Unbelievable Sale

Now is your chance to buy the book that Carl Trueman says is the most important book ever published by a WTS faculty member for an amazing $6.50! Make sure you order over $35 worth of other books so that your shipping costs go way down (only $4 for any order over $35; otherwise, it’s $7).


The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Revised

David Garland and Tremper Longman are in charge of the revision of the EBC. Some of the contributors of the old series were asked to update their commentaries (Van Gemeren on the Psalm, for instance, a great boon to pastors). Others are brand new contributions. So far available at WTS are volumes 1 (Gen-Lev), 6 (Prov-Is), 10 (Luke-Acts), 12 (Eph-Phm), and 13 (Heb-Rev).

The Obedience of Faith

Bill Mounce has an article here, to which Lee Irons has responded in a part 1 (part 2 to follow). I wanted to point out a couple of things that I think are important here.

Lee says: “He did not discuss the context but merely appealed to a broader theological truth.”

Is not broader theological truth one of the very important contexts with which the interpretation of a given passage has to agree? There is meaning on every level: letter, word, phrase, clause, sentence, paragraph, chapter, book, section of canon, testament, Bible. So perhaps it might be better for Lee to claim that Bill did not discuss the immediate context (probably paragraph level). However, Lee then proceeds to discuss something that is nowhere near the passage in question within Romans, but is on the (other) bookend side of it! Is such a passage irrelevant? Of course not. I just finished saying that there was qualifying meaning everywhere in Scripture, although such a statement must be qualified by saying that not every passage is immediately relevant. Indeed, some passages may be rather convolutedly related to others.

That being said, Lee needs to prove a bit better the envelope nature of chapter 1 and chapter 15. If he is going to claim that there is some sort of envelope structure (which certainly might well be), a simple assertion that it is so is not sufficient. After all, Lee’s entire argument rests on that claim, since, if the letter is not an envelope form, then 1:5 is not in the immedate context of 15.

This is not to say that Lee has not tried to do this. However, in my opinion, it is unsuccessful in the way he has framed it. The word “Gentiles,” for instance, does not necessarily mean “out of the covenant.” Given the fact that chapters 1-3 goes to great lengths to prove that Jew and Gentile are alike under sin, and are both covenant breakers, I think that Paul’s use of the word “Gentile” in 1:5 is most certainly ethnic, not moral.

Secondly, on a broader systematic level, Lee will have to prove that he is not mixing the categories of faith and works, which his interpretation seems to do. The exegetical work will have to fit the systematic Reformed confessional faith. I realize that most people in this world would think me unimaginably narrow-minded for saying such a thing, and that most exegetes would say that I am seriously contracting the Procrustean bed of ST on the feet of exegesis, but I cling to the old ways on this one. ST most certainly has a bearing on exegesis, as the message of the Bible as a whole is the ultimate context for any particular passage.

Matthew Poole on Exodus 1-18

The Matthew Poole project continues on in its ambitious project to translated all of Matthew Poole’s Synopsis Criticorum, which is basically a conglomeration of the best commentators in existence in Poole’s time. All of Genesis is available, and now the first volume (of two) of Exodus is available. Highly recommended.

Clarifying Post

Having received an email from a faculty member of WTS explaining some clarifications, I do feel it incumbent on me to clarify my preceding post. I certainly do not mean to imply that all faculty members of WTS are ignorant of the problem indicated, nor that all faculty members rejoice in the fragmentation of knowledge. Indeed, it is to Carl Trueman that I owe the idea of pursuing the topic of the unity of theological discourse, and seeking to become a generalist theologian. Certainly also, Jeff Jue, Scott Oliphint, Richard Gaffin, Lane Tipton, Vern Poythress and others are dedicated to the unity of theological discourse. What I meant was that it still did not seem emphasized enough at the seminary. And, given the confusion that has been milling around in the seminary for the past few years, including the years I was there (2000-2004), it seemed an adequate description of the seminary at the time. I freely admit that the fragmentation of the departments was not always there, and I fervently hope it will not be there in future.

A Review of Carl Trueman’s Recent Book on John Owen

A Review: Carl Trueman, John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Lmtd, 2007). 132 pages, including index. Paperback, 29.95; Cloth, 99.95, 132 pages. Reviewed by Barry Waugh.

