Reformed Baptist Fellowship

Sound Doctrine for Reformed Baptists

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on April 7, 2009 at 9:07 pm

The Pattern of Sound Doctrine: Systematic Theology at the Westminster Seminaries: Essays in Honor of Robert B. Strimple, David VanDrunen, ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2004).

This is a book that Reformed Baptists need to read. It addresses a series of issues relevant to our own struggles and identity over the last fifty years, through the lens of the lives and ideas of men universally esteemed in our churches. We are deeply indebted to the faculty of Westminster Seminary. Their lectures, literary productions and personal friendships have helped to mold us into what we are today, and in this volume, even though Reformed Baptists play no part, we can see many things about ourselves.

Robert B. Strimple is the distinguished emeritus professor of systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California, and this volume is dedicated to him. It was edited by his successor, David VanDrunen. I feel strangely placed to review the book: my office on the Westminster campus is directly between Dr. Strimple and Dr. VanDrunen!

The vehicle of a festschrift is sometimes difficult, since it is the product of diverse authors. At times, contributions are exceptionally useful, while others may be less so, and this volume is no different. Two or three of the essays are perhaps reminiscences rather than academic productions, but their presence does not in any way lower the benefit derived from the whole. The contributors generally sustain a high level of thought-provoking scholarship and analysis, making the time spent in reading the volume worthwhile.

Thirteen articles are included, divided under four heads: Historical Studies; Systematic Theology Among Other Disciplines; Particular Issues in Westminster Systematics; and Westminster Systematic Theology and the Life of the Church. All of the contributors are current or former faculty at one of the Westminster campuses-Philadelphia and Escondido-and thus are colleagues and/or former students of Dr. Strimple.

Seven of the essays are especially good, those by D. G. Hart, Michael Horton, Dennis Johnson, W. Robert Godfrey, R. Scott Clark, David VanDrunen, and John Muether. Dr. Godfrey’s contribution, ‘Westminster Seminary, the Doctrine of Justification, and the Reformed Confessions’ is, as one might expect from a first-rate scholar of the Reformation, a tour de force of enormous contemporary relevance. His conclusion is a clarion call to stand faithfully for this doctrine: “the glory of Christ, the well-being of the churches, and the peace of Christian consciences demand it” (page 148). Amen!

Scott Clark contributes an article on a topic familiar to those who heard him address the 2001 Convocation of the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies-the Well-meant Offer of the Gospel. Drawing on the important distinction between archetypal and ectypal theology, Dr. Clark demonstrates that historic Calvinism has always recognized the importance of an unfettered proclamation of the Gospel to the lost. David VanDrunen’s contribution, in which he argues for the centrality of covenant in systematic theology, echoes a presentation he gave to the IRBS Convocation in 2002.

Of great interest is the chapter contributed by John R. Muether, ‘The Whole Counsel of God: Westminster Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.’ Muether describes some of the struggles resident among the founders of the OPC, and the role played by Westminster faculty in giving direction to the new church. In essence, he argues that two competing identities were present in the early days of the OPC, described by the participants as American and Non-American Presbyterianism. The American brand was more fundamentalist, with tendencies towards Arminianism and Dispensational premillennialism  while the Non-American brand was more narrowly focused on the historical Reformed confessions. In the eyes of the nativistic group, men like John Murray and Cornelius Van Til (both of whom were non-Americans) were leading the church down a path towards a too narrow and restricted confessional identity. Muether documents how these perceptions led to the founding of the Bible Presbyterian Church. Soon after, another conflict arose, ensuing in the founding of Fuller Theological Seminary. This battle centered on identity: would the OPC reflect an evangelical or reformed ethos? The evangelicals “sought to establish the church’s priorities in fighting modernism and promoting evangelism” (page 233), Ned Stonehouse and Paul Woolley replied that the priority must be a “system of truth” (p. 235-36), i.e. precise theological formulation was central. One sees the difference in the subsequent history of Fuller Seminary!

This is an important book. Dr. Strimple’s career has been distinguished in many ways, and this is an appropriate tribute to a well-loved servant of Christ. I urge all to purchase, read, and consider the things written in it.

James M. Renihan, Dean
The Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies
  1. I agree with Jim’s assessment of this book. Vital reading for RBs today. I read it earlier this year. It was hard to put down.

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