Foundations: No.78 Spring 2020

Review Article: Robert Letham’s Systematic Theology

Systematic Theology

Robert Letham (Wheaton, IL.: Crossway), 2019, 1072pp, £39.70 (Amazon), £14.01 (Kindle)

It was my privilege at a conference last year to hear Bob Letham for the first time. His subject was the Trinity. I can honestly say that it was the first time that a lecture on that subject had moved me to tears. Dr Letham spoke of the diversity in creation as a reflection of the triune nature of the Creator, and used the western musical heritage as an example, arguing that its harmonies could only have come about within a culture shaped by belief in a God characterised by plurality within unity. To follow the lecture by the singing of a hymn in four-part harmony was indeed a fitting conclusion.

It was, therefore, with some anticipation that I turned first, on receiving this book, to the section on the Trinity. I was pleased to find again reference to some of the classical composers whose music, as an avid listener to symphonies, I love to hear. The section was fairly brief, as Dr Letham has already written a significant book devoted to this theme.[1] As at the conference, once again mention was made of the many triadic patterns in the created world, unity in diversity pointing to the nature of the Creator. Dr Letham was, however, careful to insist that it is impossible to find any illustrations of the Trinity; all attempts lead inevitably to Trinitarian heresy.

I then turned to the Introduction, and my attention was caught by the statement that, in distinction from many other systematic theologies, this one combines the doctrines of salvation and the church. That sounded to me a very promising approach, but I resisted the temptation to jump straight into that section, and started to read from the beginning, with great anticipation of what I would learn once I reached that section.

The work begins with a discussion of Anselm’s ontological argument, which Dr Letham, rightly in my view, is prepared to endorse, provided it is recognised that Anselm set it within a prayerful and worshipful acknowledgement of the reality of God. It never was Anselm’s intention that it should be a means of convincing an unbeliever.

It was pleasing to read the section where Dr Letham rejects the modern propensity to translate monogenēs in John’s Gospel merely as “only”, rather than “only begotten”. He demonstrated well that the argument is not sustainable contextually.

In this work, Dr Letham treats the Trinity before the attributes of God. Recognising that this is a different order from that found in many similar works, he explains his twofold rationale: First, the demographic changes in western society demand a stronger assertion of what is distinctive in the Christian doctrine of God as Trinity, over against the general monotheism of false religions, particularly Islam. Second, that which is last to be revealed is primary in importance, and therefore, in the light of God’s completed revelation, his nature as Trinity ought to be our starting point.

When he does turn to the attributes of God, he makes the salient point that it is God himself who defines his own attributes. We are not to interpret the statement “God is love” by reference to our own preconceived idea of what love is, but rather to define love from the actions of God. Moreover, it is only a triune God who can be love, and given the triune nature of God, love is at the very heart of all reality. In this section, it was good to find a passage on the beauty of God, a topic sadly missing, it seems, from many systematic theologies.

Dr Letham helpfully reminds us that, inevitably, we have our own blind spots when it comes to the interpretation of Scripture. However, while he rightly insists on the vital place of careful thought in Bible reading, there was, I am afraid, one sentence in the chapter on the doctrine of Scripture which caused alarm bells to ring in my mind. Regarding the historicity of the biblical record, he writes: “Events are reported in ways that do not accord with twenty-first-century historiography.” The example which he proceeds to give – the use of round numbers in dating – is innocuous enough, but without further clarification and qualification, the sentence could leave the door open for a dangerous questioning of the Bible’s historical accuracy, which might undermine the doctrine of inerrancy, albeit that inerrancy is a truth which Dr Letham strenuously maintains, rightly demonstrating that, contrary to the claims of some, this doctrine is not a modern novelty.

