Is Faith Itself Imputed as Our Righteousness?

Arminians and Roman Catholics will typically argue that Romans 4:5,9 are talking about faith itself as the thing that is imputed, thus avoiding imputation of an alien righteousness. They will translate it something like “faith is reckoned as righteousness.” Sometimes they will use the word “for” instead of “as” while understanding it of identity. There are three insuperable objections to this understanding of the passage. Here are the two verses (translation mine):

4:5 “To the one who does not work but rather believes in the One justifying the ungodly, his faith is reckoned for righteousness.” 4:9 “Does this blessing, therefore, come to the circumcised only or also to the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness.”

The first insuperable objection to understanding faith itself as the thing reckoned is the context, especially verses 3-5. It goes like this: if faith is righteousness (in the eyes of the law), then it is a work. Then works justify us, the very thing Paul explicitly denies in verses 3-5, where he contrasts faith and works, and makes a point of saying that it is NOT reckoned as a reward, but rather as of grace. If in the situation of justification, there is anything in us that is righteous as a basis for justification, then it is a reward, and not of grace. There is no way around this problem. Limiting the scope of the works so that they are boundary markers or ceremonial aspects of the law simply doesn’t fly at all. The contrast is between the one working and the one believing. That is a general contrast.

The second insuperable objection is the nature of faith itself, which has to be determined from the rest of Scripture. The Scriptures usually speak of faith as being in someone. Faith is really not a thing inside us. It is rather our connection to God, to Jesus Christ, to the Holy Spirit, to the Triune God. Faith derives its meaning and substance from the object of faith, not from faith itself. Otherwise, we are saved by faith in faith. Faith is rather our connection to God. The analogy I like to use goes like this: if a person is canning something, then he is faced with a situation of having to get jars out of boiling water. Obviously, he cannot use his hands to do so. Therefore, he must use something to grasp hold of the jars. There are tongs manufactured for just such a purpose. They wrap around the lip of the jar so that a person can lift the jar out without any mishap. Faith is like those tongs. Faith is not the jar with the good stuff in it. Faith lays hold of Christ and all His goodness. It connects us to Him. It is another way of saying our union with Christ which the Holy Spirit creates.

The third insuperable objection (and something that is absolutely fatal to Roman Catholic understandings of justification) is the phrase “justifier of the ungodly” in verse 5. Roman Catholic theology NEVER believes that God ever justifies an ungodly person. Nevertheless, in all the ways that count at the time of justification, Abraham was ungodly in his actions (remembering that faith is contrasted with works in verses 3-5). If faith itself is the righteousness, then God would be justifying the godly, not the ungodly. But Paul says here that God is justifying the ungodly. In a future post I will argue the case that this understanding is not a legal fiction.

Is Imputation Taught in Romans 4?

Nick, over at Creed Code Cult, has thrown down the gauntlet (thrown many times before, of course) that Romans does not teach the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer. I don’t think I will get to all the things he addresses, but I do want to address Romans 4 in particular, since that is the clearest place where Paul does teach the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer.

But let’s summarize Nick’s argument first. He notes that David, in Psalm 32, does not speak about righteousness being imputed. Paul, in quoting Psalm 32, mentions it as a “counting for righteousness.” Therefore, according to Nick, forgiveness of sins is the equivalent of being regarded as righteous. In fact, Nick goes farther than that to claim that this is the “only coherent explanation.” He then adds a reductio ad absurdam argument: “Realizing this, it’s impossible to interpret ‘reckoning righteousness’ with the ‘Imputed Righteousness of Christ’ (as Protectants typically identify it), because then you’d have to say forgiveness of sins refers to Christ’s keeping of the law in our place, which makes little sense.” This is a very brief summary of Nick’s argument, but it will do to be getting on with.

There is another equally coherent explanation of the way that Paul quotes David that does much better justice to the context of the early part of Romans 4 (which Nick ignores), and it is this: Paul regards the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and the forgiveness of sin (with the accompanying imputation of our sin to Christ) as so tightly coherent that they always come together. In other words, to say that one happens is to say that the other also happens, because they are the flip side of each other. Let’s see how Paul does that.

