Danny E. Olinger
For decades, Reformed Christians have benefited from G. I. Williamson’s The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes. The publication of Chad Van Dixhoorn’s Confessing the Faith: A Reader’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith adds an excellent resource to complement Williamson’s volume in the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF).
Both books seek to help others understand the system of doctrine set forth in the Scriptures. A difference exists in the manner of presentation. Williamson’s approach is primarily systematic. Evidence of this can be seen in how he reorders the chapters of the Confession in order to explain conversion in its logical relationship to effectual calling. After he comments on WCF chapter 10, “Of Effectual Calling,” he proceeds to discuss WCF 14 and 15, “Of Saving Faith” and “Of Repentance unto Life,” before discussing WCF 11, “Of Justification.”
Van Dixhoorn’s approach is exegetical, systematic, and historical. He interacts with the key scriptural proof texts that the Westminster Divines provided for support of particular doctrinal positions. He then moves to the systematic truth presented, and often includes a historical note about why a position was taken or why a statement was made. At times, Confessing the Faith resembles catechetical preaching in the Continental tradition, and even includes imperatives at the end of sections.
Van Dixhoorn’s great skill is his ability to explain from Scripture the teaching of the Confession in a way that does not leave the reader at a distance. The Confession declares what the Bible teaches, but Van Dixhoorn maintains that once it is believed there is a personal element to it. Consequently, he writes from the perspective of faith, using the first person plural “we” and communicating with warmth. This combination of precise explanation and warmth lends itself to using the volume for a communicants’ or new members’ class to explain the Reformed faith. Van Dixhoorn himself expresses the hope that his work will help church members, including younger people, to see the lasting value of classical Christian theology.
There is also a model of economy in Van Dixhoorn’s writing style. What stands out, chapter after chapter, is his ability to summarize the teaching of the individual paragraphs within chapters of the Confession in a single sentence. In fact, so helpful are the summary sentences that mark transitions that one almost wishes for a revised edition of the volume from the publisher with an appendix where the summary sentences could appear in one place as a quick reference tool.
While each section is done well, this reviewer found the section on “The Church” (WCF chapters 25–31) to be particularly noteworthy. For example, in discussing WCF 25, “Of the Church,” Van Dixhoorn explains that because Jesus Christ is the sole head of the church, pastors minister in his name, elders rule under his oversight, and deacons serve under his care. The membership of the church includes both those who profess the true religion and their children. Van Dixhoorn explains why the Confession teaches that outside of the church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation:
A repentant thief on a cross, a Muslim convert to Christianity who has not yet discovered other believers, or a man stranded on a desert island with only a Bible, each has plausible reasons for not being a part of the church. But people who claim to be believers and refuse to join the church in the face of clear biblical instruction and providential opportunities to do so, should deeply worry us. They are like people who say that they are in love but refuse to get married. Usually they want the privileges of the relationship without the accompanying responsibilities. (p. 341)
The New Testament pattern is that when people were joined to Christ, they were joined to his church. They devoted themselves to the faithful teaching of the Word of God, fellowship, breaking bread, prayer, serving others in need, and praising God, and “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).
In transitioning to WCF chapter 26, “Of the Communion of the Saints,” Van Dixhoorn notes that the focus shifts from the topic of the headship of Christ with his church to the union that Christ has with individual believers. It is our union with Christ that informs our communion with each other. In summarizing the chapter, he writes,
The first paragraph states how we are united to Christ, in what way we fellowship with him, and how we are to find communion with the saints. The second paragraph explains how we are told to hold communion with one another in and out of the boundaries of corporate worship. The final paragraph clarifies the limits of union and communion with Christ and his people. (p. 349)
The remaining chapters in this section exhibit the same gift of explaining what is unique to the chapter while relating it to the doctrine of the church as a whole. The ability to do this reflects a mastery of the system of doctrine that is taught.
Van Dixhoorn also gives special attention to the confessional revisions to the original text of 1650 that the Presbyterian Church in the USA adopted in 1788, and the version of the text that the Orthodox Presbyterian Church adopted in 1936. The changes that the OPC has adopted in WCF chapters 20, 22, 23, 24, 25, and 31 are set apart from the original text of the Confession in a centered parallel column. Van Dixhoorn then supplies a helpful historical commentary on why each change was made. Most extensive is his explanation of the changes in chapter 31, “Of Synods and Councils.” He lists seven reasons why the PCUSA in 1788 and the OPC in 1936, as American churches not living under British rule and the civil magistrate, adopted the changes.
Confessing the Faith is user-friendly, with a thirty-page Scripture index that lists over 1,500 texts, and a general index of the main topics. Because it presents the doctrine that the Orthodox Presbyterian Church confesses in such a clear and concise manner, it should be used widely in the church. Please consider it for young adult and adult Sunday school classes, inquirers’ classes, and book study groups.
Chad B. Van Dixhoorn, an OP minister, teaches at Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C., and also at the Ministerial Training Institute of the OPC. Confessing the Faith (Banner of Truth, 2014), a 512-page hardback, has a list price of $30.00.