Foundations: No.80 Spring 2021

Review Article:

Systematic Theology

Robert Letham, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2019) 1072pp, £39.70 (Amazon)

An excellent review article by Dr Jonathan Bayes of this volume appeared in the Spring 2020, Issue 78 of this journal. The reason for a second review article results from the magisterial nature of the book under review and from the observation made by Dr Bayes that, given the scale of Professor Letham’s work, his review had to be severely selective. This review article focuses on things which it was clearly impossible for Dr Bayes to address because of limitations of space.[1]

I. Introductory Remarks

Professor Robert Letham – Bob, as he is affectionately known by his colleagues – has put the Christian world heavily in his debt with this, his magnum opus. Its publication was eagerly anticipated by those who had benefited from earlier theological works by him, notably on the Holy Trinity, on the work of Christ and on union with Christ. Expectations have not been disappointed. This is in every respect a superb treatment of systematic theology. I shall identify some of its outstanding features.

II. Outstanding Features

First is its clarity. Professor Letham writes in such a way as not only to be understood but as not to be misunderstood. His prose is limpid. Don Carson once wrote a review of a book in which he stated that its author was incapable of writing a boring sentence. The same is true of Robert Letham.

Secondly, this is a book which is conservationist in its approach to theology, by which I mean that its author seeks to conserve the rich theological heritage of the Christian Church from all periods and places. As a theologian who is committed to a Reformed understanding of the Christian message, he is unafraid to acknowledge indebtedness to Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox contributions to theological understanding and gladly pays tribute to those who, though not holding to Reformed theology, have valid insights into Christian teaching. This, of course, is as it should be: for if in Christ “all things are ours”, including even death itself (that last enemy to be destroyed), then it is surely right to avail ourselves of anything which furthers our understanding and appreciation of God’s truth, whoever might be the human agent whom God uses. If Paul could quote pagan poets, then Letham can surely quote Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theologians. Furthermore, the Reformed tradition has always done this.

In the third place, however, the book is contemporary, without being trendy. Christian psychiatrist Dr Gaius Davies once said rather mischievously (and, be it noted, somewhat unfairly and inaccurately) that a certain theological conference helped to prepare the twentieth-century pastor for anything which the seventeenth century might throw at him! Sadly, there are works of theology, like some sermons, which, while truly conservationist, fail to connect and relate to the contemporary world. One could not accuse this author of such a fault. Again and again throughout the book he seeks to relate truth to the contemporary church and to the cultural context in which the church is placed in the world.

Fourthly, Letham has produced a truly comprehensive work: all the main loci of theology are addressed. Inevitably some areas of truth receive greater attention than others. Again, this is as it should be. When Professor Letham told me that he was writing a systematic theology, I asked him why yet another such volume was needed. “After all”, I said, “there have been quite a number of systematic theologies in recent years.” His reply was to the effect that he wished to redress imbalance in much western evangelicalism, where undue emphasis has been placed upon the individual at the expense of the communal, corporate and churchly aspects of the Christian life. He has admirably succeeded in achieving his aim. It is a point to which I shall return a little later.

In the fifth place, however, this is a work which is concise. It may appear strange to apply such an epithet to a book which runs to 1072 pages. When one considers, however, the vast range of material which fills those pages, without the resulting volume feeling in any way “crammed”, one begins to appreciate Professor Letham’s ability to say much with an admirable economy of words. Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology comprises three very large volumes, quite apart from a posthumously published work on The Church and Its Polity. James Henley Thornwell’s works on theology and ethics fill four large volumes.  And so one could go on. To have said so much in one volume is testimony not only to Professor Letham’s theological knowledge and understanding but also to his command of an elegant and graceful literary style.

Sixthly, there is a negative feature of this book which highly commends it: although concise, it is not clinical. A comparison may be made and a contrast drawn at this point with Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology. Although Letham’s book, with its 1072 pages, appears to be considerably longer than Berkhof’s, which in the Banner of Truth edition comprises 784 pages, the volumes may very well be of a similar length: Letham’s is octavo, whereas Berkhof’s, though of smaller page size, has smaller type face and closer line spacing than the more attractive layout Crossway has adopted for Professor Letham’s book. It may be just a personal opinion – others may well differ in their assessment – but I found Letham’s Systematic Theology to be considerably warmer than Berkhof’s and bathed in a spirit of worship and devotion.

Added to the foregoing is a seventh notable characteristic: considered judgments. There is a judicious way in which our author assesses different positions before giving his own verdict. What John Stott once said of one of the paradoxes of preaching is equally applicable to theology: one must be dogmatic on some things and tentative on others. Professor Letham admirably satisfies this desideratum of a true theologian. This helps the reader to be able to distinguish those things which are of greater importance than others and also to be able to recognise that some things are more clearly revealed than others.

The final notable feature of this book is its categorisation. The order in which the author addresses the various loci of theology differs somewhat from that of many other volumes on systematics. The author has clearly thought deeply about this matter and the result will commend itself to many readers.

