Richard of St. Victor on the Trinity

We only know for sure his death date, it seems (neither Letham nor Muller give a birth-date for him). He died in 1173. He was a Scottish theologian. Both Muller and Letham indicate that he was a rationalist. However, he did have some helpful things to say on the Trinity. His influences include Augustine and Anselm (Letham, pg. 225).

Richard’s greatest Trinitarian dictum, to my mind, is this: “Love, by definition, is directed toward another. Therefore, love cannot exist where there is not a plurality of persons. Supreme love is not directed toward creation, since a created person is not worthy of supreme love” (Letham, pg. 225). He argues also that there cannot be merely two persons in the Godhead, otherwise love could not be shared (Letham, pg. 227). Letham’s assessment of this argumentation is as follows: Richard cannot prove why there shouldn’t be more than four persons in the Godhead. However, it is a very fine argument against a monistic God (such as the God Muslims have). See pg. 228. 

Muller notes a further refinement to Richard’s argument, however, which might just answer Letham’s (small) criticism. Richard argues that the Father gives but does not receive (within the Godhead). The Son receives and gives, whereas the Spirit only receives. This is not to establish any kind of ontological inferiority, but only to establish what the lines of relationship look like within the Godhead. He argues that, with this setup, the Trinity is complete as three. “The only possibility remaining is a person who neither gives nor receives-but such a person is solitary, not a part of the common life of the three, so that a quaternity is excluded” (pg. 34). I think this more than adquately answers Letham’s criticism.

It is a great pity that Letham’s book was already in the final editing stage when Muller came out, thus precluding any chance of Letham interacting with Muller. However, the two balance each other out quite nicely. Letham is a bit thin on Reformation Trinitarianism (only deals in depth with Calvin). Muller fills in that gap nicely.

Introduction to Ephesians

As we start a new year, we are also going to start a new book of the Bible. We are going to look at Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. In order to do that, we must look at the city of Ephesus and learn about that city so that we can see why Paul writes the way he does. Then we must look at the letter itself and try to ascertain what the main message of the letter is and why we should study it and learn from it, and what practical benefit it can be for us.

So, we start with the city of Ephesus. At the time when Paul wrote this letter, Ephesus was the chief city of Turkey (called Asia Minor in Paul’s time). It had an estimated population of 250,000 people. This city, along with Rome, Alexandria (in Egypt) and Antioch, ranked as one of the greatest cities in the Roman Empire. It had a theater which could seat 24,000 people. It had a stadium which could stage chariot races, athletic games, and gladiatorial fights. The stadium provides for us the background as to why Paul tells us to put on the armor of God in chapter 6. Just as you might get ready for a gladiatorial fight, so also get ready for spiritual warfare.

Ephesus also had religion in a major way. Its temple to Artemis of the Ephesians was the single largest building in the entire Greek world. It was one of the 7 ancient wonders of the world. This temple was the reason why Paul uses temple imagery in chapter 2 of Ephesians. Only, instead of a physical temple, it is a spiritual temple, and one even more magnificent than the temple to Artemis. There were also various cults that emphasized mystery, something unknown. That helps to explain why Paul uses the language of mystery. However, Paul doesn’t mean the same thing at all. Paul means something that was hidden, but has now been revealed. That is what Paul means by the word “mystery.” We do not worship an unknown god, but the God who has revealed Himself in the Word.

Now, Paul’s own experience in Ephesus is quite extensive. He spent three entire years there building up a ministry to the people. He was persecuted for doing so. You might remember what is said in Acts 19: Now after these events Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem, saying, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome.” And having sent into Macedonia two of his helpers, Timothy and Erastus, he himself stayed in Asia for a while. About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way. For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.” When they heard this they were enraged and were crying out, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” So the city was filled with the confusion, and they rushed together into the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s companions in travel. But when Paul wished to go in among the crowd, the disciples would not let him. And even some of the Asiarchs, who were friends of his, sent to him and were urging him not to venture into the theater. Now some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together. Some of the crowd prompted Alexander, whom the Jews had put forward. And Alexander, motioning with his hand, wanted to make a defense to the crowd. But when they recognized that he was a Jew, for about two hours they all cried out with one voice, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” So these people were very serious about religion. They were not secular people who denied the existence of divine beings. Rather, they worshiped many wrong gods. Artemis, by the way, is a goddess of the Greek and Roman religion. She is the goddess of the hunt, and was the patron goddess of Ephesus.