Dr. Carl R. Trueman, Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, and the author of an earlier title on Owen, The Claims of Truth: John Owen’s Trinitarian Theology (1998), continues his work with the sometimes obtuse though weighty theologian in the present title. Dr. Trueman’s brief book is intended to help students with the ponderous and wordy complexity of Owen. The book contains one hundred twenty eight pages of text that are subdivided into four chapters of roughly thirty pages each. The first chapter, containing six sections, begins with a short introduction to Owen’s life and thought, establishes definitions, and provides a conclusion concerning these areas. Chapter two has ten divisions and presents Owen’s thoughts on, “The Knowledge of the Trinitarian God,” including the attributes of God, the Deity of Christ and the Holy Spirit, as well as other issues harvested from Owen’s voluminous writings. “Divine Covenants and Catholic Christology,” constitutes the subject matter of the twelve sections of the third chapter, which includes discussion of the Covenants of Works, Grace, and Redemption, along with thoughts on the priesthood of Christ. Justification, a perpetually argued and foundational doctrine of theology, is the subject of chapter four, which addresses this hinge-pin of religion, with sections on faith and works, eternal justification, and the imputation of the active and passive righteousness of Christ. The brief length of the book necessitates some chapter subdivisions being as short as a page, while others are as long as five or six; the book provides a survey of Owen’s thought with the intention of giving its readers an overview. All of this is wrapped, at least in the paperback version, in an attractive and tactilely pleasing black satin finished cover into which is fused a reproduction of John Greenhill’s portrait of Owen at the National Gallery, London. Greenhill’s brushwork presents Owen with a self-assured, confident, maybe even cocky appearance as he looks across his narrow, Isoscelesian triangular nose at his interested but apprehensive audience.

Chapter one, ventures into the arena of conflict over the meaning of “Puritan.” The debates over the definition of this word seem endless; Trueman adds to the foray by providing another descriptive designation, “Reformed Orthodox,” which is a category he borrowed from Richard Mueller, but it seems that Dr. Trueman is not quite content with this designation because by the time he reaches the end of his book, he returns to this troublesome word “Puritan” to refine his definition. Though “Reformed Orthodox” designates Owen’s thought within the Renaissance-Reformation context and the general flow of Reformed theology, Trueman comments that, “Owen was, of course, a Puritan theologian” (p. 127). The author’s use of both Reformed Orthodox and Puritan shows the complex nature of seventeenth-century England, a complexity created by theological, ecclesiastical and political conflicts. One reason that “Puritan” is often seen as an ambiguous term is that many of the interpreters of the era have failed to take the theology of Puritanism seriously; for some students of the period “Puritan” designates a philosophical, sociological, political, and/or psychological perspective that is a negative cultural influence with little if any redeeming value. Many analysts trivialize, suppress or ignore the fact that the “Puritans” were driven by their theological commitments drawn from biblical study and faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Puritans sought a pure church and their zealous pursuit sometimes involved political and social excesses, but the impetus behind their actions was the belief that pure worship of God could only be achieved through liturgy and doctrine drawn from the deep well of Scripture. Church history is marked repeatedly by problems with the confusion of church and state and Owen, like most Englishmen, had political ideas and lived within a particular political milieu, after all, he was Oliver Cromwell’s chaplain for a time, but the Puritans believed and hoped that their politics and social perspective were as biblical as their theology. Trueman’s setting of Owen’s thought in the Reformed Orthodox set allows him to properly apply “Puritan” to Owen in the sub-set of those who reformed and purified the Church of England.

The author dedicates about two pages of his text to presenting Owen’s views on the Divine simplicity, a subject not often, if ever, discussed over tea and cucumber sandwiches (38-39). The source for Trueman’s analysis is the section of his Works titled, “Mr. Biddle’s Preface Briefly Examined,” which follows Owen’s transcription of Biddle’s Preface at the beginning of Vindiciae Evangelicae; or the Mystery of the Gospel Vindicated and Socinianism Examined (vol. 12). John Biddle (1615-1662), Oxford educated, was in and out of prison and finally met his death while incarcerated for questioning the divinity of the Holy Spirit, upholding Unitarianism, and propounding Socinianism. Biddle’s preface occupies only a few pages, but John Owen’s dismantling of it goes on for several leaves, despite being described as “Briefly Examined.” Owen’s conclusions are summarized by Trueman with four points: first, “God has ontological priority over everything else and enjoys total independence”; second, “God is absolutely and perfectly one and the same; his essence is what it is, and contains nothing that is accidental to it or which differs from it; third, “all his attributes enjoy perfect oneness and unity in God, since all attributes are infinitely perfect and thus essentially identical with the being of God”; and fourth, “God contains no potency to be other than that which he is; he is perfect and self-existent and can never be any different” (38-39). Needless to say, the weight and complexity of these four points display a mind consumed with contemplation of what biblical revelation has to say about God. Trueman concludes that Owen’s analysis of the simplicity of God includes the thought of Suarez, the Spanish Jesuit thinker, as well as Cajetan’s commentary on Aquinas’s work, thus the “Reformed Catholic,” in Trueman’s title of his book, indicates Owen’s continuity with the medieval and Renaissance theological past, while breaking with Rome in his Reformed Orthodoxy. Owen’s analysis shows that Socinian teaching is dependent upon a denial of Divine simplicity in that the Socinian heresy provides a “reconstruction of the doctrine of God… [and]…radically limits” God’s being and power. Thus, Owen critiqued Biddle using the thought of past exegetical scholarship, while infusing his own spade-work and contemplation; Owen’s work as a Puritan exegete continued in the spirit of the Reformation’s sola Scriptura as he critically searched the biblical commentaries and analyses of the theologians who had gone before.

