Sur-Rejoinder to Lee Irons

Irons has posted a further reply here. Some very helpfully clarifying things have come out of this, to which I want to direct our attention.

Firstly, Lee points our attention to the importance of the word “containing” in the vow which pastors are required to take in the PCA. The point he makes is that not every statement in the Confession is essential to the teaching of the Confession, and that my argument based on the definite article (“the system of doctrine”) ignores the context of the rest of the statement. In response, I will grant that not every statement in the Confession is directly related to the essentials of the system. I have myself voted yes on candidates who disagreed with the Confessional position on the Sabbath, for instance. However, that is not the point I was making. We can get at the point by asking this question: is there a parallel, distinct (from the Westminster Standards) system of doctrine taught in Scripture? Is the picture of the relationship of Scripture to the Confession one in which there is only one system in Scripture which the WS accurately summarize, or is it the case that there is more than one system in Scripture, and that the WS merely enumerate one of those systems? 

If the Confession merely “contains” this scriptural system but is not equal to it, it follows that not everything in the Confession is essential to the system.

Aside from equivocating on the word “contains” (did the vow really intend to say that the WS are just one huge big pot, inside of which we stir around until we find the meat, but we also find lots of slop, or even a little slop? Or did the vow intend to state that the WS inclusively contain the system of doctrine that we find in Scripture?), it wasn’t my point. Understand that if someone has an exception to the Westminster Standards, that is not necessarily an irreparable problem, in my book, even to their being ordained in the PCA. And I do understand the history of subscriptionism in the PCA. My point is not about how strict or loose our subscription ought to be. That is actually another discussion. Rather, it is about the relationship of the WS to Scripture. Are the WS the system of doctrine taught in Scripture, or ought we to look elsewhere to find more systems of doctrine taught in Scripture? That, I believe, is answered by the vow in this way: the system of salvation taught in Scripture is what I believe to be summarized in the WS. The vow does not state that the WS perfectly summarize Scripture in every particular. The vow does state that there is not a parallel, distinct system of doctrine taught in Scripture that is not taught in the WS.  This is my point. My supposed contradiction with 21-4 evaporates in the context of this point. I was not making a point about subscriptionism, but rather about the relationship of the WS to Scripture. I hope this is clearer.

Lee says he is baffled by my objection to this statement of his:

If one is considering the Confession’s teaching on anything, one is considering a particular interpretation of the Scriptures, not the Scriptures themselves.

My objection is that this statement seems to imply that there are many legitimate interpretations of Scripture out there, but that the WS is only one of them, after all, and that if one is considering the WS, then one is not considering the Scriptures. But if the vow states that one believes the WS to contain the system of doctrine taught in Holy Scripture, then if one is studying the Confession, then one is also studying the Scriptures, albeit indirectly. In other words, if Lee meant that the WS are a particular interpretation, and are the right interpretation of Scripture, then I guess I can agree with the statement except for the following caveat. In the context in which the statement originally was, it seemed to be legitimizing other interpretations. Further, the statement still seems to be driving a wedge between the WS and Scripture. Let me ask Lee this question: in studying Scripture, do you use commentaries? Do you regard yourself as not studying Scripture if you are reading what a commentator said about Scripture? I consider Bible study to include the study of commentaries. The WS are commentaries on what the Bible says as a whole on various loci.  Therefore, to say that one is not studying Scripture if one is studying the Confession is not accurate.  

9 Comments

  1. R. F. White said,

    September 12, 2007 at 4:43 pm

    One of the tensions between Baptists and Presbyterians, historically, issues from the fact that Presbyterians have required their candidates for the ministry to subscribe to the confession of the denomination. Baptists have complained that such a view of confession elevates the confession to the status of Scripture. Isn’t it the case that, on other than a theoretical level, there is real difficulty in distinguishing between Scripture and confession insofar as a confession is that for which a church is willing to impose sanctions in the event of unfaithfulness?

  2. greenbaggins said,

    September 12, 2007 at 5:08 pm

    Interesting point, Dr. White. In terms of church discipline, the confession often has de facto (not de jure) equivalence to the Scriptures. I would not argue that they are equivalent with regard to other issues, such as doctrine itself. And, as you suggest, on the theoretical level, they are not equivalent, although we may want to be careful about how we use that word.