The author’s discussion of the phrase sola Scriptura is instructive. He rejects the claim that it means that the Bible is the only source for Christian theology, referring to the credal affirmations that what may logically be deduced from Scripture is equally binding upon the church as the truth of God. Acknowledging that Scripture certainly is our supreme authority for all matters of faith and practice, he highlights the dangers in an extreme “Scripture alone” approach: it may as easily lead to heresy as to truth, and it risks disregarding the historic witness of the church, to whom the Scriptures truly belong, as if to claim that what has, purportedly, been revealed to us outweighs the cumulative wisdom of the centuries. That said, we are reminded that if any principle other than Scripture itself becomes the key to its interpretation, then Scripture is no longer our ultimate authority. Later, a salutary example of this dubious practice is cited, in the way that Old Testament scholarship was, at one time, taken up with ancient near-eastern treaty patterns as a key to interpreting God’s covenants.

I very much enjoyed reading Dr Letham’s comments on Origen’s approach to biblical interpretation. I have often felt uneasy at how quickly Origen’s approach is dismissed. I am in total agreement with the author when he observes that, “at least we can say that Origen ultimately sought a Christocentric reading”; that, I am sure, was Origen’s great and timeless contribution to hermeneutical theory.

The section on the doctrine of creation rightly notes that there is no conflict between theology and science. When disputes arise, it is rather because of opposing worldviews. The issue of the interpretation of Genesis 1 is reserved for an appendix. This, presumably, reflects the author’s conviction that the subject is not central to the doctrine. His consideration of the various views is fair; recognising that Bible-believers over the centuries have taken various views of the matter, he appeals for humility in any pronouncements which we might make on the subject. This is, perhaps, a necessary challenge to those of us who hold strongly to what Dr Letham labels “the twenty-four-hour-day theory”. His treatment of the subject seems to be deliberately inconclusive, as he refuses to come down explicitly for any particular interpretation. There is, no doubt, wisdom in this, in ensuring that he does not alienate a particular batch of readers, from whichever side of the debate – and we are left unsure of which side that would be!

I read the section on God’s covenant with the entire human race via Noah while the outbreak of the coronavirus was dominating the news headlines. Dr Letham acknowledges the threats to human life in a fallen world, and faces up to the reality that at times pandemics, amongst other things, have been known to wipe out a third of the world’s population. Although the author does not mention this, it accords precisely with the depictions in the book of Revelation of the scope of God’s temporal judgmental warnings. However, through the Noahic covenant God promises that there will not be a universal judgment before his planned final judgment – a reassuring note, which, as the author notes, leads us to prayer.

Turning to the doctrine of humanity as the image of God, Dr Letham draws out the fundamental incompatibilities between feminism and Christianity, and, importantly, in this age of transgender ideology, stresses the biblical teaching on male and female as equal yet different. He sums up the current secular western outlook as a culture of death, symptomised by such things as abortion and euthanasia, practices which epitomise rebellion against the God of life.

Assuming the covenantal nature of God’s dealings with unfallen Adam, Dr Letham discusses the question whether the covenant of works was also a covenant of grace. He concludes that the integrity of biblical revelation regarding God’s covenantal principles requires an affirmative answer. This left me a little uneasy. I can readily accept that it was a covenant marked by love and kindness but I am not sure of the appropriateness of introducing the word “grace” prior to the entry of sin. In a later chapter the author indicates that Meredith Kline was also of the opinion that the basis for grace is demerit, and therefore to speak of grace prior to the fall is anachronistic. But perhaps I need to ponder a little further the full implications of the term. It is certainly true that, ultimately, Adam could never in any sense deserve anything from God; his very existence was a free gift from his Creator, but whether that makes it appropriate to speak of it in terms of grace is a question for further reflection.

Dr Letham’s discussion of the differing views of the means by which original sin and guilt are propagated from Adam to all his descendants is insightful and instructive. Distinguishing the federalist from the realist interpretation, he argues compellingly that the two are not incompatible and should be held together. Adam was indeed the representative head of the human race, but there is also a genetic unity of humanity, such that corruption is passed down through the generations. The author goes on, again with compelling insight, to demonstrate the incompatibility with the basic principles of justice, as well as with the biblical revelation of divine justice, of Charles Hodge’s view that Adam’s sin was imputed to his descendants independently of their own guilt.

