Canons of Dort First Head, ROE 2 and the FV

I haven’t posted anything on the FV in quite a while. Although the hubbub is nowhere near what it used to be, the FV is still alive and well, with many proponents still teaching in NAPARC churches. While reminding people of this fact may not be pleasant, it is important to remember that we must still keep watch and maintain vigilance against false teaching in our churches, not to mention seeking to exercise real church discipline on them.

I hadn’t read through the Canons of Dort in quite a while, and I was reading Robert Godfrey’s outstanding contribution on the Canons of Dort, when this rejection of error (hence ROE in the title of the post) grabbed my attention as describing one of the key errors of the FV. This is Godfrey’s translation of the ROE:

The Synod rejects the error of those who teach:

“The election of God to eternal life is of several kinds. One is general and indefinite and another is particular and definite. Further, the particular and definite one either is incomplete, revocable, nondecisive, or conditional, or is complete, irrevocable, decisive, or absolute.” Also, “one election is to faith, and another to salvation, so that election can be to justifying faith, and another to salvation, so that election can be to justifying faith without being a decisive election to salvation.”

This teaching is an invention of the human understanding devised outside the Scriptures. It corrupts the doctrine of election, and destroys the golden chain of salvation: “Those whom He predestined, He also called; and those whom He called, He also justified; those whom He justified, He also glorified” (Rom. 8:30).

Notice, in this ROE, the following points. 1. Election can be of two main kinds, according to the Arminians: general and indefinite, or particular and definite. 2. The latter kind (particular and definite) can be further subdivided into two sub-categories: incomplete, revocable, nondecisive, conditional; or complete, irrevocable, decisive, and absolute. The response of Dort is that it destroys the golden chain of Romans 8.

My observation is a simple one, and though I have noticed this, I seriously doubt I am the first one to notice it, but noticing it has changed my perception of the FV a bit on its doctrine of election. I used to think that the FV was Calvinistic when it came to the decretally elect, and Arminian when it came to the non-elect covenant members (NECM’s). However, from this ROE, I can see clearly that, on this point, the FV is actually pure Arminianism without any admixture of Calvinism at all. The reason for this shift in my thinking is that Arminianism also held to these two different versions of election. The Arminian may not have put it in quite the same way as modern FV’ers would have. The modern FV’er would say that one is covenantal, and the other is decretal (though some FV’ers would deny decretal election entirely and say that all in the church are only covenantally elected). However, the Arminian formulation is so close to the FV one that the same objection applies to both. Perhaps this is due, too, to the misperception of Arminianism many people have. Many people think that the true Arminian has no doctrine of election. They do have a doctrine of election. However, that election is based on foreseen faith, so it is a different version of election than Calvinists have. It is my understanding that, on the point of decretal election, some FV’ers would repudiate the idea that God elects on the basis of foreseen faith. However, that point is different from the point I am making about the two different versions of election.

A Warning to Bible Commentators

I came across this in a recent Bible commentary on Ezekiel (commenting on chapter 32:1-16), by Nancy Bowen, and I almost threw up when I read it (some moderate apology is necessary for even posting this, but the warning needs to be there):

As for YHWH, we ought not exonerate, much less extol, such divine violence. Like Job, we should bring God to trial for crimes against humanity. Preservation of divine “sovereignty” comes at a terrible cost of suffering and death. If God is a warrior, then God’s hands are bloody (p. 200).

Honestly, why do some Bible commentators think they can get away with saying stuff like this, just because they have Ph.D. next to their names? Have they never read C.S. Lewis’s “God in the Dock” essay? Have they never read Romans 9? The tragic irony of such blasphemy is that Nancy Bowen winds up committing the very same mistake that Pharaoh of Egypt commits in Ezekiel 32. He thought of himself as a lion, but he was more of a crocodile. Her self-assessment is that she is in a position to judge God Almighty and find Him wanting. The hubris of this quotation is absolutely breath-taking! She thinks of herself as judge, but she will find that she is a defendant.

