A Disappointing Discussion

Posted by David Gadbois

Last year Peter Leithart posted an article, The End of Protestantism, over on the First Things web site and among other things asserted that we Protestants (including, of course, us confessional Presbyterian and Reformed folk) needed to adopt a more “Reformational Catholic” perspective and start to consider those in Roman Catholicism to be part of the same Christian family along with us. That is,

Some Protestants don’t view Roman Catholics as Christians, and won’t acknowledge the Roman Catholic Church as a true church. A Reformational Catholic regards Catholics as brothers, and regrets the need to modify that brotherhood as “separated.”

Several critical responses followed, including one article from Wesleyan theologian Fred Sanders, one from Reformed theologian R. Scott Clark, as well as assorted others throughout the blogosphere.

leithart_conference

The Torrey Honors Institute at BIOLA University and First Things organized a public discussion of the issues raised in Leithart’s article last month between Leithart, Sanders, and Carl Trueman. I assume Sanders recruited Trueman to represent the traditional (confessional) Reformed position. You can watch the whole discussion here, and you can read Leithart’s follow-up post here.

Unfortunately Trueman offered a timid and inadequate rebuttal to Leithart’s errors. I attended the public discussion on the campus of BIOLA University, and I felt both disappointed and aggravated that my own Reformed tradition was neither accurately nor forcefully represented before an audience of Bible college students who primarily hail from Baptist churches, EV Free churches, and various non-denominational evangelical churches.

Trueman is usually a reliable exponent of reformed and presbyterian theology, so I was surprised that the discussion turned out the way it did. The premise that cannot be granted Leithart is the assumption that Roman Catholics are our brothers and that Rome is a true church of Jesus Christ. If that is granted, then Leithart’s logic and conclusions must follow, and there can be no objection to his central thesis that we are all one family in Christ who need to learn to get along with each other. Trueman essentially granted this premise, and the only difficulty seemed to be some pesky logistical issues and pastoral concerns. All four men on the stage seemed to be on board with this faulty premise. But this represents a failure of basic pastoral discernment.

If my assessment seems harsh, click the video link and watch for yourself. I had a brief opportunity to challenge this point during the Q&A session toward the end of the night. I pointed out that as Reformed Christians we identified true churches according to the 3 Marks of the Church (see, for instance, the Belgic Confession). At least as early as the French Confession (1559) it was explicitly held that Rome failed this test:

In this belief we declare that, properly speaking, there can be no Church where the Word of God is not received, nor profession made of subjection to it, nor use of the sacraments. Therefore we condemn the papal assemblies, as the pure Word of God is banished from them, their sacraments are corrupted, or falsified, or destroyed, and all superstitions and idolatries are in them. We hold, then, that all who take part in those acts, and commune in that Church, separate and cut themselves off from the body of Christ.

It will not do to hold up as a fig leaf the fact that Roman Catholic baptisms were accepted as valid and rebaptism was rejected. It is true that the rite ought to be considered as valid when administered in the name of the Triune God, but even granting this that would only make it a necessary, not sufficient, basis for a credible profession of Christian faith. And, as I pointed out during the Q&A, the Reformed barred Romanists from the Lord’s Table. Shouldn’t that be sufficient indication that this ecumenical attitude is out-of-step with our tradition’s earliest belief and practice? It is true that one can find exceptions to this traditional view (at least in some respects), but I have found most of such anecdotal examples to be quite late (e.g. Machen, Hodge) and certainly never rising to the level of a confessional standard (of which there are a great many).

Turning aside from the historical considerations, you will notice that this ecumenical premise of Leithart’s does not ground the brotherly or ecclesial unity he seeks in the Gospel, but only in baptism and a shared Trinitarian confession. In fact, did anyone even mention the Gospel by name in that entire discussion? I certainly don’t recall. Sure, there was talk of justification by faith and such but nowhere was our unity explicitly grounded in a shared Gospel of Jesus Christ. Leithart is, of course, aware that Rome rejects justification by faith alone, and trots out the old chestnut about it being possible for people to be saved by faith in Christ who don’t realize they are saved by faith in Christ. A critical thinker would observe that that is beside the point. There are many true believers who simply exercise extrospective trust in Christ, and nothing else, for their salvation and are not particularly self-reflective about the nature of their faith nor the precise mechanism God has used to unite them to Himself. The problem is that Rome explicitly denies that we are justified by faith alone and sets up false objects of faith that deny Christ’s completed and sufficient work. It is not a matter of simple ignorance but of essentially setting up false co-redeemers alongside Christ. As Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 30 reads:

Do those also believe in the only Savior Jesus, who seek their salvation and welfare from “saints,” themselves, or anywhere else?

No; although they make their boast of Him, yet in their deeds they deny the only Savior Jesus; for either Jesus is not a complete Savior, or they who by true faith receive this Savior, must have in Him all that is necessary to their salvation.

