Friday, June 29, 2007

Declaration #3: Imputation

The PCA Federal Vision Report's third declaration states:

"The view that Christ does not stand as a representative head whose perfect obedience and satisfaction is imputed to individuals who believe in him is contrary to the Westminster Standards."
Representative of the view the report condemns is Rich Lusk's, who insists that justification, biblically understood,
"... requires no transfer or imputation of anything. It does not force us to reify 'righteousness' into something that can be shuffled around in heavenly accounting books.... My in-Christ-ness makes imputation redundant" ("A Response to 'The Biblical Plan of Salvation'" in The Auburn Avenue Theology, Pros and Cons, 142).
I'll deal with the view, so characteristic of nineteenth-century liberalism, that assumes a disharmony between the filial and the forensic in a later post. For now, though, I will point out the problems, biblically and confessionally, with Lusk's view of imputation.

"Justification," according to Paul, comes to "sinners" as a "free gift of righteousness" through the "one act of righteousness" and "one man's obedience" that are "imputed by faith apart from works" (Rom. 5:16, 12, 17, 19; 4:6). Righteousness, then, is something that one may "have" in one's account (Phil. 3:9 [despite Lusk's distaste for economic metaphors]).

Confessionally speaking, Jesus "perfect obedience and sacrifice" have "fully satisfied the justice" of his Father (WCF VIII.5). We are justified by our being "accounted" as righteous, through God's "imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ" to us (WCF XI.1). Christ's "obedience and death" comprise his "proper, real, and full satisfaction to the Father’s justice" (WCF XI.3). Our Mediator's work, therefore, resulted in "exact justice" for him, and "rich grace" for those whom he represented (WCF XI.3).

Though no one is confessionally bound to call it "active" and "passive" obedience, we are bound to uphold Jesus' "obedience" and "satisfaction" as the imputed ground of our justification.

"Tomato" / "To-mah-to" if you ask me....

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Declaration #2: Election

The second declaration of the PCA's Federal Vision Report states:
"The view that an individual is 'elect' by virtue of his membership in the visible church; and that this 'election' includes justification, adoption and sanctification; but that this individual could lose his 'election' if he forsakes the visible church, is contrary to the Westminster Standards."
The view the committee has in mind is represented by PCA pastor Steve Wilkins who, after arguing that all who have been baptized are elect and in covenant with God, writes:
"The elect are those who are faithful in Christ Jesus. If they later reject the Savior, they are no longer elect - they are cut off from the Elect One and thus, lose their elect standing.... All in covenant are given all that is true of Christ. If they persevere in faith to the end, they enjoy these mercies eternally. If they fall away in unbelief, they lose these blessings and receive a greater condemnation than Sodom and Gomorrah" ("Covenant, Baptism, and Salvation" in The Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros and Cons, 261, 263).
To his credit, Wilkins saves us hassle of citing the Westminster Standards for the purpose of comparative analysis by admitting that Federal Visionists, following Scripture, "seem to use the terms 'covenant,' elect,' and 'regeneration' in a different way than the Westminster Confession uses them" (Ibid., 268).

By obliterating the traditional Reformed and confessional distinction between the visible and invisible church, and by allowing covenant to swallow election whole, the Federal Vision fails to provide the (much-needed) antidote to revivalism that they originally sought to give us.

Instead, we are left with an arrangement, begun by baptism and completed by Spirit-wrought covenant faithfulness, according to which we can gain such saving benefits as election, regeneration, and vital union with Christ, only to potentially lose them on the last day.

In short, we are left with an arrangement that, though not completely Pelagian, isn't truly Pauline either.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Declaration #1: Monocovenantalism

I realize I'm interrupting my series on VanDrunen's project (to which I hope to return), but I think it would be timely to consider the nine "declarations" of the PCA's Federal Vision Report received a couple weeks ago at the denomination's General Assembly. The first declaration states:

"The view that rejects the bi-covenantal structure of Scripture as represented in the Westminster Standards (i.e., views which do not merely take issue with the terminology, but the essence of the first/second covenant framework) is contrary to those Standards."
As you may know, it is fashionable in various circles (i.e., New Perspective, Norman Shepherd, Federal Vision) to insist that God's dealings with his creatures have always been gracious. After all, no creature—fallen or not—can ever hope to earn anything from God by means of merit, right?

As laudable (and Reformed) as this emphasis upon divine grace may appear at first blush, I would argue that it both flatly contradicts the teaching of the Westminster Standards and serves, ironically perhaps, to undermine the grace it seeks to exalt.

To demonstrate the first charge, one may appeal to the fact that the Confession clearly states that God made "a first covenant" and "a second covenant" with man, the former being called "a covenant of works," the latter "a covenant of grace." Moreover, the covenant of works promises life upon the condition of "personal and perfect obedience," while the latter offers life and salvation to all who exercise faith in Christ (which faith is itself a gift). This does not amount to one covenant with a different administration pre- and post-fall, but two covenants administered according to different principles altogether (works and grace).

