Theological Precision and Doxology

In his little book, Letters to a Young Calvinist, James K.A. Smith indulges in a riff I have heard echoing through certain halls of the Reformed house of late. At the end of Letter XI, “On Being ‘Confessional’” he gives a swift sideswipe to the Westminster Standards. “But I have to confess that when I discovered the Heidelberg Catechism, it was like discovering a nourishing oasis compared to the arid desert of Westminster’s cool scholasticism.”[1] This sets up his next letter, entitled “Beyond Westminster.” Smith’s evaluation of Heidelberg v. the Westminster Standards is one I’ve heard before and it is one I find to be rather unhelpful.

Now, you will get no argument from me that the Heidelberg Catechism is a personal and pastoral treasure-trove. And of course the crown jewel in that vault is the opening question. Heidelberg Q&A #1 is in an elite class of Gospel summaries. I also recognize that there is a crisper and more pedagogically precise air about the Westminster Standards. But does that pervasive theological precision thus make the Westminster Standards an “arid desert” for our faith?

Smith thinks so. “The latter (“continental”[2]) confessions have an existential esprit about them that seems to seep into my soul in a way that Westminster’s more ‘logical’ approach does not.”[3]

But I think not.

I don’t know how someone can read WCF 5.5 amidst grappling with their own sinful failures and not leave with a sense of encouraging clarity as to the purpose of God’s providence in their crucible. I don’t know how one can hear that we have been “taken into the number, and enjoy the liberties and privileges of the children of God,” and read that we are “pitied, protected, provided for, and chastened by him as by a father, yet never cast off” (WCF 12.1) and not flush with an inexhaustible sense of love and gratitude towards our Heavenly Father.

I don’t know how one can read that “worthy receivers” of the Lord’s Supper spiritually “receive, and feed upon Christ crucified and all the benefits of his death” (WCF 29.7) and not want to sprint to the nearest celebration of the Lord’s Table.

I don’t know how someone can answer that Christ is “ruling and defending us” and “restraining and conquering all his and our enemies” (WSC 26) and not rise to meet their life in this world with unshakable trust in their King. I don’t know how one can read that in our union with Christ, we are “united to one another in love,” and “have communion in each other’s gifts and graces,” (WCF 26.1) and not increase in how they cherish their relationships within the Body of Christ.

We could be here all day and still barely scratch the service of the Westminster Standards.

But I list these to put a face on something: it has been my experience that the Westminster Standards are soaked in the language of theological truth which inflames my soul.

My first thought when I read Smith’s assessment of the Westminster Standards was, “Has he actually read them?” But, surely a man of his credentials has. So I suspect that maybe it is because he suffers from the same malady that infects many of my generation. It is the instinct that the moment theology begins to be ‘logical’ or more technically precise, it is as though someone poked a hole in its bottom to let all the life drain out of it.

I get that instinct when I encounter it among immature Christians and the 11 year olds entering my junior catechism class for the first time. It befuddles me when I encounter it among my thoughtful and erudite Reformed brothers.

I think the remedy for this malady is actually prescribed by Smith just before he launches into his polemic against the Westminster Standards. He compares the function of creeds and confessions to learning Greek grammar in order to read the Greek New Testament. “So also, I learn the ‘grammar’ of faith articulated in the creeds and confessions, not as ends in themselves, but as an invitation to read Scripture well, and as guides for faithful practice.”[4]

Smith is on the money here. The “grammar” given to us by our Reformed confessions allows us to read Scripture better and practice the Christian life more faithfully. But they do that in large part exactly because they have given us “logical” and technically precise boundaries to give clarity in those tasks. Isn’t that what grammar does after all, give an ordered set of nerves, muscles, and bones, so that living breathing use of language may move to its fullest potential? Theological precision, when understood and used rightly, supports life rather than draining it. It ought to give our personal faith and ministry to others greater vivaciousness and dexterity.

It is not the case that precision in orthodoxy necessarily stifles doxology and piety. Far from it, such precision gives intricate expression to the multifaceted jewel of the Gospel. And such intricate expression lends depth of texture to the truth which cannot but open our lips in praise to our Redeemer and move our hands in faithful service to our King.


[1] James K.A. Smith, Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition, (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2010), pg. 55.

[2] Would Smith include the third installment of the Three Forms of Unity in this, the Canons of Dordt?

[3] Ibid, pg. 59.

[4] Ibid, pg. 52

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Joel Carini

5 years ago

Amen! That is very common among my fellow young evangelicals. (I’m 21.) But I’ve never found more vibrant spiritual life than among confessional, orthodox, reformed (or so) Christians. Granted, among young evangelicals, the distaste for theological precision doesn’t lead them very often to fall back on the “imprecise” Heidelberg Catechism. That wouldn’t be anything bad in my opinion! But the attitude itself is mistaken, one that leads people to think that we should have very weak confessions, with few points, that we all interpret differently (read, “a lot of contemporary evangelicalism”).

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