Where's Waldo Wednesday: No Cherry Picking (or Flipping)

Now that I’ve finished all six seasons of the “Larry Sanders Show,” which still comes highly recommended as arguably the funniest and most poignant treatments of celebrity in Hollywood, I am free to flip channels. (Those who haven’t seen the show need to understand that after his monologue, before going to commercial, Larry would say “no flipping.)

But we still need someone like Larry to tell us Reformed debaters to stop cherry picking. In basketball, a cherry picker is someone who lingers at one of the court — the offensive one (not in the sense of being objectionable for UK readers) — and never goes to the other end to play defense.

A similar tendency exists in debates over union. Lots of pro-unionists cite Calvin on union. They hang out at the end of the court where Book III begins. Not so many of these cherry pickers lurk at that end where Calvin talks about the sacramental significance of union. But as for doing the hard work of looking beyond Calvin to other theologians who were Reformed churchmen, some would rather not do the laborious work of running from one end of the court to the other.

Calvin’s support in turn becomes a warrant for declaring that other people who claim to be Reformed are not — hence assertions about Lutheranism, semi-Pelagianism, and the like. Not only has the argument cherry picked from Calvin, but also from the history of Reformed Protestantism. For the claim that someone is Reformed, Lutheran, Arminian, Baptist is not a biblical assertion but a historical judgment. The Bible may reveal what it means to be Reformed. But Reformed Protestantism emerged and developed not by finding a creed, polity, and liturgy written down in Scripture but by Reformed officers trying to figure out what the Bible teaches and applying that teaching in a host of circumstances from 1522 to the present.

All of this is to say that the way forward in the debates about union — a question that emerged at the end of Mike Horton’s interview at Reformed Forum — is to let the historians decide. Of course, this sounds self-serving (which it isn’t because I am not a historical theologian). It is actually a realistic assessment of the most contested claims made by all parties in the discussions of union. Everyone wants to be biblical and execute the best exegesis. But interpreting the Bible is not the way you understand or define Christian past. To know the Reformed tradition, you need to study the past. That way you can see which theologians held what views, which churches professed what creeds, which synods or assemblies excluded what teachings as erroneous.

Historical investigation will never satisfy the bibilicist (just ask John Frame). But it will teach everyone to be more careful about the use of words like Reformed.

The alternative is to abandon words like Reformed, Lutheran, Pelagian, and Baptist altogether. “Hmmmmmmm, no denominations.” Imagine a world separate communions. I think John Lennon (and Frame) would go for that.


17 thoughts on “Where's Waldo Wednesday: No Cherry Picking (or Flipping)

  1. Darryl,

    As I (and my better half) have been catching up on this “union’ debate vis-a-vis justification, I’m wondering if it would be correct to say that there are two different questions or debates which should stay separate. 1. Which take is biblical? and 2. Which take is Reformed? And, as you are stating, they are answered with different sources. Also I’ve been trying to figure out what is more or less driving (what I perceive on a part of some in the “unionist camp”) the need to define out of the Reformed tradition anyone who doesn’t see it their way, ala Horton’s relevant theology being essentially Lutheran or even semi-pelagian? What gives? I find it hard to take that kind of reasoning seriously, except that it gets a hearing coming from what are ostensibly serious scholars.


  2. “Not so many of these cherry pickers lurk at that end where Calvin talks about the sacramental significance of union. ”

    Should they? Many of the “federal visionists” do put much of their “union” emphasis on “sacrament”. I think of the “worldview” ontology of John Milbank and his student Leithart. Even if we had never sinned (and now that we are “united” we don’t so much anymore) , even if we never needed the benefits of forgiveness, we still would have wanted to participate in the humanity of Jesus after the incarnation. And if that sounds mystical or revivalistic to you, it’s really not because we do this corporately and the participation is administered by sanctioned authorities.

    Bruce McCormack, not only a Barthian but a historian of theology, also has spent lots of time down at the sacramental end. But he does that only to warn us about how Calvin’s inconsistency about “union” was occasioned by Calvin’s loyalty to his sacramental inheritance.

