logo

http://northernrenaissance.org | ISSN: 1759-3085

Creative Commons License

Published under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported Creative Commons License.

You are free to share, copy and transmit this work under the following conditions:

Stephen J. Casselli, Divine Rule Maintained: Anthony Burgess, Covenant Theology, and the Place of the Law in Reformed Scholasticism (Reformation Heritage Books, 2016). ISBN: 9781601783509, 188 pp.+xiv, $40.00.

Reviewed by Harrison Perkins

[1] The Studies on the Westminster Assembly series, edited by Chad van Dixhoorn and John R. Bower, endeavors to fill 783509the hole in our knowledge of figures, documents, and events connected to the development of British Reformation thought and the intersection between religion and politics in England, Ireland, and Scotland. Stephen Casselli’s book contributes to that project by exploring one of the major works by a prominent figure of the Westminster Assembly, Anthony Burgess’ Vindiciae Legis. The thrust of his book is to examine how Burgess explains the relationship of biblical law to its various applications in history.

[2] The first highlight of the book is Casselli’s treatment of Burgess’ life, and especially his education. He gives a very informative biographical summary of Burgess’ early life and training and his various pastoral callings, including his time at the Westminster Assembly. Most helpful is his description of the education administered at Cambridge during the seventeenth century. He makes clear the rigorous training they received in logic, languages, philosophy, debate and classic literature. It is clear that this type of education supports Casselli’s broader argument that Reformed thinkers of the period did not implement scholastic methods as a rationalistic system of metaphysics, but that making scholastic distinctions and definitions for the sake of debate was simply bred into them in all of their schooling. His summary here is helpful for any scholar looking for an accessible summary of educational methods and an entryway into further sources through the footnotes.

[3] The bulk of the book is devoted to exploring how Burgess treats the law of God in various periods of history. He explains Burgess’ view that the “natural law” was given to Adam. This law is essentially the same as what the Reformed theological tradition calls the “moral law,” which is summarized by the Ten Commandments. This law was given to Adam and, as a covenant wholly dependent upon obedience, which Adam violated, explains humanity’s fall from a paradisaical state into sin. This Burgess takes to be part of an intellectual shift in the early modern period away from realist notions of how sin was transmitted from Adam to humanity to more representative notions, associated with covenant theology.

[4] This same law was also given to Moses, but was not given to him as a covenant wholly dependent upon obedience, but as part of God’s plan of salvation that Reformed thought poses as substantially unified throughout history. The use of the law in this covenant of grace is not to set humanity’s probation, but to guide the lives of God’s chosen people, Israel. Burgess argues that use of the law to guide people’s lives in godliness is not abrogated by the coming of Christ, but people still owe obedience to God from gratitude for salvation.

[5] Casselli does well to direct our attention to scholastic methods implemented at various places throughout Burgess’ Vindiciae Legis. He also helpfully navigates us through some of the historical debates that were likely shaping the polemical edges of Burgess’ explanations. Overall, there is great strength in his presentation that helps us better understand a significant feature of seventeenth-century theology, i.e. the role of God’s law.

[6] Yet, there are a few weaknesses to this study that readers should note. Casselli seems over-eager to use his historical findings to address modern day debates in the Reformed tradition. This is clear in his introduction and also throughout the work, as many footnotes direct us to theological works pertaining to current dispute rather than Burgess’ historical context. The conclusion gives some prescriptive judgment of which positions from his historical study are theologically correct.

[7] Although Casselli states that there is no way to prove that Burgess’ views are those primarily adopted into the Westminster Confession of Faith’s chapter on the law, he leaves us with the implication that they are. The import of this is that if the Confession’s view is Burgess’ view, that limits the scope of acceptable doctrine in the seventeenth-century church (and for those who still hold this confession). This, however, does not seem to take account of the consensual nature of confessional documents. Although they were drafted by particular people, their scope was not limited  only to the views  of those who drafted them. Additionally, it is not helpful to imply that Burgess stands behind the doctrine of the confessional document if no suggestions can be made as to how his view came to be contained there.

[8] Lastly, in a work focused largely upon one historical work, many questions are left unanswered. Casselli does provide a helpful summary of the contents of Burgess’ book, and a guide to the debates that likely stood behind his arguments. On the other hand, he does little to show the actual reception of the book, beyond showing that it was originally written as lectures and published at the encouragement of other theologians. More significantly, Casselli does not address literary historical matters such as what significance this book actually played within the life and career of Burgess and does little to explore its relation to his other works.

[9] Despite these criticisms, Casselli’s book is well worth reading. It provides a helpful framework for understanding the historical context and debates surrounding the Vindiciae Legis, and gives many good insights into how the Reformed tradition relates to scholastic methodology.

Queen’s University Belfast, October 2016