Thursday, December 31, 2009

All is Quiet on New Year's Day

The title of this post, as many of you probably know, comes from U2’s “New Year’s Day” from their 1983 album War (which, incidentally, is the first U2 song I ever heard, after which, at age ten, I went out and bought the LP. The rest, as the fella said, is history). So here I am, 26 years later on what will in two hours be New Year’s Day, sipping Bunnahabhain, reading Hemmingway, listening to U2’s latest album No Line on the Horizon, and wondering where all the time has gone.

Exactly ten years ago tonight, at the turn of the millennium, I was preaching a sermon from Romans 9 to a group of Hungarians from the Calvary Chapels of Miskolc and Debrecen on the glory of God displayed in both the salvation of the elect and the damnation of the reprobate (I was young). Less than a month later I would find out that we would be kicked out of Calvary because of sermons like that, and three months later my wife and I would move back to the U.S. and figure out what the next step would be.

At this moment it is hitting me with an almost crushing sense of wonder that the ‘90s were no longer last decade, but now the decade before last. I began that decade a 16 year-old and ended it at the ripe old age of 26. I spent almost a year of it in Africa and six years of it in Europe, and it was during those years in Hungary especially that I sort of became who I am, both personally, philosophically, and theologically. It is probably the hours and hours I spent wandering the streets, alleyways, and courtyards of Budapest thinking about love and life and lamentation that are to blame for my ever-increasing desire to get back there somehow (for now I must content myself with videos like the one below, directed by an old friend). Ah, nostalgia: It ain’t what it used to be….

So anyway, here I am, waxing pensive and realizing once again that all my desires—whether for things past or things to come—are really just a big ol’ farce, nothing more than a longing for heaven that is every bit as hounding as it is haunting, equally intransient as inconvenient. “My mind races with all my longings,” sings the poet, “but can’t keep up with what I’ve got.” But I suppose I’m in good company, for if Adam longed for something better than Paradise, then who am I to be content with life in a passing age, characterized as it is by a servile bondage to decay and death?

A raising of the glass, then, to the coming decade—may it be filled with mirth as well as melancholy, laughter as well as lament. May we rise high above our feats and defeats, knowing that at the end of the Day when all is said and done, earth simply isn’t worthy of us.

(But I sure like it sometimes....)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

From Eternity to Here: Baptism, Eschatologically Considered

Sometimes we Reformed paedobaptists spend so much time defending the confessional view of the status of covenant children that we forget that baptism is a way bigger topic than merely the mode or subjects of the sacrament. Sure, the sprinkling-water-on-the-baby’s-head part is integral to the baptism discussion, but to focus solely on the mechanics and beneficiaries of baptism is to exalt the trees over the forest, or to change the metaphor, it is to use the microscope to the exclusion of the telescope. To modify the words of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes 3, there’s a time to zoom in, but also a time to break out the wide-angle lens.

Peter’s words to the crowd on the Day of Pentecost have a much broader significance than we often realize:

Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself (Acts 2:38-39).
In a word, what the apostle is inviting his hearers to do is something every bit as cataclysmic and profound as what happened to Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy when they dared to venture through the back of that magical wardrobe into the strange, new world of Narnia. Baptism represents an intrusion of the age to come into this present world, a breaking-in of the dynamic of heaven to the here and now. As the waters are applied, the sky is split and the pavement cracks, and all that we once were is forever changed. William Willimon writes:

In baptism, we are subsumed into a story of water and the word. A story of creation formed out of dark waters. A story of a God so righteous that he was willing to make war on the world he created.... A story of a people, created out of nothing, by a God determined to be worshiped rightly, led through waters into the desert as imperial chariots foundered. A story of a Jewish woman visited by God in a way that confounded her fiancé but caused her to sing. A story of a crazy man out in the desert proclaiming a new kingdom coming in water and fire. A story of One who saved by an issue of water and blood.[1]
The first thing that baptism accomplishes, claims Peter, is giving us a new past: “Be baptized... for the forgiveness of your sins.” The connection between baptism and forgiveness of sins is also made by Ananias in his instruction to the newly-converted Saul of Tarsus: “Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins” (Acts 22:16), and is echoed in the Nicene Creed’s statement that “We believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” “Do you not know,” Paul asks the Romans, “that as many of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” In the same way that Christ “died to sin,” so we who have been united to him participate in that death to all that once defined us.

In addition to giving us a new past, baptism gives us a new family in the present. As Peter’s words in v. 39 indicate, our earthly, familial ties are transcended—and in some cases trumped—by our baptismal union with “all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” Despite our modern and gnostic desire to maintain our personal relationship with Jesus apart from the awkward and inconvenient tie to the church (filled as it is with actual—and often annoying—people), the fact is that we can’t have the Head without the Body. Through baptism we are ushered into the middle of a tale quite long in the telling, a saga having been spun for thousands of years. This redemptive drama began with a married couple, then grew into a family of eight, then a tribe under the leadership of a chieftain, then twelve tribes that grew into a nation ruled by a king, until it eventually expanded into a truly worldwide and catholic Church with members from every kindred, tongue, people, and nation. Paul tells the Galatians that “As many of you as were baptized into Christ Jesus... are all one in Christ” (3:27, 28). And furthermore, whenever God’s people worship, we do so in the presence of this great “cloud of witnesses” together with whom we are summoned into God’s heavenly presence. Patriarchs and prophets, apostles and martyrs, bishops and fathers, sinners and saints—all of them gather with us as we, together with innumerable angels in festal array, get a glimpse (albeit brief) of the glorious banquet at which we will sit with the Mediator of the New Covenant whose bloods speaks a more comforting word than that of Abel (Heb. 12:1, 22-24).

Lastly, baptism bestows upon us a new future. “Be baptized,” Peter insists, “and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (v. 38). The Spirit is always spoken of in the New Testament in terms that hearken us forward to the new age, the age to come that began to dawn on Easter Sunday and will be finally consummated when Jesus returns. “You were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit,” Paul writes to the Ephesians, “who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it” (1:13-14). The Greek word that is translated “guarantee” (arrabōn, used in modern Greek for engagement ring) denotes a down payment toward something that will be fully acquired in the future. Through baptism God the Father marks us off as his own, bestowing upon us the Spirit of the age to come whose role is to bring the dynamic of the “not yet” to bear upon the “already.” David Dark writes:

Whether it’s trees clapping their hands, stars falling from the sky, bloody red moons, or crystal seas—it’s as if the new world on the way requires constant re-articulation to best bear witness of its freshness and new-every-morningness, perpetually straining forward to what lies ahead.[2]
One of the ways this “new world on the way” is “re-articulated” in the here and now is through the sacrament of baptism. Living the Christian life, therefore, is tantamount to living the baptized life, for this ancient ritual serves to pull the future into the present, effectively bringing the believer from eternity to here.

[1] William Willimon, Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 5.
[2] David Dark, Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, The Simpsons, and Other Pop Culture Icons (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2002), 12-13.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Who Said That?

A tip of my hat to anyone who can, without Googling, identify the source of this quote:

There [is a distinction between] one kind of understanding of earthly things; another of heavenly. I call “earthly things” those which do not pertain to God or his Kingdom, to true justice, or to the blessedness of the future life; but which have their significance and relationship with regard to the present life and are, in a sense, confined within its bounds. I call “heavenly things” the pure knowledge of God, the nature of true righteousness, and the mysteries of the Heavenly Kingdom. The first class includes government, household management, all mechanical skills, and the liberal arts. In the second are the knowledge of God and of his will, and the rule by which we conform our lives to it.
Good luck....

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Woman Who Rides the Beast

I received something quite earth-shattering in the mail a couple days ago addressed to Occupant, sent from Baptist Gospel Tabernacle in Youngstown, OH (I'm just assuming they sent the same thing to every single home in America, so you probably know exactly what I'm referring to). The envelope included a tract (printed on newsprint using what appears to have been carbon paper) called The Priest Who Found Christ, a photocopied collage of various newspaper clippings about a future cashless society, Billy Graham, and the Federal Council of Churches, and a single-spaced, front-and-back article that begins with the words, "What I am about to say is the most important thing you will ever read. If you are not afraid to face reality then read on. If you are afraid then STOP, this message is not for you."

Hmmm....

