The Puritan Fetish

Why do Reformed Protestants think appealing to the Puritans settles it?

Why does Patrick Ramsey think John Ball’s view of justification is significant?

While denying the Roman Catholic doctrine that love is the life and soul of justifying faith, John Ball (1585-1640) strenuously affirmed that justifying faith cannot be without love. Faith and love are distinct graces which are “infused together” by the Holy Spirt at regeneration and “the exercise of faith and love be inseparably conjoined (Treatise of Faith, 45-46).” Where there is justifying faith there is love: “As light and heat in the Sun be inseparable, so is faith and love, being knit together in a sure bond by the Holy Ghost (pg. 38).

If faith and love are distinct yet inseparable, so it is sometimes argued, “then Faith alone doth not justify (pg. 56).” The presence of love at the moment of justification implies that it is along with faith a co-instrument of justification. Ball responded to this objection by appealing to a common turn of phrase regarding the role of faith in justification: faith alone justifies but the faith which justifies is not alone. Or as it stated in the Westminster Confession of Faith: “Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification; yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.”

And why does William Evans think the Puritans founded America (tell that to the Virginians)?

America was founded by Puritans. They viewed themselves as in covenant with God, as a new Israel. They thought that the covenant promises made to Israel applied quite literally to them. They thought that if Americans were obedient God would bless our land, just as he blessed ancient Israel. That’s why many American Christians love to quote 2 Chronicles 7:14: “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” This is where American exceptionalism, our notion of America as a special, chosen nation originates from.

But if Evans is right about the amillennialism, why don’t we abandon the Puritans (who were a tad preoccupied with being a chosen people)?

The point should be clear to us now—with the coming of the Messiah, the notion of the “promised land” is christologically defined. The promise of “land” is fulfilled concretely in Christ, who rules over the world as God’s kingdom, and his people. A principle of redemptive history is that when God takes something away, he replaces it with something much, much better.

All this should be a warning to us not to identify the Promised Land with any particular nation, or particular piece of real estate. The covenant promises of God regarding land do not apply to America as a nation in covenant with God, or as some sort of new Israel. God’s plans are not going down the tube because of America’s present unfaithfulness. We know that ultimate individual and collective transformation are God’s work that will not be completed until Christ comes again, and that, while real (albeit provisional) successes are at times realized today, this eschatological horizon implies that the ministry of the church is not going to usher in the millennium.


Putting the Ecclesia in The Ecclesial Calvinist

Bill Evans comments on the ongoing fall out surrounding Pete Enns and Westminster Seminary. He sees it as an impasse between two ways of interpreting the Bible — the Christotelic (Enns) and the grammatico-historical (anti-Enns):

What are the characteristics of christotelic interpretation? First, there is a rejection of grammatical-historical interpretation as the only legitimate hermeneutical approach to Scripture. Yes, they say, it is important to understand the biblical text in its original linguistic and historical context, but we can’t stop there. Grammatical-historical interpretation is a creature of modernity, and earlier Christian interpreters were not tied to it—the NT writers sometimes interpret OT texts in ways that likely would not have occurred to Isaiah or Hosea. Also, grammatical-historical interpretation asks what the text would have meant to the original human author, but the Bible is also divinely inspired and our interpretation must take this divine origin and perspective into account as well.

Second, the larger meaning of the text resides in the text as it is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and this meaning is then progressively grasped by the human audience over the course of redemptive history. Here there is particular focus on the Scriptural canon as a whole as the context within which christotelic interpretation takes place.

Finally, all this leads to a programmatic distinction between “first reading” and “second reading.” In the first reading we encounter the text without reference to the conclusion of the story, while in the second reading we see levels of meaning we did not see before precisely because we know how the story ends and how things fit together.

It is not entirely surprising that this approach would be controversial. Proponents of christotelic interpretation have sometimes overstated their case, suggesting that the Old Testament, when interpreted simply according to grammatical-historical method, is not a Christian book. One can understand why some would view this as a denial of the “organic connection” between the OT and the NT and as an example of creeping naturalism. In addition, evangelical Protestants have generally had a rather static view of the text and its meaning as inhering in the intent of the original human author, and grammatical-historical interpretation is often regarded as the normative method of interpretation. Finally, this approach also seems to engage questions of Protestant identity in that grammatical-historical interpretation is often regarded as a hallmark of Protestantism over against Catholic allegorical and sensus plenior approaches.

How, then, shall we characterize the opposing position? First, there is the affirmation of grammatical-historical interpretation as the normative method of biblical interpretation. Thus the meaning of the text resides in the author’s intention.

Second, the grammatical-historical method is redefined so as to remove the Enlightenment emphasis on human autonomy and the resulting exclusion of God from consideration. Thus it is expanded to include divine influence on the human authors’ psychology as legitimate considerations for interpretation. Along this line, grammatical-historical method is also recast to include biblical typology, which is seen as arising intrinsically out of the grammatical-historical meaning of the text.

The odd aspect of this analysis is the idea that Enns and others are somehow adopting an older, premodern understanding of the Bible compared to Enns’ critics who have embraced the Enlightenment. In point of fact, it was largely the theologians and historical theologians who opposed Enns’ views, while Enns and some of his supporters were academically trained at elite universities and thoroughly at home in the very modern and enlightened world of the Society of Biblical Literature.

So if the contrast between old and new academic methods doesn’t explain the controversy, what about the church? Here I’d argue that Enns was not thinking with the church about interpreting the Bible or how to conceive of Scripture while his critics were representing the confessional standards of Reformed churches. Furthermore, if Enns had been thinking with the OPC or the PCA, he likely wouldn’t have written his controversial book. Does that mean that Reformed churches put limits (in a very pre-modern way) on academic freedom? Heck yeah. Which also means that the Enlightenment/pre-modern assessment by Evans doesn’t go very far.

