Where’s Waldo Wednesday: Has WTS Been Liberated from Its Westminster Captivity?


This post from a professor at Regent University’s School of Divinity deserves more interaction for what it says about evangelicalism. But for now the following excerpt is worth pondering for ongoing considerations about union with Christ. What is particularly noteworthy, from this oldlifer’s perspective, is how much WTS during the era of union hegemony, has actually embraced many of the qualities to which this charismatic blogger calls evangelicals more generally:

So, if the “New Calvinism” becomes a way of recovering the Reformed emphasis on conversion as an experientially-driven encounter and this, in turn, allows for the on-going role of the charismatic, then I am all for it. Such emphases will allow for greater continuity between Reformed and Wesleyan branches of the evangelical movement rather than continually reviving the antagonism of Old Princeton/Westminster. It is time that evangelicalism, and particularly its Reformed wing, freed itself from its Westminster captivity and begin to recover the notion that the gospel is the wonder-working power of God to alter the interior landscape of the heart, to heal diseases, to liberate from all forms of sin, and to usher in the gifts of the kingdom. When juridical models dominate, their emphasis on legal exchanges occurring in a heavenly court obscures the living reality that regeneration, sanctification, and the charismatic life are. Let the renewal begin.

Biblical counseling at WTS has the concern for the “interior landscape of the heart” covered, the word and deed model of ministry promoted by Tim Keller suggests ways in which Presbyterians pursue the wonder-working power of God in liberating people “from all forms of sin,” and the elevation of union in WTS soteriology has put regeneration and sanctification on a par with the forensic element in salvation. In fact, the emphasis on union, with its concomitant stress on the resurrection and the work of the Holy Spirit in the renovation of the human heart, should warm the spirit-filled soul of this Regent professor. Still, I wonder if he needs to replace his Rolodex on neo-evangelicalism with the Blackberry on contemporary Presbyterianism.

30 thoughts on “Where’s Waldo Wednesday: Has WTS Been Liberated from Its Westminster Captivity?

  1. Dr. Hart

    I mean this as a genuine question not in any way sarcastic. I ask because I appreciate your analysis.

    If I say that to me, existentially, the forensic element of atonement, imputation, and justification is primary–that is, of the highest importance and that from which other things flow–but also say that ontologically, in the economy of salvation, in the decrees, in the soteriological hub, union is primary because my justification is a product of God seeing me in Christ and Christ in me, am I to be regarded as sub-Reformed or broader evangelical? Perhaps you just see a tendency toward the broader church’s emphases (wonder-working power, renovation, etc.) exhibited by those who elevate union.

    Josh

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  2. Mr. Downs, I’d reply by saying that your rendering of salvation — with union as the soteriological hub — is novel. That doesn’t mean that past Reformed theologians and creeds have not taught union. It does mean that past Reformed theologians and creeds have not taught that union is the soteriological hub. What has motivated polemics and piety is justification and the centrality of the cross.

    And then I’d ask, why do you want to articulate the Reformed faith this way? What is at stake? We know what was at stake with the forensic being central — just look at Murray on the crux of the Reformation.

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  3. The perfect blend of piety and Reformed confessional Christianity is the Rev. Joel Beeke, the Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, and the Heritage Reformed Churches.

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  4. It seems to me that unionists are appealing for a more experiential theology which finds expression in a more experientially oriented worship service. It is just as difficult for us to accept God’s monergistic work in regeneration and justification as it is in sanctification. Baptism, the Lord’s Supper and listening attentively to the preached word are not the way we want to get sanctified. Could it be that we think we know better than God in regards to these things? I may be way off here but that is what often comes into my mind when I listen to debates on these issues.

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  5. John Yazel et al.

    If I’ve understood you correctly you are way off base. No-one in the union camp, at least not any I spend time with, decry the ordinary means of grace at all. Indeed, such are heightened by our understanding of our union with our Savior – Christ is not simply dispensing grace through the means of grace, he IS the grace. Unionists (who are not FV or Shepherdite in their theology – OF WHICH THERE ARE MANY) place the utmost importance on Baptism, the Lord’s Supper and the preached word, as any I know. What is wrong with experiential worship, indeed if it is governed by Scripture is it not to be encouraged? I’m not speaking for all “unionist” only those who would share the same confessional camp as I, but the difference between Unionists and Justification-centred folk, FOR THE MOST PART, is absolutely minimal. Both emphases are fundamental and central to the faithful exposition of the Word.