One of the most relevant subjects addressed by Owen, in light of controversies within the present-day Reformed churches, is his teaching on the doctrine of justification. A point of discussion at the Westminster Assembly regarding this doctrine involved the views of William Twisse and Thomas Gataker, both of whom contended that it was Christ’s passive righteousness that is imputed to the believer and not his active righteousness—that is, what Christ suffered according to the will of the Father as the Lamb of God, his sacrificial obedience to the Father, not what Christ accomplished by his perfect obedience to the Law. Though this may seem a minor point, it is important for Reformed theology because Arminius held a similar view to Twisse and Gataker and some divines saw this as theologically problematic. Justification was argued early in the assembly as the divines were still about the work of revising the Thirty Nine Articles. Debate on Article 11, “Of the Justification of Man before God,” included extended analysis by Daniel Featley as he contended for the two-fold righteousness of Christ being imputed to the Christian, the result of which was the adoption of the terminology, “whole obedience and satisfaction” in the revised article, which was then incorporated in the Westminster Confession without “whole” and reading “obedience and satisfaction” in 11:1, 3.1 Thus, though the specific terms “active” and “passive” were not adopted by Westminster, the sense of the imputed righteousness is twofold. The Westminster Assembly steered well clear of the view of Twisse and Gataker and affirmed the twofold obedience, but John Owen believed the terminology was not specific enough to convey the fullness of the Lord’s obedience and the righteousness imputed. Trueman observes that Owen influenced the Savoy Declaration, 1658, “which was essentially a modification of the Westminster Confession,” and makes “specific reference to the imputation of both the active and passive righteousness of Christ” (107). Owen believed the use of both active and passive was necessary to maintain the integrity of Christ’s person and avoid overemphasis of his natures; that is, Owen saw the active and passive aspects as so unified in the person of the Messiah that they were inseparable—the less specific terminology of Westminster was more susceptible to emphasis of the divine and human natures at the expense of the person of Christ (109). Owen’s influence is clearly present in the Savoy Declaration, 11:1, which shows that the statement, “Christ’s active obedience unto the whole Law, and passive obedience in his death for their whole and soul righteousness,”2 has been inserted in place of the Westminster Confession’s, “the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them.” All of Christ’s righteousness is laid to the account of the elect according to Westminster; all of Christ’s righteousness, as active and passive, is imputed to the Christian according to Savoy. Either statement, whether Westminster or Savoy, teaches that the entirety of the obedient Lord’s work is imputed to the elect through justification, but Owen’s influence at Savoy resulted in more specific terminology that refined the wording of Westminster but both confessions teach the two-fold imputation of Christ’s righteousness in justification.

A consideration of some of the commentators on the Westminster Confession will be helpful to show that the Westminster Standards have been interpreted as teaching the active and passive righteousness of Christ. The earliest commentary available to this reviewer is that of Robert Shaw, which was published in 1845. Shaw does not use the words active and passive in his exposition. The Confession 11:1, finds Shaw using “obedience and satisfaction” and “obedience and sufferings” as interchangeable terms to describe Christ’s obedience imputed to his sheep. Shaw’s presentation is interesting because he avoids the active-passive distinction and emphasizes the united Christ accomplishing a singular work incorporating obedience to the Law and suffering as the sacrificial lamb slain for sin. A. A. Hodge, 1869, commented that, “Our Standards and all the Reformed and Lutheran Confessions teach that the true ground of justification is the perfect righteousness (active and passive) of Christ, imputed to the believer, and received by faith alone. S. Cat., q. 33” (183). Francis Beattie commenting on the catechisms and writing in 1896 noted that the catechisms do not distinguish the active and passive obedience of Christ…“as the Confession does when it says that Christ rendered a perfect obedience and sacrifice” (151). Beattie taught that the concepts of active and passive obedience are contained in the Confession’s use of “perfect obedience and sacrifice.” Moving into the twentieth century, G. I. Williamson, 1964, commenting on 8:5 notes that Christ’s satisfaction was by “active and passive obedience” (79) and with respect to 11:1,2 he speaks of the “double imputation” of the active and passive righteousness (105). Gerstner, Kelly and Rollinson’s, A Guide, The Westminster Confession of Faith, 1992, states that, “Although the language of active and passive obedience is not used here…both the ideas that Christ satisfied the Law by meeting its demands for fulfillment and that He vicariously suffered punishment for sinners, seem to be implied” (50). This summary statement may best capture the intention of the Westminster Assembly in its teaching on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer—the active and passive elements are in the Westminster Standards even though the specific terms are not.

