Why Proponents of Christian America Need to Read John Frame

As part of his commitment to speaking the truth at length in love, John Frame has written a review of Scott Clark’s, Recovering the Reformed Confession for his website. (How long, O Lord, how long? Over 17,500 words not including 60 [!!] notes. Let me help with the math. At 250 words per page, that’s 70 [a lot of] pages.)

The review reveals a very interesting difference between Clark and Frame on the Reformed tradition. For Clark, the Reformed faith has an objective standard, found in the churches’ creeds and confessions. He concedes diversity as the churches emerged in such diverse settings as Scotland and Transylvania. But Clark (like me) finds these confessions the best way to understand what Reformed Protestantism stood for, while also providing a good deal of uniformity on what it means to be Reformed.

Frame, however, thinks this is a narrow way of understanding the Reformed tradition and suggests an alternative: “I think it better to regard anyone as Reformed who is a member in good standing of a Reformed church. I realize there is some ambiguity here, for we must then ask, what is a really Reformed church? Different people will give different answers. But, as I said above, I don’t think that the definition has to be, or can be, absolutely precise. The concept, frankly, has ‘fuzzy boundaries,’ as some linguists and philosophers say.”

What would such different approaches to defining Reformed Protestantism mean for understanding the meaning and identity of the United States? This is no idle question since Frame draws on this analogy to identify his differences with Clark. For Frame, Clark is one of those originalists who puts much stock in the founders and the Constitution. But for Frame, the United States cannot be held to such a definite and time-bound standard. He writes:

Imagine someone saying, “if you want to know what ‘American’ means, look at the founding documents of the United States: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the writings of the founders like The Federalist Papers.” There is a certain amount of truth in that. Certainly these documents tell us much of what makes the United States different from other nations. But these documents presuppose an already existing community of ideas. For example, although they mention religion rarely, they cannot be rightly understood apart from the history of New England Puritanism, Dutch Reformed Christianity in New York, Quakerism in Pennsylvania, Anglicanism in Virginia, and so on.

And the history of America subsequent to these documents is also important. Many claim that these documents are largely neglected and/or contradicted today. There is a large disconnect between what America was at its founding and what it is today. Defining America by the founding documents, and defining it as an empirical community, lead to two different and inconsistent conceptions. People who define America only by its founding documents are likely to say that subsequent developments are “unamerican.” But so say that is merely to express a preference. That preference may be a good one. But merely to express it is not likely to persuade anyone to share that preference. This case is similar to the attempt to define “Reformed.”

On the view I advocate, it is not possible to state in precise detail what constitutes Reformed theology and church life. But one can describe historical backgrounds and linkages, as I have done above in the example of the United States. And there are some general common characteristics, a kind of “family resemblance,” among the various bodies of the last five centuries that have called themselves Reformed. The idea that “Reformed” should be defined as a changing community is not congenial to Clark’s view. But it seems to me to be more accurate and more helpful.

A number of arresting implications follow from Frame’s analogy between the Reformed and American traditions.

One that stands out is who qualifies as a good American. If someone is Reformed because they belong to a Reformed church, then someone is a good American if they belong to the United States. That means that the liberals writing for the New York Times and the atheists writing books against Christianity are as much Americans as the U.S. faithful attending church each Sunday. In other words, the United States is what it is; it has no objective norms for determining what the nation means or who belongs to it. No matter your beliefs, you belong to the United States if you are American.

Another implication that stands out like low-hanging fruit is what Frame appears to be saying to those who spend much time appealing to the nation’s Christian founding for understanding what the nation should be today. As Frame writes above, “People who define America only by its founding documents are likely to say that subsequent developments are ‘unamerican.’ But to say that is merely to express a preference.” Likewise, to say that America was founded as a Christian nation and that the United States needs to return to its Christian heritage is, according to Frame’s argument, not objective reality but a “preference” with as much force as an opinion from Scott Clark.

I myself tend to be an originalist all the way down. I regard the Constitution to be important for understanding the United States then and now, the Reformed creeds important for understanding Reformed history then and now, and even the Bible important for understanding God’s plan of salvation then and now. Maybe this is the hobgobblin of a small mind, though I think it also has something to do with the way we read law, whether for the state or the church.

Still, Frame’s argument would appear to cut off at the knees those folks who think the American nation’s Christian origins are relevant for today. The message seems to be, “just say goodbye to ‘in God we trust.’”

Postscript: for some reason the Bayly Brothers seemed to miss this feature of Frame’s review when they recommended it.

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52 thoughts on “Why Proponents of Christian America Need to Read John Frame

  1. Well, it’s not exactly historically incorrect to suggest that everybody besides Lutherans and Anglicans and Anabaptists were “Reformed,” is it?

    Try telling Jakob Harmenszoon that he wasn’t Dutch Reformed.

    Really, though, I see the point. Control is always preferable to anarchy.

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  2. Several diverse thoughts:

    1) Hmmm. One of the things I love about presbyterian polity is its catholicity — that we admit anyone as members who can give a credible profession of faith, even if they disagree on some of the more Reformed distinctives. At the same time, we require all officers to hold to the Westminister Standards (with reasonable exceptions). In this way, we retain our Reformed integrity while not barring any professing Christian from membership in the visible church, outside of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. So, in my congregation, for instance, we have many members who could not objectively be called “reformed” in their theology — not yet, anyway. I have credo-baptistic members and pentecostal leaning members, etc. The hope is that as they stick around, they will as a matter of course become more and more so, and some of the qualified men will then be eligible to become officers. (Which is what we in fact see, sometimes with whole families of children getting baptized after sticking with us for awhile.) But every church member in good standing “reformed?” Nah.

    2) The Christian America version that takes us back to the earliest days of the colonies fails to account for the fact that we were always a mixed bag. Catholic Maryland and Quaker Pennsylvania and penal colony Georgia aside, even in Massachusetts we had our Thomas Mortons (gun runner, whiskey seller and maypole enthusiast; though I realize the info on him is sketchy). The point is that from the beginning, there were wheat and tares and even the Christians were often a mess, theologically. What gave them the right to make a covenant with God and to be so certain in their interpretation of providence? And yes, I am well read in early American puritans.

    3) I would think that using “How long, O Lord, how long” as part of a jab at the length of an essay may be using the Lord’s name in vain. Keep in mind that I say this as one of the most foul mouthed and minded Christians I know (I blame my Army years), but since I fail so often myself in this category, perhaps I am just more sensitive to it; but I at least want to raise the question.

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  3. (1) Frame’s argument does indeed cut off at the knees any attempt to define America as a “Christian nation.”

    For he points out rightly that the founding documents are not the same as the current state of affairs. So that even if we were to grant that America’s founding documents are “Christian” (which I don’t for one instant), it does not follow that the current state of affairs is consistent with those founding documents.

    So the statement “America is a Christian nation” is falsifiable in two ways, not just one: the original documents must be shown to be “Christian”; and the current state of affairs must be shown to be “Christian.”

    (2) The continuing online brawl between Frame, Clark, and friends is grievous.

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  4. What’s interesting to me is that underlying Frame’s argument is the question of precedent, both in Reformed doctrine and Constitutional Law.

    As Xian has pointed out the question isn’t so much is America a Christian nation, which it clearly never was in an objective sense, but what are the Christian principles that undergird our Constitution and legal system.

