Monthly Archives: January 2006

Protecting the Reformed Faith 1: Needed Amendments to the PCA Constitution

Below I spoke of the lack of precision in rejecting alleged doctrinal error, and how personal loyalty is being used as a substitute for it in many cases. The problem, I suggested, was an unwillingness to suggest new creedal documents or revisions in old ones.

But what if someone actually grasped this nettle? What would they need to propose to “protect” my own denomination, the PCA:

I think we should start with the BCO since amendments are easier to make. For example, in the preliminary principle #3:

Our blessed Saviour, for the edification of the visible Church, which is His body, has appointed officers not only to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments, but also to exercise discipline for the preservation both of truth and duty (emphasis added).

If anyone really thinks that various “new” (?) thinking is a threat, they need to get this amended to say:

Our blessed Saviour, for the edification of the visible Church, which is not His body because only the invisible church may be described in this way, has appointed officers not only to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments, but also to exercise discipline for the preservation both of truth and duty.

Likewise, the beginning of the preface about Jesus being “THE KING AND HEAD OF THE CHURCH” would need to be rewritten so that it no longer included the emphasized words:

Jesus Christ, upon whose shoulders the government rests, whose name is called Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace; of the increase of whose government and peace there shall be no end; who sits upon the throne of David, and upon His kingdom to order it and to establish it with judgment and justice from henceforth, even forever (Isaiah 9:6-7); having all power given unto Him in heaven and in earth by the Father, who raised Him from the dead and set Him at His own right hand, far above all principality and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come, and has put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be the Head over all things to the Church, which is His body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all (Ephesians 1:20-23); He, being ascended up far above all heavens, that He might fill all things, received gifts for His Church, and gave all offices necessary for the edification of His Church and the perfecting of His saints (Ephesians 4:10-13).

After all, this too makes the “body of Christ” the curch with offices–offices that are visible.

Personally, I don’t think we should make these revisions. If we were to do so, I think it is obvious we would be outside any possible permutation of a genuine Reformed heritage. But readers must make up their own mind.

For myself, it is not just about whether or not the BCO is preserving an ancient heritage (though I think that preface does go back a ways). Perhaps this is a sign of unregeneracy to Archibald Alexander, but my children are not thrilled about sitting through a long talk and hearing long portions of Scripture read, nor having to learn to read small print fast enough to learn new long songs with a vocabulary that is not already familiar to them (nothing personal, Jeff). So what am I to tell them? “Well God commands it as our duty, so there!” Sometimes I more or less say that. But more often I tell them that at Church we get renewed and strengthened in our union with Christ, whether we understand how it is happening or not. We are returning to the core of who we are, gathering as the Church, being built up in and as the body of Christ. I point out to them that Jesus eats and drinks with us (well, all of us the Reformed Tradition allows to come to Jesus for fellowship, anyway). I point out that as boring as sitting still is at one time there were no chairs in God’s presence. Priests were servants who had to work in God’s house and that was all. And there was no wine-drinking in the Tabernacle/Temple. No one got to relax with Jesus then. And few got to even enter it. Sure, God invited people to come eat and drink with him, but they had to stay outside. “Come on over and enjoy yourselves at my picnic, but don’t come closer than the porch.” Even kings were restricted and one was struck with exile just for trying to push into the front door. And here we are sitting among visible people who are living stones in the Temple of the Lord, and fellow members of the body of Christ. Here we see the body of Christ not as two-dimensional charicatures of the image of God, but as real images of God being truly renewed in the image of the Son of God.

And the officers are not simply a convenient arrangement for some sort of social device to stimulate contemplations of the invisible. When deacons assist you they are doing so as the Spirit-sent representatives of Jesus your helper and deliverer. And when the elders preside and lead the church they are acting in the person of Jesus Christ. And when your pastor, a minister of the Gospel, speaks to you as you are assembled as the body of Christ, you are hearing God’s voice, which has to be worth something even if you don’t always follow.

If that is not true, then why bother with church and worship? Even if the TULIP can be uprooted from the Reformed Faith and kept in a sterile hydroponic garden somewhere away from the earth and sky, why would anyone want to do it? I don’t see it. And ignorant panic about alleged correlations with popular conceptions of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy simply don’t have enough weight to keep me from loving what we have in its original form and raising my children as proud Presbyterians. (I’m hoping ecumenicity will come with maturity; right now my sons distribute black hats to all others without any encouragement from me. Tribalism is inherent in a child’s quest for identity, I guess.)

More amendments later if time permits.

Doctrinal affirmations or personal loyalties?

One of the results of the Arian controversies and other (anti-)Trinitarian uprisings in the early church were creeds and formulations that specifically expressed in positive content what was to be believed about God and Jesus. The Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian formulations are case studies in precision resulting from conflict. In fact, they were innovative. If the early church pastors and teachers had insisted that they already had everything they needed in formal doctrine they could never have developed an instrument to deal with Arians and others.

The Westminster Confession has much similar content. “Arminianism” is not a word you will find in the Confession nor in the Catechisms. When Arminianism is completely eradicated from Christendom (by peaceful persuasion, in case you were wondering), the portions of the Westminster Confession and catechisms dealing with this issue will still be just as understandable as they are now.

