TE Keister’s Reply to TE Moon’s Defense of TE Lawrence, Part 4

K. Next, we have the parable of the unmerciful servant. This is found in Matthew 18:23-35. TE Moon argues that the unmerciful servant

“moved from a state of condemnation to true and real forgiveness. This was no pretended forgiveness. Yet the servant was finally apostate. He failed to live up to the grace shown to him, and so the privilege of that forgiveness was revoked” (p. 8).

A couple of things must be said in reply. Firstly, a detail of a parable is being used to interpret other clearer texts (such as Romans 8), rather than vice versa. Secondly, the point of the parable is that sanctification always accompanies justification. Klyne Snodgrass, in his outstanding and exhaustive recent commentary on the parables, says this: “In Matthew, as elsewhere in both Testaments, the ethic is a responsive ethic, a response to God’s grace and calling…We would do better to realize that if we do not work, we are not righteous.” The parable does not go into any supposed causal relationship of our forgiveness to God’s forgiveness. Instead, it is saying that one is forgiven forgives, and if he doesn’t forgive, then he is not forgiven. It is not saying that there is a possible reversal of real, true forgiveness. Boice explains this well:

What we need to recognize is that Jesus is not giving the whole of the gospel message in one story. What he says is true enough, that there is an unbreakable connection between God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of other people…This new nature is the nature of Jesus himself or, as we could also say, it is God’s own forgiving nature. Thus, although the new nature does not manifest itself entirely at once, if we are justified, that nature will increasingly and inevitably express itself in our forgiveness of others…if we do not forgive others, we are not forgiven. We are not justified people. We are not God’s children (pp. 396-397 of volume 2 of his Matthew commentary).

Again, as was asked before, how does TE Moon’s formulation of what happens here differ from how an Arminian would explain the text? If the charge is laid at our door that we are using systematic categories to explain the text, this author will quite quickly point out that everyone uses systematic categories to explain the text, including the Arminian, and including TE Moon.

It should also be noted here that apostasy is not mentioned in this text. Where is the “falling away?”

L. Secondly, we have the testimony of the prophets, particularly Jeremiah 3:14 and Isaiah 1:2. In Jeremiah, we see the words “Return, turnable children” (translation of Holladay in his commentary), usually translated “Return, O faithless children.” The word “turnable” or “faithless” seems here to indicate something in the nature of backsliding. The context does not seem to indicate final apostasy. There is the language of certificate of divorce (v. 8). However, this is talking about the diachronic history of Israel and Judah as a whole people, not the individuals within it. TE Moon’s response to this is that “if none of the individuals were in fact children the Lord brought up, I fail to see how all of them put together can be called children” (p. 8). He says this in relation to the Isaiah passage, but the issue remains the same for both passages. The difficulty here is still the fallacy of composition. What’s true of the group is not necessarily true for individuals within that group. For instance, it is conceivable that an entire generation grew up unregenerated, completely rejecting everything having to do with the Lord, and yet the whole people could still be described as apostatizing, even though everyone in it was never actually part of the true people of God. Similarly, in exile, not everyone was apostate, or divorced from the Lord (cf. Daniel, Ezekiel, and others). The decree of divorce and the children mentioned in Jeremiah therefore have to do with the nation as a whole. Nowhere are individuals the focus. This is basically the same issue at stake in Isaiah (Isaiah 1:2 is not talking about final apostasy either. The “children” language finds a precise parallel in Christian families where the children grow up in the visible church, are never regenerated, and then apostatize: we still call them our children, but that does not mean that they had new life, adoption, regeneration, etc. in a covenantal sense: to think otherwise is to overload the word “children” exegetically), Ezekiel 16 and 23, and also Hosea. The texts are not talking about individual Israelites or Jews, but of the nation as a whole throughout the course of her history. One can speak of marriage, divorce, life, adoption, etc. in corporate terms with regard to the prophetical literature. But this is not the same as saying that individuals within that group actually have the same experience as the group as a whole has.

