Understanding the Confession: Dickson’s Truth’s Victory Over Error
J. V. Fesko
David Dickson, Truth’s Victory Over Error: A Commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith. 1684; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2007. 272 pp. Cloth. $24.00
Not too many people are likely familiar with David Dickson (1583-1663). Dickson was a Scottish theologian and contemporary of the Westminster Assembly. Dickson was one of the first moderators of the General Assembly in 1639 and was the co-author of the now famous Sum of Saving Knowledge. The Sum was a brief summarization of the theology of the Westminster Standards, and was bound with Scottish editions of the Standards. In fact, the Free Presbyterian Publications edition of the Standards includes the Sum. So while Dickson was not an advisor to the assembly, he was nevertheless intimately familiar with the Standards, as well as well as part of the same historical theological context. These two facts alone commend Dickson’s commentary on the Westminster Confession.
In addition to these observations, what commends Dickson’s commentary on the Confession is the fact that he typically identifies the parties with whom he disagrees. In other words, the Confession often states a position, rejects a position, but does not identify the group who holds the rejected position. For example, in chapter 3 on “God’s Eternal Decree,” the divines reject the idea that God “decreed anything because he foresaw it as future.” They do not mention the Arminians by name, but this is the group who held the idea that God made his decree based upon foreknown human decisions. Unlike the Confession, Dickson names names: “Well then, do not the Lutherans and Arminians err who maintain the decree of predestination to be general and conditional, depending upon persevering faith (which they affirm depends upon the will of man), and foreseen infidelity and want of faith? Yes” (28). In fact, Dickson names the Arians, Arminians, Anabaptists, Antinomians, Brownists, Donatists, Epicureans, Eutychians, Erastians, Familists, Jesuits, Independents, Libertines, Manicheans, Pelagians, Papists, Quakers, Socinians, Sabellians, Sceptics, and Vaninians as opponents to the truth. Dickson’s commentary, then, makes for interesting reading to see when certain opponents arise and when they do not.
For example, regarding chapter 22, “Of Lawful Oaths and Vows,” this chapter perhaps seems out of place within the broader confession. Why include this subject in a confession? Dickson explains that Anabaptists believed that a person could take an oath and equivocate on the meaning of the words of the oath. He also notes that Papists believed that a person could make an oath with mental reservations. Against this backdrop, Dickson’s illumination of opponents assists the reader in understanding the rationale for many of the statements in the Confession. In other words, reading Dickson alongside of the Confession helps the reader contextualize the document.
For all of these reasons, I highly recommend that anyone who desires to understand the Westminster Standards at a deeper level obtain and read Dickson’s commentary.