    It seems to me that Clark advocates an originalist precedent of Reformed theology while Frame is calling for a limited application of stare decisis when interpreting Reformed theology.

    Interestingly however, the proponents of the Escondido hermeneutic turn the table when it comes to civil government and prefer a Natural Law thesis over a theory of precedent.

    Now it seems to me that the common law tradition was probably heavily influenced by Catholic canon law and Reformed theories of hermeneutics.

    If that is the case one must wonder what the Escondido hermeneutic would do to our common law heritage?

    I’m hoping that RL and CVD will chime in.

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  5. @C.Hutchinson: I second the warmth over our catholicity and emphasizing nurture over sufficiently convincing testimonies, but I wonder about extending voting privileges to those without stated, or perhaps any, intent to conform our Standards. It should be a incidental concern, except it determines pretty much everything under the wrong circumstances.

    @jrcagle, Frame threw down the first gauntlet with the Warrior Children thing. … hm.

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  6. igasx:

    There are parallels between Clark’s arguments and those employed by originalists. But I don’t think the analogy is worth pursuing all that much because no originalist would try to define “American” by resorting solely to the Constitution. That’s not its purpose.

    One of the most striking features of the Constitution is its commitment to tolerance (guaranteeing the freedom of religion, of speech, of press, of association, etc) and inclusiveness (guaranteeing equal protection of the law to all citizens). You don’t have to be a philosopher to know that these commitments are going to result in many different understandings of what it means to be “American.” Frame is right when he says that the term “unamerican” is used mainly to voice one’s disapproval of something. But the Constitution is OK with people saying, believing, and teaching that things are American or unamerican or whatever. You can even burn the flag if you want to!

    But it’s at precisely this point that our confessions differ from the Constitution. The confessions are intolerant and exclusive. The Westminster Standards do define what one must believe to be a Presbyterian. That’s what they were meant to do. They do insist that you believe what they say. If you don’t, you’re not one of us.

    If you had to define what it means to be American by looking only at the Constitution, you would probably come up with a definition close to “being American means being free to say what you want, being free to associate with you want, being free to believe whatever you want, etc” Now, when you turn to the Westminster Standards, you get the opposite–a precise, prescriptive account of what one must believe, confess, teach, and do.

    I think Frame’s analogy actually undermines his argument.

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  7. As ever, temporal analogies to eternal truths breakdown. But, to be an American one simply has to be born in America. Likewise, to be a Christian one has to be born in the church. If the next question is, What kind of American, it is also, What kind of Christian? And just as federalist-Americans can’t count themselves originalist-Americans (or vice versa), nonReformed-Christians cannot count themselves Reformed-Christians (or vice versa). To miss these distinctions seems a bit like calling oneself a Republican who favors bigger government and higher taxes, or a Baptist who baptizes children, or a Catholic who dissents from papal authority.

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  8. Mike K,

    I agree that it can be problematic so the way I handle it is to try cover all the Reformed basics in the Inquirers Class (5 points, Regulative Principle, Sabbath, Male Leadership, Christian Freedom, Spirituality of the Church, Cessatioanism, Covenant Baptism, Pro life, Anti no fault Divorce , etc.), and tell folks that if they strongly disagree with any of these, that they might not want to join due to the membership vows which require support, submission, etc.

    What I find is that at this point, some in fact do go elsewhere, and I try to help them find a classical Protestant church which would help them worship according to their own convictions. Others say, well, we disagree with you on X or Y, but see Christ here, and want to join and support as we can. And they do.

    So far, after 5 years, it has not been a major problem, but we also try hard to major on the majors, and only preach distinctives as they come in the lecto continuo preaching, and/or in proportion to their overall place in the NT epistles, for the most part, though some issues seem to need special attention in our age, so perhaps we teach them a bit more than the appear in the NT epistles. The point is this way we are able to reach and disciple folks in the Reformed faith w/o driving them away too prematurely.

    But all of this is an art, and every church has to figure out its own “culture” if you will, as they try to be faithful to Scripture’s priorities.

    Blessings, Chris

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  9. And just as federalist-Americans can’t count themselves originalist-Americans (or vice versa)

    What?! I know the 10th Amendment is a functionally dead amendment but there it is nonetheless.

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  10. Yes, I was a little shocked by Frame’s comments that it’s only a preference to call people who depart from the founding documents un-American. While we may not politely call THEM un-American, we are certainly entitled to call their political philosophy un-American.

    We began to depart from the Constitution when the Supreme Court by way of the incorporation doctrine (re: 14th Amendment) lawlessly placed it’s own authority over that of the Constitution. This has resulted in social chaos ever since.

    Thus, a more appropriate analogy would be what liberal churchmen do to the Westminster Confession. As Van Til said once (paraphrasing), if you go the museum of liberal Presbyterianism, you can see a lot of old a dusty things. Eventually, you get down to the basement and uncover an old, dust-covered copy of the Westminster Confession. That’s essentially where it is today in most liberal Reformed churches.

    So Frame’s analogy is woefully unadequate to do justice to what has happened regarded the Constitution. It is nothing at all like a minor disagreement or an exception to the Westminster Confession.

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  11. Mr. Frame’s point can be illustrated like this: in 2010, can we properly say that the 19th Amendment is unAmerican, given that no whiff of women’s suffrage can be found in the Founding Documents?

    Moreover: the 21st Amendment abolished the 18th. Which of those was unAmerican?

    Reasonably, we might say that the 18th was American while it was in the Constitution, and unAmerican thereafter.

    But how did the 21st come to be American? By a large (large!) majority of Americans coming to view the 18th as a mistake.

    Now: during that time period, when the 18th was the law but Americans viewed it as faulty … were they unAmerican for thinking in this way?

    If not: then don’t we have to discard our simplistic definition of what it means to be “American”, and consider not only documents, but also community?

    OR, if so, if the majority of Americans were unAmerican during this time period, then doesn’t that take some of the sting out of being unAmerican?

    In other words, with regard to the term “American political philosophy”, we can define the word to mean “consistent with the Founding Documents”, but that places on us the burden of asking,

    (1) Why should we care about being “American” in that sense?
    (2) By what process can the Founding Documents be changed?

    Take this over to the debate on “who is Reformed?”

    Having not read RRC yet — books appear at a greater rate than I can read, it seems — I can’t say Yea or Nay about Dr. Clark’s approach.

    But Mr. Frame’s point is this: if we defined

    (R): “Reformed theology” means “theology that is consistent with the original Reformed documents”,

    then we have to ask a couple of fundamental questions:

    (1) Why should we care about being Reformed in that sense?
    (2) By what process can these documents legitimately be amended?

    I would answer (1) like this: we care about being Reformed because we believe that God has guided the church, and the wisdom of counselors like Calvin and Turretin are to be valued.

    And further: because the conviction of the Spirit through the Word has led me to believe that the Reformed way of understanding the Scripture is correct in system.

    (2) is now perceived to be a Really Hard Question. How does the Confession ever be modified? For unlike being unAmerican, being unReformed is grounds for charges of heresy. So if the church is really doing its job, then anyone claiming exception to the Confession is … outta there.

    It follows then that the only way that the Confession would ever be amended would be following a period of slack church discipline. Perhaps, allowing exceptions or something similar.

    Something’s not right about that.