Paul asks the question of whether Abraham was justified by works. Leaving aside for a moment the much-vexed question of the scope of these works, we merely note at the moment that positive works that obey the law are certainly in view here, obviously not works for which Abraham would need forgiveness. This is proven by the introduction of the boasting motif in verse 2. One presumably does not boast of sin. As opposed to this method of being justified, Paul says that Abraham was justified by faith instead. The key phrase here is “eis dikaiosunen” (“for righteousness”). Faith itself is not a fulfillment of the law. The very nature of faith is that it lays hold on Someone Else. So faith itself cannot be the righteousness here mentioned. The “eis” is a telic preposition. Faith, in laying hold of Jesus Christ, lays hold of His righteousness. Let me be plain: the righteousness here spoken of cannot be Abraham’s righteousness. Otherwise, he would be tempted to boast (as per verse 2). Verse 2 also proves that the concept of “righteousness” as used here in the passage CANNOT refer merely to the forgiveness of sins, which is not something about which a person would even be tempted to boast. It is further proven by the case of Adam in the garden. Forgiveness of sins wipes the slate clean. Adam started with a clean slate. So why didn’t he pass immediately into glory? Because he had to prove himself vis-a-vis the command that the Lord had given him. He had to be actively righteous to God’s command to multiply, fill the earth, guard the garden from Satanic intruders and not eat of the tree. Neutrality does not equal the blessedness of David by itself. What Paul is saying is that David’s explicit mention of forgiveness as constituting blessedness is half the picture, and imputation is the always-accompanying other half of the picture. Paul is saying that we need a righteousness. We cannot get it by working, because then it wouldn’t be grace (as verse 4 says so clearly). Faith is the only way to get this righteousness.

As Calvin would say, we need two things in justification: forgiveness of sins and imputation of Christ’s righteousness. An analogy I’m fond of using is the gears of a car. Having one’s sins forgiven is like being taken out of reverse gear and put into neutral. Imputation is like being put into a forward gear. You need both of them to be headed in the right direction.

Lastly, I need to answer Nick’s reductio argument. Christ’s keeping of the law results in two very important facts for the believer. Firstly, it constitutes Christ the perfect Lamb, who can take away our sins (so, you see, Christ’s righteousness is VERY closely tied to the forgiveness of sins: if Christ was not the perfect Lamb, then He could not take away our sins, and He couldn’t die in our place). Secondly, He earned our way to heaven. Nick’s reductio fails because he leaves out the step of Christ’s righteousness constituting Him the perfect Lamb, and thereby achieving our forgiveness.

I will answer also his claim about the phrase “justified by His blood” being absurd to talk about the imputation of righteousness. As I have already noted (and what is a commonplace in Reformed treatments of justification), justification is not just about imputation, but also about forgiveness. Sometimes one aspect is more in view, sometimes the other. In 5:9, plainly forgiveness is more in view, since he is talking about being saved from wrath. Wrath is upon us due to sin, so when that sin is taken away from us, so is God’s wrath. That will do, to get the conversation started.

Don’t We All Worship the Same God?

This is a fairly common occurrence. The person you meet who has been in about 5 different denominations tells you that all those denominations worship the same God. The implication (stated or unstated) is that we should stop fighting anything, since we all worship the same God. To them, no other doctrines seem to matter except the doctrine of God. Now, there is a grain of truth to this plea. We should never ignore common ground that we have with people from other denominations, as that is usually a good place to start, and shows good will. However, the unity that is usually (and rightly!) desired by people who believe in the same God cannot be achieved by simply stifling debates and lowering other doctrinal matters to the status of insignificance. This unity cannot happen by simple fiat. It is in fact naive to think this way. In fact, the emphasis really ought to be in focusing on our differences, so that the Biblical record can be examined once again to see if these things be so. A book I read fairly recently by a Roman Catholic author quite convincingly argues that ecumenical endeavors that focus entirely on common ground will inevitably stall. Instead, our attention should rather focus on the areas of disagreement. People these days seem to be allergic to disagreement. Folks, disagreement does not equal hatred!

It is not true that the doctrine of God is the only doctrine of importance. It is quite obviously of central importance. However, we cannot reduce Christianity to our doctrine of God. What about our doctrines of Scripture, Christ, man, salvation, Holy Spirit, church, and sacraments? Are they now to be completely ignored in the interests of ecumenicity? Honestly, many of the early heretics of the church would have claimed to worship the same God we do. And some of them would have been correct. Just because one is correct in one’s doctrine of God (posit, for instance, that a person is orthodox in his doctrine of the Trinity) does not mean that one is orthodox in all other areas. One could have a correct view of God, but a heretical view of Christ’s natures, for instance.

Lastly, it is not always true that these denominations have the same view of God as the other denominations. We have said before that it is not enough to state the truth in a positive way. The wrong views must also be refuted and denied. Many mainline denominations may have correct statements about the doctrine of God. However, functionally speaking, they will not discipline a minister who holds to a heretical view of God. If a denomination states an orthodox view of God, but then does not discipline their ministers for heretical views of God, then that denomination is not holding to an orthodox view of God. The reasoning for this is simple: the denomination, by failing to discipline heretical views, is stating that a variety of views on God’s person is acceptable. That is their functional position. People have forgotten just how important the denial of errors is (especially in today’s theological climate!). Of course, this also underlines the importance of church discipline for the church. I would argue against those who exclude discipline from the definition of the true church. Without discipline, the church stands for nothing. Without discipline, the church is like parents who never spank their children: they are abusing their children! It is, in effect, not parenting at all.

We really need to think much more carefully about this ecumenical business. It does need to be done. However, we need to be wise in how we do it. We can never shove differences under the rug. Otherwise, a superficial unity will result that pleases no one, least of all God, who wants a church unity that is characterized by the truth.