Bible commentators often think that they can say whatever they want, and no repercussions will ever come their way. This is not true. I hope and pray (for Nancy Bowen, as well as others like her), that they will realize their sin before it is too late, and turn in faith to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Having and Eating Your Cake

I started reading Godfrey’s historical, systematic, and pastoral treatment of the Canons of Dort today. It is a treasure, and I highly recommend it to all. I came across this reminder of how the Remonstrants responded to the calling of the Synod:


The Arminians objected sharply to the calling of the synod, insisting that it would be unfair, indeed a kangaroo court. They stated that a synod composed of their theological opponents could not fairly or objectively judge the theological issues in dispute. The Calvinist majority in the church responded that since they were simply upholding the standing doctrine of the church against the Arminian innovations, they were abundantly able to judge rightly (21-22).

This reminded me of the FV objections to the makeup of the PCA committee on the FV. But the objection is completely disingenuous. It is an attempt to have one’s cake and eat it, too. Both the Arminians and the FV advocates hold that they are simply teaching what Scripture and the confessions of the church teach. But if that is the case, then why did they label those of a different opinion “opponents”? They can’t be opponents if everyone is teaching the same Scripture and the same confessions.

The FV advocates, in particular, then tended to claim that it was a different paradigm, and that critics needed to get inside the paradigm in order to understand it. Well, if that is true, then it couldn’t be the paradigm of the Westminster Standards or 3FU, could it?

The point is simple: either the paradigm is the same, in which case no opposition exists (and therefore the innovators should have no objection to being judged by their peers), or the paradigm is different in which case the innovators have already proven the critics’ case that the new paradigm is non-confessional. The Remonstrants and the FV advocates both tried to have their cake and eat it as well. It was therefore a highly disingenuous move.

Hilary of Poitiers on Justification

Hilary of Poitiers was a French bishop of the fourth century. It is disputed by Roman Catholics and Protestants as to what Hilary taught regarding justification. The most relevant passage comes from his commentary on Matthew chapter 8, paragraph 6. Here is the translation in The Fathers of the Church series (the passage under consideration is the healing of the paralytic and the forgiveness of his sins):

A pattern of the truth is followed in these events, even as an image of the future is fulfilled in the words. It disturbed the scribes that sin was forgiven by a man (for they considered that Jesus Christ was only a man) and that he forgave sin, for which the Law was not able to grant absolution, since faith alone justifies. When the Lord discerned the murmuring of the scribes, he said that it was easy for the Son of Man to forgive sins on earth. For truly no one is able to forgive sins except God alone. He who forgave, therefore, is God because no one can forgive except God. For the Word of God which abides in that Man offers to a man healing, and there was no difficulty for him to do and speak since it is given to him to perform everything that he said he would do.

The particular sentence under dispute is obviously the one that mentions that faith alone justifies. In Latin, the sentence runs “Et remissum est ab eo, quod lex laxare non poterat; fides enim sola justificat” (from Migne PL volume 9, column 961). The author of The Thoughts of Francis Turretin blog has a lengthy article on Hilary, including a very brief mention of this passage, arguing that the passage is in itself clear. However, Matt1618 has a lengthy argument against a “Protestant” understanding of the passage. We will assess Matt1618’s argument carefully.

To put it briefly, Matt1618 argues from what Hilary does not say in order to import a whole lot of Roman Catholic theology into the silences. Observe case number one: Matt1618 says, “Here it is apparent St. Hilary is speaking about initial justification.” I would answer “yes and no.” I would agree that Hilary is talking about a moment in time. I would disagree that Hilary implies a process that starts with initial justification. Hilary does not mention any kind of process at all. Instead, he is simply contrasting what the Law can do versus what faith can do. Faith justifies, and the Law cannot.

Case number two: Matt1618 says, “He does not mean or say that once one is justified, one cannot lose that justification through sin as Calvin or Luther would say.” In Matt1618’s eagerness to prevent anachronistic readings of Hilary, he neglects to mention that, although Hilary does not speak of an unlosable justification, that does not imply that Hilary is speaking about a losable justification. It is an argument from silence on Matt1618’s part. Hilary doesn’t address the question of whether justification is losable here at all. In the context following (paragraph 7), Hilary does speak of irrevocable gifts like resurrection, and a state wherein “sickness and sorrow will affect our bodies no more.” But he nowhere in the context mentions a losable justification, whether by words or ideas.

