When a State Agency Endorses Two Kingdoms

And they didn’t even address the situation in Ireland.

The state office in question was the Westminster Assembly, a gathering of ministers to write a new set of church standards for the English church. One of their most forceful arguments about the spirituality of the church came in the chapter on Christian liberty. First, their understanding of such freedom was completely removed from political, economic, or social considerations:

1. 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.

A servant could enjoy such liberty as much as Charles I.

To make sure that everyone knew they were talking about spiritual matters, not politics, the divines added this:

4. 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.

The theological gospel was not a social gospel. The freedoms purchased by Christ were not leverage for social justice. Heck, the divines even say that you can’t use Christian liberty to disobey the legitimate rule of the visible church.

This is why it is so great to live in the greatest nation on God’s green earth. We don’t need to use the Confession of Faith to dismantle oppressive legislation or exploitative policies. We have the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Imagine that. Political documents regulating political affairs, and ecclesiastical ones shaping the church.

How novel!

The Republication-2K Connection

One of the authors cited in Merit and Moses is Patrick Ramsey, who defended Moses in the Westminster Theological Journal and included in his defense the following point about the value of the law (third use) according to the Confession of Faith (19.6):

According to this section of the Confession, the curses (“threatenings”) of the Mosaic Law teach the regenerate what temporal afflictions they may expect when they sin while the blessings (“promises”) instruct them concerning the benefits they may expect when they obey. Saving faith “trembles” at these curses and “embraces” the blessings for “this life, and that which is to come.”

“To establish a connection between obedience and blessing and disobedience and cursing is for many—notably antinomians—to establish in some sense a covenant of works. The divines were certainly aware of this possible misunderstanding. After all, they debated this issue for years. Consequently, they made it explicitly clear that such a connection does not in any form or fashion indicate that man is under a covenant of works (Ramsey, “In Defense of Moses.” Westminster Theological Journal 66 [2004]: 14-15).

Aside from the danger of teaching a prosperity gospel (if you’re well off, you must be doing something right in God’s accounting scheme), Ramsey may have way more confidence in the Westminster Divines than he should about possible misunderstandings of obedience to the law since they lived at a time when lots of Christians regularly compared their own nation to the nation of Israel. This meant that wars were God’s judgment upon the people’s sin, and victory in war was a sign of God’s blessing. Proof of this in the case of the Assembly was their reaffirmation of the Solemn League and Covenant which more or less kicked off their deliberations of matters like covenant theology and law (and likely accounts for the confessional oddity of including an entire chapter on oaths and vows — I’d love to see a candidate for ordination pressed by a presbyter to defend Chapter 22).

Ramsey may be okay with comparing England to Israel. But I’ll take the cautions of republication about the uniqueness of the Mosaic Covenant when it comes God’s blessings and cursings upon the covenant nation. Israel was a type of the first and second Adams. England was not and still is not, no matter how much you invoke Shakespeare. And don’t get me started on the U.S. as a “Christian nation.”

What's Up With Oaths and Vows?

Historians may not be rocket scientists, but they can generally outwit the smartest of their interlocutors simply by knowing the origins of an idea, event, person, or argument. This is not to say that those who talk to historians understand when historical knowledge trumps philosophy, exegesis, or ideology. Some people are so committed to abstract truths that their ideas are impervious to concrete facts. But historians enjoy an advantage in debate thanks to clay feet that all historical actors (short of being divine persons) have.

For instance, knowing that w— v— thinking began at a certain date in the modern era, or that dramatic conversions are not much older, has an effect on claims that these are timeless truths revealed in holy writ. This historical awareness even extends to ideas that Old Lifers promote such as the spirituality of the church. The historical origins of an idea or truth doesn’t mean it is wrong. It only means it is not timeless and so perhaps its connections to the Bible are less certain.

Current reading and teaching has made me aware of the peculiar strains and tendencies of Puritanism both in Old and New England. For instance, it does look to me like chapter eighteen in the Confession of Faith on Assurance is a direct result of debates among the Puritans about the relationship among good works done in preparation for conversion, justification, and how to evaluate good works after conversion. These debates may have absorbed other Reformed churches, but the Westminster Divines’ willingness to explore the interior dimensions of Christian experience does seem to reflect the turn of experimental Calvinism or practical divinity that in the 1590s surfaced in England and caught fire in the Netherlands.