A Response to Leithart’s “Staying Put”

Over at First Things, Peter Leithart has written a short essay on why he doesn’t want to leave the PCA. This question arose as a result of his participation in the Biola conference which David G commented on here, and I commented on as well.

His reasons for staying put are primarily pragmatic. He would have to navigate an unfamiliar landscape, and figure out who his friends and enemies are. As if in anticipation of possible objections, he writes that “Even pragmatic reasons aren’t entirely pragmatic.” What he mans by that is explained in the next sentence (referring to James Buchanan): “[T]he status quo isn’t decisive, but it does have ethical weight.”

He states that his primary reason is theological. I wonder about that. Put simply, his primary reason seems to be that since we don’t know what the church of the future will look like, he will stay put for now, because God is constantly overturning our expectations.I wonder why that is a reason for not joining the RCC. The unknown future cannot determine our actions in the present. There are only some things we know for sure: Christ’s second coming, judgment, glorification, things that the Bible has revealed. But the Bible also has things to say to us about determining our present course of action based on the unknowns of the future (“There’s a lion in the street!”). One wonders why he says later in the essay that we cannot know what the church of the future will look like, but earlier he seems rather confident that “Though both are crucial to the future of Christianity, neither Roman Catholicism nor Orthodoxy is the Church of the future.” How does he know that? (I am here basing my question on his presuppositions, not my own).

He has additional theological reasons (Purgatory, Marian doctrines, Papacy, icons, and “ambiguities” regarding justification and tradition) for staying put. But if these do not constitute reasons for believing that the RCC is a false church, then they also cannot trump church unity, can they? I still come back to the idea that if the RCC is a true church, then we ought to be a part of it. My own position is that the RCC is a false church because of these reasons (though I would not phrase the RCC position on justification as “ambiguous.” There is hardly any ambiguity in Trent’s doctrine of justification). They do not have the gospel. They twist the sacraments into something unrecognizable, and their version of church discipline is surely wide of the mark in the papacy. The marks of the church are therefore either so twisted as to be negligible, or else non-existent. The ultimate reason (for me) for not viewing the RCC as a true church is its own self-understanding as an extension of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. This is idolatry of the church. It is man worship, church worship. It takes what belongs only to Jesus and gives it to the church, despite its own claims that it does not do that.

He then goes back to the more pragmatic reasons related to what he would have to say about his Eucharistic experiences (this is the by-now familiar charge of his that becoming Roman Catholic would be for him a step backwards in catholicity).

In response to this essay, I would answer that pragmatic reasons, even if he thinks they are not purely pragmatic, are not a reason to trump church unity. Would he use the same reasons about the Eucharist in counseling a person who was contemplating leaving the RCC? Would he counsel them to leave or stay if they said that they would be leaving behind their social group, and that they would have to learn an unfamiliar terrain? The theological reasons he adduces are not enough for him to declare the RCC to be a false church.

Tribal Congregationalism and future of the PCA

Posted by Bob Mattes

I have used the term “tribal congregationalism” several times in recent blog posts and comments. I stated the basic definition most succinctly in this post as:

The PCA [Presbyterian Church in America] has become a tribal congregationalist denomination where particular errors find toleration in specific presbyteries that remain unaccountable to the denomination as a whole.

I have been asked to expand upon that definition, hence this post.

Amongst the important elements of good leadership are empowerment and accountability. Empowerment includes the idea of delegation, wherein I assign a task or function to a person or group. When empowered, that person or group then has the tools and authority to accomplish the assigned task or function, along with clear expectations and desired outcomes.

With empowerment must also come accountability to the leader who assigned the task or function. Accountability can include things like deadlines, progress reports, specific intermediate goals, etc., as well as the actual final outcome. A good leader delegates tasks and functions, empowers those assigned to those tasks and functions with the tools and authorities necessary, provides clear expectations and desired outcomes, and holds the empowered accountable for the results.

We see these principles generally at work in the PCA’s Book of Church Order (BCO). We have three levels of church courts, each with specific tasks and functions assigned, specific expectations, and each empowered to carry out their tasks and functions as delineated in the BCO (BCO 1-1, 1-5, 3-2, 10-1, 10-2, 11-4). Through review and control (BCO 11-4, Chapter 40), each court is held accountable to the broader courts. That is, sessions are held accountable to presbyteries through the review of their minutes and general knowledge of their activities. Presbyteries, in turn, are held accountable via the same tools to the General Assembly. That’s Presbyterianism 101.

When that process breaks down, we have processes for church discipline (BCO Chapters 29 to 40). Individual courts hold their members accountable through investigations, counseling and, as a last resort, trials. Each court’s execution of the discipline process is reviewed by the next broader court for their fidelity to our Constitution – the Westminster Standards together with the BCO. That’s Presbyterianism 102.

