Reply to Jeff Meyers, part 4

Meyer’s point 9 is to the effect that equivocation in the statement regarding election leads the committee to misrepresent the FV position on election. He argues that the committee equivocates in its definition of election. He claims that the committee allows the “covenantal election” definition of the term in addition to the decretal sense, and then claims that the FV men are claiming that it is possible for someone to fall from decretal election. Since the committee did not clearly delineate which definition of election is in use throughout that sentence, therefore the criticism falls wide of the mark. Meyers claims that no FV man claims that a Christian can fall away from decretal election, but rather they can fall away from covenantal election. He claims that all FV men hold to decretal election.

My response is two-fold. First of all covenantal election as defined by FV men is not the same as corporate election of Israel. This is a common mistake in FV theology. FV theologians say that every person who is in covenant with God (whether decretally elect or not) is elect in this covenantal sense. But that is a statement about individuals. The additional definition of election as admitted by the committee is not the same as this at all. It says that Israel as a nation was elected from all other nations to be special. So, Meyers is again making the fallacy of composition. The committee’s “extra” definition of election is not the same as the FV’s “extra” definition of election. This is important, because Meyer’s entire claim of refutation is based on the identity of these two definitions. But for God to say that Israel was chosen out from all the other tribes of the earth is not the same thing as God saying (hypothetically, for He never actually says it) “I covenantally elect every individual member of Israel.”

Secondly, what the committee’s report is actually saying is this: the FV ascribes benefits to the “covenantally elect” that only belong to the decretally elect. If that is so, and the FV says that one can fall from covenantal election, then the charge of Arminianism stands, despite the FV’s claim that they hold to decretal election. The reason for that is that when one fudges the distinction between covenantal election and decretal election by saying that any benefits that accrue only to the decretally elect belong also to the covenantally elect, then there remains no way to delineate the ontological difference between the decretally elect and the non-decretally elect. Hence, the FV claims too much when it says that the covenantally elect can fall. What they say is that it is possible for someone to be justified, sanctified, adopted, forgiven, etc., and lose their covenantal salvation at the end. But these are benefits that only the decretally elect enjoy. I have quoted Federal Vision, p. 59 so often in this respect that I am sure the FV proponents are justified (!) in charging me with broken-recordness. It should be noted, of course, that some do not fudge this distinction nearly as badly as others.

Tradition and Systematics

It seems plain that Wilson and I have a genuine difference of position on the law/gospel distinction. Wilson does not hold to it, and I do. He holds that if there is any distinction, it is in the person, and not in the text, whereas I hold that there is a distinction in the text. I am not sure what benefit there would be in arguing the point further, so let’s simply note it and move on.  With regard to the merit question, I think that if the divines had really wanted to avoid any confusion about how they were using the term so as to avoid any Medieval connotations, they would have used another term in LC 55, such as “state.” At the very least, if they did not wish to have any Medieval connotations, they picked the very worst word to use there. Therefore, I think it is no accident. The divines meant merit. That is the straightforward reading of LC 55. But, to move on.

Chapter 5 deals with the old/new question in theology. Wilson’s position is that, while we do not teach new things, we grow in the old things. The analogy of a tree is helpful here: the tree does not become something else, and the trunk remains te trunk, and the main branches remain the main branches. But the tree grows finer and finer branches.

One of the first claims is that “In the same way (as a student, LK) over centuries the Church grows into deeper and richer understanding of the faith” (p. 49). I agree with this, although I think I would have added this qualifying statement: “sometimes the church regresses in certain areas of knowledge.” I think that the church does not always progress forward. For instance, take the evangelical church’s position on open theism. By forgetting that open theism is Socinianism redivivus, the evangelical church has allowed itself to be snookered by open theism. They have forgotten their church history. I think that progress is really only possible if one remembers the past well, so as not to fall into old errors. And indeed, it is also quite possible that orthodox theology that we think is something new actually isn’t. Take the Post-Reformation tradition, for instance. The Reformed church is only beginning to recover the staggeringly enormous contribution to systematics that is available in the Post-Reformation Reformed tradition. How do we know that what we are saying is new and progressive? Is it not the keenest embarassment to a scholar to think out an idea only to find out that it has already been said, better, by someone before? I am not sure that Wilson would disagree with me here. But I certainly would not want to claim a purely forward-moving direction for the church, any more than I would want to claim a purely forward-moving direction in any person’s faith. A person can backslide, and the church can backslide. It takes great wisdom to know which is happening with a particular “new” idea. All this is not to deny that we can, in fact, learn more about the Scriptures. The Scriptures do not change, but we do change. And the Holy Spirit is at work in all ages of the church, raising up people who have insight into the Scripture. Surely, we would not wish to disenfranchise any period of church history, Medieval and modern theology included (I say this to TR’s!).