Evans concludes somewhat nostalgically about what this means for WTS:

The institution that I attended in the 1980s was one in which Ray Dillard and Dick Gaffin and Sinclair Ferguson and Harvie Conn and Tremper Longman and Vern Poythress and Philip Edgcumbe Hughes and Clair Davis and Robert Knudsen and Tim Keller and Moises Silva and Roger Greenway and Manny Ortiz and Rick Gamble could get along and work together despite their sometimes considerable differences. That institution is now apparently gone. Of course, nothing stays the same, and perhaps a new context and new challenges demand that lines be drawn more narrowly. It remains to be seen, however, whether a narrower institution can thrive in the current challenging seminary market environment. Furthermore, will it produce scholarship that is meaningful and useful to the broader Christian world rather than catering to the boundary preoccupations of the conservative Reformed subculture?

But Evans doesn’t consider that WTS 2.0 was not WTS 1.0 — the school of Van Til, Murray, Stonehouse, Young, and Kuiper, the school that was decidedly ecclesial in serving the OPC but also achieving an international reputation (at least among Protestants). I don’t think Harvard or Yale were paying much attention to WTS 1.0. But I’m not sure they did to 2.0 either.

Neo-Calvinism's Whiggish W-w

In his piece for Christian Renewal (March 26, 2014) Bill Evans expands on his earlier critique of 2k. And he commits again two important mistakes.

The first is to assert that 2kers identify the church with the kingdom of God. Wrong. 2kers follow the Confession of Faith in identifying the kingdom of Christ with the visible church and — see if you can follow the balls — the kingdom of God is not the same as the kingdom of Christ. If it were, then Saddam Hussein, who was under God’s reign, would have been part of the kingdom of Christ.

Remember how the Confession puts it:

The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. (25.2)

I still remember sitting across a seminar table from solid conservative Presbyterians under the spell of Kuyper who asked me if I really believe that affirmation (even though they had subscribed the Confession).

The second mistake is to say that Calvinism is socially activist in contrast to Lutheranism. Evans writes, despite similarities in the way that Calvin and Luther spoke about two kingdoms, Calvin’s efforts to protect the church from encroachments of the state, and to emphasize the duties that Christians have to the state wind up denying the sort of ecclesiastical independence that results in Luther’s view (even though Lutheran churches were as much part of the political establishment as Reformed).

This difference helps to account for the profound contrast between the passivity toward the state that has characterized much of the Lutheran tradition and the historic pattern of social and political activism evident among Reformed Christians.

And there you have in one sentence a historical verdict on 400 years, as if everyone knows this, as if the Scottish Kirk was all that militant in resisting London, or as if the Dutch churches were any more successful in opposing Hitler than Lutherans were. Just glide right over those complexities and arrive with two thumbs up for Calvinism which gave us the modern world. These Calvinist optimists — who seem to forget that TULIP is not exactly John Locke write large — never seem to calculate that Calvinists never lifted a hand to stop the execution of Servetus or argued against sending Roger Williams into exile.

Aside from Calvinist soteriology, the Confession of Faith and its historical circumstances pose a speed bump to Evans’ whiggish rendering of history where all lines lead to Christian Renewal‘s readers. Of the major confessions from the Reformation era (as far as I know), only Westminster’s has a chapter devoted to Christian liberty, a pretty important concept for those who argue for Calvinism’s influence on modern social and political arrangements. For instance, this is how John Witte understands Calvinism’s contribution to human rights:

The first and most essential rights for early modern Calvinists were religious rights — the rights of the individual believer to enjoy liberty of conscience and free exercise of religion, and the rights of the religious group to enjoy freedom of worship and autonomy of governance. Already in Calvin’s day, the reformers discovered that proper protection of religious rights required protection of several correlative rights as well, particularly as Calvinists found themselves repressed and persecuted as minorities. The rights of the individual to religious conscience and exercise required attendant rights to assemble, speak, worship, evangelize, educate, parent, travel, and more on the basis of their beliefs.(2) John Witte, Jr., The Reformation of Rights)

It would be harder to find a view of freedom of conscience, though thoroughly accepted by moderns, more at odds with the way the Westminster Divines conceived of freedom of conscience, which was for them first and foremost a spiritual reality:

The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and, in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin; from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also, in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love and willing mind. All which were common also to believers under the law. But, under the new testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish church was subjected; and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace, and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of. (20.1)

Unlike the Anabaptists, Quakers, or Roger Williams, freedom of conscience had nothing to do with politics. But for Evans’ understanding of Calvinism’s activist progressive side to make sense, he needs Witte to be right and to ignore what the Westminster Confession says.

And yet, the Westminster Divines, who wrote under the patronage of a Parliament at war with the crown — a sure sign of political activism if you wanted one — refused to let freedom of conscience be a buttress to political ends:

And because the powers which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another, they who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God. And, for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity (whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation), or to the power of godliness; or, such erroneous opinions or practices, as either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing or maintaining them, are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ hath established in the church, they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against, by the censures of the church. (20.4)

Call it Lutheran if you want, but the A2k view of the Reformed tradition relies on a recent construction of Calvinism that has been foisted as the general article.

