An Open Letter to Doug Wilson

Doug Wilson is older than I. I am therefore hesitant to write this, since it could be perceived as arrogant. However, I am fairly confident that older men than I who are critics of the FV would agree with either all or part of what I am about to write.

Firstly, I want to note that responses I have seen to Wilson’s post are generally skeptical. Wilson has not really moved in his theology, though the responses are also acknowledging gratitude for Wilson’s distance from Leithart. The critics want to see some movement in Wilson’s theology towards the Westminster Standards, though, not just in his terminology. Some still see Wilson’s post as yet another example of slippery language. It’s possible, although I want to leave the door as wide open as possible for Wilson to move towards us.

Secondly, I think Wilson needs to do some rebuilding, specifically, of his theology. Wilson does not have a seminary degree. There is something about a wholesome seminary education that allows one to see the virtues of one’s theological tradition in a holistic way. In the past, I have seen Wilson (and others in the FV tradition) cherry-pick the Reformed tradition, looking only for statements that seem to support their position, ignoring the vastly more solid (not to mention voluminous!) majority of what the Reformed tradition has to offer.

How does one rebuild a Reformed theology? It should happen in an encylopedically sound way. By this I mean that all the theological disciplines need to be seen as interdependent (this is what the science of theological encyclopedia is all about, especially in non-Enlightenment driven, confessionally Reformed circles). In other words, the best works in each discipline ought to be the building blocks that one uses on top of the foundation of Scripture itself (which nothing can replace, of course).

What would these building blocks be? Well, the most encyclopedically sound approach would be to take the best representatives of Reformed systematic theology and read those. The advantage of this approach is that not only do the best systematicians have an eye towards the other disciplines, but also one can have a much better opportunity to learn what “vanilla confessionally Reformed” theology is from its best proponents. The systematic theologies of Calvin, Turretin, Hodge, Bavinck, Vos, and Berkhof come immediately to mind as non-idiosyncratic representatives of the Reformed tradition.

On certain topics, additional focus should be given. The three main topics of the Reformation should have a certain priority after general dogmatics: doctrines of Scripture, justification, and worship. On Scripture, William Whitaker’s Disputations and Richard Muller’s volume 2 of Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics will cover most of the important bases. On justification, besides the excellent treatments in the systematic theologies listed above, essential reading is volume 5 of John Owen’s Works, as well as Buchanan’s treatment of justification. J.V. Fesko’s recent book will cover all the modern debates from a confessional perspective. On worship, authors like Calvin, Gillespie, Old, and Johnson seem to me to be the most important.

I have recommendations on commentaries (see the indices), so that leaves biblical theology, church history, apologetics, and practical theology. In biblical theology, one cannot do better than Vos, Beale, Goldsworthy and Clowney. For church history, there is Kuiper’s history of the church, which, although brief, is exceedingly good. One will have to go outside the Reformed tradition a bit, however, if one wants more depth in general church history. There is d’Aubigne, of course, but even he does not cover everything. Nor does Schaff, who is somewhat idiosyncratic, as good an historian as he was. For apologetics, one reads Van Til, Bahnsen, Oliphint, Pratt, and Edgar (Wilson is already an accomplished apologist). For practical theology, one needs to read the Puritans, the Puritans, and a little more of the Puritans. Owen, Brooks, Bunyan, Goodwin, Flavel, Sibbes, Manton, and Edwards come to mind.

So, suppose Wilson answers by saying, “I’ve read all these, what more must I do to inherit eternal life?” My response would be, “How did you read these?” Did you read them in order to confirm what you already hold by virtue of listening too much to the modern FV proponents, Girard, and a few other authors? I suspect not, in which case they need to be reread. Read for the center of confessional Reformed theology. Dig deeper, not sideways. Ditch the Joint Statement entirely. Don’t go for idiosyncratic, but instead go for the vanilla. The whole Reformed world would welcome you back.

Douglas Wilson: Federal Vision No More?

Douglas Wilson has posted an interesting piece over on his blog (HT: Mel Duncan). I will first summarize what I believe him to be saying, and then say what I think about it (though these won’t be rigidly separated).

