Positive Theology and Negative Rejection

Here is an interesting question to ask: is positive theology (I’m defining this simply as what one believes) sufficient for orthodoxy? Or does one need to reject error as well? I am going to argue that Scripture tells us in no uncertain terms that rejection of heresy is just as important, and indeed is of a piece with positive theology. They are the flip side of the very same coin. You cannot hold positive theology without also rejecting the corresponding error. This discussion is another question facing the PCA right now, but people aren’t talking about it. The assumption in non-confessional circles is that the only thing that is important for the purposes of orthodoxy is what one affirms. One need not be held accountable for whether he denies an error or not, either in his own system, or in someone else’s system. I intend to challenge this assumption.

The passage that comes to mind immediately in this regard is Galatians 1. There Paul is dealing with the Judaizers, those who want Gentile Christians to submit to the ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic law. For Paul, this is another gospel. He is not content to say that as long as they hold on to what Paul said (positive theology), they will be fine. He says that in also giving room to the Judaizers (not denying error), they are leaving the true Gospel (1:6). The system of error being perpetrated on the Galatians is antithetical to the system Paul gave them. Paul tells them in no uncertain terms (with anathemas, no less!) that they are to reject the Judaizers (1:9).

Jude is another example. The error there seems to be antinomianism (verse 4). Is it then important only to believe in the grace of God? It is equally important, Jude says, to guard carefully the meaning of grace, such that grace does not become a license for sin! Doing so, he says, is contending for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints (verse 3). In the benediction, by analogy, it is just as important for God to keep us from falling as it is for Him to present us before His glorious presence (verse 24).

People will object at this point: just because someone is protecting someone else does not mean that they agree with that other person. But that is not the point. The point is that if someone is defending someone else, then the defender believes the defendee is within bounds. He has defined the boundaries to include the views of that other person. Take an example: person A believes that the Trinity is one God in three persons. But person A also believes that person B is perfectly orthodox to hold that God is three gods in one person. Does person A really have an orthodox view of the Trinity? Person A believes that the second formulation is orthodox, when it is clearly heretical. Does person A’s defense of person B say anything about the views of person A? Of course it does. It says that person A believes that person’s B’s views are perfectly okay and within the boundaries of orthodoxy, regardless of whether person A actually believes the same error. It is a redefinition of the fence!

Furthermore, the confessions of the church are also misunderstood at this point. The confessions are often understood as mere positive declarations. Are we to understand that the Westminster divines did not carefully frame their doctrines so as to exclude Arminianism, Catholicism, Socinianism, and Antinomianism? The historical work of Chad Van Dixhoorn proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Westminster divines agonized over how to phrase their positive theology in such a way as to exclude all these systems of error. Just look at chapter 11 on justification. Are we to believe that the phrase “not for any thing wrought in them” is not aimed at Catholicism? Or that the phrase “nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness” is not aimed at Arminianism? So, if someone were to come along and say that the Arminian is perfectly okay in saying that faith itself is what is imputed as righteousness, and is therefore within the boundaries of orthodoxy, it is a clear violation of the Confession.

I believe we need to pay much closer attention to this issue. It needs to be examined carefully in candidates and credentials committees. Asking questions like “Would you reject this or that error?” is vitally important. Even asking, “Would you vote against a candidate who believed error X?” would be helpful. It would show the Presbytery where the candidate believes the boundaries are. This would also have relevance to various cases in the PCA right now.

An Essential Question for the PCA

I was reading a recent acquisition, Herman Witsius’s Sacred Dissertations on the Apostles’ Creed. Dissertation 2 was worth the price of admission for me. It is entitled “On Fundamental Articles.” In this article, Witsius tries to do the impossible. Whether he succeeded or not is a fair question, but no one could deny that he says some very important things along the way. The question he is seeking to answer, and one that is essential for the PCA right now, is this: how can we know what doctrines are fundamental and/or necessary to the Christian faith?

Witsius is cautious about this, as it is an exceedingly difficult question. He writes, “This, indeed, is so abstruse a topic, that it has very much embarrassed even the most judicious and acute Theologians who have attempted to explain it; and scarcely any one has given full satisfaction to himself, much less to others” (p. 16 of volume 1). Throughout this particular dissertation, we find similar statements of caution. For instance, he says also, “To point out the articles necessary to salvation, and precisely to determine their number, is a task, if not utterly impossible, at least extremely difficult” (p. 27). And especially when it comes to judging the state of salvation must we be careful: “It does not become us to ascend into the tribunal of God, and to pronounce concerning our neighbor, for how small a defect of knowledge, or for how inconsiderable an error, he must be excluded from heaven. It is much safer to leave that to God” (p. 29). This is immediately balanced, however, with a statement that ensures critical and judicial thinking on the part of the church: “It may not be safe and expedient for us to receive into church-fellowship, a person chargeable with some error or sin; whom, however, we should not dare, on account of that error or sin, to exclude from heaven” (ibid). In other words, on the one hand, delineating which doctrines are essential for salvation is very difficult. On the other hand, we must not on that account stop trying to determine this, nor should we equate membership in our church with membership in heaven. Witsius says unequivocally that “her (the church, LK) safety is ill consulted by those who, under the specious pretext of peace and toleration, would have her to embrace with open arms, all that hold errors not entirely fundamental” (p. 32). We can afford, nay, cannot afford not, to be stricter when it comes to what the church teaches in comparison with what is necessary to be saved. Otherwise, the peace and purity of the church will always be suspect.