Case number three: Matt1618 says, “Of course, just as in other fathers, St. Hilary has faith explicitly linked to baptism so the reference to faith here does not mean that justification is without baptism.” Excuse me, but where does Hilary explicitly link justification to baptism? In the entirety of chapter 8 of the commentary, neither the word “baptism” nor the idea of baptism appear. The closest we get is “deep waters” in section 4. However, since Hilary is there talking about “a desire for the world instigated by demonic forces,” this is hardly applicable to baptism. At this point I am wondering if Matt1618 and I are reading the same text.

Case number four: Matt1618 says, “Nor does he say that following initial justification that sacraments or works are not necessary to maintain that state of justification.” Again an argument from what Hilary does not say. Hilary doesn’t here say that the sacraments or works are necessary to maintain such a state of justification, either. Again, he simply doesn’t address the question. He is not, in this passage, interested in the maintenance of the state of being justified, but rather the mechanism by which we become justified, and that is by faith alone.

Case number five: Matt1618 says, “He just spells out here that the law without faith, in and of itself does not justify, something any Catholic would hold to.” This is precisely what Hilary does NOT say. Hilary is saying that the Law is unable to grant absolution (the forgiveness of sins), since faith alone (i.e., without the Law) justifies. In order for Matt1618 to be correct, Hilary would have had to say something like this: “The law without faith is powerless, but the law with faith can justify.” This is almost, though not quite, the opposite of what Hilary actually said. Hilary said that the Law is not involved in justification from our side. Only faith justifies.

Case number six: Matt1618 then adduces passages from Hilary’s On the Trinity and later in the Matthew commentary, none of which are talking about justification. The passage from 9.5 from Hilary’s work on the Trinity is talking about the importance of good works (which no Protestant but an antinomian would deny). If Matt1618’s interpretation is correct, then Protestants ignore the place of good works entirely. This is manifestly an incorrect interpretation of Protestantism. But it is obvious that Hilary is not talking about justification, but about the behavior of the justified.

Section 18.8 of the Matthew commentary is talking about the power of the keys, not justification. That there should be “a tremendous fear” is certainly the goal of what Hilary writes in this section. That Hilary is talking about justification is not clear at all. He is talking about the ability of the church to make assessments about the spiritual state of a member of the church.

It becomes clear, then, in the course of this investigation, that Hilary taught that a person is justified by faith alone, apart from the works of the law. While his theology was not as developed on this point as the Reformers would be, it is not difficult to see the continuity of Hilary’s statement here with the Reformers’ teaching on justification.

1 Clement 32 and Justification

I was reading Thomas Schreiner’s recent book Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification, and he referenced this chapter of 1 Clement as a proof that at least some of the early church fathers believed in justification by faith alone. He doesn’t fall prey to the anachronistic fallacy of thinking that Clement’s doctrine was as clear on this point as the Reformers, but more that it was in line with what the Reformers would later say. This chapter is disputed in its meaning between Protestants and Catholics. I will put both an English translation and the original Greek here, and then discuss it in dialogue with Protestant and Catholic interpretations.

