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 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

Great interview with one of the prosecutors in Meyers’ Federal Vision Trial

Posted by Bob Mattes

Dr. R. Scott Clark, church historian, pastor, and Westminster Seminary California professor, interviewed Rev. M. Jay Bennett for the Heidelcast. Jay was the lead prosecutor for the TE Jeff Meyers’ Federal Vision trial in Missouri Presbytery. The interview comes in two parts, with the second part slated for next week. In the first part that’s posted now, Dr. Clark covers Teaching Elder Bennett’s background, a bit of Federal Vision (FV) background, and the timeline leading up to the Meyers trial. The latter provides some insight into how the discipline process in the PCA proceeds. As usual, Dr. Clark conducts an informative and engaging interview which I highly recommend. Scott and Jay discuss a few anomalies in the case history, but so far haven’t mentioned the big one in my opinion.

In the trial record of case, on page 872, you see that Missouri Presbytery (MOP) was basically pushing TE Bennett out of the presbytery, which would, of course, make him unable to complain against the decision in the Meyers case. In the end, MOP succeeded and the PCA Standing Judicial Commission apparently let MOP get away with this ploy without even reading the record of the case. The bigger story is that MOP had kept men like TE Mark Horne, another Federal Visionist like Meyers, without call for over 3 years. Yet, TE Bennett, who opposes the unreformed FV, was being bounced almost immediately. The politics is pretty clear when looking at the bigger picture.

To be totally up front, I signed the original letter of concern mentioned in the interview and was a witness for the prosecution in the Meyers case, flying to St. Louis on my own nickle (i.e., at no cost to MOP) for the trial. I worked with Jay on my testimony, and found him a fair, honorable, and confessional teaching elder who deeply loves the Reformed Faith and understood the unconfessional nuances in the Federal Vision. The PCA owes TE Bennett a great debt of gratitude for standing firmly for the gospel in the face of overwhelming opposition.

Don’t miss part 1 of the interview, and check back next week for part 2. And you could benefit greatly by following Dr. Clark’s Heidelblog as many of us do.

I would be remiss without adding that Jeff Meyers, after being acquitted by MOP, now teaches with all the FV heavyweights at an FV school. I couldn’t make this stuff up.

Posted by Bob Mattes

How to Love Confessionalists

Have you ever noticed that when differences of opinion come up between the confessionalists and the “can’t we all get along” (hereafter abbreviated “cwaga”) folks, that incredibly shrill and unloving voices come from the latter group directed towards the former group, all in the name of love? I have experienced this first-hand almost innumerable times. There are several reasons for this. The first reason is that the cwaga folks almost always take doctrinal criticism personally. The second reason is that they confuse private and public offenses. By this I mean that when someone’s teaching is under scrutiny, the cwaga folks run to Matthew 18, which actually only applies to private offenses. It is Galatians 2 that applies to public offenses, especially teaching and/or morals that are leading people astray. Thirdly, the cwaga folks have confused love with niceness. In this aspect, they have drunk the culture’s koolaid that states that everyone’s opinion is ok, except for the person who denies that statement. That person is unloving (says the culture). And, of course, the cwaga folk have also swallowed the idea that culture is almost always wonderful and sparkling. So for them, culture functions pretty much as a parallel source of revelation to the Bible. Hence the use of movie clips as sermon texts. To them, confessionalists come from a different planet which is not called earth. The reason I am writing this post is (believe it or not, out of love for these folks!) to help them love confessionalists better. This will require clearing the air of wrong ways of loving them, so that right ways can be substituted.

Here are a couple of wrong ways to “love” confessionalists. Firstly, make sure you take everything personally when a confessionalist raises a point of doctrine. Secondly, make sure you make it all about the good ol’ boys club, and not about the sheep. Make sure you don’t care about whether the sheep are getting poisoned or not. That is irrelevant. It’s all about the pastor. Thirdly, make sure that any concern that a confessionalist raises from the confession is accused of raising the confessional standards to the level of Scripture. Fourthly, going along with the third point, make sure that the said issues raised from the confession are belittled as being peripheral concerns, with the implied harsh and unloving criticism that the confessionalist doesn’t care about the gospel, but only cares about minutiae. Fifthly, make sure that the real doctrinal standard of the denomination is not the Westminster Standards, or the Three Forms of Unity, but the nebulous, undefined “Reformed tradition,” which consists of anything anyone might have said in the past, whether taken in context or not, and reread anachronistically in the light of modern disputes, thus creating a very handy wax nose out of said tradition that can allow anything and everything. Sixthly, belittle the Westminster Standards as being out-of-date and irrelevant, and in need of complete overhaul. And when someone objects to this, make sure you accuse them of putting the Standards on the same level as Scripture. Seventhly, belittle the Westminster divines as being overly scrupulous legalists. Eighthly, any time a doctrinal point is raised, make sure you immediately and without evidence or argumentation (or any of the steps of the process that you insist on confessionalists following in their harsh and unloving prosecution of…wolves), accuse them of breaking the ninth commandment. Ninthly, make sure that if any talk of church split happens, that you accuse the confessionalists of being the schismatics, instead of those who are shifting the boundaries. We haven’t moved anywhere, folks. We haven’t moved the ancient landmarks. And, by the way, when someone creates a list such as this, make sure you assume that they are being bitter about past experiences. If you have fallen foul of the confessionalist, make sure you now believe and act on the principle that he is the devil incarnate, and does not deserve any love from here on out. After all, he has no feelings (since he only cares about truth, not love: perpetuate that false dichotomy between truth and love), and cannot be hurt by anything you say, so make sure you lay it on thick. By all means, get entire Presbyteries in on the action, especially if there is one man in particular to attack. Presbyteries, after all, can do no wrong. Ever. And they never need to apologize for anything. Ever. They are infallible. And if anyone questions that principle, accuse them of not submitting to the brethren.