    Or put another way, on Dr. Clark’s definition, the majority of presbyters to the first American Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (May 21, 1789) were unReformed on May 20, in that they took exception to WCoF 23; and then *poof* they were Reformed on May 22 after the Confession was amended.

    While we’re thinking about this, I’m guessing it’s a safe bet that Dr. Clark likes the new WCoF 23 (or Belgic 36) better than the old. But the old is the original, so … does that make him unReformed on his own definition?

    And of course not! That train of reasoning leads to an absurd conclusion, strongly suggesting that (R) is a faulty definition.

    It’s faulty because it does not include any realistic path by which the founding documents may change — and we’ve seen the need at least once to do so. Yes, in principle the BCO allows for the Confession to be amended; but in practice, anyone disagreeing with the Confession must first leave the church.

    Moreover, argues Mr. Frame (and I agree), (R) is faulty because the Real Rule is Scripture. To be Reformed ought to include first and foremost the subjection of one’s beliefs, always, against Scripture; and (R) does not adequately represent this.

    Indeed, (R) opens the door, hypothetically, to the possibility that one could be Biblical and unReformed at the same time (as the presbyters on May 20, 1789 no doubt would have to be considered).

    This suggests that (R) is placing the Confession at a higher level than the authors of the Confession placed it: at the level of being the final authority by which doctrinal controversies are to be resolved.

    That’s Mr. Frame’s argument. If indeed (R) correctly represents Dr. Clark’s view, then Mr. Frame’s got a point. If not, well…

    One piece of evidence that Mr. Frame may not have gotten the whole story straight is Dr. Clark’s response here, in which he argues that his traditionalism is dynamic; indeed, he calls for a new confession (three cheers!). At the same time, he does so by moving in Mr. Frame’s direction: by including the community of churches as defining what is, and is not, properly Reformed.

    So I can’t tell whether Mr. Frame got Dr. Clark wrong, or whether he got him to further clarify his position and move in Frame’s direction. In any event, everyone seems to now agree that ecclesiastical authority must play a role here, in addition to the bare documents themselves; and that’s a good thing.

    JRC

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  12. Jeff, I think you’re missing Clark’s point and the lessons of history. First, the confession is the theology that the church confesses. By Frame’s account, the churches theology is whatever anyone who belongs to a Reformed church professes. On Frame’s view, there is not constitutional confession. It is simply the voice of the people.

    This is akin to the way the Courts have read the Constitution since WWII. If a church or nation wants to amend its law, then it still needs to enforce and live by those laws. What I see in Frame’s account is lawlessness. I mean, preference — his word.

    Plus, let’s not forget that the people responsible for those amendments in the 1910s and 1920s where progressives, who were overwhelmingly liberal Protestants, who also amended the Confession of Faith in 1903. In both cases they didn’t like what they had in the original documents and changed them. There is a measure of honesty in that, except that both sides unleashed theological and legal traditions what “make things up” as they go.

    I’m not sure why any conservative, whether Presbyteiran or American, would want to stand on that side of the debate.

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  13. Alright, if I’m missing Clark’s point, then how does the Confession come to be revised?

    Are you sure you’ve grasped Frame’s point properly? Is he arguing against any constitution whatsoever, or is he arguing for an acknowledgment of doctrinal development?

    I agree with you that the sentence “Then, what is the Reformed faith? It is the consensus of Reformed believers” is stark and conveys a kind of democratic view. But taken in context, I think he’s trying to swing the pendulum rather than be absolutist about this.

    Surely you can appreciate trying to swing the pendulum?

    JRC

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  14. Jeff, Clark isn’t addressing how to revise the confession. That is a question that you keep asking. His is one of definition. His answer is confessions rock.

    I don’t think Frame has a view of the constitution per se. But what he doesn’t do in this piece is see where his analogy leads him or the U.S.

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  15. Jeff, you er missed the point.

    There is nothing un-American about amending the Constitution. An amendment may not be wise, but it’s not un-American.

    But reinterpreting an amendment in such a way that it subverts the Constitutional order (as in the incorporation doctrine) is very un-American. The people who did this were traitors to our Founding, as also were the Progressives.

    I don’t know what procedures were placed in the WCF for changes, but if there is anything like an amendment process then, that’s the way to change it. Otherwise, why adopt it in the first place if one is going to change it with every passing season?

    Vern

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  16. Jeff, Clark devotes space in RRC to argue for the need of a confessing church, manifested not in continual amendments but in writing new confessions. This is paired with his discussion on confessional subscription, where the point of disagreement lies ultimately. Frame’s response, “But his view of confessional subscription is so strict (153-176) … have somewhat loosened their formulae of subscription.” is a monologue about how Clark doesn’t advocate Frame’s position, not an interaction with Clark’s.

    My comment above wasn’t designed to assign blame, but to reiterate that writing an essay on the warlike tendencies of one’s brethren is as unifying as questioning someone’s confessional fidelity. I’m all for peace, and unaware of the online brawl to which you referred, afaik. But if we’re seeking the kind of peace like that of the review’s last six paragraphs, wherein the Reformed learn from other traditions and share with their Reformed friends while denouncing “Reformed chauvinism” axiomatically, then I’d be tempted to forsake such fellowship altogether for that of the world, who at least have a word for this sort of thing.

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  17. DGH: Jeff, Clark isn’t addressing how to revise the confession. That is a question that you keep asking.

    Exactly. And my point in asking that question is to point out this:

    * We acknowledge that the Confession *can* be revised, but
    * It’s unclear on Dr. Clark’s account that it ever *could* be revised, so
    * Dr. Clark’s account is problematic in some way, in that it apparently leads to an absurd conclusion.

    One way to resolve the problem is to provide an account of how the Confession could be revised under his scheme. Apparently, though, one’s not supposed to ask that question.

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  18. Jeff, I think you’re being a tad perverse here. Scott and Frame are talking about how to define the Reformed tradition. Are creeds decisive or not? And then you want the answer to this question between Scott and Frame to include an account of how to revise creeds. Or you think that Scott’s answer to the question about creeds being decisive leads to an absurdity. But his isn’t trying to answer your question. It’s not absurd if you haven’t answered. As for me on revising creeds, you know the answer. Write an overture and go through the courts. What’s so hard about that?

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  19. Moreover, argues Mr. Frame (and I agree), (R) is faulty because the Real Rule is Scripture. To be Reformed ought to include first and foremost the subjection of one’s beliefs, always, against Scripture; and (R) does not adequately represent this.

    I don’t know, Jeff, these sorts of suggestions always seem to me to be signals that the confessional ethic really isn’t being well understood. The Protestant confessional formulations are, by definition, explications of Scripture itself. This makes it really hard to play the “Scripture is the Real Rule” card, since the confessional premise agrees with you in the first place.

    This suggests that (R) is placing the Confession at a higher level than the authors of the Confession placed it: at the level of being the final authority by which doctrinal controversies are to be resolved.

    Well, to the extent that they are explications of Scripture, confessional formulations are, in point of fact, the final authority by which doctrinal controversies are to be resolved. When officers of the church take their vows the standards are the measuring sticks to be used, not Scripture. If it is believed that the standards are not in line with Scripture, then they get revised. These are simply two different considerations. The suggestion that confessionalists place confessions higher than Scripture is not too unlike suggesting that those who prioritize the forensic nature of justification slouch toward antinomianism. It sounds good, but it seems to me that both notions lean heavily on the stuff of urban legend than on reality.

