A Brief Response to Lee Irons

Lee Irons has here critiqued my statement about the Confession and the Scriptures. His point is that the Confessions are not exhaustive of the Scripture, nor is confession equal to Scripture. According to Lee, my position entails the relinquishment of any possibility of amending the Confession according to the Scriptures once one takes the vow.

I am not going to make a big long post about this. My position is this: the WS are always amendable. There is a procedure in place for doing so, according to the BCO. We follow that procedure when we want to amend it (as the American Presbyterian Church has done with regard to the pope as the Antichrist). It is and should be difficult to amend the constitution of the church. I don’t believe that my position implies that we cannot do that. Scripture is always the primary, infallible, un-normed norming norm, whereas the Confession is the normed norm. All I am saying here is that the Confessions summarize Scripture. Just as we regard a sermon that is in accord with Scripture as the Word of God in some sense (not in every sense), so also the Confession, inasmuch as it is in accord with Scriptural teaching, summarizes the Word of God. The parallel is not exact. However, it is still helpful for us. My point was that in studying the Confession, we are studying the Scripture’s teaching, however indirectly. I am saying we cannot drive a wedge between the Confession and the Scriptures, just as we cannot drive a wedge between systematic theology and biblical theology. With the proper qualifications (the Confession is not infallible, and is subject to the final arbiter, Scripture), we can then say that the Confession is what we believe the Bible to be saying on these matters (primarily the doctrine of salvation). I never actually made the equation Scripture equals Confession.

16 Comments

  1. Ben Dahlvang said,

    September 9, 2007 at 5:56 pm

    If the WS are the normed norm of Presbyterian churches, and are amendable inasmuch as the church’s theology is amendable, why does the PCA and OPC allow for, IMO, significant exceptions by its pastors and elders? This is a problem I have with Presbyterian churches. If the Standards are what you say they are then how can you submit to them “in as far as” they are biblical? It seems to me that you should submit to them “because” they are biblical. I think this whole FV ordeal perhaps could’ve been avoided if everyone was on the same page regarding what the Standards actually mean for Reformed churches.

  2. greenbaggins said,

    September 9, 2007 at 7:24 pm

    Of course you are right, Ben. I was not saying that we submit to them “inasmuch as” they are biblical. That is a loose subscription. Some people think that is what “good faith subscription” means. But it does not mean that. Good faith subscription means that all exceptions are to be reported, and that the presbytery takes on good faith that the rest of the pastor’s theology is in accordance. Of course, the candidate should be thoroughly examined.

  3. R. F. White said,

    September 9, 2007 at 9:13 pm

    Two things. 1) It would help to clarify what counts as a ‘significant’ exception. See the next point for the PCA take. 2) According to the PCA Book of Church Order (21.4), it does not fall to the candidate for ordination to ‘report exceptions’; rather it falls to him to ‘state the specific instances in which he may differ with the Confession of Faith and Catechisms in any of their statements and/or propositions.’ It is ‘the court’ that is the entity that ‘[grants] an exception to any difference of doctrine only if in the court’s judgment the candidate’s declared difference is not out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine because the difference is neither hostile to the system nor strikes at the vitals of religion.’

  4. Matt said,

    September 10, 2007 at 3:06 am

    Lane,

    Part of the problem is that you seem to be using categories beyond ‘primary standard’ and ‘secondary standard’! What exactly is an ‘un-normed norming norm’ vs. ‘normed norm’? It sounds like you are trying to say something *more* than primary and secondary standard, which (based on WCF 1.10) clearly only recognizes *one* norm….and you seem to want two norms, albeit distinguished.

    Thus, I hear you trying to say that Scripture and the Confession are not equally normative, and I appreciate this affirmation. I’m just positive you are actually *doing* this in practice, based on your distinctions and argumentation.

    Thus, when you say, “We cannot drive a wedge between the Confession and the Scriptures”….I wonder how that squares what you *just* previously said with regards to the American revisions of the Confession. Did they not ‘drive a wedge’ by saying certain parts of the original WCF were not Scriptural? Now, one can say they did so as a *church*….but there was at least the presupposition that the Confession *could* be hypothetically changed. And changed, not just for change sake, but change to make it better accord with the Scriptures!

    But one wonders where this presupposition exists now, that would make it hypothetically possible to do so, in the way you have articulated subscriptionism. Some one proposes a change…and just a sure as that happens, someone else stands up and says, “Nope, you can’t do that because the Confession is our understanding of Scripture!” It’s immediately shut down.

    At the end of the day, I agree with your assessments….but surely we should be able to refute error not simply be saying, “You don’t hold to the Confession…ergo, you’re out,” but rather by refuting erroneous exegesis with correct exegesis.

