Category Archives: autobio

RePost: A paragraph that changed the course of my theology and soteriology

J. I Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, p. 155.

The final element in the Puritan development of the doctrine of justification was to safeguard it against mis-statement within the Puritan camp. Chapter XI of the Westminster Confession wards off two such abberations. The first is that justification is from eternity, i.e., before faith. William Twisse, first prolocutor of the Assembly, had maintained this as part of his case against Arminianism, but in addition to being unscriptural the idea is pastorally disastrous, for it reduced justifying faith to discovering that one is justified already, and so sets seekers waiting on God for assurance instead of exerting active trust in Christ. The trouble here was the assimilating of justification to election, and the Confession deals with it by drawing the correct distinction; “God did, from all eternity, decree to justify the elect… nevertheless they are not justified until the Holy Spirit doth in due time actually apply Christ unto them” (XI:iv).

I read this some time in the early nineties.  Before seminary.  Maybe while living in Nashville but probably even earlier in Florida before I got married.

Why I joined the PCA (NAPARC)

I wasn’t born into the PCA, but I moved there from another Evangelical tradition.  Why?

Well, some of it had to do with a strong belief that God foreordains all things including who mercifully inherits eternal life and who justly is left to eternal damnation.  But there are lots of predestinarian groups.  What really made me look for a Westminsterian denomination is that I thought Westminster’s covenant theology had done a really good job at capturing what was involved in following Jesus the way the Gospels show us Jesus demanding.  While not all my commitments are summed up in the following four questions and answers my core beliefs are expressed well in them.  They directed me both as a layman, as one called to the ministry looking for a seminary, and as a trained candidate looking for a pastorate.

Q. 76. What is repentance unto life?
A. Repentance unto life is a saving grace, wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and Word of God, whereby, out of the sight and sense, not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, and upon the apprehension of God’s mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, he so grieves for and hates his sins, as that he turns from them all to God, purposing and endeavoring constantly to walk with him in all the ways of new obedience.

Q. 101. What is the preface to the Ten Commandments?
A. The preface to the Ten Commandments is contained in these words, I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Wherein God manifesteth his sovereignty, as being JEHOVAH, the eternal, immutable, and almighty God; having his being in and of himself, and giving being to all his words and works: and that he is a God in covenant, as with Israel of old, so with all his people; who, as he brought them out of their bondage in Egypt, so he delivereth us from our spiritual thraldom; and that therefore we are bound to take him for our God alone, and to keep all his commandments.

Q. 153. What doth God require of us, that we may escape his wrath and curse due to us by reason of the transgression of the law?
A. That we may escape the wrath and curse of God due to us by reason of the transgression of the law, he requireth of us repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ, and the diligent use of the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of his mediation.

Q. 167. How is baptism to be improved by us?
A. The needful but much neglected duty of improving our baptism, is to be performed by us all our life long, especially in the time of temptation, and when we are present at the administration of it to others; by serious and thankful consideration of the nature of it, and of the ends for which Christ instituted it, the privileges and benefits conferred and sealed thereby, and our solemn vow made therein; by being humbled for our sinful defilement, our falling short of, and walking contrary to, the grace of baptism, and our engagements; by growing up to assurance of pardon of sin, and of all other blessings sealed to us in that sacrament; by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized, for the mortifying of sin, and quickening of grace; and by endeavoring to live by faith, to have our conversation in holiness and righteousness, as those that have therein given up their names to Christ; and to walk in brotherly love, as being baptized by the same Spirit into one body.

While these by no means express all my theological commitments, they do express some important ones.

Daniel Fuller

Daniel Fuller used to have a bunch of stuff online that I thought was helpful.

I ran into his book Gospel and Law: Contrast or Continuum and had found it really satisfying as an explanation for the nature of saving faith and the dynamic of sanctification.  I felt like he was too rough on John Calvin who, I believed and still believe, had led in the same general direction.

Like anyone else I didn’t agree with everything he said.  He held to a very traditional view of what Paul was condemning in “the works of the law,” taking that phrase as a general attempt to earn rewards from God.  I think Paul had something else in mind and that everyone knew in theory (i.e. both Paul and his enemies) that one could not earn or merit favor from God.

He also argued for women’s ordination and against creation in six days.  So reader beware.

After discovering him, I found that back in 1973 (? if I recall correctly) he had been attacked in a journal by Meredith Kline and others.  I was amazed because one rebuttal came from the King James Version’s mistranslation of John 1.17–something I had recently had to deal with in my Greek class.

I also ran into many people who would (pretty vociferously, I thought) attack Daniel Fuller for denying things on the evidence that he didn’t write about them.  I suppose if Fuller was going to be my pastor I might have felt I should inquire more, but reading him as a help in certain areas didn’t lead me to worry about unproven allegations about other areas.  I had no doubts and about the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and I had never read one word in Fuller to question the doctrine–let alone lead me to have any doubts.

To this day I have no idea why he causes such rage in some quarters.

I used to have links to Fuller but the links don’t lead anywhere anymore so I have removed the blog post (I had more in earlier blogging that has gotten lost with changes in servers, I think; might turn something up).

Fuller’s basic point was that one was supposed to trust in God’s love and salvation in Jesus and thus, the same faith that justified you would also sanctify you.

Hebrews 11 would be the best place to go to see how this works.  Moses, for example, trusting in God, saw that the treasures of Egypt were not worth keeping, and left them for the greater reward that God promised.  Faith would not be faith if he stayed in Egypt to enjoy “the passing pleasures of sin.”  We don’t obey God to earn anything, we obey God the way we follow a doctor’s regimen if acknowledge we are sick and trust him to heal us.

I notice that John Piper still praises Daniel Fuller as his great teacher.  See also Piper’s list of “books that have influenced me most.”

PS For further reading: “Law and Gospel in Presbyterianism”

David Chilton talks about worship with his son Nathan

Back in the late eighties or early nineties, this essay from The Reconstruction of the Church really impressed me.  Still does:

The following is a transcript, or at least a reasonably close version, of a series of conversations I had with Nathan, my seven-year-old, as we visited an evangelical church service on a recent Sunday evening. Although the discussion actually took place in several stages (ending late that evening at home), for literary purposes I have reconstructed the conversation as if it all happened during the service. I confess that a good portion of it did go on then, as I tried to explain evangelical worship to an impressionable youngster.

Nathan: Papa, this sure is a funny liturgy.

Papa: Well, it isn’t exactly a liturgy. They don’t believe in liturgy at this church.

Nathan: How can you not believe in liturgy? Isn’t a liturgy just what you do in Church?

Papa: Yes. But what I mean is that they don’t believe in having the service written down in advance.

Nathan: Why not?

Papa: They think that if they read something that’s written down, they won’t really mean it.

Nathan: But all they have to do is think about what it means, and agree with it, and then they’ll mean it, won’t they?

Papa: Sure. But they don’t believe that.

Nathan: But somebody around here must believe it, because we all sang from the same hymnbook. Don’t they mean it when they sing the hymns?

Papa: Sure they do. But they think prayers are different.

Nathan: You mean that they can agree with a song that they read, but they don’t know how to agree with a prayer that they read?

Papa: Something like that.

Nathan: Then why don’t they just memorize the prayers?

Papa: Because they think they wouldn’t mean those, either.

Nathan: Can they memorize songs and mean them?

Papa: Sure. But they think music is different. You can read or memorize a song and still mean it. But if you read or memorize words without music, you won’t mean them.

Nathan: But don’t they teach their children “politeness liturgies”? Like “please” and “thank you” and “you’re welcome ,“ and ‘yes, sir,” and ‘yes, ma’am”? And don’t they teach them to mean it?

Papa: Yes, but –

Nathan: And what about Bible verses? Do they memorize Bible verses?

Papa: Of course they do.

Nathan: But they don’t mean them?

Papa: Yes, they do.

Nathan: Without music?

Papa: Sure.

Nathan: How?

Papa: Can we change the subject?

Nathan: OK. Why didn’t we confess our sins when we began the service?

Papa: This church doesn’t believe in it.

Nathan: WHAT? !

Papa: Shhh. Keep your voice down. I mean they don’t think the Church needs to do it.

Nathan: Don’t we need to be forgiven?

Papa: Sure. They just don’t think it should happen in Church.

Nathan: What about the Creed? Why didn’t we say the Creed?

Papa: Well, partly because it’s liturgical. They think they won’t mean it if they say it.

Nathan: We could sing it.

Papa: They don’t know how.

Nathan: Oh – they haven’t been Christians very long, huh? Let’s teach it to them.

Papa: Let’s not.

Nathan: Why not?

Papa: Because they won’t want to do it anyway. Because it’s liturgical.

