Unmediated Relationship?

Until recently my exposure to Kuyper was purely through secondary sources. Recently I got to read some big chunks of his Lectures on Calvinism. While a good bit of what I read resonated with me, I have to say I was surprised to read in his first lecture a ringing endorsement of the idea that one of Calvinism’s great virtues is its ideal of the direct, unmediated relationship between God and the human soul. I don’t have the book sitting in front of me, so I can’t cite it, but perhaps someone here knows what I’m talking about. I’m given from other sources to understand that Calvin himself, at least, had a pretty high view of the institutional Church and the sacraments, so I don’t understand Kuyper’s enthusiasm for the unmediated relationship idea as supposedly intrinsic to Calvinism and one of its great virtues. It reminds me of a critique I saw a few years ago that said Warfield messed Calvinist sacramentology up pretty bad with his own idea of the unmediated relationship. Any thoughts on this?

Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) is one of the greatest and most profound thinkers which the Reformed tradition has to offer.  His four volume Reformed Dogmatics (Gereformeerde Dogmatick) is required reading for any student of Reformed theology or history.  (Thankfully, the translation into English of the fourth volume of this work was just recently published.)  Picking up on my previous couple posts which have had Reformed confessionalism as their theme, I figured I’d offer a brief selection from Bavinck’s Prolegomena, on dogma quoad nos (for us). Continue Reading »

Since we’ve been talking a little lately about what it means to be “confessional,” I figured I’d offer these brief thoughts on what it means for me at least, as a catholic and Reformed Christian, to be confessional. This is from a comment which I left this morning over on Sacramental Piety .

The historic Reformed confessions are not to be adhered to in a slavish manner, with the church simply going along reciting the same old things over and over as though our confessions are on a par with Scripture. To be a confessing church is to be a church that confesses here and now, and this necessitates, at times, making progress on earlier forms of thought. Schaff has rightly pointed out that this idea of progress upon older forms is indeed a fundamentally Protestant principle, for without the validity of progress in light of Scripture and the ongoing tradition of the Church (which did not reach canonization in 1647), the Reformers had no right to do what they did: that is, question hundreds of years of Medieval dogma and reformulate church doctrine in the light of Scripture.

Thus, we must continue to build on their work, and continue confessing our faith. Just because someone disagrees with a Reformer on this or that point, or articulation of a common point (and the Reformers were no monolithic bunch, anyway), does not necessarily imply that one is an enemy of the Reformation. In fact, if the views which such a person is advocating are Scriptural, it may even be the case that said one’s agenda is more in line with the spirit of the Reformers than detractors who claim the title “confessional.”

Now, let me be clear: Confessing and Reformation are acts of the Church. It takes a Church to confess and it therefore takes a Church to revise a confession. If a man brings to the table a doctrine with Scriptural arguments in support of it, which he claims should lead to a revision of our confessional standards, and the confessing Church (represented by her appointed presbyters) as a whole finds those arguments lacking, then said man ought to submit to the faith of the community. However, this does not mean that we ought to reject all such attempts out of hand as being “opposed to the confession” or “against the Reformation,” for the Reformed confessions themselves were never meant to operate in this way, and the Reformation itself was never about holding up a certain stage in the church’s theological development as the standard by which all later developments might be judged. This right is reserved for Scripture.

The Reformed churches must never, of course, abandon their doctrinal heritage or the theological trajectory set by our forefathers. But we must be a continually confessing and Reforming church, building upon the thought of past ages with a perceptive eye turned to the present and the future. As a committed Presbyterian, I believe that Wesminster Confession 1.10 was included in the Standards of my particular tradition for precisely this purpose.

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.

*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. Continue Reading »

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… Continue Reading »

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.  Continue Reading »

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.]

Continue Reading »

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.

Continue Reading »

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.

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! Continue Reading »

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.