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.

Reply to Dave Armstrong

by Ron Henzel

It is always a good thing when we stand corrected and are able to muster the humility and courage to admit that the correction is right. It is always a commendable thing when anyone is able to not only properly receive such correction, but to do so in a public forum where egos are vulnerable and—especially in these days—frequently subjected to merciless attacks. The value of such acts should not be minimized.

It is in this spirit that I gratefully acknowledge Dave Armstrong’s retraction of his assertion that “John Calvin Prayed to (Dead) Philip Melanchthon.” I commend him for changing the title to an unambiguous “John Calvin Did NOT Pray to Philip Melanchthon,” and I thank him not only for citing my blog post of May 2 as providing the reason that persuaded him to make that change, but for actually thanking me for that input.

I have been in Dave’s place before. I have made glaring misstatements of fact that others have called me on, and I have had to publicly retract them. I know how that felt for me, and that is why my admiration for his concession precludes any victory dance on my part. The victory here is his, not mine.

Having said that, however, I wish I could also say that this is where the whole matter was put to rest. If it were up to me, that is what would have happened. In such a circumstance, this blog post would now be ending with this paragraph, and I would be moving on to other things. But it seems that Dave cannot let the matter rest where I think it should.

He referred to “some significant ways in which [I] misrepresented [his] original argument,” and said, “In conclusion, I wish to clarify a few secondary things that Ron got wrong about my view: even my mistaken one.” (Italics his.)

So apparently, even when I’m right, I’m far more wrong than I am right, and Dave thinks I’m so significantly wrong about several things that he has gone to some trouble to call them to everyone’s attention. Since these all constitute objections to my previous post, I will enumerate them as such—at least the ones I think are worth mentioning, which is the majority of them—and respond to them in order.

Objection #1: I Exaggerated What Dave Actually Argued.

This objection comes in response to my claim that apostrophes can be distinguished from prayers with relative ease by the fact that the latter include requests and the former do not, which makes it a bit confusing, since that makes the exaggeration about something I wrote rather than something he argued.

In making this objection, Dave first appeals to the fact that that Calvin’s use of the word “appeal,” makes it sound like he’s offering a prayer. (Note: in case anyone wonders, the original Latin text of the sentence in view here reads: “O Philippe Melanchthon! Te enim appello, qui apud Deum cum Christo vivis, nosque illic exspectas, donec tecum in beatam quietem colligamur.”­­ Corpus Reformatorum 37 [Braunschweig, Germany: C.A. Schwetschke and Sons, 1870], col. 461. “I appeal” is a perfectly good translation of appello.) He goes on further to cite Matt. 26:53, where Jesus speaks of praying to His Father and the RSV and ESV both translate παρακαλέω (parakaleō) as “appeal.” Thus his point here seems to be that calling Calvin’s paragraph a “prayer” was not unwarranted given Calvin’s wording.

Again, the problem with this objection is that Dave has not shown how I have exaggerated anything he argued. If anything, he is simply reiterated my summary of his thesis, which was effectively summarized in the (former) title of his blog post: “John Calvin Prayed to (Dead) Philip Melanchthon.” How I exaggerated the meaning of this statement eludes me.

On the other hand, it seems that what Dave’s new point here actually argues is that I have exaggerated how easy it is to distinguish an apostrophe from a prayer. This would explain why he submits as evidence the use of the word “appeal” in other prayer-contexts.

Also, in apparent support of his “exaggeration” objection: based on comments he made after his original post, Dave’s revised post now argues that he “was not dogmatically declaring that it was necessarily prayer, and could see other possibilities.” But that does not change the fact that he was essentially arguing that Calvin prayed to Melanchthon, as the title of his post trumpeted across the Web. The word “possibly” was not in that title.

In any case, to the charge(s) inherent in this objection I confidently plead, “Not guilty.”

The word “appeal” does not automatically denote a request, and Calvin made the exact nature of his particular appeal clear in his subsequent text: viz., he was appealing not for present help from Melanchthon, but to Melanchthon’s prior example in dealing with the apostate Staphylus and his encouraging words to Calvin during his controversy with Nicolas Le Coq. This is consistent with Merriam-Webster’s definition 3a for the word “appeal:” “an application (as to a recognized authority) for corroboration, vindication, or decision.” In this case Calvin was making application to statements that Melanchthon had made while alive which corroborated what Calvin was now saying.

And even if Dave was being something less than dogmatic in his declaration (whatever that may mean), he was still declaring that Calvin prayed to Melanchthon.

Objection #2: I Accused Dave of Saying That Calvin Engaged in a Completely Roman Catholic Practice.

As Dave himself put it (the italics and bold are his):

Too often, Protestant debaters or apologists assume without proof (i.e., begging the question) that the Catholic must be equating some noted Protestant similarity of belief or practice with the Catholic counterpart, as if the two are absolutely identical in all respects and aspects.

This is a classic case of this error.

This is in response to what I wrote here:

Armstrong essentially alleged that he found an instance of Calvin practicing (perhaps a Protestant version of) what Roman Catholics call “the intercession of the saints,” in which requests are made to dead Christians who in turn pass them on to God based on (a) the belief they can hear us and (b) the belief that their righteousness will help the request to prevail with God.

