Quo Vadis?

In this new series of posts, I will look at where the PCA has been in the past, and then seek to show where we are headed in the future. I will be taking as my baseline the volume of Position Papers edited by Paul Gilchrist. The volume covers the years 1973-1998.

The first entry is in some ways the most important. It is “A Message to All Churches of Jesus Christ Throughout the World From the General Assembly of the National Presbyterian Church.” For those who don’t know, the PCA was originally called the National Presbyterian Church, but quickly changed its name to the Presbyterian Church in America.

The first main point the letter makes is that separation had become necessary. This is not something they rejoiced over, but rather mourned (“with great sorrow and mourning,” p. 7).

Secondly, it says that the basis for the authority of the Church is nothing other than the Bible. A standard statement of the Bible’s inerrancy follows. The view of the Bible they had was fundamental to all the other issues (see p. 8).

Then the letter states something very important about change. Change comes gradually, and it should not be permitted: “Views and practices that undermine and supplant the system of doctrine or polity of a confessional Church ought never to be tolerated” (p. 8). Notice the accent on confessionalism. It is highlighted even more clearly on the following page: “We are committed without reservation to the Reformed Faith as set forth in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms” (p. 9), and then again on p. 10 (quoting the earlier “Address to All Churches”): “We are not ashamed to confess that we are intensely Presbyterian.”

Since the changes came to the PCUS, and those changes were not disciplined, the letter states this: “When a denomination will not exercise discipline and its courts have become heterodox or disposed to tolerate error, the minority finds itself in the anomalous position of being submissive to a tolerant and erring majority. In order to proclaim the truth and to practice the discipline which they believe obedience to Christ requires, it then becomes necessary for them to separate. This is the exercise of discipline in reverse. It is how we view our separation” (p. 8).

The last major point the letter makes is that the church must be faithful to the Great Commission if it can expect the Lord Jesus Christ to be present with her.

Some reflections on this letter are in order. The first thing that struck me was the very strong emphasis on confessional Presbyterianism. Indeed, it was because the PCUS was NOT being confessional that the PCA (then NPC) emphasized it so much. This contrasts sharply with some recent attempts to downplay the confessional moorings of our forefathers.

Secondly, the entire paragraph quoted from page 8 on discipline and tolerating error creeped me out a bit, since it feels like confessional Presbyterians in the PCA are in a very similar position. I wonder if the surviving fathers of our denomination could ever imagine that the same thing that happened then is happening now. I heard from someone a while back that even at the founding, someone had predicted that we would get about 40 good years, and lo and behold, a prophet!

At Long Last!

We have been waiting for a long time for this theologian’s major works to be translated. Now, thanks to David Noe, we have an excellent beginning. Junius was an extremely important and well-known theologian during the time of Protestant Scholasticism. His debate with Arminius is not without irony, since, at the time, it was Junius who was well-known, while Arminius was a nobody. Now, everyone thinks it is the other way around. It is time to resurrect Junius and put him back in the mainstream of the Protestant canon of authors. This particular treatise is very important because of two main reasons: Junius clearly and eloquently articulates the archetypal/ectypal distinction in theology. Secondly, it was Junius’s Prolegomena here that formed the foundation for most prolegomena to follow. Tolle Lege.

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.

Dr. Ligon Duncan’s Seminar on the Marrow Controversy

In today’s theological climate, antinomianism and the Sonship theology are rife within Reformed circles. The Marrow Controversy therefore has much to teach us about the relationship of grace and law.

Dr. Duncan started by sketching a short history of the Marrow Controversy, emphasizing Boston’s role in recommending the Marrow of Modern Divinity. The book, of course, caused waves in the Scottish Presbyterian church. There had been a professor at Glasgow who had showed affinity for Socinianism and Arminianism. This man was tried by the church and basically given a slap on the wrist. So those heterodox doctrines would find a refuge in the Scottish Presbyterian Church, but the evangelical Calvinism was not found congenial. The Auchterarter Presbytery had a question that they asked candidates about the relationship of coming to Christ and forsaking sin. Understood properly, the question was designed to make clear that a person does not forsake sin in order to come to Christ, but rather comes to Christ in order for sin’s hold on the person to be broken. The General Assembly rebuked the Auchterarter Presbytery for asking the question this way. What would later be called “moderatism” had its beginnings in the General Assembly. Enlightenment thinking took over, to the point where, as one writer puts it, a typical “moderatism” sermon was like a winter day: cold, clear, and brief. The Marrow, on the other hand, was condemned by the General Assembly. The defenders of the Marrow, such as Thomas Boston, and the Erskine brothers appealed the decision, which was rejected. This almost guaranteed that everyone in Scotland would purchase a copy of the book! There’s Scottish contrariness for you.