English: 1 Whosoever will candidly consider each particular, will recognise the greatness of the gifts which were given by him. 2 For from him have sprung the priests and all the Levites who minister at the altar of God. From him also [was descended] our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh. From him [arose] kings, princes, and rulers of the race of Judah. Nor are his other tribes in small glory, inasmuch as God had promised, “Thy seed shall be as the stars of heaven.” 3 All these, therefore, were highly honoured, and made great, not for their own sake, or for their own works, or for the righteousness which they wrought, but through the operation of His will. 4 And we, too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Greek: 1 Ἐάν τις καθ᾿ ἓν ἕκαστον εἰλικρινῶς κατανοήσῃ, ἐπιγνώσεται μεγαλεῖα τῶν ὑπ᾿ αὐτοῦ δεδομένων δωρεῶν. 2 ἐξ αὐτοῦ γὰρ ἱερεῖς καὶ Λευῖται πάντες οἱ λειτουργοῦντες τῷ θυσιαστηρίῳ τοῦ θεοῦ· ἐξ αὐτοῦ ὁ κύριος Ἰησοῦς τὸ κατὰ σάρκα. ἐξ αὐτοῦ βασιλεῖς καὶ ἄρχοντες καὶ ἡγούμενοι κατὰ τὸν Ἰούδαν· τὰ δὲ λοιπὰ σκῆπτρα αὐτοῦ οὐκ ἐν μικρᾷ δόξῃ ὑπάρχουσιν, ὡς ἐπαγγειλαμένου τοῦ θεοῦ, ὅτι ἔσται τὸ σπέρμα σου ὡς οἱ ἀστέρες τοῦ οὐρανοῦ. 3 πάντες οὖν ἐδοξάσθησαν καὶ ἐμεγαλύνθησαν οὐ δι᾿ αὐτῶν ἢ τῶν ἔργων αὐτῶν ἢ τῆς δικαιοπραγίας ἧς κατειργάσαντο, ἀλλὰ διὰ τοῦ θελήματος αὐτοῦ. 4 καὶ ἡμεῖς οὖν, διὰ θελήματος αὐτοῦ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ κληθέντες, οὐ δι᾿ ἑαυτῶν δικαιούμεθα, οὐδὲ διὰ τῆς ἡμετέρας σοφίας ἢ συνέσεως ἢ εὐσεβείας ἢ ἔργων ὧν κατειργασάμεθα ἐν ὁσιότητι καρδίας, ἀλλὰ διὰ τῆς πίστεως, δι᾿ ἧς πάντας τοὺς ἀπ᾿ αἰῶνος ὁ παντοκράτωρ θεὸς ἐδικαίωσεν· ᾧ ἔστω ἡ δόξα εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων. ἀμήν.

Protestant interpretations include Ingolfsland, Turretin Fan, and my own previous post. For Roman Catholic treatments, look at Bryan Cross, Taylor Marshall, and Matt1618. This will be enough to get on with.

What must first be done is to clear away misconceptions of Protestant and Catholic positions alike in order to arrive at the real issue. For instance, Marshall argues that Protestants have misunderstood the Catholic position for a long time:

The Council of Trent, like Pope Saint Clement confirm that works do not merit the grace of justification. Many Protestants misunderstand what the Catholic Church teaches. As Trent decreed, the justified “increase in that justice which they have received through the grace of Christ” by means of “faith co-operating with good works,” to use the phrase of the Council and that of Saint James. Catholics do not earn the initial grace of justification.

It might very well be true to say that Protestants have misunderstood Catholics on the initial point of what Catholics describe as the process of justification. What Catholics believe is that the grace of God infuses the beginning of righteousness into a person, which infusion is by grace, not by works. Then, throughout life, assisted by the sacraments (in which grace is received), believers co-operate with the grace of God by their works (which come from God-infused virtues). Justification is thus a process that occurs throughout life, and is not complete in this life, though it has its beginning in baptism. To put it in a linear fashion: God’s infusing grace at baptism resulting in the beginning of a believer’s own God-given righteousness->conversion->believer’s cooperation with grace by good works and by use of the sacraments->death->purgatory (for most)->final judgment justification.

Protestants, of course, do not believe that justification is a process, but a one-time act or declaration, based not on infused righteousness, but on imputed righteousness. That righteousness is then not ours but Christ’s. It is not delayed until judgment, but rather the judgment is brought forward in time to the point of initial faith. The transfer of our sin to Christ and His righteousness to us happens outside us, not inside us, as RC’s believe with their view of infused righteousness.

What then, do the Catholics say about this passage in Clement, positively speaking? Putting together Matt’s, Taylor’s, and Bryan’s arguments, we come up with something like this. 1. Clement is speaking about being transferred from death to life, from being in the first Adam to being in the second Adam, and this transfer does not occur by means of our works, but by faith (Cross); 2. The faith in view is a faith informed by love (from Galatians 6 and Romans 5:5, Cross). 3. Clement is not speaking of justification by faith alone, but it is evident that we are justified by our works from chapter 30 of the letter (Marshall and Matt1618). 4. As quoted above, the initial grace of the justification process is not merited by our works; 5. Working on one’s own power is not sufficient for justification (Matt1618). 6. The works that contribute to our justification are done by God’s grace (Matt1618).

