Understanding the Confession: Thomas Watson’s Body of Divinity
J. V. Fesko
Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (1692; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2008). Paper. $16.00.
The Westminster Standards are an important set of documents that include the Confession, Larger, and Shorter Catechisms. There are a number of helpful resources on the book market that can help a student understand what the Standards teach concerning the Scriptures and the doctrinal truths therein. However, one of the most helpful ways to understand what the Standards teach is studying the works of theologians of the period. Sometimes, though well-intentioned, theologians separated by several hundred years can misunderstand precisely what the Standards state.
With a work such as Thomas Watson’s (c. 1620-86) A Body of Divinity, this distance is eliminated. Watson was an English Puritan minister who wrote this work that expounds the teaching of the Shorter Catechism by taking from sermons that he preached. This Banner of Truth edition covers the subjects of the importance of catechizing, the chief end of man, God and his creation, the fall, the covenant of grace and its mediator, the application of redemption, and the final judgment and the last day. The strengths of this work is that Watson’s exposition is terse, straight to the point, easily understood, and practical.
Concerning the first question of the catechism, “What is the chief end of man? A. To glorify God and enjoy him forever,” and the doctrine of providence, for example, Watson writes: “We glorify God, by being contented in that state in which Providence has placed us. We give God the glory of his wisdom, when we rest satisfied with what he carves out to us” (13). This is a terrific doctrinal and practical insight—we affirm that God is sovereign over all things, but if we complain about the day-to-day events in our lives, can we truly claim to understand God’s providence? If we understand the nature of God’s providence, then Watson’s point is that we should therefore glorify God in all things as we acknowledge that all things in our lives come from the hand of God.
Beyond insightful doctrinal analysis, it is also interesting to read Watson’s work because he cites so many different theologians from throughout church history: patristic theologians such as Augustine, Cyprian, Tertullian, and Chrysostom, medieval theologians such as Bernard of Clairvaux, Boethius, and Anselm, and Reformation and post-Reformation theologians such as Calvin, Luther, Beza, and Myconius. What this shows is that Reformed theologians of the period did not draw narrowly upon one figure, such as Calvin alone, but upon a host of theologians. In fact, Watson perhaps cites Augustine more than any other theologian. But Watson also goes beyond theology and cites Aristotle, Plato, and Cicero at times. This cornucopia of knowledge makes for interesting reading, to say the least.
Works such as Watson’s Body of Divinity are truly helpful and illuminating as they cast light upon the faith that we confess and aid us in the comprehension of the Westminster Standards. For these reasons, people should pick up and read this beneficial work.