The Preferred Outlook for Ecclesial Reformed Protestants — You Guessed It

Bill Evans recently wrote about the importance of ecclesiology and made recommendations for seminarians. Nothing wrong with the post except that Evans doesn’t seem to notice that 2kers are the ones who have been arguing for the importance of ecclesiology (as opposed to the Unionists, transformationalists, theonomists, and New Calvinists). My own bona fides (all about me) are Recovering Mother Kirk. So why won’t Evans give 2kers any credit?

Evans writes:

Reasons for the decline of ecclesiology in many mainline churches are not difficult to discern. Much of this can ultimately be traced to the fact that many in these churches bought wholesale into the optimistic Enlightenment notion of the autonomous individual human being. People are basically pretty good, it is thought, and any tendency toward dysfunctional behavior (i.e., what used to be called “sin”) is attributed to the environment. Moreover, these human beings are not answerable to any authority, such as Holy Scripture, higher than themselves. Needless to say, this quickly resulted in the erosion of the Scriptural basis and confessional moorings for church life.

Since human beings are basically OK, the great need is not salvation in the life to come (whatever that may be), but the amelioration of social ills in this present life and the maximizing of individual freedom in every sphere of life, whether or not expressions of that freedom conflict with biblical morality. Historically the church had sought to maintain biblical moral standards for its members, but now there is widespread disagreement as to what even constitutes moral or immoral behavior—hence the current front-page controversies among mainline Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Episcopalians over homosexuality. . . .

While the broader situation is somewhat better in evangelical churches, there is an ecclesiological crisis there as well. To be sure, many American Evangelicals have retained a high view of the Bible’s authority, and of the saving uniqueness of Jesus Christ. For that we must give thanks! But the news is not all good, for various factors have conspired to undercut a vibrant doctrine of the church. A major problem here is that many American Evangelicals have bought into aspects of the broader culture that corrode a biblical doctrine of the church.

Much of this has to do with the reflexive individualism and voluntarism of North American culture generally. Our national consciousness was historically shaped by the frontier experience and by the keen desire to be free from the external constraint of king and Pope. Individual rights are of paramount importance. We begin our thinking with individual rights rather than our responsibilities to the community, an impulse given a great boost by the Enlightenment. All this is no great secret, and was extensively explored by sociologist Robert Bellah and his colleagues in their book Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (1985).

One reason for the decline of ecclesiology among Reformed Protestants is the very understanding of the kingdom of God that Evans uses to criticize 2k. After all, if the kingdom of God is bigger than the church, then Christians can just as likely pursue “kingdom work” through plumbing, baking, teaching (general revelation), and politics. That mindset clearly affected Abraham Kuyper whose involvements as a churchman and worshiper trailed off the more engaged he was in taking every square inch captive.

Evans falls prey to kingdom ambiguity by insisting that Reformed orthodoxy has always taught that God’s kingdom is broader than the church:

. . . on the matter of the relationship between church and kingdom the real issue is not whether the church is the kingdom but whether the visible church and the kingdom are coextensive (as 2K proponents maintain). The recent NT scholarship I referenced maintains, rightly I think, that the church is an aspect of the kingdom of God, but that the kingdom is a reality greater in scope than the church. Hart’s protestations notwithstanding, as far as I can tell none of the major Reformed confessions have definitively pronounced on this key question.

In point of fact, the Reformed confessions and catechisms everywhere teach that God rules all things and then make a separate point, that Christ rules the church in a way distinct from divine providence. How could this not be the case if we are to make sense of the Lord’s Prayer’s second petition, which the Larger Catechism:

In the second petition (which is, Thy kingdom come), acknowledging ourselves and all mankind to be by nature under the dominion of sin and Satan, we pray, that the kingdom of sin and Satan may be destroyed, the gospel propagated throughout the world, the Jews called, the fullness of the Gentiles brought in; the church furnished with all gospel officers and ordinances, purged from corruption, countenanced and maintained by the civil magistrate; that the ordinances of Christ may be purely dispensed, and made effectual to the converting of those that are yet in their sins, and the confirming, comforting, and building up of those that are already converted: that Christ would rule in our hearts here, and hasten the time of his second coming, and our reigning with him forever: and that he would be pleased so to exercise the kingdom of his power in all the world, as may best conduce to these ends. (LC 191)

That is a different kind of rule from this:

God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures; ordering them, and all their actions, to his own glory. (LC 18)

So if Evans is going to ding 2k for making the kingdom of God coextensive with the church (2kers don’t, the kingdom of Christ as redeemer is coextensive with the church), then he needs to pony up his own definition of God’s kingdom and where the church fits. Until that happens, the Ecclesial Calvinist makes more sense as the Kingdom Calvinist. The question is whether he believes in one or two kingdoms.

Persuasion by Innuendo

Bill Evans is baaaaaaaaaack with another dismissive post about 2k. I am not sure why he grinds this ax, though I have ideas. Also, I detect another attempt to tarnish 2kers with unmentioned and unmentionable implications of their position — the guilt by association technique:

We will cheerfully admit that 2K advocates have some legitimate concerns, particularly that the mission and witness of the church not be hijacked by political and cultural agendas. But in this instance the cure is worse than the disease. While 2K theology may well scratch the itch of Christians who need a theological excuse to remain silent in current cultural conflicts, it is both less than biblical and less than faithful to the decided weight of the Reformed tradition.

Evans shows that he still does not understand 2k. Plenty of 2kers talk about law and politics. The point is for the church only to speak or declare what God has revealed, and in the case of gay marriage, for instance, the Bible does teach what marriage, and that Israel and the church are to enforce biblical norms. But Scripture does not say what a constitutional republic’s marriage policy is supposed to be.