Unfortunately, while the theory is sound, the execution is found lacking in the PCA these days. We created an outlier judicial commission, the SJC, which as constructed differs from the actual church courts (BCO 15-3) in that it is not directly accountable to the General Assembly (which created it) for its specific actions or decisions (BCO 15-5). Therefore, the three court structure, the courts being one (BCO 11-3), is broken in the PCA because of an unaccountable judicial commission (BCO Preliminary Principle 7).

The breakdown of the above basic leadership elements and processes that implement them has been manifest in recent decisions in the PCA. The Committee for the Review of Presbytery Records rightly called out a specific presbytery’s decision accepting officers who hold to paedocommunion (the unbiblical serving of communion to infants and toddlers in violation of 1 Cor 11:27-29; WCF 29, WSC 96, 97; WLC 168-177) to the General Assembly, but the latter decided not to hold that presbytery accountable. The General Assembly permitted, by inaction, officers that practice of intinction, which also violates the Scriptural model for communion (Mt 26:26-28; Lk 22:17-20; 1 Cor 11:23-29) as well as the Westminster Standards (WCF 29.3; WLC 169) and the BCO (58-5). The SJC gave a pass to the teaching and practice of Federal Vision errors by church officers in the Leithart and Meyers cases by choosing to decide those cases based on technicalities rather than directly addressing the underlying heresies (Mt 23:22-24).

Perhaps just as bad, progressive political parties now operate freely but in secret in the PCA, outside of any accountability to the church courts. The National Partnership and Original Vision Network seek to turn the PCA into a “broadly Reformed” denomination without defining “broadly Reformed.” Given their tolerance of intinction, paedocommunion, female deacons, etc., I think that we can guess which way they lean. I sincerely believe that the word “confessional” is used as an byword in their secret emails and meetings. Secret hearts and sorry tales will never help love grow.

The net result of this lack of accountability for officers and presbyteries tolerating, holding, teaching, and/or practicing serious errors has been the creation of a system which I call “tribal congregationalism.”

The tribes refer to presbyteries that tolerate officers holding, practicing and/or teaching specific errors within their boundaries. I witnessed first hand that seminary graduates know which presbyteries are likely to accept their paedocommunion views, for example, and in which presbyteries to avoid even attempting ordination. Federal Visionists have a very good idea of which presbyteries they shouldn’t bother transferring into (Leithart obviously isn’t as smart as some folks think he is). And so on with intinction, theistic evolution, female deacons, etc. Each erroneous officer or candidate seeks out safety in his applicable tribe. Some tribes overlap or tolerate multiple errors, others do not. Safe conversations seek out supporting tribes.

The congregationalism part of the term comes from the lack of accountability outside the tribe. We nod and wink at specific presbyteries that tolerate officers who practice or teach Federal Vision, paedocommunion, intinction, female deacons, theistic evolution, et al. A majority of the commissioners at General Assembly have apparently consistently desired to avoid offending or judging deviant officers. Net result = no accountability. Specific errors thrive within the bounds of each tribe without accountability to the denomination at large. That’s what I call tribal congregationalism, and ultimately it will destroy the PCA.

Sound too drastic? Consider PCA congregants who travel or transfer around the country, which describes many in our mobile society. I have seen families bring their little toddlers up for communion, only to be refused by faithful officers who take the Scriptures seriously. Even when reached out to after the service, these families rarely return to a PCA church in a faithful presbytery, usually winding up in the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC). On the flip side, I get emails from families traveling or moving to questionable presbyteries, wanting to know which churches are faithful to our Constitution, and hence to the Scriptures since PCA officers swear that our Standards contains the system of doctrine taught in holy Scripture. Sadly, sometimes I point them to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) or Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS) or other more consistent denominations because I cannot name a faithful PCA church in their area of interest. The PCA is sowing division and confusion in the wind, and will reap the whirlwind (Hos 8:7).

I hear, especially from young officers, that the PCA must reach out to and welcome the diverse cultures in our country, because we won’t survive if we don’t do so. I agree. You won’t find a more diverse cultural settings than the greater Washington D.C. area in which God planted the church in which I am honored to serve. I see first-hand every week that the gospel of Jesus Christ knows no cultural boundaries. People around the world share one overarching characteristic – they are all sinners in need of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone, with the Scriptures as the only inerrant and infallible rule for faith and practice. That sentence is the most missional statement that you’ll ever see outside of Scripture itself.

That welcoming of sinners from diverse national, ethnic, economic, etc., backgrounds won’t break the PCA. Rather, by God’s grace that people-diversity will strengthen His Church. What WILL break the PCA is the diversity of theology and worship beyond the bounds of our Constitution and the regulative principle, both firmly based on Scripture, now found and growing in the PCA.