The Reformers saw in the errors of Rome a direct parallel with the Gospel-denying doctrines of the Judaizers that Paul anathematizes in Galatians, the core of which is the idea that some good work needs to be wrought in addition to the faith-received righteousness of Christ in order for the sinner to receive justification before God. “Faith” in Christ becomes nullified by competitors. In his commentary on Galatians Calvin writes:

[Paul's] greatest severity of language is directed, as we shall see, against the false apostles. He charges them with turning aside, not only from his gospel, but from Christ; for it was impossible for them to retain their attachment to Christ, without acknowledging that he has graciously delivered us from the bondage of the law. But such a belief cannot be reconciled with those notions respecting the obligation of ceremonial observance which the false apostles inculcated. They were removed from Christ; not that they entirely rejected Christianity, but that the corruption of their doctrines was such as to leave them nothing more than an imaginary Christ.

Thus, in our own times, the Papists, choosing to have a divided and mangled Christ, have none, and are therefore “removed from Christ.” They are full of superstitions, which are directly at variance with the nature of Christ. Let it be carefully observed, that we are removed from Christ, when we fall into those views which are inconsistent with his mediatorial office; for light can have no fellowship with darkness.

The book of Galatians, in fact, furnishes for us the reason why rightly distinguishing between wayward brother and false teacher is a critical pastoral task. For the former we offer loving but firm rebuke and call to repentance as Paul has offered the Christians at the church at Galatia along with the Apostle Peter. The sin is temporary and the rebuke is met with repentance. It is like the discipline of a child or family member. But for the false teachers we are to follow the NT and regard them as pseudoadelphoi (false brothers), pseudoapostoloi (false apostles), dogs, serpents, and deceitful workers with whom we should not even eat nor wish godspeed. The attitude and orientation is entirely different for the impenitent apostate. It is our obligation to paint a clear and bright line between those in the covenant community and those outside of the visible church of Christ. And surely we compound our sin of cowardice if we also extend the false hope of eternal life to those who are in the state of impenitent apostacy, by telling them that they are simply misguided but still in Christ. That is simply partaking in a lie that leads to the damnation of souls rather than spurring saving repentance.

Other matters could be discussed at length that I will only mention briefly. The idolatry of the mass was shamefully glossed over in the discussion, even though Heidelberg Q&A 80 calls it “nothing else than a denial of the one sacrifice and sufferings of Jesus Christ, and an accursed idolatry.” It is also unfortunate that Trueman did not mention the fact that the errors in Leithart’s essay should come as no surprise, inasmuch as he is a primary leader in the heretical Federal Vision movement within the Reformed and Presbyterian landscape. Many (most?) of both the systemic and particular errors of the FV movement and Leithart in particular are errors shared with Rome. So it naturally follows that he would have a rather ecunemenical spirit toward Rome. It should have been mentioned that this movement has been unanimously condemned by confessional Reformed and Presbyterian denominations. It should have also been mentioned that, while Leithart’s presbytery acquitted him of heresy charges, a good many people in his denomination (the PCA) are outraged by the acquittal and would like to see him out of the denomination. Obviously these matters have been documented and discussed at length on this blog, but I doubt that more than a handful of people in the room at BIOLA that night were aware of this crucial background knowledge.

I do find a bit of irony in the fact that Leithart mentioned the practice of praying the imprecatory psalms against the enemies of the church. In a qualified way I can agree with that practice, but one has to at least be able to identify friend from foe to do so. We are only a few decades away from the 500th anniversary of the Council of Trent, wherein Rome anathematized the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and since has done nothing but dig into her errors while ignoring the calls by Reformational Christians to repent. There ought not be any debate or mystery amongst educated believers over what we are dealing with here.

Leithart on Justification and Baptism

Posted by David Gadbois

An alert commenter on this blog has noted some unfortunate (but unsurprising) comments from Peter Leithart in a recent web article that he penned:

Does the New Testament teach that “baptism justifies you”? I think the answer is Yes.

This is from an article that was published on the Trinity House blog, less than 2 months ago. Now anyone who has been following the Leithart trial should have realized that this is the logical implication of Leithart’s theology, but it is useful that he would explicitly state this belief, even if at this late hour. In the balance of the article he nowhere attempts to explain how this doctrine is compatible with the historic Protestant doctrine of justification sola fide. That is, the biblical and orthodox belief that we receive the justifying righteousness of Christ solely by the instrument (i.e. the appropriating organ) of extrospective faith in Christ. In passing he admits that his “argument creates difficulties elsewhere in our understanding of both Paul and Protestant orthodoxy.” Well, no kidding. It is a marvel that so many learned men fail to grasp that “alone” means that everything besides faith, including the sacraments, are excluded in justification. But then, logic was never the strong suit for FV.