There are three interpretations of the Marrow controversy. Some argue that it was an internecine dispute of two sides that both held to the Westminster Standards. Those who condemned the Marrow quoted the Westminster standards against the Marrow men, which creates a certain plausibility for this view. This view is wrong in Duncan’s mind, though.

The second view says that the Marrow men represented a revolt against classical Calvinism (this is held by J.B. Torrance). In other words, the Marrow men were trying to liberate the Scottish church from the Westminster Standards. The Marrow men, however, vowed ex animo in strict subscription to the Westminster Standards.

The third view is that the Marrow men were the Westminster theology men. This is the proper view.

Dr. Duncan then shared many of the most important quotations from both Boston and Fisher.

Recent Book on Trent

There are very few full-length books on the council of Trent. There is an historical reason for that, in that the pope forbade any commentaries from being written about the council, since he wanted to control the reception and implementation of the council. With the opening up of the Vatican archives in the twentieth century, Trent is finally fair game for historians. In this regard, John O’Malley has done it again, and the scope of his achievement is rather mind-blowing to me, especially when one considers how much research he also has done on Vatican II. In both cases, he not only read the complete series of books that document the councils, but also most of the secondary literature as well. This may not seem huge until one realizes that in both cases (Trent and Vatican II), the documentary series of books runs to over 30 volumes. O’Malley certainly seems to have read everything of importance, and the result is a highly compact, incredibly fact-dense, but also very readable history of Trent. I thought I was going to run out of the world’s supply of lead, I underlined so much. Now, his being Roman Catholic means, of course, that I am not going to agree with him in many places. However, that does not take away from the fact that this is an incredible book. It will give you an excellent handle on what happened at Trent. Given the situation of the RCC at the moment, which is in large part determined by Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II, it is exceedingly important that we know not only what happened at Trent, but also what did not happen.

He does an especially good job making distinct the actual acts of the council from the reception and perception of the council. His delineation of the political situation was a real eye-opener. The reason why the council took so long and was interrupted, was due to the highly volatile political situation involving the two most powerful political entities (France and the Holy Roman Empire) in their various relations and machinations with the popes of the day.

The only thing I wish he had done was to analyze the Joint Declaration that the Lutherans did with the Roman Catholics. O’Malley seems to think that the entire discussion of whether the anathemas of Trent still apply is to be referred to those ecumenical discussions. I’m not so sure about that, to put it mildly, and I would have liked to see his own evaluation of that in the light of his own mastery of the history of Trent. Still, this is only a minor blemish on a work of fantastic historical value. If you want to know what happened at Trent, you really need to read this book.

Carl Trueman’s Seminar

Original Sin in Modern Theology

He plans on dealing with four theologians (Friedrich Schleiermacher, Walter Rauschenbusch, Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann). Modern theology, in losing scriptural authority, has lost its unifying factor. He seeks to look at the implications of their project. His basic conclusion is that, in modern theology, sin is horizontal, and not vertical. That is, it brings about enmity between people, and has no implications with a relationship to God.

Friedrich Schleiermacher: original sin became distasteful, and therefore ignored. He wanted to rebuild Christian dogmatics. The God-consciousness (the feeling of utter dependence). Psychology is central to his understanding of sin. The human is two-fold: the higher consciousness and sense consciousness. Obstruction of the sense of the higher consciousness is Schleiermacher’s definition of sin. Sin is psychological. For Schleiermacher, Jesus is the primary example of someone living in utter dependence. He doesn’t care whether Adam and Eve were historical. He regards the traditional teaching on Adam and Eve is incoherent. He believes that creation is inherently flawed. The Fall is therefore a paradigm of how the sensuous consciousness obstructs the God-consciousness. Sin is a disruption of human psychology.

