Denominational Renewal – Theology Part 1

Posted by Bob Mattes

In this ongoing discussion, PCA TE Jeremy Jones is in the dock this week. His topic is Renewing Theology, and you can download his 40+ minute talk here. I listened to the whole thing, taking some notes because it was so long. I must admit to being disturbed by much of what I heard on two levels. First, the favorable appeal to Reformed Catholicism (in the capitalized sense) as a base for Reformed theology. That blows my mind every time that I think about it. My second issue is that TE Jones sets up a lot of strawmen to knock down, but offers no evidence for their existence in real life. And honestly, with two weeks into this thing I’ve seen a lot of hand-waving and not a lot of specific substance as to their assumptions that the PCA needs renewal in the sense that they’ve presented it. If you don’t believe me, listen to the talks.

I anticipate that this will be a series of two posts: one addressing the bulk of TE Jones’ talk and his use of Reformed Catholicism, and one addressing Dr. Frame’s response. I’ve already posted comments on these two topics under Dr. Frames post, though I will expand them a bit here. The comment system at Typepad isn’t very good and really limits what you can do there.

In his talk, Jeremy addresses sectarianism and what he believes causes it. He calls sectarianism “our generation’s original sin.” From this statement, I can only assume that he’s short on presbyterian history. Sectarianism by his definition was the sport of choice in the mid-late 19th through the mid 20th century. Nothing has come close since. Worse, he claims that sectarianism results from ecclesial myopia combined with megalomania (delusion of grandeur). His words, not mine. I doubt that many in our church’s history would agree with that statement. It seems to minimize real theological issues, especially the role of liberalism, in the historical presbyterian experience. My answer to Dr. Frame touches on this a bit without talking about it directly.

After creating some unsubstantiated strawmen, Jeremy sums up his concerns by suggesting that sectarianism creates a denominational police state. Although, he says the PCA isn’t there yet, he goes on to say that the PCA suffers from paranoia. That carries over from last week’s talk. Hmmm. I think that I read both of these assertions over at the Federal Vision blogs on several occasions, somewhere in between my being called Satan and a vampire. (Late addition, there is a discussion on Jeremy’s talk at an FV blog, and they seem to have no complaints.) I’m not painting Jeremy with the FV brush, but I’m beginning to wonder about the background behind the whole “denominational renewal” thing. Remember, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that they aren’t out to get you!

In the interest of time, I’ll fast-forward 40 minutes to his suggestions for solutions. He proposes to replace sectarianism with Reformed Catholicism theology. He says that we are part of the universal Catholic Church, that the enemy isn’t the church down the street but the world, flesh, and the devil. (I If we leave the Reformed Catholicism out, I’m good up to here.) But then he says that we need to recovery of the ecclesial identity of the original Reformed fathers, who saw themselves as a branch of Roman Catholic Church.

Whoa, stop the horses. What’s this all about?

Jeremy offers the illustration of a house. The foundation of the house is the Word, the 1st floor is Catholic tradition in the Roman sense. The 2nd floor has the subdivided apartments of Protestantism. TE Jones says that if you’re Protestant, you rest on top of the Roman Catholic tradition – that they mediated the Catholic faith to us. Hence, it is all one building. He claims that a Reformed Catholic identity illumens a broader historic belief, that the creeds come from RCC and the Reformers tried to reform the Roman Catholic Church, not pitch it. He says that they did not alter the core doctrines (did/do the Romans think that the sacrifice of the mass, transubstantiation, purgatory, and Mariology were peripheral?) but reformed those they found in error within the bounds of the RCC tradition which remained substantially unaltered. (How did they reform the sacrifice of the mass, transubstationation, purgatory, and Mariology? I think that they pitched them, et al.) He says that this provides a different scale of importance in our theology, so that Catholic creedal orthodoxy becomes more basic than Reformed theology.

I apologize for the length of all that, but I quoted my notes in detail there so that no one could accuse me of taking his remarks out of context. Now, I was born and raised in the Roman Catholic Church. I did first communion, confirmation, and confirmation of Christian doctrine (CCD) in the Roman church. I’ve kept up with Roman theological developments and still work with struggling Catholics. So I know a few things about the Roman church, its history, and its theology. Having left all that, and by God’s infinite grace found the Reformed faith through extensive study, I would like to offer a different and, I believe, more accurate view of the Roman tradition and the Reformers.