M. The third section brings up Romans 11 and John 15. In Romans 11, the metaphor of the olive tree represents the visible people of God. The actual language of “in Christ” is not used in Romans 11. Branches are grafted in to the tree, but the tree is not said to be Christ. Therefore the language of the tree most naturally fits in with an understanding of the tree being the visible people of God. The entire scope of Romans 9-11 is about the Israel of God and the remnant is the immediate context (vv. 1-10). So people might belong for a time in the visible people of God, and then fall away from that. It is reading way too much into the details to say that the nourishing root indicates some kind of vital union with Christ. At any rate, the olive tree is never identified as Christ, so TE Moon’s assertion that “in Christ” language is used in Romans 11 is off the mark.

N. As to John 15, again, the language is pressed too far in TE Moon’s report. There is an ontological distinction between the two different kinds of branches in John 15. One kind is fruit-bearing (vs. 2b), and the other is not (vs. 2a). Non fruit-bearing branches are like suckers, a technical term for branches that steal sap away from fruit-bearing branches, but never bear fruit themselves. They are fundamentally two different kinds of branches. All the suckers (which are parasitic) will be cut out and thrown away, whereas all the fruit-bearing branches will be pruned so as to become more fruit-bearing. In this passage, the only real kind of genuine branch is the fruit-bearing branch. That is the yardstick of measurement, not whether they were at one time “in Him.” The focus of the text is on fruit as the marker of genuineness. There is no indication in the text beyond this as to what being “in Him” means in verse 2. It is certainly overloading the text to say that it is a “covenantal union” that is then broken. This is reading into the text something that simply isn’t there. The two different kinds of branches most obviously did not participate in the same way in the vine. The fruit-bearing branch is the only branch that participates in any saving way in the branch. The other branches are as good as dead already, for they are non-fruit-bearing.

O. Next comes the parable of the soils. TE Moon argues that “TE Lawrence clarifies his meaning of the phrase explicitly by means of the parable of the sower in which some ‘receive the Word with joy,’ and yet fall away. They spring to life, only for their life to be choked out” (emphasis original). The main problem here is that the seeds are not the people. The soils are the various kinds of people. The seed is the Word of God, not the people (see Luke 8:11). So, when Jesus says “The seeds along the path are those who have heard,” (Luke 8:12) He is not saying that the seeds are the people, contradicting what He just said. Rather the situation of the seeds sown along the path are those who have heard, etc. So TE Moon has the details of the parable mixed up here. There may be some conviction of sin in a person’s life as the result of the preaching of the Gospel. The effect the seed has in the different soils is the effects of the Word of God in different categories of people, not that person’s ontological state. The three bad soils never produce fruit (in this parable, as in John 15, the yardstick of genuineness is fruit-bearing). The reason is that they are the wrong kind of soil. The soils do not change from hard and rocky to good, and then back again, which is what would have to be the case for TE Moon’s case to be correct. Only God can change the soil of someone’s heart, and such a change is never temporary. And again, TE Moon caricatures the position of the committee in footnote 16. The committee recognizes TE Lawrence’s qualifications on the kind of “new life” received by the reprobate, that TE Lawrence is not advocating a regeneration (in such formulations) that is the same as that of the elect. The problem is whether such people receive new life at all, of any kind, in baptism. This TE’s Lawrence and Moon affirm, and we deny.

III. Committee Matters, and the Correct Interpretation of TE Lawrence’s Views

Continuing on the first page of the report, TE Moon claims that TE Lawrence had never had a chance to defend himself against the reports. But this is what the trial is for. One would not even have to agree with the committee’s report in order to say that a trial should be held to determine the question. The reports that we received (and which the SJC has already defined as reports) pushed us to examine TE Lawrence’s views. In examining TE Lawrence’s views, he had ample time to respond to the allegations. He responded in the questionnaire, the interview, and the several qualifying documents that we have received. How is that not an opportunity to respond to the reports? As to the specific accusations, TE Moon is being classically nit-picky: how specific does one have to be? The motion from the committee was simple: the area of baptism was what was problematic, and the evidence given was mostly TE Lawrence’s own testimony.