Well, if that helps us to understand a bit about the city of Ephesus, then next we need to examine what the letter itself says. The letter can be divided into four parts. There is an opening and a closing of the letter. The opening, or greeting, is the first 2 verses. The closing of the letter is the last 4 verses of chapter 6 at the very end. The main body of the letter, therefore, can be divided in half. The first section is doctrine, and the second half is practical. This, by the way, is how Paul structures all his letters. For instance, the first 11 chapters of Romans are doctrinal. The last 5 chapters of the letter are practical. Sometimes, he mixes them up a little bit more than he does here. In Ephesians, the split is very clear. The first three chapters are doctrine, and the last three chapters are practical. Now, in saying that, I do not wish for us to be nervous that you are going to hear impractical doctrine for the first three chapters and no doctrine in the last three chapters. As we will see, the relationship between doctrine and practice is much closer than that. We will see that Paul’s doctrine is extremely practical. In fact, there is no such thing as impractical doctrine in Paul. By the same token, however, we will also see that Paul’s doctrine is rooted in the doctrine. To put it simply, Paul tells us first what to believe; then he tells us how we are to live in the light of that belief. First he tells us what God has done; then he tells us what we are to do.

Well, if that is how Paul structures his letter, then what does it say? Ephesians is about the church as Christ’s body. That is the main theme of Ephesians in a nutshell: the church is Christ’s body. In chapter 1, Paul tells us about salvation; how God saves the church. In the second chapter Paul tells us that since God saves us, we are one in Christ. In the third chapter, Paul tells us about the mystery of what God has revealed about the church. In the second half of the book, Paul tells us about body-life, the life of the church. We walk not as the pagans do, but as ones who are worthy of the calling to be Christ’s body. In chapter 5, Paul tells us about walking in love. Paul gives some specific examples of that in marriage, parenting and business situations. Finally, Paul tells us that we, as the church, are to fight in the spiritual warfare that is always going on.

So what are we to take away from Ephesians? Well, firstly, that none of us is an island unto ourselves. We are not individual Christians here and there. Rather, we are the church, the body of Christ. We ought not to act like we can do it on our own. Rather, we are actively to pursue body life; interaction with our fellow believers (instead of TV?), Bible studies, evening worship and not just morning worship, hospitality, evangelism and other aspects of the church life. Let’s stop being so selfish with our time and resources. If the church has a need, we should fill it. We are not islands to ourselves, but one body of Christ.

Secondly, we are to have a firm grasp of what salvation means. We are saved by grace through faith. Even that faith is a gift from God. Our salvation is based on the predestinating grace of our Lord God, and that is evidence of His love. Our salvation is in Christ Jesus, who is the head of the church. Christ saves His church. Yes, of course He saves individuals. But He does not make them into a hand or a foot and them leave them outside the body. A hand or a foot doesn’t do a whole lot if it is severed from the body. When Christ saves us, he plugs us into the church, the body of Christ.

Thirdly, and lastly, we are to have a firm grasp of spiritual warfare. We do not deny the existence of demons, nor do we think of them as having more power than Jesus Christ. They are our enemy (and Satan is the chief enemy), but they are a defeated enemy. Christ has already won the victory for us in His resurrection from the dead. We are to take this warfare seriously and with prayer, but we are not ever to despair, since the battle belongs to the Lord. The gates of Hell will not prevail against the church. That is the promise of Christ to His church, and it is the promise of Ephesians. Welcome to the New Year!

Index for Genesis Sermons

Just in case anyone thought that the only thing I did was polemic against the Federal Vision, here is an index to my now complete sermon series on Genesis. Soli Deo Gloria!

