Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Westminster Conference 2006: Some Reflections

This post is written in response to a request from one of my esteemed conventicler for some comment on the Westminster Conference 2006. I must add that I would have written one even if no requests were forthcoming for the following reasons:

1. Of the four papers I heard (out of a total of 6), every one of them can be said to exemplify scholarship of a high level. Written to be publicly delivered rather than privately read, their prosaic style was captivating and facilitated the digestion of content.

2. I know of no other conference that manages to attract such a wide range of participants (scholars, ministers, evangelists, missionaries, etc) from around the world (Britain, America, Singapore, Malaysia, Korea, Philippines, etc.) for such a specialized area of interest: Puritanism. There must have been at least 80 participants in my estimation.

3. The discussions that followed each paper, which lasted about an hour or more, were deeply engaging, centering mostly on the application of material in the papers to ecclesiastical and pastoral issues. The most lively and thought-provoking discussion came after the paper by Stanley Jebb on “The Azusa Street Phenomenon.”

4. On a more parochial interest: John Owen. I’ve been engaged in postgraduate research for slightly more than 3 years now, first on Jonathan Edwards, and now Owen. I must confess that it isn’t often that I have been awe-struck by the crucial importance and relevance of their writings. This is not to say that I’ve not acknowledged their relevance. But I’m speaking of existential moments when this truism hits home and light breaks through from several hitherto veiled quarters. This was my experience listening to the papers of Robert Letham entitled “John Owen’s Doctrine of the Trinity and its Relevance Today”, and Gary Williams’ “The Puritan Doctrine of Atonement.” I offer two lines of inquiry arising from some of my own thoughts on their papers in the following point.

5. (a) The pressing issue of Islam behoves us to come to grips with the doctrine of the Trinity if we are to address it in any way that resembles anything decently Christian. It is unfortunately a doctrine that seems to thrive only in the realm of philosophical theology, gets truncated in Biblical studies, and is often relegated to secondary status in practice in the local church although verbally acknowledged to be of crucial importance of course. It is no wonder that apart from being baptized in the triune Name, most believers do not have the faintest idea of how the doctrine relates to their lives, let alone the issue of Islam. Yet unless we live and move and have our being in the Holy Trinity, the question of Islam will never be addressed adequately and the church will be all the more impoverished in every area of ecclesial life. How does Owen help us? In many ways, Carl Trueman’s book, The Claims of Truth: John Owen’s Trinitarian Theology paves the way theologically. Letham’s conference paper compliments Trueman’s account by delving into greater detail on the catholicity of Owen’s doctrine of the Trinity and raises important questions of relevance, not least the question of Islam. But we will only get into the heart of things if we make our way seriously into Owen’s 1657 treatise, Of Communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Not only does Owen teach us the doctrine of the Trinity there, he is a master guide to its appropriation in the life of the church. That it was first preached as a series of sermons to students at Oxford or more likely to his congregation at Coggeshall is a big clue as to its pastoral value. The shorter and more condensed treatise of 1669, A Brief Declaration and Vindication of the Doctrine of the Trinity, provides further exegetical support for his 1657 treatise, and deserves to be widely read. For those who do make that journey into Owen’s treatises, do observe the following caveat. Should it be found that Owen traverses unfamiliar terrain in his exposition of the Trinity, it really isn’t because he was trying to be novel, but that we are too distant from home ground.

(b) Recent attempts by some evangelicals to call the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement into question could have been curbed more readily if Owen was more widely read. Some of the criticisms leveled against the doctrine were in fact found in a far more sophisticated form along with a plethora of other related criticisms in the works of 17th century Socinians. In fact, recent critics of the penal doctrine would have advanced a more viable case if they had brought in Socinus as an ally. The history of criticism with respect to the penal doctrine is, interestingly, a history of the degeneration of criticism. This ought to encourage us to mine the resources of history for answers to modern resurgence of past censures to evangelical doctrines. How does Owen help to address recent critics? First, familiarity with Owen’s formulation of the penal doctrine would have cautioned critics and proponents alike against the conflation of popular and degenerate forms of the doctrine with carefully constructed formulations like that of Owen’s. Second, familiarity with Owen’s writings against the Socinians and Hugo Grotius, as well as with his intramural debates with fellow Puritans like Richard Baxter, William Twisse, and Samuel Rutherford, on atonement and its related issues, would have more than adequately prepared the evangelical fraternity for the less sophisticated, and certainly less tradition-informed arguments of recent critics. For a primer into these matters, I highly recommend Gary Williams’ paper.

Conference papers are available. Further information can be found on the Westminster Conference website.


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