    I know you have little to no use for my distinction between high views/opinions when it comes to staking out Reformed confessionalism from Reformed evangelicalism, but I also think there is a difference between high views and infallible ones when distinguishing confessional Protestantism from Romanism. Those inclined toward Reformed evangelicalism tend to see a frustrated Romanism where there is relatively no difference between a staunchly high (but fallible) view and an infallible one. But just like antinomianism doesn’t reside amongst those concerned for the forensic nature of justification, there really isn’t an abiding Romanism over here.

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  20. DGH: As for me on revising creeds, you know the answer. Write an overture and go through the courts. What’s so hard about that?

    As the situation now stands, nothing. But in an ideal “confessional” world, would it not be the case that no-one taking any exceptions whatsoever would be in those courts to begin with? The only reason that it makes sense — and made sense in 1789 — to write an overture and go through the courts, is that many already are (were) already taking exceptions.

    On what basis?

    Presumably, on the basis that the Bible was teaching something different from the Confession.

    You may not like the wide-open feel of Frame’s suggestions, and I can understand that. He could use a little nuance, but I get the sense he likes to be … what’s the word … provocative.

    But what Frame means, in practice, is what allowed the Confession to be revised in 1789. Without “something close to Biblicists” taking exception to WCoF 23, it never would have been revised.

    JRC

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  21. Warning: this post contains friendly but provocative polemic. Gentlemen, don your asbestos suits.

    <flamethrower=”on”>

    (1) Zrim: Well, to the extent that they are explications of Scripture, confessional formulations are, in point of fact, the final authority by which doctrinal controversies are to be resolved.

    Zrim, this is exactly what I mean. WCoF 1.10 and 31.3 are very explicit that the view you articulate here is precisely how the Confession is *not* to be used:

    WCoF 31.3: All synods or councils, since the Apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both.

    It could not be any clearer: the Confession, the product of Westminster Synod 1647, is not to be made the rule of faith. It must, it should always be the case that any doctrinal dispute is in the end taken “down to the metal”, back to the Scriptures for adjudication.

    And the particular problem with your view is this: Yes, the Confession is an explication of Scripture. And yes, it is a very good and quite accurate explication of Scripture. In fact, in my view and according to my vow, it contains the system of doctrine taught in Scripture.

    But the Confession is *not* Scripture. It is not a means of grace. It is not the Word of God, but the word of man. The Spirit makes no promise to speak through the Confession.

    In particular, the Confession is not by definition the same as Scripture; Instead, by observation one can see that it contains the same system of doctrine as Scripture. This observation is only possible if we have actually read and digested the Scripture in the first place! (which was the assumption of the writers of the Confession).

    If we define the Confession to be the same as Scripture, we encourage folk to transfer their confidence from Scripture to the Confession as the perspicacious, reliable guide to sound doctrine. “Check the Bible? No, no, no. Heretics appeal to the Scriptures. Who wants to be a biblicist, for crying out loud? We want to be Confessional.” This is no urban legend. I’ve heard and read these kinds of sentiments from real people.

    In practice, you would probably rebuke these sentiments. But your theory doesn’t slouch in that direction — it’s already there.

    So OK, if we don’t want to abandon sola scriptura (and of course you don’t), but we also believe that the Confession contains the system of doctrine taught in the Scripture (and you and I do), then what’s the error exactly?

    What we’re talking about here is a failure to distinguish between a secondary and a primary standard. In scientific measurement, the difference is clear and well-known. A primary standard is the Real Standard. The secondary standard is, in theory, an exact copy of the primary. But because the secondary standard is a copy, it is not the Real Standard. And in cases of dispute, the primary is called upon. It would be an error to say, “Since the secondary is just a copy of the primary, we don’t need to check the primary.” That error would consist in the assumption that the copying process was infallible.

    (There’s a huge body of theory out there on this in the sciences, Measurement Theory. If you’re a curious type, check out the history of the meter sometime.)

    Well, you’ve committed an analogous error here. You’ve reasoned that since the Confession is nothing more than an explication of the Scriptures, it must be equivalent to the primary standard in quality.

    But that assumes that the explication process is infallible.

    It isn’t. And the real problem is not things that we might want to take exception to. That’s easy enough. No, the real problem is that We don’t know what we don’t know — that is, we may not even be aware of the errors that the Confession might possibly contain. I don’t think there are any; you don’t either. But our opinion on the matter is no guarantee.

    Instead, says the Confession, when there is a dispute — go back to the primary standard (WCoF 1.9, 10).

    This is a serious bee in my bonnet. 🙂 Just as “justification by faith alone” was a center of the Reformation, so also “testing doctrine against Scripture alone” was a center of the Reformation. The notion that we could substitute creed for Scripture as the final arbiter would make Calvin roll over in his grave.

    Look at Calvin’s method: he developed the Institutes and the Commentaries as complementary resources. He had the Roman magisterial teachings available to him, but he makes relatively infrequent use of it in developing his doctrine, relying primarily on Scripture, and bolstering his case at times with Chrysostom or Augustine. (Indeed, his most common use of later magisterial teaching is as a foil). He would have revolted at the suggestion that one should write a creed that would be the final authority. And in fact, he did revolt at that suggestion. (I think Mathison does an outstanding job in explicating the Reformer’s method)

    “Now hold on,” you say, “I’m not denying sola scriptura. I’m just saying that I have a staunchly high view of the Confession.”

    And I would believe you.

    But listen to what the Confession says: “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.

    The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.”

    Having a genuinely high view of this Confessional teaching requires that we adopt a method that is “close to Biblicism.” There is a method prescribed in 1.9 that is non-optional, and your unfortunate quote (1) is precisely contrary to that method.

    <flamethrower=”off”>

    JRC

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  22. Jeff, I think my issue with Frame is knowing whether he wants a confession. It doesn’t always seem to be the case. That’s not meant to be disrespectful. I think given his ideas about evangelical union it is a legitimate question.

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  23. Jeff,

    I understand your concern to guard against slipping into a sort of Protestant-Romanism when it comes to a disposition toward confessional formulation. But, in my estimation, that really isn’t as feasible as slipping into a sort of Protestant-Radicalism. If Frame is any measure, and I think he is, the actual danger actually lies in “something close to Biblicism.” What I witness in certain Dutch Reformed enclaves is what seems like a much more realistic threat, a low view of confessional formulation. We have committees dedicated to revising (read: castrating) forms of subscription. We don’t have committees dedicated to recovering Reformed confessions.

    And the particular problem with your view is this: Yes, the Confession is an explication of Scripture. And yes, it is a very good and quite accurate explication of Scripture. In fact, in my view and according to my vow, it contains the system of doctrine taught in Scripture. But the Confession is *not* Scripture. It is not a means of grace. It is not the Word of God, but the word of man. The Spirit makes no promise to speak through the Confession… Having a genuinely high view of this Confessional teaching requires that we adopt a method that is “close to Biblicism.”

    The problem with your view is that what you give with the right hand you take away with the left. If TFU/WCF contain the system of doctrine taught in Scripture then I fail to see why they aren’t also useful to settle doctrinal controversy, instead of reinventing the proverbial wheel and having to go back and do the primary exegesis of Scripture all over again. (Nobody said anything about confessional formulations being a means of grace, inspired, infallible, etc. That seems to be, as they say, a straw man.)