On the one hand I am a sucker for reverse phychology, it always works on me. So my first thought was, "Oh, so you think I might be afraid to read what you've written? Well, we'll see about that! I'm going to read it, now who's the moron?" But then I thought to myself, "But then again, this paper is the most important thing I will ever read. Do I really want to take such a drastic step at such a young age? I mean, if it was only the most important thing I have read up until now, that'd be one thing. But if I read this paper and live to be 80, that means every single thing I read for the next 44 years will be comparatively unimportant." What to do?

Throwing caution to the wind, I read on.

We have 2 systems seeking desperately to enslave the world in bondage. These 2 are the Roman Catholic hierarchy and Communism.... The Berlin Wall coming down was not a step towards freedom; it was merely the reuniting of communism & Catholicism with one goal in mind....to "CONQUER" the whole world.
Gulp. (Whispering): I know some Roman Catholics. Shoot, I have shelves filled with books by Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Naomi Klein. Am I a sitting duck, mere brainwash-bait waiting to get swept up against my will into some underground lair where I'll be forced into religious cannibalism while watching Rocky IV and cheering for Drago to kill the Italian Stallion like he did Apollo Creed?

Hands trembling, I continued reading:

In 310 A.D. Constantine the Pagan Emperor of Rome did exactly what Daniel said he would, he signed an edict that ALL his subjects HAD to worship on SUN-day. They're busy now making a new calendar to cover up their lie making MONDAY the first day so SUNDAY will come out the 7th. Nice try, but GOD's people will not be deceived.
It was a "nice try," so nice, in fact, that I had bought into the lie hook, line, and sinker. Is there any hope for me?

The POPE brain-washed the people into praying to Mary who in reality is the Pagan goddess found in the 7th chapter of Jeremiah.
Uh-oh. I have read Jeremiah 7 before, how did I never notice that it taught that Jesus' own mother was a pagan goddess? And if she was around in Jeremiah's day, then she must have been really old when Jesus was born! And if she could dupe the angel Gabriel himself into calling her "full of grace," then are any of us safe from her devious and hypnotic skills? Needless to say, I was shaken by this point, yea, to my very core.

By the way, how could Peter have been the first POPE when he was married? Read it in Matthew 8:14. Are you surprised? Don't be.... There was no pope until Phocus the Emperor of Rome convinced Boniface III to play the role of Pope. The Popes are emperors in disguise. Never forget the Saint Bartholomew Massacre, World War II, the French Revolution, or the Spanish Inquisition. The CATHOLIC System is responsible for ALL these wars and the wars of today. Soon GOD will DESTROY THE VATICAN AND COMMUNISM. Read it in Revelations 17 and Ezekiel 39. WAKE UP MY FRIEND!!!
Dang! I totally forgot about World War Two! Toward the end of the paper there were some recommended books for further study that:

... can be purchased through CHICK PUBLICATIONS. If you have been warned by your church not to read CHICK TRACTS, it's only because they do not want you to learn the truth. You've spent a lifetime swallowing their lies HOOK, LINE & SINKER... now WAKE UP!!!
Oh, I'm awake, perhaps more awake then I've ever been before. The first thing I need to do is get Doc Brown to juice up the DeLorean's flux capacitor with enough plutonium to reach 1.21 jigawatts so I can hightail it outta 1955. This place is scary.

And if that fails, I'll need the switchboard operator to patch me through to Joseph McCarthy and Loraine Boettner. Surely they'll know what to do....

Thursday, December 17, 2009

What Do "Apostates to Rome" and "Machen's Vitriolic Spawn" Have in Common?

I am honestly trying really hard to figure out why Mark Horne is mad at me this time.

As far as I can tell (and I'm open to correction here), his logic goes something like this: I have no business refusing to call Peter Leithart a heretic if I will allow an "apostate to Rome" (Mark's words) to subtly imply in the combox under my most recent post that the CREC may not actually be a part of the visible church.

(Insert image of head spinning around here)

Apparently, consistency demands that I treat Leithart like a heretic even if I don't believe he is one because, after all, someone on my blog whom I have never met made a comment that could potentially be construed as offensive to people in the CREC (and the person who made it is a Catholic, which is about as far away from being a rabid, Westminster-West member of "Machen's vitriolic spawn" as one can be. Oh, that description comes from one of Mark's commenters).

Well, while I fail to understand the logic of this post, at least I understand a bit better now why people like me are treated so disrespectfully by people like Mark Horne. The logic of internet consistency demands it.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Further Reflection on the Judgment of the SJC Panel

One of the most interesting statements in the PCA's preliminary decision rendered by the panel of its Standing Judicial Commision is the following:

By appealing to Scripture... to justify positions that are out of accord with our Standards, an individual, or group, is in effect... amending the Constitution, not by judicial act, but by personal interpretation. If someone believes that the Standards have incorrectly or inadequately stated what Scripture says about a particular topic, then instead of ignoring what our Standards state and justifying their positions by personal interpretations of Scripture which are not consistent with the Standards, they should propose amendments to the Standards to clarify or expand the Standards, since our Constitution holds them out to be "standard expositions of the teachings of Scripture."
A couple thoughts in response to this. First, this calls into question the validity of the tactic used by Federal Visionists and others who insist that they are not contradicting what the Standards say by their suspicious expositions of Scripture, but only going beyond the Standards and saying more (this is done, we are told, so as to reflect more accurately what the Bible actually teaches).

My question at this point goes something like this: If the Westminster Standards teach that union with Christ is a saving and therefore non-losable benefit, but if I decide to "go-beyond-the-Sandards-but-not-contradict-them" by teaching my congregation that they may lose their union with Christ, how have I not fallen under the condemnation of the SJC's judgment above?

Secondly, how is it that Catholic and Orthodox believers can maintain that Reformed confessionalists are no different from the no-creed-but-Christ, just-me-and-my-Bible evangelicals when the PCA's highest courts says that "by appealing to Scripture to justify positions that are out of accord with our Standards, an individual is in effect amending the Constitution, not by judicial act, but by personal interpretation"? Is not this statement effectively denying sole interpretive authority to the individual, and placing it rather in the hands of the church and its Confession and Catechisms?

That's all. I just needed to get a couple things off my chest....

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Ruling of the PCA's Standing Judicial Commission

A panel of the Standing Judicial Commission of the Presbyterian Church in America (which is the denomination’s highest court) issued its proposed ruling a few hours ago with respect to the complaint against the Pacific Northwest Presbytery that was filed by me and two others (for background, see here and here). The final ruling will be made in March.

In a word, our complaint was upheld, and SJC agreed that the presbytery erred in its failure to find a strong presumption of guilt on the part of TE Peter Leithart due to his doctrinal views being out of accord with the Westminster Standards concerning various fundamental issues. The ruling can be downloaded here, and some selective passages are pasted below:

Did PNW err in its handling of the reports from the PNW Study Committee appointed to
examine Leithart's fitness to continue as a PCA Teaching Elder?

Yes. The Complaint is sustained, and the case is sent back to PNW with instructions to
institute process and appoint a prosecutor to prepare an Indictment of TE Leithart and to
conduct the case (BCO 31-2).

The PNW case lies somewhere between these two cases [namely, those of the Louisiana and Siouxlands Presbyteries]. The PNW Study Committee was established after Leithart wrote to the PNW Stated Clerk to lay out his views with respect to the 9 Declarations. The PNW Study Committee was charged with examining Leithart's fitness to continue as a PCA Teaching Elder in light of the June 2007 General Assembly's receptions of the Ad Interim Committee's Report on the theology of the Federal Vision. In spite of being entitled a "study committee," what was essentially formed was a committee with an assignment to conduct a BCO 31-2 investigation. The work product of this Committee, including the Committee Report, the Minority Report, and Leithart' Response, constituted an excellent BCO 31-2 investigative report. The only conclusion that a court should reach, given the excellent work product produced by the PNW Study Committee, would be that there is a strong presumption of guilt that some of the views of Leithart are out of accord with some of the fundamentals of the system of doctrine taught in the Standards.

This does not mean that Leithart is a heretic. He is not. This does not mean that Leithart
is not or whether he is a Christian. He is. This does not necessarily mean that Leithart is outside of the broader reformed community. The sole question to be determined is whether Leithart's views place him outside of the Standards, as adopted by the Presbyterian Church in America.

Respondent argued in his brief that someone who holds to various central tenets of the Standards cannot be outside the Standards:

"In considering the views of Dr. Leithart, we are talking about someone who holds to the inerrancy of Scripture, to federal Reformed theology, the five points, penal substitutionary atonement, paedobaptism, and Presbyterianism and confesses his commitment to forensic justification, the necessity of faith for the effectiveness of baptism, etc. What are we saying if we say that such a man with such convictions cannot belong to our little Reformed Presbyterian church?"

But such an external criteria of central tenets is not the appropriate criteria. One could envision such central tenets that would encompass Anglicans within its bounds; similarly, Reformed Baptists could affirm some central tenets of the Standards. This does not mean that either Anglicans or Baptists are within the Standards. In the same way, Leithart appears to hold some views that place him outside of the fundamentals of the Standards, as adopted by the Presbyterian Church in America.

The error made by PNW was twofold. First, PNW erred in judging Leithart's views "to be
not out of accord with the fundamentals of our system of doctrine." Second, PNW also erred in not finding a strong presumption of guilt that some ofthe views of Leithart are "out of accord with the fundamentals of the system of doctrine taught in the Westminster Standards." Under BCO 31-2, "if such investigation, however originating, should result in raising a strong presumption of guilt of the party involved, the court shall institnte process" (emphasis added). The mandatory language of BCO 31-2 ("shall") means that under our polity, at this stage of the case, the proper procedure for determining Leithart's fitness to continue as a PCA Teaching Elder, as was the charge given to the PNW Study Committee, is to institute process under BCO 32 and 34.

One of the difficulties a court encounters when examining the views of men who hold views
styled as "Federal Vision," is a tendency to justify such views by appealing to Scripture in order to contradict the Standards. What Scripture says about a particular topic is set forth in our Standards.

BCO 39-3 states that:

"[W]hile affirming that the Scripture is "the supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined" (WCF 1.1 0), and that the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in America is "subordinate to the Scriptures ofthe Old and New Testaments, the inerrant Word of God" (BCO Preface III), and while affirming also that this Constitution is fallible (WCF 31.3), the Presbyterian Church in America affirms that this subordinate and fallible Constitution has been "adopted by the church" (BCO Preface, III) "as standard expositions of the teachings of Scripture in relation to both faith and practice" (BCO 29-1) and as setting forth a form of government and discipline "in conformity with the general principles of biblical polity" (BCO 21-5.3). To insure that this Constitution is not amended, violated or disregarded in judicial process, any review of the judicial proceedings of a lower court by a higher court shall by guided by the following principles.

By appealing to Scripture in this way to justify positions that are out of accord with our
Standards, an individual, or group, is in effect doing just that (i.e. amending the Constitution, not by judicial act, but by personal interpretation). If someone believes that the Standards have incorrectly or inadequately stated what Scripture says about a particular topic, then instead of ignoring what our Standards state and justifying their positions by personal interpretations of Scripture which are not consistent with the Standards, they should propose amendments to the Standards to clarify or expand the Standards, since our Constitution holds them out to be "standard expositions of the teachings of Scripture."

This tension is evidenced by the PNW Committee Report which states:
.
"Presbytery's study committee cheerfully acknowledges that it approached its task with the intention of allowing Dr. Leithart the greatest latitude consistent with the second ordination vow (BCO 21-5) and of placing the best, not worst construction on his statements."

It is our opinion that PNW, even though confronted with statement(s) and writing(s) of
Leithart that place him out of accord with the fundamentals of the Standards, as adopted by the Presbyterian Church in America, chose to place Leithart' statements in the kindest of light and not engage in critical thinking and reasoned judgment, by stating:
.
"In the committee' view Dr. Leithart's views are compatible with the teachings of our standards though there are certainly some differences in statement, emphasis, and elaboration. Our brief was to determine whether he denied or contradicted the teaching of our Standards, not to object if he wished to say more than they say or even, in confessing the same truth, to improve upon their form of words. That his positive constructions may seem in some respects difficult to reconcile with the language of our standards is not itself evidence that he denies their teaching. The dialectical character of biblical teaching famously produces tensions that remain difficult, if not impossible to resolve. The opinion of the committee that his views, while in some cases going beyond the formulations of the WCF, are not a denial of them, should not, however, be taken to mean that the committee is persuaded that Dr. Leithart's construction of the doctrines in dispute represent an advance in understanding or that they provide a more accurate account of the teachings of Holy Scripture.

"Much of Dr. Leithart's work purports to provide a more complete picture of biblical teaching than is represented in the systematic presentation of that teaching in the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. To that end he draws our attention to the fact that the biblical vocabulary of election, justification, and union with Christ is used in ways other than those uses reported in the Standards. He says often enough that, so far as it goes, the confessional summary is accurate, but he remains convinced that our doctrinal formulations would be enriched by careful attention to the complete biblical usage of this theological vocabulary. The complaint has been that using these terms in other than their accepted usage is unnecessarily confusing. The reply is that these are the Bible's own terms and a faithful interpreter of Scripture is duty bound to reckon with the fact that the Bible employs even these important theological terms in different ways. We likewise do not believe, we cannot believe, "that the Reformed confessions have been formed for all ages and stand in no further need of reformation."

"The committee wishes to say, however, that having read some of Dr. Leithart's works, we do wish he were more careful to avoid unnecessary confusion by stating more categorically and in different contexts what he is asserting in connection with the teaching of the Reformed tradition and, in particular, Westminster Calvinism, and perhaps more importantly, what he is not asserting.

"The committee does not feel that he has done all he could have done [as he has challenged accepted notions or critiqued familiar forms of words. Nevertheless, we are persuaded that at some key points, Dr. Leithart has, in fact, failed adequately to represent the fullness of biblical teaching. It is the view of the committee, however, that in his [Leithart's] positive construction of baptism and its efficacy, he [Leithart] fails adequately to represent the biblical data and the result is a one-sided and confusing, if not positively incoherent construction."

In failing to exercise this critical thinking and reasoned judgment, PNW has failed to guard
the church from teachings and writings "which injured the purity and peace of the church." (BCO 13-9.1) and in doing so has caused much pastoral confusion and harm.

In conclusion, since what amounts to a thorough BCO 31-2 investigation has been conducted by PNW, the results of which PNW should have recognized raised a strong presumption of guilt that Leithart holds views that place him out of accord with our Standards (the Constitution of the PCA), PNW erred in not so doing. In determining what is the appropriate remedy, the SJC remands and sends this case back to PNW with instructions to institute process, based on this finding of a strong presumption of guilt, and appoint a prosecutor to prepare an Indictment of Leithart and to conduct the case.


Please be in prayer for all who are involved in this matter, regardless of which “side” they are on. When it comes to issues surrounding the so-called Federal Vision, there are those who believe the very heart of the gospel is at stake, and on the other hand there are those who feel that mountains are being made out of molehills and our denomination is being turned into a mere sect. But what no one should forget is that intertwined with all the doctrinal debate are the personal relationships and livelihoods of those involved. All that to say that this is no occasion for congratulatory back-slapping. Just as the Reformed distinguished themselves from the fundamentalists in that they left the mainline churches weeping rather than rejoicing, so we who witness the state of our churches would do well to lament our own lack of unity.
.
There are no real winners here.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Horton on the Canon

I have been re-reading Michael Horton's People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology, and I came across some good stuff on the canon that may prove to be good fodder for discussion:

Though usually advertised as a shift away from modern individualism, the drift toward assimilating soteriology to ecclesiology, justification to the church and its virtuous practices, and the word to ecclesial interpretation is more aptly described as a shift away from God's redeeming work to our own. To ask what consistutes the unity of the church, then, is to inquire as to what creates the church itself. The answer to both is the Word of God, both as means of grace and canonical norm. The gospel does not depend on reason, politics, marketing, or even on the church; it creates its own rationality, polis, publicity, and church. The gospel is self-sufficient, pulling everything else behind it.

This raises the critical issue at the heart or protests new and old against sola scriptura: the logical priority of canon and church. The sufficiency of Scripture is not an abstract, predogmatic rule but is intrinsically related to our view of God, the covenant, and redemption. Just as creation is the result of a conversation between the persons of the Trinity, the church is the offspring rather than the origin of the gospel. It is no wonder then that Paul compares the work of the gospel to God's word in creation (Rom. 4:16-17). While the covenant community is temporally prior to the inscripturated canon, the word that creates ex nihilo asserts its temporal and communicative priority over both.... The script has priority over even its most significant performances. Furthermore, the canon not only judges our poor performances but also liberates us from having to repeat or defend them.

The covenantal context proves its value once more when considering the claim that the church created the canon. God's word spoken has now also been committed to writing, a canon or consitution. The Bible is the textual deposit of God's unfading Word, whose oral proclamation had all along been creating and sustaining a church in the world since the protevangelium of Genesis 3:15. The church is not purpose-driven, but promise-driven.

Ecclesiastical authority derives from and is qualified and measured by its constiting norm: because we have this covenantal consitution, we are this particular covenant community. Thus, the priority of canon over church is the corrolary of the priority of God's grace over "human will or exertion" (Rom. 9:16).

Germinating around its nucleus of Christ's words and deeds, this canon--at first proclaimed, heard, and recalled--became a completed deposit and was treated as such long before the list of canonical books was officially prescribed in response to spurious texts.

"Theology is not free speech but holy speech," notes Webster. "Hence the authority of Scripture is a matter for the church's acknowledgement, not its ascription." ... Webster says that the solo verbo [by the Word alone] is the correlate of the sola fide [through faith alone]. To give priority to the Word is to give priority to the action of God.

As the ecclesial body cannot be equated with its sovereign head, ecclesial speech (tradition) cannot be equated with God's Word. Since Christ's person and work--and apostolic testimony to it--are qualitatively distinguished from the church and its practices, the canon does not simply offer us a good story to complete by imitation (a corrolary of the exemplary view of the atonement) or repeat by further acts of atonement and reconciliation, but a completed script that draws us into its story line as performers. The canonical characters are in a qualitatively different class than the postcanonical church that performs the play.


As in the secular polis, so in the covenant community: the distinction between the consistution (text) and the courts (interpretation) preserves us from reducing ecclesial speech to solipsism: the arbitrary exercise of power based on the church talking to itself. Yet there are still the courts. We read the Bible together, and our communaal interpretations--in the form of creeds, confessions, catechisms, and church orders--have a binding, though secondary, authority. Just as the extraordinary vocation of prophets and apostles is qualitatively distinguished from the ordinary calling of ministers today, the magisterial authority of the canon must take precedence over the ministerial authority of the church.

Thoughts?

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Horton Hears a Boo

PCA Federal Visionist Mark Horne just published what I will admit is a rather humorous, albeit scathing, post about how Michael Horton has no understanding of the gospel. (Between this and the flack he has taken for endorsing Scott Hahn's book on the biblical theology of Pope Benedict XVI, it seems that Horton's web-cred has taken a hit, at least among fundamentalists and haters in general).

So here's the background....

There's this thing called The Manhattan Declaration; Horton reviewed it and found it wanting, particularly due to its confusion of law and gospel; Horne then chimed in, claiming that Horton's definition of the gospel is completely unbiblical. He writes:

Horton is completely wrong in his definition of the Gospel. When Jesus preached the Gospel he did not preach the precise message that Horton says that he was supposed to.... What he teaches is Biblically illiterate and a twisting of Scripture. And the fact that professed Bible-believers cling to these false and groundless claims is as intellectually superstitious as any monk approaching a vial of Mary’s alleged breast milk on his knees.
Horne's tactic to demonstrate his claims was to take Horton's statement that the gospel is "the specific announcement of the forgiveness of sins and declaration of righteousness solely by Christ’s merits" and then plug that into various NT passages where the word "gospel" is found. The result looks like this:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming God’s specific announcement of the forgiveness of sins and declaration of righteousness solely by Christ’s merits and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the specific announcement of the forgiveness of sins and declaration of righteousness solely by Christ’s merits." (Mark 1:14-15)
They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my specific announcement of the forgiveness of sins and declaration of righteousness solely by Christ’s merits, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (Rom. 2:15-16)
HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

Shoot dang! Well I'll BE! When you take a systematic statement intended to define a concept according to the whole counsel of God and just plug it in wherever the original word is found, it sounds really funny! I'm doubled over even as I write, slapping the table with the palm of my hand.

Of course, this tactic, though rhetorically useful for scoring cheap points, does little to further any actual dialogue. For example, let's see what happens when I take a systematic definition that Horne actually agrees with and then plug that definition into some biblical passages that use the word being defined:

For who is a Spirit, in and of himself infinite in being, glory, blessedness, and perfection; all-sufficient, eternal, unchangeable, incomprehensible, every where present, almighty, knowing all things,most wise, most holy, most just, most merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, but the LORD? And who is a rock, except our Spirit, in and of himself infinite in being, glory, blessedness, and perfection; all-sufficient, eternal, unchangeable, incomprehensible, every where present, almighty, knowing all things, most wise, most holy, most just, most merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth? (Psa. 18:31; cf. Westminster Larger Catechism Q/A 7).
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge a Spirit, in and of himself infinite in being, glory, blessedness, and perfection; all-sufficient, eternal, unchangeable, incomprehensible, every where present,almighty, knowing all things, most wise, most holy, most just, most merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, therefore a Spirit, in and of himself infinite in being, glory, blessedness, and perfection; all-sufficient, eternal, unchangeable, incomprehensible, every where present, almighty, knowing all things, most wise, most holy, most just, most merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done (Rom. 1:28; cf. Westminster Larger Catechism Q/A 7).
Good heavens! Look what happens when we take the WLC's definition of God and substitute it for the word "God" in Scripture! Not only does it make the Bible way too long, it also demonstrates how silly the Westminster Divines' understanding of God was!

Maybe it's actually a good thing that Federal Visionists are hesitant to register their exceptions to the Westminster Standards to their presbyteries. I mean, given Horne's new hermeneutic, I doubt these presbyteries will be able to find the time to deal with all of them (let alone the will).

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

In Case You Missed It....


I was interviewed on R.C. Sproul's radio program
Renewing Your Mind last week about Dual Citizens:
Worship and Life Between the Already and the Not Yet.
If you missed it and would like to listen, here you go.

Monday, November 30, 2009

There's No "I" in Worship

I made a statement in my morning sermon yesterday that struck some people as unsettling, but I plan to stick by it unless I can be shown to be wrong:

Worship, according to the New Testament, is an almost exclusively corporate, rather than individual, phenomenon.

Take for example what is arguably the locus classicus on the topic of worship: Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman in John 4 (in which the word “worship” is used no less than ten times). If we try to substitute the contemporary understanding of worship for what our Lord and the woman are talking about, the dialogue makes little sense. Worship, in the parlance of our times, usually refers either to singing songs specifically, or more generally to whatever goosebumpy, “Hallmark Moments” our private devotions happen to yield. But what Jew or Samaritan in antiquity, if they were in their right minds, would have argued that one’s personal quiet times needed to take place on a mountaintop either in Jerusalem or Samaria? The very fact that the initial argument between Jesus and the Samaritan woman focused on the where of worship demonstrates that it was not private devotions that were being discussed since, as everyone knows, those can take place anywhere.

Even the well-known passage Romans 12:1, in which Paul speaks of “our spiritual worship” cannot be taken to denote individual private worship. The apostle urges the Romans to offer their bodies (plural) as a living sacrifice (singular), and he then launches into a discussion of the one body and its many members, thus indicating that the Romans’ spiritual worship was that which they offered in covenantal assembly.

And then when we add all the “let us draw near” passages of Hebrews, we arrive at a picture of worship that is corporate, collective, and covenantal.

This is not deny the Reformed categories of individual, family, and corporate worship. But in our day and age, characterized as it is by the atomization of society, it is the corporate nature of worship that needs to be drilled into the heads and hearts of God’s people.

That’s all I’m saying….

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Something for the Drive Home

My lecture "The Destiny of the Species" from last month's Ligonier Conference can be downloaded here.

Enjoy....

Monday, November 23, 2009

N.T. Wright on Romans 3:27-29

There has been an exegetical point that Wright has often made that has been on my mind lately. It concerns Romans 3:27-29, which says:

Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also.
No one would deny that v. 28 is in some sense a culmination of Paul’s preceding argument concerning justification by faith. On the verses that flank it on either side, Wright writes:

The meaning of the all-important verse Romans 3:28 is held firmly in place by the verses on either side. Romans 3:27 indicates that “the Torah of faith” excludes the “boasting” of Romans 2:17-20.... How then must we read Romans 3:28? [We must read it as] the decisive statement which explains (as the gar, “for,” indicates) the dramatic claim of Romans 3:27, and as the statement whose immediate implication is that God has one family, not two, and that this family consists of faithful Gentiles as well as faithful Jews.
In other words, the boasting that justification by faith eliminates is not a boasting in one’s moral accomplishments, but a boasting on the part of the Jew who takes solace in his status as being from the nation through whom God would save the world. And further, the little word “or” at the beginning of 3:29 serves to show that if the status of “righteous” were manifested by ethnic boundary markers rather than by faith, then the Jews’ boast would be true, and God is, in the end, the father of Abraham’s physical offspring only.