    Darryl, I find the whole discussion somewhat “24” -like. Good at first but now a little slow. There’s only so many times Jack Bauer can escape death and save the world before it gets a little old. Perhaps it’s time for a new Friday and and a new Wednesday series?

    Blessings to all

    Matt

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  6. dgh, can you explain why many of the union folk go in the direction of the reformed liturgy that you yourself argue for? I don’t know that Mr. Coulter’s logic follows. I don’t see how union = warm, fuzzy charismatic or evangelical sentiments. After all, the union language might be warm but the imputation language is just as present. At least it ought to be.

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  7. Dr. Hart,

    Thanks for answering my question; I’ll just try to answer yours.

    I can definitely say that I don’t fit some of the descriptions here. I’m not interested in the union-centered paradigm for its experiential value, nor for its supposed tendency to piety–in my opinion, neither is Dr. Gaffin. I think, as you say, justification and the cross take care of our motivation to piety.

    I am motivated to this “novel” approach by 1 Cor. 1:30 and Rom. 6. I think one can hold the position I outlined above and still opt to leave it out of confessions. It is perhaps a more esoteric aspect of Rom. 6:1-11, and for that reason maybe should be left out of documents that are basic, definitional, and boundary-forming. I wouldn’t want to cut out a minister who didn’t see union as central. Nor could I say that justification isn’t central. I think Dr. Gaffin makes this point clearly in ‘By Faith, Not by Sight.’ Continuing on past the basic things is no crime as long as we really do make the basic things basic. (Heb. 6:1-3)

    In addition, I do read Calvin as holding the union-centered view in material in his commentaries which I can’t trace down now, though I’m sure you’re more familiar with the literature than me. His comments on 1 Cor. 1:30 come to mind, though. Maybe the difference between the two “camps” is one more of aspect.

    What’s at stake is seeing the benefits of Christ coming to us by virtue of being in Christ–they’re ours because they’re Christ’s, we’re counted just because God sees us in him, we’re not in him because we’re reckoned just. I think a close study of Paul’s use of the phrase (in Christ) along with the numerous and multi-form connections he makes with it bare this out.

    I share your (and Dr. Clark’s) position about confessions. I don’t mean any of this in a way contrary to that faithful and godly conviction.

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  8. Matt,

    I am coming into the debate late and have not read all the arguments from both sides of the issue so I understand your response. I probably am not getting the subtleties involved. But from what I have read a resolution to the problem does not seem readily forthcoming. Being a Lutheran I have a natural abhorrence to arguments about sanctification anyways. It seems to me to be an exercise in futility and is usually motivated by someone thinking themselves more wholly sanctified than the other and then trying to figure out reasons why this is so. I prefer to think of myself in a constant need of sanctification and looking at the progress I have made only leads me to a state of despair. I have come to love the Lutheran service with its emphasis on Christ serving us in the Supper and it is in direct contrast to how most contemporary evangelical worship services are conducted. I do not need the noise of the evangelical service or the more experience oriented service that I think the unionists are arguing for. I have personally found a greater degree of assurance and experiential forgiveness in the Lutheran service of the Supper than I have in any other Church I have attended. But I probably am misinterpreting what is being argued about by the unionists and why they are arguing at all.

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  9. Dr. Hart,

    It came to me to turn your question around: What’s at stake in denying union-as-the-soteriological-hub? If I can affirm all that you can: that justification is central in preaching the gospel (for my part, in all but the most systematizing and precise contexts), that sanctification does flow from justification and the cross, in short, that Luther’s theology and view of the Christian life is correct, why’s it so important to deny the union thesis?

    Even if one grants that it’s not in the confessions, another issue has to be addressed. Denying something in the confession or affirming something that’s denied in them are both quite different from affirming something that isn’t in them at all. Surely the former cases would make a person non-confessional, but the latter may just mean he’s doing theology. I think we all want to further our knowledge of God in the discipline of theology built within the tradition of our fathers in the faith.

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  10. Matt Holst, I’m surprised you’re not jazzed by the Wed. Friday themes. It must be a function of my living in the bubble of 19038 (or nearby).

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  11. John Y: I do not need the noise of the evangelical service or the more experience oriented service that I think the unionists are arguing for.

    The concerns of different unionists are varied. I’m told that my view of union, for example, is different from Gaffin’s.

    Certainly, I am not in favor of experience-oriented services. In fact, I’m known at my church as one who tends to rein in the experiential.

    For me, the concern with union has to do with not mixing imputation and infusion. My concern about the “justification causes sanctification” language is that it brings through the back door a kind of justification that is transformative.

    The advocates of that language deny that this is their intent, and I believe them — but I’m not convinced that they have successfully represented Confessional doctrine on this point.

    Arguments about who is more sanctified than who are definitely NOT on the table. 🙂

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  12. John Y — one more thought: It may be that some of your perceptions are colored by what “justification priority” folk have said about “union” folk. If so, I would encourage an ad fontes approach.

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  13. Josh, thanks for your reply. You write: “What’s at stake is seeing the benefits of Christ coming to us by virtue of being in Christ–they’re ours because they’re Christ’s, we’re counted just because God sees us in him, we’re not in him because we’re reckoned just. I think a close study of Paul’s use of the phrase (in Christ) along with the numerous and multi-form connections he makes with it bare this out.”

    What this view misses is the nuance and specificity of the 16th c. debates on justification. It seems to imply that justification by faith alone can be a belief of someone and yet they still don’t have Christ because it’s only when you’re united that you have Christ. That wasn’t how the Reformers put it. And when they put it by faith alone that we receive Christ’s righteousness as our very own, they weren’t thinking that — but of course, Christ is still outside us. This notion that unless you affirm union in talking about justification or unless you put the relation between just. and sanct. just this way, with union at the center, doesn’t do justice to the theology of the 16th century with its stress upon justification. In other words, the pro-union position implies that the 16th c. was defective until Calvin’s book 3 came along. This to me is a strange way to understand the Reformation and to hand on Reformed orthodoxy.

    Pro-justification people do believe in union, and in probably all senses of union. In fact, just. by faith assumes that those justified are in Christ as their federal head. But this usually isn’t good enough. The unionists are also talking about mystical union and then try to micromanage the ordo — and here I thought the historia was supposed to dispense with the ordo.

    So please don’t misunderstand. No one here is denying union. What is happening is raising questions about the way union is being understood. Some of these questions concern clarity — which union are you talking about? What is going on in soteriology — forensic, renovative, and can we see what the true state of sinfulness is? Other questions concern the ways in which union has been employed to attack Lutherans or Lutheran sympathizers, or the way union has failed to identify real problems in recent proposals about justification.

    In other words, I think the track record of union in recent church history is decidedly mixed. I’d be glad for one and all unionists to change that record. One thing that would help would be to get on the justification priority band wagon. Be careful though, seats are limited.

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  14. cnh, I don’t know of union folk that go in the direction of liturgy. I’d be glad to know them. But the point was about WTS in the union era. I’m not sure I’d recognize a pro-liturgical position at WTS when word and deed is the mantra. Please correct me. Have the unionists tried to correct the word and deed advocates?

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  15. When I was there the union folk didn’t get along much with the word and deed guys. I know the profs who teach the union position were very wary of w&d. I mean, I think you will find far more sympathizers for reformed liturgy among union than w&d. I’m union, 2 kingdom (radically maybe) and liturgical. I’d even prefer weekly communion, very simple music and lots of psalms.

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  16. DGH: What this view misses is the nuance and specificity of the 16th c. debates on justification. It seems to imply that justification by faith alone can be a belief of someone and yet they still don’t have Christ because it’s only when you’re united that you have Christ.

    Spin this out some, because I don’t recognize myself here. To my way of thinking, it is impossible to to have Christ and not be justified, because that’s what it means to have Christ as your federal head — to be in Him and therefore righteous.

    Maybe what you’re saying is that the union view doesn’t like “justification priority.” But actually, my only heartburns are

    (1) The specific phrase, “Justification causes Sanctification”, and
    (2) The suspicion with which the word “union” is treated.

    On (2) — you’ve protested several times that you don’t have a problem with union. But somehow, when union is mentioned, problems arise. So is it possible that you do have some kind of problem with union?

    DGH: Other questions concern the ways in which union has been employed to attack Lutherans or Lutheran sympathizers,…

    I agree this is unfortunate. Could we agree that Lutherans get union wrong? And that this is not particularly baneful?

    DGH: …or the way union has failed to identify real problems in recent proposals about justification.

    Good on WSC for recognizing the FV problem — but that doesn’t mean that they always will recognize every problem. If we think of theology as the immune system of the body of Christ, it makes sense that theological errors that are most opposite our own view are going to stand out the most.

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  17. Dr. Hart,

    Thanks again.

    You said, “[the union-centered thesis] seems to imply that justification by faith alone can be a belief of someone and yet they still don’t have Christ because it’s only when you’re united that you have Christ.” I’m sure you’ve read more union-centered theology than me, but I don’t mean to imply this, nor do I see it implied by the union thesis. In fact, I think it says that WHEN a person believes, they are justified, and that by virtue of their union. As Paul makes clear, one doesn’t have to be apprised of all God has done for him for all those things to be in fact true. Think of Paul in Ephesians, “…that you may know the hope to which he has called you.”

    So a person may deny the union-centered thing, trust in the Son of God for the forgiveness of sins and justification, and have union with Christ as the hub of those benefits even if he doesn’t know what’s going on. It’s like the image of God. My atheist neighbor doesn’t get to say he’s not made in the image of God because he denies some crucial premises thereof. Neither does the non-union-centered believer fail to have union as his soteriological hub just because he denies it. (All this, of course, according to a unionist.)

    I don’t think it says anything like ‘the 16th c. was defective till Calvin book 3.’ It just says that Calvin was unconscionably brilliant and made greater developments, peered deeper into the mind of God in Scripture, and made a more biblical, holistic, and logical system than his 16th c. brothers. This last part I didn’t think was controversial in Reformed circles.

    Do you part ways with this? Does it have to be in the very early 16th c. writers to find a hearing? Furthermore, I think you have to pay attention to context: if I were preaching on the heels of the reformation to a group that could disintegrate and return to the RCC (either by choice or force), I’d only talk about justification, too. There’s a time for imparting speculative, more mature things. It’s not in tracts and sermons usually. The ‘Institutes’ (book 3) seem like a pretty good place to do that work.

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  18. For what it’s worth, I’m also two kingdoms, liturgical, word and sacrament, WCF & 3 Forms, weekly communion, Psalms-heavy, etc. I’ve worshiped at Calvary, Glenside and I thought it was fantastic.

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  19. Jeff, I have heard union folks say that justification is merely “on the books” and imputed righteousness is an alien righteousness, as if an abstraction that is apart from me. I’ve also heard union folks say of Justification priority that it divides Christ and with union you get the whole Christ, as if justification priority denies sanctification. I’ve also heard unionists say that union is the gospel. I’ve never heard anyone say that effectual calling is the gospel.

    Josh, you write: “So a person may deny the union-centered thing, trust in the Son of God for the forgiveness of sins and justification, and have union with Christ as the hub of those benefits even if he doesn’t know what’s going on.” This seems to imply, whether you intend it or not, that a person needs to understand the basis for forgiveness of sins, which comes through understanding justification faith alone, in order to grasp what is going on in the gospel. You also seem to imply that union is not as important for an understanding of salvation. Doesn’t that prove the centrality of justification.

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  20. cnh, you’ve come close to identifying yourself, but not entirely. Would you care to cross the line of anonymity and reveal yourself?

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  21. DGH: Jeff, I have heard union folks say that justification is merely “on the books” and imputed righteousness is an alien righteousness, as if an abstraction that is apart from me.

    I would not agree to that formulation. The whole thing is alien righteousness.