    And you tip your hand a bit here. Confessional formulations aren’t merely “very good and quite accurate explication of Scripture,” they are also “binding and authoritative.” From my experience, the former is the way politically correct committees dedicated to revising forms of subscription into antiquated yet respectable symbols speak. Meaner voices talk about “paper popes,” but both stop well short of conceiving of confessional formulation as “binding and authoritative.” I think it’s helpful to remember that the Reformation was a battle on two fronts, Romanism and Radicalism. Protestantism actually navigates between these two errors, and it escapes me as to why those who would claim the Protestant tradition would think tending in the direction of Radicalism is a commendable option. Good confessionalists wouldn’t dream of propounding “something close to Romanism,” but why does “something close to Biblicism” never seem to draw as many gasps as it does nods? How about “something exactly like Protestantism”? Is it really that hard?

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  24. DGH and Zrim re: Frame: I understand some of the concerns. Still and all, the Confession has not prevented him from rethinking worship in Worship in Spirit and Truth. He argues in WST that his view is not merely Scriptural, but Confessional also. So if you believe that Frame has gone off the rails, you can’t attribute his error to more Bible and less Confession.

    Zrim: Confessional formulations aren’t merely “very good and quite accurate explication of Scripture,” they are also “binding and authoritative.” From my experience, the former is the way politically correct committees dedicated to revising forms of subscription into antiquated yet respectable symbols speak.

    They speak in that way because it’s true, and what better way to disguise one’s bad intent with a good lead-in?

    I want to be clear that I’m not tarring all Confessionalists with a “something close to Romanism” brush. I haven’t read RRC yet, for example, so I no opinion as to whether Frame’s criticisms of Clark are warranted.

    I’m just saying that your statement Confessions are the final authority by which doctrinal controversies are to be resolved, is unConfessional. It is, in point of fact, something close to Romanism.

    Saying that doesn’t make me an advocate for radicalism. Let’s head off that dualistic argument at the pass!

    Zrim: But, in my estimation, [Protestant-Romanism] really isn’t as feasible as slipping into a sort of Protestant-Radicalism. If Frame is any measure, and I think he is, the actual danger actually lies in “something close to Biblicism.” What I witness in certain Dutch Reformed enclaves is what seems like a much more realistic threat, a low view of confessional formulation. We have committees dedicated to revising (read: castrating) forms of subscription.

    You’re closer to the CRC than I am, but my estimation of the CRC is that they have retained the outward forms of confessionalism while jettisoning Scripture. At least, that’s my take on the women’s ordination issue: they seemed to me to find five ways from Sunday to argue that Scripture doesn’t mean what it plainly means.

    Look, “something close to Biblicism”, as I mean it — and as Frame argued it, though you may not like his practice of it — treats the Confession as it presents itself to be treated: a secondary standard.

    That doesn’t mean, “not a standard.” It doesn’t mean, “a weak standard that I can jettison when I don’t like it.” It means, “Secondary” — subordinate. It means that I’ve taken a vow to uphold it, including 31.3 and 1.9-10; but the Real Rule underlying it is Scripture.

    If you choke on acknowledging that fact, if that fact makes you squirm and think of Radicalism, then there’s something wrong here!

    Zrim: If TFU/WCF contain the system of doctrine taught in Scripture then I fail to see why they aren’t also useful to settle doctrinal controversy, instead of reinventing the proverbial wheel and having to go back and do the primary exegesis of Scripture all over again.

    Because those very documents disqualify themselves from taking that role. The Confession is not unclear here; there’s no wiggle room:

    The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.

    This is very, very plain.

    Why do we need to go back and do the primary exegesis over again? Because we trust God to speak through the means of grace. Scripture is not just devotional reading. It straightens our paths. We don’t do the exegesis just to come to the right conclusion; we do the exegesis in order to seek wisdom and to be nourished in the process.

    You’re focused on the end-product: Scripture and the Confession give the same product, so why re-invent the wheel?

    But the process is also important here, and walking through the process yields richer and more robust results than simply appealing to the Confession as a kind of Cliff’s Notes.

    Have you read Mathison’s Shape of Sola Scriptura?

    JRC

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  25. Jeff,

    I’m just saying that your statement Confessions are the final authority by which doctrinal controversies are to be resolved, is unConfessional. It is, in point of fact, something close to Romanism.

    I understand the point about the confessional formulations disqualifying themselves from being the final rule of faith, etc. And while it would be more relevant if the dominant trend were to venerate the forms beyond their fallible status instead of casting doubt on their witness, those are still important points to be made.

    But my point is that when certain men have bound themselves to certain interpretations of holy writ what they are in effect saying is that those formulations are the final measuring sticks. And to say they are the final measuring sticks is not the same as saying holy writ is in any way subordinate. It is simply a way of saying that one should, to the best of his ability, live up to the vows he took instead of abiding doubt. Does it help to say that “final” should be understood in a penultimate sense, not an ultimate sense?

    They speak in that way because it’s true, and what better way to disguise one’s bad intent with a good lead-in?

    Let me try to be clearer: committees dedicated to craftily casting doubt on confessional witness instead of bolstering their treasure typically speak of them as “very good and helpful” but stop well short of also saying, and this more importantly, that they are “binding and authoritative” (which it sounds like you are doing…then not…then doing it again):

    So this:

    We, the undersigned officebearers of the CRCNA, heartily accept the
    authority of the Word of God as received in the inspired Scriptures of the Old
    and New Testaments, which reveal the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ,
    namely the reconciliation of all things in him, and we submit to them in all
    matters of life and faith.

    We accept the historic confessions: the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg
    Catechism, and the Canons of Dort, as the church’s faithful expressions of
    the gospel in their time which define the tradition of our Reformed
    understanding of Scripture and continue to direct us today.

    With thankfulness for these expressions of faith we promise to be shaped and
    governed by them and to promote them in our various callings: preaching,
    teaching, writing, and serving; making grateful use of the church’s testimony
    of faith for our time, Our World Belongs to God: A Contemporary Testimony.
    Should we at any time come to believe that the witness of the Christian
    Reformed Church as expressed in the above documents has become
    irreconcilable to the Holy Scriptures, we will communicate our views to the
    church according to the procedures prescribed by the Church Order and its
    Supplements and promise to submit to its judgment.