  3. September 12, 2007 at 9:29 pm

    Lane,

    Realizing full well that you, nor I, am out to debate strict subsription, I was wondering if you could help me, a seminarian hoping for a call to the Gospel ministry in the PCA, to learn what “essential doctrine” is defined as in the PCA now? It seems that since the “good faith” subscription was passed there have been no doctrines set down from the pages of Scripture or the confession as being “essential doctrines.” I am not seeking to argue over the Sabbath issue or over creation but I am trying to understand just how liquid the confession has become. As Dr. White has said, ‘a confession is that for which a church is willing to impose sanctions in the event of unfaithfulness.” Does this mean that we have no standards anymore, outside of the blessed doctrines of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and the substitutionary atonement? I am not asking this with any sort of hidden motive or sinister tone–I am sincerely interested in geting an answer. I greatly appreciate your blog and have learned a lot from reading your posts. Thank you again.

    In Christ Jesus the Lord of Glory

    Nick Batzig

  4. Scott Swain said,

    September 13, 2007 at 1:39 pm

    Dear Rev. Keister,

    No need to post this . . . I just couldn’t find an email address on your blog, so I decided to send a message via this route.

    In light of your dialogue with Lee Irons, I thought you might appreciate this quote from James Bannerman, The Church of Christ, 1:306-307:

    “The Church may in all such cases [e.g., the trial of an officer] take directly the Word of God itself as the standard to rule its decision, or may take a human confession drawn up in explanation of the Word of God as the standard to rule its decision. In both instances it is ultimately the Church’s judgment of what the Word of God says in the matter that guides and determines the decision,–that judgment in the one case being formed directly by an examination of the Word at the moment, and in the other case being formed by the help of its own previous examination of the same Word embodied in the confession. In the one way the Church, for the purpose of deciding each particular case, examines the Scriptures afresh, and according to the examination pronounces judgment; in the other way, the Church has recourse for aid to the result of its former examination of the Scriptures, and according to the record of that examination pronounces judgment. In both instances the judgment rests on the same foundation,–on the footing of what, in the opinion of the Church, is the meaning of the Word of God as bearing upon the matter submitted to its decision.”

    Blessings,

    Scott Swain

  5. greenbaggins said,

    September 13, 2007 at 2:40 pm

    This is outstanding, Scott. Thanks for this. This is my position precisely.

  6. Matt said,

    September 13, 2007 at 4:05 pm

    Lane,

    In reading Dr. White’s comments above, it occurred to me that part of the problem here is between what is actually stated and then what is actually practiced when the rubber meets the road.

    If what you say is true (and including Bannerman with you, for sake of argument), then I would suggest the problem comes in when you say the WCF is ‘THE’ interpretation of the Scriptures….and then later qualify that statement by saying (as you did previously), the Standards can be amended…through the proper church court channels. I think you assume that this qualifying statement protects you from equating Scripture with the Confession — after all, the former is ‘unamendable’ while the later (in your view) certain is.

    But here’s the problem — if I’ve already concluded that the WCF is ‘the’ correct summary of Scripture, that (to quote Bannerman) “rests on the same foundation”….then how in the world would I ever even entertain the *idea* *possibility* that the Confession could be amended?

    As soon as anyone would raise an objection to even a phrase here or word there, someone could object (using your own logic!!!), “No, we’ve already concluded that THE WCF has examined the Scriptures and adequately summarized them correctly. After all, we have already judged it to be THE rightful confession of Scripture.”

    To paraphrase Peter Berger, the only way you will amend or change something is if you *first* entertain the idea that it might need to be amended or changed. But using your logic of ‘the’….I don’t see one willing to even entertain the notion that it *really* could be amended. After all, it is THE interpretation of Scripture.

    And so if it really can’t ‘functionally’ be amended in your view, then you are dangerously close to collapsing the primary and secondary standards. Note: I don’t believe that you intend to do this; and I don’t even think you confuse these in your own head. I don’t think you purposely set out to do this with Scripture. What what you intend/think and what is actually being done are two different things….and that’s a huge part of the disagreement here.

    Thus, I don’t think you can say, “My point is not about how strict or loose our subscription ought to be. That is actually another discussion.” This really is very much wrapped up in this debate.

    Part of the problem is Presbyterian history for the last 100 years — I think the history ‘revising’ Confessions has poisoned the water to the degree that the moment ANYONE proposes ANY CHANGE (however small), they immediately smell “the Confession of ’67” lurking in the background. The difference is that I think men like Van Til and Murray didn’t just retort, “Oh, you are disagreeing from THE Confession” over and over again — they actually set out to show afresh *why* such positions entailed dangerously anti-Scriptural presuppositions.