As to the charge that the monocovenantalism of the Federal Vision undermines divine grace, I would argue that if a sinner's salvation is not earned by "obedience" to God's law and "satisfaction" of God's justice (accomplished by Christ), but is simply given by grace, then either justification becomes a legal fiction (since God's standards have not really been met), or the onus of meeting those standards falls back on the believer, euphemistically disguised as "covenant faithfulness."


Friday, June 22, 2007

Covenant and Theology Proper

"How the covenant theme pertains to the doctrine of God, 'theology proper,'" writes David VanDrunen, "is perhaps not as obvious [as the relationship of covenant to other loci]."

He begins by warning the reader against a lack of caution when "venturing to speak of God's inner life and Trinitarian essence." Instead, he argues, we should begin with the pactum salutis, the "covenant of redemption." This intra-Trinitarian arrangement by which the three Persons of the Godhead agreed together to bring about the redemption of fallen sinners, "thrusts before us the portarait of eternal, intratrinitarian divine counsel transpiring covenantally." In this counsel, "the Trinitarian Persons manifest the very attributes that demand central attention in the doctrine of God: wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth."

Furthermore, the covenantal nature of this inner Trinitarian life is shown in Jesus' statement that the believer's relationship with the Father is analogous to his own (John 17:21). "If covenant governs the ectype, how much more the archtype?"

Obviously, VanDrunen is not calling for a complete recasting of theology proper and christology in terms solely covenantal (which should alleviate some of your suspicion). Rather, he simply seems to be arguing that the doctrine of covenant provides a touchstone, a starting point from which these loci should be considered (a safer one than mere speculative attempts to penetrate the hiddenness of the divine nature).

And remember, those of you who think I'm overly dismissive of systematic theology: The entire context of VanDrunen's discussion is his larger argument that the Westminster Seminaries have never really done systematics at all. So contra Murray, Strimple, and Gaffin, he is issuing a call to do more than simply exegete relevant Bible passages.

If we call it "systematic," then let's have a system, for crying out loud....

Monday, June 18, 2007

Covenantal Prolegomenon

"The doctrine of the covenants," writes David VanDrunen, "can itself unite the various strands of theology into a unified, coherent, and harmonious whole." The Bible, after all, is more than an ecclectic and hasily-thrown-together gaggle of battle accounts, prophecies, parables, and personal letters. It is the story of the creation, fall, redemption, and consummation of all things, the playwright and director of which is God, and the lead character in which is his Son.

So let's unpack this idea that "all of the basic realms that systematic theology investigates are defined in covenantal terms," shall we?

VanDrunen begins with Prolegomenon, which is basically a fancy codeword for our method of doing theology, the various tools we need in order to begin our task. Building upon Michael Horton's work, VanDrunen argues that we should allow the Bible itself to provide us with our theological and hermeneutical method, rather than our bringing our own preferred method to the table.

A "covenantal prolegomenon," therefore, would begin with the biblical insistence, echoed in WFC vii.1, that the relationship between the Creator and his creatures occurs through a "voluntary condescension on God's part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant." In other words, we do not relate to God in a purely individual capacity, but collectively and covenantally.

As passages like Jeremiah 31:35-36, 33:20-26, Psalm 19, and Romans 1 demonstrate, "Man's first contact with nature, both that within and outside of himself, confronts him with the powerful Deity who is none other than covenant Lord.... In this light," VanDrunen concludes, "prolegomenon is thoroughly covenantal."

So what think ye? A worthwhile project? A stretch?

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Westminster Systematics: An Oxymoron?

In his essay entitled "A System of Theology? The Centrality of Covenant for Westminster Systematics," Westminster Seminary California's Associate Professor of Systematic Theology David VanDrunen begins with "the provocative question of whether the Westminster Seminaries have ever actually done systematic theology." He argues that Murray, Gaffin, and Strimple were actually exegetes, not systematicians, "perform[ing] their 'systematics' task by exegeting passages related to various topics under consideration, [while remaining] relatively uninterested in developing a system as such" (see The Pattern of Sound Doctrine, p. 195-220).

Toward developing such a system, VanDrunen suggests that "the Reformed doctrine of the covenants [is] the place where a system of theology can be centered and from which it can emerge in orderly coherence and biblical fidelity" (p. 196).

Before outlining what this might look like, a few caveats are offered. First, since all theology arises from Scripture, "the rigorous exegesis that has marked the tradition must be sacrosanct." Further, Vos's appreciation for a redemptive-historical hermeneutic must be maintained, with biblical theology functioning as a servant of systematics. VanDrunen's final concern is to not allow a system to be forced upon Scripture as a straitjacket that controls exegesis and stifles God's Word.

