Robert Letham vs. T. F. Torrance
October 26, 2010
I’m reading Letham’s The Westminster Assembly. As other reviewers have noted, the book is full of great information, including two excellent excursuses: on the imputation of Adam’s guilt and on the covenant of works. In both areas, Letham details how the Reformed tradition developed these two lines in protology, but neither are necessary for the Reformed faith (that’s my conclusion; Letham mostly sticks to the history). Neither were found — at least, not explicitly — in the earliest Reformed churchmen, and, even when both gained prominence in the 17th century, Reformed churchmen in good standing can be found in the opposition. On such matters, Letham criticizes some of the Princetonians for anachronistic readings of the Westminster Assembly: projecting backwards certain “conclusions” which were then still in development and still heavily disputed. On this, I commend Letham for his careful historical reconstruction and appropriate amount of nuance concerning the precise language being used.
However, when it comes to Letham’s criticism of Thomas F. Torrance, I’m not nearly as impressed, to say the least. Letham is not happy with Torrance’s judgment, in Scottish Theology and elsewhere, that the Westminster divines neglected the theme of “union with Christ,” as found in Calvin and the early Scottish reformers. Letham’s argument — and only argument — against this criticism is that, while the Confession indeed lacks any statement on union with Christ, the Larger Catechism (questions 65-90) gives ample attention to this theme, thus “destroying” Torrance’s thesis. The number of times that Letham repeats himself, on this point, is a bit excessive:
[Torrance] argues that the Confession did not follow the lead of Calvin and the 1560 Scots Confession in holding justification and union with Christ inseparably together. But while this may be true, Torrance ignores the Larger Catechism, where this connection is clear. This also evaporates his contention that the Confession’s ordo salutis is medieval, with a series of steps leading to union with Christ, a reversal of Calvin’s teaching on union with Christ as the source of his benefits. The Confession, he insists, does not demonstrate the spiritual freshness and freedom of the Scots Confession. The earlier evangelical Calvinism was here replaced by a more legalistic variety of theology. …Torrance gives little attention to the historical context…. He does not pay attention to the whole theological output of the Assembly, but is fixated on the Confession. [pp. 106-7]
T. F. Torrance castigates the Assembly for what he considers to be a medieval conception of the ordo salutis, with various stages of grace leading to union with Christ. Superficially, it mights seem so, since there is no chapter on union with Christ in the Confession, nor is union with Christ significant in the discussion of the elements of salvation. However, Torrance’s thesis is shattered by Larger Catechism 65-90, where all of God’s grace is said to be found in union and communion with Christ. The two documents need to be taken together, for their lines of approach are different but complementary. [pp. 242-3]
T. F. Torrance accuses the Assembly of departing from Calvin’s teaching and that of the Scottish Reformation, in which justification is held inseparably with union with Christ. But he fails to consider LC 65-90. It is astonishing that such a careful and meticulous scholar should be so neglected on a matter that is so close to home. [p. 269]
When we turn to the Larger Catechism, we see a different, but entirely congruous, picture. Whereas in the Confession justification is the first of the blessings of salvation, followed by adoption, sanctification, perseverance, and assurance, the Catechism treats them all as aspects of our union and communion with Christ in grace and glory (65-90). …Union with Christ is no more incompatible with forensic justification than justification is incompatible with sanctification. This undermines Torrance’s caricature of Westminster as conveying a harsh legal view of God and salvation, which, we argued, requires him to ignore the Larger Catechism. [pp. 273, 275]
So, what are we to make of this? First, it should be noted that Letham concedes Torrance’s assessment of the Confession, insofar as it lacks union with Christ, but Letham doesn’t think that this is important since the Larger Catechism bears this out. Am I the only one who thinks this is strange? The Confession is surely the more important of the two documents, and, regardless, a major inadequacy in the one cannot be “made up for” in the other. At best, we have to say that the Confession fails where the LC succeeds. Thus, Torrance’s point remains: the Confession is an inadequate and misleading statement of the Reformed faith, given its priorities for decretal and federal categories instead of union as a pervasive hermeneutic. As for the LC, while union is indeed present, it does not really obviate the concerns of Torrance (and others) that union has not been thoroughly worked through all the contingencies of the Reformed faith, especially the union through Christ’s homoousion, which Letham entirely ignores.
Letham is correct that union is present in the LC, and, yes, I will agree that Torrance should have recognized this fact (though his criticism of the Confession remains). Question 65 states, “The members of the invisible church by Christ enjoy union and communion with him in grace and glory,” and question 66 states, “The union which the elect have with Christ is the work of God’s grace, whereby they are spiritually and mystically, yet really and inseparably, joined to Christ as their head and husband, which is done in their effectual calling.” And, importantly, question 69 states, “The communion in grace which the members of the invisible church have with Christ is their partaking of the virtue of his mediation, in their justification, adoption, sanctification, and whatever else, in this life, manifests their union with him.” Likewise, questions 82 and 83 come back to the theme of union/communion with Christ. Thus, Letham can say that the intervening questions on justification and sanctification are framed by union with Christ. However, the LC lacks any extensive treatment of the decrees/election, as found in the Confession (probably because the LC is a catechism, with a pastoral focus, and the Confession of Faith is a confession, with a doctrinal focus). This is a crucial point, because this is precisely where Torrance’s criticisms, related to union and causation, are aimed. Perhaps Torrance ignored the LC because it had no bearing on his concerns about the doctrine of election. Letham fails to recognize this point.
I would still recommend Letham’s The Westminster Assembly, but it is unnecessarily marred by (1) Letham’s failure to really deal with Torrance’s concerns about a doctrine of union with Christ that extends from Christ’s homoousion and (2) by his failure to recognize the limitations of the Larger Catechism in regard to Torrance’s critique of the Assembly’s doctrine of election. This shallow handling of Torrance is a real shame, since Letham has already demonstrated his ability to capably handle Torrance (and Barth) in his book on the Trinity.