Thoughts?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

An Update From Today's SJC Proceedings

Just a quick update on the SJC proceedings:

We met for just over two hours, during which we (the complainants) presented our case, and Rob Rayburn (the respondant) presented his. The gist of our position was that on a number of points (such as the relationship of imputation to union, the efficacy of baptism, and the distinction between the covenants of works and grace), Rev. Leithart has expressly denied the clear teaching of the Westminster Standards, and that the Pacific Northwest Presbytery erred in failing to recognize this fact and act on it.

The respondant's position is that we (the complainants) are interpreting the Standards to be way more strict than they are (or have been understood to be throughout the history of the Reformed churches), thus "turning our church into a mere sect." If Leithart professes to hold to the Westminster Standards (which he does) and is a godly man who holds to eternal election, the five points of Calvinism, and paedobaptism (which he is), then it is wrong to "try to run him out of the church," especially when we have miserably failed to demonstrate that his views fall under the sanction of even one of the nine points set forth in the PCA's FV Report.

A couple of the eyebrow-raising statements from the respondant include: (1) His insistence that the Westminster Standards do not teach that the covenant of works sets forth a distinct principle by which we receive eternal life from that of the covenant of grace; (2) His encouragement to the SJC that they all read John Frame's review of Horton's Christless Christianity so as to learn from Frame how to avoid the dangers of Westminster Seminary California's sectarianism; and perhaps the most telling of all was (3) seeing firsthand what happens when one flattens out redemptive history so as to take Yahweh's dealings with Old Testament Israel under the conditional, Mosaic covenant as an unqualified, across-the-board paradigm for understanding how God relates to the church today. When asked by the commission, "In what sense are we saved by baptism?", the response was given, "Well, in the same sense that God can pardon his people and then damn them."

(For the record, my point is not that OT Israel has nothing to teach us, nor is it that the writers of the NT never refer us to Israel to learn from their mistakes. I get that. My point is that to read all the Bible's old covenant/new covenant language in purely existential rather than eschatological terms is to do violence to both the newness of the new covenant and the work of Christ as the second Adam and true Israelite who gained for us perfectly what his OT types could not.)

I am told that the SJC has 42 days to make a ruling. And to those of you who love asking, yes, if they find in favor of Leithart and against us, I will submit to that and never bring it up again.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Preliminary Hearing Before the Standing Judicial Commission of the PCA

Just a heads-up: I am in Atlanta for a preliminary hearing with the Standing Judicial Commission of the Presbyterian Church in America (which is the denomination's highest court). The purpose of the hearing is to address the complaint filed against the Pacific Northwest Presbytery by me and two others due to presbytery's failure to take appropriate action with respect to Rev. Peter Leithart, a minister in the PNWP. As many of you know, the 35th General Assembly of the PCA near-unanimously judged the theology of the Federal Vision to be out of accord with the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, the doctrinal standards to which all our ministers subscribe. Rev. Leithart is an avowed Federal Visionist, and therefore we feel that the Pacific Northwest Presbytery's repeated refusal to take any action whatsoever demonstrates a failure on presbytery's part to protect the doctrine of the church as we have confessed it.

We meet tomorrow (Thursday) at noon EST. Prayers are appreciated for all involved, including Peter.

Monday, November 16, 2009

St. Paul on the Imputation of Christ's Active Obedience

OK, we have given N.T. Wright the floor for our last handful of posts, it is now time to take it back.

For confessional Reformed believers, the biggest obstacle to a “new perspective” reading of Paul is Wright’s denial that Jesus’ life of obedient law-keeping is reckoned to the sinner in justification. Rather, Wright argues, the “obedience” that is so reckoned consist only of the Messiah’s death, and not his life. Wright loves to appeal to Philippians 2:8 at this point, which speaks of Jesus “becoming obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.”

I would like to offer some points by way of response.

First, regarding Philippians 2:8, Wright would surely agree that his Reformed opponents do not deny that Jesus’ death was an act of obedience to the Father. In other words, no one is denying what this verse says. For Wright to appeal to it in order to refute the imputation of Christ’s active obedience places a much greater burden on the text that it can bear, for in Philippians 2:8 Paul did not say that Jesus’ death alone constitutes the whole of his obedience to the Father, but simply that Christ “became obedient to the point of death.” And moreover, the apostle’s language of “to the point of death” (mexri + thanatos in the genitive case) would seem to indicate that the Messiah’s death was the culmination of his obedience and not just the sole example of it.

Secondly, we have in Romans 5:18-19 one of the most clear Pauline articulations of the doctrine in question:

Therefore as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one Man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.
A couple points need to be made here in order for these verses to have their full effect. First, although the ESV regrettably follows the NIV in translating di’ henos dikaiomatos as “one act of righteousness,” the context (as well as many commentators) demand that the word henos (one) be rendered in the masculine gender instead of the neuter (though they look identical in the original). In other words, the word “one” should be understood to refer to a masculine subject (“the Man”) rather than to a neuter one (“righteousness”), thus rendering the phrase not “one act of righteousness” but “the righteousness of the one Man” (as it appears in the NKJV). Surprisingly, many who deny the imputation of Jesus’ active obedience cite Romans 5:18 in such a way as to give the impression that it answers the question definitively, thereby demonstrating a complete unawareness of the grammatical debate surrounding it. But as Cranfield says:

Since henos is masculine in its three occurrences in v.17 and also in its two occurrences in v.19, and since the whole subsection is concerned with the relation of the one man Adam and one Man Christ to the many... it is surely better to take henos here as masculine (Romans, 289).
Another grammatical point that is worth mentioning is that here in Romans 5, Paul teaches the substance of the imputation of Christ’s active obedience without ever using the allegedly controversial word logizomai. According to many Federal Visionists, this Greek word that is usually translated as “impute” does not mean to transfer something from one person to another, but only to reckon it to be so. But follow Paul’s logic in vv. 15-19: first, Paul teaches that Christ, like Adam, functions as a federal Head who represents, and acts on behalf of, a people; second, through Christ’s representation his people are given a gift; third, this gift results in justification; fourth, this gift that results in justification consists of righteousness; and fifth, the righteousness that is given is the obedience of Christ, which constitutes us righteous. To summarize, Paul teaches that the obedience of Christ is given as a gift to the sinner resulting in his justification, all without ever using the word logizomai.

Lastly, if Christ’s “righteousness” (both in Romans 5 and elsewhere) refers to his covenant faithfulness, then the question must be asked, “To what, exactly, was Christ faithful?” Remember, Paul makes it clear in Romans 5:18-19 that Jesus’ “righteousness” is his “obedience.” So if Jesus’ obedience is given to the sinner as a gift resulting in justification (which Romans 5 explicitly says), then is Wright correct in saying that Christ’s obedience is his death only? I mean, for all of Wright’s moaning about how supposedly a-historical and non-covenantal Reformed theologians are, one would expect that his understanding of the Messiah’s covenant faithfulness would be defined as faithfulness to Torah, the covenant of law. But if Wright is willing—at precisely this most crucial of points—to surrender his boasted historicity and attention to covenant by removing Torah-keeping from his definition of Christ’s covenant faithfulness, then as far as I am concerned, all bragging right are henceforth null and void.

Please don’t interpret me as being dismissive of Wright as a whole—he makes many important exegetical points throughout his body of work. On this point in particular, though, the confessional Reformed believer must respectfully dig his heels and say with the dying Machen, “So thankful for the active obedience of Christ... no hope without it.”

