Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The official Reformed theology



I would not put Augustine’s doctrine of evil into the Church’s creed. I have no right to impose it on others. I think it is an essential. But into the ‘credo’ I do not thrust it. Systematic theology has a wide margin round it, where we must have the probabilia placed; but the creed should have none. A narrow theology, founded on the theologian’s idiosyncrasies, is, after all, no theology at all.

So said John ‘Rabbi’ Duncan. That’s the theme of what follows, as applied to Confessions, and then to this theological hinterland of what Duncan calls  probabilia, probabilities.

The official Reformed theology is a balancing act. In practice that theology pivots on one confession or another, particularly, for Anglophones, on the Westminster Confession.

The system of doctrine.

One of the things that the recently-published volumes on the work of the Westminster Assembly has brought home is the adventitious or accidental aspect of the Confession, the way it was composed, what was put in and what left out. (Chad Van Dixhoorn (ed.) The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly, (OUP, 2012)). The finished product was influenced by the pressure of time, the opinion of the majority of divines who on a particular day happened to be attending a committee or sub-committee, parliamentary pressure to get a particular job done, interruptions, and no doubt the mood of the meetings. Together with the clashes of personalities, the hobby-horses, and so forth. Cold print cannot convey this. In such circumstances, in the messiness of human life, the articles that resulted, chapters in the Confession, were a series of compromises, clause by clause in some cases, and we must remember that. As the debate on one matter was brought to an end, and a majority were content with some particular wording, a minority or minorities were not content, or not as content. In the nature of things confessions and creeds are forms of compromise draftings that attract a majority on a particular day.

So confessions and even the more basic creeds of the church are political documents, ‘articles of peace’, what the chaps could agree on that particular occasion. Part of this disagreement was over what topics should be treated in a confession, and what not. Had the divines met a week earlier or later things may have been, or would have been, different. In this process we no doubt see the workings of an inscrutable providence which has regard to the least nuance, the crossing of each t and dotting of the i’s. In this sense the final form of a particular text was ‘infallibly decreed’. But what is divinely decreed is human compromise.

Behind that confessional agreement, and the dissent of the minorities from the majorities, it is clear that there is a vast hinterland of theological opinion, (theologoumena). Private conjectures. Not simply Duncan’s probabilia, but more than the purely speculative. What one thinks is a good and necessary consequence of the teaching of Scripture others may not. What some may think ought to find its way into a Confession others may dissent from. All right, it is all godly opinion, (as we may suppose) but it is what you get when trained people with different opinions are brought together. The Confession may or may not imply any of these opinions, more likely it may permits them. Richard Muller has recently shown what variety of opinion there is regarding the death of Christ. (Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation (Baker, 2012) If we think of all this mass of different points as a web, there is a central core, the Creed or the Confession, and a vast surrounding area, not holding the centre in place, as in a spider’s web, but a penumbra of opinion, which may have any of several relations to the core. Perhaps the core entails this opinion, or allows it, or make the holding of it reasonable. Or maybe there is stuff in the hinterland that has nothing to do with the core. Either way, there should be about a Confession a catholicity of spirit and expression, reflecting the general Biblical scheme of Creation, Fall and Redemption, and the absence of idiosyncrasy or an individual’s or group’s peculiarities.

The hinterland

If the production of the Confession has ragged edges, how much more is it the case in the matter of theological opinion, what I call the hinterland. To illustrate this,  let us take an example from an illuminating  recent piece by Mark Jones which raises the question of the nature and place of grace in the original Adam’s life, among the Puritans. In particular whether this grace was a gift of the Holy Spirit, and in what sense. (We must bear in mind that the concept of a covenant of works, though a central motif of the Confession, is itself a theological construct the elements of which are not clearly present on the surface of things in the Genesis account, and the Holy Spirit never once mentioned in the relevant passages of Genesis). And that in turn raises questions about Adam’s responsibility, and the nature and place of merit in the covenant of works. Two motifs should control the answer, that Adam’s original state was ‘mutable’ and that it resulted in what is sometimes called the loss of the image ‘in the narrow sense’. (Here we take these positions for granted, as being generally held, but they themselves are capable of fine tuning). And there is the abiding difficulty of understanding in what sense or senses 'nature' and natural' are used in discussion of these matters. The scene is therefore set for many possibilia. So, given all these caveats and qualifications, what are we to think about this matter of the Holy Spirit and Adam? How are we to proceed?