Additionally, he repeats in this article his error of defining justification as “deliverict”, combining the forensic declaration of justification with an inward delivery from sin. To top it off, he denies the perseverance of the saints when he states that “God regards [those who will apostatize] with favor, counts them as just, for a time” before they fall away.

Now it is certainly important to answer Leithart’s argument on biblical grounds. This has been done, in some cases more directly and in some cases less directly, in various FV-critical books, denominational reports, and perhaps most effectively in Lane’s written testimony in the Leithart case. And we, the blog authors, together with the many smart, gracious, and orthodox commenters, are prepared to continue a biblical critique of these errors in this forum.

However, it is worth pointing out that this article represents a doubling down of error on Leithart’s part, bringing his public teaching more explicitly at odds with the reformed standards (both the Westminster Standards and the 3 Forms of Unity) and, indeed, a fundamental reformational and Protestant understanding of justification. This ought to be sufficient reason for Leithart’s apologists to either find a more honorable line of work or simply admit that his doctrine is incompatible with basic Reformed and Protestant teaching, even if they consider it to be biblical and true. But let’s not continue to pretend that this teaching has any place in the PCA or any other church that claims the historic reformed creeds as their own. The intellectual case for such an idea is threadbare, even if some would hold up the fig leaf of ecclesiastical process as a cover for such foolishness.

Debating Galatians on Justification

I know that Lane will have much more to say by means of following up his opening shot in Reponse to Jason Stellman, Part 1, but I wanted to open up a new thread so that those who want to focus on the issue of Galatians, especially chapters 5-6, in relation to justification can continue the debate in the combox.  Since the comments are about to break the 500 comment barrier under Lane’s post, it is probably useful to focus in on the most relevant issues being discussed.  Jeff Cagle has been good enough to respond to some of Jason Stellman’s arguments from Galatians, and I wanted to highlight these issues amidst the rest of the cluttered and often irrelevant back-and-forth.

I did want to give a few brief thoughts of my own.

1.  The pivotal issue being discussed is what “faith working through love” actually counts for in Galatians 5:6.  Does it count for justification, or for the Christian life (sanctification)?  Horton is not the only person to say that justification is not in view here.  Luther wrote:

Therefore no one with any sense can take this passage to refer to the business of justification in the sight of God; for it is speaking of the total life of Christians, and it is faulty dialectic or the fallacy of composition and division  to attribute to one part what is said of the whole.

And Calvin:

With respect to the present passage, Paul enters into no dispute whether love cooperates with faith in justification; but, in order to avoid the appearance of representing Christians as idle and as resembling blocks of wood, he points out what are the true exercises of believers….Paul does not here treat of justification, or assign any part of the praise of it to love. Had he done so, the same argument would prove that circumcision and ceremonies, at a former period, had some share in justifying a sinner. As in Christ Jesus he commends faith accompanied by love, so before the coming of Christ ceremonies were required. But this has nothing to do with obtaining righteousness, as the Papists themselves allow; and neither must it be supposed that love possesses any such influence.

Note that Calvin mentions that even Romanist theologians admit that justification is not in view here.  As far as I can tell, much (most?  all?)  of the debate surrounding this verse during the Reformation period was not over whether this was the case, but whether this verse established that faith is *constitued* by love, that is to say either “formed by love” or “wrought by love” as opposed to love being a description of what faith does or fruit of faith.  That debate is largely dead in our time, at least as far as serious commentators are concerned.

Jason Stellman has objected:

The immediate context of the FWTL is Paul’s question to those “who would be justified by the law” (v. 4). He then insists that circumcision avails nothing (v. 6). The only reasonable answer to the question “avails nothing for what?” is “avails nothing for justification.”

One should note that Paul is concerned throughout his letter to the Galatians with the antithesis of circumcision/law/flesh in relation to both justification and the Christian life.  At least as early as 3:3 he expresses that the Christian life is incompatible with it:  “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”  It should be no surprise that, at various points in the letter, justification or sanctification come to the forefront respectively or, indeed are present side-by-side in some cases.

Strictly speaking, 5:6 grounds or somehow explains 5:5, and 5:5 grounds or explains 5:4 (“gar” is present in 5:5 and 5:6).  5:4 explicitly refers to justification, but 5:5 refers to eagerly awaiting the hope of righteousness, an apt description of the Christian life.  And 5:6 starts with “in Christ…”, a strong indication that “what doesn’t [or does] matter/count” is in reference to those already in union with Christ.  I know that Romanists will simply answer that justification and the Christian life/sanctification are co-mingled, but in any case it cannot be said that Paul has no concern with the Christian life in relation to the faith vs. circumcision/law antithesis.

