Luxury Denominations

Paul Helm took time to review/respond to On Being Reformed, the public debate between some Baptists (and others who aspire to be Reformed) Reformed Protestants who still hold either to the Three Forms of Unity or the Westminster Standards (yes, with revisions about the magistrate ALREADY!). Along the way, Helm makes an observation that has something to do with differences between the US and the UK.

This debate has smothered a different approach, that of verstehen, of ‘smelling the coffee’. It is one thing to argue the (false) claim that our confessions of faith have remained unchanged since the Reformation, another wonderful thing to live by their gracious doctrines. With others, to rejoice in the privilege of being ‘in Christ’. As already stated, it is a singular, remarkable providence that three of our English confessions are word for word almost identical in Reformed soteriology, including the classic catholic trinitarian and incarnational positions. We could therefore unite here, and encourage each other thereby, even strengthening our grasp of our respective confessions, like ironing sharpening iron. Is that not a distinctive form of Reformed religion, whether or not we are credobaptist or paedobaptist, even if different in our ecclesiology and in the administration of baptism. At a time when the faith is increasingly under threat, and our family life as Christians is being undermined, and as there are various popular distortions as well as ancient heresies freely peddled, to have the strengthening of distinctive Christian fellowship is a traditional activity that should outweigh our marginal confessional differences. Perhaps fostering such fellowship requires a little more social ostracism, and perhaps that will come.

As I understand it, in the UK, Calvinistic Protestants don’t have the luxury of forming separate denominations the way American Protestants do. Whether it stems from laws having to do with the established church and dissenting groups, or the small number of serious minded Protestants who regard John Calvin, John Knox, and John Owen highly, British Protestantism has fewer possibilities and resources than Protestants in the land of the free and home of the brave. Here, despite the OPC’s tiny size (don’t snicker), the United States has made Christians (and other believers) wealthier and has provided structures (or lack of them) that makes easier the challenge of establishing new institutions (congregations, denominations, schools, colleges, seminaries).

That may not make America great, but it does indicate that the US is different from the UK and the old world.

The difference that the United States makes for religion is even evident among American Jews. The Pew Research Forum conducted a survey of Jews in the US and Israel that indicates some of the differences that place and nation make for religion. Consider the following:

American Jews are a highly educated and, on the whole, warmly regarded religious minority in a very large, Christian-majority country. Jews represent about 2% of the U.S. adult population of roughly 300 million people. Only about one-third of American Jews say that either “all” (5%) or “most” (27%) of their close friends are Jewish. A substantial proportion (44%) of U.S. Jews who are married say their spouse is not Jewish – including a majority of those who have gotten married since 2000.

By contrast, Jews make up about 80% of Israel’s adult population of 8 million. The vast majority of Israeli Jews say that either all (67%) or most (31%) of their close friends are Jewish, and nearly all married Jews in Israel have Jewish spouses. There’s also very little conversion between major religious groups in Israel, while in the United States, religious switching is remarkably common, including many U.S. adults who have drifted away from organized religion altogether. In our 2013 survey, one out of every five Jewish Americans said they do not identify with any religion, even though they also said they had at least one Jewish parent or were raised Jewish, and they consider themselves Jewish in other ways aside from religion (such as culturally or ethnically). In Israel, by contrast, nearly all Jews say their religion is Judaism.

Or this:

Most American Jews are part of organized Jewish denominations or “streams,” which include the relatively large Reform and Conservative movements as well as Orthodox Judaism. In Israel, only about 5% of Jews identify as either Reform or Conservative. Instead, Jews in Israel generally place themselves into one of four informal categories of Jewish religious identity. These labels – Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), Dati (religious), Masorti (traditional) and Hiloni (secular) – are not connected to formal Jewish organizations or denominations, but instead are loose identity groups (similar, for example, to an American Christian calling herself an “evangelical” rather than a “Southern Baptist”).

Even better, watch part of the short interview with the Israeli woman who married an American Orthodox rabbi.

America is weird and that means we have the luxury of reading the confessions in ways that other Protestants do not or cannot.

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Forensic Friday: Reformed and Lutherans Make Music

Reformed Protestants these days tend to be absorbed with the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards and for good reason. These are the confessions of most extant Reformed and Presbyterian communions. But as the current project of Jim Dennison indicates, the confessional output of Protestantism was vast and many of the Reformed churches’ oldest creeds remain unknown.

One creedal endeavor that has received almost no scrutiny was the Harmony of Confessions, published in 1581 in Geneva. It was an effort by Zanchi and Ursinus, called by German electors, to reflect the unity of Protestants in Europe by publishing parts from eleven confessions – Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican. These included: the Augsburg Confession (1530), Tetrapolitan (1530), Basel (1534), the First (1536) and Second (1566) Helvetic Confessions, Saxony (1551), Wirtemberg (1552), Gallican (1559), the Belgic (1561), the Thirty-Nine Articles (1562), and Bohemia (1573).

