Leadership Lesson for Those Facing Federal Visionists

Posted by Bob Mattes

The thread on the Context of Sam Duncan’s Comment on the SJC has topped 700 comments! Yesterday I found another great thread, this one over at the PuritanBoard, on the situation inside LAP. The interaction between SemperFideles and HaigLaw there provides more information on the human side of the equation, something often lost in this debate. Well worth the read.

Both HaigLaw’s comments on the PuritanBoard thread and Pastor Davis’ comments starting here highlight the wisdom of my earlier post about not being loyal to the wrong people. I caught more heat for that post from the Federal Vision mini-empire than any other post I’ve written, and it’s clear why. I struck at the heart of the issue. Federal Visionists in the PCA rely on their personal relationships inside their Presbyteries to protect them from the required discipline at the point of original jurisdiction. When that happens, the only place an impartial trial can take place is at the Standing Judicial Commission of the General Assembly, just as it was with Wilkins. Hence the spew of venom against the PCA and its SJC–the latter established by the will of the commissioners of the PCA General Assembly–as the only remaining threat to them.

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A Faith That Is Never Alone, chapter 1, part 2

Going on with page 31ff in Armstrong’s article. (part 1 here).

Hywel Jones argues that the good news of the Gospel lies at the point where justification and sanctification are distinguished (CJPM, pg. 285). Armstrong’s comment is as follows:

Let’s be clear about this- we who are critiqued do not question that there is a distinction between these two doctrines but we differ about the ways this distinction has been made and how the Scripture has bee used by some to make this distinction (pg. 31. emphasis original).

He argues (pg. 32) that the distinction as made by CJPM authors leads us to “cheap grace” (as defined by Dietrich Bonhoeffer). With regard to the relationship of James 2 to Paul, for instance, Armstrong takes issue with Jones’s critique of Moo (who argues that “justify” means the same thing in Paul and James, contrary to most Reformed interpretations). Armstrong’s critique is based on charging Jones with adhering to the reified categories of Protestant responses to Catholic interpretation in the time of the Reformation (pg. 34). This leads Armstrong to some very questionable conclusions. First, he says “The danger of a faith rooted in historic confessions, without doing fresh and charitable exegesis and biblical theology, is a real danger for all of those who wrote for this present volume of essays” (pg. 34, emphasis original: he is referring to CJPM, not A Faith That Is Never Alone). Correct me if I’m wrong, but there is quite a bit of fresh and charitable exegesis in CJPM. I think especially of Duguid’s essay, which is an exegetical tour de force. However, I notice that the word “charitable” just had to be there. Disagreement (and especially sharp disagreement) seems to be an anathema to Armstrong, unless you agree with Armstrong against the reifying WSC authors. Then you can be as uncharitable as you want. Of course, I actually agree with Armstrong that there should be charitable exegesis. The problem is that Armstrong has probably defined “charitable” so narrowly as not to include sharp disagreement. Is it charitable for orthodox scholars not to challenge heresy?

This next statement is equally problematic: “It is also a danger for those of us who respond to their volume. We are not denying a place for confessional subscription but we think that place must always self-consciously remain under the Bible’s authority” (ibid.). This seems to carry the implicit claim that the WSC authors have not forced the Westminster Standards to be in submission to Scriptures, but have elevated the confessions above Scripture. This is a common claim for those folk who do not agree that we can view Scripture through the eyes of the confession as our own free choice (after all, we could easily be in a different denomination that did not choose to do so, like the RCA, for instance). Oh no, it is absolutely impossible for anyone to say that he views the confessions to contain the system of doctrine that is in Scripture, and yet still believe that the confession is the normed norm, while Scripture is the norming norm. That is a contradiction in terms, if you ask many people today.

Armstrong proves Jones’s point on pg. 36, where I will quote Armstrong in full, so that the full problem may be seen:

I have argued, for some years now, that the gospel calls us to a living and vital faith in Christ alone. I have frurther argued that we are justified by trusting in Christ alone. We are made right with God, thus declared not guilty in the present time and completely forgiven of all sin, through the instrumentality of this God-given faith. Our faith does not save, Christ alone saves! What I have also argued is that saving faith is, by its very nature, obediential. Here is the rub for me: What is saving faith? Inherent in real faith, properly defined, is a something that does more than passively trust in Christ to save me. Saving faith has in it an active principle that trusts and obeys, thus I see no real conflicts between James and Paul. I do not think we need to make various special appeals to two kinds of faith. Indeed, I believe that the right way to read these two great teachers of the gospel will make them harmonize in such a way that the non-technical reader can see the arguments I make very clearly. Emphases original.

Armstrong has conflated the discussion of justification and the discussion of sanctification here. Several points are necessary. First of all, justifying faith does not justify because it is alive, even though justifying faith is most certainly alive. To say that CJPM says anything different is a complete caricature. This is Hywel Jones’s point on pg. 292 with regard to Shepherd: “By using ‘living and obedient faith’ (or being faithful) as a working definition of faith, Shepherd prevents any distinction between (sic) made between faith and works in relation to justification, and that failure impacts justification adversely.” Jones says further, in direct contradiction to Armstrong’s understanding of him, “The whole of the Christian life is indeed one of ‘trusting and obeying,’ but that does not mean that the term faith means both whenever it is used” (pg. 293, italics original). Jones is explicitly not talking about two kinds of faith, as Armstrong says he is. He is talking about two aspects of saving faith that must be distinguished very carefully. Jones would say that the passive, receptive character is what applies to justification, and the active aspect applies to sanctification. The problem here is that whenever such language is used, we are immediately charged with believing that a dead faith justifies. I have yet to see any critic of the FV or the NPP say this. And yet, it is thrown our way regularly, simply because we do not believe that faith’s aliveness applies to justification. The two aspects of faith are distinguished, yet never separable, just as justification and sanctification are distinct, yet never separable. More to come.