Moving on to page 2, TE Moon claims that the accusations have arisen in a very ad hoc manner. This is very simple to refute: six meetings of the committee, a questionnaire carefully crafted, an interview carefully done and transcribed, 30 sermons listened to, several papers read, all of this adds up to a careful non-ad-hoc result.

The first full paragraph of the second page contains a gross inaccuracy. It is not the contention of the committee that TE Lawrence “believes and teaches that baptism gives to all what, in fact, is only given to the elect. Or, that he fails to qualify his discussions of baptism in a way that leaves him open to confusion and in failing to qualify adequately he stands contrary to the Standards.” It is the contention of the committee that TE Lawrence ascribes to baptism an efficacy for the elect and for the non-elect that neither Scripture nor the Standards adduce, thus confusing the sign and the thing signified. The qualifications that TE Lawrence places on these statements, such as that the new life, union with Christ, forgiveness of sins that occurs in baptism are not the same definitionally as that given in the Westminster Standards have been already and often noted by the committee. It is the contention of the committee that TE Lawrence cannot distinguish properly between what is given to the elect and what is given to the non-elect, and thus introduces confusion there. But this is different than saying that TE Lawrence’s view of baptism has the sacrament giving to all what in fact, is only given to the elect. Straw men are very easy to construct and even easier to knock down.

TE Moon objects to taking TE Lawrence’s statement on baptism constituting one a Christian. The substance of the objection is that a problem only arises if “’Christian’ is taken to mean ‘elect’” (p. 2). However, the context of TE Lawrence’s statement needs to be taken into account here. TE Lawrence contrasts the systematic-theological understanding of being a “Christian” with a supposed covenantal understanding of being a “Christian.” TE Lawrence argues that the latter is biblical, and the former is at least not present in Scripture. However, the term “Christian” is not defined differently in the context (p. 20 of the final report). What is defined differently is how one ought to look at the question. TE Lawrence may be said to be answering the question, “On what basis should I consider myself a Christian?”

TE Moon argues that the only way of sustaining the charge against TE Lawrence is to say that TE Lawrence denies the distinction between true and false Christians. In the footnote (footnote 5 on page 3), TE Moon argues that TE Lawrence’s statements about the unhelpfulness of the question “Am I a Christian?” are only concerned about the inscrutable nature of God’s decree, such that introspection on the question is unhelpful or inappropriate, and so the congregation is directed to look away from themselves to the Word and the promise for salvation. However, it is not necessary to claim that TE Lawrence denies or thinks irrelevant the distinction between true and false Christians. TE Lawrence affirms the visible/invisible church distinction (although he has said that he does not prefer it). What is necessary to be said is that TE Lawrence effectively blurs the distinction between the two by what he says about baptism. If everyone gets the same thing in baptism, and that is new life, adoption, union with Christ, all qualified by “in some sense,” what is that sense? Is it the same for the elect and the non-elect? If not, then aren’t there two levels of efficacy for baptism in his theology? But TE Lawrence has not emphasized at all the distinction between elect and non-elect when it comes to what happens at baptism. This is evident from the first quotation of TE Lawrence under section 2 of TE Moon’s report. The term “we” is undifferentiated. And there are not two different kinds of the various benefits listed, but only one.

TE Moon argues that the accusers fail to represent faithfully what TE Lawrence says, fail in respect to biblical exegesis, and fail in understanding our Reformed tradition (p. 5). He argues that the tension among the views represented falls within the Reformed tradition. TE Moon says that “We are the ones who have held tenaciously to the doctrine of our baptized children being full members of the covenant of grace, without qualification” (emphasis original). This statement is not true. There are two aspects to the covenant of grace. These two aspects can be variously described as “inner-outer,” “visible-invisible,” or “substance-administration.” TE Moon’s statement cannot possibly be reconciled with WLC 31, when it says that that covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed. This defines the substance, inner, invisible aspect of the covenant of grace. The substance of the covenant of grace is made only with the elect. Furthermore, the substance of the covenant of grace is salvation itself. WLC 32 indicates that the grace of God is manifest in the covenant of grace by actually giving salvation. That is the substance of the covenant of grace. But a person may participate in the outward administration of the covenant, and yet not be elect. Such a person can be said, with respect to the proper definition of the substance of the covenant, not to be a member of the covenant of grace at all. This follows directly from WLC 31. Only with respect to the outward administration (which is defined in WLC 33-35) can non-elect people be said to be part of the covenant. It is certainly not “full members of the covenant of grace, without qualification.” The Standards carefully qualify membership in the covenant of grace as to substance and administration.