What I Believe Him to Be Saying:

In this piece, Wilson asks that the whole post be read carefully in order to determine what he is and what he is not saying. Furthermore, he rightly notes that it is impossible to say everything that needs to be said all in one post. Such are the limitations of the blog. In the introduction, then, he says that half of the post will be retractions, and the other half, in effect, qualifications and clarifications.

In the second section on the reasons for retractions, after a brief personal note on his conversion to Calvinism, he draws a parallel with what happened with the FV, thus leaving him with the following options:

So I have finally become convinced that the phrase federal vision is a hurdle that I cannot get over, under or around. The options are therefore limited. I could abandon my actual position and adopt what most people think of when they think federal vision, or I can continue my futile quest of explaining it just one more time, or I could abandon the phrase, and let everyone know that I have done so. So I have finally become convinced that the phrase federal vision is a hurdle that I cannot get over, under or around.The latter option is what I have decided to do.

In the next section, entitled “A Different Kind of Difference,” Wilson distances what he used to call “amber ale” FV from Federal Vision entirely. In other words, he believes now that what he is attempting to say is not what the FV is doing. Or, to put it another way, he believes that “Oatmeal stout” FV should just be the FV, and that what he is doing is something else.

The next section is “On Seeking Forgiveness,” wherein he acknowledges that some of the critics of the FV attempted to be fair-minded. He says that there were some things about the FV that worried him in the same way and to the same extent as they did the critics, and that he should have said more about that. He says that his point in this is to attempt to pinpoint where it is that he needs to ask forgiveness. He confesses that he used the alleged incompetence of some of the critics to mute the genuine points of criticism that were there. I suspect I would fall into the “incompetent critic” category, rather than the “fair-minded critic” category, especially after my retraction. However, the vast majority of our debates were at least civil, and pretty well focused on issues, rather than attacks on personalities, so who knows? It is not that I feel that Wilson has to apologize to me. I don’t think that. I would rather see him reformulate things in a confessional way.

The next section, entitled “Trajectories” says outright that he does not believe that he is going in the same direction theologically as, say, Peter Leithart.

The next section really begins the second half, or second purpose of what he wants to do, which is to clarify what he does not mean, and what he is not retracting. He is not retracting his theology. He is retracting what he would call or label his theology. He doesn’t have a new label for his theology except for his claim to be a “Westminster Puritan within an irenic river of historic Reformed orthodoxy.” This is confirmed when he says that he would not retract anything he signed off on with regard to the Joint Federal Vision Statement (for critique, see here, second paragraph for an index of my critiques). He notes the consensus nature of said document, and says that he would want to go in certain directions with it while others would want to go in other directions.

In the last section, he taxonomizes the Reformed world as having three branches: pietistic, confessional, and Kuyperian, and says that although he leans Kuyperian, he would rather work for a synthesis of all three. I am guessing that the coherence of this point with the previous point has to do with the direction he wants to go.

What I Think About It

So what do we make of all this? To a certain extent, I think that the proof will be in the pudding, as it were. What are the details of this perceived different trajectory? It does not sound as if there is any huge shift in his doctrinal thinking. The biggest problem with Wilson’s theology was the faith/faithfulness combination, and (at least this is what I remember from 7 years ago) the conflation of faith’s aliveness with faithfulness as related to justification, and the rejection of the law/gospel distinction as it is normally formulated (as by Ursinus, for instance, in his commentary on the Heidelberg). It is my contention that every signer of the JFVS compromised justification by faith alone.

It is also my contention that paedocommunion is a completely different understanding of how the Lord’s Supper works than the Westminster Standards (see this post for the 17 places that PC contradicts the Westminster Standards). These things, in my opinion, are obstacles to Wilson’s claim that he is simply a “Westminster Puritan within an irenic river of historic Reformed orthodoxy.”

However, his obvious breach with Leithart is encouraging, in that Leithart advocates an end of Protestantism, which Wilson clearly does not espouse. So, there does seem to be at least some shift in doctrinal position. There does not appear to be enough, in my opinion, for me to be comfortable saying that he is confessional.

