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.

21 Responses to “Robert Letham vs. T. F. Torrance”

  1. Bobby Grow said

    Thanks for this helpful summary, Kevin! This book is next on my reading list, I can’t wait to get into it.

    I was starting to worry for a second, that you might be questioning his majesty😉 . Not having read Letham’s book, I think you nail the reality of Torrance’s broader concern of election/union with Christ theology; as the priority that shapes any and all soteriological outcomes. That grace or ‘person’ must precede works (i.e. that the person of Christ precedes His works in the economy — i.e. anhypostasis and the homoussial link that you rightly point to).

    Thanks again, Kevin, this was a really helpful summary (I almost feel like I don’t need to read Letham’s book now😉 ).

  2. Kevin Davis said

    The sad thing is, I doubt that any confessional readers of Letham’s book will think twice about his criticism of Torrance. Without having read Torrance first, the reader would not recognize Letham’s complete avoidance of the real thrust (yes, the homoousion) behind Torrance’s dogmatic epistemology. More than that, I am rather stunned that Letham didn’t at least acknowledge the vast difference in the Confession, as a doctrinal-ecclesial statement, and the Larger Catechism, as a pastoral-pedagogical statement.

  3. Bobby Grow said

    This is a curious over-sight on Letham’s part, Kevin. I’m just finishing up Trueman’s and Clark’s “Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment” and Donald Sinnema in chptr six outlines the “orthodox” distinction of scholastic and popular by way of method. The scholastic (while Muller would argue that the WCF is not technically scholastic, but situationally) certainly, by way of definition and purpose (relative to its method) would be the locus and dogmatic ground upon which anything “popular” (like the LC) finds its proper orientation. According to even the Reformed orthodox’s own distinctions, Letham has really made a serious boo-boo🙂 .

  4. Aside from the Torrance-Letham thing, in itself it is interesting, Kevin, what you say about the difference between the WC and the LC. I wonder if the Westminster divines saw it that way? For Lutherans, Luther’s SC and LC are confessional documents. The WLC is even more doctrinally explicit than either of ours, so I’m wondering if they didn’t also see it as confessional as well as pedagogical? Did they make that distinction? Just a thought.

    • Kevin Davis said

      I would say that there’s a slight, but important, distinction between a “confession” and being “confessional.” The LC is confessional, but not a confession. It is not characterized as a public document, presenting the church’s doctrine to the world and, especially, to other churches. That’s a confession. Instead, because it is a pastoral and pedagogical document aimed at the formation of the laity, the LC understandably assumes, but not explicates, the particulars of election and the decrees. The LC is indeed confessing the faith of the church, but it is not aimed at clarifying her particular doctrinal distinctions. Such distinctions are important for a confession, situating itself within the rest of Christendom and serving as a standard by which to judge further dogmatic (and popular) work within the denomination(s).

      • Bobby Grow said

        So my point on “scholastic” and “popular,” it’s a real distinction in this period of time (conscious one).

      • Yeah, I think the evidence — just from reading the documents themselves — is clear: that the Assembly held a distinction between “scholastic” and “popular” or some similar distinction.

      • Bobby Grow said

        Even Muller argues this way in re. to Calvin’s 1539 Institutes; i.e. they were catechetical in nature (not intended to be the ground floor for doctrinal articulation, per se).

      • Bobby Grow said

        I should say 1537 Institutes, not 1539🙂 .

      • What a bunch of sycophants said

        There was no 1537 Institutes.
        This Torrancian drivel is pathetic. Get over Torrance and his second-rate, second-hand neo-neo-orthodoxy. Union with Christ is a modern Centraldogma used to judge the WA according to the standards of a small number of vaguely Barthian Scots who can’t distinguish history from theology. If you want to take on Muller, man up, read some Latin, and publish something besides these whiney, self-congratulating blogs. Pathetic! Moreover, scholastic in this context means academic, with all the positive, negative, and neutral connotations of today’s term. Get a life, neo-Amyraldians.

  5. OK, thanks for that Kevin. I’m not sure Lutherans would make the same distinction, or give it the same weight – for that reason we will use extracts from the Small Catechism in worship (thus, they really are a Confessions!) as well as pedagogy, but also view them as Confessions in the technical, theological sense. Indeed, the SC is the layman’s preeminent Confession. Is the Reformed development an entirely healthy one, I wonder? Just thinking out loud, really. No need to reply further.

  6. PS
    I’ve read both Letham and Torrance with benefit.
    Letham’s books on the Trinity and Eastern Orthodoxy are very good. Torrance on science is fascinating, if a little over my head, but his book on grace in the apostolic fathers is seminal.

  7. Kevin, these documents produced at Westminster are considerd—wholistically—”the Standards,” and catachesis, while certainly foreign to us moderns, was part and parcel of 17th century daily life. In other words, it’s possibly an anachronistic bifurcation to make much of your crit re: the LC vs. the Confession.

    Great job, however, pointing out Letham’s blindspot with respect to Torrance’s overarching concern/critique.

  8. Chris,

    Yeah, I wouldn’t press the distinction too far…hence, “confessional” but not a confession. So, maybe it’s not a “vast difference,” but important differences still. I should have recognized that the LC is part of the subordinate standards and that they function in a public way (though, I think the confession is still primary). Still, there’s a reason why Torrance would give his attention to the Confession of Faith and that reason involves all that we’ve discussed above (being primary, doctrinal-focus, scholastic, and serving as a standard for further dogmatic work). By the way, I don’t have any problem with scholasticism per se, just certain implications yielded by the method in a lot of cases.

  9. Also, the Assembly itself gave far greater attention to the Confession than to the LC, and, whereas the Confession involved several of the participants in long discussions, the LC was written by a handful, with a primary author (forgot his name).

    • Bobby Grow said

      Anthony Tuckney😉 .

      And as Letham notes, there is some variance on significant doctrinal points (like Cov. of Works/Life) between the WCF and LC. I’m almost done with the book myself, it’s quite the piece; esp. in re. to Letham’s ongoing attack (although he does agree, somewhat, with TFT’s critique of the Trinity and its placement in the WCF) of Torrance and Scottish Theology. Letham really fails to grasp the weight of Torrance’s general theological critique.

  10. […] “The Westminster Assembly”, especially focusing in upon his critique of T.F. Torrance here. I found this review helpful, and now find myself desiring to dig more deeply into the period of […]

  11. […] in a while you get a great comment like this one, from my review of Robert Letham’s book on the Westminster […]

  12. xdanielgs said

    What about the chapter 26 of the Confession? Does it not deal with the doctrine of union with Christ?

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