There is also an exegetical matter that is not often discussed, and that is the significance of the parallels that 5:6 has with 6:15:  “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.”  Paul omits the “in Christ” clause here, but in 6:16 he pronounces blessing on all those who “walk by this rule.”  Again we find here a reference to the Christian life, a principle by which the Christian “walks.”  And in I Corinthians 7:19, the expression appears again: “For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.”  This immediately follows on Paul’s admonition in 7:17:  “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.”  Here neither circumcision nor uncircumcision “count” for the life in Christ that the Lord has assigned us.

2.  Jeff Cagle rightly points out that 3:27 does not establish a causal link between baptism and “putting on Christ”.  I think the lack of attention to the actual grammar and logic of texts such as these is a habitual fallacy made by Romanists.  “As many as X, have done Y” only establishes that the same group of people who have undergone X have also undergone Y.  It does not say nor imply that X causes Y.  This is to be contrasted with the way Paul speaks about faith, the prepositions in the “by faith” clauses indicate that faith is an instrumental cause of justification.  No such construction exists for either baptism or good works.

Jeff is also right to point out that Abraham’s justification came before the sacrament of the faith, circumcision, and is held up by Paul as the exemplar and archetype of our own salvation in both Galatians and Romans.  We are familiar with the problem baptismal justification and/or regeneration poses to various Protestant sacramentalists and moralists, such as the Federal Visionists, as it shatters the unity of the covenant of grace.  And with Roman theology, too, one is forced to conclude that one is justified by different means than was Abraham when one adopts a scheme like this.

It will not do to simply object that Abraham had demonstrated faith before Genesis 15, especially in leaving his homeland in Ur to follow God’s leading.  Most (all?) Protestant commentators admit that Abraham had saving faith before Genesis 15:6 and that this was not the moment he went from a state of wrath to a state of justification before God.  But both Moses and Paul pick out this instance of faith in the life of Abraham for good reason, it articulates, specifically, the promises and messianic hope that he was to trust God for and, strikingly, the fact that Abraham performed no good work in response.  He was passive, he simply believed and trusted.  Sure, when we finally get around to 15:10 Abraham arranges the animals for God as commanded, but this was provided as a help to Abraham to assure him of God’s promises.  And even then, God puts Abraham to sleep and God is the one active in the ceremony.  You couldn’t ask for a better picture.

3.  This is a somewhat tangential point, but I will say that I would find no intellectual attraction to Rome even if the Protestant doctrine of sola fide were not biblical and, indeed, even if sola scriptura were  unbiblical or untrue.  The claims of Rome go far, far beyond a mere denial of sola fide (as they will freely admit) and, in fact, if I had to earn my own salvation I would avoid their medieval,  man-made, labyrinthian system of works in favor of the piety that the Bible actually promotes.

A Quick Comment on Union with Christ

Posted by David Gadbois

I know there is an avalanche of great Leithart-related material streaming into Greenbaggins at this time, and I don’t mean to distract us too much from the primary issues of substance Lane and Reed have been focusing on, but I did want to slip in a few thoughts on Union with Christ that I made down in the combox of the “It Comes Down To This” post in response to one of the commenters there, and perhaps solicit some further discussion on the matter.  I have slightly modified my comment for posting here.

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[previous commenter]:  Are there reprobate within the visible Church, i.e., the kingdom of Christ? So, it’s quite plain that “in some sense” the reprobate within the visible Church are united to Christ.

I keep hearing variations of this argument but, no, it is not “plain” that they are “united” to Christ in any sense. There are logical steps and arguments that are missing to get from the premise that since some reprobate men are in the covenantal community of Christ and outward administration of the covenant of grace to the conclusion that they must be “in some sense” united with Christ. To speak of having unity with Christ – being one with Christ- is a profound thing, and it certainly must mean more than that they simply have a relation or connection to Christ. Even unbelievers outside of the covenant have a relation to Christ, in some sense.

First, it is a disingenuous move on the FV part to have the qualifier “in some sense” operate as a blanket over their formulation to cover their hides, so that it might mean almost anything and they don’t have to actually define what sense that is. For this and other reason FV has earned its reputation for being very weak on systematic theology.

We normally mean several things when we talk about being united with Christ, the union is legal, that is it is federal where Christ is our head as the second Adam, as well as existential (“mystical union”), the subjective sharing in the life of Christ by the operation of the Holy Spirit, wherein Christ is formed in us (Galatians 4:19). The reprobate clearly do not share in this union.

It is assumed that since the reprobate can be members of the covenant of grace and, indeed can be marked by the seal of the covenant, that this would imply a unity with Christ. But that would only be true if covenant membership in and of itself conveyed the blessing of union with Christ and other salvific blessings, that the covenant was unconditional. But Reformed theology and the WCF clearly see the CoG as conditional, the terms of the covenant state that true faith in Christ is required for the blessings promised. FVers always lose sight of the issue of conditional vs. unconditional promises in their conception of the covenant.