  5. blackntanintheam said,

    September 10, 2007 at 4:46 am

    As the WCF explains biblical doctrines, it is not exhaustive in all its definitions. For instance, when explaining “What is God?” there are certain attributes not included in the definition (i.e love) but we do not then assume that love is not a part of the answer as a whole. Similarly, when discussing baptism saying,
    WCF 28.1 Baptism is a sacrament of the new testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church; but also, to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life. Which sacrament is, by Christ’s own appointment, to be continued in His Church until the end of the world;

    the Confession does not mean that those things which were left out (ie. justification, adoption, baptism of the Spirit) are not to be included in the assurances that baptism affords. Ergo, to say then that baptism is a sign of adoption or justification or the presence of the Spirit is not in conflict with the Scriptures.

  6. Kyle said,

    September 10, 2007 at 6:49 am

    Re: 4,

    For instance, when explaining “What is God?” there are certain attributes not included in the definition (i.e love) but we do not then assume that love is not a part of the answer as a whole.

    WCF 2:1

    There is but one only, living, and true God: who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and righteous will, for His own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him; and withal, most just and terrible in His judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.

  7. R. Martin Snyder said,

    September 10, 2007 at 7:22 am

    Here is my response on the PB….

    So do you think our beloved Green baggins is actually putting the Confession on par with Scripture or is he saying something different?

    I think this person is misrepresenting our dear Greenbaggins. I don’t think for a minute Pastor Keister is saying that the Confession is on the same level of Scripture but that when you consider the Confession you are also considering what the Scriptures say. The Confession is a reflection of the Scriptures. He is twisting Pastor Lane Keisters words and thoughts IMHO. Read Greenbaggins blog first before you read this persons critique.

    Keep up the good work,
    Randy

  8. Paul B. said,

    September 10, 2007 at 7:49 am

    Well, speaking of “What is God?” …

    Granted, nobody can say everything at once. But presumably what you say first is what you consider most fundamental, most important. And that’s why I rise to take exception to this definition of God. So far as I can see, Westminster’s most basic definition is one that a Muslim or Jew (at least an Orthodox one) could agree with. Try it. Read WCF 2:1 to a Muslim neighbor and see if he doesn’t agree. “All praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the Worlds. The Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful. Master of the Day of Judgment. …”

    Heck, I don’t even like the question. “What is God?” “WHAT”? How about “Who?” And then we’d better make a beeline to his self-revelation in Christ and frame a statement that immediately distinguishes the Holy Trinity from every other god so-called.

    I take an exception to the Confession at this point. On this score, better to know and sing the Nicene Creed than it is to know the definition of the Confession or Catechism.

  9. Paul B. said,

    September 10, 2007 at 8:07 am

    What’s more, I have trouble taking some strict subscriptionists seriously when they persist in using grape juice in the Eucharist. The Confession (29:3, 5-7) says wine. The Catechisms (LC 168-170 177; SC 96) say wine.

    Use wine. Or take an exception.

  10. Keith LaMothe said,

    September 10, 2007 at 8:41 am

    Just for the record, Lane, I’ve never gotten the impression from you (or any of the anti-FV’ers that I’ve read, iirc) that you were holding the confession as equal to or superior to the Scriptures.

    The discussion seems to focus on the former and not the latter, but I think that is appropriate as long as both sides are maintaining that they are consistent with the Standards. *IF* the question ever comes to whether the WS is wrong, then it would be time to stick to the Scriptures in deciding that question. But if that ever becomes the out-in-the-open question the field of battle will look quite different.

    Honestly, one of the most compelling (to me) points in favor of the FV is how they seem to handle parts of the WS better than the anti-FV position. Notably the bits on the baptism. I’ve never seen an anti-FV explanation of “how are the sacraments effectual means of salvation?” that didn’t sound an awful lot like “they aren’t”. But then there’s the funny business about the benefits of Christ accruing to the NECM’s, and I don’t know what to think… the nettling thought is whether that follows necessarily from Westminster?

    So, from my (probably incorrect) point of view, it looks more likely that the anti-FV’ers would amend the standards to make clearer that the only grace (if any) communicated via the sacraments is sanctifying and not salvific. And you might be right in doing so, but it would make some past anti-FV arguments from the Standards look a little silly.

  11. GLW Johnson said,

    September 10, 2007 at 8:52 am

    Keith
    Here is a challenge I have thrown out to the FV folk- find me a single Westminster divine who in his own writings remotely parallels the distinctive doctrines of the FV on the sacraments, as well as on justification grounded in covenantal faithfulness- they can’t because there are none. To his credit Norman Shepherd has come out and said that the WS ought to be replaced by the Three Forms of Unity ( and I am sure David Gadbois can argue that Shepherd’s take on that is off base as well).

  12. Jonathan Bonomo said,

    September 10, 2007 at 9:23 am

    Keith,

    I think you raise an important point. There are problems and confessional inconsistencies on both sides. The sooner all involved realize and admit this the sooner more productive conversation will take place. This is one reason I think it was a shame to not have at least one or two of the FV proponents, or at least a couple folks sympathetic to FV and/or NPP, on the study committee.

    To me, the issue of sacraments and the apostasy of the majority of modern American Reformed from confessional Reformed ecclesiology (not polity, but what the church *is*, and her significance) and sacramentology, is the one thing which causes me to be very sympathetic to the concerns of the FV folks.