Carl Trueman’s brief analysis of the massive body of writings constituting John Owen’s work provides an overview of many areas of his theological writing. This reviewer’s brief interaction with Trueman’s analysis of Owen on the simplicity of God and the more extended comments on Owen and justification show the complexity of the Cromwellian chaplain’s thought. Any of the subjects Dr. Trueman presents regarding Owen’s writings might just as well yield extended analysis, contemplation and interaction—Owen is complex, profound, and sometimes may tend towards speculating on the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin, but the dedicated student will be rewarded by plodding through the rugged terrain of Owen’s thought. Trueman’s brevity is both the strength and weakness of the book—summarizing gives one an overview, but overviews always leave gaps that the reader might like to have filled, but the gaps should encourage readers to dig into Owenian subjects of their own interest. Dr. Trueman shows a thorough acquaintance with the secondary literature of his own generation and an extensive knowledge of the primary sources of Owen’s era as well. He has amply shown that those who want to enter the mind of John Owen must be prepared to exercise their brain-matter in ways that will stretch their analytical abilities and help them to “plumb the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God” as explained in the works of Owen. Thanks to Carl Trueman’s handy summary, the labyrinth of Owen’s thought has been straightened and made more maneuverable for students venturing into the intricacies of his theological universe.

1 See the excellent discussions of this issue in Jeffrey Jue’s article “The Active Obedience of Christ and the Theology of the Westminster Standards: A Historical Investigation,” in Justified in Christ, Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2007, and Alan Strange’s article “The Affirmation of the Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ at the Westminster Assembly of Divines,” in The Confessional Presbyterian 4 (2008, forthcoming).

2 The Savoy Declaration used for this review is that found in, Williston Walker, “The Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism,” New York: Scribner’s, 1893, which is found on pages 340-408, and the source for the Westminster Standards is, The Confession of Faith; the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, with the Scripture Proofs at Large: Together with the Sum of Saving Knowledge, …[etc.], The Publications Committee of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, 1976, which is a reprint of an 1855 edition believed faithful to the earlier editions of 1658-1688.

Competing Methodologies

Carl Trueman’s piece on the Pete Enns controversy, in my mind, has at least one thing pegged (this is distinct from what Darryl Hart has challenged). The fragmentation of knowledge is a key factor in the Pete Enns controversy.

It is well known in theology these days that biblical studies departments are often suspicious of the systematic departments (indeed, of all the other departments). The dangers of proof-texting, as in taking Scripture out of context, are real dangers (this is distinct from the kind of proof-texting that the Westminster Assembly used, for instance), and these mistakes have occurred not only in systematic theology, but also in other fields. This can make biblical studies departments so suspicious of the other departments that they won’t allow other departments in the door. The abuse of exegesis in the support of non-exegetical concerns is then interpreted to be the normal use of exegesis to build other non-exegetical concerns. When abuse is confused for use, then we have serious trouble. Upon what can systematic theology build but exegesis? Where else can it find its lifeblood?

What is really happening, I think, is that exegetes are starting to deny the validity of systematic theology entirely. They would rather see biblical theology take the place of systematic theology, because it is supposedly closer to exegesis, and more controllable. This is, of course, one entire step removed from the theological encyclopedias of the 19th century. By the way, theological encyclopedia is not what we normally think of as encyclopedia today. Rather it is a description of the theological enterprise, focussing on the interdependence and interconnectedness of the various branches of theology.

Edward Farley, who wrote a book entitled Theologia: The Fragmentation and Unity of Theology, opined that the 4 branch system (exegesis, systematics, church history, and practical) is itself the result of the Enlightenment fragmentation of knowledge, and should therefore be abandoned. I’m not sure that this is a practical solution to the problem. There does need to be some specialization, since there does not seem to be any other way for people to keep up in their own field. What does need to happen is quite a bit more summary of developments in the fields so that the non-specialists can also keep up, even if only second hand. And the attempt to be a master of more than one field is also important. Theology is different than other branches of knowledge in that the original data does not change or expand. The Bible is a finished canon. Therein lies the only hope we have for the return of the generalist theologian (one who is a master in more than one field, indeed, all the fields). Yes, church history has an unmasterable mass of data. But I do not believe that exegesis or systematics, or apologetics or practical theology is unmasterable. They are all based directly on the Bible. Church history is based on Scripture as well. However, the primary sources for church history include more than the Bible. That is what makes church history, in my opinion, by far and away the most difficult of the fields to master, since there is an enormously greater amount of material.

