Westminster II

Looks like (and we’ve known this for some time) that Protestants have as much trouble with hermeneutics of continuity and discontinuity as Roman Catholics. Something funny happened in the 1960s. Bishops met in Rome — was it hard to get a cab, a table at a trendy Italian restaurant? And at Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia) the second generation of faculty came along, most of whom had studied with the first generation. But the second generation decided it wouldn’t color within the lines drawn by the original faculty. Sounds like Vatican II, doesn’t it?

Evidence of the challenges of historical and institutional continuity comes from a post on Facebook at Tremper Longman’s page (made available at Greenbaggins). Tremper calls it Middle Westminster, an odd phrase if you think in historical categories of the West. Weren’t the Middle Ages also the Dark Ages? That surely is not what Tremper means to communicate since for him, Middle WTS is the good WTS. For support, he includes comments by Clair Davis:

The history of WTS divides itself naturally into three great epochs: before me, during me, after me. I came on faculty in 1966 at the same time that Ed became the first president, and retired as Sam was taken away as our leader. So Middle WTS is the same as My Time! Ed had a broader agenda than showing up liberals, so closely related to his own powerful work with the Word. He got around in the broader evangelical world and appreciated what we could give them. I give him so much credit along with Ed Clowney Redivivus George and Sam for broadening us up to look at the Bible itself, but I suspect that growing evangelical desire for more than the old WTS offered also played a large part.

Especially after Meredith moved on Ray Dillard became our leader, in OT and also in godly theology for life generally. The OT people had the only departmental prayer meeting! I am so glad they had room for Erik Davis too. Al led them and us all on after Ray’s early death. But what an amazing crew: add on Tremper Longman, Peter Enns, Bruce Waltke, Doug Green, and Mike Kelly, and so many great grad students.

It was all about learning more and more about God’s Word, with all that learning other Semitic cultures could provide. I hope my Church History big picture way of thinking doesn’t blur the uniqueness of our OT—but the rise of Jay Adam’s and David Powlison’s and Ed Welch’s biblical counseling was going on at the same time. Then add in Harvie Conn, with his provocative questions and deep answers. I see our Old Testament department leading the way, but so many “cultural” things were happening at the same time! We all knew our God-given calling was to be “relevant,” to push the evangelical and Reformed world to think bigger than it ever had, to go far beyond hassling liberals and getting the grammar right. I believe myself that we succeeded mightily. To God be the glory, with credit to Ed Clowney and George Fuller and Sam Logan and Harvie Conn and CCEF (the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation) and those amazing students, asking better and deeper questions of us and demanding answers.

Clair’s reflections come at the conclusion of Doug Green’s teaching career at WTS. As Tremper explains, Green’s departure is one more piece of the “Westminster Diaspora.” I agree with Clair and Tremper that it is sad to see Doug leave WTS. I consider him a friend, thanks in part of the placement of the coffee maker in the work room outside my office in Montgomery Memorial Library which allowed him and me to talk about any number of things. At the same time, I’m pretty sure Doug would concede that WTS in the 1990s was a shaky place where confessionalists like myself and envelope-pushers like him (and Tremper, and Pete Enns, and Clair Davis) co-existed but rarely found themselves on the same page.

The question I had then is the same question I have now: why did administrators and board members think you could sow the fabric of continuity onto the inherent discontinuity between Old School Presbyterian types and New Life folks who were in awe of Tim Keller (the elephant in this historical room)? As if TKNY would bring us all together.

If Clair can lament the loss of Middle Westminster, can’t folks who think as Machen did that the Reformed faith is grand bemoan the loss of Early Westminster? What exactly happened to make the convictions of the original faculty either wrong or irrelevant? And did anyone actually make a case for changing course, pointing out where the older generation was wrong or shortsighted, and chart a better way based both on Reformed heritage and biblical teaching? Of course, John Frame has picked his winners and losers among the original faculty and derided those (like mmmeeeEEE) who still see merit in Machen’s founding vision for Westminster and his forthright defense of Reformed Protestantism. But Frame was not at Westminster Philadelphia in the 1990s. He didn’t need to be. The clear sense was that the Machen thing was passe.

And as I often said to friends and wife during the 1900s, the Machen thing may well have been irrelevant. But that requires an argument especially at an institution that prides itself on intellectual achievement. And an argument requires some awareness of what Machen tried to accomplish, and the context in which he tried.

Above all, shrugging off Machen and the original faculty of Westminster required a degree of loyalty for those whose work took place in places like Machen and Van Til Hall. I mean, if students at Princeton University can insist on removing Woodrow Wilson’s name from all associations with the institution, can’t Westminster faculty and administrators come up with a way to rid themselves of the bad parts of their institution’s past (Machen was after all a racist by today’s standards and even a family friend of Wilson)?