And yet, even Homer nodded and so has my good brother and acquaintance Bob Letham. Given that my wife’s nephew is singled out in the acknowledgements for having read the entire manuscript and having made valuable suggestions, I am naturally more reluctant than would usually be the case in a review article to draw attention to what I would consider to be some surprising lapses! But since the words of all writers are to be measured by “the law and the testimony”, it will not be a work of supererogation to identify some matters which call for critical evaluation.

III. Some “Niggles”

1. Inadequate Treatment of “New Covenant Theology”

First, a handful of “niggles”. Given the detail with which Professor Letham discusses some issues (for example, the nature of the imputation of Adam’s sin, the Genesis account of creation, etc.), it is surprising that he simply dismisses what he refers to as “new covenant theology” with hardly any interaction with the works of its exponents. I accept his explanation that some matters will receive greater attention than others and that he wished to contain his work within one manageable volume. This, indeed, is one of the virtues of his book. But new covenant theology has had a considerable impact in the evangelical world; this being so, one would have expected some detailed treatment of it.

At the exegetical level there is not even a citation in the bibliography of Richard Longenecker’s Commentary on Galatians; of Douglas Moo’s commentaries on Romans, Galatians, Colossians, and James, and of his important article, “‘Law,’ ‘Works of the Law,’ and Legalism in Paul”;[2] of Don Carson’s Commentary on Matthew and other works where he expounds what has come to be termed new covenant theology;[3] or of Brian Rosner’s Paul and the Law. At the historical and theological level there is no interaction with the chapters by Richard Bauckham and Andrew Lincoln in the volume edited by Don Carson, From Sabbath to Lord’s Day. The issue here is not whether these men are right (this reviewer seriously disagreeing with some things in the last-mentioned volume); rather, standing firmly within the evangelical tradition, with a high view of Scripture and with careful exegesis and impressive historical scholarship, they have presented a view of the Mosaic law which differs from that which Professor Letham advocates. Simply to dismiss it as being “contrary to the Christian tradition and its distillation of biblical exegesis through the ages, whether in Protestantism, Rome, or the Patristic era”[4] is hardly adequate and will not do, especially in view of the fact that Bauckham cites many eminent authors from the patristic, medieval and post-Reformation period who emphatically did not understand matters as Professor Letham claims they did. There was a range of views. Given that both Professor Letham and Professor Moo gave widely differing papers at the Affinity Theological Study Conference, 2009, of which this reviewer was the overall chairperson, on the theme “The End of the Law?”, it is, to say the least, disappointing that the former dismisses new covenant theology in this way. (That Dr Bayes could commend our author for having done so in one sentence strengthens this reviewer’s impression that Professor Letham will confirm those who already hold to the three-fold classification of the law and the third use of the law but will do little to persuade those of a different view to this position.)

2. A Doctrinaire, Rather Than Exegetical, Treatment of Spiritual Gifts

The second “niggle” relates to Professor Letham’s treatment of spiritual gifts. The reviewer agrees with Letham that the case argued for by Wayne Grudem with respect to the kind of prophecy which, Grudem claims, may exist today is unsustainable and flawed.  (It is, however, surprising that there is no citation of Grudem’s published Cambridge University doctoral thesis, The Gift of Prophecy in 1 Corinthians or of Dan G. McCartney’s eirenic but devastatingly critical review of that volume.[5]) Letham’s categorisation of prophecy as that which: either contradicts Scripture (in which case it must be rejected as false); or as that which repeats biblical teaching (in which case it is unnecessary and disqualifies it from being regarded as prophecy); or as that which adds to Scripture (in which case it must be dismissed as being inconsistent with the sufficiency of Scripture) is a doctrinaire approach which fails to take account of all the biblical data. History abounds with examples of the kind of thing envisaged in 1 Corinthians 14:24-25 and this neither adds to Scripture, nor contradicts it, nor merely repeats what it says; furthermore, it lays no claim to bind the conscience of anyone with truth to be believed or duty to be performed. If this is not a kind of prophesying which may still exist (though prophets have ceased), what is it?[6] Given that Professor Letham has extensive knowledge of the works of Calvin, it would have been helpful for him to have commented upon the latter’s words when, having observed that of the offices of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, “only the last two have an ordinary office in the church” (Calvin distinguished the office of pastor and teacher), he goes on to say: “The Lord raised up the other three at the beginning of his kingdom, and still occasionally raises them up when the necessity of the times requires.”[7] This is spoken in the context of an extraordinary call; not dissimilar sentiments may be found in the works of John Owen.[8] Although both Calvin and Owen regard this as something exceptional and extraordinary, they certainly treat it as a possibility.[9]