I think part of the problem with the FV is that they make the marriage covenant/relationship into a controlling paradigm for the covenant of grace and covenantal community, and it is the case that even the worst marriages still presuppose a level of existential unity and intimacy.  But the Bible only actually establishes that there are similarities between the two, the analogy does not always hold up due to the discontinuities between them.  The FV try to press this analogy to do the hard work for establishing their conclusions, rather than actually establishing their specific conceptions of the nature of the covenant from Scripture.

All of this reasoning also seems to ignore the fact that the Scriptures paint an adversarial picture of all those who are unregenerate, whether inside or outside of the covenant. In what sense can someone who is at enmity with God, with minds set on the flesh, not things of the Spirit, and that cannot please God (Romans 8) be said to be one with Christ? Indeed, “anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.”

Old Saint Berkhof steers us right when he remarks concerning “Erroneous Conceptions of the Mystical Union”:

Another error to be avoided is that of the sacramentarians, represented by the Roman Catholic Church and by some Lutheran and High Church Episcopalians….It makes the grace of God something substantial, of which the Church is the depositary, and which can be passed on in the sacraments; and completely loses sight of the fact that the sacraments cannot effect this union, because they already presuppose it.

Michael Horton’s Systematic Theology: Initial Thoughts, Pt. 2

Posted by David Gadbois

As one considers where Horton’s The Christian Faith falls in relation to other systematic theologies, one likely thinks of the primary and secondary intended audiences of the work.  Is it meant to address academics, seminary professors and students, approaching the traditional topics of systematic theology at the level of a theological journal such as the Westminster Theological Journal, JETS, and others?  Or is it more accessible in its approach, akin to the very basic yet helpful, clear, non-technical works of populizers such as R.C. Sproul, Packer, or indeed some of Horton’s own previous works?  Is it more useful for pastors and elders, informed laymen in the pew, those new to the Christian faith, those considering the Christian faith, or our relatively young covenant children?  The reality is that Horton had the challenging task of crafting his systematic theology so that all of these categories of people could find it useful.  The matter is one of emphasis when one considers his work in relation to other systematic theologies.  The center of the crosshairs, however, would probably be pointed at the first-year seminary student, if I had to make a guess.  This is not surprising, considering that this is the same space that most of the classic systematic theologies inhabit.  But Horton is using a shotgun, not a sniper’s rifle.  So I doubt that any of this work would go over the head of a normal high school-aged student.  It does not read like a collection of journal articles (for that, see Horton’s 4-volume dogmatics), and his writing is not bogged down by unexplained technical theological jargon.  On the other hand, it is hard to imagine that pastors and even seminary professors wouldn’t regularly turn to this work regularly for insights and fresh, clear explanations of the topics he covers.  Those in the theological-wonk layman category (as I count myself) certainly won’t be disappointed, either.

I still remember vividly being in between my third and fourth year of college as an aerospace engineering major and stumbling across Berkhof’s ST while on summer project with (ironically) Campus Crusade for Christ, in the small library of the project house in Ocean City, NJ.  Having grown up in broadly-evangelical and baptistic churches, and without the benefit of having the categories instilled by any sort of catechism training, Berkhof’s work was a revelation to me.  It seemed that light bulbs went off on every page that I read.  I was amazed by how Berkhof effortlessly brought together all of the relevant biblical passages on a given topic and was able to harmonize those verses while defining and defending orthodox doctrine.  The structure of the topics was so clear, orderly, and comprehensive; the doctrines and terms were so rigorously and carefully defined.  I remember thinking “this is like God and Christianity…for engineers!”  One might say that this was true to a fault.  The old joke is that you can leave Berkhof’s systematic theology out in the rain for two days, bring it inside, and it will still be dry.  It does at time read like a scientific textbook, and his concise style of writing can sometimes be a detriment (although it is sometimes welcome, too).  Horton’s work avoids these deficiencies, as his writing follows a more organic and conversational narrative. So I certainly have no complaint pertaining to his tone and writing style, it is very warm and pastoral.

I think that is fitting, given that any systematic theology that is going to take its place next to the classic works of systematic theology is going to have to be a pastoral and churchly work, not primarily an academic one.  Horton himself conveys this very sense in the subtitle of the work – it is a systematic theology “for Pilgrims On the Way.”  It is not just for pastors or professors on the way.

