Rejoinder to Jonathan Barlow

Many thanks to Todd for directing me to Jonathan Barlow’s critique of Rick Phillips’s critique of Steve Wilkin’s response to the Carolina Presbytery’s critique of Steve Wilkins’s theology. How’s that for back and forth? I would like to add my two cents to Barlow’s critique (or subtract my two cents; whichever way you want to look at it).

As I understand the argument, Barlow distinguishes between a word (how it is used) and a doctrine. He thinks (in essence) that Phillips makes the word-concept fallacy. His first target is that of election. He quotes Phillips’s critique, which says this:

“In response to the citation in the CCP Memorial against TE Wilkins’s
affirmation of the Confession – a citation in which he states that election is
lost by those who profess faith but then fall away – he answers that he
taught this only of the Bible’s teaching: ‘The Presbytery in making this
charge has ignored the context of what I have written and because of this,
has completely missed my point. In the article, this statement comes in
the context of a discussion of how the word ‘elect’ is used in the Biblical
text’ (Answers II.3). His point is that he was merely teaching what the
Bible says about election, in contrast to what the Confession says.”

Then Barlow says this: “Notice that Wilkins does not say that ‘this statement comes in the context of a discussion of how the doctrine of election is handled in the Biblical text.’” Who is supposed to have said this? Phillips? As I read what Barlow wrote here, my strong impression is that Barlow is rephrasing what Phillips says that Wilkins says. In which case Barlow misquoted Phillips. Phillips did not say “doctrine of election,” but simply “what the Bible says about election.” Therefore, Barlow has not proved that Phillips is committing the word-concept fallacy (a fallacy with which he is very familiar, by the way!). At the very least, there would be significant overlap between what the Bible says about election and how the Bible uses the word. After all, how can one find out what the Bible says about election unless one finds out how the Bible uses the word? Is this not proper methodology? Barlow hasn’t proved that Phillips is committing this fallacy.

And so Phillips’s summary sentence is simply incorrect – it is not Wilkins’s point that the Confession and the Bible differ in their teaching about election. It is simply Wilkins’s point, clearly stated, that his comments relate to the way the Bible uses a word as opposed to how the Confession uses a word.

Here we have the (by now) familiar problem of what Wilkins said and what Wilkins meant. Given the lack of clarity that is rampant in all the FV writings, this dichotomy should be evident to many. Barlow has not lessened the problem with his critique here. It is evident that this is the case from what he says here, “the way the Bible uses a word as opposed to how the Confession uses a word.” On the level of words, the WCF does use words in the same way that Scripture uses them. Otherwise, we are going to have to say that the WCF is not exegetical of Scripture as a whole. If the WCF is not exegetical of Scripture as a whole, then its doctrinal formulations are purely and simply wrong. I think, on the contrary, that this is precisely what Phillips does understand.

Phillips claims that if Wilkins makes reference to verse X to establish conclusion Y, and the confession makes reference to verse X to establish conclusion Z, then he implicitly
denies the confession’s formulation Z.

The problem here is in the nature of the conclusions drawn. Phillips’s point is that Wilkins’s teaching (involving the proof-texts) comes to diametrically opposite teachings from the WCF. Phillips is saying that the conclusion of Wilkins and the conclusion of the WCF from those particular texts are diametrically opposite and logically incompatible. The formulation above would be a legitimate critique if conclusions Y and Z were not diametrically opposite. But if only one of those conclusions can be right, then Phillips is correct to use such logic. In effect, then, Phillips is saying that only one of two interpretations of those passages can be right: Wilkins or the WCF. If the WCF is wrong in its exegesis of those passages, then would it not also be wrong in its doctrinal formulations at that point? I realize, of course, that this question involves the assumption that ST and exegesis are mutually informative and compatible, the one with the other. If one does not hold to the said position, then this argument will carry no weight.

Barlow then critiques Phillips for “hold(ing) Wilkins responsible for not viewing subscription to the Confession as a subscription to the implicit exegesis inferred from the proof texts appended to the Confession.” However, this is not what Phillips is doing. Phillips is simply noting that they cannot both be correct in their exegesis, and that if the WCF is wrong in its exegesis, then it is also wrong in its formulation.

A smaller point, but one that bears mentioning here: the levels of discourse that he is talking about cannot be so rigidly separated as he seems to do. Cannot a letter have more technical, precise vocabulary? Could not a Confession have a more discursive style? By driving such a large wedge in-between these levels of discourse, he makes ST and exegesis also to be operating on two completely different levels. I utterly reject this formulation.