The empowerment and mutual accountability of Presbyterianism is fundamentally incompatible with tribal congregationalism. So, I’ll say it again: The PCA is sowing confusion in the wind, and will reap the whirlwind. We need to decide if the PCA will follow the church in Sardis (Rev 3:1-6) or the church in Philadelphia (Rev 3:7-13) and act now on that decision. May God give us the wisdom to take after that faithful church in Revelation 3:7-13.

Posted by Bob Mattes

A Qualification

As my good friend David has written a critique of Carl Trueman’s comments, and Carl taught me at WTS, I thought that I should go ahead and listen to the whole thing and see if I agreed with David. As these are two very dear brothers in Christ, it behoves me to be extremely careful in what I say. You can listen to the whole thing here. Also, there are a lot of comments on this post that are extremely thoughtful and well worth pondering.

I would say that I agree, by and large, with David’s assessment of the weaknesses of Trueman’s presentation, but that I would want to offer a qualification of it. This qualification is based on what Trueman used to tell me in conversation, and I believe he said it in class as well. He said that we need to have a principled reason for not belonging to the Roman Catholic Church, and that it has to be doctrinal. If we do not have that, then we are living in sinful schism. Schism is a terrible sin. This is why Leithart’s position is, to my mind, completely incoherent. If the differences between Protestantism and Rome are not salvific in nature, then Leithart is living in sin by not being a part of the Roman Catholic Church. Leithart is, in effect, saying that Trent did not anathematize the gospel, a point that Jack Bradley brought up quite ably.

When I use those statements by Trueman that he made before, I come to about the 1 hour 17-25 minute mark, and notice Trueman strongly challenging Leithart on the issues of doctrinal difference between Protestantism and Catholicism. Trueman plainly believes that it is doctrine that separates us from Rome, and that these doctrines that separate us are of a first order nature. They are salvific. They are gospel issues. So, ultimately I believe that Trueman is being inconsistent. He believes that gospel issues separate us from Rome, but he seems willing to admit (or at least refrain from denying) that Rome is a true church. I agree with David that acknowledging RCC baptism is not a sufficient condition for considering Rome a true church (I think that the Southern Presbyterians, particularly Thornwell, got this one right, and that Hodge was inconsistent). For one thing, the Reformers who had been baptized in the Roman Catholic Church, were baptized before Trent happened. No Reformer would have said that Rome had completely apostatized before Trent happened. Now, I firmly believe that Rome is no true church. So Trueman is in the awkward position of denying that Rome has the gospel, and yet of admitting (or not denying) that Rome is part of the true church. I do not think that this position can ultimately stand the test of coherency.

A tale of two letters

Posted by Bob Mattes

The Founding

On 7 Dec 1973, a new denomination sent A Message to All Churches of Jesus Christ Througout the World from the General Assembly of the National Presbyterian Church. The NPC changed names to the Presbyterian Church in America shortly thereafter. The PCA had split from the liberal-and-becoming-worse PCUS. The Message to All Churches laid out the reasons for the split (similar to the U.S. Declaration of Independence) and served as a notice of the new denomination’s beliefs. At the top of the list stood the inerrancy of the Scriptures, and their role as “the only infallible and all-sufficient rule for faith and practice.”

Against the big-tent liberalism of the PCUS, our founders wrote:

We declare also that we believe the system of doctrine found in God’s Word to be the system known as the Reformed Faith. We are committed without reservation to the Reformed Faith as set forth in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. It is our conviction that the Reformed faith is not sectarian, but an authentic and valid expression of Biblical Christianity. [my bold]

Note the “without reservation” adherence to the Westminster Standards. There was no “good-faith” subscription in view there. The PCA has already headed down the PCUS road on this issue. More on that later.

On the subject of theological error and church discipline, our founders wrote:

Views and practices that undermine and supplant the system of doctrine or polity of a confessional Church ought never to be tolerated. A Church that will not exercise discipline will not long be able to maintain pure doctrine or godly practice.

When a denomination will not exercise discipline and its courts have become heterodox or disposed to tolerate error, the minority finds itself in the anomalous position of being submissive to a tolerant and erring majority.

Anyone watching the two most recent cases against blatant teachers of the Federal Vision errors (pdf file), both of whom are now fellows at the latest incarnation of an attempted Federal Vision seminary, knows that the PCA has already started down the PCUS road in that regard. The PCA has become a tribal congregationalist denomination where particular errors find toleration in specific presbyteries that remain unaccountable to the denomination as a whole.

Please read that open message as it provides an anchor for the PCA as it considers its future. As the philosopher Santayana wisely observed: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The PCA is showing that it is not immune from that wisdom.

The Revision

A small group of 18 teaching elders who were around during the founding of the PCA in 1973 recently signed a letter (pdf file) to the new generation. I want to be clear up front that I respect these 18 elders for their sacrifices for, and contributions to, the church of Jesus Christ over many years. Nothing that follows is meant to reflect negatively on that respect. Nonetheless, my respect for them does not negate my critical thinking on the matters that they publicly present.