3. Word and Spirit in Preaching: the Eighteenth-Century Legacy

Since Dr Bayes informed us in his review article that, having been involved in organising and leading prayer meetings for revival, he found himself forced by Professor Letham’s work to reflect further on the relationship between word and Spirit in preaching (a process which, he says, will need to be ongoing), it may not be amiss if I make a few critical comments which might help to balance what Professor Letham says on this matter. He expresses concern that the eighteenth-century revivals have bequeathed an unhelpful legacy with respect to the relationship between word and Spirit in preaching. He claims that a doctrine of preaching similar to that of the Anabaptists has arisen. He writes: “This school of thought refers to 1 Thessalonians 1:5… to assert that the preaching of the Word may be unaccompanied by the Spirit.”[10] In an earlier issue of this journal I took issue with similar sentiments expressed in other published material by Professor Letham. Judging from his response in that same issue of this journal, he accepted that his strictures with respect to Lloyd-Jones’s view on the relationship of word and Spirit in preaching were both unfounded and unfair.[11] So I shall not repeat what I wrote then but make three simple points: First, in preaching there is another element besides the word and the Spirit: there is the preacher himself. Simply to assert that the Spirit always accompanies the word is, while true at one level, an inadequate statement of the case. Verses such as 1 Timothy 4:15-16 clearly indicate that Timothy – and, for that matter, any other preacher – would not be the instrument of salvation, understanding salvation in its widest sense, unless he did certain things. Since, as Professor Letham himself acknowledges, the word without the Spirit is ineffective, it follows that for the word to be effective in bringing salvation, the spiritual condition of the preacher is not unimportant. Indeed, Paul makes this very point in the last part of 1 Thessalonians 1:5: there was a link between what had happened to the Thessalonians and the way in which they knew that Paul, Silas and Timothy had behaved.

The second point is that when certain men have lamented the lack of spiritual power in preaching, they are not necessarily asserting that the Spirit has not been at work at all; rather, they are acknowledging the undeniable fact that sometimes the Spirit acts to regenerate and through the preaching of the word calls the new life he gives into expression, whereas at other times he does not; sometimes, what John Owen calls the Spirit’s “sudden gusts and motions” and the “intense vigorous actings of grace on great occasions” mean that, under the preaching of the word, the Spirit accomplishes more in the lives of God’s people in terms of promoting holiness than at other times. Indeed, in its answer to Question 182, as to how the Holy Spirit helps us to pray, the Westminster Larger Catechism states that the Spirit’s work is “not in all persons, nor at all times, in the same measure”.  And since the preacher is not immune to the terrible danger of “grieving the Holy Spirit of God”, it surely follows that, as a general principle, a prayer-less and careless preacher is unlikely to be used as powerfully by the Spirit in the preaching of the word as will someone who is walking in step with the Spirit and who is filled by the Holy Spirit. I stress, “as a general principle”, rather than as an absolute rule for it is undoubtedly the case that, just as Paul could rejoice that some were preaching Christ, albeit not from pure motives and therefore not when they were in the best spiritual condition, so history abounds with examples of people being brought to faith and being spiritually helped through men who may have been fearfully compromised in their life.[12]

The third point is that this view of preaching was held before the eighteenth-century revivals by those within the Reformed constituency. One has only to read the comments of Matthew Henry and, less clearly, of Matthew Poole on 1 Thessalonians 1:5 to realise this. And if one consults Matthew Poole’s exegesis of 1 Corinthians 2:4 (a verse which Poole links with 1 Thessalonians 1:5), it should become fairly clear that, in speaking of the inner persuasion of the truth which the Spirit alone can bring about, it is emphatically the case that before the eighteenth century there were mainline Puritans who believed that, sadly, the word might be preached without the demonstration of the Spirit’s power.

But enough of my “niggles”. I wish, now, to make some critical comments of a broader nature.

IV. Substantial Concerns

1. The Place of “Private Judgment”

I referred earlier to Professor Letham’s achievement in seeking to redress the imbalance in much contemporary evangelicalism of an emphasis upon the individual at the expense of the corporate, communal and churchly aspects of the Christian life. It is to be feared, however, that he may have pushed the pendulum too far in the opposite direction. A few examples will demonstrate that this fear is not unsupported by evidence. On page 233 our author baldly states: “It needs to be restated forcefully that the idea of ‘the right of private interpretation’ is not a Reformation principle.”[13] He continues on page 233 and on into page 234 as follows:

This notion supposes that any individual has the right, privilege, and duty to interpret the Bible as he or she sees fit. A striking example is the case of the Particular Baptists in Nottinghamshire, who “followed the common Particular Baptist practice of constituting themselves into a church in a solemn ceremony in which participants covenanted with one another and with God to live in church fellowship according to the will of God as they saw it.”[14]

The two sentences before the “striking example” which Professor Letham cites are, on any reckoning, extraordinary. In his The Theology of the English Reformers Philip E. Hughes quotes the following words from Thomas Cranmer’s Preface to the Great Bible:

Here may all manner of persons… of what estate or condition soever they be… learn all things that they ought to believe, what they ought to do, and what they should not do… Briefly, to the reading of the Scripture none can be enemy, but that either be… sick… or else so ignorant…[15]