Introduction; Creator of Heaven and Earth (1:1);  Holy Spirit, Creator (1:2); This Little Light of Mine (1:3-5); The Baptism of the World (1:6-8); Land and Verdure (1:9-13); The Light of Day (1:14-19); Monster for the Birds; Gone Fishing (1:20-23); The Beauty of the Beasts (1:24-25); What’s In an Image? (1:26-27); Blessing and Dominion (1:28-31); Remember the Sabbath (2:1-3); Earth and Breath (2:4-7); Adam, Priest of Eden (2:8-17);  Adam and Eve (2:18-25); Snake-Charmed! (3:1-7); Judgment Day (3:8-19); Justification and Life (3:20-24); Brotherly Love (4:1-16); The Consequences of Cain’s Sin (4:17-26); The Final Word (5); The Disobedient Sons of God (6:1-8); Noah and the Ark (6:9-22); Cosmic Storm Rising (7:1-24); God Remembered Noah (8:1-14);  Be Fruitful and Sacrifice (8:15-22); Be Fruitful, Don’t Murder (9:1-7); God’s Rainbow Covenant with Noah (9:8-17); What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor (9:18-29); The City of Man (10); The Babble of Babel (11:1-9); To Abraham (11:10-32); The Call of Abram (12:1-9); Abram Lies (12:10-20); Whose Choice Is Better? (13); Christ, Our Kinsman Redeemer (14:1-16); Christ, the Melchizedekian High Priest (14:17-24); Justification By Faith Alone (15:1-6); The Curse of the Covenant (15:7-21); God Hear and Sees (16); The Incredible Covenant (17:1-14); Sarah’s Resurrection (17:15-27); Abraham, Friend of God (18:1-15); Justice and Prayer (18:16-33); No Way Out (19:1-22); Remember Lot’s Wife (19:23-29); The End of Lot’s Road (19:30-38); Old Wives’ Tales (20); The Lord Visited Sarah (21:1-7); Whose Son Are You? (21:8-21); Promised Land Threatened (21:22-34); The Sacrifice of the Father (22);  A Grave for Sarah (23); A Wife for Isaac (24); The End of the Road (25:1-18); The Purpose of Election (25:19-28); Birthright or Stew? (25:29-34); A Chip Off the Old Block (26:1-33); The Blame Game (26:34-28:9); Christ, Our Ladder (28:10-22); The Boomerang Effect (29:1-30); The War of Mothers (29:31-30:24); God Blesses Jacob (30:25-43); The Great Escape (31); Preparation By Prayer (32:1-21); God Wrestles with Jacob (32:22-32); Reconciliation (33); God’s Triumphant Grace (34); The Repentant Backslider (35); Esau the Great (36); Rejection of the Messiah (37:1-11); Like a Lamb (37:12-36); God’s Amazing Grace (38); Tempted, But Sinless (39); To Dream (40); The Resurrection and Ascension of Joseph (41); True Repentance (42); Real Change (43); Complete Change (44); Providence and Forgiveness (45); To Egypt (46); In Egypt, But Not of Egypt (47);  Famous Last Words 1 (48); Famous Last Words 2 (49:1-12); Famous Last Words 3 (49:13-27); True Forgiveness (49:28-50:26)

True Forgiveness

 Genesis 49:28-50:26

In his book. Lee: The Last Years, Charles Bracelen Flood reports that after the Civil War, Robert E. Lee visited a Kentucky lady who took him to the remains of a grand old tree in front of her house. There she bitterly cried that its limbs and trunk had been destroyed by Federal artillery fire. She looked to Lee for a word condemning the North or at least sympathizing with her loss. After a brief silence, Lee said, “Cut it down, my dear Madam, and forget it.” It is better to forgive the injustices of the past than to allow them to remain, let bitterness take root and poison the rest of our life. Sometimes, however, it is hard to believe that we really are forgiven. Joseph’s brothers have a hard time believing that Joseph has really forgiven them. What is true forgiveness, anyway? We have a very clear picture of it in our last sermon on Genesis.

In the first part of our passage, Jacob dies. This sets the stage for the drama that will occur between Joseph and his brothers one last time in chapter 50. But before Jacob dies, he gives a charge to his sons. That charge is that they would not bury him in the land of Egypt, but would carry him back to the land of promise, so that he could be buried in the same tomb as Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, and Leah. This command the sons will obey.

Joseph has the Egyptians embalm his father Jacob. Embalming was a long process of many days. It was designed to preserve the body for as long as possible. The Egyptians believed in life after death. Part of that belief was that the body was part of that life after death. So they preserved it in amazing ways. A mummy was found recently, as a matter of fact, that had almost no decay at all, though being at least 2500 years old. Well, it is that embalming that the Egyptians performed for Jacob. In short, the Egyptians treated Jacob like a king. They wept for him for 70 days. Just 2 more days is the amount of time prescribed for the mourning for a Pharaoh. The Egyptians were surely being grateful here for all that Joseph had done for the Egyptian nation.

Notice an interesting detail here in verse 4: Joseph speaks to the household of Pharaoh, not to Pharaoh himself. Joseph, having touched the dead body, was ritually unclean in the eyes of the Egyptians, and so he could not come directly into the Pharaoh’s presence. So, he talks with the household, rather than to Pharaoh himself. Joseph asks and obtains permission to bury Jacob in the land of promise.

All this sets the stage for the last encounter of Joseph with the brothers where all is finally made right. As a matter of fact, the brothers had never actually asked Joseph for forgiveness for what they had done to him. Joseph had been very kind to them. But the brothers were thinking to themselves that Jacob being alive had been the only restraint on Joseph’s vengeance. They thought that now that Jacob was dead, Joseph would have free rein to exercise every last ounce of vengeance on them. That’s what they say in verse 15.