As long as systematics' various loci are arranged around a single doctrine (justification for Lutherans, predestination for hyper-Calvinists), these dangers are not likely to be avoided. But if the Scripture itself provides "a way of expressing the unity and coherence of the whole of Reformed doctrine, an architectonic structure that undergirds all of the various threads of revealed truth," then we can begin taking steps in the right direction.

This idea that "centers" the system while not being "the center" of it, is the doctrine of the covenants. In subsequent posts I plan to flesh this out with the good professor's help. Stay tuned....

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Forest and Trees, Parts and the Whole

Our discussion concerning the role and authority of confessions leads us, quite naturally, into the somewhat murky relationship of systematic- to biblical theology. The former focuses on revelation as a whole and has been likened to a road map, whereas the latter focuses on the unfolding of God's redemptive plan, and has been described as a topographical map. In the former the dots are connected, while the latter displays the hills, valleys, and plot twists of the divine drama.

Systematic theology has traditionally been dubbed "the queen of the biblical sciences," and without a doubt, we ignore it at tremendous cost to our faith (which, I would argue, is happening in so-called Federal Vision circles as we speak). But at the same time, when Scripture becomes a "cul-de-sac of isolated proof-texts" to reinforce our dogmatic assumptions, we have fallen off the tightrope in the opposite direction.

"In both biblical theology and systematic theology," writes Michael Horton, "the dialectic of whole and parts, never resting on one or the other, is always generating greater refinement as well as scope" (Covenant and Eschatology, 240). In fact, a handful of professors at Westminster Seminary California are advocating a reintegration of these two disciplines under the rubric of covenant (an idea I plan to explore in subsequent posts).

When the eschatological subcurrent of Scripture is appreciated, doing theology becomes less clinical and abstract, and theology is approached the way one would approach a person rather than a subject under a microscope.
"[Biblical theology] is not theology from a 'God's-eye' perspective, but from down on the ground, where one is never quite sure what looms over the horizon of the next mountain range until one arrives there. To be sure, there are directions, prophetic anticipations of what one will find, but the fulfillment always surpasses expectations" (Ibid., 241).
Jesus Christ, the focus of Holy Writ, is not a "timeless idea" but a Person. But how do we study God's revelation of him while avoiding dogmatism on the one hand, and biblicism on the other?

Thursday, June 07, 2007

We're One, But We're Not the Same

Ecumenical calls for visible, institutional unity among believers have led to everything from the establishment of the World Council of Churches to the more modest appeals for Reformation churches to stop sniping at one another over the alleged "logical consequences" of their respective theologies.

Is it disingenuous for Reformed churches to simultaneously speak of unity while holding to confessions whose doctrinal lines serve as high, barbed-wired walls that keep out those whose soteriology cannot pass muster?

I don't think so....

As one commenter on the previous thread has pointed out, it is, ironically, the confessionalist who does a better job of maintaining at least a grassroots—though not institutional—unity among those in other traditions. It makes sense if you think about it: The pietists' emphasis upon the invisible aspect of God's church necessarily results in a very ambiguous test to determine who is "really saved" and who is just going through the motions (i.e., Presbyterian). If God has touched your heart, if you've been baptized with the Spirit, or if you're abiding in Christ through personal morning quiet times, you're probably in. If not, it may be time to rededicate.

By stressing the visible rather than the hidden and invisible aspect of the church, the Reformed confessionalist can foster a kind of unity with people from other communions (be they Lutheran, Anglican, or even Roman Catholic) which does not hinge upon burnings in the bosom, but upon something we can actually observe, i.e., the credible profession of one's faith in Jesus.

Sure, it's grassroots rather than institutional unity, but could it be that this is what the New Testament is calling us to in the first place?

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Unity and Uniformity

It seems to me that in order for there to be true unity in a community or church, there must be a variety of opinions represented. Unity, after all, is not the same as uniformity, neither is oneness simply sameness. The result of removing the option to differ may be called unity in some circles, though I prefer the label totalitarianism. "We're one," sings the Irish prophet, "but we're not the same."

This does invite the question, however, of just where the border lies which, if transgressed, places one outside the community's pale. Or to couch the question in ecclesiological terms, how much semper reformanda can a church do and still remain reformata? Can a church reform itself to the point where it is no longer recognizably Reformed?

There is a discernable tension here, especially for those, like me, who desire both to remain confessional and non-biblicist, but whose consciences are bound to the Word and to faithful exegesis of it.

There are a few options that I can identify to alleviate this tension: 1). We can simply trust the exegetical conclusions of those who drafted our confessional documents; 2). We can abandon their conclusions in favor of our own; 3). We can advocate a confession that limits itself to those doctrines that are indispensible to the Reformed system of doctrine, while remaining silent on issues more peripheral. If the second option is properly labeled biblicism, then the first could be called traditionalism.

But if we opt for solution #3, where do we even begin?