Cranmer goes on to urge all to read the Bible “to the honour of God, increase of virtue, and edification both of yourselves and of others”.[16] Matters are expressed more clearly by William Whitaker in A Disputation on Holy Scripture: “Each individual should be his own judge, and stand by his own judgement, not indeed mere private judgement, but such as is inspired by God: and no one can bestow the Holy Spirit save God who infuses it in whom he will.” Every word in this second quotation is all important. Whitaker makes it quite clear that each individual should be his own judge: in other words, he/she, not the church, is responsible for how he/she understands things. Secondly, however, this does not mean that the believer is being individualistic or merely subjective in his/her understanding: “not indeed mere private judgement” (my emphasis). In other words, it is private judgment but not mere private judgment. What, then, is to qualify this private judgment? Whitaker answers for us: “but such as is inspired by God”. These words do not emanate from the “radical left wing” of the Reformation or from one of the “pneumatic” men, one of whom was characterised by Luther as having “swallowed the Holy Ghost, feathers and all”! Whitaker, Master of St John’s, Cambridge, was a thorough-going Calvinistic, Church of England churchman. Significantly, he states, “no one can bestow the Holy Spirit save God who infuses it in whom he will”. And what was Athanasius about when he was contra mundum, if not exercising private interpretation and judgment? Was not Luther also doing the same thing?

This, of course, is significantly different from what Professor Letham says on page 234, after he has cited the Nottinghamshire Particular Baptists as an example not to follow: “However, God gave the Bible not to private persons but to the church.” (Does this mean that only “the church” may sanction Bible translation rather than leave it to a private person, such as William Tyndale?) This, of course, begs one of the key questions which tore society apart across much of Europe in the sixteenth century: where is the church to be found? And the moment men – and women – concluded that it was not the body which was in communion with the soi disant Bishop of Rome, they were, of course, exercising private judgment: their understanding of Scripture led them to the view that the Roman Catholic Church was not a true church but a synagogue of Satan. This did not lead the magisterial Reformers to the aberrant views of men such as the Zwicau prophets and Thomas Müntzer: they were at pains to stress that they were renovators, not innovators and they did take church tradition seriously, hence the readiness of Calvin and a host of others to quote from patristic sources. Nor did this emphasis upon private judgment lead them to a low view of the church. Quite the contrary! But since, as Professor Letham himself would accept – indeed, it is enshrined in the WCF – that “God alone is Lord of the conscience”, it surely follows that one must exercise one’s private judgment, under the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, in determining what the Scripture teaches as to where the church is to be found. If Professor Letham finds fault with the Nottinghamshire Particular Baptists for forming themselves into church fellowships, how will he respond to the charge that he should be in the Anglican or Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox fold rather than belonging to a Presbyterian church? The answer, of course, is that he has exercised his private judgment in believing that the Scriptures teach a Presbyterian view of the church, rather than the Episcopalian view of Anglicanism or the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox views of the church. He may well have benefited from the wisdom of other writers in reaching this view but, still, he has exercised his judgment in accepting their view of biblical teaching, rather than that of Anglican, Catholic or Orthodox writers.

2. The Roots of Evangelical Individualism

Lest it be thought that I am making some kind of cheap remark here, this surely leads on to and points up another surprising lapse in what is overall a truly great book. It concerns the roots and origin of the individualism which, Letham rightly asserts, is damaging to the church in the modern developed world. On page 37 our author sees individualism as having its roots in the Renaissance and then gaining ground during the Enlightenment. Again, on page 752 he writes: “under the impact of post-Enlightenment individualism, evangelicalism relegated the Supper” (that is, the Lord’s Supper)

to an optional extra. The eighteenth-century revivals led to a Christian being understood as someone who could claim a personal experience of conversion, with the work of the Spirit on the individual paramount and church and sacraments often seen as divisive.

Again, on page 762 he writes: ‘The memorialist interpretation” (that is, of the Lord’s Supper) “has been fostered by the rise of individualism in the West… The evangelical movement of the eighteenth century focused on individual salvation at the expense of the corporate.” As if the Renaissance and the Enlightenment were not enough to account for the rampant individualism which, Professor Letham claims, disfigures not only our own day but that of eighteenth-century evangelicalism, he throws in for good measure the triumph of the nominalism of the late medieval period as that which accounts not only for individualism in society in general but for its ecclesiastical expression by independent churches.[17] What shall we say to these things? Much in every way!

a) Playing “leap frog”

To begin with, Professor Letham is surely playing “leap frog” when he traces the origins and development of individualism: to jump from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment is surely to leap frog that most momentous change in thinking which occurred between these two epoch-making periods – the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation itself can hardly be divorced from the Renaissance: Calvin had been a Renaissance scholar; translations of the New Testament used the recently-published Greek text which had been prepared by Erasmus, himself a Renaissance scholar; and so on. Without the widespread demise of Rome’s theological and intellectual hegemony, it may be doubted whether the Enlightenment project would ever have got under way. Forty-six to forty-seven years ago, the Anglo-Catholic John Saward (later, as a Roman Catholic systematic theologian and ethicist, Professor John Saward), who was my college chaplain, sought to convert me from Reformed evangelicalism to a brand of Catholicism. Echoing Keble, who, in his famous Assize Day Sermon of 1833 on National Apostasy, lamented the impact on “Church authority” of the politically-liberal ideas of his day, Saward sought to lay the blame for theological liberalism and secularism at the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg and what resulted from what Luther did there – the Reformation. It was, of course, the classic line taken by Newman.