Further, TE Moon argues that there is a temporary true faith that is not finally effectual for salvation. He says that we speak of it, but he does not give any examples of what this looks like. But how does TE Moon’s definition of temporary true faith (TE Moon explicitly says NOT a pseudo-faith) differ from the Arminian temporary true faith? Leave aside affirmations of the elect never losing their faith for the moment. TE Moon’s position seems obviously Arminian with respect to the non-elect. The non-elect can have a temporary true faith, then lose it. Arminians say that people can have a temporary true faith, then lose it. The structure is the same, and the only difference would be that TE Moon (and TE Lawrence) would add another category of people who do not have temporary true faith, but rather permanent true faith. What seems to be happening here is that TE’s Moon and Lawrence are taking the  “common operations” of the Spirit and broadening them out to include temporarily saving benefits. This is not a legitimate interpretation of common operations, for the term “common operations” refers to what everyone in the entire world get, not just what people in the visible church but non-elect receive. The term “common” does not mean “common with the elect,” but rather “common to all people.”

TE Moon resorts to assertion without proof when he says that “The Reformed doctrine concerning the place of baptized infants of believers, which is the real point at issue here, is everywhere expressed in just the terms that TE Lawrence uses, and often far stronger.” One assumes that the quotations that are in the Testimony of the Tradition section are intended to provide the proof. However, as we have seen, TE Moon misreads every single one of these quotations.

So, rather than asking the Presbytery to “narrow our reading of what counts as confessional to a point that excludes a great number of our Reformed authorities,” (p. 7) we are asking the Presbytery to recognize and reaffirm its true Reformed heritage.

TE Moon argues that TE Lawrence has an “avowed and repeated adherence to the Standards,” and that the Presbytery is being told “not to believe or make use of the other things that TE Lawrence says.” This argument (at the bottom of page 7) really ought to be laid to rest with this simple rebuttal: there is no doubt in the minds of any committee member that TE Lawrence is sincere in believing that he upholds the standards. But that is simply not the same thing as TE Lawrence actually upholding the standards. One can affirm the standards generally and verbally, but then one’s theology can contradict that affirmation. TE Moon does not even seem to acknowledge this as a possibility, much less probability. But most advocates of a different theology all throughout history have claimed to be teaching what the church taught. It simply does not mean that they are teaching what the church teaches. Such affirmations of holding to the confession are quite common, actually, among other FV advocates. It simply does not prove the point as to whether TE Lawrence is in fact upholding the confession. The burden of proof is indeed upon the accusers to prove that TE Lawrence’s teaching does not jibe with his affirmations of the confession. We believe we have done just that.

In TE Moon’s conclusion, he states categorically that nothing TE Lawrence teaches actually contradicts anything actually stated in the Confession (p. 10). But this is not true. TE Lawrence contradicts the Confession’s position on the efficacy of baptism, ignoring the careful qualifications of WCF 28.6, and instead arguing that some kind of forgiveness of sins, some kind of union with Christ, and some kind of adoption occurs in the water rite to everyone who receives the rite, regenerate or unregenerate alike. The confession says that the thing signified by baptism comes by faith alone, whereas TE Lawrence says they come by the water rite.

The above argumentation should give the definitive lie to the charge that those prosecuting this case are trying to remake the PCA into their own image. Rather, they are seeking to be true to the exegesis of Scripture, and secondarily and subordinately to the Reformed confessions and fathers.