So the brothers do a bit of inventing. Jacob never gave such a command to Joseph via the brothers. There are several reasons why verses 16-17 are a lie. First, Jacob did not mention what the brothers did to Joseph in the blessings in chapter 49. Given the fact that he did mention Reuben, Simeon and Levi’s shortcomings, it would be very hard to believe that Jacob would not have mentioned what the brothers did to Joseph. Secondly, if Jacob had had such a command, he would have given it straight to Joseph, not given it through the brothers. It is clear that Joseph had the most access to Jacob. He was there when Jacob died. For these reasons, I believe that the brothers are making up this command that Jacob supposedly gave to them. They were afraid, and wanted Jacob’s protection one more time from their brother Joseph. What they did not understand was the power of forgiveness.

Let’s think carefully through the implications of this situation. The implications are startling. If Jacob never gave such a command, and did not mention in chapter 49 what the brothers did, then we can come to only one conclusion: Jacob never found out! But we must go one step further: if Jacob never found out, then it is equally true that Joseph never told him!! There is the power of forgiveness put on a billboard for the world to see. Not only had Joseph really forgiven his brothers, but he did not mention to his father what they had done. Is that not an amazing forgiveness? It is truly of God, truly a divine forgiveness. It was a true forgiveness.

The brothers, on the other hand, could not really believe that Joseph had truly forgiven them. That’s why they dream up this lie about what Jacob said. They forgot what Joseph had said before, or else they thought he didn’t really mean what he said. They appeal on the basis of this lie, but also on the basis of the fact that they serve the same God that Joseph does. Ironically, the brothers fall on their knees, just as they thought originally that they would never do. You might remember Joseph’s dreams where the stalks of wheat belonging to the brothers bowed down to Joseph’s stalk. The brothers were indignant, and yet here they are, bowing down to Joseph, just as they thought they never would!

Notice Joseph’s response. He says, “Am I in the place of God?” One writer has remarked about this statement that Genesis starts with Adam trying to take the place of God, and Genesis ends with a man in an amazing place of power refusing to take the place of God. Genesis ends with a redemption of a kind. However, that redemption is not final. We need someone in a far higher place of power who refuses to use His deity for his own advantage. Philippians 2 helps us out here: “Have the same attitude among yourselves as Christ Jesus, who, though being in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking upon Himself the form of a servant.” Can we see then how Joseph’s divine forgiveness and refusal to take revenge points us to what Jesus Christ would accomplish on the cross? It is Joseph’s not-grasping after divine power that points us to Christ’s own humility that He showed during His entire life, but especially on the cross.

Do you really believe that God has forgiven you? Sometimes we doubt the Word of God, don’t we? We can see plainly enough that those who believe that Christ died for their sins are forgiven. However, we just have a hard time believing that sometimes, don’t we? We are just like the brothers of Joseph. Sometimes we think that our sins are too great for God to forgive. If that is so, then remember that Christ’s blood is more powerful than all sin. To say that God cannot forgive is to say that God is not God, and that He is not powerful enough to erase sin. It is to sin against Christ, because it is His blood that says “what you meant for evil, God has turned into good at the cross.” God has taken His vengeance out on His beloved Son that we might not have to face it. He did that so that He might speak words of comfort to us, just as Joseph comforted his brothers in verse 21.

We must always connect forgiveness of one another with our forgiveness from God. That is the point of the ungrateful servant, you remember. Joyce Baldwin puts it this way: “Only a deep sense of gratitude for the wonder of our own experience of forgiveness in Christ, and for the provision he has made for others to be forgiven, can break down the barriers we put up between ourselves and others, both those we have wronged and those who have wronged us.” If you are having trouble really forgiving someone else, ask yourself this question: “Do you realize that if you are not forgiving someone else, then you are taking the place of God?” It is idolatry of self not to forgive someone else. It is to take the place of God. That is something Joseph would not do. Jesus Himself would not take vengeance on those persecuting Him, but said rather, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Supposing you are the one who needs to ask forgiveness. Beware of putting the other person in the place of God. What do I mean? Matthew Henry explains: “When we ask forgiveness of those whom we have offended we must take heed of putting them in the place of God, by dreading their wrath and soliciting their favour more than God’s.” Don’t fear others more than God. Don’t make up a lie like the brothers did in order to solicit favour with the person of whom you are asking forgiveness. Tell the truth, and be humble. But ask for forgiveness. The brothers waited all this time, and never asked forgiveness. Such things should not be swept under the rug, but should be brought out and resolved. This is the unity of the body of Christ. This is true forgiveness.

Wilkins’s exam, part 5

Under Doctrine of the Church (Carolina Memorial), question 2, we find some key statements about interpretation of Paul, and also about systematic and biblical theology.