In terms of actual criteria of what constitutes fundamental doctrine, Witsius is exceedingly helpful and careful. First, some helpful distinctions are in order concerning the realm of necessity:

[D]octrines may be said to be necessary,-to Salvation,-or to Religion,-or to the Church. A doctrine, without the knowledge and faith of which, God does not save grown-up persons, is necessary to Salvation; that, without the profession and practice of which, no one can be considered religious, is necessary to Religion; and that, without which none is admitted to the communion of the visible church, is necessary to the Church.

It seems fairly clear that Witsius’s intention here is to delineate three expanding realms of necessity. The smallest is Salvation, next is Religion, and the last is Church. In other words, the fewest number of doctrines are necessary for salvation, more are required for Religion, and most are required for the Church.

A second caveat he has is that people can hold necessary doctrines with different degrees of clarity: “It is in different measures of clearness, abundance, and efficacy that divine revelation, the means of grace, and the communications of the Spirit are enjoyed” (p. 17). However, this does not mean that people should be satisfied with the bare minimum. On the contrary, “The command of God, indeed, lays an indispensable obligation upon all men, to make every possible effort to attain a most clear, distinct, and assured knowledge of divine truth” (p. 18). In terms of the bare minimum regarding any particular doctrine, “The smallest measure of the requisite knowledge appears to be this, that, when an article of faith is explained, the mind so far at least apprehends it, as to recognise (sic) and embrace it as true” (p. 18). Witsius will add later that “It is possible, too, that a man who holds the foundation, may embrace some error inconsistent with a fundamental article” (p. 27).

A third caveat he issues is in regard to time. The more light there is available to us, “the more extensive and more explicit knowledge is necessary to salvation” (p. 18). This is particularly true when we move from the Old Testament to the New Testament. He quotes Thomas Aquinas in a very clear expression of how this works: “The articles of faith have increased with the lapse of time, not indeed with respect to the faith itself, but with respect to explicit and express profession. The same things which are believed explicitly, and under a greater number of articles, by the saints in latter days, were all believed implicitly, and under a smaller number, by the fathers in ancient times” (p. 19, quoting Summa, II.1.7).

The actual criteria for what constitute necessary doctrines then follows: 1. It must be contained in Scripture; 2. It must be clear enough in Scripture that any person can perceive that it is Scriptural (he includes here an important qualification that articles contained in scripture “must include not only those which they teach in express words, but also those which, to all who apply their minds to the subject, are obviously deducible from them by necessary consequence” (p. 20)); 3. “that it be of such a nature that neither faith in Christ, nor true repentance, can subsist without it;” 4. Any article is fundamental, the denial of which leads to destruction (the reverse does not always hold, if the promise of life is annexed, giving baptism as an example, see page 23); 5. if the Scriptures call it a foundation; 6. any article which is necessary to understand another necessary article is also necessary; 7. This one is a bit difficult, but basically Witsius says that if a more doubtful doctrine is said to be essential, then the less doubtful article that follows from it must also be essential.

One last caution is in order, with regard to heretics:

Our faith consists not in words, but in sense; not in the surface, but in the substance; not in the leaves of a profession, but in the root of reason. All the heretics of the present day, that claim the name of Christians, are willing enough to subscribe the words of the Creed; each however affixing to them whatever sense he pleases, though diametrically opposite to sound doctrine.

So does all this boil down to the PCA today? Several points deserve reflection here. Firstly, many people think that it is perfectly okay for ministers of the PCA not to hold to all the articles in the Westminster Standards. This would be to confuse the different realms that Witsius has so helpfully delineated. Now, here we must be careful. It is evident that Witsius was speaking of the Apostles Creed, and not of the Westminster Standards. However, he freely acknowledges that the Church can, and even should, have stricter requirements of doctrine that what is essential for getting into heaven (i.e., what church membership would entail). Chalk this up to maintaining peace and purity among like-minded people. Secondly, we have not even begun to reflect upon the nature of essential doctrine in the PCA today. Has anyone really talked about this in our day with a sophistication even approaching Witsius? And yet, how many confusions have arisen in the PCA over just these points? Is not the entire debate over subscription based on a confused understanding of these more basic, underlying issues? Furthermore, Witsius’s last warning is extremely salutary for today: every FV person, for instance, will say he holds to the Westminster Standards. At least, every one in the PCA will say that his doctrine does not conflict with the standards. The question is this, though: is the doctrine the FV holds diametrically opposite to the sound doctrine that is actually meant in the Westminster Standards? Are they affixing whatever sense they please to sections of the Westminster Standards? We cannot assume that when someone says that they hold to the Westminster Standards, that they actually do.