Part 5 of the book is entitled The Covenant of God. I found this section scintillating to read. Early on, though, there was one sentence that made me pause: The first chapter in this section relates to election. Dr Letham, acknowledging that Scripture reveals election as an expression of God’s grace and love, rightly infers that we should entertain hope for all people. He then raises the question, “Can we say for certain that Esau or even Judas are reprobate?” Esau maybe not, but does Jesus’ pronouncement of woe upon his betrayer not seem to rule out any hope for Judas, the man of whom he makes the sombre declaration that “it would have been good for that man if he had never been born” (Mark 14:21)?

Dr Letham considers the fairly prevalent theory of a covenant of redemption between the Father and the Son, and expresses significant reservations. He notes the absence of the Holy Spirit from most articulations of the theory, suggesting that it therefore undermines the truth of the unity of the Trinity in all the external divine works, as well as having subordinationist overtones.

The author also rebuts the mistaken claim that the Mosaic covenant was a republication of the covenant of works. He lists four major views about the Mosaic covenant found in classic reformed theology. The second, that it was subservient to the covenant of grace and was designed to prepare Israel for the coming of the gospel, although not explicitly endorsed by Dr Letham, seems to me to accord most closely with Paul’s teaching in Galatians 3. This whole discussion is relevant to the question of the third use of the law and to the assessment of new covenant theology, a position which the author, rightly in my view, summarily dismisses in a single sentence.

In the part of the work dealing with Christology my attention was caught by the author’s discussion of the relative merits of the theories of Christ’s impeccability, represented by W. G. T. Shedd, and his peccability, represented by Charles Hodge. I have tended to think, with Hodge, that our Lord’s sinlessness was not an inability to sin, but his triumph over temptation and the fact that he did not sin. Dr Letham prefers the opposite conclusion – that Christ’s humanity was intrinsically sinless, but the argument is well rehearsed, and I recognise that deciding between the two positions is not simple and straightforward.

Related to this point is a comment on the comparison and contrast between Adam and Christ as they faced temptation: Adam was tempted in a beautiful garden, Jesus in a barren desert; Adam was surrounded by a luxuriant abundance, Jesus was entirely alone; Adam had free access to all the trees of the garden but one, Jesus had no resources at all; Adam had a plentiful food supply, Jesus had gone without food for forty days, and so was at his weakest. Nonetheless, where Adam fell, Jesus triumphed, and where Adam disobeyed in connection with a tree, Jesus obeyed on a tree. These observations reappear on several occasions. The reader gets the impression that there is something here that has warmed the author’s heart, and the reader’s heart is also warmed in response.

When Dr Letham turns to the threefold office of Christ as prophet, priest and king, there is tantalisingly little on his prophetic ministry. This no doubt relates to a point made in the introduction, where the author explains that the limitations of space preclude an exhaustive discussion of every topic, and indicates his intention to focus more extensively on issues which have been the subjects of more recent dispute. The office of Christ as prophet does not come into that category, and therefore is legitimately summarised in a paragraph, with a footnote referring back to the earlier chapter which dealt with the doctrine of Scripture. That chapter notes that the New Testament, as a record of the teaching of the apostles, may be traced back to Christ himself, since it was by the authority which he delegated to them that they wrote.

In considering the high priestly ministry of the Lord Jesus, Dr Letham offers an important section on the necessity of the Lord’s obedience. Some years ago, I read the proceedings of the Evangelical Alliance symposium on the atonement, which followed the publication of Steve Chalke’s notorious dismissal of penal substitution. I found the article by Garry Williams the most worthwhile of all the contributions, apart from one thing. He related the necessity of Christ’s incarnate life prior to his crucifixion to his role as the new Israel. I think that Dr Letham offers a far more compelling explanation: he relates the necessity of Christ’s life of obedience to his fulfilment of the role of the last Adam, who had to succeed where Adam failed, and so be qualified to suffer, on our behalf, the consequences of Adam’s failure. Dr Letham proceeds to defend the truth of penal substitution, which he roots in the union between Christ and his people.

When the author turns to the extent of the atonement, he is eager to defend the doctrine of definite atonement – that, in the intention of the triune God, Christ died specifically to save his elect people. I did think that he might have given a little more extensive coverage of the apparently universal texts, given that this is a live issue for many of us today.