What (it seems) the divines mentioned by Mark do is take different instances of the work of the Spirit from elsewhere in Scripture and discuss the status of unfallen Adam in the light of them. Here are four such instances. There is the work of the Spirit in calling and regeneration; then the periodic and spasmodic operations of the Spirit on evil men, such as King Saul; then the Spirit’s work in giving to people unusual gifts which do not seem to have to do with regeneration, like those craftsmen engaged in the building of Solomon’s Temple; and finally there is the reprobate’s tasting of the Spirit, as in Hebrews 6.4.  No doubt we can find more cases. For example, there is the work of the Spirit in the ministry of Jesus Christ (John 3.34).

Was unfallen Adam’s life a life of faith?  Did he trust the promise of God given in the Garden? Yes, and no.  His condition was unique, proceeding ‘very good’ from the hand of his Creator but ‘mutably’ so. He has grace, and if we think of that grace as being the gift of the Spirit, the Spirit is resistible and was repudiated, It was not that grace that ensured his perseverance in the original position, even though such gracious influence, persevering grace, could have been give to Adam, as it is given to the fallen elect. Neither was ‘deserved’ by its recipient, but one was preserving grace (as we might call it) suspended on the continued innocence of Adam, the other was regenerating effectual grace, designed to bring its recipient to glory.

So was Adam’s faith ‘temporary’ faith, the faith of a mere professor?   Well (again!) Yes and no. Adam’s original innocence was certainly temporary, as what befell him makes clear.  But it was not , presumably, the temporary faith mentioned in Jesus’s Parable of the Sower. What of the temporary ‘gifting’ of the Spirit that may grant special gifts to a person, say the gift of designing things, for a period of his life, but such giving and withholding acts in the realm of what some call ‘common grace;’ appear to be actions of pure sovereignty, where questions of fittingness and unfittingness do not arise, much less desert or merit.

What all this meandering shows is that we are trawling presently through the hinterland. where not only good and necessary consequences operate, (what are these?) but a good deal of conjecture and even speculation may also be at work in the thinking of the ‘godly’. (Nothing wrong with this, provided it is recognized for what it is). Whether the divines recognized this, their opinions of the Fall and the place of the Spirit in it, (to take one example being currently discussed) were just that: opinions. If they sought to make these opinions a part of the meaning of the Confession they ought to be resisted. The Confession is what it is and not another thing.

One of the factors that makes a theologian is the exercise of judgment, particularly judgment about himself and then, naturally enough, judgment of others. Particularly a judgment between a central plank of the doctrine of the gospel, and a personal quirk. There are big issues and small issues. A Confession is not infallible, of course, but it is a good guide to the overall shape of things, providing a ‘system of doctrine’.  What falls outside that Confession may be illuminating, suggestive, profitable to some theologian and his friends, or to some Seminary and its curriculum, but it ought not to be raised to the status of the Confession itself and the ‘system of doctrine’ that it propounds.

Sometimes one has the impression that one motivation that some have for engaging in Reformed theology in the way that they do is in order to extend the boundaries of the  official Reformed theology.   I hope I'm mistaken. Despite the all-too-human character of the Confession,  as a result of its adoption by certain churches, for many it delimits the shape of Reformed doctrine, and for others who do not subscribe to it is has a great deal of prestige. We are free to dissent from it, in whole or in part. In matters beyond the Confession we are free to think and to let others think. That’s how it was in Puritanism, as Mark Jones ably shows. And that’s how it should be with any adherent to the Confession nowadays.



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Monday, September 01, 2014

WiIlliam Ames's virtues





Here is what I think, (without much research to back it up - a hunch, therefore). In the period of Puritanism (or confessional Calvinism) in England between the 1620’s (when Ames’ Medulla, first given as lectures in Holland while an exile there, was published), and the calling of the Westminster divines, a significant change seems to have occurred. The divines were assembled by the Long Parliament to revise the 39 Articles of the Church to England and in time they were charged with the task of promoting it as the ‘church established’ with a presbyterian polity. The Westminster Confession and Catechisms were the most significant lasting consequences.

Of course in this period of upheaval very many changes occurred, but the one that concerns me here is the expression of sanctification, and particularly the prominence that the place of the law as a rule of living in the Christian life, the so-called third use of the law, was emphasised. There was a conflation of the law in its function of keeping order in society, and its place in the life of the church. The Reformed view is that the law is to restrain evil, and to show men and women their need, and to be a rule of life. So chief among the  requirements of the Christian life is the duty to keep the moral law expressed in the Decalogue and endorsed by Christ and the apostles.