And this gets to the heart of the disagreement — not to mention where Evans not only fails to understand 2k but also the Reformed tradition. If the entire world is Christ’s kingdom, then we would expect all lawful authorities to enforce God’s revealed will. But the Bible tells us quite clearly that the entire world is not Christ’s kingdom — the world consists of believers and unbelievers. The Bible also tells us — contrary to mid-twentieth-century western foreign policy — that Israel no longer exists as the covenant people. The church is now the new Israel, and the church does not have temporal jurisdiction. That means that the church transcends national borders and magistrates’ rule. In other words, what goes on in the church is different from what goes on in the state — the state of Russia, the state of Canada, the state of Japan. Christian’s should expect the church to practice God’s law. But whether Christians should expect non-Christian governments to enforce God’s law upon people who do not fear God is a very complicated question.

The problem is that Evans fudges this very question when he says — in direct contradiction of the Confession of Faith:

. . . the kingdom of God and the institutional church are wrongly equated by 2K advocates. There is a rough consensus among New Testament scholars that the kingdom of God is a much more comprehensive reality than the institutional church, and this misidentification of the church and the kingdom has all sorts of unfortunate results, such as confusion over the nature of “kingdom work” and the silencing of Christians from speaking to societal issues.

Well, how would Evans rewrite this if he considered what the Confession — pre-1788 revision — does say?

The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. (25.2)

That’s not exactly the same thing as the kingdom of God. But when the Confession goes on to say — again, pre-1788 revision, “Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto, (25.3), it is saying that the kingdom of Christ and the visible church are doing something distinct from what the state or magistrate does — “the defense and encouragement of them that are good, and for the punishment of evildoers” (23.1). And this distinction between the spiritual nature of Christ’s kingdom (remember “my kingdom is not of this world” anyone?) and the temporal nature of the state’s rule, also explains why the Confession (pre-1788 revision again!) says the church should stay out of the state’s bee’s wax:

Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate. (31.4)

So the notion that 2k is outside the Reformed tradition on the nature of Christ’s kingdom is wrong.

In fact, those who expand the kingdom the way that Evans does under the influence of either Kuyper’s every-square-inchism or Finney’s millenialism are the ones who are outside the Reformed tradition and who threaten the gospel. And this goes to the heart of what animates 2k — a desire to preserve the integrity of the gospel and the church’s witness by not identifying the gospel or Christian witness with matters that are not Christian or redemptive but are common or related to general revelation. Once you begin to expand the kingdom as Evans so glibly does, you wind up doing what Protestant liberals did when they attributed to economics or agriculture or medicine on the mission field redemptive significance or what Social Gospelers did when they identified Progressive policies as signs of the coming of the kingdom. Only the church has the keys of the kingdom and all the Reformed confessions state explicitly that the magistrate may not hold them.

That means that the kingdom of Christ comes through the ministry of the church, not through the administration of the state or the advancement of Western Civilization or the building of the metropolis. Preaching and the sacraments establish the spiritual kingdom, not Broadway, the Tea Party, or a Supreme Court ruling.

Does this mean that 2kers agree with Calvin, Beza, or the Divines on the nature of the magistrate? No 2ker has said that they do. But we have it on good revised confessional authority that the Reformed churches no longer believe about the magistrate what the sixteenth and seventeenth-century Reformed pastors and theologians did. That change is not a minority position only held by 2kers. Proponents of 2k along with all the NAPARC churches, for instance, do not believe that the magistrate should enforce both tables of the law. Surprise!

But the question for the likes of Evans is whether (if he believes that the magistrate should shut down Mormon Temples and Roman Catholic basilicas) the state is actually establishing God’s kingdom. Calvin and the Divines did not believe that politics (or medicine or higher education or New York City) has “the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints.” Only the church has this power and ministry.

And that is why 2kers are so insistent on the dangers of transformationalism in whatever guise it comes. It attributes to human activities other than the church, no matter how good or legitimate they may be, transformative powers that Scripture gives only to the church and her ministry of word and sacrament.

So I wish Bill Evans in future comments on 2k would consider the weakness in his own understanding of Reformed Protestantism, not to mention the dangers that come from confusing the spiritual and temporal spheres.

Postscript: Evans also needs to give up the Lutheran-vs.-Calvinist mantra, at least when it comes to politics. One of the arresting parts of John Witte’s argument in The Reformation of Rights (a fairly whiggish and neo-Calvinist rendering of Calvinist resistance theory) is that Calvinists learned resistance from Lutherans: “It is significant that Beza cited the Magdeburg Confession (1550) as his ‘signal example’ of how to respond to political abuse and tyranny. For the Magdeburg Confession was a major distillation of the most advanced Lutheran resistance theories of the day, which the Calvinist tradition absorbed. (106)”

If I Were Bishop

Bill Evans has some thoughts he thinks appropriate for the Advent Season:

From what antecedents does POEC [Paleo-orthodox ecclesial Calvinism] draw? POEC finds much to appreciate in the seminal work of John Calvin, but it is a critical and contextual reading of Calvin. This is no simplistic effort to pit “Calvin against the later Calvinists” (as some have recently alleged). Rather, it recognizes that the Reformed tradition has always been diverse and that realism in the trajectory of Calvin has always had its exponents. We also find much to ponder in critical appropriations (as opposed to mere parroting or repristinating) of Jonathan Edwards in the eighteenth century, John W. Nevin of Mercersburg, James Henley Thornwell and John B. Adger of Columbia, and W. G. T. Shedd in the nineteenth, and Geerhardus Vos, Thomas F. Torrance of Scotland, and Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. in the twentieth.