    That leads to a further observation — I think there’s disagreement in what exactly it means to ‘examine the Scriptures afresh’ in the current context, or (more to the point) whether that in fact is being done. I agree with the bottom line of where you end up….but I am not convinced we are REALLY ‘examining the Scriptures afresh’ in the process.

    And more to the point…if (a) the WCF is THE correct interpretation of the Scriptures and (b) the FV or NPP has been ruled to be out of accord with the WCF…..then what incentive do I have to examine these erroneous views in light of the Scriptures afresh now? It’s already a done deal. Game over.

    And I think this is a big part of the problem — disagreements the Confession are being responded to by a renewed vigor of Confessionalism….all the while Scripture remains on the periphery in the process. That point is really what I think started all of this discussion…..the assumption that I have done my duty by simply consulting the Confession, since I already believe it is THE correct interpretation of Scripture.

    That’s significantly different from studying the Confession under the larger unbrella of revisiting *the Scriptures* afresh to make sure our doctrine (however old or new) and Confessions are faithful to the word of God. After all, it is WCF 1.10 that tells me to do this very thing….and this very point really has not been addressed by you at all.

    Cordially in Christ,
    MM

  7. Dave Rockwell said,

    September 13, 2007 at 7:26 pm

    I think we are missing the point here. What was the assignment given to the study committee? My understanding is that they were to study the Federal Vision/ NPP in light of the WCF. Their assignment was to determine if the teachings of the FV/NPP were in accordance or were contrary to the WCF. So, the question is – did the study committee complete their assignment? Yes, they did. And, they came up with certain conclusions that did not make some people very happy.

    Now the FV is trying to divert everyone’s attention away from the conclusions of the study committee by questioning whether the Standards are in compliance with Scripture. They are trying to persuade us to believe that their teaching may not necessarily be contained in the Standards but is found in Scriptures. That’s pretty amazing considering the comprehensive nature of the WS. I would like to know what FV teaching is found in Scripture that is not in the WS.

    I already know what the answer is – it’s that teaching which is not prescribed or prohibited by Scripture. That reminds me of the little boy who got caught with his hands full of cookies after being warned not to touch the cookie jar. His excuse was – “I didn’t touch the jar! You didn’t say anything about not touching the cookies!”

    Whether or not the WS is THE system or A system of doctrine is irrelevant. The study committee concluded that the FV/NPP is contrary to the WS. The WS is the constitution of the PCA, so therefore, like it or not, the FV/NPP has violated the constitution. The men who teach it have violated their ordination vows. They need to pack up their marbles and repent or go home to the CREC. And, as long as they are allowed to continue to break their vows, the PCA will remain a corrupt poisoned denomination.

  8. September 14, 2007 at 8:20 am

    “In other words, if Lee meant that the WS are a particular interpretation, and are the right interpretation of Scripture, then I guess I can agree with the statement except for the following caveat”

    ~ Wouldn’t be even more accurate to say the Confession is the right interpretation of Scripture as far as falliable man is able to corrrectly understand and interpret the infalliable Word?

    Since refinements have been made to the WCF throughout it’s history (though not to the system of doctrine taught therein), to suggest it is the final authority on Scriptural interpretation doesn’t seem to bear itself out. Lane, like you mentioned in a comment, the WCF is a very good commentary/summary of Scripture, but it’s not to be equally regarded as authoritative as the Bible itself.

  9. Bob S said,

    September 16, 2007 at 10:34 pm

    Matt,

    The problem is not that what you say isn’t valid, but rather that the FV can’t tell us what the WS say in the first place. That means they haven’t really earned a place at the table and a right to speak. Any criticisms they have of the confessional view of justification are on the order of blind man’s buff or the little Mexican kid going at the pinyata. Not highly encouraging.
    Another way of looking at is there is nothing new under the sun. This is nothing more than the usual suspects and their standard m.o. They have been pitting the Scripture against the confessions already in regard to the regulative principle of worship and now they are at it with the doctrine of justification. So what else is new? They can’t (more like they refuse to) tell us what the orthodox view of worship is and now like the theological diletantism that FV is, they are onto somthing else and in to much of a hurry to apologize and make restitution for their previous hastiness. Some how I doubt it will be any different with this issue.
    cordially


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