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Wright on Justification, Part Four: Christology

As we have been seeing, N.T. Wright insists that the doctrine of justification must be approached from four distinct but related angles. We have looked at the first three (lawcourt, covenant, and eschatology), and in this post we’ll consider the fourth: Christology.
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According to Wright, Christology comes to bear upon justification in the fact that God’s “single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world” had a problem, namely, that Israel had not offered to God the “obedience” (Wright’s term) that was necessary to bring about the fulfillment of God’s saving promises to Abraham. He writes:

The task of the Messiah, bringing to its appointed goal the single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world, was to offer to God the “obedience” which Israel should have offered but did not.... The problem with the single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world was the “through-Israel” bit: Israel had let the side down, had let God down, had not offered the “obedience” which would have allowed the worldwide covenant plan to proceed. Israel, in short, had been faithless to God’s commission.... What is needed is a faithful Israelite, through whom the single plan can proceed after all.
Now before we Reformed confessionalists begin celebrating too much over what Wright says here, we must realize that when he speaks of obedience his thoughts turn immediately to Philippians 2:8. “Jesus,” Paul says there, “was obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” For Wright, Jesus’ obedience as the faithful Israelite consists in his curse-bearing death—there is no sense in which the Father demanded a perfect performance from either Adam or Christ in order to qualify them to stand in his presence. And consistently with this is the denial of the merit of that law-keeping being transferred to those whom both Adams represented. No, what was given over to Adam’s offspring was the results of his deadly sin, and what is reckoned to the followers of Christ are the blessings of his death and resurrection.

My question to Wright (if I had the chance to ask him one) would be this: If Jesus, as our covenant representative, needed to qualify himself to bear the covenant curse by first leading a sinless life, then why is this the case? If the medieval notion of merit (which apparently plagues Reformed Protestantism) is so wrong-headed, then why did the Father insist upon perfect law-keeping from his Son before he could offer himself upon the cross? And since Christ’s covenant faithfulness was necessary (as Wright admits), then why would it not be a part of what gets reckoned to those who are united to Jesus? Or, did the Father wait until the Son’s earthly life was ending and his death beginning before he exclaimed, “OK.... Ready? Set? Go! Start redeeming NOW!”

But to be fair to Wright, that was four questions....

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Covenant Radio Interview

In case anyone's interested,
I was interviewed the other day
on Covenant Radio about my book,
Dual Citizens: Worship and Life
Between the Already and the Not Yet,
and the podcast can be downloaded here.

Enjoy....

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Wright on Justification: Part Three: Eschatology

After highlighting lawcourt and covenant, N.T. Wright moves on in Justification to a discussion of the third of his four aspects of the doctrine, namely, eschatology. Wright argues that Paul, like many of his Jewish contemporaries, expected that there would come a time in which all the world's wrongs would be put to right, but unlike his non-Christian Jewish contemporaries, insisted that this ultimate goal had already been launched in and through Jesus the Messiah.

Paul believed, in short, that what Israel had longed for God to do for it and for the world, God had done for Jesus, bringing him through death and into the life of the age to come. Eschatology: the new world had been inaugurated! Covenant: God’s promises to Abraham had been fulfilled! Lawcourt: Jesus had been vindicated—and so also all those who belonged to Jesus will be vindicated as well! And these, for Paul, were not three, but one. Welcome to Paul’s doctrine of justification, rooted in the single scriptural narrative as he read it, reaching out to the waiting world.
"For Paul," Wright goes on to say, "the events concerning Jesus the Messiah were nothing short of an apocalypse, the denoument of history, the bursting in of God's sovereign saving power to the world of corruption, sin, and death."

I remember some vigorous debates between faculty and students during my years of study at Westminster Seminary California on this very issue: Is there an eschatological element to our justification? In other words, is it solely a present phenomenon, or is it a present glimpse of a yet-to-be-announced verdict? I remember my own mind resonating with Horton's discomfort over one particular issue, namely, whether justification could truly be said to be eschatological if, as Wright insists, its basis in the present (faith alone) could be different from its basis in the future (the whole of our lived lives).

A good question, to be sure.

Now, Justification is the first of Wright's books I have read cover-to-cover (and it was not yet written when these debates were taking place at WSC), so it is possible that he has softened or nuanced his position since then, I'm not sure. While I certainly have serious misgivings about a supposedly already/not yet concept of justification if the basis of the former is different from that of the latter, I am somewhat comforted by the way Wright addresses this issue in his newest book:
This lawcourt verdict... is announced both in the present, with the verdict being issued on the basis of faith and faith alone, and also in the future, on the day when God raises from the dead all those who are already indwelt by the Spirit. The present verdict gives the assurance that the future verdict will match it; the Spirit gives the power through which that future verdict, when given, will be seen to be in accordance with the life that the believer has then lived (emphasis original).
So for Wright, although the basis for future justification is the entirety of the believer's earthly life while the basis for present justification is faith alone, there is no instance in which the person being justified in the here and now could conceivably fail to be justified on the last day. The Spirit serves to ensure that the "doing of the law in order to be justified [on the last day]" will take place for all those justified in the present.

Some thoughts on all of this....

While I certainly do not expect Wright to conform to doctrinal standards to which he has never subscribed, his formulation of justification is, from a confessionally Reformed standpoint, problematic. Although Federal Visionist-leaning brothers in the PCA will almost certainly disagree, I see no basis in the Westminster Confession for the idea of a "future justification according to works." Yes, there will be a final judgment of all men that will serve to vindicate God's people and his mercy toward them, but confessionally speaking, "justification" takes place "not due to anything wrought in, or done by [us], but for Christ's sake alone." In order to be faithful to our Standards, therefore, we must beware of speaking of our final vindication on the last day as a "justification by works."

This leads me to another brief point. Although Wright's admission that the believer's final justification by works will be more of a vindication than a verdict that we nervously and nail-bitingly await, his statement that present justification's "basis" is faith alone is still, from a Calvinistic standpoint, incorrect. The basis of our justification is the work of Christ in his life, death, and resurrection. Faith serves as a non-meritorious and non-contributory instrument whereby we receive what justifies, but it is never to be thought of as the ground or basis of our being received into Gods graces.

OK, discuss....

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Wright on Justification, Part Two: Covenant

The second of N.T. Wright's four "aspects" to the Pauline doctrine of justification is that of covenant (the others being lawcourt, eschatology, and Christology). In Justification he writes:

The key passages [on justification] in Romans and Galatians are all drawing on, and claiming to fulfill, two central passages in the Penta-teuch: Genesis 15, where God establishes his covenant with Abraham, and Deuteronomy 30, where Israel is offered the promise of covenant renewal after exile.... Paul's view of God's purpose is that God, the creator, called Abraham so that through his family he, God, could rescue the world from its plight.
For Wright, "covenant" is shorthand for "God's-single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world":

The "covenant," in my shorthand, is not something other than God's determination to deal with evil once and for all and so put the whole creation (and humankind with it) right at last.... Dealing with sin, saving humans from it, giving them grace, forgiveness, justfication, glorification -- all this was the purpose of the single covenant from the beginning, now fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
As one would expect, Wright sees justification in the light of a broader, covenantal category that addresses questions bigger than merely "how to get to heaven when we die." He points to the fact that Paul, in Romans 4:11, quotes Genesis 17:11 which refers to circumcision as "the sign of the covenant," but changes the language, calling circumcision "the seal of the righteousness that [Abraham] had by faith." For Paul, covenant is the larger issue of which justification by faith is but a part.

Echoing Horton's most recent critique, I don't see how any Reformed believer who is at all indebted to theologians like Geerhardus Vos or Herman Ridderbos (as I am) would see any problem at all with Wright's emphasis on covenant here. What is baffling (as Horton correctly points out) is that Wright continues to stubbornly insist that his view is the antidote to that of Reformed theology. As I will highlight in subsequent posts, there are differences between Wright's conclusions and those of confessional Reformed orthodoxy, particularly pertaining to the role of Christ's active obedience in all of this, but this does not mean that we are left with the option of choosing Wright or Calvin on this matter (a false dilemma if there ever was one). In other words, there is no reason why we can't emphasize covenant on the one hand, seeing our justification as one ingredient in a much more grand and cosmic recipe, while on the other hand insisting upon Jesus lifelong obedience as the basis for it all.

Thoughts?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Wright on Justification, Part One: The Divine Lawcourt

In his book Justification, N.T. Wright attempts to approach his doctrinal topic from four directions: lawcourt, covenant, eschatology, and Christology. These four aspects of justification, Wright argues, must be held together by the New Testament scholar in order to understand "what Saint Paul really said."
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In this post I will interact a bit with the first of Wright's aspects: the lawcourt.