Since none of the figures mentioned, with the exception possibly of Torrance, would have countenanced Advent (not sure where Gaffin stands), Evans’ construction of a Protestant tradition looks fairly arbitrary.

Of course, Evans is not alone in this. Peter Leithart is similarly episcopal in his theological creativity. Meanwhile, Jason and the Callers concoct a Roman Catholic tradition that defies what their own bishops tolerate or enforce.

The fix for Christians who want to be ecclesial is not to abstract ecclesial Christianity (whether Roman Catholic or Protestant) from an actual church. It is, instead, to identify with the communion to which you belong. If you want your own communion to be more ecclesial, seek its ecclesial health on its own terms. (Serve as an officer, shovel the sidewalks, prepare traybakes for pot luck suppers, call attention to your communion’s own ecclesiology.)

For Calvinists, this should also include remembering basic Reformed Protestant objections to church calendars:

The Time Necessary for Worship. Although religion is not bound to time, yet it cannot be cultivated and exercised without a proper distribution and arrangement of time. Every Church, therefore, chooses for itself a certain time for public prayers, and for the preaching of the Gospel, and for the celebration of the sacraments; and no one is permitted to overthrow this appointment of the Church at his own pleasure. For unless some due time and leisure is given for the outward exercise of religion, without doubt men would be drawn away from it by their own affairs.

The Lord’s Day. Hence we see that in the ancient churches there were not only certain set hours in the week appointed for meetings, but that also the Lord’s Day itself, ever since the apostles’ time, was set aside for them and for a holy rest, a practice now rightly preserved by our Churches for the sake of worship and love.

Superstition. In this connection we do not yield to the Jewish observance and to superstitions. For we do not believe that one day is any holier than another, or think that rest in itself is acceptable to God. Moreover, we celebrate the Lord’s Day and not the Sabbath as a free observance.

The Festivals of Christ and the Saints. Moreover, if in Christian liberty the churches religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord’s nativity, circumcision, passion, resurrection, and of his ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, we approve of it highly. But we do not approve of feasts instituted for men and for saints. Holy days have to do with the first Table of the Law and belong to God alone. Finally, holy days which have been instituted for the saints and which we have abolished, have much that is absurd and useless, and are not to be tolerated. In the meantime, we confess that the remembrance of saints, at a suitable time and place, is to be profitably commended to the people in sermons, and the holy examples of the saints set forth to be imitated by all. (Second Helvetic Confession, 24)

Seasons farewells.

Still Trying to Figure Out Reformed Protestantism

Bill Evans may or not be responding to the post here about C2k, but he has written a rejoinder to Kevin DeYoung’s mild raising of questions about transformationalism. The gist is this: how can you maintain the spirituality of the church and continue to affirm and practice diaconal ministry (as if the diaconate in Acts 6 was the hinge on which the church’s transformation of society turned — talk about blurring categories). In Evans own words:

Historically, Christians have seen in the Mosaic Law, the ministry of the Old Testament prophets, and in Jesus’ own wholistic ministry both the mandate and model for diaconal ministry and the care of the poor. They have taken the Apostle Paul seriously when he said, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10).

. . . I can’t help but wonder what is driving these overly spiritualized conceptions of the church’s ministry. Why has this spiritual vs. temporal dichotomy (which as we have seen is open to question) gotten so much traction? I have noticed that those who speak in these terms often evince a laudable concern to protect the church from agendas and distractions that are inconsistent with the church’s fundamental mission. The real question here is the nature of that mission.

Is Evans really trying to imply that the “wholistic” ministry of the diaconate is the basis for founding Christian labor unions, Christian schools, creating Christian sit-coms? His post does seem to resort to that John Framean mental tick of taking certain outward similarities of two things (drama and preaching) and turning overlap into a justification for everything (liturgical drama). However Evans wants to use diaconal ministry for “wholistic” ends, Reformed churches like the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (the communion of one of Evans’ favorite theologians, Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.) have had no trouble maintaining the spiritual character of the church’s power and ministry while also carrying out deeds of mercy:

The spirituality of the church:

2. Those who join in exercising ecclesiastical jurisdiction are the ministers of the Word or teaching elders, and other church governors, commonly called ruling elders. They alone must exercise this authority by delegation from Christ, since according to the New Testament these are the only permanent officers of the church with gifts for such rule. Ruling elders and teaching elders join in congregational, presbyterial, and synodical assemblies, for those who share gifts for rule from Christ must exercise these gifts jointly not only in the fellowship of the saints in one place but also for the edification of all the saints in larger areas so far as they are appointed thereto in an orderly manner, and are acknowledged by the saints as those set over them in the Lord.

Government by presbyters or elders is a New Testament ordinance; their joint exercise of jurisdiction in presbyterial assemblies is set forth in the New Testament; and the organization of subordinate and superior courts is founded upon and agreeable to the Word of God, expressing the unity of the church and the derivation of ministerial authority from Christ the Head of the church.

3. All church power is only ministerial and declarative, for the Holy Scriptures are the only infallible rule of faith and practice. No church judicatory may presume to bind the conscience by making laws on the basis of its own authority; all its decisions should be founded upon the Word of God. “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship” (Confession of Faith, Chapter XX, Section 2).