I respectfully dissent from Jeremy’s house analogy with the clear assertion that the Reformed faith is built as an upper floor on top of the Roman church as a first floor. Certainly I don’t deny that Luther’s original goal was to reform the RCC, but it wasn’t very long before that goal showed itself not to be possible and was abandoned. Unlike Luther and Bucer, men like Calvin, Beza, Bullinger, Knox, etc. were never Roman priests and so cannot be said to have attempted to reform Rome. They struck a separate path based on the gospel, distinct from Rome.

I see a significantly different history than Jeremy described when I read the Reformers. The early reformers used the term “anti-Christ” to characterize the pope and the Roman church more times than any of us can count. Whatever I could say here would pale in comparison to what they wrote about Rome. The adjective “popish” was one of Calvin’s favorite derogatories. Calvin’s response to the Faculty of Sacred Theology of Paris drips with sarcasm and disdain. Junius’ notes on Revelation in the 1599 Geneva Bible included a chart delineating which evil figures in Revelation matched particular Roman church leaders. And then there’s the Institutes…

No, the Reformers bypassed the Roman doctrines to study the Bible itself from the original languages. They pitched the sacrifice of the mass, transubstantiation, purgatory, Mariology, leadership structure, etc. They did not attempt to reform the Roman church itself in the long run, but strove to recapture the truths of, and build upon, the foundation of Christ and His Word directly. They also used the early creeds which were developed before the corruption of Rome trampled the early church into oblivion. In response to the Reformation, the Roman church anathematized the gospel at the Council of Trent. The doctrines canonized at Trent weren’t new. Rome’s long-time doctrines were simply codified there. How can one build upon such a foundation? Surely this is a foundation of sand which our Lord contrasted to the Rock of our salvation.

That fact that the early creeds up to Chalcedon (which preceded the advent of the RCC church, which has been variously placed between the 6th and 11th centuries) and some orthodox doctrines survived across centuries of corruption and a defective “gospel” is no credit to that apostate church. The Roman church did not “protect and hand down” those creeds or doctrines, but rather God providentially protected those truths in spite of the corrupt leadership, doctrines, and practices of the Roman church, handing them to the Reformers who recaptured the Gospel of Jesus Christ to His glory.

In rejecting the house analogy, I am not denying that we and our Protestant brothers and sisters share a commonality in the gospel. To the contrary, we practice this fellowship in concrete ways to the glory of God alone. Specific examples include foreign missions, work for the hungry and homeless, battered women’s shelters, etc. The has been a hallmark since the first Reformers (e.g., Calvin’s hospital in Geneva). Jesus Christ owns the gospel, not the PCA. But I do deny that the Reformed and evangelical faiths are built on the corrupt foundation of Rome’s sand. Rather, they are build on the Rock of Jesus Christ and His Gospel, recovered from the apostolic era and early church in spite of Rome’s opposition. They did so at the cost of tens of thousands of martyred lives. I do not believe that we should devalue their blood and sacrifices in this way.

Nor do I believe that Jeremy needs the house analogy to make his points about sectarianism and working together with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Our common Protestant heritage lies not in an apostate church or tradition, but in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and His admonition to take care of our neighbors.

As an alternative, I prefer Dr. R.C. Sproul’s illustration. He also talks about layers, but layers of doctrines rather than churches. If I remember correctly, he uses the Apostles’ Creed as the first level over a foundation of Christ and His Word, and builds up from there to the WCF and 3FU. This seems to me to be the preferable approach, as it honors both the great sacrifices of our spiritual forebearers and the gospel itself. Words mean things, and illustrations even more so.

To be fair, Jeremy said in his talk that sometimes sectarianism contains a lot of truth, and that theology includes preservation. He said that it had helped against the liberals in the past. Likewise in the case of the Reformation, I believe that splitting from Rome rather than reforming it or building on it glorified God and His Truths. I do not think it helpful to try to cover that chasm with a thin layer of plaster.

It’s hard to believe that a PCA teaching elder can, in my opinion, devalue the contribution and the magnitude of the accomplishments of the early Reformers in this way. I realize that in his mind that’s not what he’s doing or even intended to do. History, though, says otherwise. Of course, Jeremy is welcome to rebut me here or at the discussion site if he so choses. As I said above, I’ll have another post shortly addressing some challenging questions that Dr. Frame asked. But for now, what do you think?

Soli Deo Gloria!
Bob Mattes

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8 Comments

  1. September 23, 2008 at 4:52 pm

    [...] to write a sympathetic post to TE Jeremy Jones’ remarks on Renewing Theologly. As I said in this post, the remarks run 40+ minutes. In his response, Dr. Frame asked some interesting questions. I [...]