The chapter on Christ as King was very thought-provoking. Preparing the way for what is to come when he addresses the twin issues of salvation and the church, Dr Letham points out that Christ is king over his covenant people, to which individual believers belong. This corporate understanding of salvation is crucial. But a large part of this chapter concerns the question of the extent of Christ’s kingdom: the author vigorously defends the traditional Reformed outlook which teaches that Christ is the universal king. This contrasts with the two kingdoms theory, often associated with Lutheranism, which equates kingdom and church, so creating a dualistic perspective in which the rest of creation is governed not by Christ but by natural law. This idea has serious repercussions in that it encourages neutrality in the secular realm and leaves open the door for evil to run rampant in the world. The Reformed vision sees earthly rulers as accountable to Christ, and works for a society which mirrors the reign of Christ.

And so we reach, at last, the section highlighted in the introduction on the doctrine of salvation and the church. The tendency to separate the two and treat them as separate doctrines is traced back to Enlightenment individualism, and the result is that even evangelical accounts of these subjects are far adrift from Scripture, which, Dr Letham maintains, differs from both western individualism and Marxist corporatism, though this latter point, a little frustratingly, is not elaborated.

The consistent biblical vision is of humanity as a relational reality: you are who you are according to with whom you are connected. This remains the case in many non-western cultures, typified, for example, by the Chinese term guanxi, which roughly translates as “connections”. Dr Letham, therefore, finds salvation connected inextricably in the New Testament to the community of the church, and this parallels the solidarity of the human race in sin in Adam.

The priority issue in the doctrine of the church is its unity, and out of this flows its diversity, mirroring the reality of the Trinity. Local churches exist as parts of the one universal church, which has its origin in the eternal counsel of God. Although Dr Letham does not cite 2 Clement, his emphasis here reminded me very much of the following statement:

If we do the will of God our Father we will belong to the first church, the spiritual church, the church that was created before the sun and moon. But if we do not do what the Lord wants, we will belong to the Scripture that says, “My house has become a cave of thieves”. So then, let us choose to belong to the church of life, that we may be saved… And as you know, the Bible and the apostles indicate that the church has not come into being just now, but has existed from the beginning.[2]

The chapter on salvation and the church also considers the means of grace, of which Dr Letham sees preaching as primary. I found this section very thought-provoking. We preachers are challenged to know how to read and understand the text, how to use words in various moods – indicative, imperative and interrogative – to ensure that our preaching is full of intellectual content, while not being a show of rhetoric. We should be devoted to preaching Christ clearly and directly.

One memorable phrase which caught my attention reminds us that without the Spirit the word is ineffective, but without the word the Spirit is inaudible. At this point I found myself forced to reflect further on the relationship between the Spirit and the word, a process of reflection which will have to be ongoing. Dr Letham comments on the impact of the eighteenth-century revivals on our doctrine of preaching. He cites Stuart Olyott as an example of those who have observed the powerlessness of so much preaching and called for fervent prayer for God to move in power by his Spirit. As one who has been involved in organising and leading prayer meetings for revival, that is exactly the background from which I come. However, Dr Letham insists, by contrast, that we are to expect the Spirit to work through the word, such expectancy not being presumptuous, but faith in God’s promise. He sees in the revivalist approach the danger of creating a divide between God and his word, of failing to believe the Scriptural assertion that the word is the word of the Spirit, and so of implying that the Spirit who inspired the word may unpredictably “wander off and leave his ambassadors in the lurch”.

Dr. Letham divides his consideration of the Christian life into two parts – its beginning and then its progress. The former section covers calling, regeneration, faith, repentance, justification and baptism. Within that section the comments on the so-called “New Perspective on Paul” are perceptive, and he rightly dismisses it as a reason for rewriting the doctrine of justification through faith.