4. All church power is wholly moral or spiritual. No church officers or judicatories possess any civil jurisdiction; they may not inflict any civil penalties nor may they seek the aid of the civil power in the exercise of their jurisdiction further than may be necessary for civil protection and security. (BCO, ch. 3)

The diaconate:

1. The Scriptures designate the office of deacon as distinct d perpetual in the church. Deacons are called to show forth the compassion of Christ in a manifold ministry of mercy toward the saints and strangers on behalf of the church. To this end they exercise, in the fellowship of the church, a recognized stewardship of care and of gifts for those in need or distress. This service is distinct from that of rule in the church. (BCO ch. 11)

Of course, if Evans wants to return to the social conditions that made diaconal “wholism” possible, as in state churches that had a monopoly on religious life and excluded dissenters, heretics, and schismatics, it is a free country. But if he is going to hold any contemporary Reformed church to a pre-1789 standard, he will need to make his Erastian leanings clear.

C2K (hint, confessional)

While Kevin DeYoung summons James Bannerman to help Bill Evans figure out 2k, I will once again appeal to the doctrinal standards of the Reformed churches. Evans summarizes the “cash value” of 2k as follows:

I think the basics can be summarized as follows: (1) There are two realms [or Kingdoms]—a. the world, which is governed by creational wisdom/natural law, and b. the Church, which is shaped and governed by the Gospel. (2) There is no distinctively “Christian worldview” that is to be applied to all of life (i.e., no Christian-worldview perspective on politics, economics, etc.). (3) Christian efforts to transform or redeem society will inevitably fail, and the ministry of the Church is exclusively spiritual in nature.

Since Evans’ summary received scholarly blessing on Facebook (always a reliable theological resource), he felt comfortable proceeding to register three complaints against 2k, all of which he also needs to take to the Reformed churches that confess either the Westminster Standards or the Three Forms of Unity:

“First, there is a failure to understand the nature of the Kingdom of God. More specifically, the institutional Church is wrongly equated with the Kingdom.”

As an accommodated Reformed Protestant living under Dutch neo-Calvinist hegemony, Evans goes on to appeal to the “seminal” Herman Ridderbos to show that the kingdom is bigger than the church. Maybe, but that is not what Evans’ communion, the OPC, or the PCA confess:

The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. (25.2)

I don’t blame Evans for being confused on this one. I still have vivid memories of a conference in Colorado where I presented a paper on the spirituality of the church and appealed to the confession on the visible church only to receive questions from two notable ministers (one from the OPC, one from the PCA) about whether I really believed this. The influence of Ridderbos has been so great that we Presbyterians no longer believe that we confess.

“Second, 2K theology persistently evinces a radical dualism in its understanding of the relationship between creation and redemption. There is a denial of any real continuity or carryover from the old creation to the new.”

Perhaps Evans doesn’t remember the split in 1937 between the Bible and Orthodox Presbyterians, but one of the controverted points concerned whether the church would tolerate a variety of views about the millennium. The OPC came down on the side of eschatological liberty, and opted to require only the language of the Confession of Faith. The last two chapters of the Confession (32 and 33) are completely silent about the relationship between the existing creation and glorification, other than to affirm that bodies will be resurrected and judged, with believers going “into everlasting life, and receiv[ing] that fullness of joy and refreshing, which shall come from the presence of the Lord” and the “wicked who know not God, and obey not the gospel of Jesus Christ, . . . be[ing] cast into eternal torments, and . . .punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power.”

If Evans wants to argue for a confessional amendment that would require postmillenialism, he is free to do so. But he is wrong to argue that 2k is somehow outside the bounds of Reformed orthodoxy, unless he wants to define that narrowly — and dare I say provincially — with a certain strain of extra-confessional Reformed Protestantism.

“Third (and most important), there seems to be at work in 2K a real skepticism about any sort of intrinsic transformation—personal or corporate. In an earlier post on this topic I noted that there is “a connection between personal transformation, or individual soteriology, and corporate transformation, and battle lines on the question of individual soteriology have been sharply drawn more recently.” Related to this, there is in 2K a persistently disjunctive impulse—separating sanctification and justification, Law and Gospel (another Lutheran distinctive), the transformatory and the forensic, the kingdom of the world and the institutional Church.”

Again, Evans holds 2k up to a standard that may have an informal consensus (not here of course) but that has no confessional standing among the Reformed churches. For instance, nowhere do the Reformed confessions or catechisms state or imply that sanctification of the person leads to transformation of society:

1. They, who are once effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart, and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, by his Word and Spirit dwelling in them: the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified; and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.

2. This sanctification is throughout, in the whole man; yet imperfect in this life, there abiding still some remnants of corruption in every part; whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.

3. In which war, although the remaining corruption, for a time, may much prevail; yet, through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part doth overcome; and so, the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. (Confession of Faith, 16)

Evans may think that sanctified saints (pardon the redundancy) will make the world a better place, but the confession only speaks of the “whole man” not the whole world.

Meanwhile, he trots out once again the Niebuhrian boilerplate on Lutheranism and Christ and culture (was ever a liberal Protestant ever followed so carefully?), and fails to remember what the Heidelberg Catechism says about law and gospel:

Question 3. Whence knowest thou thy misery?

Answer: Out of the law of God.

Question 4. What does the law of God require of us?

Answer: Christ teaches us that briefly, Matt. 22:37-40, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and the great commandment; and the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Question 5. Canst thou keep all these things perfectly?

Answer: In no wise; for I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbour. . . .

Question 14. Can there be found anywhere, one, who is a mere creature, able to satisfy for us?

Answer: None; for, first, God will not punish any other creature for the sin which man has committed; and further, no mere creature can sustain the burden of God’s eternal wrath against sin, so as to deliver others from it.

Question 18. Who then is that Mediator, who is in one person both very God, and a real righteous man?

Answer: Our Lord Jesus Christ: “who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.

Question 19. Whence knowest thou this?