One also considers how deeply a work of systematic theology is involved with other theological disciplines, such as historical theology, symbolic theology, exegetical theology, biblical theology, and philosophy.  If one considers the task of systematic theology to be primarily in harvesting the insights of exegetical and biblical theology, then one would expect a work like this to focus on primarily using the text of Scripture to establish and defend the doctrines and systematic relations it enumerates.  The exegesis of individual texts, as well as the exposition of the broad themes of Scripture and the unfolding history of redemption must be paramount.  That is because these are the things that are normative to the sola scriptura Christian and to the church.  Historical theology, on the other hand, is only descriptive.  It is often convenient to couch doctrines in a sort of narrative that historical theology provides, as a framing device, but it would be a mistake for a systematic theology text to get too bogged down in historical minutiae when explaining or defending various doctrines.  As for philosophy, theologians have often seen this discipline as the “handmaiden” to theology.  That is, it gives us tools and categories to elucidate and organize revealed truth in the Scriptures.  While one would not expect a systematic theology to talk about philosophy for its own sake, one would expect it to make liberal use of it, where appropriate, in its exposition and defense of various doctrines.  Epistemology can help us talk about the nature of revelation (general and special), ontology can help us understand the Trinity, metaphysics can help us understand the decrees, predestination, secondary causes, and so forth.  As with historical theology, I wouldn’t want an ST to be weighed down too heavily by detailed philosophical discussions.  I think Horton’s work pretty much hits the right balance in employing and addressing these various fields of study.  This might disappoint some church history wonks and philosophy buffs out there.  I know I am probably not as sensitive to these issues as others – perhaps I should be.  But I’m pretty sure most middle-of-the-road readers will be quite satisfied with Horton’s approach.  If I had to venture a criticism (or, perhaps just a preference), I would have liked to have seen Horton dig deeper on the exegetical end in many of his discussions.  I found many of Reymond’s treatments more satisfying in this regard.

In the next post I want to discuss the place of theological creativity in systematic theology, and whether or not Horton’s book offers positive insights and original contributions to modern Reformed theology, that is, it is a work that develops Reformed theology rather than simply summarizes and defends what has preceded it.  Also, I would like to start digging into some of the specific topics covered in Horton’s ST.  Many of the discussions I thought were excellent, others I would have liked to have seen covered in more depth and more forcefully (e.g. the filioque, eternal generation of the Son, analogical knowledge, and others), and there were also topics and issues that I was surprised he omitted.  I also think that the “sparring partners”, the various representatives of divergent theologies or varying opinions within Reformed orthodoxy, Horton chose to interact with in the work will cause a reasonable amount of debate.  He spent time dealing with some figures I couldn’t possibly care less about (Schleiermacher, Bultmann, and Barth), but more helpfully interacted with New Perspectivists (like Wright) while essentially ignoring Shepherdites and Federal Visionists.  What should we make of all this?

Michael Horton’s Systematic Theology: Initial Thoughts

Posted by David Gadbois

Michael Horton’s 1-volume systematic theology, The Christian Faith:  A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way, was published earlier this year by Zondervan and has had the unenviable task of living up to the high expectations foisted on it by many in the Reformed community who have been hoping that this work would be something of a definitive and modern 1-volume treatment of systematic theology from a Reformed perspective, essentially a work that would replace and eclipse Berkhof’s Systematic Theology (originally published in 1938).  A tall order, indeed.  I will offer some unorganized thoughts on this volume in the following series of posts, and my aim is to spark discussion relating to the book in the combox.  I do not mean to offer forth a “review” of The Christian Faith in the normal sense, meaning a comprehensive or systematic review of the work.  I am still working my way through it, and am still digesting key portions of it that I have read and, indeed, have re-read.  I want to offer my initial, unorganized observations, as a lover of systematic theology and of the Reformed faith, of Horton’s work both generally (as pertains to its scope, format, tone, structure, and approach) and specifically (as it touches the individual topics and doctrines and takes specific doctrinal stands).

In the interest of being anti-climactic, I’ll put my cards on the table straight away.  If you are a serious student of theology, you should have Horton’s ST in your library.  It is not even a close call.  But don’t go thinking that you can throw your old copies of Hodge, Turretin, Bavinck, or Berkhof.  What amazes me about all of these works, as well as other single and multi-volume contributions to systematic theology, is how wonderfully they compliment each other rather than how one “replaces” or even “updates” previous works.  Indeed, it is simply unrealistic to hold the bar so high that an author is only successful if he creates a work that is “definitive” or a modern “classic” that makes past works essentially obsolete.

None of this, however, negates the fact that a modern work like Horton’s was desperately needed.  As much as I am devoted to my own patron saint, St. Louis Berkhof, his work is over 70 years old at this time.  It is dated, and thus its usefulness to Christ’s church in 2011 is limited.  We need to re-express the Reformed faith in modern language, using the most sophisticated arguments and up-to-date scholarship, answering recent objections and departures from orthodoxy, employing the sort of new insights that have fueled theological development since the time of the Apostles, without abandoning the classic, orthodox content that we confess as Reformed and catholic Christians.  We need a work of theology that builds on top of the groundwork that the 15-16th century Reformers and the various Reformed confessions laid, not one that that sets those principles aside.  Unfortunately, one can count the number of orthodox, Reformed systematic theologies since Berkhof and Hodge’s time on the fingers of a single hand.