Nathan: Why are they so afraid of liturgy? We could explain that it isn’t hard to mean it when you say it.

Papa: But they won’t want to do it anyway. They want to be different every week.

Nathan: Really? Different every week?

Papa: Yes.

Nathan: What do they do differently? Do they sometimes take the offering at the end of the service instead of in the middle?

Papa: No. That’s always at the same time.

Nathan: Do they sometimes have the preaching at the beginning?

Papa: No, that’s at the same time too.

Nathan: Then what do they do that’s different?

Papa: They sing different songs.

Nathan: So does our church.

Papa: Well, it really comes down to the fact that they don’t have prayers and responses for the congregation to read.

Nathan: Why not?

Papa: They think that reading prayers and responses keeps people from worshiping.

Nathan: Really? What do they think the people should do in- stead?

Papa: Just sit there and do nothing.

Nathan: That’s worship? Doesn’t it get boring?

Papa: Not if the elders keep things exciting enough on the stage.

Nathan: Elders? What elders? You mean those men up there on the platform are elders?

Papa: Sort of. But they don’t always call them that.

Nathan: Why aren’t they wearing robes and collars so you know what they are?

Papa: They say elders shouldn’t wear special clothes.

Nathan: Why not?

Papa: They think that there’s nothing special about clothing.

Nathan: Policemen and soldiers and judges wear special clothes.

Papa: Well, they think clothing isn’t special for elders. They think elders should look like everybody else.

Nathan: Then why is that elder wearing a maroon suit with a blue shirt, a green tie, and a white belt?

Papa: Well, it’s still a suit. The point is, he can wear anything he wants.

Nathan: You mean an elder could wear a robe and a collar if he wanted?

Papa: No. He can wear anything but a robe and a collar.

Nathan: So they do think clothing is special!

Papa: Well. . . .

Nathan: There! Someone did it again!

Papa: Did what?

Nathan: He said “Amen.” See? That’s why this place needs a liturgy book. Half the people don’t know when to say things.

Papa: I told you. They don’t do a liturgy here.

Nathan: Some people do. Hear that? Somebody just did it again. If we had a book, we could all say it together. That would keep some people from getting it wrong and saying it while somebody else is talking.

Papa: But Nathan, I’m telling you. There’s no liturgy. People just say “Amen” whenever they feel like it.

Nathan: WHAT? Where does the Bible say to do that?

Papa: It doesn’t.

Nathan: Then why do they do it? Aren’t they afraid?

Papa: Why should they be afraid?

Nathan: Because it’s a vow, a covenant promise. Doesn’t it mean that we agree with God, and that if we don’t keep this promise we are asking God to destroy us? Isn’t it even a special covenant name for Jesus?

Papa: Sure. But they don’t know that. They think it means something else.

Nathan: What do they think “Amen” means?

Papa: They think it means “I feel good.”

Nathan: Look at that!

Papa: What?

Nathan: There are people raising their hands!

Papa: So?

Nathan: In our church, the elders raise their hands to God when they pray. But in this church, everybody else does it, whenever they feel like it. And they make up their own liturgy as they go along, You know what I think?

Papa: What?

Nathan: I think that in this church everybody is an elder-–except the elders.

Papa: That may be the best description I’ve heard yet.

Nathan: You know, Pa, those elders are tricking us.

Papa: How’s that?

Nathan: They really do have a liturgy for their prayers. They keep saying the same thing over and over again.

Papa: Really?

Nathan: Sure. I don’t know what they mean, but there are two special words they keep using in all their prayers.

Papa: What words?

Nathan: Well, the first one is “just.” They keep saying it. “Lord we just thank you for just being so just special.” Stuff like that. They must have it written down,

because they all do it.

Papa: What’s the other word?

Nathan: It’S not really a word. It’s a special sound, like a little clucking noise: “Tsk.”

Papa: What?

Nathan: Tsk. Tsk.

Papa: What are you talking about?

Nathan: Listen. It goes like this: “Lord, tsk, we just, tsk, we just, tsk, we want to, tsk, thank you, tsk, Lord, for, tsk, for just, tsk, being just so, tsk, special, tsk.” Right?

Papa: OK, quiet down and listen to the special music.

Nathan: Wait. What’s that guy doing? He looks weird.

Papa: Shhh. He’s just singing.

Nathan: Yeah, but he’s shaking all over the place. He looks like he’s going to fall down.

Papa: Well, that’s the way the “special music” singers do it in this church. He’s just trying to rock to the beat.

Nathan: Why? It looks dumb.

Papa: Let’s figure it out. Why do we have a choir in our church? What do you think they’re doing there?

Nathan: It’s part of our worship. They help us worship God.

Papa: OK. Now, why do you think this church has people sing?

Nathan: Well, I guess they’re trying to worship too. But it seems more like they’re trying to look like they’re on television.

Papa: Sort of like MTV?

Nathan: Not that bad. It just looks like they want people to notice them instead of praying. Unless — Do you think maybe he’s just kind of sick?

Papa: We’ll talk about it later. It’s time for communion now.

Nathan: What’s this?

Papa: Shhh! It’s bread.

Nathan: Come on, Pa. What is it really?

Papa: It’s bread, honest. It’s a little, tiny cube of bread.

Nathan: Looks like a piece of cracker to me.

Papa: Well, sure. It is a piece of cracker.

Nathan: Should we give them some money so they can afford bread?

Papa: They can afford it. But they want to do it this way.

Nathan: Why would anybody want to eat this? Do they like the taste?

Papa: Probably not.

Nathan: Then why would they eat something they don’t enjoy–especially at Communion? We’re supposed to be happy when we eat with God.

Papa: Be quiet. It’s time to drink the cup.

Nathan: OK. Yuck! What is this stuff?

Papa: Um, it’s. . . .

Nathan: Tastes like grape-flavored Kool-Aid.

Papa: Grape juice, probably.

Nathan: Doesn’t taste very good. Did they forget to buy some wine?

Papa: No. They don’t drink wine here.

Nathan: WHAT?!

Papa: SHHH!

Nathan: Why don’t they drink wine?

Papa: They don’t believe in it. They think it’s wrong.

Nathan: But it tastes good.

Papa: Well, tasting good isn’t everything.

Nathan: But God made it for us to drink, especially at Communion. It makes us happy, and it makes God happy too.

Papa: That’s right.

Nathan: Does the Bible say it’s wrong?

Papa: No.

Nathan: Then why do they say it is? And why do they drink this yucky juice? And eat those crummy little cracker pieces? No wonder they’re so sad!

Papa: What?

Nathan: Well, look at them. Look how sad they all are. They don’t look like they’re enjoying this, do they?

Papa: Well, no. . . .

Nathan: Well, they aren’t enjoying it a bit. But didn’t you tell me that Communion is a special dinner with Jesus?

Papa: Yes.

Nathan: And when we come to Communion, the whole Church is coming up to heaven, right?

Papa: Right.

Nathan: And when we go to heaven to be with Jesus and have dinner with Him, we’re supposed to be happy, aren’t we?

Papa: Sure.

Nathan: Well, why aren’t these people happy? Do they think heaven is a sad place to be?

Papa: I think they’re sad because they’re thinking about their sins.

Nathan: But they’ve been forgiven, and now they’re in heaven! They’re supposed to be thinking about Jesus!

Papa: Oh, they’re thinking of Him, too. They’re sad because they’re thinking about Him dying on the cross.

Nathan: But He’s not dying anymore. The whole reason we’re doing this is that He came alive, right?

Papa: Right.

Nathan: Well, I don’t think they could be sad about Jesus. I think they’re sad ‘cause they had to eat those icky crackers and drink that dumb old Kool-Aid.

Papa: Grape juice.

Nathan: Kool-Aid. Hey,

Papa. Why are those people looking at me funny?

Papa: Um . . . it’s because you took Communion.

Nathan: So? Everybody else did.

Papa: Not the kids.

Nathan: Why not?

Papa: Because they aren’t allowed to.

Nathan: WHAT?!

Papa: SHHH! They only let grownups take Communion at this church.

Nathan: Why? If you’ve been baptized you can take Communion, right? Even babies can take Communion, because Jesus feeds them, too. Children need Communion as much as grownups.

Papa: But these children haven’t been baptized.

Nathan: WHAT?!

Papa: Shhh. It’s true,

Nathan: Why don’t they want their children to come into the Covenant?

Papa: Well, they do. They just don’t believe that children can be Christians until they get older.

Nathan: That’s dumb. God can make anybody a Christian.

Papa: Well, I mean that they don’t think He will make their children Christians. Until they get older.

Nathan: But Jesus wants little children to come to Him. Even babies. He said so, didn’t He?