    We honor this covenant out of a desire to remain rooted in and to engage
    with our tradition so that we will be diligent in living out this witness today to
    the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

    Some how becomes better than this:

    We, the undersigned, servants of the divine Word…by means of our signatures declare truthfully and in good conscience
    before the Lord
    that we sincerely believe
    that all the articles
    and points of doctrine
    set forth in the Belgic Confession,
    the Heidelberg Catechism,
    and the Canons of Dort fully agree with the Word of God.
    We promise therefore
    to teach these doctrines diligently,
    to defend them faithfully,
    and not to contradict them,
    publicly or privately,
    directly or indirectly,
    in our preaching, teaching,
    or writing.
    We pledge moreover
    not only to reject all errors
    that conflict with these doctrines,
    but also to refute them,
    and to do everything we can
    to keep the church free from them.
    We promise further that if in the future
    we come to have any difficulty with
    these doctrines
    or reach views differing from them,
    we will not propose, defend, preach,
    or teach such views,
    either publicly or privately,
    until we have first disclosed them
    to the consistory, classis, or synod
    for examination. We are prepared moreover
    to submit to the judgment
    of the consistory, classis, or synod,
    realizing that the consequence
    of refusal to do so
    is suspension from office.
    We promise in addition
    that if, to maintain unity
    and purity in doctrine,
    the consistory, classis, or synod
    considers it proper at any time_
    on sufficient grounds of concern_
    to require a fuller explanation
    of our views
    concerning any article
    in the three confessions
    mentioned above,
    we are always willing and ready
    to comply with such a request,
    realizing here also that
    the consequence of refusal to do so
    is suspension from office.
    Should we consider ourselves wronged,
    however,
    by the judgment of the consistory
    or classis, we reserve for ourselves the right of appeal;
    but until a decision is made
    on such an appeal,
    we will acquiesce in the determination
    and judgment
    already made.
    To be signed by professors, ministers, evangelists, elders, and deacons when ordained and/or installed in office. The original Form of Subscription was adopted by the Synod of Dort in 1618-19. The translation appearing here was approved by the Synod of 1912 and modified by the Synod of 1988.

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  26. Zrim: Does it help to say that “final” should be understood in a penultimate sense, not an ultimate sense?

    Yes, it does. But then “final” is an odd choice of term. Kind of like “Final Fantasy”, which had at least nine different installments.

    Zrim: …while it would be more relevant if the dominant trend were to venerate the forms beyond their fallible status instead of casting doubt on their witness, those are still important points to be made.

    Both trends are occurring at the same time. And in fact, I would argue that the trend away from Confessionalism is many years behind the trend away from Biblicism, and is a dim echo of the latter trend.

    Long before evangelicalism, there was liberal theology.

    And in our day, it is common to encounter someone whose approach to Reformed theology is to immerse oneself in the Confession. Surely you’ve heard the term “Truly Reformed”? Did you notice the PCA 2007 GA report on the Federal Vision, which appealed almost exclusively to the Confession?

    So if you want to say, “being Confessional is an excellent way to guard one’s Biblicism”, then I’m with you.

    It *is* important, after all, to not reject the wisdom of many counselors, especially those that have stood the test of time.

    It *is* important, after all, to uphold one’s vows. A vow to uphold the Confession is among other things a confession of what you think Scripture teaches.

    So by all means, let’s hold on to those things. But let’s not take it too far, saying “final” when we mean “semi-final.”

    JRC

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  27. Long before evangelicalism, there was liberal theology.

    Well, some would contend the reverse, that long before there was liberal theology there was evangelicalism and that liberal theology is really something of a subset and result of evangelicalism. The taxonomy isn’t so much conservative/liberal as it is confessionalism/evangelicalism. And one of the hallmarks of evangelicalism is an inherently suspicious view of confessional formulation to lesser or greater degrees, which can come in either conservative dress or liberal. I know the l-word is supposed to evoke fear, but it’s the e-word that really scares me.

    But let’s not take it too far, saying “final” when we mean “semi-final.”

    Yeah, but then I’ll have to invite the Arian at my door inside instead of telling him it’s useless because I’m Presbyterian. I know, that sounds lazy to the evangelical ear, but I happen to take great comfort in knowing I don’t have to suspect “the wisdom of many counselors, especially those that have stood the test of time.”

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  28. Not sure how to move this discussion forward. Let’s try these:

    (1) Imagine yourself before credentials committee. How do you square the view that “confessional formulations are, in point of fact, the final authority by which doctrinal controversies are to be resolved” with the teaching of the Confession that “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined … can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture”?

    Aren’t you simply contradicting the Confession here?

    (2) How does the Nicene Creed, in your view, differ from the Nicene Creed in the Roman Catholic view?

    (3) Have you read Mathison?

    JRC

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  29. Zrim: But let’s not take it too far, saying “final” when we mean “semi-final.”

    Yeah, but then I’ll have to invite the Arian at my door inside instead of telling him it’s useless because I’m Presbyterian. I know, that sounds lazy to the evangelical ear,

    Since I’ve actually had that experience (“Oh, you’re Jehovah’s Witnesses? Come on in!”), here’s how a “something close to Biblicist” handles it: I go to the Scriptures which just coincidentally happen to be the prooftexts for WCoF 2.3. And I expound those Scriptures.

    That’s what I mean by “down to the metal.” If we really believe that the Confession is the teaching of Scripture, then why should we fear that expounding the Scripture would lead to a different result than the Confession?!?!

    So I say to the Arian not, “come on in”, nor “but I’m Presbyterian. The Confession says you’re wrong, so nyah.” Instead, I say, “You err, not understanding the Scriptures.” And if God chooses to illumine his mind through the Scripture, then great; and if not, then I’ve borne witness to the truth.

    I fail to see why a Confessionalist would desire anything else.

    JRC

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  30. Jeff, but this is precisely the problem. Frame says his views of worship are confessional. They are not. T. David Gordon showed a long time ago that Frame doesn’t understand the RPW. So if Frame were biblical and confessional there would be no problem. There is a problem when what he claims to be biblical is at odds with the confession, no? So what’s a confessionalist to do then?

    That is really the question here. How much do confessions determine the shape and practice of a church’s teaching and theology? Are creeds simply a reference work to be pulled out for officer training and ordination exams, or do the creeds reflect the corporate witness of the church, and so constitute the warp and woof of a church’s public proclamation. We are Reformed, this is what Reformed means, we are Reformed because the Bible is.

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  31. Jeff,

    (1) Did you read the old Form of Subscription I provided? It is hard to come away from that language saying the TFU are not the final authority by which doctrinal controversies are to be resolved. But, again, instead of “contradicting the Confession,” I’m assuming what I think is a Protestant distinction between penultimate and ultimate authority.

    (2) It is my understanding that there is no difference between Rome and Geneva on the Nicene Creed, which is why it is one of the ecumenical creeds.

    (3) Yes. And what I am trying to defend is sola scriptura over solo scriptura.

    And my point about the Arian on my doorstep was this: if I go around emphasizing the “semi-finality-ness” of our confessional formulations (as you seem to suggest we should do) then what this really does is undercut our ability to say to him (as you seem to want to) “You err, not understanding the Scriptures.” We can’t simply point to the Bible and say, “See, your Christology is whack,” because he’ll do the same thing. We both have to point to an extra-biblical formulation to convey what it is we believe holy writ is saying. Indeed, as soon as you begin to open your mouth to reason with him from the Scriptures you are doing precisely what the confessional formulations are doing.

    I fail to see why anyone who believes the Reformed formulations are the superior testimonies about holy writ would seem to downplay their use and reliability to witness against error.

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  32. DGH: There is a problem when what he claims to be biblical is at odds with the confession, no? So what’s a confessionalist to do then?

    Clearly then, reasoning from the Scripture and reasoning from the Confession are both going to be tough slogs. If I were speaking with Frame, I would go with Scripture.

    Zrim: Did you read the old Form of Subscription I provided? … I’m assuming what I think is a Protestant distinction between penultimate and ultimate authority.

    If that’s what you’re really about, then I’m fine with that. However, it strikes me that you are also uncomfortable with the language “semi-final”, even though it means the exact same thing as “penultimate.” So I don’t get that.

    And, you don’t want to accept my distinction between “secondary standard” and “primary standard”, which is the exact same concept.

