Divine Rule Maintained: Anthony Burgess, Covenant Theology, and the Place of the Law in Reformed Scholasticism
Stephen J. Casselli
Reformation Heritage Books, 2016
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Reformation Heritage Books has released two titles in its Studies on the Westminster Assembly Series and, so far, they have come out swinging. These titles provide research and reflection on the assembly, its documents, and the people who wrote the Westminster Standards. Driving this series is John R. Bower and Chad Van Dixhoorn and the work of the Westminster Assembly Project.

In this volume, Stephen J. Casselli, Pastor of Holy Trinity Presbyterian Church in Tampa, Florida, has done a remarkable job of explaining one of the most crucial figures and works surrounding the Westminster Assembly: Anthony Burgess’s Vindiciae Legis (hereafter VL). One of the tragedies of our time is that many of the works of the Reformed and Puritan writers remain either untranslated into English or only available in facsimile. Thus, a work like VL is difficult for a layman or elder unaccustomed to reading texts of the time.

Casselli’s book does the Reformed world a great service by providing an overview of Burgess’s arguments in VL and placing them in their historical and theological context. Of note is the introduction, wherein Casselli explains the kind of education given to ministers and theologians who participated in the Assembly and how that shaped the rhetoric and precision of thought of these men. They were trained from an early age to read classical philosophy, to debate to the finest detail, and to defend a thesis with rigor and erudition.

So what is contained in VL? In summary, it is a defense of the law as given at creation and as given at Sinai and how that law relates to the Covenant of Works, the Mosaic Covenant, and in the New Covenant. Casselli starts his discussion of Burgess’s work by describing the relationship between creation and natural law. This is an area of theology that, unfortunately, is very lacking amongst Calvinistic “five-pointers” and Young, Restless, and Reformed believers. Since many in these movements assume a strict law/gospel distinction, inherited more from the Lutheran tradition than the Reformed yet with an antinomian twist, they do not admit of laws of nature that were revealed on Adam’s heart. Casselli explains how Burgess unpacks natural law, how that relates to the imago dei, and how that differs from the Covenant of Works in the garden.

From there, he goes on to describe how the Law of Moses relates to the law of nature. He also explains the classic three-fold division of the law into moral, ceremonial, and judicial/civil categories.  Following this, Casselli’s 5th chapter explores how Burgess explained the administrations of the Covenant of Grace and how the law continues to abide in the New Covenant, and in what sense the law of Moses is fulfilled.

The only criticism I would have of this work is that it had scant details on the discussions surrounding the judicial laws of Moses and if and how those continue in the New Covenant. I would have like to have seen more developed there, especially considering the breadth of primary documents available on that topic.

What I especially enjoyed about the concluding remarks is that Casselli states that the Reformed view of law and covenant is a “Catholic Hermeneutic”. He writes:

What is perhaps more striking to the modern reader is the number of times Burgess cited the church fathers, Augustine in particular. There are fifty-seven citations of Augustine, more than for any other writer; twenty-one of Chrysostom, and twelve of Tertullian. Other important early writers to which he made reference include Athanasius, Basil, Clement of Alexandria, Gregory Nazianzus, and Irenaeus. For Burgess and his contemporaries, authors of antiquity were viewed as more significant authorities that the relatively recent Reformed writers. The academic culture of the day would dictate a minimal appeal to such “modern” writers for the credible establishment of Christian doctrine…a careful study of Burgess’s work reveals that he was clearly working out his theology of the law in dialogue with the whole patristic tradition (p. 137).

This is instructive for us as Christians and theologians today. We too often fall into what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery”, privileging our own time as somehow better or more advanced than what has come before. To the contrary, the Reformed have always sought to show the patristic roots of their theology and Burgess’s work is one example of that.

I highly recommend Casselli’s work to anyone trying to understanding Westminster 19 on the Law of God. It explains the background and theology of that chapter well and is understandable, well organized, and succinctly articulated. It also has much to say regarding recent developments in covenant theology (including New Covenant Theology) and specifically particular expressions of what is known as “republicationism” in the Reformed and Presbyterian churches.

I was offered a copy of this book for review by the publisher, Reformation Heritage Books. I was not offered additional compensation for my review nor was a positive review expected, only the hope that I would mention the book on my blog. 

I am a Reformed Presbyterian. I offer all content as my own personal reflections. I am not a licensed minister.