The first thing I would point out in response is that I anticipated this objection, and it was because I did that I included my parenthetical qualification: “perhaps a Protestant version of.” This was my way of allowing for the possibility that Dave was not saying that Calvin’s alleged prayer was “absolutely identical in all respects and aspects” to the Roman Catholic intercession of the saints. I thought the qualification was sufficient to head off this objection, but apparently not. And yet, why not? I would think it is obvious that “a Protestant version of” a Roman Catholic teaching would be assumed to differ in at least some respect or aspect from the aforementioned Roman Catholic teaching. After all, versions are, by definition, forms or variants that automatically differ from each other at various points.

Therefore, I once again enter a plea of “Not guilty.” I was not saying what he was accusing me of saying about him.

Objection #3: I Contradicted Myself When I Characterized His Quote from Calvin as Being Made with “Cynical Brevity.”

In order to understand this objection, one has to understand how Dave has chosen to represent my assertion that his allegation that Calvin prayed to Melanchthon is comparable, at least on some level, to Roman Catholicism’s intercession of the saints. He initially characterizes my remark as a reference to “an imaginary argument that I never made,” later implying that I viewed it as “an elaborate argument of the intercession of saints.” He further declares that this “elaborate argument” is a “fanciful myth” that I “dreamt up.”

Now, if anyone reading my previous post is confused because they can’t find the place where I posited that Dave had made any kind of “elaborate argument” in his original post, the reason for that is simple: I never said any such thing. In fact, as Dave himself points out, I followed up my “cynical brevity remark” by noting that his post essentially consisted of his Calvin quote “with no substantive comment.” Where is there room for an “elaborate argument” in a post that has “no substantive comment?” I never said there was, and so to this off-the-wall charge I also plead, “Not guilty.”

Objection #4: It Was Unfair of Me to Suggest that He Should Have Checked His Source’s Introduction Before Making His Allegation.

Now, Dave did not actually use the word “unfair,” but I don’t believe there is any other way to understand point when he feels compelled to defend himself by writing that “it was not obvious that Reid would have mentioned this one citation in the Introduction.” And, of course, he’s right about that: it’s not obvious. You never know what an introduction is going to cover and what it is going to omit. But how does that excuse his failure to check it?

Besides, not only did Dave miss the fact that Reid called his quote from Calvin an “apostrophe,” he also missed Beveridge calling it the same thing in his index to the other source that he cited. Checking introductions and indices is one of the things that separates thorough research from sloppy research.

“Not guilty!”

Objection #5: I Committed a Straw Man Fallacy by Critiquing the Doctrine of the Intercession of the Saints.

This little pearl of rhetoric deserves a full citation:

Ron goes on to an extended exposition / critique of the full Catholic notion of intercession of saints. But since I never claimed that Calvin engaged in that, all of it is an extended version of the straw man fallacy; perfectly irrelevant to the present dispute.

[Italics and URL link his.]

I would hardly characterize what I wrote about the intercession of the saints either “an extended exposition” or a “critique.” I only mentioned the term three times.

In my first reference to it I wrote:

Armstrong essentially alleged that he found an instance of Calvin practicing (perhaps a Protestant version of) what Roman Catholics call “the intercession of the saints,” in which requests are made to dead Christians who in turn pass them on to God based on (a) the belief they can hear us and (b) the belief that their righteousness will help the request to prevail with God.

Here I simply defined it; I did not at all expound on it (let alone extensively expound on it) or critique it.

In my second reference to it I wrote:

In the third book of those Institutes, Calvin referred to the intercession of the saints as “the height of stupidity, not to say madness,” something that was invented by man and had “no support in God’s word,” …and which had progressed to “a manifest disposition to superstition” …

There is more, but it’s all from Calvin, not from me. It includes no exposition, but only critique, and I did not include it in order to make a case against the intercession of the saints, but simply to show the absurdity of saying that Calvin would have prayed to a dead person.

In my third and final reference to it I wrote:

Prayers are not merely addresses; they are petitions. That, in fact, is the whole purpose of the doctrine of the intercession of the saints.

Again, here one finds neither extended exposition nor critique of the intercession of the saints, but simply a reference to its purpose. For Dave to object that he himself never equated what Calvin did to the doctrine of the intercession of the saints is a red herring. The doctrine in view here is flawlessly summarized as the Roman Catholic church’s teaching that Christians should pray to dead saints so that they might intercede on their behalf. In the church’s own words:

Their intercession is their most exalted service to God’s plan. We can and should ask them to intercede for us and for the whole world.

[Catechism of the Catholic Church §2683, (New York, NY, USA: Doubleday, 1997), 707.]

So in point of fact, instead of referring to “the whole purpose of the doctrine of the intercession of the saints,” I could have simply written, “the whole purpose of the church’s teaching about praying to dead saints,” and it would have meant precisely the same thing. There was no need to explore the details of the doctrine, and I did not explore them. Its purpose is that the saints pass our requests on to (i.e., intercede for us before) God.

An extended exposition is by definition a discourse, and I gave no such thing. I merely gave a simple, two-point definition. And while I did pass on some very select details of Calvin’s critique of the doctrine in question, it was (a) not mine, (b) hardly a full-blown critique, and (c) only for the purpose of establishing Calvin’s position.