Dr. Vern Poythress wrote an article on biblical theologies in the Spring 2008 volume of the WTJ. I heartily recommend this article to anyone interested in this debate. Also necessary is Richard Muller’s book The Study of Theology. Further research into this almost abandoned field is necessary. Gerhard Ebeling addressed the matter, as did Wolfhart Pannenberg. Beyond this, however, one must go to the 19th century encyclopedias to garner any information about the field of theological encyclopedia. Westminster Theological Seminary did not teach encyclopedia when I was there. As far as I know, they still do not. Muller’s book needs to be required reading at the beginning and at the end of the curriculum. What is happening right now is that students are graduating with an “I favor Enns, I favor Gaffin, I favor Oliphint, I favor Tipton, I favor Trueman, I favor Jue” mentality. Not so pleasant and just a tad unbiblical. Westminster needs to return to a study of the theological encyclopedia and find a way to address the unity of theological discourse. The study of Scripture  in Prolegomena does not accomplish this, since every discipline claims Scripture.

The problem here is competing methodologies. At this point in time, I see exegetical methodology as the problem, since most modern exegetes will not allow systematic theology to bound their exegesis. To them that seems like forcing exegesis onto a Procrustean bed. But right here is the nub of the issue. Is there such a thing as the analogy of faith? If Scripture can interpret other Scripture, then why can’t Scripture as a whole interpret individual Scripture? If this question be granted, then there is no reason to exclude systematic theology from exegesis. They mutually inform each other. If this is a true two-way street, then exegesis will not force systematic theology out of the Bible, and systematic theology will not misinterpret Scripture for its own ends. This is devoutly to be desired.

David Garner: Westminster and Evangelicalism

August 07, 2008

Westminster and Evangelicalism
David B. Garner
Vice President for Advancement
Westminster Theological Seminary (PA)

What is evangelicalism?  Who are evangelicals?  Because evangelicalism has experienced a metamorphosis, the answer to these questions is more complicated than one might guess. In the term’s early use in 18th and 19th century in North America, where evangelicalism was more narrowly defined by revivalism and its associated emphasis on personal conversion, evangelicalism became identified with the largest Protestant movement in North America.  In the wake of the infiltration of theological liberalism into the mainline churches and the massive immigration of foreigners of diverse religious background, the virtually ubiquitous force of evangelicalism tempered, yet its arteries extended so as to influence a wide panorama of churches and para-church groups.  Accordingly, the Institute for Study of American Evangelicals (ISAE) at Wheaton College defines evangelicalism as “a wide-reaching definitional ‘canopy’ that covers a diverse number of Protestant groups”. On the current North American landscape, evangelicalism embraces, among others, Baptists, some Lutherans and Episcopalians, independents, Mennonites, Charismatics (Protestant and Catholic), Dutch Reformed, and Presbyterians.  As evidenced by the vote to retain Clark Pinnock and John Sanders in the Evangelical Theological Society in 2003, the big tent of evangelicalism now extends from rigorous conservatism to forms of open theism and inclusivism.  With the expansion of its stakes in recent decades, this evangelical tent now covers such associations as the Christian Coalition of America (a political advocacy group), L.E.A.R.N., Inc. (a pro-life group), Evangelicals Concerned, Inc. (a pro-homosexual group), and the Evangelical Environment Network (an environmental advocacy group).

Westminster Theological Seminary (WTS) shares appreciation for traditional evangelicalism’s emphasis on the inerrancy and authority of the Scripture.  At the same time, WTS remains committed to its confessional heritage and standards; the Westminster Confession of Faith has been and remains our doctrinal standard.  No matter how much evangelicalism morphs, the parameters of Westminster Reformed Orthodoxy guide and preserve the Seminary’s theological commitments on Scripture and any other doctrinal matter on which the Westminster Standards speak.  Wherever and whenever strands of evangelicalism agree with the Westminster Standards, WTS happily identifies with evangelicalism.  However, when any form of evangelicalism (or any other theological approach) runs contrary to historic Reformed orthodoxy and methodology, WTS consciously separates itself from evangelical identification.

Is WTS an evangelical institution? If by that we mean our resolute commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ revealed in the inerrant Word of God, and to the five solas of the Reformation – faith alone, scripture alone, grace alone, Christ alone, all to the glory of God alone – then we grant a strong affirmative.  Indeed, the bond of Christian unity makes such not an option or a work of supererogation, but a basic Christian imperative.   But if we mean sharing theological common ground with inclusivists, open theists, and any other self-professing evangelicals who deny or compromise the unique authority of divine Scripture, we grant a strong denial.  Rather, in view of our Reformed heritage and commitment to the Westminster Standards, we unequivocally affirm our commitment to Reformed orthodoxy. These confessional parameters guide, preserve, and promote our approach to theological education, ministerial formation, and academic study.  They summarize in brilliant, short compass, the teaching of scripture.  They keep us accountable in all that we do to our ecclesiastical constituency.  And they focus our hearts and minds upon the gracious God who has preserved his church, and his gospel, from generation to generation.