Philip Benedict concedes that the Harmony was a more hopeful than a realistic expression of Protestant unity. But he adds that it was “one example of the conviction of many Reformed that the bonds of brotherhood ought to encompass the Lutheran churches as well. Those who had taken part in Lutheran services were allowed to attend the Lord’s Supper at Geneva without undergoing the rite of public contrition required of those who had attended a Catholic mass; and the French Reformed decided in 1631 to admit visiting Lutherans to their communion services without impediment, asserting that the churches of the Augsburg Confession agree with ‘the other Reformed churches’ on the fundamental points of true religion.” This magnanimity came despite the constant bluster and huffiness of Gnesio Lutherans.

One of the sections of Augsburg that the Harmony included was article twenty, Of Good Works:

Our teachers are falsely accused of forbidding Good Works. For their published writings on the Ten Commandments, and others of like import, bear witness that they have taught to good purpose concerning all estates and duties of life, as to what estates of life and what works in every calling be pleasing to God. Concerning these things preachers heretofore taught but little, and urged only childish and needless works, as particular holy-days, particular fasts, brotherhoods, pilgrimages, services in honor of saints, the use of rosaries, monasticism, and such like. Since our adversaries have been admonished of these things, they are now unlearning them, and do not preach these unprofitable works as heretofore. Besides, they begin to mention faith, of which there was heretofore marvelous silence. They teach that we are justified not by works only, but they conjoin faith and works, and say that we are justified by faith and works. This doctrine is more tolerable than the former one, and can afford more consolation than their old doctrine.

Forasmuch, therefore, as the doctrine concerning faith, which ought to be the chief one in the Church, has lain so long unknown, as all must needs grant that there was the deepest silence in their sermons concerning the righteousness of faith, while only the doctrine of works was treated in the churches, our teachers have instructed the churches concerning faith as follows:—

First, that our works cannot reconcile God or merit forgiveness of sins, grace, and justification, but that we obtain this only by faith when we believe that we are received into favor for Christ’s sake, who alone has been set forth the Mediator and Propitiation, 1 Tim. 2:5, in order that the Father may be reconciled through Him. Whoever, therefore, trusts that by works he merits grace, despises the merit and grace of Christ, and seeks a way to God without Christ, by human strength, although Christ has said of Himself: I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. John 14:6.

This doctrine concerning faith is everywhere treated by Paul, Eph. 2:8: By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of your selves; it is the gift of God, not of works, etc.

And lest any one should craftily say that a new interpretation of Paul has been devised by us, this entire matter is supported by the testimonies of the Fathers. For Augustine, in many volumes, defends grace and the righteousness of faith, over against the merits of works. And Ambrose, in his De Vocatione Gentium, and elsewhere, teaches to like effect. For in his De Vocatione Gentium he says as follows: Redemption by the blood of Christ would become of little value, neither would the preeminence of man’s works be superseded by the mercy of God, if justification, which is wrought through grace, were due to the merits going before, so as to be, not the free gift of a donor, but the reward due to the laborer.

But, although this doctrine is despised by the inexperienced, nevertheless God-fearing and anxious consciences find by experience that it brings the greatest consolation, because consciences cannot be set at rest through any works, but only by faith, when they take the sure ground that for Christ’s sake they have a reconciled God. As Paul teaches Rom. 5:1: Being justified by faith, we have peace with God. This whole doctrine is to be referred to that conflict of the terrified conscience, neither can it be understood apart from that conflict. Therefore inexperienced and profane men judge ill concerning this matter, who dream that Christian righteousness is nothing but civil and philosophical righteousness.

Heretofore consciences were plagued with the doctrine of works, they did not hear the consolation from the Gospel. Some persons were driven by conscience into the desert, into monasteries hoping there to merit grace by a monastic life. Some also devised other works whereby to merit grace and make satisfaction for sins. Hence there was very great need to treat of, and renew, this doctrine of faith in Christ, to the end that anxious consciences should not be without consolation but that they might know that grace and forgiveness of sins and justification are apprehended by faith in Christ.

Men are also admonished that here the term “faith” does not signify merely the knowledge of the history, such as is in the ungodly and in the devil, but signifies a faith which believes, not merely the history, but also the effect of the history—namely, this article: the forgiveness of sins, to wit, that we have grace, righteousness, and forgiveness of sins through Christ.