There are other sorts of statements in the Westminster Confession. For example:

…much less hath the pope any power and jurisdiction over them in their dominions, or over any of their people; and, least of all, to deprive them of their dominions, or lives, if he shall judge them to be heretics, or upon any other pretense whatsoever.

What is different about this is it names someone. One of the issues being dealt with was not reducible simply to what one ought to teach, but to whom ought one be submissive to. Personal loyalties were at issue rather than simply doctrinal affirmations (I realize that one can formulate verbally these personal loyalties as doctrinal formulations but my vague distinction is still entirely helpful and legitimate). When all the Roman Catholics join the Protestant fold this stuff will make no sense at all. A hundred thousand years from now no one will know what Westminster was talking about (assuming anyone remembers Westminster at all by then).

This brings me to my observation. Recently a four-congregation denomination was born that included this in its constitution:

We condemn all human perversions of the Protestant biblical doctrine of Justification by grace through faith alone, whether from Romanism or from various alleged Protestant denominations, e.g., covenantal nomism, the New Perspective on Paul, the Auburn Avenue/Federal Vision doctrine or Shepherdism. Further, we shall not extend the right hand of fellowship nor have fraternal relations with ecclesiastical bodies that refuse to discipline church officers holding to these damnable heresies.

In theory, this is all about doctrinal affirmation, but in fact there is no doctrinal content. No formula, affirmation, or denial is included. Just when you expect some needful propositions all you get are a list of personal loyalties demanded as self-evident. There’s the last name of a man that we must reject and likewise one church. The other labels are notoriously vague and basically stand in for various scholars.

This reminds me of a reactionary essay I read on the Lord’s Supper a few months back which, other than being a case study in what D. A. Carson describes as the root word fallacy, contained a standard for orthodoxy that consisted not in doctrines but in people. If you like Charles Hodge but have no time for John Williamson Nevin, then you are all right. Otherwise your (strangely measured) orthodoxy may be called into question.

It seems to me that people are caught in a situation that only allows them to go in this direction. The objects of their criticism are allegedly all teaching new doctrine contrary to the doctrinal standards of the Church. To call for a new creed would be to admit that the accused are in fact well within the old boundaries. I’m all for acknowledging the limitations of doctrinal formulations but this is precisely the area where they are required. Instead of hearing whose name has been associated with any alleged “movement,” we should be getting real doctrinal analysis either arguing for a new standard based on Scripture or showing how the present standard has been violated.

Obviously, the second option is not going to work. On issues like “paedocommunion” which has been associated with these things eveyone knows that it is not confessional and many presbyteries have ruled that it is an allowable exception to be preached and taught. On other issues, it simply is not a confessional issue. There is nothing in my oath of ministerial office, for example, that mandates I agree with Luther about the soteriology of Second-Temple Judaism.

So instead we get personal loyalty lists. Guilt-by-association has become the official method of analysis in some quarters.

Postscript: As Jeff reports, we approved and accepted a report on “the Federal Vision” etc that is, I’m happy to say, about doctrinal affirmations and denials rather than personal loyalties. I know the committee members worked hard, and they have my thanks.

Is Europe Dead to God?

I thought this link I picked up from Al Moehler was interesting enought to share to anyone who hasn’t seen it yet:

Is God Dead in Europe?

This would be more reason to hope for Jenkin’s scenario since the South, humanly speaking, seems our only demographic hope. (I mean the global South, silly!)

Whither the US? Well, populist Christianity seems to be holding out against antithetical cultures dominating politics and media (compared to Europe, anyway). I guess the question will be whether it degenerates to the level of UFO belief.

A couple of worthwhile things on BHT

Actually, almost everything at The Boar’s Head Tavern is worthwhile, but a couple of things inspire quick links:

  1. Michael Spencer links Can’t we be civil, damn it?! I’m mentioned in this. Makes some constructive comments in line with observations at the Craw.
  2. These comments about assurance jive with the questions that popped into my own head in looking at the Challies piece. But, as providence would have it, I had some time to work through the beginning of Calvin’s 1536 chapter on Christian Liberty while waiting to get my hair cut. (By the way, if you don’t own the 1536 edition of the institutes, you are missing out on some great stuff!) Calvin makes no bones about it. Liberty is essential to the Gospel, the work of Christ, and to justification. Why? Because people would be paralyzed with fear if they thought that God was scrutinizing their actions to see if they are blameless. But God is a loving Father who happily receives our deeds. The idea that a Christian should ever doubt this is simply unthinkable in Calvin’s system. It would overthrow everything he has to say about the cross, the gospel, grace, and justificaiton.

    I realize, of course, that it is possible to find precedents for later Reformed thought in Calvin’s extensive writings. And, frankly, I think it is right to distinguish between faith and assurance for many who have struggles with assurance. Pastorally, I would be opposed to anything that denied such struggling believers were God’s children. Nevertheless, Calvin’s position does make a lot of sense in Romans 14. Not sure what to think of all this.