Wright begins by denying the claim of many that justification denotes "the entire picture of God's reconciling action toward the human race" (though the dikaios root "is indeed closely related to the whole theme of human salvation"). What, then, does "justification" mean? Wright argues that the word "righteousness" (Greek: dikaios) refers to "the status that someone has when the court has found in their favor." This has nothing whatsoever to do with the moral character of the person in question: on a human level a judge could incorrectly grant the status of "found by the court to be in the right" to a criminal, and it still would not change the fact that he now enjoys the status of "righteous." Turning to the verb form "to justify," Wright insists that what is in view here is not the remedial, Augustinian notion of "making righteous" (at least not if "righteous is referring to moral character). Rather, "to justify" means to declare that one is in the right with repect to the divine lawcourt:

"To justify" does not denote an action which transforms someone so much as a declaration which grants them a status. It is the status of the person which is transformed by the action of "justification," not the character. It is in this sense that "justification" "makes" someone "righteous," just as the officiant at a wedding service might be said to "make" the couple husband and wife....
This is why, according to Wright, any notion of the "imputation of the alien righteousness of Christ" is flawed, though understandable. The righteousness spoken of in Romans 3 is not a moral quality, but a status of legal vindication (meaning that the notion that one person's righteousness could be given to another is a confusion of categories).

From a confessionally Reformed perspective, some of what Wright says is rather benign, and some of it is even refreshing (especially his insistence on the Reformation emphases of the declarative and forensic). But once you start messing around with the doctrine of imputed righteousness, that is where the good Calvinist must dig his heels in and resist.

I have up my sleeve what I consider to be a pretty solid defense of the doctrine of imputation (which I will bring out eventually). But in the meantime, what are some ways that you would refute Wright's claims here?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Some Thoughts on N.T. Wright's Justification

I’d like to offer a few random and disordered thoughts on N.T. Wright’s latest book, Justification. I may go back next week and fill in some details in order to offer a more cogent critique, or I may just let the messiness stand (depends on how emergent I’m feeling). So here goes….

First, some positives. Whether it is in response to his critics, or whether he’s been saying this all along, I’m not sure, but Wright does have a lot more to say about human sin and the need for rescue than I was expecting. One of the most common complaints from confessional Reformed theologians about the New Perspective on Paul is its failure to do justice to the serious nature of man’s plight before God (focusing instead on man’s estrangement from his fellow man, especially that of the Jew from the Gentile). This failure is seen most glaringly in E.P. Sanders’s somewhat lame claim that when all was said and done, the real problem with Judaism was that it was not Christianity. Perhaps Wright has been paying attention to the NPP’s critics at this point (or maybe he has been saying this all along, I am not sure), because in Justification he makes it clear time and time again that the whole point of Yahweh raising up a worldwide family by means of the Abrahamic covenant is to rescue man from the curses of both Genesis 11 and Genesis 3. Ecclesiology does not eclipse soteriology, but is the context in which salvation takes place.

One complaint that the confessional Reformed reader will still have, however, is with regard to Wright’s all-too-casual dismissal of the desire for personal salvation on the part of the person living in the second-temple period. Drawing from extra-canonical literature, Wright insists that the whole “What will happen when I die? Will my soul go to heaven?” mentality was just utterly foreign to the minds of people during Jesus’ and Paul’s day. What Wright seems all too eager to forget is the fact that New Testament characters asked these questions all the time. While we certainly don’t want to minimize the issue of table fellowship and Jew/Gentile relations, we must also remember that the rich young ruler had a heavy heart when considering the state of his own soul’s salvation, that the multitudes in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost were “cut to the heart” after hearing Peter’s accusations about their sin, and the Philippian jailor’s first question to Paul and Silas was “What must I do to be saved?” If Wright is going to claim to be doing justice both to ecclesiology and soteriology, he will need to do a better job integrating passages like these into his system if he wants his claim to be taken seriously. If, as he admits, every Jew has an Adam living inside him, then we need a little more Eden and a little less Babel in his formulations.

Finally—and here I will echo Horton’s complaints—I wish Wright demonstrated a greater familiarity with traditional Reformed covenant theology. Often his foil is the Dispensationalist who insists that when God’s “Plan A” didn’t work out the way he wanted it to, he then put “Plan B” into effect, according to which man would be saved by the grace of Jesus instead of the demands of the law. I often find myself scratching my head in bewilderment at Wright’s approach, as if he believes either that contemporary Dispensationalism (1) is a worthy enough adversary to be taken seriously, (2) is the only alternative to the New Perspective’s brand of covenant theology, or (3) that the Reformers were proto-Dispensationalists. If Wright were to show a proficiency of understanding with respect to how the Reformers read Paul (and Moses), and if he incorporated the views of men like Vos, Ridderbos, and Kline into his critique of the Old Perspective, his arrows may land more successfully than they do when he shoots them at strawmen.

More next week, perhaps.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Boastings of a Straight-Faced Presbyterian, Part Two

I’ll now continue my response to Called to Communion blogger Tim Troutman, who exhibited in the comments of this post great suspicion about whether anyone would dare, with a straight face, blog about the glories of Presbyterianism. This post will be an attempt to do just that. So hold on to your seats, folks, because I will now, with face quite straight, proceed to talk about how awesome Presbyterianism is.

For this second of two installments, I will focus on the issue of the grace of God in the salvation of sinners.

Now I realize that my friends from Tim’s tradition will insist that God brings just as much glory to himself by helping sinners save themselves as he does by just going ahead and saving them, but I don’t buy it. If, as Calvinists insist, man is spiritually enslaved to sin and to the devil and therefore unable to rectify his plight, then it would follow that it is God who must do the rectifying. If man is “dead in trespasses and sins” and “darkened in his understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in him, due to his hardness of heart, being past feeling and given over to practice every kind of impurity” (Eph. 2:1; 4:18-19), then what other conclusion can we reach other than that man is hopelessly hopeless without God’s sovereign intervention?

To put this another way, regeneration must precede faith. In the same way that in physical biology a baby must be conceived in the womb before it can turn around and act like a baby, so must the sinner’s heart be implanted with the seed of divine life before he can start acting like a saint (I Pet. 1:3, 23). Just as the doctrine of original sin teaches us that we sin because we are sinners and not the other way around, so the doctrine of the new birth demonstrates that we must be made new before we can act new.

So in the same way that a doctor would get a much less significant pay raise for convincing his patients to take their medicine than he would for resurrecting them from the dead after they ignore his advice, so the glory that God receives for man’s salvation is directly tied to how serious our malady was before he stepped in. At the end of the day, if God did no more for me than he did for my neighbor who (for the sake of argument) ends up in hell, then what accounts for my being a sheep and him a goat? Well, if all God did for me was beckon and woo, with the deciding vote being cast by yours truly, then there’s really no way around it: I saved myself. Now, the fact that God graciously made me a co-savior with Jesus doesn’t solve the problem of God’s diminished glory-getting—all it does is allow me to pray with the Pharisee, “God I thank you that I am not like other men.”

So there you have it: Presbyterianism is exceedingly praiseworthy because, in the case of the salvation of sinners, it sees man’s plight as more dire, and God’s power more divine, than just about any other tradition out there.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Strange New World, Part One: Baptismal Initiation

I just began a new series of sermons at Exile Presbyterian Church on the topic of baptism called A Strange New World. The first message is titled "Baptismal Initiation," and can be downloaded here.

Enjoy.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Who Said That?

Big ups to whoever can correctly identify the source of the following quotation:

"But if 'righteousness,' within the lawcourt context, refers to the status of the vindicated person after the court has announced its verdict, we have undercut in a singe stroke the age-old problem highlighted in Augustine's interpretation of 'justify' as 'make righteous.' That always meant, for Augustine and his followers, that God, in justification, was actually transforming the character of the person, albeit in small, preliminary ways (by, for instance, implanting the beginnings of love and faith within them). The result was a subtle but crucial shifting of metaphors: the lawcourt scene is now replaced with a medical one, a kind of remedial spiritual surgery, involving a 'righteous implant' which, like an artificial heart, begins to enable the patient to do things previously impossible.

"But part of the point of Paul's own language, rightly stressed by those who have analyzed the verb dikaioo, 'to justify,' is that it does not denote an action which transforms someone so much as a declaration which grants them a status. It is the status of the person which is transformed by the action of 'justification,' not the character."
And as always, no Googling....

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Boastings of a Straight-Faced Presbyterian, Part One

I mentioned a couple days ago that I plan to take up Called to Communion blogger Tim Troutman’s challenge to post an article on the glories of Presbyterianism with a straight face. This post will be part one of two, and rest assured, my face is very straight.