    You on that end rebounding the ball. Me on the other end receiving your passes and getting all the shots. What’s wrong with that?


  3. Jack, This is going to be too simple an answer to your good question, but here’s my take. It’s not “sacrament” driving the debate, because Horton and Fesko are no less “sacramental” in their own way than the Torrances. I think the answer has to do with the law-gospel antithesis. Shepherd and Gaffin think that the law-gospel antithesis has been overcome for those who have been justified by faith (not alone in the not yet). Westminster East wants to put the “Lutheran” label on Escondido because Horton and Clark and Fesko make more distinctions between the covenants (especially the Mosaic covenant).

    Of course it’s not this simple. Some oppose Westminster West because of ethical and political agendas (“two kingdoms”, natural law etc). Some follow Gaffin and Shepherd because they agree with John Murray in thinking that all covenants are gracious, which in turn means that “gracious” gets redefined to include what some think of as “legal”.

    To some folks, the great danger of the hour is antinomianism and thus they react to any talk of law-gospel antithesis as if “dispensationalism” and “Lutheranism” were basically the same thing. In the old days Lutherans described the “Reformed” as being law to gospel and back to law. But if law is gospel and gospel is law, then even using the categories makes you suspect as “Lutheran”.

    Galatians 2:21 does not say that, if justification is by our obeying the law, then Christ’s death counts for less. Rather, if the basis for justification includes our obeying the law, then Christ’s death counts for nothing.


  4. Mark,

    I think the answer has to do with the law-gospel antithesis.

    Thanks… That has been what my wife and I have come to think. Ironically, those blurring or minimizing the distinction between law and gospel, end up, in my mind, having a lot of ‘splaining to do re: the the prominence of L/G in the Reformed confessions and catechisms, not to mention writings by the likes of Owen and Calvin and the lack of specific articles, questions, or writings on the “hinge, or is it door-frame, of union” in those 16th and 17th century documents.

    We have been so helped by the writing and teaching coming out of the “Escondido Theology” camp (can we get tee-shirts with that logo?). A big thank you to those playing both ends of the court.


  5. Darryl,

    Re: …interpreting the Bible is not the way you understand or define Christian past. To know the Reformed tradition, you need to study the past. That way you can see which theologians held what views, which churches professed what creeds, which synods or assemblies excluded what teachings as erroneous.

    May I ask if someone is working on this? And if so, may I ask if they are also looking at who these theologians drew from in church history (pre-reformation) to stand/build upon (such as Augustine)? It would sound like a gargantuan project to do this.


  6. Lily, some of this historical work exists. Richard Muller is crucial for understanding Reformed scholasticism and its sources. Other good work by historical theologians exists (both Lutheran and Reformed). But cherry pickers generally don’t pay attention to historians (who are a notch below practical theologians and librarians).


  7. Thanks, Darryl. The only reason that makes sense to me for history to be neglected would be because trying to read and understand any era of church history (eg: Patristics) is a huge undertaking and would challenge preconceived notions. With there being 1500 years of history to understand before the reformation began – whew! But I don’t see how the necessity to understand history can be dismissed. For those who would make the sacraments merely symbols with no real soteriological benefits… well… the burden should fall upon them to defend their ignorance and innovations – shouldn’t it?


  8. Re: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2012/01/05/the-missing-factor

    In the union with Christ emphasis, I keep getting the impression that the union emphasis is somehow leading to an unmediated union. It reminds me somewhat of the controversy over communion with God. One side rejects instrumentality for an unmediated communion with God versus a mediated communion with God through the means of grace (Word and Sacrament).

    I also keep wondering when the unionists will start worrying about the Triune implications of union with Christ…

    John 10:30

    I and my Father are one.

    1 John 1:1-10

    That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

    This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.


  9. Lily, I am asking all of us two questions for clarity’s sake.

    1. I ask that we define “union”. It does no good to agree that “union” has various aspects (ie, it’s by election and it’s legal also) if we then go on from that to use the word “union” to mean something very close to “regeneration” or “definitive sanctification” or “break with the pattern of sin”.