So there are 9 ways not to love confessionalists. Just about all of them have happened to me and many of my friends at one point or another, most of them dozens of times. Now let me tell to you the heart of a confessionalist. He is quite a different species than the cwaga folk, and operates on different principles. So if you really are concerned about love, and are not just mouthing off words of unity and love in order to score political points off the confessionalist, then here is how to love the confessionalist. Firstly, don’t speak about love without speaking about truth. Truth and love are not in competition. The Bible says that two cannot walk together unless they are agreed. “God is love” is in the Bible. So is “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.” God is not MORE love than light. Stop pitting the attributes of God over against each other, or claiming that there is a fundamental attribute of God more important than any other. Secondly, remember that confessionalists love the sheep and are trying to see that the sheep (and not just their own!) are getting fed the Word and not poison. Confessionalists know that pastors are eminently expendable. Pastors are going to get attacked. It comes with the territory. Stop idolizing comfort and recognize that people can easily get poisoned by false teaching, and that confessionalists are trying to protect the sheep. In other words, stop misreading motivations. Thirdly, enough with the good ol’ boys club. This creates political machinations that are extremely distasteful to the confessionalist. Fourthly, stop patronizing the confessionalists (not to mention speaking out of both sides of your mouth!) by telling them that they are needed in the denomination, and then doing everything you can to thumb your nose at them and push the envelope. Going along with this, stop claiming to be confessionalists yourselves, if almost all your actions undermine the Standards. Fifthly, recognize that true creativity in theology does NOT mean shifting sideways and discovering new and uncharted doctrines. Rather, true creativity means understanding the SAME doctrines better and deeper. There is a faith once for all delivered to the saints. Going along with this, stop pushing the boundaries! There is NOTHING that confessionalists hate more than this. Stop telling them to accept this, accept that, accept this, be quiet about it, don’t debate it, or else we’re being unloving. The envelope is not infinitely extendable, and many in the PCA have already pushed it way too far. Sixthly, stop pretending that the Reformation is irrelevant and was really unnecessary. If you believe that, go back to Rome. You should never have left the Roman Catholic Church in the first place unless you have a principled gospel reason for it. Seventhly, assume that a confessionalist, when quoting the Standards, is using them as shorthand for what he believes the Bible to be saying, as opposed to worshiping the Standards.

Hebrew Roots, Unhelpful Fruits

by Reed DePace

I first was compelled to examine the Hebrew Roots Movement (more broadly, Messianic Christianity) because of a beloved Christian father in my circles who had a relative drifting into the movement. This relative has a sincere faith, spending a part of life working for a reformed ministry of some renown. Circumstances in life led this relative to some understandable and rightly placed disillusionment with some reformed churches. In response to these hardships the relative sadly and unwisely in my view latched onto a Messianic congregation/ministry. Hence, in order to help this Christian father, I did some research on this movement.

I’ve concluded that MOST of the folks involved with what Lane has aptly titled the Hebrew Roots Movement are dissatisfied Protestants looking for THE explanation/interpretation that will bring to life the full realization of the promises for the Christian Life taught in the Scriptures. Rightly NOT satisfied with the experience of ordinary Evan-jellyfish Christianity that makes a great blasting trumpet sound but has no extraordinary follow through, these folks, motivated by a sincere desire to believe Christ, are looking for the answer somewhere other than the tradition they’ve come out of.

Thus they follow in a long line of similar seekers of the fulfillment of what Calvin called “Golden Jewish Dreams.” They are the descendants of the Anabaptists, the various movements into spiritualism, mysticism and pietism. They are the next heirs of the higher life movement, the Pentecostals, and late born cousins of Dispensationalism and prosperity gospel preachers. Like all such movements, they claim a “New” understanding of the gospel that is also recovery of the gospel as taught in the Early Church.

And, in a manner they do not suspect, they are indeed right. They do have ancient roots and they are the latest new version of an old error. These folks yet again, in the end, propose a relationship with God that is synergistic for its fulfillment. For them it is not Jesus + fundamentalism, or Jesus + sacerdotalism, or Jesus + mysticism, or Jesus + signs and wonders, or Jesus + prosperity. No, for them it is Jesus + a modern expression of the oldest form of fundamentalism known in the Church. They are indeed a new expression of the old Judaizers. Like some of the early profession-making Pharisees (the party of James), these folks in the end teach a Jesus + Talmudic-Torah-observance, a Jesus + the necessity of some sort of a Jewish informed lifestyle.