Or could it also be that the same sort of candor that Machen demanded of liberal Presbyterians has been in short supply among those Middle Westminster types who benefited from the institution’s reputation but failed to acknowledge it — even worse, disparaged it?

I wish Doug all the best. But the history of Westminster demands more scrutiny and awareness than those from the Middle period have been capable of producing.

32 thoughts on “Westminster II

  1. Has the irresistible urge to curry favor with evangelicals always been the result of economics — meaning the tuition money of Methodists, baptists, and assorted mongrels? I’m told that that the growing-like-topsy RTS system would collapse without the favor and filthy lucre of Calvinish baptists.


  2. The evangelicals vs confessionalists narrative does not account for the difference between “faith alone by means of Christ’s righteousness” vs “final justification by means of faith that works”. Gaffin and Shepherd never denied anything the Westminster Confession said.

    Mark Karlberg— “The priority for Gaffin is union with Christ, what is the “absolutely necessary, indispensable context for justification. Gaffin contends that union with Christ must be kept central and controlling.,,, Contrary to Gaffin’s teaching, justification is not contingent upon sanctification, perseverence in holiness, or any of the other benefits accruing from union with Christ. The reformers were right in speaking of good works as the fruit of saving faith. Justification rests exclusively on the finished work of Christ. Gaffin prefers to speak of the ongoing work of Christ.”

    Mark Karlberg–”For someone to rely wholly on Christ’s finished work at the cross, Gaffin warns, he has then cut himself off from the ‘whole Christ’ from the Christ who now is working out the benefits of atonement. What is obscured in Gaffin’s formulation is the fact that the application of salvation has already and completely been secured by Christ in his work of reconciliation. There is nothing future to be attained by Christ.”



  3. Are Banner of Truth folks confessionalists or evangelical experimentalists? Evangelicals agree that getting more sanctified takes a lot of work on our part. And most Reformed Confessionalists are not “Lutheran” when it comes to their “using” the law to restrain sinning in their lives.

    Mark Jones, for example, uses the temptation of Jesus to show how the law demands faith and that faith for getting sanctified is the works that come from obeying the law. Thankful for “Jesus the greatest believer who ever lived”, Jones explains who the law IS of faith. (Antinomianism, P and R, 2013) p 21—“If Christ is our mediator, our union with him means not only that we must be holy (i.e., necessity), but also that we will be ABLE to be like him …”

    Jones, p 24–“There was a perfect synergy involved in Jesus’ human obedience and the Holy Spirit’s influence…Following this pattern, although man is completely passive at the moment of regeneration, he cooperates with God in sanctification.” Jones argues from the fact that Christ obtained salvation “bestowed on conditions”, that we too must obtain “sanctification” in the same way, bestowed on conditions. Instead of talking about the finished merits of Christ, Jones writes of Christ’s living by faith, and still living by faith as we live by faith.



  4. Clair Davis—”In God’s big plan, his decision comes at the beginning; but in our lives we’re called to learn about it when we really need it. Election is not really about evangelism and what we should say then. I think this is the answer that pulls us together, the one that helped Whitefield and Wesley keep on working together, actively evangelizing together.”


    Norman Shepherd—“The prophets and apostles viewed election from the perspective of the covenant of grace, whereas Reformed theologians of a later day have tended to view the covenant of grace from the perspective of election”(p 60). The result of this, it is argued, is that the reformed preacher no longer says “Christ died for you” – but, when these words are construed, not from the point of view of election, but of the covenant, then “The Reformed evangelist can and must say on the basis of John 3:16, Christ died for you.”

    Sinclair Ferguson— First, Shepherd appears to adopt the view of the prevailing academic critique of the covenant theology of the seventeenth century (forcefully presented decades ago by Perry Miller), which suggests that the doctrine of covenant somehow makes God’s secret counsels less harsh. We ought therefore to look at covenant, and not at election. This analysis, both historically and biblically we reject… To use Shepherd’s own citation – the fact is that some passages, e.g. Ephesians 1:1-14, do employ the mode of looking at covenant from the viewpoint of election. Indeed, in that passage it is necessary for the reader to look for covenant in the context of election.”


  5. cw – It’s the money – but also the ego. There is a certain cast of mind that wants to be an envelope pusher and envelope-pushing goes directly against the confessionalist grain. They may wrap it all up in layer upon layer of “winsome is as winsome does” humblebraggery, but the egos are huge.