  2. September 23, 2008 at 10:58 pm

    [...] have two posts in response to this lecture over at GreenBaggins. Part 1 covers TE Jones’ comments on the Roman church. Part 2 answers some questions which Dr. John [...]

  3. Andrew said,

    September 27, 2008 at 1:04 pm

    Lane,

    The problem I see in your presentation of history is this:

    You would seem to regard the RCC as non-Christian/totally apostate (and I do not necessarily disagree)

    You also identify the medieval church as RCC. Therefore the church at some point in history vanished, contrary to Christ’s promises. This obviously cannot be.

    Instead, one might suggest that the RCC is only founded at Trent, where it officially embraced grevious error and damned the truth. I think it was Owen who suggested the principle of double apostacy – a church does not become a synagogue of Satan until it both embraces error and condmens the truth.

    Alternatively one could mainatin that the RCC is still part of the church. I seem to recall that Calvin argues that the medieval church was truely a christian church, and sharply distinguishes it from the system of the papacy, which he presents as a usurping tyrant. Indeed Calvin cites Thess. where it talks of the man of sin ruling in the church to prove that the antichrist is within the church, and that the presense of pope does not unchurch a church. This would still apply today.

    Though I am sure he may say other things elsewhere.

    Just some thoughts – I am not certian enough to commit firmly to any view as yet.

  4. September 27, 2008 at 1:16 pm

    Hi Andrew,

    It was me, Bob, who wrote the post, not Lane. I cannot speak for our blessed blog boss. :-)

    You also identify the medieval church as RCC.

    Yes, that’s true, though I did not, nor probably could not, assign a date and time to the transition.

    Therefore the church at some point in history vanished, contrary to Christ’s promises. This obviously cannot be.

    I agree that it cannot be. Like in ancient Israel, God saved a remnant unto Himself during the darkest periods. As I’m sure that you know, the Reformation didn’t happen all at once or in a vacuum. Luther had predecessors, most of which were executed by Rome. There were faithful men throughout the dark period. Christ’s church isn’t a political institution, therefore I don’t believe His promise fell short during the dark periods.

    Although I don’t believe that Calvin used the term “remnant”, I believe the term is consistent with his views. The French Confession, Chapters XXVII-XXIX covers the issue nicely in a summary fashion.

  5. Andrew said,

    September 28, 2008 at 3:08 am

    Apologies. I see ‘Posted by Bob Mattes’ clearly at the top!

    As a matter of pedantry, Wikipedia suggests that Knox was indeed a priest. More importantly, however, I do not think at any point there was an attempt to set up a rival church. Calvin did not go to Geneva and set up a rival congregation – he ministered to the existing one, and attempted to reform it.

    Likewise, in Scotland, Knox did not try to set up a purer, reformed kirk along side a papist one – his goal was the entire church in Scotland, and this he achieved. The same was true in England. In both cases, this meant gradual reformation, and toleration for a while of popish remains. Moreover, it menat recognition of that existing congregation as as congregation of the church.

    I quite agree that those who faithfully followed Christ during medieval times may have been a minority. But the church still must be church since the promises where made to the collective body, not random individuals – unless, I suppose, the visible church is not church at all.

    The example of Israel readily shows this. Although many members were idolators, God sent his prophets, not merely as comforters to the seven thousand, but to the whole nation, and addresses them as his people. They are still church, even though a disobedient one.

  6. September 28, 2008 at 11:09 pm

    Andrew,

    Thanks for your thoughts. Other sources say that Knox became a minister in the Church of England at one point, but do not mention a priesthood in the RCC. Either way, though, he was one of the most militant Protestants of the period. He did not recognize them as a true church. That should be apparent from his writings, and accounts for his great popularity as a galley slave.

    I think Calvin was explicit both in the French Confession and other writings that the RCC wasn’t a true church. I stand by my analysis. The motivation behind this modern trend to reconcile with an organization that anathematized the gospel eludes me. I’m kinda glad that it does.

  7. Andrew said,

    September 29, 2008 at 5:16 pm

    Rey,

    Though if belief in God’s sovereignity is the decisive and distinguishing mark of Roman Catholicism, you presumably regard Calvin and Luther as essentially Roman Catholics?

  8. June 22, 2009 at 7:50 pm

    [...] provided pause to many. To me, the worship and preaching seemed to be designed by the “denominational renewal” folks. I’ll write about this subject in much more detail. In chatting around the GA, I [...]


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