Answer: From the holy gospel, which God himself first revealed in Paradise; and afterwards published by the patriarchs and prophets, and represented by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law; and lastly, has fulfilled it by his only begotten Son.

Question 21. What is true faith?

Answer: True faith is not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in his word, but also an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel in my heart; that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness and salvation, are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.

One of the more curious features of the current debate over 2k is that it comes from folks in the orbit of Dutch Calvinism, a variety of Reformed Protestantism that was arguably the least hostile to Lutheranism of the major branches of Reformed and Presbyterian churches. Indeed, Heidelberg has the law-gospel dynamic woven into its teaching. But that won’t stop 2k critics from the philosophical parochialism that searches for a version of Calvinism that is intellectually self-contained and pure. Sometimes that urge for purity is so strong that 2k’s critics even forget to check what the Reformed churches confessed and continue to confess.

Maybe the churches were wrong. We have ways of amending the confessions since we don’t believe in infallible popes or churches inerrant. But if neo-Calvinists were to claim that the Reformed churches erred on the kingdom of Christ, or eschatology, or sanctification, then their argument that 2k is outside the mainstream would put them a good stone’s throw from that stream. Confessionalist, confess thyself.

The Value of Keller's Stock

Bill Evans’ piece on the decline of conservative Reformed Protestantism has been making the rounds and it raises an important question about the better and worse times in church history. He starts by noting that conservative Presbyterians are not as influential as they once were:

A while back my friend Anthony Bradley posted an insightful and provocative blog piece asking why the popular influence of conservative Presbyterians prominent a few decades back (e.g., Jim Boice, R. C. Sproul, Sinclair Ferguson, and John Frame) seems to have waned in comparison to Baptists of a broadly Reformed soteriological persuasion. I posted an extended comment at the time, and thought I would expand on it here.

There are at least two big issues in play—the Baptistic Reformed success as driven by institutions (e.g., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the Founders’ Movement) and gifted individuals (e.g., Don Carson, Al Mohler, Mark Dever, Mark Driscoll) on the one hand, and the apparent Presbyterian decline on the other. As a Presbyterian I’m not particularly well equipped to comment on the first, but I think I have something to offer about the second.

Of course, the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition has been declining as a percentage of the American population since the nineteenth century. But statistics available in resources like ARDA and the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches indicate that some of the NAPARC denominations are plateaued or in decline. This is worrisome, and the reasons are doubtless complex, having to do with social as well as theological factors. Below are five general observations from the “for what it’s worth department.”

Matt Tuininga agrees and disagrees:

Evans describes the commitment of many Presbyterians to an increasingly rigid, or fundamentalist understanding of the authority of Scripture. He also worries about an exaggerated confidence in the ability of confessions to productively shape (or leverage?) Scriptural interpretation. When our obsession is with preserving our own micro-traditions, pale imitations of a once great theological and ecclesiastical stream, the temptation is overwhelming to manipulate Scripture for our own purposes, ignoring the difference between the Word and human interpretation of that Word. When we have an exaggerated understanding of the exhaustive significance of 16th and 17th century confessions designed with 16th and 17th century problems in mind, our theology, preaching, and church life quickly become more like artifacts in a museum than like the faithful witness of Christ’s church in 21st century America.

No doubt things are not quite as bleak as this blog post might suggest. And neither Evans nor I are suggesting that Reformed believers abandon the authority of Scripture or vigorous allegiance to our confessions. The problem is not with historic Reformed theology at all, per se. But what Evans seems to be suggesting, and if so, I agree with him, is that the church needs to reexamine whether a tragic preoccupation with tradition and with the forms, practices, and controversies of the past is actually undermining the authority of Scripture, the role for which our confessions were historically intended, and our faithful witness in the present. One thing seems clear. In terms of size, influence, and prospects, the Reformed tradition is, and has been for quite some time, in serious decline. We have a lot of soul-searching to do.

One item worth highlighting, as the title of the post indicates, is that despite the amazing popularity of TKNY in conservative Presbyterian circles, Tim Keller cannot make up for the presence that the likes of Jim Boice and R. C. Sproul projected and still project. It could be that associations with The Gospel Coalition so water down Keller’s Presbyterian identity that his influence from deep within one of the largest, most media-saturated, and wealthiest cities in the history of redemption cannot make up for the sheer doctrinal firepower of the old regulars at the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology.

The bigger aspect here, though, is how to assess the relative strength of Reformed Protestantism, whether thirty years ago, three hundred years ago, or today. The present is always the hardest to assess. What lasts is seldom known now. (It looks like the Harlem Shake has surpassed Gangnam Style. What a shame.) So making projections about the health of Reformed Protestantism based on contemporary observations is inadvisable.

When it comes to thirty years ago, it is possible to argue as I did in Between the Times that at least one conservative Presbyterian communion is doing better than it was. But the study of church history should always breed sobriety rather than enthusiasm. This is not because the history of Christianity is one long story of decline. It is instead because in the case of Reformed Protestant history, the Reformed churches have always faced an uphill battle. In fact, when the churches were at their most influential (the Free Church of Scotland, the Reformed Church of the Netherlands [GKN], or even the PCUSA), they were generally the most mixed they ever were. It is the nature of any organization, even spiritual ones, that when they become large, they also become fat.

In which case, it is interesting to notice that when they were turning heads thirty years ago, Boice and Sproul were still ministers in the mainline (not conservative) Presbyterian Church, which was hardly the strongest platform from which to lead a recovery of Reformed teaching and ministry.

