Book Review

"Truths We Confess: A Layman's Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, Volume 1: The Triune God" by R. C. Sproul

Tim Black
R.C. Sproul
Wednesday, May 2nd 2007
May/Jun 2007

In this first volume of his guide to the Westminster Confession, R.C. Sproul provides an excellent introduction to the Reformed faith by leading us through the Confession, which remains unsurpassed "in eloquence, grandeur, and theological accuracy" (p. viii). He explains the theology of its first eight chapters with a clarity and vigor that is not too academic and is accessible to the educated layman, narrating for us relevant passages of scripture, and drawing on the history of theology, philosophy, and the church to illustrate the biblical truth of the Confession. The topics covered include Scripture, God and the Trinity, God's decree, creation, providence, the fall, God's covenant, and Christ the Mediator. Sproul elucidates the Confession's meaning section-by-section, and often phrase-by-phrase. The two further volumes, yet to be published, will cover the rest of the chapters of the Confession.

If you are committed to the fundamentals of Reformed doctrine but have not studied the Westminster Confession, doing so will open up for you the greater biblical, doctrinal, and practical breadth of the Reformed faith. Other commentaries on the Confession-those by A.A. Hodge, Robert Shaw, and G.I. Williamson-focus more narrowly on the details of the text and its meaning, and with great benefit, but Sproul's unique aim is for you to "come to a deeper understanding of and greater love for the doctrines of grace so ably set forth by the Westminster divines" (viii). More than the Confession's details, he gives you its heart. Sproul leaves the reader with the conviction that if one is a Christian, these are the truths he should confess. As such this book is an introduction to the Confession, but more so, to the Reformed faith.

The most prominent feature in this book is the Triune God himself. You cannot read this book without being faced with the Almighty God. Sproul's reverent exaltation of God in his absolute holiness, aseity, and power in the first third of this book is worth the price of admission. This is no cameo appearance; to the end Sproul maintains his concern that "the doctrine of God…controls all others" and "All doctrines of the faith must be understood in light of the nature and character of God" (149).

Whether intentional or not, even in polemical matters the book does not distract our attention from God. Sproul does not engage current debates in the Reformed community directly, but does so only tangentially. His positions are clear-against Norman Shepherd he affirms that Christ's active obedience merited righteousness for us (260), he advocates "grammatico-historical exegesis" (29) and warns against the "nineteenth-century [and so by implication, theologically liberal]…redemptive-historical school" (33) but freely affirms an idea of "redemptive history" (47), affirms doctrines central to Van Til's apologetics such as God's aseity (40) and incomprehensibility (42), the fallenness of human reason and its inadequacy to prove the truth of scripture (15, 17), the Creator-creature distinction (35, 39, 118), and "think[ing] God's thoughts after him" (144), he no longer considers the Framework creation view tenable and interprets the Confession to require a six 24-hour view (127-128), takes John Murray's view that God established the Covenant of Works by gracious condescension (205, 217), affirms the covenant of grace is the same in substance from Old Covenant to New Covenant (228), and is troubled by a Christian hedonism that would worship God to "fulfill ourselves" rather than "because it's a duty" (66). More broadly, he affirms the doctrine of the Confession in detail, humbly and dutifully noting only one minor exception (134), yet his concern is not for its minor, but its major points-its system of doctrine. Nevertheless Sproul's treatment of these debates remains tangential and his Reformed opponents remain unnamed because his purpose is not to engage in polemics against his Reformed brothers, but rather to convince and edify Christians swayed by antitheistic errors in the modern church, notably deism, materialism, Arminianism, dispensationalism, open theism, and the postmodern opposition to absolute truth. Sproul's irenic attitude toward the Reformed is reminiscent of Calvin's practice of graciously disagreeing with Luther's statements without mentioning Luther's name.

The weaknesses of this volume pale before its strengths. The reader should be aware that though mitigated by his strong affirmations that human reason is fallen, nevertheless Sproul retains the classical apologetic method. He says, "There is nothing irrational about the idea of a self-existent, eternal being who has the power of being within himself. In fact, such a concept is not only logically possible, but (as Thomas Aquinas demonstrated) logically necessary" (40). This trust in logical "demonstration" is incompatible with Sproul's statement that "The fall is so deep, and its impact on the mind is so strong, that the best reasoning one human can offer for the Bible's truth will not convince another, no matter how sound, valid, and compelling it may be" (15). Sproul may also subordinate God to what is speculatively ontologically or "philosophically" possible when he says "the universe has no room for more than one infinite being" (35). Is it God, or the universe, who decides how much room to give? Or worse, is it the "philosophy" of man?

Other weaknesses are of less importance. Sproul fails to describe the currently popular Framework view of creation distinctive to Meredith Kline, yet rejects it on the basis of his evaluation of the earlier and different Framework view of Nicholas Ridderbos. In light of Revelation 17:8, "whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world," I'm surprised Sproul repeats without correction the Confession's translation of Revelation 13:8, "the Lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world," though the point the Confession makes using that passage should stand (267). Sproul also makes two statements on page 57 that are best described as unclear: "The punishment that the most wicked people receive from God is always less than what they ultimately deserve," and speaking of forgiven sinners, "They are still guilty."

Despite these limited concerns, Truths We Confess remains full to the brim with just that-biblical truth worthy to be professed by every believer. Sproul will lead you to understand and love the breadth of Reformed doctrine by grounding you more firmly in the doctrines of grace. May this volume bring many to exalt God more highly throughout the whole scope of their doctrine and life.

Wednesday, May 2nd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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