Archive for July, 2008

Early Scots-Episcopacy

*I originally posted this at my blog, but I thought that readers here might be interested in the topic as well.

While reading about the Aberdeen doctors, I discovered that they were all Episcopalians. I thought this was interesting because I usually associate Reformed versions of episcopacy with England rather than Scotland.

John Forbes of Corse was the most famous representative of the Aberdeen doctors, and he was exiled for his views. Indeed, it seems that the only position of which he could be found culpable in the eyes of the Scottish theologians was his refusal to sign the Solemn League and Covenant. The Covenanters deposed him from his teaching position at the university, took his house, exiled him to Holland, and even forbade him a burial alongside his family. Charming fellows they were.

Forbes’ uncle, another John, wrote a defense of the Scottish system of “Superintendents” which is available on google books.

It turns out that Robert Rollock also held to an episcopal form of church government, as he penned a work entitled Episcopal Government instituted by Christ, and confirmed by Scripture and Reason. (more…)

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It has become increasingly popular for confessing Reformed theologians to actually reject the Reformed consensus on the role of the civil magistrate. This project has been a long time coming. The Scots modified the Westminster Confession on this subject when they first adopted it, though they did not erase all reference to the Magistrate’s role in protecting the Church. They simply limited its powers. The adoption of the Westminster Confession in the United States marked the most drastic departure, as several paragraphs were significantly changed to promote the new idea of “separation of Church and State.” However, we are now seeing a truly distinct theological explanation of this shift, claiming that the civil realm is to be kept wholly apart from the religious (not simply clerical) realm.

It has to be admitted that Christian political thought was not helped by the so-called Religious Right that arose in the 1980s. That movement wasn’t wholly bad, but it tended not to represent the best of traditional Christian thought, and on the ground level it could look downright scary. Nevertheless, we should not be fooled into thinking that this is the sum of Christian political thought. There is a long tradition to be uncovered.

Again, the astounding thing about these Reformed theologians currently promoting a purely a-religious civil realm is that on most other issues they insist on complete adherence to the Reformed confessions. Since this is the case, I would like to use the historical confessions as a leverage point to show a better alternative to the new so-called “Two Kingdoms” theology. There was, to be sure, a Two Kingdoms theology in the Reformed tradition, but it looked vastly different. To show the traditional view, I would like to provide a catena of Reformed Confessional statements on the civil magistrate.

Here is a chronological survey:

Tetrapolitan Confession-(1530 Bucer and Capito):

23- … They accordingly teach that to exercise the office of magistrate is the most sacred function that can be divinely given. Hence it has come to pass that they who exercise public power are called in the Scriptures gods… Therefore none exercise the duties of magistrate more worthily than they who of all are the most Christian and holy… (more…)

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I’m sure that by now many of our readers have heard that Westminster Seminary (Phila.) and Dr. Peter Enns have come to mutually agreeable terms, and that Dr. Enns’ tenure as prof. of OT at WTS is now officially over (see here).  Some have taken this latest announcement in the Enns-gate controversy as an opportunity to continue mocking the Seminary for its fundamentalist and sectarian ways (see here, and here), others view this as a great day for Westminster and the cause of orthodoxy in America (see, for one example, some of the comments on this thread). 

I, for one, don’t really buy in to either of these perspectives.  I am not convinced, as many seem to be, that Westminster is Satan’s playground or a place where the chief concern of the “powers that be” is to avoid cutting edge scholarship and/or to perpetuate schism.  But at the same time, I cannot view anything that has happened in this controversy as a good thing.  Even if this mutually agreeable settlement between the respective parties is more desireable than a number of other outcomes which might be imagined, it is not necessarily good.  At the end of the day, a good servant of Christ is out of work and has surely suffered much turmoil and humiliation.  And, conversely, at the end of the day, a good school has lost one of its most notable professors and has also undergone tremendous turmoil and humiliation (from the tenured faculty on down to first year students).  Splits and divisions amongst Christians, especially of this sort, are never “good,” even if they may at times be necessary.

But one thing I feel constrained to combat is the seemingly prevalent insistance that Westminster and other seminaries like it, simply because they see fit to hold fast to their confessional identity, are somehow doing a dis-service to the church by “avoiding the difficult questions” in the name of a confessional orthodoxy.  For some reason it is assumed that seminaries simply exist as places to heap academic information onto students so that they can have a good understanding of the “cutting edge” scholarship being done in the various biblical-theological disciplines.  While this no doubt ought to be a primary concern for most academic institutions, it is not so, or at least it ought not be so, for seminaries.  (more…)

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Philiip Melanchthon identifies the hotly-disputed issue of free will as being “about the deterioration of human strength through sin, man’s inability to free himself from sin and death, and about the works that man is able to do in such a state of weakness.” [As excerpted from the Loci Communes (1521) in The Renaissance Reader, ed. Kenneth J. Atchity [New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1996], pp. 131-134.] For Melanchthon, seemingly unlike for Luther, the deep questions of necessity and the relationship of God’s knowledge to human actions are “extraneous questions” that sidetrack the real issues. Free will is about the harmonious relations between man’s understanding, will, and heart. This harmony was lost in the Fall, and “man’s natural powers became very weak.” [Ibid., 131.]

Though corrupted by sin, man’s natural powers did not become utterly useless. So that God might recognize sin and be able to be punished for it, God ensured that some “knowledge remained in this ccorrupted nature, although it is dim and full of doubt and uncertainty about God.” The ability to have virtue toward God (love of God, trust in Him, and fear of Him) was lost, and man’s heart is “wretchedly imprisoned, impaired, and ruined.” However, this ruination does not extend to man’s ability to perform outward acts based on what he does understand of God and his situation as a creature: God “wants all men to have external morality, and thereby learn the distinction between powers that are free and powers that are bound.” [Ibid., 132.]


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Reformed Theologies

Hoss asks for a classic, but all I can offer at the moment is a conversation starter. What is “Reformed theology” or “Reformed Orthodoxy”?

Richard Muller has made the second label popular, however, I’m afraid many have attempted to invoke him to prove more than he ever intended. I can’t help but think of the confessional communitarians who tell us that “Reformed theology is ours!” and attempt to draw the lines in overly narrow and, at times, idiosyncratic ways.

Ryan Penn made a helpful observation in an older post, and I’d like to quote a portion of his comment. He writes:

So, In locating the confessions, in order that we might understand them, we would have to attend to those who wrote it (if we know) and the local circumstance, and also the influential Preachers, Theologians, and Schoolmen who would all make up part of the network which lead to the ‘Reformed’ part of the Church. At this point we’re really using a network of thinkers, in various locations, over a fair amount of time, all who self identified as part of the Reformed Church, and in their time were received as such (I leave out the tricky question of what to do with the Lutherans and the so-called phillipists, and the relation of both to the ‘Reformed’). This works fine if one is looking for a consensus, rather weakly understood, but should one push it to be an orthodoxy, it is too imprecise for the task.

And again, what we have to remember is that the documents in question did not make a city reformed; the city already was. These things came to be in a reformed city state (or larger, in the later cases of England, Scotland, and the Netherlands, among others), and were used to instruct the people, and also as a public voice, but usually more one or the other, depending on the document. The network (of cities, of states, of thinkers, of refugees), provided the opportunity for these confessions, but is not subsumed by them.

Indeed, as one examines particular instantiations of Reformed theology, the situation becomes complex. There is no simple “development,” as if the messy strains all managed to iron themselves out over time. Turretin will speak of “Orthodoxy,” but then he’ll also say, “But many of our divines say otherwise.” Politics and religion were married. Church government questions were hardly peripheral. Theological wars in one Reformed country were hardly of interest in another Reformed country. Strange alliances pop up. We could go on.


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I wanted to put in a plug for the Biblical Horizons conference which you can read all about here. It will be held on July 21-25 at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Valparaiso, Florida.

I went last year, and it was great fun. BH is as interested in music as anything, and so one of the unique treats of attending is the chance to chant Biblical songs (last year we did the Song of the Red Sea) and sing fun German, Scandinavian, Hungarian, and Russian hymns. The talks are a blast too.

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For those who may not be closely following the crisis in the Anglican Communion, I append the following statement produced by the Global Anglican Future Conference.  The conference was composed of 1148 lay and clergy delegates, including 291 Anglican Bishops (the figure includes a significant number of bishops and clergy from Continuing Anglican churches) and met in Jerusalem June 22-29.

I’m interested in the thoughts and reactions of the contributors in regards to the significance and value of this statement.  Have a great Fourth of July weekend, guys! (more…)

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