And yet Keble and Newman in the nineteenth century and Saward in the twentieth century surely had a point. Once the theological and intellectual dominance of the Roman Church had been dismantled, what was to take its place? Well, according to Protestant Reformers like Whitaker and a whole host of others, Scripture is where God speaks and through which he exercises authority in the church. But who is to interpret Scripture? For all Professor Letham’s proper emphasis upon the fact that the Reformers took seriously the need to listen to the early creeds and to the theologians of the past, the fact remains that the Reformation was, in one sense, a tremendously disruptive force, necessary though that disruption was. Thus, Luther – and especially later Lutheranism – would differ from other Reformers and the Reformed churches on numerous matters. Men such as “the judicious” Richard Hooker, Master of the Temple church, would take a very different view on numerous matters of ecclesiastical importance from that of the Reader of the same church, Walter Travers: if Hooker was the classic exponent of the Anglican via media, Travers was the neck of the Presbyterian party (Thomas Cartwright being the head).[18] And, of course, in time possibly the greatest theologian of the English-speaking world, John Owen, would adopt a congregational understanding of church polity. It was the Reformation which led to this fissiparous state of affairs, something which Catholic apologists, polemicists and controversialists have never been slow to point out. And although the men to whom I have referred were not individualistic in their approach to Scripture or ecclesiology, they differed from each other in their interpretation of Scripture and in their understanding of what had been said by worthies of the past, precisely because they exercised their private judgment. If the Enlightenment is to be blamed for the individualism which characterises much contemporary evangelicalism, then the Reformation also has to bear part of the responsibility. Indeed, the Reformation re-asserted the importance of the individual, after centuries in which he/she had been lost or submerged under the weight of the ecclesiastical machinery of Rome. And thank God for that! Individualism is, no doubt, a poison in the church; but an emphasis upon the individual is not.

b) On the importance of the individual

At this point, there is a certain “lop-sidedness” to Professor Letham’s proper insistence that in Scripture the individual always belongs to some tribe or group.[19] No doubt, when an imbalance needs to be corrected there is the danger of overstatement in the opposite direction. I am suggesting that Professor Letham is guilty of such overstatement. It is, of course, true, as Letham observes, that when Achan sinned, all Israel sinned, and that it may be said that Levi paid tithes to Melchizedek because he was in the loins of Abraham when the latter did so.[20] But this must surely be balanced with the teaching found in a chapter such as Ezekiel 18, where it is the individual whom God holds accountable. Yet, apart from verses 30-32 of that chapter, where Professor Letham discusses God’s will of desire and the nature of repentance, this chapter is neither referenced nor cited in the entire book.[21] There is an important emphasis on the individual in Scripture. What is Jesus doing in Matthew 16:24, if not addressing people as individuals? What is he saying in Matthew 19:29, if not indicating that to become his true follower one may have to break all the familial and communal ties which one has? Of course, one thereby comes into God’s family and this is communal; but the leaving of the one and the becoming a member of the other through union with Christ is, at one level, profoundly personal in an individual way at the existential level. Moreover, after one has become a member both of the universal and invisible church and a member of a local, visible expression of the church, Christ may still address one as an individual: it was to individuals within a lukewarm church, which Christ threatened to spit out of his mouth, that he said: “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.”[22] Although Christ is speaking to the churches, here is very much a reference to the individual and that in a context where the individual may well do what the rest of the church fails to do. I assume that Professor Letham would agree with this but he does not relate this emphasis to the corporate, which he is at pains to rehabilitate into our thinking and practice.

Moreover, if a right emphasis upon the individual can go to seed in individualism, a proper emphasis upon the communal can lead to the bitter fruit of corporatism. One sees this in the attitude of many Japanese people to the company for which they work. Moreover, is it not a good thing that families are no longer saddled with the shame which often was experienced in the past on account of but one black sheep in the family and which still obtains in some parts of the world? Has not an emphasis upon the communal sometimes created psychological problems in those who do not “tow the line”, and has it not created the phenomenon of the “outsider” and “misfit”? Referring to the fact that an emphasis upon an individual existing in union with others is an idea which “is foreign to Western individualism”, Professor Letham goes on to note that “it is commonplace to many cultures in Africa or Asia. You are who you are in relation to others. You are not an isolated island, all by yourself. If you were, it would be high time to see a clinical psychiatrist.”[23] But the sad fact is that I know of enough people from Asia who have experienced mental problems and who needed a clinical psychiatrist precisely because they could not meet the expectations of the group to which they belong. It was the very emphasis upon the group – in some cases, the family – which led to mental problems when, for example, a child feared that he would shame his family by failing to reach a certain academic standard.[24] In other words, anything good might be abused and lead to bad consequences. One can no more lay the blame for individualism at the door of a period which rightly emphasised the individual than one can lay the blame for corporatism and the creation of the outsider and misfit at the door of those periods where there has been a healthy emphasis upon one’s place in community.

It needs also to be borne in mind that sometimes communal pressures put more hurdles in the way of someone becoming a true follower of Jesus than exist in societies where people are encouraged to “do their own thing”. In other words, if individualism is unhealthy in some ways, it is no less the case that “communalism” can also be unhealthy in certain respects.