Papa: Yes.

Nathan: Look. These people have families, right? Don’t they feed their babies? They don’t make their kids sit in a corner and wait till they’re grownups before they can eat. So why shouldn’t God feed His children, too? It must be sad for the kids to watch the rest of the family eating without them.

Papa: But they don’t think their children really are God’s children.

Nathan: But they teach their children to pray, don’t they?

Papa: Sure.

Nathan: Who do they pray to?

Papa: “Whom.” Objective case. And don’t end your sentences with prepositions unless you have to.

Nathan: Do their kids call God “Father”? Like in the Lord’s Prayer? Wait a minute. You aren’t going to tell me they don’t believe in the Lord’s Prayer, are you?

Papa: Sure, they believe in it. And many of them teach it to their children.

Nathan: Well then. If they teach their children to say “Our Father” then that means they think their children are God’s children, too. Right?

Papa: Uh . . . sort of. But–

Nathan: But they don’t baptize them into Jesus. So how can they be God’s children unless they’re in the Covenant?

Papa: Right. That’s why they don’t give them Communion.

Nathan: Is this as confusing to them as it is to me?

Papa: It might be if they thought about it much.

Nathan: Well, how are their kids supposed to become Christians, if their parents don’t bring them to be baptized?

Papa: When they get older, they’re supposed to makeup their own minds.

Nathan: About whether or not to obey God? That’s pretty dumb. Do they have to wait till they’re older to decide if they want to obey their parents, too?

Papa: Not usually. But they want their children to wait until they’re old enough to love God.

Nathan: But I love God. I always have. And the Bible says that people can know God even when they’re in their mama’s tummy, doesn’t it?

Papa: Well, these people think you have to wait until you are older and smarter, so that you understand what it’s all about.

Nathan: You mean you can’t have dinner with Jesus until you understand what it means?

Papa: That’s the idea.

Nathan: Papa, do grownups understand everything about what Communion means?

Papa: Some people probably think they do.

Nathan: I don’t think these people understand much about it. If they did, they’d bring their children into the Covenant and let them have dinner in heaven with them. And anyway, how are the kids supposed to learn what it means without doing it? That’s like trying to get nutrition from reading a recipe, instead of eating the food.

Papa: Not bad. I’ll have to remember that one.

Nathan: OK, so how can a kid get Communion in this church?

Papa: Well, when he gets older–say, around twelve or so–he asks Jesus into his heart.

Nathan: Papa, don’t be silly. This is serious.

Papa: I’m not being silly. They tell you to ask Jesus to come into your heart.

Nathan: I’ve never heard that. Is that in the Bible?

Papa: No. But they think it is. It’s just an expression someone made up that means becoming a Christian. They also call it “receiving Christ,” which is a little more Biblical.

Nathan: But Jesus is in heaven, and we receive him every Sunday–every time we eat His body and drink His blood.

Papa: Uh, keep your voice down, willya? They don’t talk like that around here.

Nathan: But Jesus talked like that.

Papa: I know. But they don’t know that.

Nathan: Let’s tell them.

Papa: Let’s not, OK? Not right now.

Nathan: All right. Let’s get back to how kids can become Christians and have Communion. When they get older they ask Jesus “into their hearts,“ right? So do they just go ahead and do it when they get to be twelve?

Papa: Not exactly. The grownups have to be sure the kids really mean it.

Nathan: How can they know that?

Papa: The kids have to cry when they do it.

Nathan: Cry? Real tears? How do they make themselves cry?

Papa: Well, some churches spend lots of time practicing. But, basically, they just have a preacher get up and tell real sad stories, so sad that they make people cry. So then the kids cry, and they walk up to the front of the church and ask Jesus to come into their hearts. Sometimes this happens during the summer. The kids go to a special camp where they listen to people preach at them. Then, on the last night, they all stand around a campfire and —

Nathan: And listen to scary stories?

Papa: No. Sad stories.

Nathan: Aw, shoot.

Papa: Then they cry, and throw little twigs on the fire, and ask Jesus into their hearts.

Nathan: Why do they throw twigs on the fire? Do they think they have to do that to come into the Covenant?

Papa: They think that’s how you have to do it if you’re in the mountains. It’s part of their Summer Camp Liturgy. But if you’re home you don’t need to.

Nathan: Then do they get Communion?

Papa: No. They usually have to wait, and go through a class to learn what it means to be a Christian.

Nathan: Wait. What have they been doing while growing up? Haven’t they already had plenty of classes? Does a kid ever get Communion around here?

Papa: Sure, eventually. After he gets out of the class he can have it whenever everybody else does.

Nathan: Every Sunday.

Papa: No. Every month or so.

Nathan: Why not every Sunday? Don’t they go to church every Sunday?

Papa: Yes. But they don’t have Communion every Sunday.

Nathan: But what do they do, if they don’t have Communion? Isn’t that why we go to Church–so we can go to heaven and have dinner in Jesus’ House?

Papa: Well, they sing songs and listen to a sermon.

Nathan: But that’s part of the Liturgy of Communion. Communion is what the Church service is all about, isn’t it? We’re supposed to worship God, and then He feeds us with His food. Why do they go to church? Don’t they go to meet God?

Papa: Sure. But they think they meet him by just listening to a sermon and getting excited about what the preacher says, if he’s interesting enough to listen to. If he isn’t a good speaker, then they think they haven’t met with God.

Nathan: Look. Don’t these people know that Communion makes them strong for living the rest of the week? How is anyone supposed to go without food for a month and still have any energy to do his work?

Papa: Well, they think that if they have Communion every week it won’t seem special.

Nathan: It doesn’t seem like it’s very special to them anyway. I think it would be lots more special if they had it every week and gave it to their children. Maybe then even the grownups would understand what it means.

Papa: You’re probably right.

Nathan: Wait a minute. I think I just figured out the real reason why they don’t have Communion very often.

Papa: Why’s that?

Nathan: ‘Cause it’s crackers and Kool-Aid.

Was Paul a calvinist?

I always thought he was.  Still think so.  And I’ve always been aware of the following passage:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues.

So I ask you.  Are calvinists obligated to believe that when Paul wrote, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” that he really meant, “Now those of you who are truly regenerate are the body of Christ and individually members of it, but the rest of you aren’t because being baptized provides no assurance that you belong to the body of Christ.”?

If so, what is the practical difference between such a belief and just stating outright “Calvinists are the ones who know better than to believe the Bible.”?

I have to admit I’m completely lost about all this.  Back when I became a calvinist it was because the calvinists were the only ones who took the Bible seriously.  The calvinists were not the ones writing books on submission to human tradition as a safety procedure for avoiding errors to which the Bible allegedly leaves a reader vulnerable. We were not known for constantly coming up with really lame arguments to show how a bunch of passages don’t have any real weight for doing theology.

That kind of cowardice is brand new to me.  How about you?  When did the Reformed Churches become Cities of Refuge from Offending Scriptures?  When did the calvinist mind shut down?

As for me and my house, we will always believe that Paul was an orthodox calvinist.  And we will not live in fear.

RePost: Real Union or Legal Fiction?

John Williamson Nevin’s Controversy With Charles Hodge Over the Imputation of Adam’s Sin (with a Comparison to Robert L. Dabney)

[The footnotes go back (I hope) to where I originally posted this paper. I wrote it in 1997 and it won the Aiken Taylor Church History Award of the Presbyterian Church in America. I want to thank Dr. David Calhoun of Covenant Theological Seminary for being so encouraging. I wrote the paper for his Princeton class.]

If one is blessed to discover George P. Hutchinsons’s monograph on Original Sin in nineteenth-century Reformed thought,[1] no student of American presbyterianism can fail to be fascinated. What once seemed to be a monolithic certainty while sitting in the standard theology class is suddenly uncovered to reveal a great deal of variety that had formerly been hidden from view.[2] Hutchinson’s account of the controversy between Henry B. Smith of the “new school”; Archibald Alexander and Charles Hodge of Princeton Seminary; William G. T. Shedd, Samuel J. Baird, and James H. Thornwell of the “realistic school”; and Robert W. Landis and Robert L. Dabney of what Hutchinson calls the “agnostic school” is simply must-reading for anyone who wishes to understand the issue.[3]

But it is not a complete reading. In the nineteenth century there was another American theologian who held distinctive views regarding the imputation of Adam’s sin. John Williamson Nevin of “the Mercersburg movement,” aroused the ire of Charles Hodge on more than one occasion because of his theological writings. Nevin was a member of the German Reformed Church, so perhaps Hutchinson decided that he was outside his scope. Nevin was raised a Presbyterian, however, and served as a Presbyterian minister for many years before accepting the call of the German Reformed Church.[4] Furthermore, Nevin was Charles Hodge’s best student, and taught his classes for the two years Hodge was in Europe, though Nevin had only just graduated.[5] His close connection with Presbyterianism, as well as the merit of his ideas in themselves, make him worth listing with the other schools.