Wilkins starts out with a very flimsy defense indeed. After accusing the SCP of misquoting him, he adds in the rest of the sentence. As if adding “The clear implication of these passages” actually answers the query sent by SCP! As if the SCP hadn’t ever read the passages quoted! As if Paul is automatically and without argumentation against the SCP! Since Wilkins’s argumentation on those pages is woefully inadequate in dealing with alternate understandings of the verses in question, we can hardly grant that this is sufficient defense. As a matter of fact, there is absolutely zero detailed exegesis of those supposed passages referred to except for John 15. I have dealt with this exegesis here. He simply assumes that quoting them proves his point. The flimsiness of this defense is evident in the word “appear” in the phrase “the apostles appear to attribute these same things to all the members of the visible church without distinction.” Furthermore, is not this sentence evidence of his not really believing in ontological distinctions within the visible church? Certainly his eisegesis of John 15 points in that direction.

It is very important what Wilkins says on page 10: “My question in light of what WLC affirms (and which I also affirm) is this, ‘How can Paul say that these things are true of the members of the church in Corinth and in what sense are they true?’ Whatever our answer to this question, it seems clear then that Paul is not using these terms in the same way that the Westminster Confession defines them.” His disagreement with the WCF is even more clear when he says “our understanding of salvation from a systematic (Westminsterian) theology standpoint has difficulty accommodating these passages…better way.” Regarding the first quotation, since Wilkins hasn’t even begun to deal with the judgment of charity, which deals quite easily with every single one of the passages he asserts, we can hardly expect to be convinced that his interpretation is correct. If you shove more than half the evidence under the mat, how can you be called a scholar? If we say “judgment of charity,” then it is extremely easy to see that Paul is in fact using those terms in the same way as the WCF uses them. But if Paul never does use these terms in the same way as the WCF uses them, then why isn’t Wilkins advocating changes to the WCF? If the WCF doesn’t accurately reflect Paul, then why should he follow it? He says that his understanding of covenant is a better way of dealing with such passages. That is, his way of understanding covenant is better than the WCF’s way of understanding those passages. Hubris indeed.

Augustine and biblical interpretation

Augustine says this in Book 1, chapter 2: “The purpose of all the Catholic commentators I have been able to read on the divine books of both testaments, who have written before me on the trinity which God is…”

The version I have is translated by Edmund Hill, who has a footnote here which I find extremely to the point: “It is worth noting that Augustine takes it for granted that to write on the Trinity was to interpret the Scriptures. There was no question of dogmatic writers and bible commentators belonging to different species.” I couldn’t agree more. It is a fun quote, is it not?

Methodology and Double-Speak

It has come to my attention in the debates surrounding various posts of mine here that a methodological question needs to be raised. Various people have hinted at it, but Chris’s comments brought it rather starkly to light.

A parable: a Jehovah’s Witness claims up one side and down the other that Jesus is Mighty God (via Isaiah 9:6. They do say that this passage refers to Jesus. However, then what they say is this: “He is not *Al*mighty God, only Mighty God. Oh, and they will also put “God” in lower-case letters. If one were to ask them “Do you believe that Jesus is God?” They can say “yes.” But they qualify it such that they really don’t say it. One could conceivably keep on pushing the JW to state whether or not they believe Jesus to be God, and theoretically, they could still keep on saying “yes.” But we know that they don’t mean it.

FV guys do the same thing. We will accuse them of denying the visible/invisible church distinction. They will say, “No fair! I said it here, here and here.” But then, if you look at how they define it, they have qualified it away. This is absolutely true of Wilkins, as I have more than demonstrated in my previous post. The same is true of imputation in justification in Lusk. He says he believes in imputation in one place, but then he will say that imputation is redundant in another. It cannot be both, friends. The truth of imputation cannot be expressed simply by union with Christ, since the RCC church also believes in union with Christ. I am really, really tired of FV supporters thinking that it is a good argument to say “He said this over here,” when we, as critics, actually acknowledge it most of the time. I have been extremely careful in this regard in my posts on Wilkins’s exam. In fact, this caution is clearly in evidence with regard to the visible/invisible church distinction. The real issue is this: is the theology consistent with the WCF (or 3FU) everywhere? 

So then, what I mean is that Lusk, for instance, in taking away imputation (saying it is redundant, that is) has taken away what is distinctive from the Reformed position vis-a-vis Rome wrt justification. Rome believed in union with Christ. This is the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, par 790 (pg. 227): “Believers who respond to God’s word and become members of Christ’s Body, become intimately united with him: ‘In that body the life of Christ is communicated to those who believe, and who, through the sacraments, are united in a hidden and real way to Christ in his Passion and glorification.’ (quote is from Lumen Gentium 7) This is especially true of Baptism, which unites us to Christ’s death and Resurrection, and the Eucharist, by which ‘really sharing in the body of the Lord,…we are taken up into communion with him and with one another’ (quote from Lumen Gentium 7).”