The progress section deals with the issues of assurance, adoption, sanctification, perseverance, union with Christ (or theōsis) and the Lord’s Supper. It was interesting to read of the nurturing power of Christian fellowship as a positive form of discipline, and instructive to be reminded that our perseverance is primarily for Christ’s benefit, representing the Father’s faithfulness to his promise to give his people to his Son. The consideration of theōsis, rooted in 2 Peter 1:4, was fascinating and enlightening, but I need to give it further attention before I will feel qualified to comment. I did find that a question was raised in my mind by the placing of the doctrine of adoption within this section.

The section on the church and salvation ends with a chapter on the church and its offices. This includes a rejection of the role of women as teachers in settings where adult males are present, and also affirming the biblical ban on women being appointed as elders. The author recognises that the drift in the opposite direction has come about under pressure from modern culture, but rightly insists that there is no mandate for any culture to pass judgment on the Word of God.

The book ends, as is customary for a systematic theology, with eschatology. An intriguing comment in the introductory paragraph caught my attention and whetted my appetite for what was to come: Dr Letham suggests that the future prospects for church and gospel are not what is frequently taught. A little later he notes the danger in the idea of a future great tribulation, which can breed pessimism, and sees it as inconsistent with Jesus’ teaching. His comments on 2 Thessalonians 2 intrigued me: He cites Warfield as arguing that Paul’s references to the apostasy and the man of sin, if the text was to be relevant in its original context, must relate to events that would take place in the first century. It does not seem to me that that conclusion follows necessarily from the premise. However, at the same time, it does remove a seeming inconsistency between that particular passage and the overall biblical vision for the end times, which Dr Letham aptly summarises as bringing the nations to obedience. I found myself fully in agreement with his reading of Romans 9-11, and I was pleased to see that he understands the apostle to foresee the future conversion of Israel.

As regards the reading of Revelation, I find myself diverging somewhat from the author’s position. Whereas he prefers the preterist reading, I have written elsewhere[3] in defence of the idealist interpretation. Dr Letham accepts that the preterist interpretation may be qualified, particularly in the latter part of the book, in recognition of the fact that the ultimate future is there in view. However, he does not seem to allow for the same caveat relating to the idealist reading.

As regards his overall eschatological position, Dr Letham, perhaps helpfully, having dismissed both varieties of premillennialism, sees amillennialism and postmillennialism as a continuum, rather than two completely separate theories. He stands somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, adopting an optimistic amillennial position which regards Revelation 20 as depicting the whole period between the ascension and the Parousia.

My problem with such a reading is that those who interpret Revelation 20 like that, generally make it contemporary with most of the rest of the book. William Hendriksen is most well-known for expounding the book in this way:

A careful reading of the book of Revelation has made it clear that the book consists of seven sections, and that these seven sections run parallel to one another. Each of them spans the entire dispensation from the first to the second coming of Christ.[4]

The difficulty with this is that we read in Revelation 20:3 that Satan deceives the nations no more during the thousand years, whereas we have read on four occasions earlier in the book (12:9; 13:14; 18:23; 19:20) of his deception of the nations. I fail to see, therefore, how Revelation 20 can refer to the same period of time as those earlier parts of the book. To be fair, Dr Letham, while accepting this general reading of the book, does not explicitly equate chapter 20 with the earlier sections, though it seems to be the implication of his preferred reading.

The author has ended each chapter with two or three study questions. However, when we reach the final chapter there are no questions, but rather, and very appropriately, an invitation to awe, worship, thanksgiving and prayer.

References to the sacraments occur periodically in the course of the book, culminating in the detailed treatment under the heading of the church and salvation. I have reserved consideration of this subject to the end of my article for two reasons. The first is that, writing as a Baptist, it was always likely to be in connection with baptism that I would disagree with my Presbyterian brother. His six-point summary of Baptist arguments is accurate, but some of his surrounding comments, I would suggest, are not.