My hope for this paper is that it will serve as a sort of appendix to Hutchinson’s book. For reasons of space and because of inherent relationships which will hopefully become clear, the discussion will center on Nevin’s conflict with Hodge.[6] Then similarities will be emphasized between Nevin’s alternative to Hodge and Dabney’s alternative.

The Mercersburg Movement[7]

The “Mercersburg Movement” was principally begun and propagated by John Williamson Nevin and Philip Schaff, professors at the German Reformed Mercersburg Seminary. After years as a Presbyterian quite committed to the teaching he had received at Princeton, Nevin began a shift in theology which involved a new understanding of the historic development of doctrine and a corresponding vision of the Church as a growing entity, a respect for the ancient and medieval Church, a more thoroughgoing awareness of and loyalty to the sacramental theology of the sixteenth-century reformers. This shift seems to have started with his exposure to the tracts of the Oxford movement and German philosophy and theology, fueled by an opposition to “new measures” revivalism which he apparently (and ironically) picked up from Charles Hodge.[8] When Philip Schaff left his homeland in Germany and joined Nevin, the Church historian found a person with whom he shared a common vision.

The Mercersburg Theology stressed the centrality of the incarnation. As we will see, Nevin insisted that the atonement was necessary for salvation, but he violently rejected the idea that the incarnation was simply for the purpose of the atonement, which would render it as simply a means to an end. Rather, the incarnation was an end in itself, whether or not sin necessitated the atoning death and justifying resurrection of Christ. Through union with Christ, man can have union with God.[9]

The Church is the continuation of Christ’s life on earth through the agency of the Holy Spirit. The Church is not simply a collection of believers, but the mystical body of Christ, the mother of all believers. Nevin discarded the categories of “visible” and “invisible,” discussing instead the “actual” Church (present) and the “ideal” Church (eschatological). The ideal exists as a seed in the actual, and inexorably takes shape in history until the resurrection.[10]

The mystical union between Christ and His Church made the sacraments quite important in the Mercersburg view. Nevin promoted a return to Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper as the means by which the Church’s union with Christ is nourished and strengthened. In defending this view, he touched on almost all the distinctives of the Mercersburg Theology.

Nevin never set out to specifically discuss the imputation of Adam’s sin.[11] Rather the imputation of Adam’s sin is mentioned as an aside to his discussion of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, which in turn was only mentioned by Nevin to explain why the Reformation Tradition found it so important to affirm our union with Christ and the importance of Christ’s real presence in the Lord’s Supper. The Mystical Presence: A Vindication of the Reformed or Calvinistic Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist sets forth Nevin’s views on the sacrament, and covers all these (for his purpose in the book) subsidiary issues. Not only is Mystical Presence Nevin’s most thorough treatment (and one that articulated views which remained essentially unchanged for the rest of his life), but it was also the presentation to which Hodge responded.

Thus, the best way to explain Nevin’s view of the imputation of Adam’s sin is to first briefly set forth from this work his beliefs concerning the importance of union with Christ and the imputation of his righteousness, as well as the nature of this union.

The Importance of Union with Christ

Nevin would emphatically agree with the Liberal catchphrase, “Christianity is a life, not a doctrine.”[12] Yet just as emphatically, he would insist that only by proclaiming Christianity as a life and not a doctrine can supernatural Christianity be set apart from rationalistic naturalism. Socinians, by reducing Christianity to a moral message, throw “the man back always upon himself, his own separate powers and resources, the capabilities of the flesh as such, to perfect his nature and make himself meet for heaven.”[13] Likewise, in Pelagianism, “we are thrown back again, upon such material in the way of life, as the subject of it may be found to possess in his own nature, when brought under the action of this divine process of education.”[14]

So far, this is rather standard fare. But Nevin takes a further ingenious step: What about those who claim that salvation depends on the supernatural enlightenment of the Holy Spirit? Of such a view, he says:

To the force that belongs to the truth itself in its relation to the human mind, it may join the influence’s of God’s Spirit, graciously interposed to clothe the truth with effect. Such agency we often hear attributed to the Spirit, by those who at the same time reject altogether the thought of any immediate change wrought by it in the nature of the human soul itself. God’s grace in this form, they say, is brought to bear on the soul, mediately only, by the intervention of his word which he uses instrumentally for the purpose, infusing into it light and power. But surely those who talk in this way do not stop at all to consider the exact sense of their own words. What do they mean, when they speak of the Spirit, as infusing light and power into the truth? Can he do so (apart from a direct influence on the soul itself) in any other way than by so ordering the presentation of the truth to the mind, that it shall be placed in the most favorable position for exerting the power which belongs to it in its own nature? But what is this more than such moral suasion, as may be exercised over the spirits of men in a merely human way, by appeals addressed to the understanding and will? The order of influence at least remains the same, though it may be exhibited under a divinely exalted form.[15]

This view, though partially supernaturalistic, still falls back into naturalism on the crucial issue of salvation, and still does not escape the error of Socinianism and Pelagianism:

In this view, the process of salvation, in the midst of all the high-sounding terms that may be employed to describe it, falls back again to the standpoint already noticed. It is a salvation by the power simply of truth, presented in the form of doctrine and precept. This truth includes the supernatural facts of the gospel, the mission, sufferings, death, and resurrection of Christ–the outward apparatus in full, if we may use the expression–of the Christian redemption; and along with this we have the “moral suasion” of the Holy Spirit, which according to the unintelligible hypothesis, invests the whole representation with a more than natural evidence and power. All turns at last, however, on the way in which the mind thus addressed, may be wrought upon and moved to act, in the use of such resources and capabilities as are already comprehended in its nature.[16]

Even affirming regeneration through the power of the Holy Spirit is not enough to escape the problem. It remains if the union with the Spirit does not also involve intimate mystical union with Christ’s new humanity, if “Christ dwells in his people by his Spirit–but in the way only of representation, not in the way of strict personal inbeing on his own part.”[17]

The same Spirit, it is said, that works in Christ works also in us, fashioning us as we are into the same image. But how does he work? By supernatural influence, it may be said. But is not this to fall back again to the theory of a merely moral union with Christ, by the power of the truth only; which we have found already to be under its highest form, but Pelagianism in disguise? Is Christ in us at last only by the divine suasion of his Spirit?[18]

This conception of regeneration, then, makes it not an ingrafting into Christ, but some sort of merely moral transformation, as if man could be saved through some sort of change in his own fallen condition. Because man is totally depraved and has fallen irrevocably in Adam, there is no miracle which can correct the problem of man’s sin and guilt–except to send God as a new man, the second Adam, to provide a new source of life to conquer the death spread from the old man, and then give that life to men dead in their sins.

The Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness

Nevin has not yet exhausted the attempted alternatives to the mystical union with Christ. American protestants, realizing that the suasion of the Spirit is not enough to give them a truly supernatural soteriology, think they have yet another option:

Here we are brought, then, to stand upon higher and more orthodox ground. The doctrine of imputation is introduced, to meet the demand now mentioned. The work of Christ is no longer thought of as a mere display for moral effect; it is something to be appropriated and made available in the person of the believing sinner himself, for the purposes of salvation. Mere doctrine will not answer. The case calls for an actual personal participation in what Christ has done and suffered to take away sin and reconcile man to God. By imputation. we are told. As the guilt and fall of Adam were reckoned to his posterity, though not theirs in fact, so the righteousness of Christ, and the benefits of his mediatorial work generally are, in virtue of the terms of the new covenant, made over to all who believe in his name, and accounted to be theirs as truly as though all had been wrought out by them, each for himself, in truth. Their justification in this view is a mere forensic act on the part of God, which is based altogether on the work of Christ, and involves as such in their case no change of character whatever, but only a change of state. God regards them as righteous, though they are not so in fact, and makes over to them a full title to all the blessings comprehended in Christ’s life. At the same time, he regenerates them by his Spirit, and puts them thus on a process of sanctification, by which in the end they become fully transformed in their own persons, into the image of their glorious Savior.[19]

This imputation appears to escape the problem of naturalism in Nevin’s mind. Nevertheless, it is an insufficient explanation because it is flatly impossible. “The imagination that the merits of Christ’s life may be sundered from his life itself, and conveyed over to his people under this abstract form, on the ground of a merely outward legal constitution, is unscriptural and contrary to all reason at the same time.”[20]

