TF Torrance on 'Westminster Theology'

Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996), 128-130.
The overall framework in which this Westminster Theology was expressed derived from seventeenth-century federal theology formulated in sharp contrast to the highly rationalised conception of a sacramental universe in Roman theology, but combined with a similar way of thinking in terms of primary and secondary causes. Moreover, it operated with a medieval conception of the order salutis (reached through various stages of grace leading to union with Christ), which reversed the teaching of Calvin that it is through union with Christ first that we participate in all his benefits. Tied up with the federal theology this gave the Westminster Confession and Catechisms a very legalistic and constitutional character in which theological statements were formalised at times with 'almost frigidly logical definition'.

In line with an increasing tendency in seventeenth-century biblicism the Westminster Confession devotes a long opening chapter to the Holy Scripture which, given by the inspiration of God, is very rightly stated to be 'the rule of faith and life'. Because the Holy Scripture derives from divine revelation, its authority depends wholly upon God who is truth himself, and is thus to be received as the Word of God and understood through the inward witness and illumination of the Holy Spirit...The infallible rule of interpretation is the Scripture itself, and the supreme Judge by which all controversies are to be determined can be no other than the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture. This marks out very sharply the difference between the Reformed Church and the Roman Church, but the biblical support for its teaching is rather formal, and inadequate and sometimes rather misleading, for passages and texts are adduced to support notions held on other grounds. The handling of the Scriptures is governed by a kind of biblical nominalism, for biblical sentences tend to be adduced out of their context and to be interpreted arbitrarily and singly in detachment from their spiritual ground and theological intention and content. Moreover, by giving the Holy Scripture thus handled priority of place over the fundamental doctrines of the Gospel, Westminster theology treats biblical statements as definitive propositions from which deductions are to be made, so that in their expression doctrines thus logically derived are given a categorical or canonical character. They are not treated, as in the Scots Confession, as having an open-structured character, pointing away from themselves to divine truth which by its nature cannot be contained in finite forms of speech and through, although it may be mediated through them...

The Westminster way of beginning the confession with a chapter on the Holy Scripture prior to and apart from the evangelical substance of the Faith tended to separate form from content...


Interesting. This surprises me, coming from Torrance. I wouldn't have expected him to take exception to anything in the Confessions :)
Anonymous said…

this is a great quote from Torrance. Proof-texting is always dangerous. But isn't this just the Westminsters continuation of the long-held scholastic methodology so entrenched within the walls of the Basiclica as well as Dordt? The Federalist's concepts of divine pactum, bipleuric contracts, etc, just an reification of Romish theology. Even with a different bibliology, aren't the Westminster divines ironically re-engaging a soteriological framework that emphasizes external works righteousness (i.e. practical syllogism) contra the intentions of the "magesterial Reformers" (Calvin, Luther, et al).

In the end it seems to me that the Westminsters provide a spirituality that is freakishly close to the one provided by Roman Catholicism.

I wonder how Calvinists of today overcome their Federalist heritage?

Torrance is self-consciously a Scottish theologian, and as he recounts elsewhere in the volume from which this quote was taken, Scots had no direct involvement in framing the Westminster. I imagine that helps him to feel a little distance: I don't think I've seen him criticize the 'Scot's Confession' for instance.

However, it is also true that the Reformed don't think of confessions in the same way that other confessional denominations do. They are seen as a radically contextual witness to the gospel as proclaimed in Scripture, as Torrance elaborates in this quote. That provides a bit of critical distance.


Your conclusion about the Westminster spirituality is part of Torrance's point, of course. It is, however, rather striking.

Who says that today's Reformed churches in the English speaking world have overcome this heritage? Have you ever heard of Federal Vision theology?
Anonymous said…
I know I was kind of being redundant with my comment.

Yes I have heard of the "Federal Vision" . . . and I'm certaintly not saying the Reformed have overcome this heritage, in fact it is embraced, apparently, and often times uncritically engaged by the laity (and her pastors: i.e. John Piper, et al).

You label yourself as "Reformed", Travis, how have you distinguished yourself from Federalism? Or have you? Do you think Barth "overcame" Federalism, while remaining distinctively "Reformed" (viz. in line with the proto-Reformers intentions)?

Come clean, now . . . I seriously want to know YOUR via relative to being Reformed. None of this academicitis syndrome either ;~).

You make difficult demands, especially for one whose academitis is as severe as my own.

I consider myself to be Reformed because I value the theological instincts and emphases that are found in that tradition, and I have studies some of its primary lights with care. However, I did not grow up in a Reformed church of any kind. This means that I escaped being sociolized into the current state of the tradition. So, my version of Reformed theology looks much more like Torrance's more 'open-structured' conceptions. I hope that this enables me to avoid the pitfalls.

With reference to Barth, his situation was somewhat similar. He was never sociolized into the Reformed tradition in the overly federalized form that it has taken in the English-speaking world. Instead, his journy to becoming a Reformed theologian began in many ways with Calvin, passed through the older confessions (Westminster was not part of his heritage) and the scholastics - all of which he critically engaged.

All that is to say that Barth did not need to 'overcome' Federalism simply because it was not a given in his context. The same goes for me.
Anonymous said…
Thank you Travis. I do suffer from academitis on issues as well. I have a hard time claiming a particular "tradition" as my own. I would say that I am gravitating towards more of a "Reformed perspective" a la Calvin and Luther(contra the Federalist vision)--and I find Barth helpful (I need to read more of him). Like you I didn't grow up in the Reformed tradition (I'm a Conservative Baptist Pastor's kid after all) . . . but I find much of it appealing.

Anyway thanks for sharing your thoughts here, Travis.

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