The simple fact is surely that the Bible emphasises both the individual and the communal and corporate. If Paul can write that God demonstrates his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (corporate), he can just as clearly write (in a letter to churches!), “the Son of God loved me and gave himself for me” (personal). It is to his personal experience he refers when he writes, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” A church’s hymnody, like the book of Psalms, must surely express and reflect both the communal and the individual elements of the Christian life and hope.[25] It is, sadly, somewhat misleading when Professor Letham says, “Most hymns composed after 1700 have this” – that is, individualist – “slant: ‘It is well with my soul…’ ‘Break thou the bread of life, dear Lord, to me.’”[26] The former example is particularly badly chosen because the last verse, speaking of the great eschatological hope of resurrection, says: “But, Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait; / The sky, not the grave, is our goal.”[27] In other words, this hymn joins the individual and the corporate. I have not carried out a statistical analysis of all the hymns written before 1700 and thereafter (has anyone done so?!) to ascertain how many are written in the first person singular and how many are written in the first-person plural; but I suspect that Professor Letham is right in saying that most – that is, over 50% – written after 1700 have an individual slant. The misleading element of this statement, if it is, as I suspect, true resides in the fact that since this represents only just over 300 years, this is hardly unbalanced if the majority of hymns in the previous 1700 years had the corporatist slant. Surely, it was time to redress the imbalance on the corporate! Indeed, it is somewhat ironic that on the very day I am writing these words, my wife and I in our morning devotions together, singing our way through Christian Hymns, were this morning singing a hymn written by John Mason (1646-94), which is entirely in the first person singular.[28] Indeed, while picking up the hymn book for the footnote reference at the end of the previous sentence, the book serendipitously fell open to number 687, a hymn by Antoinette Bourignon (1616-1680) and translated by John Wesley. Again, it is entirely in the first person.[29] I shall not weary the reader with other examples, from Bernard of Clairvaux, Richard Baxter and Paul Gerhardt. Perhaps the really ironic thing is that the Apostles’ Creed is in the first person singular, whereas Graham Kendrick put a modern-day version of it into the first person plural!

c) On the genealogy of ideas

The “genealogy of ideas” cannot always be as neatly traced as Professor Letham suggests. Although in many ways Descartes stands at the head of the “modern period”, it does not follow, as Professor Letham appears to suggest, that Descartes’ programme stands behind the individualism in much contemporary evangelicalism.[30] David Bebbington, also seeking to distinguish modern evangelicalism from Reformation and Puritan understandings of Christianity, saw John Locke’s influence upon Jonathan Edwards as being the really decisive element of Enlightenment thinking and that which helped give rise to modern evangelicalism.[31] Bebbington’s argument, neatly summarised by Garry Williams in a superb critique of Bebbington’s thesis, is that just as Locke reasoned that one could trust one’s senses, so Edwards, hugely influenced by Locke’s thinking, claimed that assurance of salvation could be reached much more easily than it had been by Puritans and Reformers by trusting one’s spiritual senses.[32] (Incidentally, Williams clearly proved the continuity between the Puritans and Edwards in the matter of assurance of salvation.) Although Locke put great emphasis on the individual, his approach was essentially different from that of Descartes, arguing for the importance of the “given” nature of the external world and the sense impressions which it creates in the individual. This empirical approach was, of course, radically different from Descartes’ rationalism. These two very different tributaries both fed into the Enlightenment’s stream of ideas. But claims that they can account for contemporary individualism in evangelicalism can hardly be supported by evidence, as I shall seek to demonstrate.

To begin with, Enlightenment thinking – and in England, especially that of Locke – gave rise to Deism, which was so prevalent in the eighteenth century. If there was one thing which the Evangelical Awakening in England and Wales stood against, it was precisely this poisonous fruit which grew on the tree of Enlightenment.[33] Secondly, it is a common place of studies of eighteenth-century Calvinistic Methodism within Wales and the revivals associated with the Calvinistic Methodists that the leaders of that movement – all men within the Church of England – were concerned that those who had been converted under their preaching remain in the Established Church, even though the officiating clergy were often hostile to the evangelicals.[34] Indeed, the greatest of their preachers, Daniel Rowland of Llangeitho, drank deeply not only from Puritan writings but also – as is clear from his Dialogue between an Orthodox and an Erroneous Methodist – from the early Church Fathers.[35] In his disagreement with Howell Harris, it is abundantly clear that he asserted the importance and value of tradition over against Harris’s heterodox and individualistic judgment. Indeed, it was not only the desire to hear Rowland’s amazingly powerful preaching that led many to walk miles to that isolated spot in rural Wales where he ministered (this, be it noted, constituting a powerful commitment to “the churchly” aspect of the Christian life); the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, according to the Litany of the Church of England, was also hugely important and on at least one occasion led to the most powerful spiritual effects.[36] One might almost be forgiven for thinking that Rowland held to the Eastern Orthodox teaching of epiclesis!