The first locus I would like to address to demonstrate Presbyterianism’s awesomeness is our doctrine of Scripture. We confess:

We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man's salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it does abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.5).

The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture (WCF 1.10).
Here we see that, despite the manifold internal evidence whereby Scripture demonstrates its divine authorship, it is ultimately through the testimony of the Holy Spirit whereby the believer is taught to esteem what has been written.

Does this leave any loopholes? Of course is does. Does it answer every conceivable objection? Not by a long shot. But Presbyterians are not rationalists who toss and turn at night over the possibility that a hole in our system might be poked, nor do we wring our hands over what to do if someone disagrees with us. If our Lord could appeal to what "is written" to answer the tests of the serpent, and if Paul could prescribe a remedy for heresy that consisted primarily in getting the gospel right even if he himself got it wrong, then despite its lack of perfect tidiness, we are content to trust the voice of the Spirit of Christ speaking in Scripture to Jesus' sheep. If he is our Good Shepherd, then we can hear his voice.

Concerning the role the church has in interpreting Scripture, we confess that

It belongs to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of his Church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same; which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in His Word (WCF 31.3).
Again, this does not preclude the possibility of confusion, but we live in a confusing world filled with false prophets and bad angels disguised as good ones (didn’t Jesus warn us about this?). But despite its lack of airtightness, this approach does pretty good justice to the distinction between revelation that is uttered under the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit on the one hand, and the non-inspired interpretation of those utterances on the other. Sure, the church can make mistakes and must grow in her understanding of God's Word, but why should that be something we are afraid to admit? Paul wasn’t:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love (Eph. 4:11-16).
So to sum up, the Reformed understanding of the relationship between the church and Scripture is anything but pristine, but it does accurately reflect the nature of life in this age before the consummation. Indeed, on that Day all the loose ends will be tied up and all our questions will be answered. But until then, we who embrace our pilgrim status and are enabled to boast in seeming weakness and glory in seeming shame are content to labor, to learn, to grow, all the while knowing that God will guide his church into all truth.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Just How Awesome Are We? Stay Tuned, You'll See....

Last month, Called to Communion blogger Tim Troutman wrote a piece titled "What is the Catholic Faith Like?" In it, he says:

For those outside her only pay lip service to what she wallows in. They say they believe in a certain priest-hood too – we have priests! They say they believe in the Real Presence too – we worship the Eucharist! They say they believe in the communion of saints – we ask them to pray for us! They say they believe in Church authority too – we submit to the See of Peter!
Now, I grant that Tim's article was intended more as a description than a defense, but I couldn't help but feel like his point was that the appeal of Catholicism is that it's well, the most Catholic of all the available options. I commented:
I can’t but think that what you’ve written... is a tad self-congratulatory. I mean, I could write about Presbyterianism and simply highlight its “Presbyterianness” as an argument for why Presbyterianism is so awesome. After all, no other church holds to the Westminster Confession like we do, so therefore we’re better.
To which Tim responded:
But JJS, I would like to see that post on Presbyterianism’s greatness. I’m curious as to what it would look like. I’m wondering what Presbyterianism has that no one else does, and what it is, specifically, that Presbyterianism embraces fully to which others only pay lip service. A lot of great things can be said of Presbyterianism, I won’t deny it for a second. But I have to admit my skepticism as to whether something like this could be written of the Presbyterian church with a straight face.
Well, you can't say that kind of thing to a graduate of Westminster Seminary California and not expect the challenge to be taken up, so this week I hope to write two posts on "Presbyterianism's Greatness," with one focusing on our view of Scripture, and the other on our view of divine grace.

Stay tuned....

Friday, October 09, 2009

What's Radder, WSC or BMX?

As you may know, over at the Old Life Theological Society Darryl Hart has been challenging the label "Radical Two Kingdoms" affixed to people associated with Westminster Seminary California by Federal Vision-leaning theonomist-reconstructionists (yes, that feeling you're experiencing is irony).

I appreciate his point here:

But here is an important point: at least the current advocates of 2k theology, like Stellman, are trying to be self-consciously Reformed about their engagement of Christ and culture, or religion and politics, and do this in a modern context. That is, they draw on redemptive-historical notions of pilgrimage, exile, and differences between Israel and the church, to come up with a 2k theology that disentangles the gospel from a theology of glory, whether proclaimed by the Religious Right or neo-Calvinists. Meanwhile, the theology of glory crowd trots out defenses of state church arrangements from the 16th and 17th centuries, as if committed to them, but all the while embracing Roman Catholics and Mormons in the public square for the sake of a faith-based America.

That’s not radical. It’s two-faced.
Hart's point is that you don't get to call 2K folks historically "radical" if your tolerance of Catholics and Mormons places you closer to us than to Calvin on the Christ/Culture spectrum.

Thoughts?

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Where'd You Get That Jacket?!

Over at the Old Life Theological Society,
Darryl Hart questions Doug Wilson's label "R2K"
(radical two-kingdoms) when describing my view
and that of Westminster CA.

Check it out.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

The Dominion Mandate in This Age, to Infinity, and Beyond

If you have been following Doug Wilson's posts on my book Dual Citizens, you will have noticed that the theme of dominion has come up quite a bit, especially among his commenters. The complaints usually go something like this: Genesis 1:28 talks about how Adam was to take dominion over creation, and yet Stellman's focus on the believer's identity as a pilgrim and exile fails to do justice to the dominion mandate given by God at creation."

Assuming that this is a faithful summary of the critique, I would like to offer a response.

I agree that God told Adam to exercise dominion over creation, and I agree that Adam's dominion-taking would have helped usher in God's eternal kingdom, a kingdom which would have brought with it eternal life and Sabbath rest for Adam and his posterity. But where many go wrong, in my view, is in the fact that they seem to stop reading at Genesis 1.

After the Fall, God tells man that the elements of prelapsarian life, such as marriage, childbearing, and labor are to continue on, albeit in a context of curse. In a word, these aspects of life will now be perverted to reflect the curse sanction that God had pronounced on creation due to Adam's rebellion. Marriage will now be a power-struggle, childbirth will now be painful, and bread will now be produced through sweat and an uncooperative earth. The same is true of the dominion mandate.

The dominion motif comes to the fore again after the flood, only now Noah is to practice his mastery over creation in the context of a covenant that is not redemptive but common, a covenant made "between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations" (Gen. 9:1-17). As shown by the inauguration of the kingdom of man in Genesis 4, the cultural work of human hands is valuable for building a temporal, common kingdom, but due to the Fall, our cultural endeavors cannot bring about the kingdom of Christ (a kingdom which Jesus said "is not of this world").

What, then, of the dominion mandate?

We read in Psalm 8 a divine commentary on Genesis 1:28, one in which David speaks of man thus:

You have made him a little lower than the angels and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet... (vv. 5-6).
Sounds great, right? It sounds like the dominion mandate is still in force, reiterated in all its prelapsarian glory. But again, we need to keep reading. When we come to Hebrews 2, which is a commentary on Psalm 8 (which is a commentary on Genesis 1), we see a truly Christocentric interpretation of the dominion mandate. According to the writer,

Now in putting everything in subjection to [man], [God] left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see Him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone (vv. 8b-9).
Talk about an already/not yet hermeneutic! According to the author here, there is a promise to man of dominion that is still outstanding and unfulfilled, one which we do "not yet see." But what do we see? "We see Jesus" who, like Adam, was made for a litte while lower than the angels. He is the One who exercises dominion, the One to whom has been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Will we, the men and women whom Jesus represented and whose nature he assumed, ever get to share in this dominion? Indeed we will, but the writer to the Hebrews insists that this dominion is "not yet." Immediately preceding the quotation from Psalm 8, Hebrews says:

Now it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking (v. 5).
The implication is that though this present fallen order is not under man's control, the world to come will be. The conclusion, then, is clear: The dominion mandate of Genesis 1 has not been revoked, but due to the Fall, man cannot by his own cultural labors usher in the power and glory of the kingdom like Adam could have. Rather, this promise is now reformulated Christocentrically, with Jesus experiencing "the dominion of the resurrection" now, as demonstrated in his ascension to the Father's right hand. We, on the other hand, do not see these things with our eyes, but only embrace them by faith and hopeful cross-bearing. The day will come, however, when faith will give way to sight and the cross will give way to glory. On that day, and not before, "the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ," and we will reign with him forever and ever.