We shall not be concerned with any real or imagined substantive change in what were regarded as the ethical norms of the law, and their place in the Christian life, and with how such norms should be conceptualized and expressed. The hunch that I have, which is certainly not the result of the deep trawling of documents, but fed by a comparison of only two documents, though each may fairly be called representative, though in different ways. Ames is known for The Marrow of Sacred Theology, originally published in Latin and then translated into English in 1623. Comparing that with the Westminster standards reveals significant differences. It is the difference between the outlook of one such as Ames, who experienced exile, and that of the establishment, or of prospective establishment, of the church. I shall try to explain.

In the time of Ames, the Puritans, who when they were allowed freedom and not being persecuted or repressed, were a vigorous, reforming party of the Elizabethan Church of England, interrupted by Mary, and harassed by Charles I. Ames’s life (1576- 1633) initially followed this sort of trajectory. Prosecuted by the bishop of London, the stalwart Calvinist George Abbot, for various Puritan leanings, Ames went to Holland in 1610, serving churches of English merchants. Some of his lectures became his Medulla, The Marrow of Theology, dedicated to them. There was an English translation, and numerous reprints. But as the arm of the bishop reached as far as The Hague, Ames lost support. However, he gained a Dutch appointment as professor of theology at Franeker. Efforts to move to Leyden were thwarted, again because of interfering English authorities. At Franeker Ames had Sibrandus, Lubbertius, Maccovius and Batholemew Keckermann as colleagues. Ames, a covenant theologian and supralapsarian,  wrote extensively against Bellarmine, and produced his famous book Conscience: Its Law or Cases, translated into English and Dutch. Living in Holland during the period of the Synod of Dort, he wrote extensively on Arminianism. In the Medulla his own scholasticism is muted. In English translation the work largely consists of brief summaries of  theological positions in what was a compendium of theology, not a set of elaborate discussions. What is certain is that Ames was concerned with the application of theology to Christian life.

During this time Ames was urged to join the exodus to New England. Instead he became pastor of the Independent congregation in Rotterdam. After his home suffered flooding Ames suffered from fever and he died shortly after. (1633).

His Medulla consists of two Books, the first on theology proper, and the second on practical theology. It is a work of covenant theology, though mildly so. In the first book there is a chapter on sanctification (29), and In book two one on virtue (2) and the graces of faith, hope, and love (5-7), and on justice and charity and honour to our neighbour, (16-18). There is no chapter on the law of God as expressed in the Decalogue.

A comparison

Compare this with the Longer Catechism of the Westminster Divines. In this Catechism there are 196 questions and answers, of which 62 (sixty-two!) are devoted to an exposition of the law of God, about a third of the whole. Question 91, which begins the questions on the law,  is headed ‘HAVING SEEN WHAT THE SCRIPTURES  PRINCIPALLY TEACH US TO BELIEVE CONCERNING GOD, IT FOLLOWS  TO CONSIDER WHAT THEY REQUIRE AS THE DUTY OF MAN’.  The emphasis is on the duty of men as men in law-keeping, not as members of the church, or as professors of Christ. The questions and answers that follow have to do with each of so-called three uses of the law; of civil restraint, for a rule of life, and for the purpose of conviction of sin, showing us our need and weakness. (Q.95) There is also some conflation between the Moral Law and the Judicial Law. It is highly likely that the divines saw their task as the exposition of the law to mirror the law of the state. So (for example) the seventh commandment forbids ‘lascivious songs, books, pictures, dancings, stage plays…..’(Q.140); the eight commandment forbids, inter alia, ‘false weights and measures, removing land-marks, injustice and unfaithfulness in contracts between man and man….’(Q.142) And so on. (In the Shorter Catechism, questions 39-94 deal with the law, out of a total of 107 questions, just over a half.)

This is a dramatic change, the change from thinking of the Christian life as the pursuit of and formation of graces or virtues, with the emphasis on the Christian’s freedom (as in Paul in Galatians),  and his or her resurrection with Christ, to thinking of  Christian life it in terms of keeping the law, and of duty. If it is thought primarily in terms of keeping the law, then no wonder that the catechisms and filled with lists of new duties, and not at all surprising that the divines looked back to the Old Testament for these lists.