But I have this question for him: if he is admitting that he may not have seen the trajectories of some issues as clearly as some of the “fair-minded critics,” then isn’t it at least possible that some of the critics he has previously thought of as basically imbecilic may not be quite so far off the mark as he supposed?

Building on this is the question of how the FV proponents have been treated. All one has to do is read the history of how the Remonstrants behaved during the time of the Synod of Dordt to realize that almost the same doctrinal issues were in play, and almost the same tactics were used by the Remonstrants. Charges of breaking the ninth commandment were being thrown around like confetti, like the FV proponents. One thing that would be nice is if Wilson would point out how much the FV proponents have slandered critics by charging them with misrepresentation, when the critics might possibly have understood things quite a bit better than the accusations would have let on.

I believe it would be fruitful to interact more, so I hope Wilson will go into more detail and clarifications, specifically about justification, baptism, perseverance, union with Christ, and paedocommunion.

The OPC Report on Republication, Part 6

In this post, we will address the first part of Chapter 2 of Part 1 of the report, which addresses the subject of typology. Typology is much disdained in today’s academia, since it assumes a Christian view of the Bible. Even in Fairbairn’s time (Patrick Fairbairn is the author of what is surely the most definitive work on the subject), typology was on the decline. What is typology? Typology is NOT allegory a mistake commonly made even today. Some have merely said that typology was akin to allegory. Others have said that there is practically no difference. The difference is actually rather easy to see. Typology sees a historical connection between something in the Old Testament and something in the New Testament. There is always a crescendo, or heightening in the process whereby the antitype is better than the type. The New Testament itself does this on several occasions. 1 Peter 3 refers to baptism as an antitype of Noah’s flood. Romans 5 calls Adam a “type” of Christ (verse 14). Again, in 1 Corinthians 10, things that happened in the time of Moses are called “types” for our benefit (verse 6). There is therefore a typology of the New Testament, at the very least, that we can explore. Allegory is not tied to two historical events. It takes one historical event and idealizes it, such that the pattern is attached to the air. It should be noted that the word “allegory” does not, of itself, point to the concept. Paul uses the word, but not the concept, of allegory in Galatians 4. Hagar and Sarah are types of historical realities, not idealizations. Therefore, even though Paul uses the word “allegorize,” he is not allegorizing.

The main question that the report addresses is the scope of typology. According to the report, those who hold to various forms of republication have a more expanded view of typology in the Mosaic economy. There are various aspects of the Mosaic economy that non-republication folks can see as typological. Examples here would include the Red Sea crossing and the Rock of 1 Corinthians 10. The question the report addresses is whether priestly obedience in the Mosaic economy can be assigned a typological function to point forward to an antitypical perfect obedience of Christ. The report seems non-committal on the question, but leans towards opposing such a view (their word is “unlikely”). This is only one particular aspect of the Mosaic economy, of course. It is not clear how other aspects of typology that republication advocates point to would be handled.

The OPC Report on Republication, Part 5

In this post, we will cover Part 1, Chapter 1, section 2 of the report. This will cover the distinction between substance and administration of the covenant of grace.

The substance of the covenant of grace is the same during all the time of its various administrations, or dispensations. The covenant of grace has its beginning in the protoevangelion of Genesis 3:15, and grows, like a tree from a seed, into a huge kingdom that, with Christ as its Head and King, conquers all spiritual opposition. The substance of the covenant of grace is Christ Himself. Therefore, the covenant of grace is understood to be a covenant of saving grace. Christ as Savior is the substance of it. The writers also note, however, that conditions are also often described as being at the heart of a covenant: change the conditions, change the substance of the covenant.

There is both unity and diversity in the various administrations of the covenant of grace. The administration of the covenant differs going from Old Testament to New Testament as typology relates to the fulfillment of typology. Typology itself is a rubric under which we can organize the entire administration of the Old Testament iterations of the covenant of grace. So, the substance of the various iterations of the covenant of grace (or covenants, as the various dispensations can be called) is the same, even if the typological administration varies.

Although the grace God gave to the people of the Old Testament was true saving grace, the amount and clarity of that saving power was mitigated in the Old Testament times by virtue of the lesser stage of redemptive history. 2 Corinthians 3 is very clear in this regard. We have better access now to the grace and power of God than any Old Testament believer did.