A little over a decade ago (1998), there was some hope that Robert Reymond’s work, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, would be the reliable and modern single-volume work that Reformed seminaries should put into the hands of 1st and 2nd year students.  But this work drew harsh criticism for its rejection of the eternal generation of the Son, and in my opinion suffered from various rationalist errors inherited from Gordon Clark relating to theological prolegomena.  For these and other reasons it did not attain the prominence in Reformed circles that some had hoped.  It did, however, exemplify some positive trends in systematic theology literature.  Namely, the emphasis on both exegesis (Reymond included reasonably lengthy and detailed exegesis of key passages) and the insights of biblical theology in forming and defending Reformed doctrine, while avoiding over-emphasis on historical theology.  Also, the writing style was more accessible than previous 19th and early 20th century works; the tone is more pastoral than academic, and the style of discussion more warm and conversational.

Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (1994) was a work that was squarely aimed at a non-technical audience, and was successful in presenting much catholic, and even Reformed doctrine (at least on soteriology, decrees, predestination)  in an extremely clear and accessible manner, although it departed from confessional Reformed theology with its espousal of baptistic ecclesiology and sacramanetology (i.e. credobaptism), as well as a non-cessationist view of the charismatic gifts and non-dispensational premillenial eschatology.  Nonetheless, this work is still frequently useful in instructing and informing those who are either new to the Christian faith or those who are beginning to explore the Reformed faith from other Christian traditions.

If one would begin to consider multi-volume works, Morton Smith’s 2-volume ST is fairly recent, but sadly not widely distributed.  Douglas Kelly only has one volume (2008) of his multi-volume systematic theology published so far.  The same goes for Richard Gamble, the first volume of his The Whole Counsel of God was published in 2009.  One could consider Horton’s own “Covenant” trilogy, or John Frame’s “Lordship” series, but these only cover a fraction of the traditional theological loci, so are not the sort of comprehensive works that distinguish traditional systematic theologies.  Frame’s Salvation Belongs to the Lord (single-volume) is good but very brief and introductory in nature.  If one is willing to go further back some decades, one could appropriate Robert Culver’s 1-volume ST (Calvinistic/baptistic) with some benefit.  Charles Hodge’s ST (3 volume), Robert Dabney’s ST (single-volume), and William Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology (single-volume) would be the obvious 19th century works to turn to that faithfully express the American presbyterian tradition.  If one is willing to tap non-English sources, Bavinck’s 4-volume Reformed Dogmatics (an author Berkhof was heavily indebted to) and the more recent single-volume Concise Reformed Dogmatics by J. van Genderen and W.H. Velema (published in the Netherlands in 1992) have been translated (2008) into English in just the last decade.

Returning our attention to Horton, one should note that he presents his work from a similar ecclesiastical background as Berkhof’s, both being ministers in the Dutch Reformed tradition.  Horton is a minister in the United Reformed Churches in North America (URC or URCNA), a federation of churches that broke off from the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC or CRCNA) that Berkhof belonged to in his time.  As such, the Three Forms of Unity (the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordt) feature prominently throughout Horton’s ST, although as a professor at Westminster Seminary California, he is not shy in appropriating the insights of our presbyterian brethren, especially exemplified in his frequent citation of the Westminster Standards.  Incidentally, the URC is the federation to which  my own church belongs, and although I am merely a layman (non-office-bearer) one should note that all members of URC congregations are generally expected to affirm the 3 Forms of Unity without exception.

In the next post, I want to discuss the task of systematic theology in relation to exegetical theology, historical theology, biblical theology, and philosophy (paging Paul Manata) in relation to Horton’s approach in his ST.  Also, I want to discuss the purposes, scope, and audiences of his work in relation to previous comprehensive works of systematic theology as well as considered in light of the benefit of Christ’s church.

Oral Tradition Debate

A lot of folks wanted to debate the subject of Roman Catholic oral tradition over in the “Verses That Changed Luther” comment thread, so I’m opening up a new post here so that the discussion can continue in this combox and we can stay on-topic over in the other one.

Posted by David Gadbois

The Federal Vision and the URC 2010 Synod

-Posted by David Gadbois

The United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA) will be holding their synod meeting July 26th-30th.  The synod is roughly equivalent to a general assembly in presbyterian terms, although for us it is not an annual meeting.  The last synod was in 2007, when a study committee was formed to study the Federal Vision theology.  The committee was comprised of 12 URC ministers, a group that included Michael Horton and Cornelis Venema.  The Final Report from the committee can be found here, and is a useful resource as a critique of Federal Vision theology (focused mainly on its doctrine of justification) from the standpoint of the Three Forms of Unity and churches descended from the Continental Reformed tradition.  The Report recommends that Synod 2010 “affirm the following [15 points] of Scripture and the Three Forms of Unity, and encourage all office-bearers to repudiate FV teachings where they are not in harmony with them” and that Synod “distribute this report to all the consistories of the URCNA, commending the report to them for study.”