Early in the letter, the 18 signers endorse “good-faith subscription”:

Several years ago, after lengthy discussion, we affirmed “good faith” subscription which was a declaration of our commitment to love and respect each other and affirm doctrinal orthodoxy without becoming too broad or too narrow in the way we embrace our confessional standards.

So, since our 1973 founding, the PCA has “progressed” from “committed without reservation” to our Standards, to a “good faith subscription” approach that has opened the PCA’s door to paedocommunion, intinction, female pseudo-officers, Federal Vision, theistic evolution (e.g., Biologos), et al, all of which depart from the Scriptures and the Standards.

After observing that some think that the PCA is too strict and narrow while others think that the PCA is too broad, the 18 opine that:

…these differences of opinion reflect a healthy breadth of views and perspectives that produces an ever present need for love and mutual respect. It does, however, present the PCA with the need for our leadership to always be searching for the center so that unity might be maintained and our mission might be accomplished.

With all due respect to the 18 signers of this letter, that argument represents a significant departure from the vision laid out by the bulk of our founders in the Message to all Churches in 1973.

Keep in mind that only 18 men who were present at our founding signed this letter. Although many founders have gone to be with the Lord, many remain and did not sign the letter. Dr. Morton Smith comes immediately to mind for one. As our first Stated Clerk he had his finger on the pulse of the initial direction of the PCA. Dr. Smith’s How Thy Gold Has Become Din provided a PCA manifesto in the months leading up to the separation. Please read Dr. Morton’s address at the link.

Connections

While I do not believe that the positions from the new letter accurately reflect the consensus of the bulk of elders who founded the PCA in 1973, and hope that I have demonstrated this from original documents, I do believe that the letter agrees well with the more recent Original Vision Network started by TEs Paul Kooistra and Larry Hoop. While I appreciate the contributions that these men have made to PCA missions, their network steers us back to the PCUS “big tent.” For instance, they revised our founders’ words in the Message to All Churches to a vision that would now have us believe that our founders wanted:

a denomination committed to a broadly Reformed theological position, steering clear of both a formless evangelicalism with sketchy theological commitments and a narrow sectarianism that could consume our energies building a theological fortress;

Please go back and read the Message to All Churches and see if you can find a vision for a “broadly Reformed theological position.” Go ahead, I’ll wait. Back? Couldn’t find it? That’s because “committed without reservation to the Reformed Faith as set forth in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms” doesn’t describe a “broadly Reformed theological position.” The latter represents a slide back to towards the old PCUS “big tent.” If the founders had really wanted a big tent, they would have stayed in the PCUS committed “to love and respect each other.” Instead, our founders left an apostate denomination that trampled on both the Scriptures and the Standards.

Conclusion

The Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics – the chief weapons buyer for the U.S. Department of Defense – has a great sign on his door. It reads: “In God we trust, all others bring data.” The point being that opinions are nice, but we need to see the data on which one based those opinions.

So, when I read the letter by the 18 elders, the first thing that I did was hunt up the original Message to All Churches and read it to see if the two documents were consistent. That’s what everyone should do whenever any assertion is made from history. History is best learned from original sources, not commentators decades or centuries later.

In this case, the recent letter by the 18 elders seems more in line with the revisionist and euphemistically-named Original Vision Network than the bulk of the PCA founders’ intent in 1973. The original vision is readily available for all to read in the Message to All Churches and Dr. Smith’s How Thy Gold Has Become Din. Please take the time to acquaint yourselves with these documents if you have not already done so.

In closing, I again want to be clear that I respect these 18 elders for their contributions to the church of Jesus Christ over many years. That said, I am not prone to hero worship, so although their work and sacrifices earn them a hearing by other elders like myself and the denomination at large, it does not earn them automatic agreement without the original historical context being considered. In this case, I find that the original documentation does not support their thesis.

Posted by Bob Mattes

Recent Book on Trent

There are very few full-length books on the council of Trent. There is an historical reason for that, in that the pope forbade any commentaries from being written about the council, since he wanted to control the reception and implementation of the council. With the opening up of the Vatican archives in the twentieth century, Trent is finally fair game for historians. In this regard, John O’Malley has done it again, and the scope of his achievement is rather mind-blowing to me, especially when one considers how much research he also has done on Vatican II. In both cases, he not only read the complete series of books that document the councils, but also most of the secondary literature as well. This may not seem huge until one realizes that in both cases (Trent and Vatican II), the documentary series of books runs to over 30 volumes. O’Malley certainly seems to have read everything of importance, and the result is a highly compact, incredibly fact-dense, but also very readable history of Trent. I thought I was going to run out of the world’s supply of lead, I underlined so much. Now, his being Roman Catholic means, of course, that I am not going to agree with him in many places. However, that does not take away from the fact that this is an incredible book. It will give you an excellent handle on what happened at Trent. Given the situation of the RCC at the moment, which is in large part determined by Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II, it is exceedingly important that we know not only what happened at Trent, but also what did not happen.