  13. Keith LaMothe said,

    September 10, 2007 at 9:57 am

    Gary,

    It does sound very reasonable to search the writings of the divines to see if any of them taught these things. If none of them expressed a belief “x” in their own writings, it wouldn’t be reasonable to derive “x” from something they wrote together.

    Well, there’s a research project for me, one I would’ve done well to try earlier.

    Keith

  14. Kyle said,

    September 10, 2007 at 9:28 pm

    Paul, re: 8,

    But presumably what you say first is what you consider most fundamental, most important. And that’s why I rise to take exception to this definition of God. So far as I can see, Westminster’s most basic definition is one that a Muslim or Jew (at least an Orthodox one) could agree with.

    So what? The first article of the Nicene Creed could pretty well be agreed on by any monotheist, although some may conceivably object to “Father.”

    I take an exception to the Confession at this point. On this score, better to know and sing the Nicene Creed than it is to know the definition of the Confession or Catechism.

    The Confession is much more detailed and exhaustive in its exposition than the Nicene Creed. Would you take exception because what the Confession says is false, or because you personally don’t like that it gives the basic doctrine of the one God before moving into that one God’s triune nature? Of course, you can’t rightly isolate the the first paragraph of Chapter II from the second and third, because then you truncate the Confession’s doctrine of God.

  15. Paul B. said,

    September 11, 2007 at 3:55 pm

    I say it looks to me like there’s nothing in WCF 2:1 — which is the answer to “What is God?” — that a Muslim couldn’t affirm.

    Kyle says: “So what?”

    So what? I think any one-sentence Christian answer to “Who or what is God?” had better make clear very quickly just which God we’re talking about — and it’s not the generic god of undifferentiated monotheism.

    Kyle, you say that the “first article” of the Nicene Creed could be agreed on “by any monotheist, although some may conceivably object to ‘Father.'” Conceivably? A Muslim could no more say he believes in the Father than he could say he believes in the consubstantial Son.

    What Westminster says isn’t false. It’s true as far as it goes. But its most basic answer to this one question, “What is God?”, ought to be robustly trinitarian. It isn’t. In this sense, I think the answer is indeed in error.

    Think of it this way. If the Muslim next to you on a short flight from Philly to Baltimore solicited a memorable one-sentence definition of the Christian God, would you really want to answer with WCF 2:1 or LC 7?

    Again, I’m not alleging that either says mistaken things. And I acknowledge that the Confession moves on to speak of the Holy Trinity. But I’m saying we could frame a much better single-sentence answer to “What is God?” I don’t know. Maybe LC 7 was good enough for seventeenth-century Britain. I don’t think it’s good enough for today, when the media and the man and the woman on the street — professing Christians included — sort of assume, and want to assume, that we all sort of believe in the same sort of undifferentiated monotheistic god.

  16. Kyle said,

    September 11, 2007 at 6:03 pm

    Paul, re: 15,

    So what? I think any one-sentence Christian answer to “Who or what is God?” had better make clear very quickly just which God we’re talking about — and it’s not the generic god of undifferentiated monotheism.

    We’re talking about the God of Scripture, which is made clear in the previous chapter. The WCF isn’t meant to provide a “one-sentence Christian answer to ‘Who or what it God’?” The WCF is meant to be a summary of the essential points of Christian doctrine, & so the doctrine of God is divided into three paragraphs. Likewise, while the Catechisms do provide a one-sentence answer to the question, yet that Q&A is not meant to be taken in isolation–it is part of a larger summary. In short, the goal of the Standards is not to provide nifty one-liners to define Christianity negatively, in opposition to other religions; it is defining Christianity positively, as it is revealed by God in Scripture, and in a thorough summary form.

    But its most basic answer to this one question, “What is God?”, ought to be robustly trinitarian.

    You have not shown why this ought to be, except that you personally prioritize the ability to answer non-Christians with nifty one-liners. You agree that what the Confession says is true; you should realize that the Confession doesn’t merely “go on” to discuss the Trinity, but that the Trinity is essential to the teaching of the Confession and to its doctrine of God; likewise the Catechisms.

    Frankly, the unity of God is more basic than the triunity of God, since His triunity exists within His unity. That doesn’t mean the Trinity is any less essential to our faith. But, the doctrine that there is but one true and living God is first.

    Think of it this way. If the Muslim next to you on a short flight from Philly to Baltimore solicited a memorable one-sentence definition of the Christian God, would you really want to answer with WCF 2:1 or LC 7?

    There is one true and living God who is an infinite, eternal, unchangeable Spirit, existing eternally in three Persons of the same substance, and equal in power and glory: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. There, one sentence, utilizing SC Q&A 4-6.

    But goodness, this doesn’t differentiate my beliefs from Roman Catholicism! Whatever shall I do??

    Your complaint against the Standards on is simply silly. A grown Christian who has been properly educated with the Standards should be able to provide an adequate answer without quoting the Standards verbatim. That the Standards define God in His unity before defining Him in His triunity should not hinder anyone.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: