The Spirit of the Age: The 19th Century Debate Over the Holy Spirit and the Westminster Confession. By J.V. Fesko. Reformation Heritage Books, 2017. 140 pp.
It strikes some modern readers of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) as curious that it lacks a chapter dealing with the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Typically, this is cited as a defect in the seventeenth-century confession. A movement to correct this apparent oversight, begun in the late nineteenth century, resulted in confessional revision in 1903 that now characterizes the mainline Presbyterian church version of the WCF. What may surprise conservative Presbyterians today, however, is that this revision is not found in the standards of smaller, more conservative churches such as the PCA or the OPC. Moreover, there was strong opposition to these revisions from conservative voices such as B.B. Warfield of Princeton Theological Seminary. So, are liberal Presbyterians more in step with the Spirit than conservatives?
John Fesko, professor of systematic theology and academic dean at Westminster Seminary California, revisits this debate in this short and insightful study. He exposes the true agenda of the confessional revisionists and he defends the treatment of the Spirit by the Westminster divines. Liberals in the late nineteenth century were more in love with the spirit of progress than with the Spirit of God. Led by Charles Briggs, the higher critic from Union Theological Seminary in New York, their ultimate goal was a complete dismantling of the “decretal” theology of the Westminster Confession. New philosophical and theological developments from Germany, coupled with new scientific theories (such as evolution) had rendered the theology of the confession “obsolete” (p. 98). Given this ambition, the 1903 revisions that were eventually adopted were remarkably modest. Fesko describes Warfield’s analysis of the changes as “surprisingly positive” (p. 34), but his reaction was no doubt one of relief, given what he anticipated. What derailed the agenda of the earlier effort was the ecclesiastical trial and eventual suspension of Briggs from the Presbyterian church for denying the inspiration and authority of Scripture. (Briggs’ trial receives only brief attention in Fesko’s analysis.)
Fesko describes two “key considerations” that fueled the momentum for revision: Hegelism and Pentecostalism. The philosophical commitments of Hegel and Kant, Fesko claims, “form the canon by which Briggs judges the confession’s pneumatology defective” (p. 21). However, the influence of the Pentecostal movement, which is less developed by Fesko, seems anachronistic as a motivating source for Briggs’ crusade. Better to say, it seems, that the influence of Pentecostalism serves to explain why, a century later, many evangelicals find the case for creedal revision to be compelling.
The strength of this book lies in Fesko’s command of historical theology. He explains how Joachim of Fiore (a twelfth-century monastic) advanced the idea that the church had entered the “age of the Spirit.” Philip Schaff, a colleague of Briggs at Union, commended Joachim’s advocacy of the Spirit as a liberating force for the church. Fesko quotes Schaff: “We must believe in the Holy Spirit, who is guiding the Church to ever higher life and light. He produced reformations in the past, he will produce greater reformations in the future” (p. 82). However, Thomas Aquinas was withering in his critique of Joachim, and the Protestant Reformers themselves would not pursue a reformation on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit: “There is no distinct Reformation doctrine on the Holy Spirit,” Fesko claims (p. 56). Later, he elaborates that the divines were willing “to cite positively patristic and medieval sources in their doctrinal expositions” (p. 94). Particularly helpful is Fesko’s survey of the treatment of the Spirit in the confessions of the Reformation and early Protestant orthodoxy (pp. 56–65), leading up to the Westminster Assembly.
But if the revisions of 1903 were, in the end, modest, was this a tempest in a teapot? Far from it. In Fesko’s narrative, this episode in our American Presbyterian past serves as a useful case study on the nature and ends of theological reflection. Does theology look backward or forward? The primary line of vision for modernism is forward, liberating itself from the outmoded thinking of the past, which Schaff dismissed as “Babylonian captivity” and the “fleshpots of Egypt.” In contrast, the Reformed confessionalism that climaxed at Westminster, in the service of Reformed catholicity, held “to a devolutionary view of history where preservative theology must resist the destructive waves of change that threaten to destroy the truth” (pp. 96–97). Fesko concludes by posing these important questions: “To what degree is classic Reformed theology compatible with modernity? Can the faith once delivered over to the saints peacefully coexist with Hegelian notions of evolutionary progress?” (p. 108). We do well to ponder those questions, especially in light of the obsession for innovation among twenty-first century evangelicals.