In fairness, I should mention that URC Nampa has published a critical interaction with the Report, which does not defend the orthodoxy of FV, but rather contends that “the committee’s Report has not sufficiently described and wrestled with the views of the FV. There are far too many instances of over-simplification, far too many places where the more orthodox statements of the FV men are largely ignored, far too many areas in which the imprecise language of the Report seems to be condemning pastoral emphases that have long been accepted in Reformed churches.”

I do not think that the authors of this critique have considered that Federal Visionists often engage in double-speak, redefinition of key terms, and pour unorthodox meaning into language that we would normally identify as orthodox.  It should be no surprise that one can find “more orthodox statements of FV men”, and it is completely appropriate that the Report would omit them for the sake of brevity.  In an important sense, such statements are not relevant because they are not distinctives of the Federal Vision theology.  The error lies in the distinctives.  Is this not always the case with theological error?

I notice, too, that this critique relies heavily on quotes from Douglas Wilson in order to prove its case, who is acknowledged by all sides as the more “user-friendly” Federal Visionist.  This only proves that FV is not monolithic, a fact that the Report does not contradict.  Again, it is entirely appropriate that the Report sift out the most problematic elements of Federal Vision theology, as espoused by its various proponents.   Given that none of these men have repented or retracted the statements and quotes provided, nor have any proponents even tried to meaningfully distance themselves from them, these errors can and should be used against the Federal Vision, considered as a movement and a distinctive system of theology.  The critique mentions that the Joint Federal Vision Statement is not referenced often enough.  This is a minor defect, it can be admitted.  But does anyone seriously doubt that Reformed Is Not Enough, The Auburn Avenue Theology:  Pros and Cons, and The Federal Vision, the works cited most frequently by the Report, do not constitute definitive and representative works of the Federal Vision?  The Report is not a survey of the teachings of individuals, but rather is intended to document and refute the various (most important and dangerous) strains of error present within the movement.  A Report such as this is an ecclesiastical report on a theological movement, not an academic paper nor even an examination of an individual minister for a discipline case.  It is not appropriate for it to be overly-academic in character, exhaustive, burdensome in length, nor concern itself with every nuance of the various Federal Vision proponents’ teaching.

Lane Leads, WTJ Follows

All of you Green Baggins fans out there may remember the series of posts Lane did critiquing Leithart’s Federal Vision article some months back. At the heart of Lane’s critique was the accusation that Leithart was committing a sort of illegitimate totality transfer fallacy (a fallacy that those who have read Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies will recognize). In short, Leithart was trying to widen the dogmatic category of justification to include non-forensic and transformative realities based on biblical texts that use justification language in a broader sense.

Refreshingly, I found this critique echoed remarkably closely by an article in the current (Spring 2008 ) issue of the Westminster Theological Journal. It was written by two Wheaton College professors that I have not heard of before, R. Michael Allen and Daniel Treier. In Dogmatic Theology and Biblical Perspectives On Justification: A Reply to Leithart, the authors demonstrate that Leithart’s “argument fails to move clearly beyond the strictly semantic to a fully analytical domain of dogmatic theology. Leithart’s dogmatic case flounders insofar as he fails to distinguish between scriptural language and theological terminology.”

The authors discuss what Lane has termed a form of “word-concept fallacy”, confusing biblical words and theological concepts, a distinction they strangely (to my ear) refer to as “concepts” and “judgments” respectively. They write:

…the doctrine of justification may draw on many biblical uses of terminology insofar as they do not contradict its material import. The flip side of this claim, contra Leithart, is that the presence of justification language within the biblical texts does not necessarily imply that each of these texts will bear directly upon the doctrine of justification. Equally important will be texts that bear on the doctrine without using any of the biblical terminology of justification (e.g., Eph 2:7; 1 Cor 15:44-45).

Just remember that you heard it here first, folks.

Posted by David Gadbois

More on Science and Inerrancy

I wanted to briefly call attention to Steve Hays’ article over at Triablogue, responding to a conversation going on in the Peter Enns/inerrancy thread here at Greenbaggins.

I didn’t have much to add, except to comment on the old yarn about the “sun standing still” in Joshua.  As an aerospace engineer, I can attest that there is nothing inaccurate about a statement like that if you take the observer’s location on earth to be your non-inertial reference frame.  Newtonian physics still works just fine, you just have to add in Coriolis and centrifugal forces to account for the fact that your reference frame is not inertial (ie. the earth rotates).  So what is the objection from biblical errantists?  That it is an “error” for the Book of Joshua to speak in terms of a particular non-inertial reference frame?

-Posted by David Gadbois

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