They don’t realize that they are making (at least) two tragic mistakes. First, like most imbalanced Jesus + something else movements, they have an over-realized eschatology. They are expecting the experience of things now that are reserved for the eternal state. Specifically they are expecting a fleshly experience of what is only a spiritual experience of the Christian life now. They mistakenly think that fleshly practices in some way secure the dramatically powerful experience of the Spirit’s work in day to day life. In this they are no better than the forms of Evan-jellyfish they left behind. Missing that the ordinary experience of the Christian life is one marked by fleshly suffering and weakness this side of eternity, they are pursuing just another expression of the “Kingdom NOW” lie so common in the Church today.

Second, these Hebrew Roots Movement folks unwisely are adopting practices and habits, accouterments of a “Jewish” lifestyle that actually are derived from a heretical source. These folks do not seem to realize that with the destruction of the Temple the practice of a Jewish form of Christianity ceased to be an option. The core of OT worship was the sacrifices; all of Leviticus, the key book in terms of Jewish life and worship (i.e., life = worship, worship is life), is built around the sacrifices. They were essential to the maintenance of even the smallest component of the law of cleanliness, etc.. Without sacrifice one CANNOT rightly practice any of the OT worship system.

And when the Temple was destroyed – that was it. All that was left was the Pharisaical/Rabbinical traditions. All that was left was the ethical teaching of the rabbis (the Talmudic tradition) coupled with the imitative worship practices, the “616” applicatory traditions of the Pharisees. Outside the book of Acts we actually do not have any Church exclusive sources of what first century Jewish Christianity was like. All we have are sources that at best seek to interpret what Jewish Christianity must have been like based on similarities with second and later century Diaspora Judaism. It is amazing that Messianic Christians think they are practicing a purer form of Christianity. In reality, they are practicing a form contaminated by unbelieving Jews who maintained their rejection of Jesus as the Messiah.

These modern day “Jewish” Christians fail to grapple with what Jesus said:

And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” (Mar 7:6-8 ESV)

Quite simply, those who would restore a Jewish form of Christianity are actually restoring the Pharisaical form at best, something condemned by Jesus and done away with at his express command (e.g., Acts 10, 15, the books of Galatians and Hebrews in total). All the practices adopted in Messianic congregations have as their source Rabbinic Judaism, that branch of Judaism that refused to repent of their rejection of the Messiah when in A.D. 70 God removed the earthly temple and left standing only the true spiritual temple, the Church of Christ.

Looking for the transformative power of the Christian life, these sincere but misguided folks ignore the warning of the Spirit who is the source of this transformation:

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, (1Ti 4:1-3)

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations– “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)– according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Col 2:20-23)

But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. (Tit 3:9)

The Hebrew Roots Movement, Messianic Christianity, while well intentioned, is yet another deflection from the simple, pure gospel of Jesus Christ. It is based on the heresy of rabbinic Judaism, NOT first century Jewish Christianity. It in the end, like all forms of Jesus + me Christianity, teaches a defective gospel.

For more information, and helpful “inside” critiques of the movement, see the following resources:

Stan is a Jewish believer in Christ, former pastor, and lately a missionary with Jews for Jesus. Raised in American Judaism, he speaks from first-hand knowledge of the Messianic Christian movement. One interesting tidbit he shares: upwards of 80% of the members of Messianic congregations are NOT Jewish by birth. Instead they are Gentiles, mostly disaffected evangelicals attracted to the Hebrew Roots Movement by a promise of a restoration of “authentic” Christianity.

Baruch is a born and raised Israeli Jew. He grew up actually Jewish, served his mandatory term in the Israeli army, and lived a thoroughly Jewish life before being converted. And after conversion, he continued to live a Jewish lifestyle – but one that does not involve the restoration of rabbinic Judaism in the Church seen in Messianic Christianity. A reformed pastor, he has a long-term credible missionary-pastoral-writing ministry based in Israel. If anyone can speak with credibility to the non-Christian aspects of the Hebrew Roots Movement, it is Baruch.

In the end, I conclude on a sad but hopeful note. The sadness is that these folks have saddled themselves with the old law-slavery that Jesus lamented: 

And he said, “Woe to you lawyers also! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers.” (Luke 11:46)

The hope is that it was to just such a people Jesus called out with this promise: 

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Mt 11:28-1)

===============================================

NOTE: significant in the misunderstandings of these folks is the role of the Levitical regulations. It is these that make up the bulk of the “Jewishness” that Messianic Christians strive to adopt in their worship and life.

Consequently, both to understand where these folks get off track and in order to help them, getting a handle on how Leviticus works is important. Consider the following sources:

For some really deep background and seminal thinking on the nature of clean/unclean, holy/common themes in Leviticus, one ignores Mary Douglas to their own hurt: The Forbidden Animals in Leviticus and Leviticus As Literature. While you may not agree with all she says, her insights are very helpful in rightly interpreting the meaning of these concepts.

For some thinking on the role of the Mosaic law in the Church/Christian life, see:

As well, one will find great help, simple and sound investigations of the Scripture via the Westminster Confession of Faith. See Chapter 19, Of the Law of God,  especially paragraph three (scroll down to page 83).

Reed DePace

The Newest Hot Topic

Seems to be this post from Sam DeSocio. Darryl Hart weighed in here, followed by Scott Clark, and then John Bugay. There is a discussion on it over at the Puritanboard as well.