Nor was this “churchly” emphasis upon the importance of this sacrament confined to the Calvinistic Methodists within Wales. J. C. Ryle, quoting from Hardy’s Life of Grimshaw, records a conversation between the Archbishop of York and Grimshaw, when the former was effectively interrogating the latter as to his churchmanship. Grimshaw informed the archbishop that during his ministry in Haworth the number of communicants had increased from twelve to three to four hundred in winter and nearly twelve hundred in summer. The archiepiscopal response is worth noting: “We cannot find fault with Mr Grimshaw when he is instrumental in bringing so many persons to the Lord’s Table.”[37] Evidence such as that which has been adduced could be multiplied many times over and gives the lie to the claim that Enlightenment thinking had so permeated eighteenth-century evangelicalism that it led to an unbalanced emphasis upon the individual, an emphasis which marked a breach with Reformed and Puritan thinking and gave rise to the rampant individualism of our day. In brief, Professor Letham has made a serious charge but he has put the wrong people in the dock.

Before leaving the eighteenth century, it may not be inappropriate to point out that although, contrary to some misrepresentations of the matter, there was missionary concern during the Reformation and Puritan periods, it is indisputable that within Protestantism there was a huge upsurge in missionary concern and activity resulting from the eighteenth-century evangelical revivals.[38] Many parts of the world have cause to thank God for this. One fears that Professor Letham has a somewhat jaundiced view of the eighteenth century. I am suggesting that such a view is hardly justifiable.

3. Professor Letham and the Sacraments

I shall not duplicate what Dr Bayes had to say in response to Professor Letham’s charge that Baptists hold a low view of the sacraments as a means of grace and view the Lord’s Supper in an exclusively memorialist way. It will, however, be worth pointing out that Robert Hall Jr., a leading, early nineteenth-century Particular Baptist, in urging that “the symbol of unity” be not turned into the “apple of discord” (as had happened at the Marburg Colloquy), which would, Hall argued, be the case if Baptists excluded Paedobaptists from the Lord’s Supper, based his case on the fact that the Lord’s people would thereby be deprived of a precious means of grace. He speaks of the “real presence” in words which could have fallen straight from Calvin’s lips.[39] Not only did Hall hold a view of the real presence but, as one committed to an independent ecclesiology, he did not belittle the oneness of the church.[40] On the other hand, it is hardly only twentieth-century, Zwinglian evangelicals who hold to a memorialist view of the Lord’s Supper. Did not Hurrell Froude scorn Bishop Jewell for denying the Lord’s Supper to be a means of grace as distinct from a pledge of remembrance?[41]

Professor Letham clearly believes that much contemporary evangelicalism places insufficient evidence upon the sacraments, and he is almost certainly right in his observation. It is undoubtedly the case that the New Testament refers to repentance and faith, baptism and reception of the Holy Spirit and admission to the visible church as being different elements of a whole. As with marriage, “what God has joined together, let not man put asunder”. Sadly, many evangelical churches have an almost chaotic approach to the sacraments: one may take the Lord’s Supper even though one has not been baptised or become a member of a local church. To this extent Professor Letham’s work provides a necessary corrective to a deplorable state of affairs. But might it just be the case that he places too much emphasis upon the sacraments? I think so and shall seek to explain why.

On page 707 he writes: “in baptism the Spirit baptizes us into union with Christ in his death and resurrection (Rom 6:1ff; 1 Cor 12:13; Col 2:12-13), giving us to share in the one βαπτισμα of Christ for sins upon the cross”. Really? Although Professor Letham elsewhere clearly eschews baptismal regeneration (and, lest I be accused of making an unjust accusation, let me stress that Professor Letham does not believe in baptismal regeneration nor am I claiming that he does), the words just quoted clearly appear to say the opposite. To return for a moment to John Saward’s attempts to convert me to Catholicism in the early to mid-70s, it was precisely the same language which Professor Letham uses which Professor Saward employed then to establish the “Catholic” view of baptism. I can still hear him saying that Romans 6:1ff. did not teach that baptism signifies or seals our union with Christ but that it effects it: no water baptism, no union with Christ; water baptism and the deed is done – one is thereby united to Christ in his death and resurrection. I agreed with Professor Saward at the time that baptism effects union with Christ and I still agree with him. I disagree, however, that it is water baptism which is being referenced in Romans 6:1ff. Nor is this a fanciful line of interpretation: for, as D. M. Lloyd-Jones points out in his sermons on Romans 6, there is a certain parallel with 1 Corinthians 12:13 and there it is the Spirit who baptises us into Christ.[42] And Professor Letham’s citing of Colossians 2:12-13 surely clinches this, precisely because the apparent reference in those verses to the Old Testament sign and seal of circumcision is just that: an apparent reference, for verse 11 makes it quite clear that Paul is referring to a circumcision not done by the hands of men. It is spiritual circumcision to which Paul refers (and that to Gentile Christians who had not been physically circumcised), to the reality which is signified and sealed by the sacrament done by the hands of men. This being so – and all the more so in the light of 1 Corinthians 12:13 and John the Baptist’s words that whereas he baptised with water, Jesus would baptise with the Holy Spirit – it makes perfect sense that Paul is making the same kind of reference to baptism: it is the spiritual baptism, of which water baptism is the sign and seal.