The question that imputation deals with is this: “How does the righteousness of Jesus become mine?” The answer cannot simply be union with Christ, since that does not differentiate us from Rome. Rome would say that the righteousness of Christ comes by way of union with Him and receiving the infusion of Christ’s righteousness. See CCC pars. 2019-2023. The Reformation says that the righteousness of Jesus Christ comes to us by way of imputation, not by infusion. This was the entire debate with regard to justification in the Reformation. Some might say “that is a terrible argument, to argue that Rome said this, and therefore we cannot believe that.” That’s not what I’m arguing, actually. What I’m saying is that the Reformation had major differences with Rome over justification. What were the nature of those differences? If we say the same thing as Rome, then we have denied that we are Reformed. That’s what I’m arguing.

Has Lusk dealt with the Rome question of imputation? That is, has he anywhere detailed why it is that saying imputation is redundant does not also take away the barrier to Rome? How does he differentiate his view from Rome? One would presume he would want to do so.

So, let’s cut through the methodological double-speak and ask the right question: is the FV theology compatible at every point with the WCF (or 3FU)?

Matthew 13 and the Visible/Invisible Church Distinction

Whatever one’s exegesis of the parable of the sower is, there is a clear and unmistakable pointer to the visible/invisible church distinction in the parable of the net. Here is the text:

 47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. 48 When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. 49 So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

And in Greek:

47Πάλιν ὁμοία ἐστὶν βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν σαγήνῃ βληθείσῃ εἰς τὴν θάλασσαν καὶ ἐκ παντὸς γένους συναγαγούσῃ: 48ἣν ὅτε ἐπληρώθη ἀναβιβάσαντες ἐπὶ τὸν αἰγιαλὸν καὶ καθίσαντες συνέλεξαν τὰ καλὰ εἰς ἄγγη, τὰ δὲ σαπρὰ ἔξω ἔβαλον. 49οὕτως ἔσται ἐν τῇ συντελείᾳ τοῦ αἰῶνος: ἐξελεύσονται οἱ ἄγγελοι καὶ ἀφοριοῦσιν τοὺς πονηροὺς ἐκ μέσου τῶν δικαίων 50καὶ βαλοῦσιν αὐτοὺς εἰς τὴν κάμινον τοῦ πυρός: ἐκεῖ ἔσται κλαυθμὸς καὶ βρυγμὸς τῶν ὀδόντων.

So, the kingdom of heaven (note that: the kingdom of heaven) is like a net which drags in all sorts of different things IN THE PRESENT. That is the import of “fish of every kind.” Fish of a good kind, and fish of a bad kind. The net, by the way, is a long net (250-450 meters long, 2 meters wide, according to Luz, pg. 283) manned by quite a few men. It is being filled now (vs. 48). Then, at the close of the age, the angels will do the sorting. As a matter of fact, then, there are people within the kingdom who will not be sorted out until the final reckoning. But this is a clear passage supporting the present distinction between visible and invisible church.

Wilkins’s exam, part 4

Here we get to the doctrine of the church, which is in some ways the linch-pin to this whole debate. How does one define the church?

Here Wilkins is guilty of nothing less than talking out of both sides of his mouth. On the one hand, he says that he “wholeheartedly affirm(s) this distinction as the Westminster Confession defines the invisible church.” He then proceeds to define the invisible church in a manner completely incompatibile with WCF 25.

First of all, he says that “the invisible Church does not yet exist though it is surely foreordained by God and will surely and certainly exist at the last day.” This completely vitiates the doctrine of the invisible church. WCF says explicitly that the the invisible church consists (note the PRESENT tense) of all the elect.

Then he says that “the category of ‘invisible church’ can lead us to all sorts of misunderstandings and misconceptions.” Well, this certainly sounds like “wholeheartedly affirming this distinction.” It’s a bit like saying, “I wholeheartedly believe in God, but there are significant problems with the category of ‘God.’ The qualification does away with the assertion.

The way he prefers to define the invisible church (and he agrees with Doug Wilson here) is as the eschatological church. But this is to erase the distinction as it is in place now. The WCF does not say “the invisible church will be in existence in the future.” It says “the invisible church consists.” By the way, it should be carefully noted that saying “invisible” and “eschatological” are not even remotely the same thing. The doctrine of the invisible church has always meant that there is a distinction within the church in the present between the elect and the non-elect. Saying “eschatological” erases that distinction. Now, Wilkins would probably say that he affirms the distinction within the church now. The problem is that he has no basis left for saying that. I have said before that the reason why the Reformers harped on this distinction is because the Roman Catholic Church kept asking the Reformers “Where was your church for the last 1500 years?” The only answer and defense that the Reformers could give was “we were the invisible church, existing by faith.” If that distinction is not in the present, then there is no justification for the Reformers to be the true church. So, in denying the WCF definition of the invisible church, Wilkins takes the rug out from under the Reformers. Therefore, it is not true at all that his “accusers are simply disagreeing with (his) argument rather than proving that (he) denies the WCF definition of the church.”