Walter Rauschenbusch: (the originator of the social gospel). Rauschenbusch sought to recast Christianity in such a way as to address social problems. The kingdom of God is central to his theology: but not as individual, but a more corporate focus (can anyone say New Perspective on Paul? LK). Sin of the structures is a Rauschenbusch construct. He implicitly denies the historicity of Adam. His view of Christianity is purely pragmatic. All ideas are judged by their practical merit. He views the traditional view of the Fall as downplaying later societal evils. He does, however, believe in human solidarity. For him, sin is selfishness (dependent on Schleiermacher). If sin is primarily horizontal, then there is no basis for opposing gay marriage. So, this is not just an ethereal irrelevancy.

Karl Barth: he was definitely a rebel against Schleiermacher and Rauschenbusch. However, his thinking on original sin owes quite a bit to liberalism. He often uses the language of orthodoxy, but opposes the ideas behind the traditional doctrine. Barth distinguishes between historie and geschichte (history and significance). Adam and Eve are saga, a third term that is close to myth. He posits a contradiction between Genesis 1 and 2. Plus, he rejects the unfallen nature of the creation before the Fall. For Barth, Adam is Everyman. Adam is the truth concerning us. Adam as the paradigm for us is something Barth has in common with Schleiermacher. Barth reverses the first and second Adams. This pushes Barth in a universalistic direction, though he is not explicit. We are not IN Adam, but we actually ARE Adam.

Rudolf Bultmann: arguably the most influential New Testament scholar of the twentieth century. He actually believed that the idea of a pristine creation is due to a gnostic intrusion into the New Testament. Bultmann says that Paul’s account of sin is incoherent. Bultmann believed that the Fall is a myth.

Conclusion: All are in the stream of Enlightenment theology. All reject the relevance of the historicity of Adam. They don’t necessarily say that Adam wasn’t historical. They are saying it doesn’t really matter whether Adam was or not. There is therefore no movement from pristine innocence to guilt, which in turn brings into question the transition from guilt to grace. The nature of sin as attenuated. The “problem” of the injustice of the imputation of Adam’s guilt is not solved in modern theology. If we can’t be held accountable for Adam’s sin, then why should we be help accountable for our own sin?

Jon Payne on the Heidelberg Catechism

This year is the 450th anniversary of the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism. The reception of the Heidelberg Catechism was excellent right from the beginning. Bullinger called it the best catechism ever written. However, little of the knowledge of that catechism is left today.

Elector Frederick II, the ruler of the Palatinate, began to embrace Lutheranism about 20 years after Luther’s posting of the 95 theses. The Peace of Augsburg in 1555 was crucial to making Protestantism legal. The polity of that agreement was that whichever religion the ruler was of a particular region was, that was the religion of the region. Frederick II prepared the ground for Frederick III (not Frederick of Saxony) to bring great reform to the entire region.

Frederick steered the Palatinate more towards Geneva after the death of Melanchthon. The Lord’s Supper controversies between the Gnesio-Lutherans and the Melanchthonians was a bitter debate. The former believed in absolutely no change from Luther’s views. The Melanchthonians were much more open to Reformed ideas. Frederick III decided that the Gnesio-Lutherans had to go. Hence Zacharias Ursinus came to the Palatinate. Ursinus was Polish. Ursinus studied in Wittenburg under Melanchthon. He was greatly influenced by the major Reformers during his tour of Reformation cities. This might explain his gradual shift to the Genevan Reformation out of the Lutheran stream. He studied under Vermigli. Ursinus was like Calvin, in desiring a quiet life of study. But Ursinus was not allowed by God to have that. Frederick II appointed him to the College of Wisdom, and the University of Heidelberg.

There is a great outline of the Catechism, of course, in question 2, which lays out guilt, grace, and gratitude, a good way to share the gospel with someone. It is noteworthy also that the exposition of the law does not come under the section on guilt, which would be more consistent with the first use of the law. In the Heidelberg Catechism, the treatment of the Ten Commandments comes under the section on gratitude. Use the Heidelberg Catechism!