There seems to me a very good reason why this topic is so hot right now: many people have been thinking about the PCA as being in need of a split purification. Sam merely brought out the elephant in the room. This is the topic that no one wanted to be the first to talk about. However, now that Sam has done so, the floodgates are open now.

What is the issue? How do we go about defining the problem? Sam’s categories are a tad vague (how exactly would he describe the groups within the PCA?). And this, in my view, is the biggest difficulty I see, a difficulty that Ken Pierce pointed out rather cogently in the comments on Sam’s post: there are many people in the PCA who don’t necessarily like to be pigeon-holed. Ken himself described his own view as confessional, but wanting to be in the same denomination as, say, Tim Keller. Incidentally, this is proof positive that not all confessionalists are out for other people’s blood. Can the overly paranoid, guilt-manipulating, unity-mongering, can’t-we-all-get-along folks please take notice? (Now why, oh why, can’t you laugh at this perfectly accurate description of yourself coming from a witch-hunting, Pharisaic, camel-swallowing/needle-straining bigot?) Maybe we all be taking ourselves a wee bit too seriously? Check. Oh wait, I just pigeon-holed myself, didn’t I? Well, of all the…

Not that there aren’t serious issues going on in the PCA. There are. However, many people, including myself, are just a little bit too fond of grand-standing, and listening to our own way-too-clever bunk. (Mental note to self: do more shutting up, and do more listening!). Personally, I agree with Scott Clark. The issue surrounds the confessional standards of our church. When does the PCA become a non-confessional denomination? Many would argue that it already has. Probably everyone draws their own line in the sand. Of course, there’s always the danger of the movable line in the sand, as the Trinity Foundation folks rightly point out. Are we headed for a split? I don’t know. I think it is more profitable for me to concentrate on promoting the peace and purity of the PCA (and especially promoting them as inseparable: no peace without purity, and no purity without peace). If that becomes impossible, then I’ll cross that bridge when it comes to it. It hasn’t come yet.

How would I describe the PCA? I think, instead of sharply-defined groups, it would be more accurate to say that there exists a continuum with foci at four points on that continuum. On the far right, the confessionalists (here am I, and I can do no other). On the far left, the progressives who at least appear to despise the confession as an antiquated irrelevancy. One focus point in on the continuum (from the progressive side) is the general evangelical crowd, who want unity, are soteriologically Reformed, but are willing to compromise on just about anything other than the Gospel. One focus point in from the confessionalists are the “mostly confessionalist” crowd. This focus point can be hard to distinguish sometimes from the confessionalists, but they are more willing to allow exceptions to the Confession than the confessionalists are. The thing is that none of these focus points are rigid, not even the confessionalist point. None of the focus points are monolithic. To use a term from statistics, there is a lot of scatter data, it seems to me, that refuses to be pigeon-holed.

The PCA’s Original Vision Network

I would recommend you look at my friend Wes White’s blog (here and here) for the recent discussion about this initiative. This seems to me to be an attempt to redefine our history. The PCA’s origin is not broadly Reformed, but rather confessionally Reformed, as is proven by the documents Wes White cites, which, interestingly enough, has Kooistra’s signature on it (and I do not note that to somehow denigrate Kooistra: it’s just that he signed a document claiming to want a thoroughly Reformed denomination, and now, almost 40 years later, he wants a document that advocates a “broadly” Reformed ethos. I think he has changed over 40 years).

I have been banging this drum for a while now, but I guess it needs to be banged again: stretching the boundaries of the PCA does not result in more unity! Instead, it results in more chaos and disunity. You cannot be united unless it is a union around the truth! We are imbibing our culture’s distaste for boundaries when we use pejorative descriptions like “a narrow sectarianism that could consume our energies building a theological fortress.” Quite frankly, right now the PCA could use some theological fortress-building. Otherwise, our confessional heritage will go the way of the dodo bird.

As an illustration, take music composition. One of the single best insights into the nature of musical composition (or any art endeavor, for that matter) came to me from one of my composition teachers at St. Olaf College. She told the class that boundaries spark creativity. If I sit at the computer, where my composition program is located, and say to myself, “I am going to write a piece of music,” that is actually quite stultifying. If I take that approach at all, I immediately have to start asking limiting questions. I am setting up boundaries, in other words. What is the instrumentation? Long or short? Bombastic or meditative? If a song, then what lyrics? Which voice part? As a matter of fact, it is much more freeing and energizing to creativity to have very small and tight boundaries. The fastest piece I ever wrote was a piece I wrote for organ pedal solo. Talk about limitations! Just the feet! That piece flew from my pen, even though it wound up being at least ten pages long. In theology, the most creative theologians are always the most confessional, because they are exploring the depth of the same old truths, and they are not trying to shift sideways into supposed newer truths, which are usually old falsehoods. We need to dig deeper, not shift sideways.

If our denomination is headed for shipwreck (and it might very well do that!), whose fault is it going to be? Supposed narrow-minded sectarians? As a person who is usually attacked by this appellation, I would have to demur: the confessional folks haven’t moved anywhere! We’re still here, advocating a confessional, thoroughly Reformed orthodoxy. There is only so much boundary shifting that confessional folk can take. Wouldn’t the sectarians instead be those who are constantly trying to push the boundary in the name of creativity and unity (which ethos, given the above, seems more than a bit ironic to me)?