Another feature of the Confession of Faith that seems to reflect its British setting is the twenty-second chapter on Lawful Oaths and Vows. It is not a brief chapter and discusses the topic as follows:

1. A lawful oath is a part of religious worship, wherein, upon just occasion, the person swearing solemnly calleth God to witness what he asserteth, or promiseth, and to judge him according to the truth or falsehood of what he sweareth.

2. The name of God only is that by which men ought to swear, and therein it is to be used with all holy fear and reverence. Therefore, to swear vainly, or rashly, by that glorious and dreadful Name; or, to swear at all by any other thing, is sinful, and to be abhorred. Yet, as in matters of weight and moment, an oath is warranted by the Word of God, under the new testament as well as under the old; so a lawful oath, being imposed by lawful authority, in such matters, ought to be taken.

3. Whosoever taketh an oath ought duly to consider the weightiness of so solemn an act, and therein to avouch nothing but what he is fully persuaded is the truth: neither may any man bind himself by oath to anything but what is good and just, and what he believeth so to be, and what he is able and resolved to perform.

4. An oath is to be taken in the plain and common sense of the words, without equivocation, or mental reservation. It cannot oblige to sin; but in anything not sinful, being taken, it binds to performance, although to a man’s own hurt. Nor is it to be violated, although made to heretics, or infidels.

5. A vow is of the like nature with a promissory oath, and ought to be made with the like religious care, and to be performed with the like faithfulness.

6. It is not to be made to any creature, but to God alone: and, that it may be accepted, it is to be made voluntarily, out of faith, and conscience of duty, in way of thankfulness for mercy received, or for the obtaining of what we want, whereby we more strictly bind ourselves to necessary duties; or, to other things, so far and so long as they may fitly conduce thereunto.

7. No man may vow to do anything forbidden in the Word of God, or what would hinder any duty therein commanded, or which is not in his own power, and for the performance whereof he hath no promise of ability from God. In which respects, popish monastical vows of perpetual single life, professed poverty, and regular obedience, are so far from being degrees of higher perfection, that they are superstitious and sinful snares, in which no Christian may entangle himself.

My point in bringing up this chapter is not to challenge the Confession. I don’t find anything objectionable in this chapter. And the counsel about monastic vows has merit and reflects the genuine challenges that confronted Protestants. Still, I wonder when the last time a pastor taught his congregation about oaths and vows. I also wonder when the last time was that a candidate for ministry had to answer questions about oaths and vows. These questions are all the more pressing when we remember that none of the other Reformed confessions have such extensive comments on oaths and vows. Could it be that the background of the National Covenant in Scotland and the Solemn League and Covenant of Parliament and the Scots had more to do with this chapter than the development of Reformed teaching?

I am just asking.

Confession of Faith or Health Care Legislation?

My confession of faith is not the Westminster Confession. It is the confession of my communion, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Of course, our confession bears many resemblances to the Westminster Confession. But if folks look at the publication of our confession, neatly produced by the Committee on Christian Education, it reads, the “Confession of Faith and Catechisms of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church with Proof Texts” (the proof texts are especially all the OPC’s). Again, the OPC did rely upon standards handed down from the Westminster Divines, adopted by the Scottish Kirk, and then in 1729 by the Synod of Philadelphia for the communion that was taking shape in the British colonies in North America. Still, when OPC officers subscribe our confession and catechisms, they are embracing documents that are different from those produced during the 1640s, and also with different understandings (because of the development of history) of several of the doctrines taught.

Many of the controversies in our current setting stem from originalists who insist that the contemporary church has abandoned the original sense of the Standards, and those who seek a different elaboration of Reformed theology. I myself find that I am on different sides of this debate, on the one hand wanting to find room for genuine theological developments within our communions, and on the other, realizing the folly and danger that usually attends adapting to the times.

Jason Stellman wants to break through the impasse and proposes the writing of a new confession. At his blog he writes:

Here’s where a new confession comes in. What is needed is the ability to avoid the task of divining the ever-elusive “system of doctrine,” the confession-within-the-confession, the bits and pieces of our doctrinal standards that really matter. But as long as we theoretically subscribe to the Westminster Confession and Catechisms but allow countless exceptions to be taken to them, we leave ourselves no choice but to scratch our heads over whether things like refraining from recreation on the Sabbath and 6/24 creation are intrinsic to the system. My proposal is simply that if we all agree that something is not intrinsic to the system, then why not omit it altogether? Then, once we have identified what our system of doctrine actually is, we can confess it strictly and with confidence. It is just this kind of approach—one that calls for strict subscription to the system of doctrine but allows laxity on incidental matters—that could potentially be the impetus for an ecumenical Reformed church consisting of believers from British Presbyterian and Continental Reformed backgrounds.