The judgment of God must ever be according to truth. He cannot reckon to anyone an attribute or quality that does not belong to him in fact. He cannot declare him to be in a relation or state that is not actually his own, but the position merely of another. A simply external imputation here, the pleasure and purpose of God to place to the account of one what has been done by another, will not answer. Nor is the case helped in the least by the hypothesis of what is called a legal federal union between the parties, in the case of whom such a transfer is supposed to be made; so long as the law is thought of in the same outward way, as a mere arbitrary arrangement or constitution for the accomplishment of the end in question. The law in this view would be itself a fiction only, and not the expression of a fact. But no such fiction, whether under the name of law or without it, can lie at the ground of a judgment entertained or pronounced by God.[21]

In explaining why a “bare” legal imputation is not enough, Nevin knew that the accusation would be made that he was denying justification by Faith. He (futilely) attempts to cut off this line of attack: “Do we then discard the doctrine of imputation, as maintained by the orthodox theology in opposition to the vain talk of the Pelagians? By no means! We seek only to establish the doctrine; for without it; most assuredly, the whole structure of Christianity must give way.”[22]

Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us, writes Nevin, when the Holy Spirit actually gives us union with Christ. If we have union with Christ we possess all that is His. His active and passive righteousness count for us because “He is joined to us mystically.”[23] Christ’s righteousness is truly imputed, and justification is truly forensic and declarative, but the basis is not simply God’s imagination that we are justified, but “our actual insertion into Christ himself.”[24]

The Nature of the Union

How are we united to Christ and to Adam? What does Nevin mean by “mystical union”? In what sense is the incarnation so all important to this union, so that this union, though with His whole Person, especially involves his humanity? This question becomes more acute when we realize that Nevin is insisting on following Calvin that in the Eucharist we partake of Christ’s flesh and blood without any transfer of particles or physical presence involved! All this relates to the point of this study: How is this union with Christ parallel to our union with Adam? And how does this union with Adam undergird the imputation of Adam’s sin to his posterity?

Nevin explains himself by making the rather bold claim that a living organism is not reducible to material particles. He uses the relationship of an acorn to an oak tree to prove this idea.[25] We classify an acorn and the tree which grows from it as a single organism–the seed becomes the tree. Yet, the tree is exponentially more massive than the acorn, and has obviously acquired mass from the soil around it. Indeed, it is easily possible that the old oak tree does not contain a single material particle which was present in the acorn. Yet the lack of identical material particles means nothing. The life of the acorn is the same life which animates the leaves on the tree. The branches are connected to the root by a shared life which cannot be reduced to material particles. Furthermore, in thinking this way, it becomes apparent that to limit the life of the acorn to the single oak tree is quite arbitrary–for the oak bears acorns from its life which grow themselves into other trees. “Still, in the end, the life of the forest, in such a case, is nothing more than an expansion of the life that lay involved at first in the original acorn.”[26]

Thus, the life of Christ’s flesh and blood is not found in any physical particles, but in an animating force or “law.” A “clear distinction” must be made between

the idea of the organic law, which constitutes the proper identity of a human body, and the material volume it is found to embrace as exhibited to the senses. A true and perfect body must indeed appear in the form of organized matter. As a mere law, it can have no proper reality. But still the matter, apart from the law, is in no sense the body. Only as it is found to be transfused with the active presence of the law at every point and in this way filled with the form of life, can it be said to have any such character. . . The principle of the body as a system of life, the original salient point of its being as a whole, is in no respect material. It is not bound of course, for its identity, to any particular portion of matter as such. If the matter which enters into its constitution were changed every hour, it would still remain the same body. . . A real communication then, between the body of Christ and the bodies of his saints, does not imply necessarily the gross imagination of any transition of his flesh as such into their persons.[27]

Thus, by the mediation of the Holy Spirit, we can truly and really participate in the life of Christ. We can be united with His flesh and blood. This is an ultimately mysterious identity, yet it is the same sort of mystery which confronts us in all living beings.

The Imputation of Adam’s Sin

At this point we can easily see how Nevin understands the unity of the human race with Adam. Nevin is quite certain that, just as a “mere outward imputation” would be impossible in the case of Christ’s righteousness, so would it be in the case of Adam’s sin.

Can we conceive of any constitution, for instance, in virtue of which it could have been proper or possible for the Divine Mind, thus to set over to the account of mankind the apostasy of angels, which kept not their first estate, the two natures being relatively to each other what they are at this time? If all depended on the arbitrary pleasure of God, the force of a mere outward arrangement constituting one the representative of another without further relation, we cannot see why the transfer of guilt might not take place from angels to men, as well as from Adam to his posterity. The very fact that our whole reason and feeling revolt against the thought of the first case, serves only to show that the proceeding must rest upon some deeper ground in the other.[28]

In the case of Adam’s sin, the analogy of the acorn and the oak tree can be more literally applied. We are all Adamites. Our bones are Adamite bones; our flesh Adamite flesh; and our very life a true continuation of Adam’s life. The fact that the billions of individual human beings are made up of material particles other than those which originally constituted Adam when he was first created is utterly irrelevant. For all we know Adam himself, at the time of his death, may have been constituted by a completely different set of particles from those which constituted him 920 years earlier. The fact is that we all grew out of him and are no less a part of him, in one sense, than a branch is part of a tree.[29]

By his fall, Adam became corrupted in his nature, and all his children who come from his nature share in that corruption. What he did freely, Adam’s children continue to do spontaneously and naturally. They inherit his sin and his guilt.

Just as he expected some to accuse him of denying justification by Faith, Nevin knew others would accuse him of denying the Reformed doctrine of the imputation of Adam’s sin. Thus, he took the space to argue that the Westminster Standards are not guilty of reducing original sin to a “mere outward imputation.” On the contrary, “The language of the catechism is literally and strictly correct. We sinned in Adam, and fell with him, in his first transgression.” Furthermore, question eighteen of the Shorter Catechism does not define original sin as only “the guilt of Adam’s first sin,” but lists a threefold definition which also includes “the want of original righteousness” and “the corruption of his whole nature.”

Nevin admits that “the friends of the catechism, in their attempts to vindicate its doctrine at this point, have not always planted themselves on the proper ground for its defense,” because they have rested their case on “a merely external imputation” which can give us “only a quasi interest in the real fact that it represented” at best. But in so doing they are not only failing to defend the doctrine, but inadequately stating what the catechism actually claims.[30]

Hodge’s Position Against Mercersburg

Two years after the publication of Mystical Presence, Hodge reviewed it. He explained the delay saying:

We have had Dr. Nevin’s work on the “Mystical Presence” on our table since it’s publication, some two years ago, but have never really read it, until within a fortnight. We do not suppose other people are quite as bad, in this respect, as ourselves. Our experience, however, has been that it requires the stimulus of a special necessity to carry us through such a book.[31]

With that inauspicious beginning, Hodge proceeds to perform what can only be called a “hatchet job” on Nevin. The inaccuracies and unkindnesses are amply apparent to anyone who bothers to read the book and then the review. However, because the issues raised are predominately sacramental, other aspects of theology involved in the discussion have received relatively scant attention. Despite Nevin’s attempts to defuse the issue, one of Hodge’s major accusations is that he denies both the Reformed doctrine of justification and that of Original Sin, by denying imputation:

Here we reach the very life-spot of the Reformation. Is justification a declaring just, or a making just, inherently? This was the real battleground on which the blood of so many martyrs was spilt. Are we justified for something done for us, or something wrought in us, actually, our own? It is a mere playing with words, to make a distinction, as Mr. Newman did, between what it is that thus makes us inherently righteous. Whether it is infused grace, a new heart, the indwelling Spirit, the humanity of Christ, his life, his theanthropic nature; it is all one. It is subjective justification after all, and nothing more. We consider Dr. Nevin’s theory as impugning here, the vital doctrine of Protestantism. his doctrine is not, of course, the Romish, teres atque rotundus; he may distinguish here and discriminate there. But as to the main point, it is a denial of the Protestant doctrine of justification. He knows as well as any man that all the churches of the fifteenth century held the imputation not only of what was our own, but of what though not ours inherently, was on some adequate ground set to our account; that the sin of Adam is imputed to us, not because of our having his corrupted nature, but because of the imputation of his sin, we are involved in his corruption. He knows that when the doctrine of mediate imputation, as he teaches it, was introduced by Placaeus, it was universally rejected. He knows moreover, that, with regard to justification, the main question was, whether it was a declaratory act or an effective act, whether it was a declaring just on the ground of a righteousness not in us, or a making just by communicating righteousness to us.[32]

Here we see Hodge manifesting his distinctive idea that immediate imputation is the only view that may be considered Reformed. This probably seems believable now, for through Murray and Westminster Seminary, this view has become the received opinion. But at the time this was considered by many theologians of impeccably orthodox credentials to be a rather innovative and narrow view, as well as a mistaken one. There is no point in trying to elaborate Hutchinson’s fine description here. Suffice it to say that, for Hodge, corruption and lack of original righteousness were inflicted on each of Adam’s descendants because God first declared him liable to punishment for what Adam did. Parallel to this, the elect receive the benefits of salvation, only because God declares us judicially worthy of being rewarded for what Christ has done.