It is to be noted here that an issue arises that also arose in my debates with Doug Wilson on faith’s aliveness. Protestants believe that faith alone justifies, and that the aliveness of faith, while present even at the moment of justification, is not directly relevant to the question of justification. In other words, faith does not justify because it is alive. This would make faith’s aliveness into a ground for justification. Rather, faith justifies because of the Person on Whom that faith rests. Christ’s person and work is the ground of our justification. This leads us to a serious caricature of the Protestant position that Catholics hold. Catholics seem to believe (this seems evident particularly in Cross’s treatment) that because Protestants do not believe that our love for God plays any part in our justification, that therefore Protestants must believe in justification by a dead faith. The faith that justifies is alive, but does not justify because it is alive. It justifies because of its connection to the One Who justifies us. This leads, though, directly to a counter misinterpretation of Catholics by Protestants, who fail to make the distinction that Catholics make between virtue and works. Cross puts it this way:

Protestant theology tends not to give conceptual space to agape as a virtue, seeing it only as a work. Scott Clark, for example, denies that faith and agape are virtues. And that tends to lead to a misunderstanding on the part of Protestants, who think that when Catholics talk about faith-informed-by-agape, it means faith accompanied by works. If it meant that, then we could have no confidence that baptized babies who die before reaching an age in which they can do any works, could be saved. But, we believe that at baptism, the virtues of faith, hope, and agape are infused into the soul by the Holy Spirit, and therefore that the infant is justified at that very moment, because he now has faith-informed-by-agape, even though has not yet done a single good work.

In other words, for RC’s, virtue can be infused and received without any works being present, and that therefore the justification of a baby, while still by an infusion of grace, consists of an infusion of faith informed by virtue, specifically faith, hope, and love. The difficulty with this formulation becomes obvious when we compare this version of “virtue” with faith itself. If faith without works is dead, then how can virtue without works be alive? Cross seems to be allowing for a situation where a virtue can be present without any manifestation of it whatsoever.

So now the question remains: what does Clement mean? Does 1 Clement 30:3 (the operative phrase is “being justified by works and not by words”) control somehow our understanding of 32? Ingolfsland argues that it does not, and that Clement is simply speaking in the manner of James:

As we have seen, however, this phrase is part of a longer train of thought that can be traced back to First Clement 26:1 where Clement is talking about holiness that is the result of “good faith.” Clement is not speaking of people who need to be saved but to those who are already “his own portion” (1 Clem. 29:1; 30:1). Clement is arguing that those who already belong to the Lord should be careful to do good works. It is in this context that Clement must be understood when he continues, “keeping ourselves from all backbiting and slander, being justified by works and not by words” (1 Clem. 30:3).

As might be guessed, I find Ingolfsland’s argument more convincing than Taylor’s and Matt1618’s, because Ingolfsland understands 30:3 in its own context (both immediate and larger), whereas Marshall and Matt1618 do not make the attempt to argue what 30:3 means in its immediate and larger context. I commend Ingolfsland’s entire article on the question as a well-argued paper that indirectly answers the RC arguments.

Pastoral Advice on Eastern Orthodoxy

Posted by David Gadbois

With the recent news that Hank Hanegraaff has been received as a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church, it might be helpful to post the report on Eastern Orthodoxy that Classis Southwest of the URCNA adopted as pastoral advice at the recent classis meeting.  The reader can download it here.  It deals with some of the major issues that have attracted former members of our churches to depart for Eastern Orthodoxy, and provides guidance for ministering to those considering Eastern Orthodoxy.  It includes a lengthy appendix by Dr. Robert Godfrey on the Roman Catholic Church, due to the fact that the essay contains material that overlaps with many of the major issues relating to Eastern Orthodoxy.

To briefly comment on Hanegraaff, from what I have read he was raised in the Christian Reformed Church as the son of a minister, but for some reason as an adult he drifted into broad evangelicalism as an amillenial, baptistic Arminian.  He never received seminary training, and was ordained by Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel.  Until he makes an explicit statement on the matter, it is difficult to speculate on what drew him to Eastern Orthodoxy.  I will say that it is unfortunate that he did not resign from the Christian Research Institute, or was not forced out, when he became an EO catechumen.

The temptations that Eastern Orthodoxy offers to evangelicals are surely stronger than the temptations that can be offered to Reformed believers attending solid confessional churches.  Nonetheless many of the temptations are the same; temptations such as the aesthetic appeal and what Dr. Scott Clark has termed the Illegitimate Quest for Certainty.  We shouldn’t be too proud, because recent history has shown that Reformed churches aren’t immune to having members who are seduced by such errors leave the faith.