Carl Trueman: Knowing the Times

August 07, 2008

Knowing the Times: Recent Controversies in Context

Carl R Trueman
Vice President for Academic Affairs
Westminster Theological Seminary (PA)

Seminaries and Orthodoxy: The Historical Pattern

As a historian, the one thing I always try to avoid is making definitive statements about recent events: while eyewitness and participant accounts of historical happenings can make very exciting reading, they often lack the more dispassionate perspective which time and emotional distance bring in their wake.  Thus, they are frequently less satisfying as historical interpretations than they are as what English schoolboys of yesteryear might have called `ripping yarns.’  Nevertheless, it seems apposite at this point, even as an eyewitness and participant in recent events at Westminster, to offer a few simple thoughts for the lay observer on the historical context and significance of our struggles.

It has become something of a proverb in evangelical circles that most conservative or confessional theological institutions have about seventy-five years of life in them before they evidence significant changes in theological direction.  One might add to that another oft-repeated observation, that such change does not occur slowly by a kind of gradual evolution; rather such change tends to take place almost overnight.  A third comment, perhaps just as frequently heard in such circles, is that theological institutions always become broader theologically, and the clock can never be turned back in a more orthodox direction.

Where do these ideas originate?  And why is it that they do seem to many, at least at the level of a gut reaction, to be true?  Well, the answer, of course is, that there is plenty of historical evidence to suggest that they do in fact reflect reality, even if the generalized timeline is somewhat negotiable.  Think of Princeton Theological Seminary.  It was founded in 1812, enjoyed a heyday of orthodoxy, and then, in 1929, it was reorganized and the old theology of the Westminster Standards vanished from its lecture theatres almost overnight.  Think of Fuller Seminary.  Founded after World War II to spearhead the development of an evangelical scholarship which was both orthodox and academically rigorous, it boasted a stellar evangelical faculty; yet its commitment to inerrancy vanished within two generations.  In both cases, the change happened swiftly and, up until this point anyway, there appears to have been no significant return within these institutions to anything resembling the older theological paths.

Generational Shifts

There are good reasons why these kind of things can happen.  Don Carson once commented that the first generation fights for orthodoxy, the second generation assumes orthodoxy, and the third generation abandons orthodoxy.  That, of course, gives you roughly seventy-five years before problems start to become evident.  We might flesh that out a little.  In the case of institutions founded out of times of crisis, members of the first generation were often bound together by common struggles, perhaps within a denomination or within a specific institution.  Thus, they knew who they were and what they believed; they had made a clear stand on points of principle, and some had even made huge personal sacrifices so to do.  The second generation lived in the intellectual and cultural space carved out for them by the first generation but lacked the controversial context which bound their fathers together.  The third generation has little or no contact with the struggles of the first, and, in almost Freudian fashion, can actually find the behaviour of their institutional founding fathers to be somewhat embarrassing.  Like the anecdotes told by the boring great uncle who always starts a conversation with the phrase, `During the war….,’ the antics of their forefathers, and those who harp on about them, are just so much eye-roll inducing tedium.

The Harlequin Problem

Yet the context of the modern seminary is even more complicated than the typical generational psychology would suggest.  Such an institution faces further pressures beyond the growing distance, emotional and otherwise, from the theological and ecclesiastical fights of earlier generations.  The modern seminary faces the need to produce thoughtful scholars who engage the academy as well as train young people for the church, and this is not as easy a task to accomplish as it was for earlier generations.  In the seventeenth century, theology was a single discipline and a teacher of theology was expected to have a mastery of all relevant fields: biblical languages, exegesis, theology, and ecclesiology.  This model persisted for a long time: even in the early twentieth century, a man like B. B. Warfield was able to contribute competently at a scholarly level to New Testament studies, systematic theology, and church history, while also writing helpfully for the layperson.  

Nowadays, however, with the veritable deluge of information and the increasing specializations which are part and parcel of the proliferation of subdisciplines, the typical professor has enough trouble keeping up-to-date with his chosen field let alone being competent to contribute outside of his narrow specialization.   This generates almost intolerable problems for those who, like Harlequin, have to serve two masters, academy and church, when the demands of those two masters are not necessarily or frequently compatible.  When they conflict, to whom are we accountable?  And when our subdisciplines collide with those of others, who, if anyone, gives way?  Do we simply allow the cacophony of our various specializations to lead us to abandon any notion of the unity of truth, or of articulating a coherent theology?  And, before those outside are too quick to rush to judgment on either side, how many of you have ever said a prayer that those of us who negotiate these issues every day might be given wisdom as to how to do so?