    So I’m torn between taking you at face value … I want to! … and saying, “you don’t believe what you say you believe” (which would be rude. 🙂 )

    (2)

    Zrim: It is my understanding that there is no difference between Rome and Geneva on the Nicene Creed, which is why it is one of the ecumenical creeds.

    There is no difference in content, but isn’t there a difference in function? You would not give the Nicene creed plenary magisterial authority, would you?

    (3) Good. What I’m trying to point out, then, is that you’ve (unwittingly?) articulated Tradition 2 instead of Tradition 1. What I’m trying to defend is sola scriptura over against either solo or parallel tradition.

    Zrim: We can’t simply point to the Bible and say, “See, your Christology is whack,” because he’ll do the same thing.

    Yes, he will. So what? The point is that the Spirit uses the Scripture to convict in the time of His own choosing. You’re stuck on the human plane here, not trusting the means of grace.

    JRC

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  33. If that’s what you’re really about, then I’m fine with that. However, it strikes me that you are also uncomfortable with the language “semi-final”, even though it means the exact same thing as “penultimate.” So I don’t get that.

    And, you don’t want to accept my distinction between “secondary standard” and “primary standard”, which is the exact same concept.

    Jeff,

    I understand. Technically, you are right. Maybe this is the difference between a right brainer and a lefty, but there is more to this than being technically correct. As a high church Calvinist, I’m about trumpeting Reformed confessionalism and championing as high a view of the tradition as biblically possible. As a former evangelical, I think the Reformed got it right, and I think the tradition deserves our unashamed promotion. Maybe you think that is a problem, and I am aware of the dangers, but when I survey the broader Reformed and Presbyterian world I see a lot of feebleness and wonder what the point is about being confessional if the confessionalists want to emphasize “something close to Biblicism.” You can get that in evangelicalism. You gotta step up your game if you want to be confessionalist.

    What I’m trying to point out, then, is that you’ve (unwittingly?) articulated Tradition 2 instead of Tradition 1. What I’m trying to defend is sola scriptura over against either solo or parallel tradition…The point is that the Spirit uses the Scripture to convict in the time of His own choosing. You’re stuck on the human plane here, not trusting the means of grace.

    Wait, I thought as a 2Ker I was too otherworldly for any earthly good? But, no, instead of quenching the Spirit what I am trying to do is give the chutzpa to T1 that it deserves. I don’t understand why bolstering the “tradition” part of “scripture and tradition” gets interpreted as T2. It is curious though. When I defend Protestantism to Catholics, and bolster the “scripture” part of “scripture and tradition,” it gets completely conflated with Radicalism. And when I bolster the “tradition” part of “scripture and tradition,” you conflate it with Romanism. Don’t take this wrong way, but that tends to bolster my sense that neither really understands Protestantism. But Protestantism has at once a high view of tradition and an infallible view of Scripture. You’re going to hate this, but what I see from your end is a high opinion of tradition, which can be easily found amongst “friendly” evangelicalism. But friendly evangelicalism does not a confessionalist make.

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  34. Zrim: As a high church Calvinist, I’m about trumpeting Reformed confessionalism and championing as high a view of the tradition as biblically possible.

    OK, we can agree on that.

    Zrim: …but when I survey the broader Reformed and Presbyterian world I see a lot of feebleness and wonder what the point is about being confessional if the confessionalists want to emphasize “something close to Biblicism.” You can get that in evangelicalism. You gotta step up your game if you want to be confessionalist.

    On Scripture-as-authority, there are two fronts (individualism and magisterialism), just as in the issue of grace and law there are two fronts (license and legalism).

    One front is solo scriptura, minimizing the Scripture by privileging one’s own intuitions. The individual, not Scripture, becomes the norm. Over against that, we hold up the Confession and say, “others have come before us. Listen to the witness of the Church!”

    The other front is magisterialism, minimizing the Scripture by privileging the supposedly “clearer” teachings of man. This happens by elevating the study notes, or the commentaries, or one’s favorite teacher, or even the Confession, as being the authority: “It’s true because Sproul says it’s true.” Over against this, “something close to Biblicism” says, “No, always and only, the Real Rule is Scripture.”

    Both of these fronts are rampant in the Church; both must be resisted, not by finding a middle way, but by articulating a clear message: The Scripture is the primary; the Confession is the secondary.

    better?

    JRC

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  35. Zrim: I don’t understand why bolstering the “tradition” part of “scripture and tradition” gets interpreted as T2.

    Well, because the mode of articulating tradition (at least at first) ran headlong against the very tradition you’re bolstering.

    Please believe me that I’m not trying to score a technical point here. The issue isn’t being technically correct. Rather, it’s a real pastoral issue. I want to push back against those who say “The best thing you can do in your ministry is to memorize the Confession.” (real quote). I want people to say, “Yes, I can and should read and understand the Scriptures, and learn them, and place my full confidence in them”, rather than, “I need X [person | document | other] to tell me what the Scriptures really mean.”

    Zrim: I think the Reformed got it right, and I think the tradition deserves our unashamed promotion.

    I totally agree. And one of the wonderfully idiosyncratic parts of our tradition is that it does not place final authority in itself.

    Zrim: When I defend Protestantism to Catholics, and bolster the “scripture” part of “scripture and tradition,” it gets completely conflated with Radicalism.

    Well, yeah, but they’re trained to do that, at least the apologetically-minded ones. (Personal experience). Go back and look at their arguments, and then compare them to the arguments you’re making against the “something close to Biblicism.” There’s a lot of overlap there.

    The overlap suggests that, since you reject the idea that your Protestantism entails individuality, you should also be more cautious in believing that “something close to Biblicism” entails individuality.

    I think the issue here is that in Frame’s essay “Something Close to Biblicism”, he speaks provocatively: eulogizing the openness of WTS in the ’70s; criticizing Wells for being (supposedly) reactionary against the present; and saying that all marketing techniques are not necessarily bad.

    And in this provocation, one might get the idea that Frame has in mind using sola scriptura as the camel’s nose to get all manner of ideas into the Big Tent.

    And maybe he does; I don’t know his mind. But suspect that what he has in mind is to shock the reader into considering — is my reaction against this marketing technique, or that, a genuinely Scripturally grounded reaction? OR, am I reacting on the basis of the word of man — someone else told me “it was bad.” And if the latter, then am I any better than the marketer?

    That is, Frame is using this provocative language in order to get the reader to self-examine: am I, the self-proclaimed confessionalist, really upholding the confessional teaching about Scripture?

    For me, the benefit of Frame’s essay was this:

    Frame, In Defense…: I certainly favor a renewed confessionalism if it means a better appreciation for the teaching of the Reformation solas, indeed for the distinctive teachings of the Reformed faith. The argument of this paper, however, should help us to guard against certain abuses of the confessionalist position, such as (1) emphasizing Confessions and traditions as if they were equal to Scripture in authority, (2) equating sola Scriptura with acceptance of confessional traditions, (3) automatic suspicion of any ideas which come from sources outside the tradition, (4) focusing on historical polemics rather than the dangers of the present day, (5) emphasizing differences with other confessional traditions to the virtual exclusion of recognizing commonalities, (6) failing to encourage self-criticism within our particular denominational, theological, and confessional communities.