“Not guilty!”

Summary Judgment

I have been accused of exaggeration, misrepresentation, self-contradiction, imposing an unfair requirement, and committing an informal (straw man) fallacy. I believe that my replies to each of these objections has demonstrated the same pattern that I noted in the title of my previous post: “jumping the gun.” Each objection is a shoot-from-the-hip overreaction to a cursory reading of what I wrote. He is simply treating me the way he originally treated Calvin.

Granted, Calvin’s prose in the article Dave cited is rather involved. It requires that the meaning of his sentences and paragraphs be assembled from his broader context. Thus it rewards thorough, careful reading while penalizing any “parachute drop” method that presumes to understand isolated statements. And that’s exactly where I think Dave went wrong from the outset of his original post. If one cannot exercise the care requisite for plodding through the writings of 16th century authors (and Calvin is among the more lucid of them), one has no business commenting on them.

“No; I Pray Thee, Speak in Sober Judgment.”

Thus said Claudio to Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, (Act 1, Scene 1, Line 171, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, William George Clark and William Aldis Wright, eds., [New York, NY, USA: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1911], 136).

No doubt most of us know that the word “pray” can refer to a question, request, or plea made by any given person to any other given person. It does not have to be a question, request, or plea addressed to God. (Although according to the Oxford English Dictionary, such usage is now rare. See its definition 2.)  And most of us also know how to distinguish the horizontal, human-to-human prayer from the vertical human-to-God prayer in everyday speech. As someone once spoofed, it’s not rocket surgery.

And so with all due respect, I have to say if there is ever a point in Dave’s rebuttal where he seems to be making much ado about nothing, it comes when he launches into his (according to Microsoft Word) 1,054-word critique of “the typical Protestant conception of the word prayer” (italics his). I shall do my best to charitably summarize it as follows:

  1. Dave asserts that “confusion” has been generated by the fact that Protestants typically limit the concept of prayer to petitions and intercessions made to God.
  2. Dave then asserts that Roman Catholics are justified in expanding the definition of prayer to include dead saints because not all prayer must be addressed to God.
  3. Dave further expands the definition of prayer to include “something as simple as communication.”
  4. So Dave concludes that “when I stated in my title that Calvin ‘prayed to Melanchthon’ all it had to mean was that he communicated with him. Period! He could have said, “Hi Phil! Wish I were with ya. I miss all our old Lutheran vs. Reformed fights . . .” and that could be called a “prayer” in this larger meaning of the term. It’s that simple.
  5. Not content with his own conclusion, Dave feels the need to cite an online dictionary which confirms that “prayer” can refer to requests made to human beings, as well as nine biblical examples designed to show the same thing (Isa 5:3; Mk 5:23; Lk 14:18-19 (twice); Acts 8:34; 24:4; 27:34; 2 Cor 5:20; Lk 16:27—the first from the RSV, the rest from the KJV). The New Testament examples of these are in turn compared to three references (Jn 14:16; 16:26; 17:9) that establish that (at least in the case of the New Testament) the same word that applies to prayer to God and also apply to requests to men.

Now this is truly an elaborate argument, especially as we see how it unfolds! I will not take as long in replying to it as Dave took in making it.

Turning this into a semantic issue is a red herring. Even so, regarding the semantics:

  1. The meaning of “prayer” depends on the context in which it is used, not on whether one is assuming an allegedly “Protestant” or “Roman Catholic” meaning of the term. (Though perhaps someday Dave will share the raw data on which he bases his thesis that a “typical Protestant” doesn’t use the word “pray” to refer to human-to-human requests.)
  2. The precise meaning of the original title of Dave’s post is not ambiguous. No verbal can of worms was opened at any time to cause “confusion” among Protestants readers. Praying to the dead is naturally understood as a living human praying to a dead human. The example of the dead Rich Man pleading with the dead Abraham is not relevant to this discussion.
  3. It is ironic that after defending his original error that Calvin was praying to Melanchthon on the basis of the word “appeal,” since he obviously mistook his appeal to Melanchthon’s writings as an appeal for something from him (he said it seemed to imply “some sort of petition”), that Dave is now strenuously arguing that a prayer does not have to include a petition, and that all his previous title “had to mean” was that Calvin “communicated” with Melanchthon. (“All it had to mean?” Notice how these words skirt the issue of what he actually meant!) So what he previously granted with his right hand (that it looked like a petition and therefore a prayer) he has removed with his left (it didn’t have to be a petition to be a prayer).
  4. Even according to the dictionary definitions Dave has supplied, prayer always involves requesting or asking for something. A specific prayer can include other things, but even in the Lord’s prayer, everything after “Hallowed be Thy Name” is a request for something specific.

The bottom line here is that now that Dave has conceded that he was wrong for accusing Calvin of praying to Melanchthon, not only does it strain credulity for him to now assert that he was not talking accusing Calvin of something similar to the intercession of the saints, it is utterly beside the point. He accused Calvin of praying to the dead Melanchthon, and he admits to being wrong about that. Now he wants to deny that such an accusation is sufficiently equivalent to saying Calvin was petitioning Melanchthon and seeking his intercession, but he’s wrong about that, too.

So Is the Intercession of the Saints Really Irrelevant?