Truth is Not Necessarily Stranger than Fiction

It is worth noting at this point that there is also one further complication for an accredited seminary with a doctoral program, a complication of some significance relative to Westminster over recent days: the requirement of the accreditation agencies for tenured teaching faculty to possess that most basic academic union card, a PhD degree, a demand which may have been passed over in times past but upon which accreditors are now increasingly bearing down. Indeed, the rules on this are very clear, and Westminster has no choice but to bring itself into conformity with this basic requirement. 

In my opinion, this is an absolute no-brainer for any institution of higher education which makes claims to academic integrity; how much more for one which runs a doctoral program.  My own background is that of the secular university system in Britain.  There one cannot even make a shortlist for a job these days without not only a PhD but also at least a guaranteed contract with a proper scholarly press for a monograph. That seminaries have typically had lower standards on this matter and employed faculty who have spent many fruitless years on doctoral programs has not served them well but has rather compromised their academic integrity. 

In this context, it is always more exciting and glamorous to read certain events at Westminster through the lens of theological or personal differences, to see a particular professor as a martyr to his alleged theological courage; but the rather boring and prosaic truth is that sometimes it is purely a technical matter of lack of  professional qualifications or equivalent in scholarly publications, and nothing more spectacular or conspiratorial.  Contrary to the popular saying, the truth is often far more mundane and straightforward than fiction.

Let me make this point of academic policy crystal clear: while I am Academic Dean, I am determined to make sure that the bar is now raised on this matter of scholarship and academic qualifications; and I am committed to making sure that the relaxed policy of previous years is made a thing of the past and that Westminster brings itself into line with the rules of its accrediting agencies.  Indeed, I look forward to that day when all teachers on the PhD program will actually have PhDs themselves and will thus have proved themselves capable of the level at which they aspire to teach.  This is surely not an unreasonable goal for Westminster, and certainly something which doctoral students are entitled to expect their professors to possess.

The Ever-Broadening Boundaries of Evangelicalism

One final factor, in addition to disciplinary fragmentation and the Harlequinesque demands of serving two masters, church and academy, is the problem of the ever-broadening boundaries of what is acceptable evangelical theology.  Evangelical scholars David Wells and Mark Noll are only two of the more significant thinkers who have drawn attention to this.  In his new book, The Courage to be Protestant, David points to the increasing doctrinal minimalism of evangelicalism.  Where once a raft of doctrines were assumed, now evangelicalism is defined almost by institutions and ethos rather than by theological confession.  If it is taught at a seminary calling itself evangelical, for example, or published by a press which has evangelical roots, then it is within the range of evangelical thought, even if it involves a low view of scripture, rejection of penal substitution, or even a question mark over the Trinity. Further, Mark, in his book, Is the Reformation Over?, points out that many evangelicals, perhaps most, now reject justification by grace through faith as understood by the Reformers, a doctrine which has historically been one of the distinguishing hallmarks of evangelical Protestantism.  Strange times, indeed, when even the basics can no longer be assumed; but we must acknowledge that we stand at a point in history where the purview of evangelical thought is not determined by historic Christianity but is rather a function of the breadth of the beliefs of the faculty who serve at evangelical seminaries, the commissioning editors who work for evangelical presses, and the ministers who fill evangelical pulpits.

Westminster, Professor Peter Enns’ Book, and the Wider Context

Westminster occupies an unenviable position in all this.  A seminary which sees itself as both academic and confessional, yet has no formal ecclesiastical connection, is always going to have to face tough decisions on the direction forward.  In addition, for all the reasons above, it is doubtful that Westminster is the only institution which will go through similar traumas in the coming decade.  The challenges to traditional views of scripture in particular are coming thick and fast at the moment from within the evangelical world itself; and the impatience with the old creeds and confessions is palpable in many quarters.  

The debate over Peter Enns’ book is thus one example of a much wider phenomenon: the struggle to define what responsible evangelical scholarship looks like at the start of the third millennium.  That the divisions over this book cut across disciplinary, ecclesiastical, and scholarly lines is an indication of just how complicated the matter is; and those of us (unlike the many self-appointed internet pundits) who have sat through hundreds of hours of meetings and discussion of the matters involved, who have lost good friends in the fray, who have seen and experienced at first-hand the personal cost on both sides, and for whom the whole matter is anything but glamorous, know that the situation is as complex as it has been painful.   Indeed, so difficult is it that I cannot begin to offer a full analysis of the controversy and the outcome here, but yet I do believe it worthwhile and necessary to offer a moment’s reflection on recent events.