    Supposedly, regeneration and sanctification and break with sin are all also results of “union”. So what is “union” and why does it come down in the end to assuming that it means the work of the Spirit in the elect sinner? (btw, we need to define words like “regeneration” and “sanctification” also).

    2. I am asking that we locate what we say in specific Biblical texts, and not only in traditional confessions of faith. For example, Romans 6 is certainly a key text on the relationship of justification and the Christian life. Many read Romans 6 as if it were saying: don’t worry about that two legal heads stuff in Romans 5, because there is another answer besides justification as to why we don’t sin, and that is “union”. In other words, don’t worry about imputed guilt, only worry about corruption. Don’t think about imputed righteousness so much, focus on the new righteousness in your changed hearts!

    Others (like Haldane) read Romans to say that the answer to the question about the Christian life is not something else besides legal identity with Christ’s death and resurrection. We read Romans 6:7 as saying that the answer continues to be “justified from sin”. We insist on that because Christ became dead to sin, was justified from sin, and that certainly was NOT “regeneration” or the work of the Spirit in Him. We insist on reading Romans 6 in terms of “sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law”.

    Others of course read Holy Spirit baptism into Romans 6. They don’t talk about Christ giving the Spirit (which is not in Romans 6). They talk about the Spirit giving Christ (which is also not in Romans 6). Others read the sacramental water of the church into Romans 6. But it is no way acceptable to them to think that Romans 6 is still about justification and legal identification. They already have their minds made up that imputation is not a good enough answer to the question of Romans 6.

    I know Reformed Confessions say that the Spirit applies the work of Christ. Since I think God’s legal imputation applies the righteousness Christ obtained for the elect to the elect, I don’t think the Confessions’ language is clear enough.. But right now, I keep asking folks to tell me what that language means. What biblical texts are you thinking about? Does the Spirit “applying the work of Christ” make imputation secondary or even unnecessary?


  10. I thought I might post a little John Owen for the reading pleasure of folks like the “Reformed” apologist.


    No Justification Without Faith, even though Legal Imputation of Sins to Christ is Before Faith

    “I suggest that absolution from the guilt of sin and obligation unto death, though not as terminated in the conscience for complete justification, do not precede our actual believing; for what is that love of God which through Christ is effectual to bestow faith upon the unbelieving?

    Perhaps, also, this may be the justification of the ungodly, mentioned Romans 4:5, God’s absolving a sinner in heaven, by accounting Christ unto him, and then bestowing him upon him, and for his sake enduing him with faith to believe.

    That we should be blessed with all spiritual blessings in Christ, and yet Christ not be ours in a peculiar manner before the bestowing of those blessings on us, is somewhat strange. Yea, he must be our Christ before it is given to us for him to believe; why else is it not given to all others so to do? I speak not of the supreme distinguishing cause, Matthew 11:25, 26, but of the proximate procuring cause, which is the blood of Christ. Neither yet do I hence assert complete justification to be before believing.

    Again: absolution may be considered either as a pure act of the will of God in itself, or as it is received, believed, apprehended, in and by the soul of the guilty. For absolution in the first sense, it is evident it must precede believing; as a discharge from the effects of anger naturally precedes all collation of any fruits of love, such as is faith.

    But if God account Christ unto, and bestow him upon, a sinner before believing, and upon that account absolve him from the obligation unto death, which for sin he lies under, what wants this of complete justification?

    Much every way. 1. It wants that act of pardoning mercy on the part of God which is to be terminated and completed in the conscience of the sinner; this lies in the promise. 2. It wants the heart’s persuasion concerning the truth and goodness of the promise, and the mercy held out in the promise. 3. It wants the receiving of Christ as the author and finisher of that mercy, an all-sufficient Savior to them that believe.

    And thus the Lord Christ hath the pre-eminence in all things. He is “the author and finisher of our faith.”

    This, then, is that which here we assign unto the Lord: Upon the accomplishment of the appointed season for the making out the fruits of the death of Christ unto them for whom he died, he loves them freely, says to them, “Live;” gives them his Son, and with and for him all things; bringing forth the choicest issue of his being reconciled in the blood of Jesus whilst we are enemies, and totally alienated from him.


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