Did They Really Study at Westminster?

Some of us have thought that the problems at WTS went beyond whether or not Pete Enns believed in biblical inerrancy. A series that Daniel Kirk is writing on the structure of the universe shows why those concerns were and still are valid. (Thanks to Art Boulet for the tip about Kirk’s series.)  Professor Kirk studied at WTS in the 1990s, went on to do a Ph.D. in NT at Duke, and now teaches at Fuller.

In part six of this series, Kirk contends that Westminster Confession theology so emphasizes the law, and the non-biblical covenants of works and grace, that Israel is really a historical fiction that has no place in Reformed theology other than a “place holder” until Christ comes. It’s all about Adam and Christ; Israel is supposedly an afterthought.

Kirk contrasts this position with the New Perspective and N.T. Wright in which:

the particulars of God’s covenant relationship with Israel are the particulars through which God is going to exercise a universal saving action to restore the entire world to Godself. In other words, this reading of Jesus depends on a fundamentally different understanding of the cosmos than the law-based picture of Reformed Theology, but folks in the Reformed world were able to appropriate it unawares because conservative, traditional Reformed Theology did not have any stake in the Gospels. Its adherents didn’t see the crack in the door because they were only dealing with Jesus.

The advantages of the New Perspective over Westminster Calvinism are many but here are a couple that Kirk highlights. The first, from part four, is that salvation is now so much bigger than merely salvation from sin and death. Kirk writes:

Wright sees in the OT’s assessment of the “problem” not only sin but also injustice, persecution, groaning creation, etc. In other words, the restoration of the cosmos is going to have to deal with the powers that war against God’s good purposes–powers that are greater than the sum of the rebellion lodged in persons’ hearts.

The other advantage, and one deeply relevant to the debates over Enns’ book, is that the New Perspective takes history and the humanity of Christ and the Bible seriously. According to Kirk:

Why does the New Perspective, with its insistence on seeing the story of Israel at the middle of everything, garner such harsh opposition? Because to say that Israel is at the middle of everything means that God’s relationship with the cosmos and humans in particular is tied to deeply contingent and historical factors: actual covenants in space and time, eras of history within which God acts differently toward different people, an identity for God that is tied to events and people within history rather than abstract, absolute categories.

Kirk offers this conclusion, which doesn’t really seem to trouble him or several other former WTS folks who respond to applaud the original post and the series:

Once you have said that Israel matters–that the actual covenants with Abraham and Moses and David matter–then you have cut away the exegetical moorings by which Reformed theology has created its Works versus Grace antithesis, cut away the scriptural “proof” for the Reformed version of the covenantal structure of the cosmos, and thereby undermined the way in which the early Reformed Tradition opposed Roman Catholicism and articulated its doctrine of justification.


Now, of course, Kirk could be right and Reformed folk may need to give up Westminster Calvinism.  Then again, he could be wrong about covenant theology, as many biblical theologians are about historical theology.

But even more to the point, I sure hope he’s wrong about the salvation of my sin.  It may be reassuring to N.T. Wright to have Christ’s Lordship on his side in his case for banks forgiving third-world nations’ debts.  And it surely does seem to be the case that “progressive” views on Scripture, soteriology, and global tranformationalism ran together at certain parts of the WTS campus.  But for my only hope and comfort, I’d sure like the vicarious atonement to matter more than social injustice and the messiness of history.

6 thoughts on “Did They Really Study at Westminster?

  1. Doesn’t Reformed Theology take into account Israel? How would we be wrong? How do we refute Kirk and Wright?


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