  6. DGH—“The plasticity of evangelical identity, the capacity that evangelicals have to avoid any boundaries or definitions that might constrain the sovereign autonomous self, is ironically just another example of the construction of personal identity that absorbs people living in the United States.”

    So evangelicals have no boundaries, but at least the confessionalists agree that infants must be watered, even though some like Nevin condition salvation on the sacrament experience and others like Gaffin condition salvation on the moral results of having Christ in you?

    Having no boundaries makes it easy to say that just maybe “evangelicals” will have a majority.

    from an evangelical University—“Christian leaders like Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham are leading the charge against deadly political correctness. Graham has been chided for advising that we refuse Syrian refuges into the United States, warning that doing so could lead to a Paris-style attack in America. MOST PEOPLE regard Graham’s warning as COMMON SENSE.

    Liberty U— Graham does not propose abandoning refugees but rather finding a solution that is best FOR THEM AND FOR US. One proposal is relocating refugees to safe places within the Middle East where the victimized CAN RETAIN THEIR CUSTOMS AND CULTURE and WE can be safe from the terrorists among them. The costs can be covered by Samaritan’s Purse AND FEDERAL AID. Graham’s position is fully consistent with the Gospel. Self-defense, both national and individual,I s a God-given right to ALL CREATURES, INCLUDING MAN. specifically sanctioned by Jesus (Luke 22:36). Falwell and Graham are right, but MOST CHRISTIANS already knew that.”



  7. Allan Jacobs— James Burtchaell has shown in his book The Dying of the Light —a book well known to the leadership of Wheaton College—dozens and dozens of American colleges and universities have discovered that there seems to be no “undo” button for schools that broaden their religious self-understanding…. The history of American higher education indicates that such sequences of events run one way only. So any school that has a distinctively Christian character and wishes to retain it had better take great care before “opening up” the institution to the previously excluded.

    Jacobs—Yet if Wheaton were to accept Catholics on its faculty,,,,not a single concession to theological liberalism would be made. Such a move would not signal that Wheaton takes its core theological commitments any less seriously. Rather, it would reflect an acceptance of the fact that Catholics and Protestants have a far better understanding of each other, and a deeper recognition of their great common cause, than has been the case since the earliest days of the Reformation. ….. President Litfin sometimes says that they would amount to “changing the DNA” of Wheaton, and, while I might quibble with that metaphor, it has some force. The school contains quite a wide range of Protestants: Arminians and Calvinists, Anglicans and Dispensationalists, Baptists, Nazarenes, Plymouth Brethren. These folks disagree on quite a few things. But they all accept a doctrinal statement that draws heavily on the Nicene Creed. More important in the daily life of the college, they all USE THE BIBLE IN A SIMILAR WAY.

    Jacobs—Faithful Catholics don’t believe in the authority of Scripture any less than evangelical Protestants, but they certainly employ the Bible in very different ways, largely because it is more natural for many Catholics to cite magisterial interpretations of Scripture than to cite Scripture directly. President Litfin sees this difference as the fundamental one that separates Catholics and Protestants. In his reading, “the Catholic principle” is the view that “the Scriptures and Tradition, both as authoritatively interpreted by the magisterium, are our supreme and final authority,” while “the Protestant principle” is the view that “the Scriptures alone are our supreme and final authority.”


    mcmark–But the Confessions were written for the sake of some magistrate, which means that the difference between how Carl Truman uses the Bible is different from the way that Robert Gentry and D A Carson use the Bible. The (revised) Westminster Confession serves (some) “confessionalists” as a kind of paper magistrate…

    dgh— Somewhere along the line, a lot of U.S. Christians (Protestant and Roman Catholic) gave up the battle with modernism. It started for Protestants with the neo-evangelicals of Billy Graham fame who wanted a kinder gentler conservative Protestantism. That neo-evangelical project ignored ecclesiology for the sake of a broader effort, and so it refused to rule out Protestants who were members of modernist churches.


  8. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p 43 : “We would not indeed obscure the difference which divides us from Rome. The gulf is indeed profound. But profound as it is, it seems almost trifling compared to the abyss which stands between us and many ministers of our own Church. The Church of Rome may represent a perversion of the Christian religion; but naturalistic liberalism is not Christianity at all.”


    Machen—In countless families, there is a Christian parent who with untold agony has seen the barrier of religious difference set up between himself or herself and a beloved child. Salvation, it is believed with all the heart, comes only through Christ, and the child, it is believed, unless it has REALLY TRUSTED IN Christ, is lost. These, I tell you, are the real tragedies of life. And how trifling, in comparison, is the EXPERIENCE of bereavement….