Jon Payne on John Owen and the Means of Grace

Word, sacraments and prayer are the means of grace. Owen is needed, because our churches are losing their Reformed moorings because of an over-emphasis on urban culture, and a substitute of our own means of grace for God’s means of grace.

Owen was raised by a non-conformist father. His time at Oxford was long and fulsome. He went to hear Edmund Calamy, but, in God’s providence, Calamy was not there. Yet the Lord used the substitute’s message to work powerfully in Owen’s life. Married Mary Rook. Had 11 children, only 1 of whom lived to adulthood. Owen was an ecclesiastical statesman, as being chaplain to Oliver Cromwell.

Public worship and liturgy was a hugely controversial subject at the time, and figured large in Owen’s work. As Mohler would say, if you want to know what a church is really like, go worship with them and listen to the preaching. You will learn who they are by looking at their worship. Lex credendi, lex orandi: the law of belief is the law of worship. If there is such a thing as acceptable worship, then there is such a thing as unacceptable worship. The persons of the worshipers need to be accepted first. Secondly, worship can only be of God’s own appointment. Evangelical graces need to be exercised in worship. Getting worship outwardly correct is not enough. There needs to be a subjectively active and pious attendance on worship.

God’s means of grace are efficacious: they work! In our modern age where people no longer believe this, we hear from the Word that the means of grace work as efficacious for salvation. Owen didn’t write anything on preaching. The sermons we have are parliament sermons, not his normal week to week sermons. Owen’s sermons on the Lord’s Supper are rich sacramental theology (and are in volume 9).

Jon Payne on Charles Simeon

The overall topic of the pre-conference is “Recovering a Reformed Ministry.”

God rests too inconsequentially on ministers and on ministry. He means this, of course, in the sense that we are not aware enough of God, not that God is at fault in any way.

Simeon’s life and ministry are a good corrective to problems in ministry today. He preached for over 54 years. For decades, Simeon was the object of scorn and derision by students at Cambridge. And yet, he persevered in preaching the true gospel. Born in 1759. Eton at that time was completely devoid of true piety. Simeon entered into Cambridge, which was no different. Simeon thought, upon being required to attend communion, that Satan was just as qualified to attend communion as him. He read William Law’s book on what was required of man, a very moralistic book. Then he read a different book that set out the substitutionary atonement, which converted him.

Simeon faced enormous difficulty in his church at Cambridge, where the people completely rejected him, and found many ways to make his life extremely difficult for many years. The students once threw eggs in his face. Simeon knew that the ministry would not be easy. So many stood against him. But Simeon knew he was on the Lord’s side. He was first and foremost a preacher.

Simeon preached the gospel, but did not forget the imperatives of the Bible. Our anemic preaching of the third use of the law is highly detrimental to the Lord God.

We need to preach when it is convenient and when it is not. Consistently cultivate personal, biblical piety. Cultivate humility. Simeon believed that downward was upward. We are making disciples of Jesus Christ, not disciples of us. We should not neglect the global task of the gospel just because of the local church ministry. Invest in the next generation of ministers. Never negotiate the primacy of preaching.

Ignatius’ Epistle to the Romans

The two editions of this epistle are again debated, with most scholars believing that the shorter version (thought, in this case, not much shorter!) is the original. We will base our comments on this edition. You can find the Donaldson translation here, and the Lightfoot translation here. The Greek is available here, and the PG edition is here (starts on column 685).

An outline of the epistle follows these lines: Title, I. Desire to see the Romans (ch. 1); II. Desire for martyrdom (chs. 2-5); III. Reasons for desiring martyrdom (chs. 6-8); IV. Conclusion (chs. 9-10).

Ignatius really seems to have a death wish in this letter. He wants to become food for the wild beasts. His words are: “Suffer me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.” He was, in fact, sentenced to a death by wild beasts in the Colosseum, according to tradition.

One incidental thing needs to be mentioned. I looked carefully for any evidence pro or con the Romanist claims concerning the succession of Peter at Rome. There is no mention of the leadership of the church at Rome. Neither side, therefore, can gain much fodder for their arguments.

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