A Critique of “Creation, Evolution, and Christian Lay People,” by Tim Keller

Guest post from Dr. Adrian Keister (Ph.D. in mathematical physics from Virginia Tech). The article from Tim Keller is found here.

What’s the Problem?

The first paragraph sets up the tone for the entire piece: the supposed antithesis between orthodox Christianity with a high view of the authority of the Bible, and evolution. Keller challenges that antithesis in the third paragraph. However, in that third paragraph, Keller evidently equates “evolution” with “science” when he writes, “However, there are many who question the premise that science and faith are irreconcilable.” So Keller has shifted the debate now, and this is a point I would not grant him. It is my firm belief that evolution is not science, any more than the theory of mature creation is science. They are both faiths, because the very method of science, being inductive and absolutely dependent on experiment, excludes questions of origin. Let us suppose, via Karl Popper, that scientific statements are statements that can, in theory, be falsifiable by observation. If that is the case, then questions about origins simply do not fall into that category, as there are no repeatable experiments available to settle such questions. The fact that evolution is considered science by mainstream scientists is neither here nor there. 10,000 Frenchmen can still be wrong. If the mainstream scientists have a vested interest in writing God out of their equations, as it says the natural man wants to do in Romans 1, then we should not be surprised when they come up with theories that exclude God! People do science, not machines, and people are always biased. People can always have a vested interest in achieving certain outcomes, even if they are scientists and the desired outcomes are supposed scientific statements.

Keller writes:


However, there are many who question the premise that science and faith are irreconcilable. Many believe that a high view of the Bible does not demand belief in just one account of origins. They argue that we do not have to choose between an anti-science religion or an anti-religious science.

I could certainly agree with the last sentence, but I would agree for different reasons than Keller appears to hold. I would agree because the very nature of science and the scientific method means that the questions science can attempt to answer have nothing to do with the supernatural. Here, I mean that the supernatural is God working through extraordinary means, and the natural is God working through ordinary means. Science excludes itself from questions about the supernatural, precisely because such events are not repeatable and thus there are no experiments. However, for scientists to make the additional leap of logic and claim that the supernatural does not exist, or that supernatural occurrences never happen, is a non sequitur of the first order. Just because the naked eye cannot see past a certain point does not mean there is nothing beyond that point. Keller, on the other hand, appears to hold to this non-antithesis because he believes evolution and orthodox Christianity are compatible. Again, he is placing evolution within science.

Keller’s fourth paragraph, including the van Inwagen quote, seems to me to be irrelevant to the main discussion. Keller’s claim at the end of the paragraph that “This is just one of many places where the supposed incompatibility of orthodox faith with evolution begins to fade away under more sustained reflection” seems to me a bit of a straw man. God is, of course, free to use any means He pleases that do not contradict His nature. However, the main topic of discussion here is whether macro-evolution is compatible with orthodox Christianity. Orthodox Christianity does not need evolution to explain its own existence; it depends for its existence on the Bible and God working to help men understand the Bible.

Keller’s fifth paragraph excludes the possibility that there really is an antithesis, and that those who claim there is an antithesis might be louder and more prominent because they are correct. Yet again, in the second sentence of this paragraph, Keller has equated evolution with science.

Pastors and the People

In this section, Keller lays out four difficulties that he sees laypeople having with evolution. The first is the literalness of Genesis 1, and biblical authority in general. The second is evolution as a Grand Theory of Everything, as per Richard Dawkins. The third is the historicity of Adam and Eve. The fourth is the problem of violence and evil. Keller proposes to “lay out” the first three of these difficulties. To Keller’s credit, he takes on himself and other pastors the hard work of interpreting the Bible, scientists, and philosophers in order to make things real to their parishioners.

Three Questions of Christian Laypeople


Question 1: If God used evolution to create, then we can’t take Genesis 1 literally, and if we can’t do that, why take any other part of the Bible literally?


Answer: The way to respect the authority of the Biblical writers is to take them as they want to be taken. Sometimes they want to be taken literally, sometimes they don’t. We must listen to them, not impose our thinking and agenda on them.

The above question and answer are quoted verbatim from Keller. At first blush, I would react by saying that while I think the answer is a true statement, I do not think it answers the question.

Keller then launches into an examination of whether Genesis 1 is prose or poetry or something else. Keller does not appear to want to take Genesis 1 literally. His first argument is that “…Genesis 1’s prose is extremely unusual. It has refrains, repeated statements that continually return as they do in a hymn or song.” (emphasis original) So far as I can see, this argument is inconclusive. No one, I think, would argue that Numbers 7 is narrative, and yet it definitely has a refrain. His second argument is that “the terms for the sun (‘greater light’) and moon (‘lesser light’) are highly unusual and poetic, never being used anywhere else in the Bible, and ‘beast of the field’ is a term for animal that is ordinarily confined to poetic discourse.” This could be true. However, even if we grant the term “exalted prose narrative” as being descriptive of Genesis 1 (which I do not necessarily grant), this does not imply automatically that “we must not impose a ‘literalistic’ hermeneutic on the text.” (Keller is quoting Francis Collins here.) How is exalted prose narrative supposed to be interpreted? What clear examples do we have of interpreting such narrative?