Next time I shall look at this contrast between Ames's emphasis on virtue and Westminster's emphasis  law in more detail, and consider  each in relation to the balance of the NT between the two. I shall suggest that Ames’s approach, the approach of the exile, keeps the NT balance better than do the Westminster divines, working (as they were) on a blueprint for the establishment of a Reformed church, and with the prospect of such an establishment (as they thought) just around the corner.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Calvin on wrath, grace, and eternal love



All those whom God hath predestined unto life, and those only, he is pleased, in his appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by  his word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ; (WCF: 'Of Effectual Calling').

Since a few remarks that I made on Calvin on Ephesians 2 have aroused interest, I thought I might revisit these and add a comment or two by way of clarification. The original passage is as follows:

So the truth about atonement, about reconciliation to God, has to be represented to us as if it implied a change in God, and so an inconsistency, an apparent contradiction, in his actions towards us. But in fact there is no change in God; he loves us from eternity. There is however, a change in us, a change that occurs as by faith Christ's work is appropriated. The change is not from wrath to grace, but from our belief that we are under wrath to our belief that we are under grace. (John Calvin's Ideas, 395)

So for Calvin when unbelief turns to saving faith there is no change in God, but in the one whose state changes. His his status, that of being  eternally loved by God, a child of grace, does not. This is a good instance of how the eternal decree operates in the case of God's grace. The decree is fixed ‘in heaven’, eternally. The outworking of the decree is in time, as men and women change and are changed, by being brought to penitence and saving faith.for example.

Scott Oliphint asks a question or two about this, and then proceeds, quite understandably, to provide his own answers. But it is not quite as he surmises.

Does Helm mean to say (or does he argue that Calvin says) that when Scripture says that God's people were under wrath prior to their conversion (e.g., Eph. 2:3), that what we're meant to think is only that we believed we were under wrath? And are we then meant to read Scripture so that, at conversion, our belief changed to thinking we are under grace? We are surely not to think, says Helm, that God's disposition toward us has changed from wrath to grace. This "necessary consequence" of God's electing love is no "good consequence" at all. It denies the reality of salvation in history. Does Scripture really enjoin us to think of God's wrath or his grace as having its focus in our beliefs and not in God's covenantal disposition to man? Does Scripture really want us to believe something that is not, in fact, the case?
(http://www.reformation21.org/articles/tolle-lege-a-brief-response-to-paul-helm.php)

I make two points in the paragraph, both of them on behalf of Calvin. One – as we have just now seen - is that the movement from wrath to grace involves no change in God but one in human beings. This is consistent with my understanding of Calvin, that the decree of God is eternal and by it everything that is to come to pass does so.

And the second point is this: that until such time as people are changed they have no grounds for thinking that they are in the hands of a gracious God. God knows, 'he knows those that are his’, but they don’t yet believe it. Any belief to this effect is as they presently stand, under wrath,  an ungrounded belief. When ‘as by faith Christ’s work is appropriated’ and a person changes, profoundly so, a person is then entitled to believe that God’s love for him did not start with his conversion, or shortly before this, but that (to his astonishment) he was eternally loved by God. Like Paul he may come to think that God separated him from his mother’s womb, and called him by his grace. One God, one purpose. Thus a person  believes, or may come to believe, that his change is due to eternal election, and what has followed this in time. 

This is entirely consistent with what Calvin says elsewhere. For one other thing that Calvin believes is that ‘Christ is the mirror of our election’, (Inst. III.24.5) and it is as we are ‘in communion with Christ’ that we are entitled to believe that we are elect. So the normal way, Calvin says, is that God provides evidence to a person that they enjoy communion with Christ, and this grounds their conviction that they were eternally loved by God, ‘chosen in Christ before all ages”, and (to go on a bit) this love before all ages took the form of leaving him for a while in his state of sin and misery until God the Holy Spirit  regenerated him.

So the belief that he was eternally loved has the form of an inference, it is not formed in one step that God eternally loved him, nor is regeneration the forming of the belief that God has loved the one regenerated eternally. Rather that he is Christ’s by faith exercised in real time! For just as eternity is timeless, so the application of redemption is timely. As as he comes to recognize that he is in Christ, which may occur in a moment of time, or may take more time, he comes to see that he is eternally loved by God,  child of grace.

I’m not sure what ‘denying him the reality of salvation in history’ means, but I most certainly affirm that Calvin thought that the appropriation of salvation occurs in real time. God being timeless  does not change, but we are always changing. As I say over the page, also on behalf of Calvin, ‘God does not change. But we change when, by the exercise of faith, we experience restoration to the favour of God’. (396)


I hope that this covers Scott’s questions.