Related to his immediate imputation, a theme that ran through Hodge’s entire review was that there were two incompatible views among the Reformers concerning the sense in which the body and blood of Christ were received in the Supper. “Some of them said it was their virtue as broken and shed, i. e., their sacrificial virtue; others said, it was a mysterious supernatural efficacy flowing from the glorified body of Christ in heaven…”[33] The former view was the true view, according to Hodge, both of the Bible and of the Protestant system of doctrine. The other view withered away as an unrelated and incompatible idea.

Nevin’s response appeared in the newly begun Mercersburg Review (Vol II, no. 5) in September of 1850. Nevin confined himself to the historical question of what Reformed creeds and confessions actually taught regarding the Lord’s Supper, and demonstrated that Hodge’s historical appeal was arbitrarily selective and question-begging.[34] Original sin was not mentioned, but Nevin maintained that, not only was there no contradiction between the “sacrificial virtue” and the “mysterious supernatural efficacy flowing from the glorified body of Christ in heaven,” but that the former required the latter.

Justification, to be real, must also be concrete–the force and value of Christ’s merit brought nigh to the sinner as a living fact. Strange, that there should seem to be any contradiction here, between the grace which we have by Christ’s death, and the grace that comes to us through his life. Could the sacrifice of Calvary be of any avail to take away sins, if the victim there slain had not been raised again for our justification, and were not now seated at the right hand of God our Advocate and Intercessor? Would the atonement of a dead Christ be of more worth than the blood of bulls and goats, to purge the conscience from dead works and give it free access to God? Surely it is the perennial, indissoluble life of the once-crucified Redeemer, which imparts to his broken body and shed blood all their power to abolish guilt… Abstract it [the sacrifice of Christ] from this, and it becomes in truth a mere legal fiction. The atonement, in this view [Nevin’s] is a quality or property of the glorified life of the Son of man.[35]

Conclusion: Formulating Nevin’s Doctrine

Since Nevin was never particularly interested in original sin per se, he never systematically set forth his position on the subject. He says enough, however, for us to summarize a systematic position:

Adam was the natural root of the human race as well as its representative. When he sinned by eating the forbidden fruit he (1) incurred guilt, (2) lost his original righteousness, and (3) became corrupt. It is important to realize that (temporally) all of these things happened simultaneously. Obviously, he could not sin and only later lose his righteousness. Furthermore, the sin itself was the beginning of his corruption (indeed, corruption and want of original righteousness could easily be understood as different aspects of the same reality). Finally, the guilt was imputed because of the sin at the same time that the sin was committed.

Now, all Adam’s descendants who come from him by ordinary generation, come from Adam and Eve as sinners. They are guilty, lacking in righteousness, and corrupt. From this nature springs all subsequent human beings, who as separate individuals manifest this same guilt, lack of righteousness, and corruption. This corruption is simply the continuation of Adam’s first sin.[36] Thus, the guilt attending that corruption is the guilt of Adam’s first sin. All Adamites have solidarity with Adam’s sin and guilt. We are guilty, lacking in righteousness, and corrupt because we have union with Adam.

Here we see the similarities and dissimilarities, between our union with Adam and our union with Christ. We are in union with Adam simply by virtue of being human. To be a human being means simply to have acquired our nature from Adam–a corrupt nature. Personal existence is inconceivable without him. Yet Christ is communicated to us by the Holy Spirit as an alien person with an alien righteousness so that we, because we are engrafted into Him, are given justification and sanctification–His righteousness is imputed to us and His holy life is imparted to us so that we ourselves grow in holiness. There is nothing in Nevin’s presentation which renders justification a “transfusion” as in Tridentine theology.[37] The fact that the basis of justification is mystical union through the Holy Spirit does not change the fact that the nature of justification is declarative and forensic. The point simply is that there is a basis for God’s declaration–union with Christ.[38]

Further Considerations: Dabney & Nevin contra Hodge

One reason for believing that Nevin belongs to the debate within American Presbyterianism is that Dabney seems to have articulated substantially the same view of the imputation of Adam’s sin. This is especially interesting because Dabney, 1) was a partisan to the same Common Sense Philosophy as Hodge, as opposed to Nevin’s idealism; 2) publicly repudiated Calvin’s doctrine of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper; 3) considered the Mercersburg theology worthless;[39] and 4) is above reproach in loyalty to the Westminster Standards and Old-School Calvinism.[40]

Dabney declared the immediate imputation articulated by Hodge to be groundless.[41] For one, Hodge’s strict parallelism between the two Adams (argued especially from Rom 5.12-21) entailed either a denial of human depravity or of justification by faith. For, if the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is related to our actual regeneration as Hodge claimed the imputation of Adam’s sin is related to our actual corruption, then justification causes regeneration–which means either that unregenerate men can produce saving faith or that justification precedes faith.[42] Thus, Hodge’s accusation against all who disagree with him as espousing “the popish theory of justification,”[43] virtually the same accusation which he made against Nevin, does not seem all that cogent to Dabney.

Furthermore, Dabney points out that a human person is not simply “given” a nature when God brings him into being. Rather we acquire our nature from Adam, and that nature is corrupt.

There is, then, no moral nature of the first Adam to which we can be naturally united save his fallen nature.[44] To this emphatically agree the Scriptures. Gen. v. 3: “And Adam . . . . begat a son in his own likeness, after his image and called his name Seth.” 1 Cor. xv. 48, 49: “As is the earthy, such are they also that are earthy . . . And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.” “Put off . . . the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, . . . . and put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.” (Eph. iv. 22-24.) These words, in requiring conversion, allude to the two unions; the first, corrupt; the second, holy. (Compare Col. iii. 9, 10.)[45]

The importance of this for Dabney is to show that the union we have with Adam is not a legal fiction but depends on an actual natural union. He mentions a statement by Thornwell that “each individual sinner of us had a federal existence before we were conceived; that we bore a covenanted or legal relation before we existed,”[46] but responds that if “this language means anything more than a reference to foreordination and foreknowledge about us, it is incorrect.”[47] To Dabney it is obvious that a person cannot be guilty if he does not exist. God may plan to bring a person into existence, and that person may be guilty, but it is incoherent to talk of our guilt before we were conceived.

Let the clear, convincing language of the Confession of Faith, touching the counterpart subject of justification, illustrate this statement. Chap. XI., Sec. 4: “God did, from all eternity, decree to justify all the elect; and Christ did, in the fullness of time, die for their sins, and rise again for their justification; nevertheless they are not justified until the Holy Spirit doth, in due time, actually apply Christ unto them.” By parity of reasoning, we hold that God did, from all eternity, decree to condemn all men descended from Adam by ordinary generation; and that Adam did, some time after his creation in holiness, sin and fall for them as well as for himself; nevertheless, individual fallen men are not condemned in him until such time as their existence doth actually unite them to Adam. And then it is a corrupted Adam to whom they are united.[48]

Thus, Dabney insists that, just as quickening by the Spirit is simultaneous with justifying faith, so sinful corruption and imputed guilt both occur simultaneously in every human being from the moment of conception.

Previous to his existence in Adam, he has no innocent existence personally, not for one moment, not even in the metaphysical order of thought, for he has no actual existence at all. He enters existence corrupted, as he enters it guilty. He enters it guilty, as he enters it corrupted. This is the character of the federal union between him and Adam: that Adam’s conduct should determine for his posterity precisely this result, namely, that their personal existence should absolutely begin in that moral estate and under that legal relation which Adam procured for himself; that the two elements of this result should be mutually involved and coetaneous, as they were personally in Adam.[49]

Much more could be said about Dabney’s position if it were the purpose of this paper to defend his view. For the sake of pointing out his similarity to Nevin, however, the only remaining matter that seems important enough to mention is that Dabney insists he is defending John Calvin’s view of original sin against Hodge.[50] While Nevin did not particularly appeal to Calvin for this particular doctrine (as mentioned above, his primary concern was the Lord’s Supper, not original sin), he was in general appealing to Calvin over against certain “puritan” views as they had been articulated in America.