    Machen— But what do these sorrowing parents do? Do they make themselves uselessly a nuisance to their child? In countless cases they do not; in countless cases there is hardly a mention of the subject of religion; in countless cases there is nothing but prayer, and an agony bravely covered by helpfulness and cheer.


  9. But the second generation decided it wouldn’t color within the lines drawn by the original faculty. Sounds like Vatican II, doesn’t it?

    No, it doesn’t sound like Catholicism at all. It sounds like “Protestantism,” do-it-yourself Christianity–all is ad hoc all is pro tem. Neither Luther nor Calvin would join their own “church” today, or if they did, they’d be thrown out.

    If Clair can lament the loss of Middle Westminster, can’t folks who think as Machen did that the Reformed faith is grand bemoan the loss of Early Westminster?

    In “Protestantism,” anything becomes a tradition if it outlasts milk. 😉


  10. “Jacobs really thinks Roman Catholics are conservative? Has he read Ratzinger?”

    Anyone who thinks Ratzinger or Catholics are evangelical-lke “conservative” has not read deeply. Period.


  11. JoeM, you mean just reading the various Evangelical and Catholic Together pronouncements and the Manhattan Declaration isn’t deep enough?


  12. In “Protestantism,” anything becomes a tradition if it outlasts milk.

    Says the man whose system (that he doesn’t really adhere to anyway) thinks the height of piety is venerating Jesus’ foreskin.


  13. Hey Darryl. Hope you are well! I miss our conversations. I don’t like the term Middle Westminster either particularly but that seems to be the term that sticks. Say, I would contend that Middle Westminster was in continuity with Early Westminster and we were carrying forward that generation’s important work. Unlike present Westminster that has now circled the wagons and just talks to itself and its immediate circle we interacted with broader scholarship for our solidly Reformed position. I think you may be confusing continuity with veneration. Semper Reformanda after all. I just couldn’t follow you when you told me in your office that the Confession trumps the Bible.


  14. Tremper, Hey. Good to hear from you.

    Continuity is sort of in the beholder’s eye and all. But do you really think the second generation was interested in the Confession of Faith the way the original faculty were? And since the Confession and a Presbyterianism that was opposed to liberalism and wary of evangelicalism was part of the first generations shtick, it’s hard to see that in the second generation.

    I’m not sure if I put it that way — the Confession trumps the Bible. But you and I did take vows to the Confession — not to the Bible. We even put our signatures in a book to that effect.


  15. I should think it’s reasonable for someone coming out of fundamentalism to say that the confession trumps a personal, reductionist, minimalist, selective, or tradition-filtered (hey Cats) interpretation of scripture. Isn’t this just saying that you feel better about the Westminster divines’ reading of the bible than that of shifting moderns?


  16. Is there a suggestion here that Westminster III (after the dismissal of Enns and Green by the Lillback regime) is back on track, having returned to the glorious days of “Machen and the fundamentalists, “i.e., those bearing the Westminster orthodoxy of the founding faculty? The prominent issues here are twofold: (1) biblical inerrancy; and (2) the doctrine of salvation (specifically, justification by faith alone). Of course, Westminster I came to an inglorious end with the departure of Professor Meredith Kline. Happily, he did leave an indelible imprint upon Westminster in California. This now raises the pressing question whether or not Westminster West remains unambiguously at odds with the new theological direction taken at Westminster East. What direction, you ask? Does Westminster West denounce unequivocally elements of semi-Barthianism that has gained widespread ground within Reformed circles today and within evangelical Protestantism more broadly, notably as regards the teaching on “eschatological” justification and election? The question is whether or not Westminster West will commit unreservedly and uncompromisingly to clear, consistent teaching upholding the fundamentals of Reformed orthodoxy, that borne by Old Westminster. The test case is now front and center in the dispute within the Orthodox Presbyterian Church regarding to the classic Reformed doctrine of “republication” (what is the peculiar role of “law” in the Mosaic Covenant). For more on this, see http://www.trinityfoundation.org/update.php?id=2.

    Dr. Mark W. Karlberg


  17. But CW, everything the WCF offers is admittedly provisional, therefore the authors of the WCF had no certainty of whether they actually believed what they wrote or not. If only there was a system of professed infallibility that could solve my conundrum. Oh wait, there is, take your pick—Romanism, EO, Mormonism, Jehovah Witnesses, Shi’a Islam, …


  18. Robert, It’s gonna go down as quite possibly the most useless discussion yet. I’m sure somebody has a plan but right now it’s a hodge podge. Somebody is trying to use the appeal to authority to make the Thomistic case for divine faith, which, while it has some overlap with perserverance they want the appeal to authority to distinguish it from perseverance. So, there’s prot supernatural faith but it’s different from RC divine faith cuz of certitude which is anchored in an appeal to authority which is anchored in that authority being rome, cuz rome says it’s that authority. Awesome.