Keller then claims that Genesis 1 and 2 cannot both be taken literally because there would be incompatibilities. The examples Keller brings up seem quite weak to me. Keller’s first example is that there is light before any natural sources of light. My brother Lane thinks that this may be a polemic against the Egyptian sun god Ra. Of course there can be light without the sun, moon, or stars: see Revelation 22:5. Then Keller claims that vegetation before atmosphere or rain is impossible. I would divide that question into two. Vegetation before atmosphere might or might not be possible, but at the very least, Keller appears to claim that the atmosphere was created on Day 4, whereas in my reading, Day 1 seems a better candidate. As for vegetation before rain, Keller either does not know about canopy theory (Genesis 2:6 is relevant to that discussion), or dismisses it. However, canopy theory is quite plausible, although I would claim it is not science. As for Genesis 2:5, it by no means necessarily teaches that God followed a natural order, precisely because of Genesis 2:6. The entire creation was supernatural! God made the rules in creation, and He acted by following His own good pleasure. Finally, Keller claims that “evenings and mornings” are not natural, given that the sun is created on Day 4. However, this is a strange way to argue: that something is not natural means we can’t interpret a passage literally. Or even, giving Keller the benefit of the doubt, that if all the characteristics of one passage are not natural, and all the characteristics of another passage are natural, that we must then interpret them differently. Would he make the same claim about passages in Exodus, that alternate between supernatural and natural? I simply do not see any clash between Genesis 1 taken as literal history, and Genesis 2 taken as literal history.

Keller writes, in summary, that “Genesis 1 does not teach that God made the world in six twenty-four hour days.” In this paper, he appears to come to this conclusion because he thinks Genesis 1 is not meant to be taken literally. However, even if we grant that Genesis 1 is not to be taken literally (which I do not grant), that does not mean that a day is not a 24 hour day. Nonliteral passages can still have literal elements to them. Keller seems to point to non-literalness in every element of Genesis 1.


Question 2: If biological evolution is true – does that mean that we are just animals driven by our genes, and everything about us can be explained by natural selection?


Answer: No. Belief in evolution as a biological process is not the same as belief in evolution as a worldview.

Keller makes a distinction between evolution proper (the biological process) and “perennial naturalism”, which is Alvin Plantinga’s term. Perennial naturalism is clearly antithetical to orthodox Christianity, and I think Keller thinks that, too. However, it is not clear to me how this helps Keller’s overall case. Let us recall that Keller’s thesis is that biological evolution (not perennial naturalism) and orthodox Christianity are compatible. So, let EBP be the statement that macro-evolutionary biological processes occur. Let PN be perennial naturalism, and let OC be orthodox Christianity. Keller would agree that PN AND OC is false. Ah, but EBP does not imply PN, like the new atheists claim. Therefore EBP AND OC? The conclusion is not warranted. By that reasoning, we could say that anything that does not imply PN is compatible with OC, which is clearly false. Gnosticism does not imply PN, but it is antithetical to OC. As to whether EBP does or does not imply PN, I will defer to others, since I have not studied the matter.

Keller writes:


Many Christian laypeople resist all this and seek to hold on to some sense of human dignity by subscribing to ‘fiat-creationism.’ This is not a sophisticated theological and philosophical move; it is intuitive.

I am not sure whether Keller means to demean “fiat-creationists” by calling them unsophisticated (I would tend to think so, given the nature of Keller’s ministry, but I do not impute motives) or whether he is merely making an impersonal remark about the nature of “fiat-creationists”. Moreover, Keller does not define the term “fiat-creationist”. If by “fiat-creationist” he means simply someone who believes in a literal Genesis creation story, where God creates by divine fiat, then I would certainly place myself in that camp. I do not see either that such “fiat-creationism” is unsophisticated merely because it rejects all forms of macro-evolution, nor do I see that even if it is unsophisticated, that that is a bad thing. It is a rather puzzling comment, so I will refrain from further critique.


Question 3: If biological evolution is true and there was no historical Adam and Eve how can we know where sin and suffering came from?


Answer: Belief in evolution can be compatible with a belief in an historical fall and a literal Adam and Eve. There are many unanswered questions around this issue and so Christians who believe God used evolution must be open to one another’s views.

Since Keller takes a literal view of Genesis 2, and believes in a literal Adam and Eve, there is less in this section with which I would quibble. I probably would not have quoted N. T. Wright favorably, as his theology is highly problematic, although the statement in question seems unobjectionable. Keller certainly does argue for some of the more orthodox positions in this section.