Once Dave finished responding to my post, he addressed a response I gave in the comments following my post. I was replying to a reader who asked about my view of the communion of saints, and I indicated that the Reformed teaching on this subject certainly includes spiritual communion between believers on earth and in heaven, but (quoting from volume 4 of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics) I stressed that this does not include praying to believers in heaven, since that would be impossible. After quoting Bavinck, I wrote the following:

Even though saints who have died are included in the communion of saints, one of the “dividing walls” that remains to be leveled is the fact that their physical deaths prevent them from communicating with the living. Bavinck does not mention it here, but he goes into it at length in 4:620-627. His position is that “Scripture consistently tells us that at death all fellowship with this earth ends,” (ibid., 625).

Dave’s response to my post came the next day (about four and a half hours prior to his retraction), and the first thing he homed in on was this paragraph from my comment. He quoted the first sentence of it back to me and then wrote:

Really? Why, then, did Moses and Elijah appear at the Transfiguration? Why did Samuel appear to Saul and tell him he was to die the next day? What about the Two Witnesses of Revelation (commentators think they may be Moses and Elijah, or maybe Enoch and Elijah)?

The physical deaths of all these men did not prevent THEM from “communicating with the living.”

Yet you claim that this is not possible and forbidden by God. So what gives? I go with Scripture, whenever traditions of men contradict it.

[Note: this version is slightly edited to include a correction to a typographical error that Dave supplied in a follow-up comment.]

I had to ask a question at this point: why would someone committed to Roman Catholic doctrine be so quick to challenge the assertion that the dead cannot hear the prayers of the living? If the intercession of the saints is “perfectly irrelevant to the present dispute” (emphasis Dave’s), then why is it that the first thing he did was attempt to provide counterexamples of this particular point from Scripture? Is there some other Roman Catholic doctrine that requires that the living be able to communicate with the dead?

No. Roman Catholicism is just as much opposed to séances and other forms of conjuring up the dead as are Protestants (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church §2117, ibid. 570). There is no reason to cite these counterexamples other than to defend the doctrine of the intercession of the saints. And yet if that was not the issue to begin with, why did Dave choose that as his first field of battle?

The only answer can be that at that point in time, four hours prior to his retraction, that was what he believed to be at stake here because that was his motivation for writing his hit-piece on Calvin to begin with. It’s the only explanation that makes any sense. Only after Dave realized that his original position (that Calvin had prayed to Melanchthon) was untenable did he seek to deny the implicit premise of that original post (that Calvin’s “prayer” constituted a practical endorsement of the intercession of the saints) in order to salvage whatever remaining coherence for that post that he could. Unfortunately, that ship had sailed.

So What About Samuel, Moses, and Elijah, etc.?

The most obvious problem with Dave’s counterexamples is that none of them are examples of prayer to the dead. That’s what this has been about from the moment he gave the title “John Calvin Prayed to (Dead) Philip Melanchthon” to his original post.

Now, I anticipate that Dave may object that he provided his counterexamples not as specimens of prayer, but in response to my comment that physical death is a “dividing wall” that prevents the dead from communicating with the living. But such an objection depends on an obfuscation designed to confuse the occasion of Dave’s counterexamples with the contextual reason for them. The occasion was my remark; the reason was that he was defending praying to dead saints.

I can hardly believe that I feel compelled to say this to literate people who are familiar with the Transfiguration account, but it is more than obvious that the appearance of Moses and Elijah was a miraculous event (Matt 17:1-9; Mk 9:2-9; Lk 9:28-36), and that miraculous events are, by definition, exceptions to natural norms. There is nothing in the Synoptic accounts to suggest that either of these prophets from heaven were even aware of the presence of Peter, James, and John while on the mount with Jesus, much less that they regularly heard the prayers of those living on earth.

As for Saul consulting with the medium from En-dor (1 Sam 28:7-20) in violation of the same Mosaic laws (Lev 19:31; 20:6, 27; Dt 18:10-12) that he was supposedly enforcing (1 Sam 28:9): it is obvious from the text that the medium was shocked that she had actually brought up a spirit (28:12), and so this is another miraculous account, similar to the Transfiguration event, in which God overrode the normal order for His purposes. Outside of such divine intervention, the Lord Himself forbade attempts to communicate with the dead (cf. previous references in Lev and Dt).

Meanwhile, Dave’s counterexample of the two witnesses in Rev 11:3-12 is purely speculative. They are introduced suddenly and prophesy for 1,260 days (Rev 11:3) during which time they work miracles of judgment (11:5-6) until they are killed by “the beast from the bottomless pit” and their bodies lie in public as the world celebrates (11:7-10). Then God resurrects them and they ascend into heaven (11:11-12). None of this provides support for the practice of praying to dead saints.

The Biblical Teaching

Not only is there no reference anywhere in Scripture to praying to the dead, let alone authorizing it, but Scripture contains clear and repeated declarations that a dead person is “cut off” from “the earth” (Ex 9:15), from “among his people,” (Ex 31:14), and from “the land of the living” (Isa 53:8; Jer 11:9), and no longer shares any knowledge with those who remain in this “under the sun” plane of existence:

For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun….for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.

