift in meaning. While the divines wrote the Confession in English, there is some sense in which seventeenth-century English is a different language than twenty-first century English.
Bower has produced an excellent resource that readers of every level, layman to scholar, can use to great benefit. If Bower has produced critical texts on the Larger Catechism and Confession, one can only hope that he will complete the trilogy by producing a critical edition and introduction to the Shorter Catechism.
Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson