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Archive for the ‘Historical’ Category

The Presbyterian Controversy

As I’ve begun studies at Westminster Theological Seminary, I figured it might be worth while, given my interest in the history of Reformed theology in America, to write up something on the events in the Presbyterian Church which led to the founding of that institution. Nothing ground-breaking or original here, just a brief narrative for those who may be interested in hearing the story but who to this point have lacked the time.

As a Reformed catholic, I both sympathize with and shrink back from Machen in certain respects. Doctrinally, I agree with him wholheartedly with regard to the importance of orthodoxy and the un-Christian nature of theological liberalism. However, I do have my reservations about his seeming eagerness to pursue division within the Presbyterian Church. At any rate, as one who is a conservative American Presbyterian and therefore an heir of Machen, I do think these things are worth discussing.

My narrative here is taken almost exclusively from Bradley Longfield’s excellent work, The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates (New York: Oxford, 1991.), as I lack the time at the moment to produce anything resembling a full research paper with a variety of sources. However, I’d also recommend Darryl Hart’s biography on Machen for a more sympathetic look at the great New Testament Scholar and champion of “Presbyterian orthodoxy.” Hart’s thesis that Machen was not, in fact, a fundamentalist in the strict sense, is intriguing, and one which I tend to agree with.

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Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), of whom I have written a biographical sketch elsewhere, wrote a work called De Pace Fidei (On Peace in Religion), which is a dialogue between the adherents of various religions. In the dialogue the following interesting discourse on justification appears:

Thereupon Paul, a teacher of the Gentiles, rose up, and by the authority of the Word spoke the following:

Paul: It is necessary that we show that salvation of the soul is not obtained by works, but rather from faith, for Abraham, the father of the faith of all those who believe, whether Arab, Christian, or Jew, believed in God, and he was considered as being justified. The soul of the just will inherit life everlasting. Once this is admitted, these varieties of ritual will not be a cause of dissension, for as sensible signs of the truth of belief these things that have been instituted and received as signs are capable of change, not so the thing that is signified.

Tartar: Tell us how, then, does faith save?

Paul: If God should promise certain things because of His liberality and generosity, should not He, Who is able to provide all things and Who is truth, be believed?

Tartar: I’ll have to admit that. No one can possibly be deceived who believes Him, and if he fails to believe him he would not be worthy of obtaining any gift.

Paul: What, therefore, justifies him who obtains justice?

Tartar: Not merits, otherwise this would not be something gratuitous, but a debt.

Paul: Very well put, but because no living person can be justifed through works in the sight of God, but only gratuitously, the Omnipotent gives whatsoever He will to whomsoever He will. Then, if anybody would be worthy to acquire a promise that was purely gratuitous, it is necessary that he believe in God. It is in this, therefore, that he is justified, because from this alone will he obtain the promise, because he believess in God and expects the Word of God to take place.

Tartar: After God has promised something it is certainly just that He keeps His promises. The person who believes Him is justifed rather through the promise than through its faith.

Paul: God, who promised the seed of Abraham, in which all were to be blessed, justified Abraham, that he might acquire the promise. But if Abraham had not believed in God he would have obtained neither justification nor the promise.

Tartar: I agree with that.

Paul: The faith, therefore, in Abraham was only this, that the fulfillment of the promises was just, because otherwise it would not have been just, nor fulfilled.

Tartar: What did God promise?

Paul: God promised Abraham that He would give him this one seed in the person of Isaac, in which seed all races would be blessed, and this promise actually took place. Since according to the ordinary laws of nature it was impossible for Sarah, his wife, to conceive or give birth, yet because he beleived he acquired a son, Isaac. Later on God tempted Abraham, in that He asked him to offer and slay the boy Isaac, in whom His promise of the seed had been fulfilled. And Abraham obeyed God, believing no less in the future promise, even though it would involve the resuscitation of his dead son. When God discovered this faith in Abraham, then he was justified, and the promise was fulfilled in this one seed which descended from him through Isaac.

Tartar: What is this seed?

Paul: It is Christ, for all races have obtained in Him a divine blessing.

Tartar: What is this blessing?

Paul: The divine blessing is that final desire for happiness which we call eternal life, about which you have alerady heard.

Tartar: Do you desire, therefore, that God should promise us the blessing of eternal life in Christ?

Paul: That is what I wish. For if you believe in this same way you will be justified along with the faithful Abraham, and obtain the promise that was found in the seed of Abraham, Christ Jesus, and that promise is the divine blessing.

Tartar: Do you mean to say, therefore, that this faith alone justifies and enables us to attain of eternal life?

Paul: I do. – from “De Pace Fide,” in Unity and Reform: Selected Writings of Nicholas De Cusa, ed. John P. Dolan (University of Notre Dame Press, 1962), pp. 227-229

Note that this was written in 1453, thirty years before the birth of Martin Luther.

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This started out as a comment, but evolved in reflection on recent posts touching theological self-definition (What is “Reformed Orthodoxy) and continuing developments to circumscribe theological development (In Defense of Westminster Seminary).

Ah, Foucault would have fun with these threads, noting the proprietary claims over words as a quest for the power to include and exclude. Perhaps we all would be well-served if we were to take a deep breath and admit to a bit of creeping idolatry here.

If recent studies in lexical semantics have taught us anything it is that there is no inherent stability in a word’s meaning. Rather, it finds its meaning in pragmatic usage and its semantic range is delimited only by its difference from other lexemes in the given discourse.

Perhaps Wittgenstein might also be of use here…

On one hand, Hoss and others are certainly correct to note that words like “Reformed” and “regenerate” are much more elastic than than the public strictures that Hart and others would wish to impose. If we are playing a language game where the rules are informal or irenic or deliberately constructive (as in constructive theological discourse), “Reformed” can embrace something as broad as “corrected” (as when Trent is often described as a “reforming council”) or more narrowly Protestant (Lutherans, Zwinglians, Anabaptists, are all communities originating from the “Reformation”) or even more narrowly not Lutheran (Zwinglians and Calvinians are usually described as “Reformed” in the academic literature).

The problem, however, is undefined or non-stipulated use in specialized, stipulated, or politicized contexts. This practice (whether unintentional or intentionally subversive) virtually guarantees miscommunication and a breakdown of a common discourse. Here, Hart has a point and should be respected for his desire to think and self-define as a Presbyterian and Reformed churchman. One may disagree with the narrowness of his scope and demur at his intransigence with regard to definitions, but his posturing is not simply a self-supplied character defect or evidence of muddleheadedness. Rather, it is more akin to a Catholic theologian who remains unwilling to describe Protestant ecclesial communities as “churches”. Stipulating the Catholic definition of “Church,” he is simply working from the integrity of their own horizon in speaking as he does. It certainly does not imply sin against charity (though the Roman definition itself might be uncharitable) or ignorance of Protestant self-description.

Hart’s ecclesial/academic community is currently engaged in a long, self-conscious effort to shore-up its heretofore fuzzy boundaries. By this, his community hopes to renew some of its flagging integrity as a body distinct from others. Anyone who has read “Deconstructing Evangelicalism” (a book with which I largely agreed, BTW) should have seen this coming like a neon-lighted parade float up 5th Avenue.

This branding of Hart and his OPC/WTS/NAPARC compatriots is nakedly ideological and utopian (both terms intended as Ricoeur uses them) and much of the soreness I detect in Hoss, etc. flows from a self-conscious repudiation of that particular ideological/ utopian power-grab. I have shared in much of that repudiation which is why I am no longer a Teaching Elder in the PCA.

It is certainly fair to note how history attests to self-described “Reformed” adherents outside of strictly Presbyterian contexts and to defend the notion that most of the Magisterial “Reformed” luminaries (Calvin, Bucer, Vermigli, etc.) would leap to agree. The fact that Calvin signed the Wittenberg Concord (containing an explicit declaration of loyalty to the 1530 edition of the Augsburg Confession) when he became pastor in Strassburg testifies that he didn’t seem to self-define as Hart’s later Reformed communities have. We might also note how Calvin attended the ecumenical colloquies at Hagenau, Worms, and Regensburg (1540-41) as a “Lutheran” representative.

It is also quite fair to note that the OPC/WTS/NAPARC agenda is misguided and quite probably quixotic. If we have learned anything from the Norm Shepherd affair, the creation days debate, paedocommunion, Auburn Avenue/ Federal Vision, the New Perspective on Paul, and now the Enns dismissal from WTS, it is that a 17th Century White European confession cannot possibly be employed to speak with unequivocal force to define a 21st Century, multi-ethnic, and  globalized Christian body. Such a refusal to engage in the hard work of communal introspection, continuing reformation, and renewed self-definition (John XXIII’s ressourcement and aggiornamento) impedes the all the [super]natural linguistic, spiritual, theological, and ecclesial developments of faith communities. This strikes me as an effort to close the barn door after the departure of the horses. The result will only be continued “group think” and  increased irrelevance in a globalized Christian context.

Barring accord on these issues, it would be my hope that we could at least be clear with regard to our own ideological commitments and charitable with regard to those who do not share them.

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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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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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For those who might be interested (and I’m not sure that it is all that many), I am doing a survey of Reformed Orthodoxy’s implementation of future justification(s) over at my own blog. So far I have Diodati and Pictet, both ministers associated with Geneva, posted. I’ll be adding selections from John Preston, James Ussher, Gataker-Gouge-and Downame’s Annotations, Edward Polhill, and perhaps Turretin and Witsius.

Essentially these authors fall into two positions.

The first asserts that there are two distinct types of justification: one justification of the sinner as sinner, in which he receives Christ by faith alone, and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to him, thus justifying him before God, and the other as the “justification of the righteous man” in which he is justified by works, though judged by a gracious standard, that of the evangelical law.

The second position asserts that the apostle James’ use of “works” is a synonym for “working faith,” and that working faith displays the truth of one’s faith. Thus all types of justification are one and the same: by a working faith.

These positions are an attempt to harmonize Paul and James, as well as explain how we will be judged on the last day. Their existence is important for current controversies, but also, perhaps more importantly,  for opening up ecumenical dialog between traditions that too often misunderstand one another on a fundamental point of religion.

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