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.