One problem was that I thought that he misrepresented the Baptist position, or at least that he generalised from the position advocated by some Baptists as if it is universally held by all Baptists, a conclusion with which I beg to differ. He claims that Baptists believe the new covenant to be made with the believer only, and that this leads Baptists to highlight individual responsibility. This assertion is, however, questionable, given that we who are Reformed Baptists are one with our paedobaptist friends in affirming the priority of God’s electing grace in enabling any individual response at all. I have no issue at all with his statement that saving faith “is a gift from God and cannot be manufactured autonomously”. His assertion that, for Baptists, covenantal grace is conditioned on the individual response is simply not true. The 1689 Confession recognises that God requires faith in order that people may be saved, but then adds that he promises “to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life, his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe”, a wording identical with the Westminster Confession.[5] Dr Letham therefore misrepresents the position, and creates an imbalanced comparison, when he contrasts the basic Baptist paradigm that faith precedes baptism with the paedobaptist understanding that grace is prior to faith. The Baptist equally accepts that latter truth. The difference arises when the author adds that God’s grace in baptism precedes our response; the Baptist does not tie God’s grace to the baptismal event.

Dr Letham claims that the Baptist order where faith precedes baptism is inconsistent with the New Testament order, being baptism first, followed by faith. This claim seems doubtful. The first of the two passages which he cites (Romans 6) expounds the meaning of baptism, but does not even mention faith, and therefore is not germane to the argument, while the point of the other passage (1 Corinthians 10:1-13) is to exhort those who have been baptised to take heed to live consistently, and, once again, there is no reference to faith. As for passages where faith and baptism are mentioned together, the order (of the events, not necessarily of the mention) is invariably faith first, then baptism.[6]

Moreover, Dr Letham’s interpretation of the Baptist outlook as being that “individuals must decide for themselves whether to be baptised” may reflect a careless approach on the part of some Baptist churches, but cannot sit comfortably with a genuine Baptist theology of baptism. As far as I am concerned, as a Baptist, baptism is an obligation which Scripture places on every new believer, and it should be fulfilled as immediately as is realistically possible. Disobedience to Christ’s command would raise serious questions about the genuineness of a profession of faith: for one’s discipleship to falter at the first hurdle would not bode well for the long-term future.

In contrast to the Baptist position, Dr Letham defends the view that the new covenant is made with believers and their children, on the basis of the corporate context in which Scripture sets individuals. He overlooks the fact that the Baptist position assumes the election of a people in Christ – which must qualify the individualistic assertion. Here again the 1689 Confession is in agreement with Westminster in defining the universal church as “the whole number of the elect”,[7] and in affirming that a people was given to Christ to be his seed.[8] Interestingly, union with Christ, which Dr Letham defines as “churchly, not individualistic”, is referenced three times in the 1689 Confession,[9] but only once in the Westminster Confession.[10] All this surely indicates that the Baptist position is certainly no less corporate than that of the paedobaptists.

Moreover, Dr Letham believes that a child of believing parents is not baptised in order to become a church member, but, being a church member from birth by virtue of God’s covenant, is baptised. He claims that the exclusion of believers’ children from the new covenant would turn Pentecost into a day of mass excommunication. However, he nowhere considers that argument that the inclusion of believers’ children in the covenant has the effect of undermining the faithfulness of God, since it is not the case that believers’ children invariably follow in their parents’ footsteps; what then becomes of God’s covenant promise to be God to the children? The only way to avoid thus jeopardising the truth of God’s faithfulness is to adopt just such an approach as he (wrongly) accuses Baptists of taking, namely one which makes individual response normative, rather than the prevenient grace of God. I once heard a paedobaptist preacher describe the unconverted children of Christian parents as covenant-breakers, and this, supposedly, lets God off the hook. But if salvation is his initiative, does he not become the greater covenant-breaker?

Dr Letham considers the “repeated and unrestricted references to households” in the New Testament as evidence for his claim that the household remains the primary locus of God’s administration in the new covenant. He also assumes that the household baptisms mentioned included infants. However, such a characterisation of references to households is exaggerated. In the book of Acts we hear of only four households being saved and baptised (those of Cornelius, Lydia, the Philippian jailer and Crispus). In the rest of the New Testament we hear of just two more (those of Stephanas and Onesiphorus). That is not a lot to go on for a period of something over 30 years. Moreover, the assumption that there were infants in these six households is entirely speculative.