[Ecc 9:5-6, 10b, ESV]

When a man dies, he loses all contact with the world of the living: “His sons come to honor, and he does not know it; they are brought low, and he perceives it not,” (Job 14:21, ESV). He is no longer aware of the things that happen to his people or his home (2 Ki 22:20) because the dead dwell in “the land of forgetfulness” (Ps 88:11-12).

Texts such as these demonstrate the futility of praying to the dead, but other texts demonstrate its presumptuousness. “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,” (1 Ti 2:5, ESV). No one other than the Second Person of the Trinity incarnate can intercede on our behalf before God. It is foolish to pray to any dead saint, because “No one comes to the Father except through” Christ (Jn 14:6, ESV), and “since he always lives to make intercession for” us (Heb 7:25, ESV).

We have many commands and directions concerning prayer in Scripture. None of them direct us to pray to another human being, much less to a dead human being, even when premised on the notion that we are simply asking such departed people to pray for us, as if they could even hear us, when in fact they cannot.

On Jumping the Gun and Missing the Apostrophe

by Ron Henzel

In Book 18 of Homer’s Iliad, the Achaeans weep over the corpse of Patroclus, the beloved comrade-in-arms of Achilles, who had been killed by the Trojan prince, Hector. Achilles is particularly distraught, since he had promised Patroclus’s father, Menoetius, that he would bring him back home safely. In his grief he addresses the dead Patroclus, promising him vengeance.

So then, Patroclus, since I too am going below, but after you, I shall not hold your funeral till I have brought back here the armour and the head of Hector.

[Iliad 18.330, E.V. Rieu, translator, (New York, NY, USA and Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1950; 1981), 345.]

Although The Iliad is filled with the supernatural, the question of whether Patroclus could actually hear Achilles’ promise does not come up. There’s a good reason for that: Achilles was employing a rhetorical device for the benefit of the living who overheard him; he was not trying to communicate with Patroclus.

Toward the end of Act 3, Scene 1, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Cassius, Brutus, and company had just departed, leaving Marc Antony alone with the dead body of Julius Caesar.

Antony addresses the corpse,

O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth, / That I am meek and gentle with these butchers! / Thou art the ruins of the noblest man / That ever lived in the tide of times. / Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood!

[William George Clark and William Aldis Wright, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, (New York, NY, USA: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1911), 965.]

His soliloquy goes on for another 17 lines, speaking to the dead Caesar. He pronounces curses on his murderers and predicts that Caesar’s spirit will return to “Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war,” but there is no reason to assume that Antony believes that Caesar can actually hear him.

A Manner of Speaking

When people try to communicate with the dead, we call it “necromancy.” That is not what is going on in these two scenes from our Western literary heritage. Rather, these are two examples, widely acknowledged in literary circles, of the rhetorical device known as “apostrophe” (yes, it’s spelled and pronounced the same as the punctuation mark). Apostrophe occurs when someone speaks to a person who is absent as though that person were present, and it occurs throughout ancient, medieval, and modern literature. We also find it in Scripture. When King David cried out, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33, ESV), he was engaging in grief-stricken apostrophe.

With apostrophe, the addressee does not have to be dead, nor does it even need to be a person. It simply needs to be something that is not actually present to the speaker—such as, for example, death itself, as when John Donne wrote “Death be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so.” It is even at work when the speaker mistakenly believes that the addressee is absent.  So when Juliet, thinking her lover was absent, cried out, “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo,” she was employing apostrophe.

By its very nature, apostrophe obviously does not intend actual communication between the speaker and addressee.  Nor is apostrophe difficult to spot, or easy to confuse with something quite different: say, for example, the act of praying to the dead. Distinguishing between these two is not complicated. Unlike the act of praying to the dead, in apostrophe no petitions are given; the absent (or in this case, dead) are not asked for anything. They are merely addressed as if present.

Simple, right?

At Least, So You Would Think

Just a few days ago (on Friday, April 29, 2016), Roman Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong accused Protestant Reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) of “praying” to his friend and fellow Reformer Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) the year after Melanchthon had died. In a blog post titled, “John Calvin Prayed to (Dead) Philip Melanchthon,” Armstrong essentially alleged that he found an instance of Calvin practicing (perhaps a Protestant version of) what Roman Catholics call “the intercession of the saints,” in which requests are made to dead Christians who in turn pass them on to God based on (a) the belief they can hear us and (b) the belief that their righteousness will help the request to prevail with God.

With a cynical brevity that is breathtaking for its sloppiness, Armstrong simply posts an incomplete quote from one of Calvin’s theological treatises, with no substantive comment, as if that were all the proof necessary:

O Philip Melanchthon! for I appeal to you who live in the presence of God with Christ, and wait for us there until we are united with you in blessed rest . . . I have wished a thousand times that it had been our lot to be together!

The citation is from page 258 in Calvin: Theological Treatises, edited by J.K.S. Reid (although Armstrong does not cite Reid’s name properly), and reprinted in 2000 by Westminster John Knox Press.

Slam dunk, right?

In case we don’t believe him, Armstrong links to an image of the page on Google Books. But then he provides another link, this time to a volume containing a 19th century translation of the same source, also on Google Books. He prefaces this second link with the words, “The same prayer (or whatever one thinks it is) is found in…” as if to disclaim that he is not absolutely saying that this is what the bold-lettered title of his blog post declares it to be: a prayer from Calvin to the late Melanchthon.