Wilkins assumes that which is to be proved when he takes this pot shot at %90 of the Reformed world: “Indeed, it seems to me that they are often the ones who deny the distinction between the ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’ Church in that they attribute those things the apostles say to be true of the visible Church exclusively to the invisible Church. The visible Church is denigrated as being nothing more than a pale and imperfect reflection of the ‘true’ church (which is, in their minds, the ‘invisible’ church, the abode of the elect).” I must confess that I lost my cool when I read this absolutely hideous slander. Which Reformed theologian did he have in mind who denigrates the Church? Which Reformed theologians are the ones denying the distinction? Presumably he is referring to the Central Carolina Presbytery. He just accused an entire Presbytery of heresy. Now, if you are a Wilkins supporter reading this, just put yourself for one minute in the place of one of Wilkins’s critics. What does this sentence sound like? I will leave that question hanging in the air for a minute. “Infuriating” is the word that comes to mind, however.

He contradicts himself again in just one sentence when he says, “It is important for us to recognize the fact of the mixed nature of the Church in history, but this does not mean that there is such a thing as an ‘invisible Church’ of which you must become a member.” Hello? And again, he misunderstands the position of those who hold to the distinction, when he accuses them of denying the creeds of the church (one holy catholic, etc. church). So anyone who says that one must become a member of the invisible church by faith denies the creeds of the church. So much for the PPT together document. In a single stroke, he has accused the majority of the Reformed world of heresy.

How in the world do the Calvin quotes support his position? They quite simply don’t. At the most, they support what I have already demonstrated (and am entirely comfortable with, by the way!); namely, that there is a general election (which includes *none* of the benefits given to the elect), and a special election. The quotation from Inst. 3.2.11 is taken grossly out of context. He is missing all sorts of qualifications that Calvin puts on such a statement, as anyone who is unbiased can tell. Time and time again in that section, Calvin distinguishes clearly between the elect and the reprobate within the church: “only those predestined to salvation receive the light of faith and truly feel the power of the gospel…almost the same feeling (but obviously not quite) as the elect…his goodness may be tasted without the Spirit of adoption…only in the elect does that confidence flourish…as God regenerates only the elect with incorruptible seed…that lower working of the Spirit…the reprobate never receive anything but a confused awareness of grace, so that they grasp a shadow rather than the firm body of it. For the Spirit, strictly speaking, seals forgiveness of sins in the elect alone.” And then, to cap it off, Wilkins doesn’t quote the remainder of the sentence, “Yet the reproabte are justly said to believe that God is merciful toward them, for they receive the gift of reconciliation, although confusedly and not distinctly enough. Not that they are partakers of the same faith or regeneration with the children of God, but because they seem, under a cloak of hypocrisy, to have a beginning of faith in common with the latter…they do not attain the full effect and fruition thereof. He does not show himself merciful to them, to the extent of truly snatching them from death and receiving them into his keeping.” These quotes heavily qualify the particular quote that Wilkins yanks out of context. All of what I have quoted comes from the very same section of the Institutes.

Wilkins’s exam, part 3

I will skip over I.4 and I.5, since little of substance was addressed there. I will, therefore, move on to section II, dealing with the Memorial from Central Carolina Presbytery. The first question has to do with election. Personally, the first question isn’t a very helpful one. The third question is the important one. I think that Wilkins thinks the same about the first question, as he says, “I’m not quite sure how to answer this question.” For me, the question is not “Does Wilkins affirm the decretal election taught in the WCF?” He has said on many occasions that he does. The real question is this: “Does his view of covenantal election contradict/undermine the teaching of the WCF on decretal election?” Or, we could ask it this way: “Is Wilkins consistent with the WCF when he teaches ‘covenantal election?’” This is the far more important question. Fortunately, Wilkins’s response to this question actually addresses the more important question. We will therefore be dealing with II.1-3.

In answer to the first question, Wilkins asserts that he has always taught the WCF definition of election. He gives a quotation from his Federal Vision article to prove it. Then he says “I then follow this affirmation of the traditional view with a discussion of how the word “elect” functions in various passages of the Bible…We do believe, however, that the terms ‘elect,’ ‘chosen,’ etc., are often used in the Scriptures to refer to those who are members of the visible church (e.g., Col 3:12; 2 Th 2:13; 1 Pe 1:1-2) and not restricted to those who were chosen to eternal salvation. To affirm this, however, does not require a denial of the teaching of the Confession.”