In summary, this paper has attempted to make a prima facie case that both Nevin and Dabney share a view at odds with the “immediate imputation” of Charles Hodge, but not, as Hodge claimed in the case of Nevin, at odds with notion of forensic justification. They seem to have held, implicitly or explicitly, the following points in common against him:

1. Union with Christ [51] is the basis for the justification of believers.

2. This union is brought about through the power of the Holy Spirit at a certain point in time in a person’s life (regeneration).

3. The inception of this union not only is the basis of justification, but the beginning of sanctification.

4. This union with Christ parallels the union with Adam which all people possess.

5. Whereas, in the case of Christ, the union is a Spiritual union (= through the Holy Spirit), in the case of Adam, the union is a natural union (= through the flesh).

6. Whereas union with Christ is given to sinners who already exist, union with Adam is given by natural generation and starts their existence.

7. Though the basis for condemnation in Adam and justification in Christ are not simply legal relationships, both the condemnation and the justification arising from the respective unions are essentially legal states. To elaborate, to be justified is to be declared righteous and to be condemened to be declared unrighteous. The legal character of such declarations is not compromised by the fact that they are based on realities which are not themselves reducible to forensic concepts.

The similarities between Nevin and Dabney, despite real differences in theological and philosophical perspective, should provide additional evidence that Nevin, whatever his faults, was not simply the quasi-romanist as which Hodge attempted to portray him. The mere fact that Hodge’s depiction of Nevin as rejecting the Protestant doctrine of forensic justification was also applicable to Dabney should indicate a high probablility that Hodge was defending his own personal preferences, not the truths of the Reformation. However Nevin’s views later developed (or decayed), and no one claims he changed substantially in this area, he did not say anything in Mystical Presence that justified Hodge’s accusation that he denied forensic imputation.

While forensic notions are essential to the message of the Scripture, it is not at all clear that they are as central and exclusively all-important as Hodge seemed to want them to be. Perhaps Nevin could help us see some other aspects of the Biblical message which have been neglected in the Reformed heritage as it has been handed down to us, as well as altered, at the end of the twentieth century.

I am totally stealing this Klaas Schilder quote from Matt Colvin

When I declare — and with the pretention of the greatest accuracy in a new binding — that election is the cause and fountain of our total salvation, then I run the danger of making someone, and later the whole church, think that if election is present then the fountain is bubbling, the cause is working, and the process is on its way. “No,” says Twissus [first prolocutor of the Westminster Assembly, and a delegate at Dort], “nothing is going on yet.” He admonished the Arminians, especially Corvinus, three times not to confuse election with the execution of election. Decree and the realization of the decree are two different matters. Election is not the cause. With election, the decree is from eternity. When I merely decide to travel to Amsterdam, then nothing as yet has happened.

The cause of my coming to Amsterdam is that I finally did put on my coat, went to the railway station, and said goodbye to the silhouette of my residence.

When I decide to do something then this decision can still change for at first I did not make a decision at all, or perhaps I would have decided something different, for instance to travel to London. But in God all decisions are unchangeable, a decision or decree therefore does not change anything in Him. Nor in us. That which causes anything in us and which is thus cause and fountain of all salvation, is something which comes in time. The causes all work with and in time…

“Man, stop,” Twissus now says, “you are forgetting that the decree, strictly speaking, is not the fountain or the cause. We do not tell our children and our people, ‘you are elect, for that is what your baptism indicates and you may now conclude that the stream of God’s clear healing water has started to flow.’ No,” says Twissus, “you Arminians forget one thing. The doctrine of election is not a doctrine of causes or fountains. Causes and fountains only occur in history, in what God started in this world. For instance, and that certainly in the first place, the preaching of the Word is a cause and a fountain. That is where the fountain starts to spout water. There the cause is working…

Consequently we do not make people rely upon election, as ground and fountain, but upon the Word.

via Election is not the cause of salvation « Colvinism.

RePost: my last article for Ligonier Minstries’ Tabletalk magazine

Originally posted on 7/30/2007.

Title: HIStory

Column: A Pastor’s Perspective

Date: Don’t have that written down on my copy.  Sometime between around 1999 to 2000.

Magazine: Ligonier Ministries’ TableTalk

Quick! What’s the basic message of the Bible? Summarize it in as few words as possible and say what first comes to mind.

Here’s how I would answer the question:

Boy meets girl.

No, I am not joking. We see it in the happy ending of Revelation, which shows us a wedding between Christ and the church and tells us that they live happily ever after. We see it in Adam and Eve all the way back in Genesis 2, which–as Paul tells us in Ephesians 5–refers fundamentally to Christ and the church. When we read in Luke 2 of how the Spirit will overshadow Mary, we realize that the description of the Spirit hovering over the waters in Genesis 1 involved the same theme. From beginning to end , this theme of boy meets girl pervades all of the Bible.

Twice in Genesis, once in Exodus, and once in an incident reported in both Joshua and Judges, we see a man coming together with his wife in association with a well or spring of water. Abraham’s servant meets Rebekah, the future wife of his master Isaac, at a well. She gives him a drink and waters his camels, demonstrating that God has chosen her to be the bride. Jacob meets the shepherdess Rachel at a well. He rolls away the stone that is blocking the spring and then waters all her flock. Moses meets his future wife Zipporah at a well. He defends her and her sisters (who all “just happen” to be shepherdesses, just like Rachel was) from bullying shepherds, then waters their flock. Caleb offers his daughter Achsah to the man who defeats the Canaanites in Kirjath Sepher.  Othniel captures the city and wins the bride. In receiving her, he also gains some land grants from her father. Due to her petitioning her father, the grant is expanded to include springs of water.

So when Jesus meets a woman at a well, in Samaria, what are they going to talk about? Even if you have never read John 4, the answer should be inescapable. When Jesus meets this woman at a well, they are going to discuss her marital status. Indeed, Jesus rescues her from a much more dangerous threat than bullying shepherds.

There is much else to support this basic biblical theme. Space would fail if I were to mentions the Song of Solomon, the role of Wisdom in the book of Proverbs, and the way Proverbs culminates with the portrayal of the ideal wife. Neither could I list here all the times Jerusalem or Israel is called God’s wife, setting us up for the identity of the church as the bride of Christ.

There are two things we have to keep in mind if we are going to understand the Bible as God’s literary masterpiece. First of all, we must keep in mind the doctrine of providence: God is in complete control of everything that happens in history. As we read about the events recorded in the Bible, we must apply this doctrine by bearing in mind that not only what God is said to have done in these events, but also the events themselves, are part of His message. God could have brought about Jesus’ meeting with the woman at the well in some other place, but he predestined it to take place there. It is not simply what Jesus said that reveals god, but the entire situation in which Jesus acts.

Second of all, we must keep in mind the doctrine of inspiration. Every word, every jot and tittle of Scripture, is the very Word of God. It is not merely the overarching truths that are inspired but the words used to express them. With the woman at the well, John could have summarized what Jesus said about the Spirit without quoting the metaphor of water or mentioning the well where He spoke. He could have overlooked what Jesus said about her marital history. But by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, John set down those statements.

If we remember these twin truths, we should be able to navigate between two common errors. Many conservative evangelicals, who (rightly) affirm the inerrancy of the scriptural record of events, treat the events themselves as virtuously meaningless. The fact that the same things keep happening is simply ignored. Liberals, on the other hand, sometimes do much better at seeing the meaning in events, but they treat the Scriptures as a fictionalized account that cannot be trusted for historical veracity. For conservatives, the woman at the well really happened, but her encounter with Jesus is important only in that it gave Jesus a chance to say some things He could have said almost anywhere else. For liberals, the woman at the well fits nicely into the themes and theology of the Bible, but her encounter with Jesus probably never really happened. Rather, it is the work of a novelist.

But if we acknowledge that God is the great novelist, then we need never choose between meaning and truth. God is more creative than any human being and can make His novel work better than any merely human book. But God is also all-powerful and sovereign over history. Thus, God can make history be His novel. Therefore, He can make a truthful Bible work better than fiction, even while remaining completely truthful.

As characters in God’s novel, we usually don’t see how our problematic lives can possibly be leading to the kind of tidy plot resolutions that we find so satisfying in a narrative. But the Bible can function as a corrective to our lack of faith. As we see what a well-woven tale the Bible is, how it is all true, and what its story is about, we can believe that our own stories will make sense because they are tied to that story. We have to trust the Novelist to finish His work and vindicate His graciously chosen protagonists. Ultimately, He is going to win the girl.

Not Norman Shepherd

A tweet:

Good works are necessary for salvation. Thus says on 12/16 while channeling Norman Shepherd.

Well, it is true that the post mentioned Norman Shpeherd.  But was I channeling him or others?