Again, on page 709, Professor Letham states that in speaking of the Corinthians having been washed, “the baptismal reference is clear-cut”. But Gordon Fee has argued forcefully and persuasively that though there may be an allusion to baptism, there are compelling reasons for believing that Paul is not speaking of baptism here.[43] Perhaps it is not so clear-cut after all. But agreeing with Anthony Cross, Professor Letham claims that Fee (and James D. G. Dunn, who has argued for a similar understanding of baptism to Fee’s exposition) has fallen prey to a dualism between matter and spirit which has more affinity with Gnosticism than with biblical Christianity. Well, if so, then is Anthony Thiselton also among the dualists, since he is clearly very sympathetic to Dunn’s position?[44] Dunn, Fee, Lloyd-Jones, and now Thiselton are all tainted by dualism simply because they interpret certain verses as referring to a spiritual reality rather than to the sacramental sign and seal of that reality. Since in Romans 2:28-29; 4:9-11 and Colossians 2:11 Paul also emphasises the value of “spiritual circumcision” as over against the physical sign and seal, are we to say that Paul is also amongst the dualists? Is there not, at this point, the danger of an overly-academic approach which is divorced from the realities of pastoral life and practice? One is not falling victim to an unbiblical dualism and certainly not to a kind of Gnosticism if one acknowledges a fearful tendency of the human heart to rest in the performance of a rite or ceremony, even though that rite be biblically sanctioned. It was for precisely this reason that the leaders of the eighteenth-century evangelical awakening preached as forcefully as they did upon spiritual rebirth: so many of their hearers were placing reliance upon the sacrament of baptism, just as so many of Paul’s contemporaries were placing confidence in circumcision. This no more denies the importance of baptism, than Paul denied the importance of circumcision.[45] It is, however, simply to acknowledge that in the real world (yes, the real physical and spiritual world), many need to be warned of the dangers of formalism.

Indeed, some of Paul’s language in Romans makes it difficult to accept some of Professor Letham’s statements about baptism. Although he is quite clear that union with Christ is effected by the Holy Spirit, who is sovereign, and that baptism does not automatically graft one into Christ; although he stresses that faith is essential to salvation, he can nevertheless make the following statement:

Notwithstanding, the grace of union with Christ – signified, sealed, and exhibited in baptism – is conferred by the Holy Spirit. This is due to the Spirit alone, yet it occurs not independently of baptism but rather in and through it.[46]

What do these words mean? Surely Paul’s whole argument in Romans 4:9-12 is that the righteousness which was credited to Abraham was credited independently of circumcision. Circumcision was a sign and seal of something rather than being that in and through which righteousness was credited to him. When, later, Professor Letham states that the connection between baptism and regeneration is not automatic, temporal or logical, but theological, what precisely does he mean by this? And how does this relate to the claim that union with Christ is effected by the Spirit in and through baptism? It seems decidedly different from what Paul writes in Romans 4 was the case with respect to Abraham and the sacramental sign and seal of circumcision.[47]

It is all too easy to say that those who do not accept the sacramental interpretation of passages where Professor Letham sees a reference to water baptism are guilty of a dualism which smacks of Gnosticism. While some may well have overvalued the spirit over the body, one can hardly accuse all who disagree with Professor Letham of this fault. This is to indulge in a kind of theological name calling, of smearing people with “guilt by association”. Indeed, it would not be too difficult to prove that men whom Professor Letham evidently admires had fallen prey to an unhealthy dualism in some areas and downplayed the importance of the physical. One thinks of Chrysostom’s view that Adam and Eve could not have had sexual relations before the Fall; of Augustine’s view that although procreation was legitimate, the sexual passions which accompanied the procreative act were always sinful (in other words, intercourse between a man and his wife is all right as long as they don’t enjoy it!); and I shall not elaborate upon the views of Origen and Gregory of Nyssa on this aspect of life, lest this review should become too farcical. But on any reckoning, this was dualism on a grand scale.

V. Concluding Thoughts

Much more might be said about Professor Letham’s emphasis upon the sacraments and his failure to interact with views which differ from his but, as with the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, time would fail me to do so.[48] Instead, let me end on a positive note. I have said that Professor’s Letham’s Systematic Theology is a truly great work. Even when one disagrees with some of the good professor’s views, one is glad to have been made to think and to think hard about the things which he says. He has written a magnum opus which rightly challenges much which passes for evangelicalism; and where I consider him to be mistaken on some things, it is nevertheless valuable to have the issues raised by him and to be forced to go back to meditate prayerfully on passages of Scripture and to listen to what others have said of those passages in the long history of the church. His book deserves to have a place not only on the shelf of every pastor and theological student but also – and more importantly – to be frequently open on their desks. And not only on the desk: for though not light reading, it is truly a delight to read such an edifying volume and is one to be relished of an evening in a comfortable armchair. More than that – and this, surely, would fulfil Professor Letham’s desire to see greater emphasis upon the communal and corporate life of God’s people – it is a book which could be profitably studied and discussed in pastors’ fraternals and in church discussion groups. It is a friend to be cherished for life and it is likely to remain a standard volume of systematic theology for a very long time to come. We thank Professor Letham for his consecrated labours in producing such a work, and give glory to the God of all grace.


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