Now he that knows that he has a Father gracious to him through Christ, truly knows God; he knows also that God cares for him, and calls upon God; in a word, he is not without God, as the heathen. For devils and the ungodly are not able to believe this article: the forgiveness of sins. Hence, they hate God as an enemy, call not upon Him, and expect no good from Him. Augustine also admonishes his readers concerning the word “faith,” and teaches that the term “faith” is accepted in the Scriptures not for knowledge such as is in the ungodly but for confidence which consoles and encourages the terrified mind.

Furthermore, it is taught on our part that it is necessary to do good works, not that we should trust to merit grace by them, but because it is the will of God. It is only by faith that forgiveness of sins is apprehended, and that, for nothing. And because through faith the Holy Ghost is received, hearts are renewed and endowed with new affections, so as to be able to bring forth good works. For Ambrose says: Faith is the mother of a good will and right doing. For man’s powers without the Holy Ghost are full of ungodly affections, and are too weak to do works which are good in God’s sight. Besides, they are in the power of the devil who impels men to divers sins, to ungodly opinions, to open crimes. This we may see in the philosophers, who, although they endeavored to live an honest life could not succeed, but were defiled with many open crimes. Such is the feebleness of man when he is without faith and without the Holy Ghost, and governs himself only by human strength.

Hence it may be readily seen that this doctrine is not to be charged with prohibiting good works, but rather the more to be commended, because it shows how we are enabled to do good works. For without faith human nature can in no wise do the works of the First or of the Second Commandment. Without faith it does not call upon God, nor expect anything from God, nor bear the cross, but seeks, and trusts in, man’s help. And thus, when there is no faith and trust in God all manner of lusts and human devices rule in the heart. Wherefore Christ said, John 15:5: Without Me ye can do nothing; and the Church sings:

Lacking Thy divine favor,

There is nothing found in man,

Naught in him is harmless.

Where’s Waldo Wednesday: No Getting Around Antinomianism (if you are monergistic)

Some union advocates don’t like the theological approach of asking what problem a specific doctrine solves (sorry Matt). But since we are in the arena of salvation, which is supposed to be a remedy for sin, inquiries about effects of certain doctrines, whether doctrinal or personal, seems fair.

So as near as I can tell, one of union’s greatest benefits is that it solves the Roman Catholic charge against Protestants of antinomianism, with added benefit of leaving Lutherans alone to bear the charge. (Why we don’t want to stand by our Lutheran brothers and offer aid and encouragement in a time of need is perhaps an indication of the failed Calvinist battle with spitefulness.) With union we receive justification and sanctification simultaneously, distinctly, without confusion or sequence. This means that we receive both the imputed righteousness and the infused righteousness of Christ. Which also means that we are both legally righteous and personally holy. It’s a win-win, again with the added benefit of leaving Lutherans in the dust of antinomianism since they allegedly don’t configure union this way, don’t receive sanctification at the same time, and so really are antinomian.

The added appeal of the union scheme has to do with the synecdoches of justification and sanctification, namely, faith and works (sorry cnh, whoever you are). If justification is used interchangeably with faith and sanctification with good works, which is a common usage both in the creeds and in the experience of believers, then union would appear to solve the antinomian problem, again by insuring that good works accompany justification and faith. In other words, via union, voila, I can look a Roman Catholic in the eye and tell him, when he accuses me of lacking virtue, “pound sand.” I mean to say, warm and fuzzy Calvinist that I am, “Listen fellow, I’m united to Christ. I’m both righteous in God’s sight and I have good works steaming off my body. Go find a Lutheran.”

Where this scheme breaks down, of course, is that justification and sanctification are both by faith alone. We are not justified by faith and sanctified by good works. In point of fact, justification and sanctification are acts, works of God. He is the one who declares a believer righteous. He is the one who quickens so that the believer lives to Christ.

Instead of solving the antinomian problem, then, union only makes the matter worse. By saying that I am both justified and sanctified simultaneously through union with Christ, the incentives for living a holy life virtually disappear. With the justification priority scheme, good works were a fruit and evidence of saving faith, in which case the believer would examine himself to see if he showed signs of grace. But with union, it’s all good – I am both righteous in God’s sight and I am infused with Christ’s righteousness, so conceivably I don’t need to lift a good works finger.

Now to union’s credit, it does help us see more clearly that justification and sanctification are both equally by faith. It also clarifies that sanctification is as gracious as justification because it is all of God through the application of Christ’s redemption by the Holy Spirit.

But I don’t see how it solves the antinomian problem. Justification, sanctification, and union are all about God’s good works. They are not about mine. So how am I, united to Christ, still not standing there next to my Lutheran friend, just as vulnerable to the Roman Catholic kvetch about antinomianism?