The OPC Report on Republication, Part 4

In this post, we will cover Part 1, Chapter 1, Section 1 of the report, on defining terms. I am slightly puzzled by the organization here, as the first part of the report was also defining terms. Maybe there should have been one introductory section defining terms. However, we will plow on, and look at their definitions of covenant and law.

Interestingly, they do not define what a covenant actually is. Of course, that part of the definition is not as relevant to their subject matter as the difference between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. The differences related to the distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace resolve into several points: 1. The federal heads (Adam versus Christ); 2. The requirements (perfect and perpetual obedience versus grace); 3. Pledges (the tree of life versus the Holy Spirit). The similarity between the two covenants hinges on the Creator/creature distinction: both covenants require God to condescend if there is to be any covenantal tie at all between God and man. Of course, the most important thing to safeguard here is that the acquisition of eternal glory happens in a completely opposite way in the two covenants. For humans, it was works in the covenant of works, grace in the covenant of grace. However, when viewed from the standpoint of the respective covenantal heads, it was works in both cases, although Adam would have earned it for himself and his posterity, whereas Christ earned it vicariously for us.

The section on law distinguishes among three definitions (these are distinct from either the three uses of the law, or the three parts of the law, with the exception of the third definition): 1. Redemptive-historical, as in “the time of the law” versus “the time of the gospel”: 2. The Mosaic economy in general, or the Torah, which is most often the way Paul uses the term; and 3. Particular laws, referring to the three parts of the law.

There is nothing particularly controversial here, though the next section on the distinction between the substance and the administration of the covenant of grace is certainly disputed in certain quarters. More on that in the next post.

The OPC Report on Republication, Part 3

This post will take us to the end of the introduction section of the report. In this section, the committee writes to distinguish between a more general works principle, and a more narrow works principle.

The more general works principle is defined thus: “Broadly defined, a works principle is merely communicating obligations with sanctions.” They take care to distance this term from the Old Testament scholarship’s definition of retribution theology, a la Koch. They say unequivocally that there is at least an echo of a works principle in the Mosaic covenant. Equally clearly, however, they assert that salvation is by grace through faith in the Mosaic covenant. How these two ideas are both true will, I’m sure, be seen in the rest of the report. The works principle in view has a great deal to do with Jesus’ person and work. This principle helps us understand how it is that Adam failed to attain the glorified state, whereas Jesus attained it.

The more specific sense of a works principle has to do with external blessings. Writers (like Kline) who talk in this way are separating the idea entirely from a works salvation view, and are instead tying it (typologically, in Kline’s case) to the pactum salutis, the eternal intra-Trinitarian covenant, as well as the accomplishment of salvation in history.

Some thoughts on the progress so far: 1. Starting with definitions is a very helpful way to proceed, especially in a thorny area of theology, and also given how much misunderstanding there has been in the discussion. 2. As I have already noted, the tone is one of light, not heat. This is so essential to any kind of understanding, that I will keep reiterating it as I go along, especially because this is a blog, and blogs have not always been known for preserving light instead of heat.

The OPC Report on Republication, Part 2

Sections 2-4 of the “Mandate” portion of the report have to do with terminological distinctions and definitions. This may not be the most riveting part of any report. However, the importance of defining one’s terms becomes rather clear when recent Federal Vision debates are kept in mind. We cannot enter the realm of this debate without carefully defined terms. It helps us to frame the issues with clarity, however difficult the rest of the conversation might become. Three terms are defined in these three sections.

First up is republication itself. The problem of definition concerning this term is the most acute, since there are so many different versions of republication. However, all forms of republication do have this element in common: they all hold that the covenant of works is, in some sense, repeated or republished in the Mosaic economy. That is as much as can be said of all the views of republication, because some republication views believe that there is a national covenant with Israel concerning the land, and others do not. Some believe in various forms of merit (on which, see more below) and others do not, or believe in different merit. Some believe that this republication is an overlay on top of a covenant of grace and is therefore subservient to the covenant of grace, while others do not. So the definition offered above, which is the same as in the report, is narrow enough to have value, and yet broad enough to encompass all the republication views. It should be noted (as the report also does) that the words “in some sense” are not meant as a dodge, but as a recognition of the many varieties of republication on offer.