The further New Testament evidence which Dr Letham offers in support of paedobaptism is not compelling. He refers to Acts 2:39, “the promise is to you and to your children”, but has only quoted half the verse, which continues, “and to all who afar off”. This seems to open the door to indiscriminate baptism. But the verse finishes, “as many as the Lord our God will call”, the decisive phrase which qualifies both the preceding categories. The reference to 1 Corinthians 7:14 is also dubious. Albert Barnes and Tom Wright – both paedobaptists – accept that a reference here to covenant holiness has to be read into the text, and is not what the text actually means.[11] These texts say nothing to undermine the Baptist conviction that the counterpart in the new covenant of the chosen people and their children is the church and its members, that the key issue is not being born into a believing family, but being born again into God’s family.

Dr Letham suggests that whereas paedobaptists stress the continuity between the old and new covenants, Baptists emphasise the discontinuity. This, however, is another sweeping generalisation; the 1689 Confession, although somewhat briefer in its treatment of the covenant than the equivalent section of Westminster, is nonetheless clear that there has only ever been one covenant of grace, revealed first to Adam, then “by farther steps”, until the completion of its “full discovery” in the New Testament.[12] Continuity does not mean that nothing changes at all, as Dr Letham recognises when he acknowledges the elements of discontinuity.

Some of Dr Letham’s arguments in defence of the paedobaptist position raise questions. He rightly notes the connection between circumcision and baptism made in Colossians 2:11-13, but it is mere inference to move from here to paedobaptism. Paul is using circumcision as a symbol of new life in Christ, and it is that of which baptism is the sign. There is no mention of children or descendants, as in the Old Testament references to the covenant. Dr Letham also notes the instructions given to children in the church later in that letter (Colossians 3:20) as well as in Ephesians 6:1-4. He comments that they are being treated as Christians, and “considered ‘in the Lord’”. Well, perhaps that is because they were. A Baptist has no problem with the possibility of conversion taking place during childhood.

Many of Dr Letham’s comments on baptism logically point to the Baptist position. He emphasises how the New Testament makes a close connection between baptism and regeneration, faith, cleansing from sin, reception of the Holy Spirit and union with Christ, and depicts baptism as marking the start of the Christian life. Such a definition does not seem consistent with the practice of paedobaptism. Moreover, in the section on the Lord’s Supper, while rejecting paedocommunion, Dr Letham notes that, since the means of grace may become means of judgment if wrongly used, it is essential that the participants be penitent sinners. It seems inconsistent to apply this to the Lord’s Supper but not to baptism. It is striking, incidentally, how some of the paedobaptist confessions are unable to avoid facing up to their own embarrassment with their position, as if aware that paedobaptism is not genuinely tenable in a new covenant context. The Genevan Catechism is a prime example of the need to bend over backwards to try to defend the position, and also of the need to resort to reason and “due pondering”, apparently well aware that there is no scriptural argument available to defend the position.[13] Dr Letham rightly states that in the New Testament baptism was administered when a person could first be considered a Christian, but goes on to make what, to a Baptist, seems the rather dubious claim that, in the case of an infant born in a Christian home, this is at birth. His claim that there is no New Testament record of a child born in a believing home not being baptised until later seems rather to be clutching at straws.

Having said all that, there are points where, as a Baptist I wholeheartedly endorse Dr Letham’s comments, even on the subject of baptism! I recognise that there are some Baptists who have lost something of the biblical richness on this subject, and would do well to learn from our Presbyterian friend. He says that baptism is not merely symbolic, the reality which it symbolises existing independently of the action. He is absolutely right; Baptism accomplishes something in the life of the believer – it really is a means of grace.

And that leads me to the second reason for treating this subject last, namely that, wanting to end on a positive note, I fully endorse Dr. Letham’s general view of the sacraments, which is very instructive and a necessary corrective in a day when so much of the church seems to have emptied the sacraments of all effective content. He rightly notes that the 1689 Baptist Confession prefers the word “ordinance”, but, as Samuel Waldron points out in his exposition of the Confession, there is no intrinsic objection, from a Baptist point of view, to the term “sacrament”; the wariness arises from the Roman Catholic abuse of the term.[14] Nonetheless, it would be truly encour-aging to witness a recovery in evangelical circles of an authentic sacramental understanding of the ordinances as real means of grace.