He does an especially good job making distinct the actual acts of the council from the reception and perception of the council. His delineation of the political situation was a real eye-opener. The reason why the council took so long and was interrupted, was due to the highly volatile political situation involving the two most powerful political entities (France and the Holy Roman Empire) in their various relations and machinations with the popes of the day.

The only thing I wish he had done was to analyze the Joint Declaration that the Lutherans did with the Roman Catholics. O’Malley seems to think that the entire discussion of whether the anathemas of Trent still apply is to be referred to those ecumenical discussions. I’m not so sure about that, to put it mildly, and I would have liked to see his own evaluation of that in the light of his own mastery of the history of Trent. Still, this is only a minor blemish on a work of fantastic historical value. If you want to know what happened at Trent, you really need to read this book.

Traditions 1, 2, and 0

I’ve been reading in Timothy Ward’s excellent little book Words of Life, and he has a very helpful and clear description of the three main view of Scripture and tradition that were circulating at the time of the Reformation. In this description he builds on Heiko Oberman’s very important work in his Harvest of Medieval Theology. What Oberman calls Tradition I (T1) is the view “that tradition is a tool to aid in the faithful interpretation of Scripture, expounding the primary teachings of Scripture, with Scripture remaining the only source of infallible divine revelation” (Ward, 144). Tradition II (T2) is the view “that there are two distinct sources of divine revelation, Scripture and church tradition, with the latter being handed down either orally or through customary church practices.”

Ward argues that T1 was the position of the early church, and that T2 developed only in the twelfth century, appealing (in his view wrongly) to Augustine and Basil in so doing. The Reformers were therefore advocating a return to T1 in their rejection of T2.

The Anabaptists rejected both T1 and T2 in what Ward calls T0 (this comes from Keith Mathison and Alister McGrath). This view elevates individual interpretation above the corporate, which T1 and the Reformers did NOT do, contrary to Roman Catholic accusations. It is a failure to distinguish these various views of tradition that has prompted so much misinterpretation of the Reformed tradition, and this misinterpretation comes from various quarters.

From the perspective of Roman Catholicism, any view that is not T2 (though there have been some rather widely differing interpretations of T2 in modern Catholicism) elevates personal interpretation above corporate. When Reformed folk respond with T1 views, the typical Roman Catholic response harps on the situation where an individual disagrees with the church. What happens then? The ultimate authority for the Christian is the Bible. Furthermore, Reformed folk believe that the Bible actually means something objectively considered. It is not all just a matter of interpretation. Otherwise, God should never have given us the Bible in the first place. The Christian needs to be patient in asking his church what the church’s real position is, and needs to show that interpretation great deference. However, since the church can err, the church cannot bind anyone’s conscience. If the church contradicts the Bible, then the church loses. This is not making the individual higher than the church. It is making the Bible higher than the church. Remember that the Reformed position holds that the Bible objectively means something apart from our interpretation of it. This is, I believe, one of the great sticking points when Roman Catholics and Protestants speak about authority. What is the nature of the Bible? Does it have any objective clarity on any issue? Does it have any inherent authority? The Roman Catholic typically believes that the Bible doesn’t exist except as interpreted by the church. We demur and say that even if there was no soul on earth existing at all, the Bible would still be there, and would still be clear on the matters of salvation, would still have the authority of God behind it (since He wrote it), and would still mean something.

Another attack from another quarter comes from the “no creed but Christ” crowd. They, like their Anabaptist forefathers, reject all tradition, as if the Holy Spirit never instructed anyone else in all church history before they came along, and as if they have nothing to learn from church history. This is the T0 crowd. Among them, the Hebrew Roots Movement has shown itself definitively to be in this category. They despise the church, and they despise all forms of extra-biblical tradition, whether those traditions are elevated to the level of Scripture (T2) or not (T1). And they cannot distinguish between T1 and T2. To them, everything that is extra-biblical is automatically T2 if appealed to in a debate. Usually the only time they quote the early church fathers, for instance, is to find fault with them. The entire church was completely heretical until they came along. There never has been the seven thousand who did not bow their knee to Baal until they came along. To put it mildly, this is sectarianism in its worst form. For them, the gates of Hell prevailed against the church until they came along.

The Reformers were very different in their approach to church history. They believed that the Roman Catholic church, by excommunicating the Reformers (who didn’t leave of their own volition (another myth initiated by Roman Catholics), but were expelled) and anathematizing the gospel at the Council of Trent, thus broke themselves off from the true church.