Yeah, right.

Ready, Fire, Aim!

As it turns out, at this point in his very real and ongoing war against Protestantism, Armstrong was not using real ammunition. Nor did he have a clear view of his immediate target.

Not only is there nothing in the words he quoted from Calvin to suggest it was a prayer, but if Armstrong had bothered to check Reid’s introduction, he would have found those words referred to as Calvin’s “moving apostrophe to Melanchthon,” (Reid, ibid., 21). And if he had checked the index of his 19th century source, he would have discovered it listed as “Calvin’s solemn apostrophe to [Melanchthon],” (Henry Beveridge, translator, Calvin’s Treatises on the Sacraments [Edinburgh, UK: Calvin Translation Society, 1849], 2:587). What has been obvious to readers for at least the past 167 years was wholly lost on Armstrong.

The notion that Calvin would lapse into a prayer to Philip Melanchthon so soon after publishing the final editions of his Institutes of the Christian Religion (Latin: 1559; French: 1560) is analogous to the idea that Bernie Sanders would endorse Donald Trump for President the day after he loses the Democrat nomination. In the third book of those Institutes, Calvin referred to the intercession of the saints as “the height of stupidity, not to say madness,” something that was invented by man and had “no support in God’s word,” (Institutes 3.20.21, John T. McNeill, ed., Ford Lewis Battles, trans., [Philadelphia, PA, USA: The Westminster Press], 2:879), and which had progressed to “a manifest disposition to superstition” (Institutes 3.20.22; ibid., 2:880). Any kind of communication with the dead is impossible, since “when the Lord withdrew them from our company, he left us no contact with them [Eccl. 9:5-6], and as far as we can conjecture, not even left them any with us.” (Institutes 3.20.24, ibid., 2:883.) And yet Armstrong would have us believe that a year after Calvin applied the final tweaks to the extended section of the Institutes in which he thoroughly denounced this practice (3.20.21-27) he engaged in it himself!

As a former Roman Catholic, I find it somewhat shocking that a zealous son of the Vatican cannot distinguish an example of apostrophe from a genuine prayer to a dead saint. It was never difficult for me. All one need do in order to find out what real prayers to dead saints look like is to consult an authentic historical source, such as the prayers of Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033-1109).

When Anselm prayed to the Virgin Mary, he made specific requests. He asked her to cleanse him from his sins: “let this filth be washed from my mind, let my darkness be illuminated, my lukewarmness blaze up, my listlessness be stirred,” (The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm with the Proslogion, Benedicta Ward, ed. and trans., [London, UK and New York, NY, USA: Penguin Books, 1973], 116). When he prayed to the Apostle Peter he begged for assurance “that I am received, healed, and cherished,” (ibid., 138). He asked the Apostles Paul and John to intercede for him before God: “St Paul, pray for your son,” (ibid., 155); “John, whose intercession I ask,” (ibid., 167). He pleads with St. Stephen that if he will only speak up for him, “I am sure the most loving God will remit the whole of my evil deeds,” (ibid., 177). He asks St. Nicholas to “stir up my spirit, excite my heart, move my mind according to my need,” (ibid., 188). To St. Benedict he prays, “Help me! I beg you to be my protector,” (ibid., 199). To Mary Magdalene he implores, “in my darkness, I ask for light; in my sins, redemption; impure, I ask for purity,” (ibid., 202).

Prayers are not merely addresses; they are petitions. That, in fact, is the whole purpose of the doctrine of the intercession of the saints.

But nothing like this is found in Calvin’s address to Melanchthon. It lasts all of a paragraph, and it ends with a quote from a letter that Melanchthon had written to Calvin. Calvin does not ask Melanchthon to intercede for him before God, or apply some of his own merits to Calvin, as we find in Anselm’s prayers. He simply recalls the support Melanchthon had given to him during his lifetime, and moves on to the next paragraph where he recalls his own response to what Melanchthon wrote. The apostrophe is already over by this point, and it includes no petitions, no request, no pleas. The reason for this is simple: it’s not a prayer.


When I first began writing this, I did not see any comments on Armstrong’s blog post. That has changed, and I notice that the issue of apostrophe has been called to his attention. He is not responding very positively to it.

Go figure.

Is the Federal Vision Gone?

Since the internet debate has died down quite a bit from its heyday about a decade ago, many people have assumed that the Federal Vision is gone and dead. A highly erroneous conclusion. It is not dead. Every one of its proponents is still out there, spreading their false doctrine industriously, now under cover of darkness, since they no longer present themselves as targets online. The missions field is especially problematic, with the FV gaining ground in Russia, Eastern Europe, and parts of Africa. Even in the PCA, the issue is not dead. Jeff Meyers is still at large, as is Mark Horne. They are influencing many Covenant Seminary grads through their internship programs. Douglas Wilson is basically the only FV proponent still visible much on the internet, as we might expect, since he is the one who presents the public persona of the FV. If anything, the battle concerning the FV, while it has practically disappeared from the internet, is still very much alive and well in churches.