Lastly, and maybe most importantly, who are we as a denomination? How do we wish to be defined? By the bare minimum? Can we not see that if we create a standard within the standard (what I like to refer to as a Barthian hermeneutic of the confessions), we will create disunity of the highest degree. It is not the confessionalists, then, who are creating disunity in the PCA today. Rather, it is those who desire not to hold to everything in the Westminster Standards, those who do not wish to be defined by Reformed confessions. Witsius, in effect, connects elaborate confessions and catechisms to the Church. That is what the church should do for the sake of unity and peace. If a person, then, desires not to hold to the Westminster Standards, there are many denominations out there who will welcome them with open arms. Why do we need another generally evangelical denomination?

Finished His Pentateuchal Commentary

With this volume, the author has finished his commentary on the Pentateuch, and it is one of the very best in existence. He is one of my four favorite living OT commentators (the other three being Iain Duguid, John Mackay, and Dale Ralph Davis). I am hoping that John Currid will be able to continue on writing on Joshua and beyond in the same series. The only really irritating thing about this series is the endnotes. As I have said before, endnotes defeats the entire purpose of having footnotes. I know it saves money, but it greatly increases the irritation factor for anyone reading the commentary to have to flip back and forth all the time. Nevertheless, anyone preaching or teaching on Numbers will want to have this commentary.

New Book on Baptism

I have been looking forward to the publication of this volume for quite some time, now. The main reason, of course, is that John graciously asked me to be one of his editors on the project. This was a very satisfying project for me, personally, as it enabled me to get a much better grasp on the historical theology of baptism, as well as the redemptive-historical meaning of baptism. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book that was better at helping me understand what baptism means than this volume. I recommend it highly as the best book on the actual meaning of the sacrament of baptism. Take it and read it. You won’t regret it.

Man – A Fiat Creation?

posted by Reed DePace

I intend this post to solely be a discussion of the biblical question posed. I am aware of the relevance of this question to some particular circumstances within the PCA at present. I am asking anyone who comments on this post to refrain from bring up those circumstances, expressly to refrain from mentioning names. Thanks for your consideration of my request. (Remember, I’ve got moderator powers if you don’t give it due consideration. ;-) .)

I am aware of at least two current situations in which it appears that the following opinion is held by some PCA brothers. With reference to Adam’s creation, some maintain that God took a souless hominid and at some point gave him a soul, thereby creating the first spiritually living man. Intended to coordinate with an evolutionary scheme, this position argues for an intermediate creation by God.

This appears to be inconsistent with the PCA position. See this helpful summary provided by Wayne Sparkman at the PCA Historical Center. The key quote comes from the recommendations:

“We affirm God’s special creation of Adam and Eve as real, historical individuals (Romans 5:12-14; I Corinthians 15:21-22, 45-49), and deny that Adam and Eve were the products of evolution from lower forms of life.”

I am unclear, however, as to what force, this Study Committee recommendation has. Yet my question is more basic than this. Does the Bible teach that God created Adam directly, not via any intervening life forms? Is Adam, in other words, a fiat creation of God? Or, is it possible to properly interpret Gen. 2:7 as allowing for a intermediate creation, a creation which used an existing lifeform, elevated to a spiritual relationship with God?

I’ll admit my conviction is towards fiat and away from a intermediate creation. Yet I’m open to hear where I may be limiting Scripture.


A Reformed Perspective on the Question:
Do the Souls of the Dead Appear to the Living?

posted by Reed DePace

I was recently asked for Reformed articles dealing with the phenomena of ghosts. Unfortunately I was unable to point the inquier to any. Given the time of year it is (I like candy all year round myself) I thought it worth my time to take a crack at an answer. Here is what I came up with.

1. Scripture is relatively silent on this question. Thus, at best we have an inferential based argument. Do the disembodied souls of dead human return the physical realm of existence where they are seen by the living?

Positively, there appears to be only one passage which lists a verifiable witnessing of a disembodied human spirit appearing to credible living witnesses:

1 Samuel 28:8-12 8 So Saul disguised himself and put on other garments and went, he and two men with him. And they came to the woman by night. And he said, “Divine for me by a spirit and bring up for me whomever I shall name to you.” 9 The woman said to him, “Surely you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off the mediums and the necromancers from the land. Why then are you laying a trap for my life to bring about my death?” 10 But Saul swore to her by the LORD, “As the LORD lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing.” 11 Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?” He said, “Bring up Samuel for me.” 12 When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice. And the woman said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul.”