Now, it is certainly the case that the Bible uses the term “choose” and “election” to refer to a corporate body in the Bible. See Calvin’s Institutes 3.21.5, which quotes Deut 32:8-9, Deut 7:7-8, Deut 10:14-15 to prove his point. In fact, Calvin says “sanctification is enjoined upon them because they have been chosen as his ‘special people’” (pg. 927). This corporate election is plainly losable. This is what Calvin says: “Also the prophets often confront the Jews with this election, to the latters’ displeasure and by way of reproach, since they had shamefully fallen away from it” (pg. 927). However, the implications of such an election are not even remotely taken in the same direction as Wilkins takes them. Calvin adds “a second, more limited degree of election, or one in which God’s more special grace was evident” (pg. 929). This is of individual Israelites, as the context of Calvin’s discussion immediately makes plain. Note here Calvin’s use of the term “special grace.” The grace in these two “elections” is by no means the same. Calvin clarifies further down the page: “But I had good reason to say that here we must note two degrees, for in the election of a whole nation God has already shown that in his mere generosity he has not been bound by any laws but is free, so that equal apportionment of grace is not to be required of him. The very inequality of his grace proves that it is free.” On the next page, he equivocates not at all, but says that salvation is to be attributed only to the more narrow, limited degree of election: “His free election has been only half explained until we come to individual persons, to whom God not only offers salvation but so assigns it that the certainty of its effect is not in suspense or doubt…Therefore Paul skillfully argues from the passage of Malachi (in Rom 9) that I have just cited that where God has made a covenant of eternal life and calls any people to himself, a special mode of election is employed for a part of them, so that he does not with indiscriminate grace effectually elect all.” He stops clearly short of attributing regeneration to the “general election,” when he says “It is easy to explain why the general election of a people is not always firm and effectual: to those with whom God makes a covenant, he does not at once give the spirit of regeneration that would enable them to persevere in the covenant to the very end. Rather, the outward change, without the working of inner grace, which might have availed to keep them, is intermediate between the rejection of mankind and the election of a meager number of the godly” (930). The reason I have quoted so copiously from Calvin is that Wilkins claims his views to be from Calvin, and to show that, though there are superficial similarities between them, the difference is deep indeed.

This quotation is from the revised version of the AAPC statement: : “the Bible does not explain the distinction between the nature of the work of the Spirit in the reprobate and the nature of His work in the elect, and even uses the same language for both.” Calvin is very clear: there is an enormous difference between what happens to the decretally elect versus what happens to those who are not, though in covenant. That Calvin is actually addressing this issue is plain from the wording “a part of them.” Regeneration is not given to everyone who is part of the covenant. The AAPC statement still has this completely wrong: the Bible does not use the same language of justification, sanctification, adoption, election, glorification, etc. for the elect as for the non-elect covenantal members. The example used by the AAPC to make its point is not actually to the point, since the Spirit coming upon Saul and the Spirit coming upon David must be explained by the rest of Scripture. Though we can surely take from that passage that the common operations of the Spirit can often look like the real work of regeneration, it is not said to be regeneration. Saul was never regenerated. What happens in the AAPC statement is this leap of logic: since one cannot ordinarily distinguish between the common operations of the Spirit and the “real thing,” and that the Bible seemingly says the same thing about both categories of people, that therefore there must be some ontological reality corresponding to this. Nowhere does “judgment of charity” even get a head-nod.

BOQ God, however, mysteriously has chosen to draw some into the covenant community who are not elect unto eternal salvation. These non-elect covenant members are truly brought to Christ, united to Him in the Church by baptism and receive various gracious operations of the Holy Spirit. Corporately, they are part of the chosen, redeemed, Spirit-indwelt people. Sooner or later, however, in the wise counsel of God, these fail to bear fruit and fall away. In some sense, they were really joined to the elect people, really sanctified by Christ’s blood, really recipients of new life given by the Holy Spirit. God, however, has chosen not to uphold them in the faith, and all is lost. They break the gracious new covenant they entered into at baptism. EOQ (from the AAPC revised statement)

Here again we have too much attributed to general election. Such people are never redeemed, and they are certainly never “really joined to the elect people, really sanctified by Christ’s blood, really recipients of new life given by the Holy Spirit.” This is the problem. There is no qualification given to this except the very vague “in some sense.” In guarding the WCF concerns, it is never enough to say “Oh, I believe in it.” It must also be thoroughly guarded at every point in one’s theology. Clarifications and qualifications must be present, especially when engaging in statements such as this.

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