    A reaffirmation of confessionalism for our time ought to repudiate the commonly understood equation between confessionalism and traditionalism. It should rather reiterate a doctrine of sola Scriptura like that of Westminster at its best: one which will encourage careful thinking about the movements of our time rather than overstated condemnations and which will discourage romantic notions about past ages. A doctrine of sola Scriptura must actually, practically, point us to Scripture itself, rather than generalizations about historical trends, for our standards.

    I find it hard to object to anything there. Do you?

    What I hear in every word of Frame’s essay is this: Scripture is the Real Rule. That doesn’t deny the use of secondary standards (the Confession); but it places them in right relationship to one another.

    JRC

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  36. Jeff,

    Well, I do appreciate your thumbnailing of the fronts. But (and I hate sounding so picky), I just don’t see how one can second “the trumpeting of Reformed confessionalism and championing as high a view of the tradition as biblically possible” but then say “something close to Biblicism” is a good thing. Biblicism and confessionalism are as at odds as magisterialism and confessionalism. Again, imagine a confessionalist pushing “something close to magisterialism.” Simply out, both are equally misguided. Better “to seek the recovery of the Reformed Confession.”

    I also appreciate your point (quite a bit, actually) about elevating individuals. But I hesitate when you throw the churchly witness into that pot, because it is the Confession against which individuals should be measured. Protestant confessionalism simply does not leapfrog to Scripture to measure the teachings of individuals, and this really seems to be the crux of the matter. That is not how confessional Protestantism has ever worked, it is how Radicalism more or less has historically worked. Now, it’s fine for the descendants of the Radical Reformation (i.e. the evangelicals) to champion Biblicism, but remember that their forebears told ours they “didn’t reform enough.” At least part of what that meant was the Protestant reformers still put a high premium on churchly authority (boo! hiss!).

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  37. Hm. Perhaps the issue is that two separate but similar-sounding questions are being asked.

    (1) Which is the standard?

    (2) How are we to go about interpreting the standard?

    Confessional Protestantism says (1) Scripture, (2) In community, trusting no man’s individual judgment.

    Flat solo scriptura says, (1) Scripture, (2) by myself.

    Magisterialism says, (1) The creeds, because (2) The creeds are the only way to protect against individualism. (That is, magisterialism never properly addresses (2) — it is assumed that (1) takes care of the problem).

    So the Confession plays the role in terms of method, not in terms of standard. This is what WCoF 31.3 is talking about when it says that synods are to be used as helps to the faith, but not as rules of faith.

    Better?

    JRC

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  38. Jeff, regarding your lengthy quote from Frame a few comments back, timing is everything. And Frame has been consistently pushing back against confessionalism at a time when the church was hardly in danger of need less confessionalism. In fact, he was opposing thsoe who were finally beginning to see that being Reformed was different from simply being evangelical or conservative. So whatever Frame’s views on confessionalism in theory, he hasn’t lifted a finger to help confessionalists. Instead, he has constantly opposed the Hortons and Clarks of the world.

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  39. Could be.

    But in my case, as a reader of Frame, I have not been discouraged one whit from delving deeper and more thoroughly into the Reformed confessions and primary documents in engaging with, say, the Federal Vision.

    For my part, I think Frame has to be read “literalistically” to be read properly. That is, the extended quote above helps to frame his other comments; they aren’t a cover or concession.

    So there it is. I think the next step for me is to order and read RRC.

    JRC

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  40. I find it hard to object to anything there. Do you?

    Well, the litany of alleged abuses seems shaky to begin with. And for me, the tell is that first one: “emphasizing Confessions and traditions as if they were equal to Scripture in authority.” That is precisely the sort of allegation one hears constantly in broad evangelicalism. It’s the mirror allegation of the Romanists who, when it is said that Scripture trumps tradition, reply that Protestantism is Radicalism (i.e. an emphasis on private judgment engaging the bare text). You may think I make too much of this, but both allegations demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of confessional Protestantism, each mistaking it for the other.

    In other words, to the extent that Frame aids and abets one of the essentially misguided criticisms of evangelicalism against confessionalism, yeah, I can find a beef.

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  41. Zrim: But I hesitate when you throw the churchly witness into that pot, because it is the Confession against which individuals should be measured. Protestant confessionalism simply does not leapfrog to Scripture to measure the teachings of individuals, and this really seems to be the crux of the matter. That is not how confessional Protestantism has ever worked, it is how Radicalism more or less has historically worked.

    Surely you’ve read the Institutes?! They are argued directly from Scripture, with one eye towards the church fathers, and no reliance at all on more recent (i.e. 8th – 16th century) magisterial teaching. Calvin’s theological method was precisely what you criticize.

    My friend, I think Frame’s (1) – (6) are closer to home than you might realize:

    Emphasizing the confessions as if they were equal in authority to Scripture? Check, at least in language.

    Equating sola Scriptura with acceptance of confessional traditions? Double-check.

    Automatic suspicion of any ideas which come from sources outside the tradition? Check.

    Focusing on historical polemics rather than the dangers of the present day? Unclear.

    Emphasizing differences with other confessional traditions to the virtual exclusion of recognizing commonalities? Half-check (“Reformed v. Evangelicalism” but a half-save with emphasizing the unity of Reformed and Lutheran views of justification)

    Failing to encourage self-criticism within our particular denominational, theological, and confessional communities? Not so much … I think Confessionalism is an attempt at self-criticism; though it makes the world safe for the “TTRs” (“truly, terrible Reformed”)

    JRC

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  42. Jeff,

    By my count you have found a handful of quibbles. I thought you said you found it hard to object to anything?

    But what of these “checks” and “double checks”? I suppose we just fundamentally disagree. What I see as emphasizing a high view of the confessions you seem to conceive of as assigning infallible status. But, for example, I don’t think nurturing a high view of the family is the same as idolizing the family (sidebar: “family values” rhetoric is closer to idolizing than nurturing).

    And “automatic suspicion of any ideas which come from sources outside the tradition”? If you and Frame have in mind folks like Horton, Hart or Clark then all I can say is that you simply haven’t been reading or listening nearly close enough (or you have but have chosen to ignore how false this suggestion is). “Equating sola Scriptura with acceptance of confessional traditions”? Maybe I’m not understanding, but wouldn’t this be the objection of T0 as Mathison defines it? Sola scriptura (T1) is “scripture and tradition.”

    And where you seem to see a criticism of Calvin’s theological method I see a criticism of modern Protestantism’s low ecclesiology.

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  43. “family values” rhetoric is closer to idolizing than nurturing

    Agreed on that point.

    Keep in mind that T2 also sloganizes as “scripture and tradition.” The question is the relative relationship between the two.

    I’m content to leave it here. Have a good day!

    JRC

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  44. (Jeff, re the PS thing, I cannot resist trading horror stories. A friend of mine teaches in one of our local CSI’s. He had a troubled student a couple years back who eventually assaulted him. Since “we’re all about forgiveness and turning the other cheek,” the student’s punishment was self-imposed and predictably looked more like gospel than law. In the public school you can bet he’d’ve been roundly expelled at the very least. The next assault was explained away by the boy “having a demon.” For my part, I thought having an absentee father likely had more to do with his problems. It is tempting to go eye-for-an-eye and point out law/gospel confusion and quasi-Pentecostalism in presumably Reformed day schools, but then the point about sensationalism being unhelpful or that people sometimes just plain screw up gets undermined.)

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