It is with reference to the Lord’s Supper that Dr Letham’s positive view of the purpose of the sacraments comes into its own. He helpfully compares the Lord’s Supper as an act of remembrance to the setting up of the memorial stones by Jacob at Bethel and by Joshua after the crossing of the Jordan. Like them, it is a record of the Lord’s mighty act. Rightly, the author describes the Supper as our indispensable spiritual nourishment. He quotes Calvin to the effect that participation is a necessity for heavenly life, and argues that the degree to which a church wants the communion is a reliable gauge of how eagerly it wants Christ. That is a very challenging comment. It takes me back to my days growing up as a boy in a Baptist Church in West London. I still remember watching, baffled, as a mass exodus took place whenever communion was about to follow the “main” service. Dr Letham’s comment articulates my juvenile bewilderment: where was the love for Jesus on the part of so many professing believers? More recently, I recall being told by a sister from one of my former congregations that I had been rather daring on an occasion when I preached on the words of institution in 1 Corinthians 11. I had evidently made it very clear that participation is an obligation placed upon every church member, and this sister pointed out that there were some members present who never attended the communion service in our church. My reply was that all I thought I was doing was expounding the passage.

Reading Dr Letham’s outline of the different understandings of the Lord’s Supper in the course of history and in the contemporary church I was reminded of a conversation to which I was party at theological college while I was training for the ministry. Dr. Letham identifies four approaches, one of which he labels the doctrine of the “real absence”. A group of us at the college, along with a tutor, were discussing the meaning of the real presence, and objecting to interpretations of the phrase with which we disagreed. The tutor commented that however we might define (or refuse to define) the real presence, nonetheless “no one believes in the real absence”. Well, it seems that Dr Letham would disagree. I suspect that he is not claiming that anyone would actually use that description for their view of communion, but is highlighting the logical outcome of viewing the Supper as nothing more than symbolic.

Dr Letham’s mastery of the English language is superb, and the book is, for such a weighty work, attractively easy to read. The subdivision of each chapter into short sections with headings and subheadings makes grappling with its profundities manageable. These features make reading this work not a mere intellectual challenge, but also a worthwhile spiritual exercise. Frequently, comments made by the author stimulate the reader to heartfelt worship. The book is thoughtfully written, and as we read it we are compelled to contemplate with the author both the sublime truths on which he is meditating, and the insights of the centuries as we are presented with the comments of godly believers from every period of church history.

Indeed, Dr Letham’s comprehensive familiarity with our Christian predecessors is impressive. He shows a thorough mastery of patristic teaching, makes regular reference to Aquinas, quotes constantly from the Reformers, the puritans, and their successors in the Reformed tradition, as well as discussing modern and contemporary theologians. Indeed, there is much historical theology in addition to systematic theology in this work, the historical serving as the basis for the systematisation. The author is careful to consider respectfully even positions which must ultimately be classed as indefensible. In short, the author’s intellectual brilliance is discernible, both in the breadth of his knowledge, and in the skill of his assessment of multiple positions.

The accessibility of the work is aided by regular imaginative comparisons, many of them thoroughly homely. Some of these are intended to illustrate a truth being expounded; more often they serve to demonstrate precisely what is not being affirmed. Here are just half a dozen representative examples: a pizza, a detective novel, beads on a string, a pancake, a bicycle wheel and a bucket.

Clearly a review of this length of a book of such a size can only be selective in what it highlights. My own interests and concerns, as well as those areas where I was made to think, will have shaped the elements in Dr Letham’s magnificent work on which I have chosen to comment. I trust that they are sufficient to commend the work wholeheartedly. The author refers to Paul’s sobering words in 1 Corinthians 3 about the coming rewards for those called to gospel ministry. Having read this book, I sense that the author is one who has built with “gold, silver and precious stones”.


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