There are three positions on tradition which Wilson mentions: 1. authoritative tradition as equal to Scripture; 2. authoritative tradition as subordinate to Scripture, and 3. tradition as absolute (p. 50). The first is the Roman Catholic position, as ought to be obvious. The second is the Reformed tradition, which ought to be equally obvious. And the third is held by sectarians and an increasing number of people in the RCC (p. 50). I think what Wilson means by the third position is that tradition is not held accountable to Scripture, nor is related to Scripture in any way. He seems to hint at this on p. 51, where he says “The third position says that my (or our) interpretation of Scripture must by definition be correct.” I like his example of Alexander Campbell (p. 51). Wilson makes an excellent point when he says that “God created us in such a way that we do not have the luxury of a ‘no tradition’ option” (p. 51). And, you have to appreciate the Baptist pastor who said “We Baptists don’t believe in tradition. It is contrary to our historic position” (p. 51). This is parallel (though not equal) to saying that we all have presuppositions when coming to the text of Scripture. Wilson’s position is that we need to be aware and conscious of such presuppositions, and subordinate such presuppositions to the Word of God. If we find that our assumptions are out of accord with Scripture, then it is our assumptions that need to change.

Wilson goes on to mention that the real problem is nebulous tradition. By this he means tradition that is not examined, but assumed. It is tradition that is not subject to the Scripture, because it is not even conscious. It would be interesting to know who we has in mind, what his target is here. I think I may have a good guess when he says that John Calvin’s theology is viewed by some as coming from Trent (p. 52). I think he has in mind those who attribute too little to baptism, and are uncomfortable connecting the sign and the thing signified. This is a guess, but I would be surprised if it were far from the truth.

He states that ST has its place, but that it is not the only or the ultimate place (p. 53). I agree that there certainly are temptations that come along with ST. However, I do not believe that any of the theological disciplines has “priority” over the others. There are equal and opposite dangers in exegesis, for instance. I wrote a paper once in seminary, comparing a musical composition by Franz Liszt (his b minor Sonata, which I played for my senior recital) and theology as a whole. In playing that piece, nothing was easier than to chop it up (it is a 30-minute piece with no breaks at all) into its components, and play it with no relation from one section to the next. It is also easy in theology (and I think this danger is the worst in exegesis: it is certainly the most widely-spread danger in all of theology) to engage in exegesis with no reference to ST at all. I see this as the worst danger currently confronting the theological enterprise. All the disciplines are inter-related, and none have claim to priority over the others. That is, they all influence and shape one another. Church history tells us of exegetical mistakes of the past, for instance. Surely, we cannot forget our church history when doing exegesis. Neither can we forget our ST when doing exegesis, since we cannot come to a passage that says “God repents” and assume that it means that God changed His mind. ST puts boundaries around exegesis so that such misinterpretation does not take place. We are Reformed, which means that we are not biblicists.

I really cannot disagree more with Joel Garver’s quotation on p. 55. If Richard Muller has taught us anything, it is that the Post-Reformation tradition was not “increasingly preoccupied with a rationalistic decretal theology that proceeded almost entirely from the persective of God’s eternal purposes.” Muller destroys Brian Armstrong’s thesis that the decree was the central dogma point. Muller destroys the “Calvin versus the Calvinists school” as well. I am currently reading a’Brakel. Nothing could be farther from a rationalistic decretal theology. I am reading Wollebius and Rijssen right now. Same story as a’Brakel. I have read Turretin. No rationalistic decretal theology, his. No, scholastic theology was how they taught Reformed doctrine in schools. It involved careful delineation of truth from error. State a proposition of theology and defend it from errors. That is all that scholastic theology is. It is not a rationalistic decretal theology. Unfortunately, this statement of Joel’s could be read to disenfranchise the entire Post-Reformation dogmatic tradition. Certainly, the pejorative adjective “rationalistic” points in this direction (in addition to being untrue). Joel’s statement could be further read to state that those theologians are of no help today: “and was, for a time, helpful.” It seems that the plain intimation of this is that they are no longer helpful to us. I would strongly disagree with such a thesis. I have grown immeasurably in my study of these Post-Reformation dogmaticians. They are incredibly helpful and scholarly.

Update: Joel Garver has clarified his position with regard to the Post-Reformation tradition. His article is well worth careful study. I would like to apologize to Joel for not attempting to ascertain first whether he still held to that position before I wrote this post. I think I even remember reading some of Joel’s posts advocating the reading of such authors. Mea culpa.