    DGH: I’ve also heard union folks say of Justification priority that it divides Christ and with union you get the whole Christ, as if justification priority denies sanctification.

    This is thorny. Based on interactions here, I would say that JP definitely does not deny sanctification. And dividing Christ is not a correct assessment either.

    But JP does appear to try to place J in priority before union, with the result that even so knowledgeable a JP-er as Zrim could get WLC 69 backwards. So JP is confusing and thus infelicitous theology.

    One reason is that you (DGH) tend to equivocate on the term “priority.” Sometimes, you mean “importance”, as when you argue that justification was the material principle of the Reformation. At other times, you mean “logical priority”, as when you argue that J has priority over S. And at still other times, you mean “causal priority”, as when you defend-in-concept the idea that J causes S.

    So discussing it carefully becomes more difficult, because when I argue against causal priority, you pull out the “material principle of the Reformation” card … which is true, but not on point.

    DGH: I’ve also heard unionists say that union is the gospel.

    “Union is the gospel” is defensible in concept but infelicitous in effect. Yes, I could defend the idea that the gospel means that I am united to Christ by faith, with all of the results that flow from that. But not all parts of that gospel are of equal importance. The best of the good news is justification.

    DGH: I’ve never heard anyone say that effectual calling is the gospel.

    Well, Dort says that denying effectual calling is denying the gospel … But point taken.

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  22. Dr. Hart,

    You wrote, “You also seem to imply that union is not as important for an understanding of salvation. Doesn’t that prove the centrality of justification.”

    Yes. This is what I tried to get across in my first post. I think one can believe in the centrality of justification in some sense–I called it an ‘existential’ sense–but still know that, ontologically, even that central and sancitification-producing thing is a product of union with Christ. Let me be clear: I believe justification is prior to sanctification. The union-as-hub thing is a matter of, as I said, a more systematizing, developed aspect. As I more than implied, the sinner doesn’t have to hear union-as-hub preached to be saved. This obviously sets justification in a higher place experientially.

    It’s like election being prior to justification in some sense (more than temporal priority, too). If I talk with my Arminian brother, we could both understand justification in the same way, he could be converted by the Holy Spirit, but not understand the proper systematic position of that justification, eg, as a result of God’s electing him preveniently. Regardless of this lack of knowledge or error, the fact is the fact: his election is real and it’s prior to what he does know to be the case. So with union-as-hub. I can call justification primary and the hinge of the Church and still know that there is a higher, birds-eye-view aspect at which union is the benefit-producing reality for the sake of Christ. So, again, I wouldn’t want to talk about union-as-hub in the pulpit more than justification. Note the ‘more systematic and precise’ emphasis I’ve put on the union thesis. It’s similar to the way you don’t dump the hypostatic union, perichoresis, and concurence on someone’s first Sunday. Still, those things do help us understand what’s going on in the Bible.

    [posted to the more recent discussion, too]

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  23. Jeff,

    I appreciate your comments and clarifications although the smiley face concerns me a bit. I just listened to D.G. Hart’s recent lecture on Machen and he was talking about how Fosdick had a propensity to have the ubiquitous smiley face attached to most of his arguments. He wondered what Fosdick’s comments might look like if he had access to the internet back then. He said it in his usual wry and dry way (which I find very humorous) and that is what I thought about when you had that face at the end of your comment. Fosdick probably used it in a patronizing way and I do not think you meant it that way. It probably was not necessary for me to mention that either but I got a good laugh from Hart’s comment so that is why I did so.

    As is already obvious I would side with the priority of justification people and am not as well nuanced on the debate as the comments of others on this site clearly show. I am enjoying listening in to the conversations here though. The degree of insight and level of conversation is much higher than on other sites I frequent. It is becoming my most favorite site to read and draw from.

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  24. Wow I cant fathom who is computing all these crazy posts. Your content is on topic and it attracts a lot of amounts of these types comments. take care and thanks for the work!

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  25. I use smiley faces for three reasons: First, when poking fun at myself; second, when sharing a joke with someone else (as in, remember when this came up before); third, when being ridiculous, as in Monty Python.

    I try not to use smileys to cover up hostile intent, which seems to have been Fosdick’s deal.

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