The next term up for discussion is typology and symbol. Typology refers to an Old Testament historical pattern (whether person, place, thing, or idea) that foreshadows a fulfillment in the New Testament. It says that God works the same way throughout history, only with a crescendo. The money quote here is: “In a very real and profound sense, when we study the history of Israel, we see that she was not behind the times but was actually ahead of her time.” Reformed Christians will quickly recognize that typology centers on the person and work of Jesus Christ, and that this is how Jesus is actually IN the Old Testament. Why is this definition important for the discussion of republication? Questions concerning how the Mosaic economy foreshadows Jesus are an integral part of the debate, especially when one considers the exegetical questions swirling around Galatians 4:21-31.

The third definition has to do with merit. I rather wish the report had defined condign and congruent merit, and not just pactum. They sort of hint at it with the term “proper.” Of course, that follows the Westminster Standards, and one could argue that such is the better course. I believe that problems concerning the definition of merit are some of the most snarly questions in the whole debate, especially because Meredith Kline was not always very clear about how he used such terms. Anyway, condign merit means that the action is directly proportional to the reward, as when a person goes to buy a car and pays the exact amount of money that the price tag has on it. The analogy is not quite exact, since money can buy many things, whereas condign merit is usually a narrower conception. However, the idea is similar. Congruent merit is a Roman Catholic category not used anywhere in Reformed circles that I am aware of, although it is helpful to know its definition. Congruent merit implies that a person has the proper kind of merit, just not enough. So, if a son has $5k to buy a car, but the car is worth $10k, then the son has to have some help to get there (usually from moneybags father). His $5k would be congruently meritorious, but not condignly so. Pactum merit, or ex pacto merit, is very different from condign and congruent, in that the merit in view in “pactum” merit is NOT of the proper kind to merit the reward offered. It only merits by virtue of an agreement. So, in the analogy of the car, the father and the son make a pact whereby the father will buy the son a car if the son’s GPA is 4.0. Obviously, the son cannot take his report card to the car dealership in order to buy a car: it is the wrong kind of merit. However, because of the agreement the son can merit a car by virtue of studying hard and getting good grades. It was reassuring to see the OPC report mention the wisdom of embracing the category of ex pacto merit in the light of Karl Barth’s theology, the Federal Vision advocates, and the New Perspective on Paul scholars. Pactum merit describes how Adam would have achieved the glorified state. Since his obedience was already owed, it could not be viewed as condign or congruent merit. Adam could only merit the glorified state by God saying so, as the committee phrases it. It could also be called “fiat” merit, I suppose, although that does not convey the nature of an agreement, so I suspect that pactum is better.

One last point on these three sections has to do with the definition of grace. The committee rightly distinguishes between the pre-Fall situation and the post-Fall situation by saying that if the category of grace is invoked to describe the pre-Fall situation, it cannot be considered redemptive grace. The Westminster divines preferred the term “voluntary condescension” in chapter 7 of the WCF. The definition of grace will be much discussed in these posts, as I have become convinced that it is helpful to say that grace is not just “unmerited favor” but actually “demerited favor.” In other words, in a redemptive situation it is not merely the case that we have not merited eternal life. It is that we have merited the opposite, and I mean that we have all condignly merited Hell both in Adam (through the imputation of sin, and the generational passing on of original sin) and in ourselves (through our actual sin). Incidentally, it is helpful to remember that the helpfulness of the categories of merit is not limited to positive meriting of good things, but can also be applied to sinners meriting eternal punishment in Hell. The committee is comfortable using the term “grace” to describe the pre-Fall situation, but only in a modified sense, since there is no redemption before the Fall. I have no quarrel with using the terms this way either, as long as one is careful to note the difference between pre-Fall and post-Fall definitions of grace (and thus come to virtually the same place). We could say that before the Fall, grace is unmerited condescensive favor, while after the Fall, grace is demerited redemptive favor. One could also simply say that before the Fall, God acted towards us by means of voluntary condescension, while after the Fall, God exercises grace (understood as demerited favor).