However, in getting to the subsubsection entitled “A model”, Keller runs into some difficulties. It is not entirely clear to me whether Keller holds to Kidner’s views of a pre-Adamic race or not, but that is clearly what is in view here. And if there is a pre-Adamic race, then there was death before the Fall of Man. The difficulties of having death (really, of any animal, whether in the pre-Adamic race, or other animals) before the Fall of Man are several. One is that the wages of sin is death. That is, sin implies death. Can we say that not-sin implies not-death? That would be the converse. Equivalently, can we say that death implies sin? If we can, then death before the Fall flies in the face of God’s goodness. It is not that man inherently deserves life, and that God must, in justice, give it to him if he obeys. Instead, it is a matter of God’s Word. God said to Adam, “Do this and live, do that and die.” The antithesis seems to me to indicate that we can conclude the converse. Furthermore, in Isaiah 11:6-9, we see the picture of a restored earth. No animal seems to be hurting any other animal. If the restored earth is to be a return to the Garden of Eden, how can there be animal death before the Fall?

This “model” seems to give away much too much to the scientists. In fact, this is a general trend I noticed in Keller’s writing. As Gordon Clark once said, “Science is a collection of useful falsehoods.” Useful, but not “true”. That is, since science is based on the inductive method, which is technically a fallacy, science can really only ever make probabilistic statements. Science can never arrive at the truth, since its method is inherently flawed. That does not make science worthless, as it does have immense predictive value in its domain. But that’s precisely the point: questions about origins of the universe are not within the domain of science. You can hypothesize all day about origins, and scientists have, but the bottom line is there are no repeatable experiments to reproduce what actually happened. Therefore, science simply cannot contradict the Bible, at least in questions of origin. The Bible says something about origins, and science cannot. This is, in general, why I have not seen any tension between true science and Christianity. Science, while competent in its areas to say some things (subject to the limitations I mentioned before), cannot rise even to the level of addressing anything supernatural. And since what the Bible says about natural processes is perfectly accurate, and science corroborates it, there are no conflicts whatsoever.

Keller’s view is not technically one of the four accepted views that the PCA allows for TE’s. The Metro NY Presbytery has probably ruled that Keller’s views do not strike at the fundamentals of the system of doctrine taught in the Westminster Standards. That is a question I have not studied, but I believe there is cause for concern, and it warrants investigation.

Thoughts on Siouxlands Presbytery vs. TE Lawrence

Posted by Bob Mattes

Let me start by stating clearly that I’m sure that the men who tried TE Lawrence in Siouxlands Presbytery are godly, Reformed men trying to do a good job. My comments should never be taken as critical of these men’s honor or theology, although I think that they widely missed the mark in the trial outcome. Surely a complaint is inevitable, and rightly so.

That said, I’ve read the public documents available on the Siouxlands case against TE Greg Lawrence, such as the Case Against TE Lawrence, TE Lawrence’s Plea, Defense Brief, Report of the Investigative Committee, and Report of the Committee to Instruct TE Lawrence. Many thanks to Steve Carr for making those available. While I cannot cover them all in any detail in this post, I found some interesting trends.

First of all,the judicial commission felt that TE Lawrence had clarified or corrected his views through the successive investigative committee interactions and the trial. However, I see no evidence anywhere that TE Lawrence had recanted any view nor repented of any error. As far as I can tell, he never renounced his paper on covenants, any sermon, or any statement that he made. Some of them have been really disturbing errors, such as (from the prosecution’s brief):

Q: So, does that happen [that is, the receiving of certain saving benefits] to everyone who’s baptized with water?

GL: At least in some measure, those benefits are granted to those who are baptized….

So TE Lawrence says that some measure of saving benefits are granted to baptized reprobates –  a rare moment of clarity. And this:

Q: So you would be happy saying that someone who eventually falls away can be united to Christ’s death and resurrection?

GL: Yes.

Wow! And this one:

The fundamental difference between the decretally elect and the non-decretally elect is that the non-decretally elect are not decretally elect.

Taking God’s word at face value, it is possible for a person chosen for temporary membership in the covenant to have their sins forgiven and yet to fall away from the grace of God (Galatians 5.4). We are to view and treat members of the covenant as justified. But this forgiveness and other blessings are not identical for the regenerate (unto life eternal) and those who are not regenerate and do not persevere in God’s covenant.

I’ve blogged on the error of temporary forgiveness in this post. So,how do these “other blessings” differ qualitatively from those given to the elect? I didn’t see the answer to those critical questions.

Looking at the defense document, I found that it mainly offered red herrings, misdirection, and obfuscation. For example, on the 5th and 6th pages, the defense tries to appeal to supposed minority or lesser views at the Westminster Assembly to support their case. News flash – law is decided by what the majority actually passes. We see this in our public laws passed by Congress as well as appellate and Supreme Court decisions. While the minority dissents or opinions may be interesting at times, they are NEVER binding. The Standards are part of the PCA constitution as written, period. To paraphrase former Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld – you go to court with the Standards that you have, not the Standards that you wish you had. That should have been a major defense FAIL.

Typical for Federal Vision, the defense takes Scripture targeted for the elect and tries to apply them to the reprobate in the visible church. This is especially disturbing with TE Lawrence’s use of the term “new life” in relation to the reprobates in the visible church. In Scripture (e.g., Rom 6:4 and 7:6), this terminology is only used relative to the elect. FV always claims to be “more Scriptural”, but again we see the hypocrisy of FV. You can read about the fallacy of that argument in previous discussions on this site about the lens of the Confession here and here.