  19. hey Darryl,
    To continue the conversation just a step further. Yes, indeed, I took a vow as you did affirming the WCF “as a system of doctrine” and also took a number of exceptions when I took the vow, which is a way of saying that Scripture trumps the Confession. (Granted now twenty years later I would take a lot more exceptions based on Scripture), but you and I both took are vows with integrity. (Oh and you are right I paraphrased you. A closer to the ipsissima verba, was the following interchange, “Darryl are you telling me if I think the Bible teaches something contrary to the Confession that I have to go with the Confession?” Answer: Yes. That to me is well paraphrased as “the Confession trumps Scripture.” It presumes that the Confession got it perfectly right and something that even the Confession itself undermines in Chapter one paragraph 10:
    “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils (including the Westminster Assembly itself), 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.”
    As for continuity, yes I would argue that the second generation was just as critical as the first toward liberals… But I would agree that we were less wary toward our co-religionists the broader evangelical world. When the first generation was around the broader evangelical world was anti-intellectual and fundamentalists who did not interact with broader world but curled up in their own ghetto. When the second generation came lone the broader evangelical world had caught up. Now I would say that large parts of the Reformed World are the fundies (I am not including you in this or a number of others), and the broader evangelical world has taken the forefront among us.
    By the way have enjoyed your reviews in the Wall Street Journal….


  20. TL, large parts of the Reformed (capital “R” meaning denominational/confessional?) are fundies? Really? The PCA and TGC are shy about cultural issues?

    The evangelicals have “caught up” — how so, rather than in cultural engagement?

    Fundie = 2k?


  21. I can relate to the idea that anything Trinity Foundation (Robbins-Clark) published is best ignored–because “commenting only encourages them”. Nevertheless I commend to all the reading of update 3 from Cunha. http://www.trinityfoundation.org/update.php?id=3

    Cunha–It is not clear why Irons thinks Gaffin’s retirement from full-time teaching at WTS means that he is “serving the church in quieter ways” and, therefore, should not be critiqued. Does Irons not understand that Gaffin’s written work and publicly expressed thought, not to mention personal influence at multiple seminaries, continue to influence the church? Is he unaware that Gaffin’s public teaching did not cease when he retired from full-time teaching at WTS? Since retirement from full-time teaching at WTS, Gaffin has traveled as far as Hong Kong to publicly promote his theology …
    R. Scott Clark (WSC)– “I have the original Shepherd controversy documents and Dick Gaffin was defending a complex instrument of justification, i.e. faith and works on paper and in faculty discussions. Dick defended not only Shepherd’s right to hold his views but the substance of his views.”


  22. Tremper, Thanks.

    I guess the question is how we interpret the original WTS and it’s identity. As someone who spent a lot of time thinking about that, I was surprised I didn’t receive many questions. How would you feel my opining about David and the Psalms and not consulting you or Doug?

    But it’s also the case that I didn’t see much promotion of the Old WTS. Lots more about Harvie, Keller, Edwards, and CCEF than Van Til and Murray.


  23. Ichabod. Westminster has abandoned old Princeton.

    …while many conservative Reformed people are zealous to defend the authority of the Bible, often they do not do so with the care and nuance we see at Old Princeton. In particular, the challenges of interpretation and doing justice to the human dimension Scripture often get short shrift. This latter phenomenon is now especially evident at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, long thought to be the guardian of Old Princeton’s legacy. Now those who seek to understand the Old Testament in light of its ancient Near Eastern cultural background and who think that the Old Testament writers were not always aware of the christological meanings that New Testament authors discerned in their texts are apparently no longer welcome (see here and here and here), and another prominent biblical scholar there now teaches that we should just give up on trying to understand what an individual human author of Scripture may have intended. All this, we must recognize, stands in stark contrast to the Old Princeton tradition.

    But Bill, Old Princeton was confessional. WTS in the era of Conn and Enns was not.

    Old Princeton was a confessional school. Its professors subscribed ex animo (“from the heart”) to the Westminster Standards, but this confessionalism in practice was rather different than the wooden confessionalism we sometimes encounter today (where the view seems to be that “if it’s in the confession, it is essential”). Or, to phrase it a bit differently, the Old Princeton theologians knew how to distinguish the essential from the important, and the important from the indifferent.


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