The OPC Report on Republication, Part 1

The idea that the covenant of works has, in some sense, been republished in the Mosaic economy is an idea that has recently generated much more heat than light. On the one hand, proponents have not always been very clear in their presentations of the idea. It is a highly complex issue, requiring a great deal of nuance in order to avoid problems. On the other hand, critics have become so polarized against any form of republication (in reaction to some of the more extreme formulations) that all forms of the idea have sometimes been drawn and quartered as heretical. Surely there is room for a more sober analysis! We have it in the OPC report. I plan on blogging my way through this report in the next few weeks, and hopefully help shed some light on this complex series of ideas. Of the “Mandate” section, we will cover just the first two sections today.

A salutary emphasis of this report is on careful exegesis, cautious statements, and accuracy of expression. The report commences with a discussion of its mandate. The OPC has been troubled by these questions, particularly in the Presbytery of the Northwest. In other words, this issue arose in the church courts. It is not simply an academic question. It is an issue affecting the purity, peace, and unity of the church.

Republication is an enormously complex issue, and the nature of the Mosaic economy one of the most difficult Old Testament concepts to address. This the writers of the report acknowledge often. It is also an issue about which Reformed theologians have disagreed. Hodge favored a national covenant view of republication, while Murray rejected any form of republication. This ought to make us extremely cautious about our conclusions, as well as extremely charitable concerning those with whom we disagree. To jump to the conclusion of the report, some forms of republication are consistent with the Westminster Standards. Therefore, great precision, patience, and charity must characterize any discussion of these things. More light, folks, not more heat.

The Church and Americanism

I’ve been reading some church history books recently, and one thing that has come up rather forcefully to my consciousness is the degree to which Americanism has affected the church in America. The main question is whether, in the church’s desire to communicate to culture, it has so embraced America that its message is no longer exportable to other nations, thus falling foul of those people who critique the American church of imperialism.

For instance, people who claim that Presbyterianism cannot work in a given context are obviously infected with Americanism. What else could explain how people could claim that a form of church government that has worked in every major cultural context in the world could not work in America? Usually, in the case of urban contexts, the issue is a radical individualism that makes people believe that a connectional form of government cannot work. Maybe the individualism should bow its neck to the yoke of connectionalism, and not vice versa!

A good example of a church that has resisted Americanization is the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. When Carl MacIntire proposed to the OPC that it go with the temperance movement, he was offering the OPC a way of being distinctly American. When the OPC refused, MacIntire left and formed the Bible Presbyterian Church. The OPC refused to be an Americanized church. This (among other factors) has contributed to its appeal being rather limited. But what the OPC lacks in numbers it makes up for in the unity of message, and the singular power of doctrinal purity it has enjoyed over the years.

An Interesting Argument Against Immersion

Geerhardus Vos gave a lot of ground to the Baptists (some would argue too much). He insisted that “baptizo” means “immerse,” although he goes on to argue that the immersion is secondary, and that washing is primary. For Vos, the immersion is incidental to the meaning of the word. The substance of baptism can, for Vos, be accomplished in another way. But the most fascinating thing about his argument against immersion is his advocation of catholicity (Reformed Dogmatics, volume 5, p. 125):

To what, finally, can one still appeal against the Baptists? To the universal character of Christianity. Christianity is catholic, that is, intended for all times and places. That must come out in its sacraments too. Hence, the signs in these sacraments are such as are to be found everywhere: water, bread, wine-the most common products of nature that can be kept everywhere. But the same thing will also have to apply to their manner of use. Immersion is something that is sometimes feasible in Middle Eastern lands, but then again in many regions, not. If Christianity is thus bound to something like this, then in this respect it is the same as Islam, which obligates all its adherents to a pilgrimage to Mecca. But Islam is then also particularistic; Christianity is universal, catholic, intended for all times, countries, circumstances, and conditions.

I had not thought of using the catholicity of Christianity as an argument against immersion before. So I thought I would throw it out there for the readers. What do you think of this argument?

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