Enter now my friend Dewey Roberts into the field. He argued the Leithart case before the SJC. The SJC had determined that Dewey had not proven his case. A large part of that, I suspect, is that Dewey was probably using early drafts of his book to argue his case. When I talked to him about it on the phone, he was saying many of the things that came out in the book. Before the SJC, the way to win a case is to compare the teachings of Leithart (or whoever is on trial) to the Westminster Standards only. Here is what the defendant believes, in his own words, and here is what the Westminster Standards say. Dewey’s purpose in this book is much, much broader than that. He is comparing the Federal Vision to historic Christianity, and his findings are that they are two different things. The main thesis of the book is that the Federal Vision is either Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian in its system, and is therefore not Christian doctrine.

Knowing as I do the history of the Leithart case rather well, I think I made the same mistake Dewey did, actually, but from the reverse direction. Dewey argued his book in front of the SJC, while I expected his performance in front of the SJC negatively to impact the book. Neither of us was right. This book is quite well done, carefully argued, and theologically perceptive. I thought, over the course of some 350 blog posts, and countless comments, that I had considered the FV from just about every possible angle. Dewey showed me wrong. He has many angles that I had not thought of before. If the peacefully slumbering PCA (at least on FV concerns) will read this book, they will find that there is still work to be done, and that we need to do it. The gospel really is at stake, and the Federal Vision really is heresy, not just heterodoxy.

I have a couple of things I would criticize, one very small thing, and one more substantial thing. The small thing is the chapter endnotes. I hate endnotes. I have made no bones about the fact. One has to twist one’s hand in very awkward positions in order to be able to flip back and forth. If the purpose of footnotes is to avoid distracting one from the main line of argumentation, then endnotes fail miserably, because the added time of flipping back and forth makes it very difficult to keep on the thread of the main argument. But chapter endnotes are even worse than book endnotes, since you are constantly losing your place. Why couldn’t we have had footnotes on the same page as the text?

The more substantial criticism I have is the number of times Dewey quoted Guy Waters’s book on the FV as an original source. Now, Waters’s book is truly excellent, and one of the most important publications on the debate. Nevertheless, I prefer to see sources quoted first-hand, rather than second-hand. That way, if one wants to follow the paper trail backwards, one can examine the quotation in its original context much easier. The FV proponents will, of course, cry foul because they, like so many artists, are being misunderstood, boo hoo. The Ninth Commandment is often abused as the last refuge of the heretic. This criticism does not, I think, affect the validity of Dewey’s arguments.

I learned a lot from this book, and I hope that my readers will buy the book and read it, as well. Federal Vision proponents, know this: Dewey has your number, and he got it well. We know what you’re trying to do, and we are on guard.

Douglas Bond hit it out of the park in Grace Works!

Posted by Bob Mattes

Bottom line up front: Take a little of your Christmas cash and buy this book, then read it cover to cover. The gospel is under attack on many fronts, even from those with advanced degrees who claim to be Reformed. Mr. Bond sets record straight in the modern battle over the gospel of grace.

I have to admit my skepticism when I first received a copy of Douglas Bond‘s Grace Works! (And Ways We Think It Doesn’t). In this day and age, we see the free use of euphemisms like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which is anything but democratic or accountable to the people. The history of the Church records power and sovereignty of God in preserving Christ’s bride, but it also contains the record of heretics and their heresies that claimed to be true to the Scriptures whilst gutting the gospel of grace.

Douglas Bond’s book, though, remains true to its title and will prove to be a great blessing to the modern Reformed church if widely read. Mr. Bond serves as a ruling elder (RE) in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), and writes as one with first-hand experience with the errors that he corrects in his book. Given the presbytery in which he serves, I have no doubt of what he sees on a regular basis. Overall, RE Bond displays an excellent knowledge of both church history and current controversies over the gospel.

Grace Works! provides an easy read. RE Bond broke the book into seven parts, each with several short chapters that end with discussion questions. Thus, the book would make an excellent Sunday school or small group resource. RE Bond wrote Grace Works! for real people in real pews, easily digestible yet powerful in its defense of the gospel of grace. You won’t find any clever, human “cutting-edge” theology here, just the matchless gospel of Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

RE Bond starts the book by appealing to history to show that any church can lose the gospel, and very quickly. He cites Calvin and Screwtape, C.S. Lewis’ demon from The Screwtape Letters, to illustrate Satan’s scheme for undermining the gospel down through the ages and even today. The strategy never changes because people never change. RE Bond doesn’t speculate or pontificate, he cites specific examples from church history of the slide into apostasy, of which there are no shortages. The worst of it lies in the fact that when a denomination slides into apostasy, it puts the orthodox on trial, not the heretics.

RE Bond hits the nail on the head on page 30 early in the book:

In our hatred of strife and controversy and in our love of peace and unity, we Christians sometimes play the ostrich. We hope controversy and gospel attack will just go away; we bury our heads in the sand and pretend that it won’t happen to us.

Those of us in the PCA have seen this time and again. I saw a popular teaching elder who started a secret political party in the PCA turn around and publicly declare as “cowards” 29 ordained church officers who together took a public stand against serious gospel error. The sizeable audience apparently missed the blatant hypocrisy displayed, but then it wouldn’t be polite to question a popular teaching elder, would it? The orthodox make easy targets because they just won’t change or compromise the gospel of Christ. How intolerant are the orthodox!