I myself am not sure where conservative Presbyterianism is headed. I do hold to the view that the healthiest path for conservative Presbyterianism is not celebrity speakers and theologians but churches where worship is lean, teaching confessional, and government procedural. Slow and steady many not win the race. But in the eternal life race, finishing is pretty good.

The Etiquette and Manners of Worship

Bill Evans, one of the new bloggers on the block at Baptists and Presbyterians Together (also known as the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals), seems to have an issue with a point I made some time ago when I contrasted the arguments of John Frame and Hughes Oliphant Old on worship. Here is how Evans describes my point:

Hart in essence asked the question of why some Reformed theological “conservatives” can be so “liberal” on worship while those further to the left theologically are often so “conservative” on matters liturgical. His test case is a comparison of PCA teaching elder John Frame’s Worship in Spirit and Truth (P&R, 1996) and PCUSA worship scholar Hughes Oliphant Old’s Worship That Is Reformed according to Scripture (John Knox, 1984). As Hart puts it, “In the ‘liberal’ PCUSA, if Old’s book is any indication, the traditional elements and rites of historic Reformed liturgy are firmly in place. But in the ‘conservative’ PCA, using Frame as a guide, the conventional pieces of Reformed worship are in flux.” A bit later, Hart contends, “If sideline Presbyterian denominations such as the PCA and the OPC were as conservative about the Reformed tradition as they regard themselves, then we would expect Old’s book to have come from a PCA or an OPC minister and to have been published by a conservative Presbyterian press. Moreover, if the mainline Presbyterian denomination was as liberal as its conservative detractors insist, then it would make more sense for Frame’s book to have come from a PCUSA officer and publishing house. Yet the opposite is the case. The conservatives have turned modernist, if by modernism we mean the self-conscious adaptation of the faith to modern times. Just as unlikely, the modernists have become the chief defenders of the historic Reformed faith, at least in its liturgical aspects, against efforts to preserve the kernel while refashioning a modern husk.”

Evans explanation for the difference between the “conservative” Frame and the “liberal” Old differs from mine. I had written that evangelical Presbyterians like Frame, motivated by evangelism and biblicism, could turn a blind eye to formal considerations in worship, such as the fitting modes of expressing praise, gratitude, Christian truth, etc. Evans counters that a better account may be aesthetics – in mainline churches where upper-class Protestants worship, choirs and organs are more acceptable than in evangelical churches. But because evangelicals hold on to the importance of evangelism and the authority of Scripture, Evans is willing to put up with the tackiness that sometimes comes with evangelical worship.

In short, is the real problem for some conservative Reformed champions of “traditional worship” that a lot of evangelical worship is, by upper-middle-class standards, a bit tacky? Given an unhappy choice between holding on to the gospel and the authority of Scripture on the one hand and aesthetically pleasing traditional Reformed worship on the other, the issue for me is clear. Why strain a liturgical gnat and swallow a theological camel? Fortunately, that is a false dichotomy, a choice that need not be made.

I don’t know if Evans thinks I favor traditional worship because it is not tacky. Since he uses me to make his point he may think so. So let me be clear. Organs are no more acceptable in worship than guitars. Worship should not follow the ethos of the concert hall any more than it should conform to the feel of a rock concert or television show. In fact, Reformed worship of the Genevan and Scottish kind, when the only music was unaccompanied psalm-singing, avoided the elite idiom of chamber music and would have no trouble rejecting the I-love-Jesus ballads of P&W. Reformed worship actually attempted a cultural idiom that was unique to the task of worshiping God. It was a form of expression set apart for the people of God. This worship could still be beautiful even if austerely simple. According to Evelyn Underhill, for Calvin the abiding reality of worship was “God’s unspeakable Majesty and Otherness, and the nothingness and simplicity of man.” For this reason, “No ceremonial acts or gestures were permitted. No hymns were sung but those derived from a Biblical source. The bleak stripped interior of the real Calvinist church is itself sacramental; a witness to the inadequacy of the human over against the divine.”

The theological rationale for this simplicity came at least with the reasoning of the Westminster Divines when they wrote:

Under the gospel, when Christ, the substance, was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper: which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the new testament. There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations. (7.6)

In which case, pipe organs are no more beautiful than guitars, and upper-, middle-, and lower-class aesthetics have no standing in “traditional” Reformed worship. The reason has everything to do with the theology of the Lord’s Day, when Christians assemble with all the angels and heavenly hosts at Mount Zion in the presence of Christ and offer up their petitions and praise and hear their Lord speak in the word read and preached. Worship is not about earthly but heavenly aesthetics.

And that has a lot to do with why Oliphant is a better guide to Reformed worship than Frame. If worship is a meeting between the king of the universe and his subjects, then would that encounter be reverent and serious or would it be casual and folksy – even humorous? That seems like a perfectly obvious question. But because the Bible does not apparently address questions of style, but is only concerned about the content of worship, for evangelicals as long as a service has correct doctrine its tone can assume a variety of cultural idioms, hip-hop, exclusive psalmody, 1950s, or P&W – they are all the same. (Which is a pretty remarkable argument coming from some who think the Bible teaches how we are going to transform the secular culture. We can be certain of cultural standards for pagans and Christians in New York City but be cultural relativists for Presbyterians and Baptists in worship? Oy vey!)

Forms matter. Forms should, as Paul taught in Titus 2, fit sound doctrine. How informality, breeziness, or vulgarity befit sound doctrine, I’ll never know. But if someone has a clue about civility and manners, and why talking on a cell phone loudly in a public place is inappropriate (but maybe not a sin), he or she may have a pretty good sense why worship that does not reinforce the holiness and transcendence and authority of the God they serve is not becoming to Reformed Protestantism.