What I wrote is that Shepherd prompted me to investigate Reformed Orthodoxy.

What bothers me a great deal looking back at the accusations that were made against Norman Shepherd is how much the source material was kept out of view of the public who were told he should be condemned.  Back when I first heard of him I didn’t know Zacharas Ursinus’ lectures on the theology of the Heidelberg Catechism had been reprinted (virtually photocopied from an older book), Francis Turretin’s second volume was still not published, and Benedict Pictet remains unpublished.  Shepherd was a scholar in the Protestant Scholastics, but this was a world I was told nothing about.

The only authority who gave me support back then, in the early nineties, the only authority who seemed to be seeing the same material was John Gerstner in his Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth. He wrote,

good works may be said to be a condition for obtaining salvation in that they inevitably accompany genuine faith. Good works, while a necessary complement of true faith, are never the meritorious grounds of justification, of acceptance before God. From the essential truth that no sinner in himself can merit salvation, the antinomian draws the erroneous conclusion that good works need not even accompany faith in the saint. The question is not whether good works are necessary to salvation, but in what way are they necessary. As the inevitable outworking of saving faith, they are necessary for salvation (Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth, p. 210).

Unaware of the confusion that is being propagated today, Gerstner was naively certain that confusing a merely necessary condition with a meritorious necessary condition was a specifically dispensational mistake and thus writes, “That Ryrie cannot grasp the distinction between a necessary condition and a meritorious condition is apparent” (p. 256).

Sadly, Gerstner himself was to cross this line (though I don’t think he did so in the book), teaching that the good works of justified believers merited heavenly rewards.  But I knew that was wrong and it is certainly something Shepherd has always denied.

In 1995 I went to seminary and got to discover Reformed Theologians who were mainstream to the heritage but have been forgotten.  Specifically, I found the nineteenth-century translation Christian Theology by Turretin’s nephew, Benedict Pictet’s consistent position is revealed again in his chapter “of good works” (pp. 331-334). He writes:

As to the necessity of good works, it is clearly established from the express commands of God, from the necessity of our worshipping and serving God, from the nature of the covenant of grace, in which God promises every kind of blessing, but at the same time requires obedience, from the favors received at this hands, which are so many motives to good works, from the future glory which is promised, and to which good works stand related, as the means to the end, as the road to the goal, as seedtime to the harvest, as first fruits to the whole gathering, and as the contest to the victory… (pp. 332; emphasis added).

Not only did this portrayal of the life of faith (and the good works that were part of that) as means to coming into possession of salvation, blow my mind, but I realized it sounded quite familiar.  Eventually I figured out why.  I re-read chapter 16, paragraph 2, of the Westminster Confession, “Of Good Works”:

These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life.

I have no idea if Pictet was reflecting on the Westminster Confession when he wrote his passage, or if both documents reflect a common heritage.  In any case, they both use Romans 6 to justify what they say:

For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I had already found plenty of backing for (what was passed on to me as) Shepherd’s position.  But I had missed this.  It was especially interesting because I had heard often that obedience was not a means to salvation but a fruit of it.  This dichotomy was simply not considered valid by the Reformed Scholastics and the Westminster Divines.

But, thanks to P&R  I finally got to look through volume 2 of Turretin’s Elenctic Theology (P&R has published Francis Turretin, Peter Leithart, and Norman Shepherd and have since been trying to stuff the smoke back in the bottle).   In his Seventeenth Topic, “Sanctification and Good Works,” Turretin’s third question is “Are good works necessary to salvation?” His answer is straightforward: “We affirm” (17.3; p. 702). He claims we need to teach such a formulation, saying,

still we think with others that it can be retained without danger if properly explained. We also hold that it should be pressed against the license of the Epicureans so that although works may be said to contribute nothing to the acquisition of our salvation, still they should be considered necessary to the obtainment of it, so that no one can be saved without them—that thus our religion may be freed from those most foul calumnies everywhere cast mot unjustly upon it by the Romanists (as if it were the mistress of impiety and the cushion of carnal licentiousness and security) [emphasis added].

For Turretin, Reformed Orthodoxy occupies the proper middle ground between the errors of the “modern Epicureans and Libertines who make good works arbitrary and indifferent” and the Roman Catholics who “press the necessity of merit and causality.” Holding “the middle ground between these two extremes” The Reformed orthodox, he writes, “neither simply deny, nor simply assert; yet they recognize a certain necessity for them against the Libertines, but uniformly reject the necessity of merit against the Romanists” (17.3.2; p. 702). This third way between two extremes holds that good works are necessary for salvation according to “the necessity of means, of presence and of connection or order.” Good works are “the means and way for possessing salvation” (17.3.3; p. 702).

It wasn’t too long before I also found the original American publication of an English translation of Zacharias Ursinus’ Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism.  While Ursinus, writing many decades before Turretin, was more cautious about being misunderstood, he came to exactly the same position as Francis Turretin.

We may, therefore, easily return an answer to the following objection:

  • That is necessary to salvation without which no one can be saved.
  • But no one who is destitute of good works can be saved, as it is said in the 87th Question.
  • Therefore, good works are necessary to salvation.

We reply to the major proposition, by making the following distinction: That without which no one can be saved is necessary to salvation, viz: as a part of salvation, or as a certain antecedent necessary to salvation, in which sense we admit the conclusion; but not as a cause, or as a merit of salvation. We, therefore grant the conclusion of the major proposition if understood in the sense in which we have just explained it. For good works are necessary to salvation, or, to speak more properly, in them that are to be saved (for it is better thus to speak for the sake of avoiding ambiguity,) as a part of salvation itself; or, as an antecedent of salvation, but not as a cause of merit of salvation (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, pp. 484-485, emphasis added).

I’ve written up all this and a great deal more here (pdf download).  Please forgive the typos.

I’m curious if there is any way that Dr. Hart could possibly be unaware that prominent, mainstream, and orthodox Reformed Scholastics taught that good works were necessary to salvation as means to an end.  What exactly is the point of making people think that Norman Shepherd is the source of that so that I would need to channel him when I’m pointing out that a great deal of the Reformed heritage would have remained, as far as I know, hidden from my eyes if Shepherd had not been willing to reflect on it and teach it.

I don’t know anymore how much I agree or disagree with Shepherd’s positions.  I do know I appreciate not remaining ignorant, which is greatly due to his willingness to teach honestly, suffer for it.  Ironically, I also have to thank his enemies for lighting up a flare.

Norman Shepherd and the Westminster Standards: How I stopped thinking I knew and started learning about the Reformed Faith

So, after graduating from college I got a job working for Coral Ridge Ministries and fell into regular conversation for awhile with a seminary grad (RTS or Westminster) who told me about Norman Shepherd.  It was probably 1990.  He said (and I’m pretty sure I have this word perfect because it made an impression) that Shepherd taught that good works were necessary to salvation.


Could you say that again?

I heard right.

This guy was outraged at what happened to Shepherd.  He said that one guy on the board resigned because there was no point of serving at an institution where teachers were not permitted to teach Westminster doctrine (and I have no idea who this may have been or any independent verification; I’m just telling you what he said).

I sat there trying not to freak out.  Plainly my friend was expecting me to be sympathetic toward Shepherd because I was (for a young punk non-seminary guy anyway) a knowledgeable and committed Calvinist.  He thought I would know that Shepherd was right.

I’m not sure how I reacted at the time except, believe it or not, I stayed quiet and asked questions.

Then I went home and began reading the Westminster Confession and Catechisms.

I had to face two basic questions:

  1. Was Norman Shepherd’s teaching faithful to the Westminster Standards (and perhaps the Reformed heritage generally)?
  2. Was it Biblical?

This was years before Shepherd began thinking about the theology of Zacharias Ursinus and came to question the distinct “imputation of the active obedience of Christ” as a result of his studies of a contributor to the Heidelberg Catechisms.  So that was not even an issue.  The question was about how we should understand, express, what the Bible demands of sinners as a condition for salvation.

There were some other issues but at this point I had two documents once I did some digging:

  1. The 34 Theses
  2. The Grace of Justification

It has been quite some time since I’ve read these things by Norman Shepherd, so I am not going to say much now about them.  But one of the things that shocked me as I read the Westminster Confession, and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, was how much I had not read them before, even when I was reading them.  The power of Already Knowing What They Were Going To Say had pretty much rendered me a worthless reader.  I had not paid attention to details.  I had not put together statements that were located on different pages.  I simply had not allowed my mind to truly think about the actual content of the text.

This was written over a decade later, but it gives you an idea of what I discovered.

And yes, I did decide that the Westminster Standards were being fully Biblical in what they taught on the issues.   Though I’m ashamed to say I don’t have as much written to show concern for that issue.