Maybe it comes from having studied with Scott Clark, but Stellman has a point. And though I can’t find it at Scott’s blog, he has for many years been maintaining that we need a new confession of faith, one that reflects both the tradition and the developments in theology since 1647. And while I can’t identify precisely the points of the argument, I think it runs something like this: if we continue to hold creeds and catechisms written in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they run the risk of functioning like dictionaries – reference works we simply pull off the shelf when an ordination exam comes along or when going to a trial, but seldom used in the day-to-day life of a congregation and its broader communion. Richard Muller has proposed a helpful remedy to this situation, one that makes our adopted creeds and confessions part of the warp and woof of church life (in corporate and family worship, and in member’s piety).

But another way to give us more ownership of our confessional standards is to write a new one.

The more I study the history of the Reformed churches, the more sense this proposal makes. The Westminster Assembly was an incredibly complicated affair, and the issues before that body are virtually unknown to contemporary readers (unless you’re Chad Van Dixhoorn). For instance, here is what Philip Benedict writes about the Divines:

The majority of the delegates who favored a presbyterial-synodal form of church government worked to bring the others around to their position by demonstrating the form’s biblical basis point by point.; but the exegesis proved a time-consuming, contentious business. As the divines puzzled over Scripture, the clash of arms realigned the political situation. The New Model Army proved more successful that the Scottish forces in the warfare against the king and did a better job of claiming credit for joint victories. As the army’s power increased, the Independents and Erastians within the assembly grew more assertive and forces the initiation of regular consultations with Parliament, which was less sympathetic to clerical independence. As in the cities of Germany and Switzerland in the first century of the Reformation, the issue of who controlled excommunication became a bone of contention. . . . The new form of church government for England finally decided upon in conjunction with Parliament and spelled out in measure of August 1645 and March 1646 approximated the presbyterial-synodal churches of Scotland, France, and the Netherlands . . . . But it contained major compromises with Erastian and congregationalist concerns . . . . These accommodations displeased the Scottish envoys, who castigated the new system as a “lame Erastian presbytery.”(Benedict, pp. 400-401)

Aside from questions of church polity and ecclesiastical authority, England was also facing antinomianism and neo-nomianism churning out of sixteenth-century debates over predestination. Puritan practical divinity was also in the air, as were debates over prayer books and liturgical forms. The point is that the confession can be read as a historical document to see what was animating Reformed English and Scottish churchmen in the seventeenth century. In fact, it needs to be read this way if it is going to function as a reliable standard (has anyone heard of grammatical-historical exegesis?). And as a state-appointed committee, its documents can also be read like Obama’s recent health care provision – a statement that bears all the compromises that come with politics, which is the art of compromise.

But such historical investigation and political intrigue is a long way from embracing the Westminster Confession as our own confession of faith. For that reason, I do believe that Stellman and Clark are on to something. Maybe if the NAPARC churches ever adopted Bob Godfrey’s proposal for a federated denomination of Reformed churches, their first item of business would be to call an assembly to write a Reformed confession for the twenty-first century.

The Original Blended Worship?

With less division [than over church government], the Westminster Assembly also drew up an order or worship and a confession of faith. The Directory for Public Worship, accepted by the Parliaments of England and Scotland alike in 1645, carved a middle ground between the Presbyterian desire for a fixed liturgy and Independent attachment to extemporary prayer by specifying the order of services but merely suggesting sample prayers. Distilling the practices of the “best Reformed churches” and adding a dash of English Sabbatarianism, it prescribed the discontinuation of all “festival days, vulgarly called Holy Dayes,” instituted a simple seated communion, and called for the “Lord’s Day” to be given over entirely to such acts of piety, charity, and mercy as singing psalms, repeating sermons in family groups, visiting the sick, and relieving the poor. No ceremonies whatsoever were to accompany funerals, and the pouring or sprinkling of water on the newborn was the sole approved ritual action of baptism, which could be performed only by a minister at a regularly scheduled worship service. (Philip Benedict, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed, p. 401)

If only today’s blends were as good.