There are those even in the PCA who have a great deal of sympathy with the “no creed but Christ” crowd. Whenever any confessionalist quotes the Westminster Standards to address any question whatsoever, they will immediately charge us with T2. For them, there is no intermediate, fallible authority present in church creeds at all. Therefore, the creeds should never be used in any church controversy. The problem with this, as Ward demonstrates so clearly and helpfully, is that we need a rule of faith as a summary of what the Bible is saying. Creeds and confessions provide the church’s agreed upon Rule of Faith. It constitutes the analogy of faith as we understand it. And, as Trueman in his book The Creedal Imperative says so well, everyone has a creed! The question is not whether you will have one or not. The question is whether your creed is visible or not, and thus can be used as a means of accountability, and for unity in the church. People who desire to have unity by scrapping the creeds are therefore whoppingly wrong. There can be no unity without truth. And without creeds, we have no way of agreeing on what that truth is. So creeds and confessions are T1, fallible authorities that nevertheless have more authority than an individual, but less authority than the Bible. It is as we are abandoning the Westminster Standards, for instance, that we are having the unity problems in the PCA right now. The abandonment of the Westminster Standards will presage not the salvation and progress of the PCA, but rather its destruction.

Whither Roman Catholicism?

I was reading Robert Strimple’s outstanding article on modern Roman Catholic theology (in the book on Roman Catholicism edited by John Armstrong), and I was faced with a whopping conundrum. That conundrum can be simply phrased: who speaks for Roman Catholicism? For many people, that answer is simple: the magisterium speaks for the church. The problem is that the magisterium is becoming increasingly liberal. One only has to look at the state of Roman Catholic education in the United States to see this. The vast majority of the major voices in American Roman Catholic education are liberal. It is only a matter of time before the Pope is a liberal, and there are some who are claiming that Francis is a liberal.

The problem it creates for Protestants like me, who wish to write on Roman Catholicism, then, is which documents and writers to engage? David Wells, in his book Revolution in Rome (written quite a while ago!), believed that the future of Roman Catholic theology was liberal, not conservative. And so, he decided to engage the liberal Roman Catholicism. What seems to me to be happening is that the conservative element in the magisterium is becoming increasingly isolated and marginalized. If I decide to use the historical documents of the RCC as the basis for engagement, then I won’t engage the majority of Roman Catholic authors who are writing today. If I engage the McBriens of Catholicism, then I risk being accused of distorting the Roman Catholic faith. While it is true that the Catechism of the Catholic Church is a very authoritative document (indeed, one of the few lynch-pin documents available today that seems to be well-loved and well-used by all Roman Catholics), it still doesn’t seem to be getting at the disagreements between the liberals and the conservatives. It is, despite its length, a fairly basic document. That is not a criticism of it, per se. It is a catechism. Catechisms are supposed to be basic! But that limits its effectiveness in solving the problem I have just outlined. The effect of the problem on writing, then, is that I would almost have to write two books, one on historical Roman Catholicism, and the other on Roman Catholic theology today. If I wrote only one, then I would have to choose, or else risk writing a disjointed book that would have two different sections, and that would involve a lot of repetition wherever the historical Roman Catholicism and the modernist Roman Catholicism overlapped.

Equal to the effect this bifurcation in Roman Catholicism would have on my writing is the effect this would have on the readership. The majority liberals would probably not be terrifically interested in a Protestant book on historical Roman Catholicism. They would just respond by saying, “But he doesn’t engage modern thinkers like Rahner and Schillebeeckx.” If I engage Rahner and Schillebeeckx (and that’s only the tip of the iceberg, of course), then the conservatives will retort, “But that is not the magisterium, that’s only individual theologians, who don’t speak for the magisterium.” Again, the problem is this: who speaks for Rome? Technically speaking (de jure), the magisterium does speak for Rome. Practically speaking, the magisterium is becoming increasingly ignored, such that (de facto) the liberal theologians speak for Rome. I know that the Called to Communion folk would probably advise me to ignore Rahner and Schillebeeckx. They have already advised me to ignore McBrien. I don’t think I can do that. But it might mean two books, not just one. They could profitably be divided according to the Roman Catholic distinction between the magisterium and theology (which distinction Strimple helpfully points out as one which evangelicals often ignore, to their great detriment).

The last question is this: what caused this problem and division? Strimple believes that the floodgates were opened with Pius XII’s encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu (1943). This encyclical, while including some conservative-sounding language about Scripture, stressed the need for biblical criticism. Whether Roman Catholic biblical theologians were rightly interpreting it this way or not, the effect was a mass transit to the methods of modern biblical criticism. I would argue that this change was the largest change in Roman Catholic history, and resulted in a great fragmentation of Roman Catholicism into many different groups (a fragmentation largely paralleled in Protestantism, of course). I think that discussion about whether Vatican II changed Rome is actually a moot question in the light of the far larger sea-change that happened after that encyclical. It is, of course, far easier to time-stamp Vatican II than it would be to investigate the changes that modernist biblical methods brought about, but it seems to me that anything that did “change” with V2 is dependent on the prior change of modernism. I would certainly refer the new ecumenical stances in Roman Catholic theology and even magisterial documents to these changes. Having read two histories of V2 so far (Faggioli and O’Malley), the struggle between the curia and the majority of the bishops over the agenda of V2 seems to bear out this thesis.

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