Confession and Accountability

So what is the significance of these recent events?  As Academic Dean and as Vice President for Academic Affairs, I believe this lies above all in two specific areas.  First, it is now clear that Westminster is to be committed to a doctrine of scripture that reflects what is taught in the great confessions of the Reformation, and which has nurtured the confessional evangelical church for centuries.   As evangelicalism in general broadens out, as it loses its connection with its confessional Reformation past, as it becomes increasingly vacuous at a doctrinal level, the leaders at Westminster have decided that that is not the path this institution will go down.  We will not accept that the Reformation creedal heritage is no longer relevant; we will not accede to the indefinite broadening of evangelicalism’s doctrinal horizons; nor will we subscribe to the modifications of the doctrine of scripture which are such a necessary part of that broadening.  Rather, we will stand where we have always stood, on the great solas of the Reformation: Christ, scripture, grace, faith, and, above all, God’s glory.  We are not, and will not be, a seminary which repudiates the great catholic legacy of the Reformation and of subsequent confessional evangelicalism.

Second, it has been made clear that Westminster professors are to be held accountable to more than just the canons of their chosen academic guild or the current trends of thinking in their various subdisciplines or even their friends and colleagues on Faculty.  Accountability in times of crisis, of course, is always a painful experience. There is a human cost on all sides which press releases, theological statements, and minutes of meetings rarely, if ever, convey.  While theology is indeed a great hobby, it is too often a nightmare of a profession.  Yet those who teach must be held accountable for their teaching, however hard that may be; and, for too long at Westminster, too little attention has been paid to what we as Faculty teach while too much, perhaps, has been paid to what others outside of our church constituencies think of us.

The Future: Counter-Cultural and Counter-Historical Theological Accountability

This move to accountability for our beliefs and teaching is a profoundly counter-cultural, counter-historical move.  As noted, the dynamic within evangelicalism seems always towards doctrinal minimalism; and the history of seminaries, with some notable exceptions such as Concordia and Southern, seems always towards more concessive, liberal positions.  Yet to take the path of an ever-broadening theology would be to betray our heritage and to fail to serve our churches.  This is not in itself, of course, a denial of the faith or the integrity of those with whom we disagree; but it is to say that there is a place – a vital and necessary place – in the evangelical world for those who hold to clear doctrinal standards, who define themselves very much in terms of belief and in relation to those historic confessions they see as most faithfully explicating scripture. 

Does this restrict freedom of speech or academic freedom, as some have claimed? Well, no-one has to take the Faculty Pledge and commit themselves thereby to upholding the teaching of Westminster Standards: the First Amendment guarantees that the Westminster Standards can never be imposed as a condition of American citizenship or civil freedom; and, beyond that, evangelicalism is broad enough to provide plenty of professional opportunities for those gifted scholars who cannot do so. But make no mistake: those who choose to be Faculty at Westminster are voluntarily bound by the Faculty Pledge to non-negotiable standards of doctrine, life, and teaching.   Thus, it is not enough to believe that one sincerely subscribes to the Westminster Standards; it is not sincerity that validates Faculty subscription.  One can, after all, be sincerely mistaken about one’s position; and, in the current crisis, I for one can say that I doubt no-one’s personal sincerity in the matter of the Faculty Pledge.  But, to reiterate, such personal sincerity is not enough.  It is actually believing and embracing and living the teachings of the Standards, as summaries of the system of doctrine taught in scripture, which is required; and the judgment on whether one is doing that lies not with the conscience of the individual or even with one’s colleagues on Faculty, but with the Board of Trustees, as those charged with maintaining the orthodoxy of belief and practice at the Seminary.

In short, I suspect that in years to come the recent conflicts at Westminster will come to be seen as struggles which reflect the tensions of the broader evangelical constituency of which we are, in a sense, a part.  They will be seen as part of the battle of the next decade, over what exactly biblical authority means.  They will be seen as part of the struggle between an evangelicalism which finds truth claims increasingly distasteful and a more historic, confessional evangelicalism which believes and loves the assertions of the great creeds and confessions of the church as things which have fed and inspired Christians throughout the ages – some, even today, to the point of death.  Above all, it is my hope that they will not be seen as anything glamorous or exciting but rather as part of a necessary, if extremely painful, move to make Faculty accountable for their beliefs and as an attempt to bring a once-great seminary back to the integrity of its historic, confessional, evangelical moorings.

A Message from the President of WTS

August 07, 2008

A Message from the President:

As President, I am aware of some concern in our constituency for more clarity on the significance of recent events at Westminster. While the theological direction of Westminster Theological Seminary is ultimately under the aegis of the Seminary’s Board of Trustees, and the task of theological direction will undoubtedly be the focus of the Board’s labors in the coming months,  it seems appropriate in light of constituency concern  for the administration of the Seminary to address in the interim some important aspects of the controversy through which we have passed.  As we ponder Westminster’s role in the current theological controversies occurring in the midst of the changing face of evangelical theology, I am pleased to call your attention to two pieces posted here by Vice President of Academic Affairs, Dr. Carl Trueman and Vice President for Advancement, Dr. David Garner.


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