RE Bond goes on to lay the groundwork by clearly explaining the gospel from Scripture and the Reformed confessions. The gospel presents the matchless grace of God freely given to all those who will trust in Christ alone for their salvation. Salvation by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone – how simple! Yet, sinful human beings prefer to obtain their salvation the way Smith Barney claimed they made their money, the old fashioned way – by earning it.

Then in creeps the mixing of works into justification, replacing  or “augmenting” grace with some form of legalism. RE Bond does a great job of tackling the errors and consequences of legalism. He adroitly covers the order of salvation (ordo salutis), the confusing of justification and sanctification, the Scriptural use of law and gospel, the proper place of faith and works, and the correct rules for Biblical interpretation – the analogy of faith.

In Part 6 of Grace Works!, RE Bond then deals with current errors creeping into the conservative Reformed denominations, including the mythical “objective covenant”, confusion on the sacraments, and final justification. He does so without naming names, although anyone who has been paying attention to the last 20 years or so can easily fill in the blanks. RE Bond clearly demonstrates the corrosiveness of those who take an oath that the Confessions contain the doctrines taught in Holy Scripture, yet write and teach against those same Confessions and doctrines. He also cautions against the “fine print,” where officers espouse orthodoxy but then caveat with fine print that guts the orthodox statement. I’ve seen this myself during Internet debates and even in church trials. As RE Bond quotes from various sources on page 222:

The large print giveth, and the small print taketh away.

RE Bond encourages us, citing the apostle Paul, to be Bereans. Don’t accept the clever words or “cutting-edge” theology of PhD holding teaching elders at face value. Dig into the Scriptures and the Confessions to see if they are right. Paul commands us to do no less. We’ve seen several prominent examples in the PCA of officers denying errors at trial that they later lead and teach openly in seminary-like settings after their acquittal. The Enemy stands proud of such tolerance.

Grace Works! closes by encouraging readers to catechize their children, to actively teach them what Scripture teaches about the gospel of grace. If we don’t, apostasy is just a generation away. RE Bond lastly encourages us to stand in unity on the gospel and the law of Christ, the means of grace rightly understood and administered, and in our Reformed Confessions without small-print caveats. Only then will our denominations remain orthodox for the next generation and those to come.

Your church officers need to read Grace Works! Your congregation needs to read it. And not just read it, but stand for the gospel of grace and teach it to your congregations, your children, and you children’s children.

Full disclosure: Bob received a courtesy copy of this book from P&R for review.

Is Faith Itself Imputed as Our Righteousness?

Arminians and Roman Catholics will typically argue that Romans 4:5,9 are talking about faith itself as the thing that is imputed, thus avoiding imputation of an alien righteousness. They will translate it something like “faith is reckoned as righteousness.” Sometimes they will use the word “for” instead of “as” while understanding it of identity. There are three insuperable objections to this understanding of the passage. Here are the two verses (translation mine):

4:5 “To the one who does not work but rather believes in the One justifying the ungodly, his faith is reckoned for righteousness.” 4:9 “Does this blessing, therefore, come to the circumcised only or also to the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness.”

The first insuperable objection to understanding faith itself as the thing reckoned is the context, especially verses 3-5. It goes like this: if faith is righteousness (in the eyes of the law), then it is a work. Then works justify us, the very thing Paul explicitly denies in verses 3-5, where he contrasts faith and works, and makes a point of saying that it is NOT reckoned as a reward, but rather as of grace. If in the situation of justification, there is anything in us that is righteous as a basis for justification, then it is a reward, and not of grace. There is no way around this problem. Limiting the scope of the works so that they are boundary markers or ceremonial aspects of the law simply doesn’t fly at all. The contrast is between the one working and the one believing. That is a general contrast.

The second insuperable objection is the nature of faith itself, which has to be determined from the rest of Scripture. The Scriptures usually speak of faith as being in someone. Faith is really not a thing inside us. It is rather our connection to God, to Jesus Christ, to the Holy Spirit, to the Triune God. Faith derives its meaning and substance from the object of faith, not from faith itself. Otherwise, we are saved by faith in faith. Faith is rather our connection to God. The analogy I like to use goes like this: if a person is canning something, then he is faced with a situation of having to get jars out of boiling water. Obviously, he cannot use his hands to do so. Therefore, he must use something to grasp hold of the jars. There are tongs manufactured for just such a purpose. They wrap around the lip of the jar so that a person can lift the jar out without any mishap. Faith is like those tongs. Faith is not the jar with the good stuff in it. Faith lays hold of Christ and all His goodness. It connects us to Him. It is another way of saying our union with Christ which the Holy Spirit creates.

The third insuperable objection (and something that is absolutely fatal to Roman Catholic understandings of justification) is the phrase “justifier of the ungodly” in verse 5. Roman Catholic theology NEVER believes that God ever justifies an ungodly person. Nevertheless, in all the ways that count at the time of justification, Abraham was ungodly in his actions (remembering that faith is contrasted with works in verses 3-5). If faith itself is the righteousness, then God would be justifying the godly, not the ungodly. But Paul says here that God is justifying the ungodly. In a future post I will argue the case that this understanding is not a legal fiction.

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