Notice that the witch is used to doing something. Whether she merely deceived her clients or actually had some sort of apparitions appear is not stated. What is stated is that when she saw Samuel – a disembodied spirit, she recognized him for who and what he was. Her shock shows that she was not used to calling up from the dead actual disembodied human spirits.

I cannot think of any other passage in which an actual disembodied human spirit appears to living human beings. There are some passages which teach that necromancy (magic involving the dead) is a wickedness to be destroyed. Yet these passages do not credit the necromancer with any actual results. Given that Scripture intends for silence on a subject related to the spiritual realm to squelch speculation (cf., Dt 29:29), it appears that God is at least telling, “don’t worry about ghosties – don’t even think about it.”

Negatively, there are some strong inferential arguments to support that disembodied spirits do not return to earth:

Matthew 27:50-53 50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. 51 And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, 53 and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.

Some have tried to use this passage to support a “ghost” hypothesis. Yet note that the passage is very clear, the dead that appeared were in bodily form. In other words, what we have here is a resurrection. Similar to Lazarus’ raising, and other pre-Easter resurrections, they all serve to picture the perfection and power of the promised resurrection on the Last Day. No ghosts are involved here.

Hebrews 9:27 And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment,
Job 7:9-10 9 As the cloud fades and vanishes, so he who goes down to Sheol does not come up; 10 he returns no more to his house, nor does his place know him anymore.

With regard to what happens when a person dies, the general pattern is this: 1) death, 2) judgment, and 3) placement (in heaven or hell). Note particularly Job’s observation that the dead man cannot return to this world at all. Further emphasis in:

Job 20:9 The eye that saw him will see him no more, nor will his place any more behold him.

These passages at least inferentially demonstrate that living human beings will not see the disembodied soul of a man once he has died and left this world (i.e.,, the eye does not see him.) This is supported by Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus:

Luke 16:22-26 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side.1 The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’

While it is admitted that not all details in a parable are to be understood literally, the essential features of the parable are to be. I.e., there may not be a literal chasm between heaven and hell, yet nevertheless there is some sort of barrier preventing travel between them. Now some may want to argue that this is just between heaven and hell, not heaven and earth or hell and earth. But this is to base the argument for ghosts on silence – and in opposition to the positive and negative inferences.

The biblically consistent position is that once a human dies his spirit departs this physical world, never to be seen again. Yes, this is the ordinary, and we do have evidence of one example. Yet this is biblical evidence – without question factually accurate. It is dangerous to say the least to build a case on this for ghosts.

I conclude – human disembodied spirits do not return to earth and appear to living human beings.

2. So what are we to do with the numerous evidences, often from credible witnesses, that some sort of apparition, a visible manifestation of an immaterial being, can occur and has actually occurred? (I include myself among such witnesses.) Again, we must let Scripture answer the question for us. Some verses to consider:

Colossians 1:16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him.

We begin by acknowledging that the spiritual realm is real. There does exist an immaterial reality (i.e., invisible creation), populated by immaterial beings.

Revelation 12:9 And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

Some of these immaterial beings (Satan and his demons) are given over to a ministry of deception. This is their sole purpose for existence.

2 Corinthians 11:14 even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.

As a part of their ministry of deception, these immaterial beings will take on visible forms intended to deceive human beings.

2 Thessalonians 2:9-11 9The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, 10 and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 11 Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false,

Such visible manifestations are consistent with the authority God has given Satan to perform deceiving signs – works of power and wonder whose goal is to deceive those who reject God into believing the deception put forth by Satan.

Given all this, I am comfortable with the standard Reformed* explanation for ghosts; all such appearances are appearances of demons. When taking on human form they are masquerading as recognizable human beings who have died, with the intention of deceiving those who see them that they are actually the disembodied spirit of the dead person return to earth.

As with all Satan’s lies, I’m grateful to the Truth who has set me free from fear of such silly apparitions.

* See the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 32, Of the State of Men after Death, and of the Resurrection of the Dead
See also the 2nd Helvetic Confession, Chapter 26, The Second Helvetic Confession – Chapter XXVI, Of the Burial of the Faithful, and of the Care To Be Shown for the Dead; of Purgatory, and the Appearing of Specters

posted by Reed DePace

Oral Tradition Debate

A lot of folks wanted to debate the subject of Roman Catholic oral tradition over in the “Verses That Changed Luther” comment thread, so I’m opening up a new post here so that the discussion can continue in this combox and we can stay on-topic over in the other one.

Posted by David Gadbois

New Commentary on John

This commentary was 17 years in the making, and looks to be quite thorough, at 1122 pages. Every commentary in this series is worth having.