Another disturbing trend apparently missed by Siouxlands is that many if not most of TE Lawrence’s formal written and some verbal responses either didn’t directly address the question asked, or his answers included key qualification that he didn’t explain. I’m surprised that Siouxlands didn’t press until they received direct answers to their direct questions. This wasn’t a freshman seminary exercise, but a serious examination of an experienced teaching elder. I’m surprised that the judicial commission seemed to miss this entirely.

The fact that the Siouxlands instructional committee limited the discussion to terms as used in the Standards left a planet-sized hole open for TE Lawrence to duck through. FV’s specialty is redefining Confessional terms to fit their aberrant theology. With that burden lifted, even Wilkins could have passed the questioning with a straight face. It looks to me like the instructional committee’s sole result was to show TE Lawrence how to get through the trial, though I’m sure that was unintentional. I didn’t see anything recanted in there.

As the PCA’s Ad Interim Study Committee on FV, NPP, and AAT correctly stated, FV is a parallel soteriology. So it occurred to me that the mythical benefits offered to baptized reprobates in FV are parallel benefits – same names, less filling, like the beer commercial. I think that may be where TE Lawrence is going with his “social benefits of the Spirit.” It’s just another obfuscation using different words. But here’s what TE Lawrence had to say about benefits to both the elect and reprobates in the visible church, again misapplying the Scriptural term “new life”:

Baptism itself is an entrance into new life….This new life that is wrought through me, Jesus is saying, through My life, death, and resurrection will be poured out – this new life, which on a grand scale is the fulfillment in the midst of history of the promises of God is applied individually in baptism to you.  One must be born again by water and Spirit, born into the kingdom of God.

So apparently reprobates are born again into the kingdom of God? How did that get by the judicial commission? Again, these statements have never been retracted by TE Lawrence.

The instructional committee dealt with this gem from TE Lawrence’s sermon on Romans 6:

In baptism we are united to Christ and as such the benefits that He has wrought have been applied to us…. Paul says in baptism you have been united to Christ, the new Adam, in such a way that you identify with him in his death and you identify with him in his new life and resurrection, so that you, people of God, have new life. You have been united to Christ and His benefits, therefore, are for you. And this is wrought in baptism, Paul says. It is a matter of status that we walk in newness of life.

The instructional committee understood that TE Lawrence applied this to all who are baptized into the visible church. The committee found it problematic. Why did the judicial commission give it a pass?

It’s sad that another of these cases will drag a Presbytery through inevitable complaints, wasting time and resources that could go towards the Great Commission. Maybe the real goal of FV is to bankrupt and wear out orthodox, Reformed denominations. I believe that I warned about that back in 2007. My, how far we’ve come.

Posted by Bob Mattes

Sign, Thing Signified, and Sacramental Relationship

One of the main difficulties in understanding the sacraments is understanding the relationship among these three elements of the sacraments. We’ll take baptism here for an example. The sign is the water, whether sprinkled, poured, or immersed (I believe that the amount of water used is ultimately immaterial). The thing signified is the cleansing blood of Christ. One important thing that is usually missed here is that the sacrament includes the thing signified. This gets at a huge problem in the church today. The church tends to refer to the sacrament as including only the sign. Therefore, when we use the term “baptism,” we usually mean just the sign, just the rite. However, this is not the only way to understand the sacrament. WLC 163 explicitly says that the “inward and spiritual grace thereby signified” is also part of the sacrament. This shouldn’t make us nervous in the least, because the real question is where the efficacy of baptism lies.

The power of baptism cannot lie in the sign. This is proven absolutely, 100% conclusively by Romans 4:11, which states explicitly that Abraham already had the thing signified long before he ever had the sign applied to him. Circumcision is described as a sign and seal. This refutes directly those who believe that the “seal” language implies conferral. For here in Romans 4:11 is a seal that most definitely could not confer something already possessed.

The thing signified obviously has saving power. The blood of Christ has an objectively saving power. But how does it get applied to us? The answer is in the sacramental union of sign and thing signified. Another way of describing this sacramental union is “Spirit-given faith.” This is how we avoid the problem that the Lutherans constantly have of ascribing saving power to baptism, and yet also saying “sola fide.” If it is Spirit-given faith that connects sign to thing signified, then that is faith alone that saves. Faith also connects the sign and the thing signified so that the whole sacrament is now present.

Note here that it is quite possible to possess the sign without the thing signified (as in the reprobate). It is also quite possible to possess the thing signified without the sign (as in Abraham before he was circumcised). The only way one can possess the whole sacrament is for the Holy Spirit to give us faith. I believe that it is only as we understand baptism this way that we can avoid the problem associated with too high a view of the sign (and the time-point of its administration), on the one hand; and a devaluing of the sacrament on the other, making the sacrament into a bare sign.

This fits in, I believe, with the Reformed emphasis of the sign as a confirmatory sign. When they use this language, they are talking about the sign by itself. But when they use language reacting against the Anabaptists (usually rejecting the position of a naked and bare sign), they are talking about the sign and the thing signified together. This is the normal way we use sacramental language, and we have to be careful to delineate whether we mean the sign considered just as a sign, or whether we are referring to the whole sacrament, including Spirit-given faith. I am convinced that massive amounts of miscommunication and confusion could be avoided if we are careful at just this point.

« Older entries

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 346 other followers