I have heard reports that Reformed seminaries, even seminaries we would consider strongly confessional and of high educational standard, are not properly preparing ministers to deal with the modern apologetic claims of both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.  I’d be curious if that is the experience of others in the Green Baggins readership.  Perhaps that problem can be fingered as one of the root causes behind many of the recent apostasies to Rome and EO.

Straight Out of Calvin?

Douglas Wilson is going to (eventually) produce a statement of his faith that will be a non-consensus document vis-a-vis the Federal Vision Joint Statement. In this he hopes to clarify where he is now doctrinally, specifically with regard to paedocommunion and the objectivity of the covenant. It will follow the same topical order as the Joint Statement, but will be all Wilson, no consensus. He hopes that people will wish him luck, and then lightheartedly mentions me. I did laugh, by the way, Doug. And I certainly hope for the best and wish you the best in this endeavor.

One of the biggest concerns in my mind, at least, will be the definitions of terms. One of the reasons that the FV theology is so hard to describe is that it tends to use normal Reformed words like “election, regeneration, baptism, justification,” etc., and infuse them (pun intended) with new meaning. This has made communication nearly impossible from the get-go. Many critics have tried (and I am certainly one of them) to understand how the FV uses terms differently. We have been told rather consistently that we just don’t understand. So, one of my hopes is that in this proposed document, Wilson will include lots of very precise definitions of words so that we can see how he is using them. This will make it much easier to compare with the Westminster Standards, to which standard Wilson claims a close affinity.

What will also be helpful will be specific statements of what is repudiated from the Joint Statement. Mere parallelism of document will not convince any critic that Wilson has left errors behind. Wilson was the main editor of the Joint Statement, and the Statement has many significant errors in it. In order for us to believe that he is coming around to a truly Westminsterian viewpoint, some significant repudiation will be required. There is also the consideration that Jim Cassidy wrote about here. I am sure that there are other things which critics will want to see, which we can clarify as Wilson goes forward.

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.

Old and New Testament Sacraments

One of the most controversial aspects of sacramental theology is the relationship between the Old Testament sacraments of Passover and circumcision (and some would even dispute that they are sacraments!) and the New Testament sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. I am not going to treat this subject exhaustively at all. There are just two points that I wish to make, fueled by Vos’s discussions in volume 5 of Reformed Dogmatics, pp. 103-104.

The first point that Vos makes is that the Old Testament sacraments are types of Christ, not of the New Testament sacraments. There is, indeed, a correspondence between the two sets of sacraments. However, there is not a typological relationship between the two (p. 104).

The second issue is something that has bothered me for a while. Why is it that the recipients of the Passover have in an important way narrowed (those who can discern the Lord’s body versus all children in the Passover, thus making an age differene), while the recipients of baptism have broadened (all children and believing adults on their conversion, not just the male children)? Of course, it is merely a Baptistic assumption that the New Testament sacraments must be alike in how they work. There are several important differences between baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which we will not get into here. But why has the change to New Testament sacraments resulted in a seemingly opposite scope for circumcision giving way to baptism, and Passover giving way to the Lord’s Supper? Vos offers an explanation I have not seen elsewhere (though I would be surprised if this explanation originated with him: anyone know of sources from which this could have come?):

[I]n Israel the sacraments, besides their significance for the covenant of grace, also had a national aspect, from which a difference in practice arose between them and the New Testament sacraments on a few points. For us, one comes to the table of the Lord only after one has learned to discern the body of Christ. In Israel the children also ate the Passover. This was because the Passover together with its covenantal significance had national significance. The same is true for circumcision. Baptism in the New Testament is administered to both sexes of the children of believers. In the Old Testament, circumcision was only for infant boys. Indeed, in the national life of Israel only the men counted and represented the women, and this also had to come to light outwardly (p. 103).

There might be some fruitful ground here for answering both the Baptists and the Federal Vision folks, who both have the same error in treating the NT sacraments as working the same way. Indeed, as a friend of mine once said, the problem of the FV’ers in their sacramental theology is not that they have over-reacted to Baptistic theology in every respect, but that they have not thrown off the problems of Baptistic thinking enough. It must be born in mind that most FV’ers were Baptists before they became FV.

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