Thursday, May 31, 2007

Some Final Thoughts on Subscription....

I'll offer a few final thoughts on confessional subscription for your consideration and comments:

1. Strict subscription is the best way to preserve a denomination's doctrinal integrity, but in order for it to be a realistic option, the confession subscribed to must be restricted to those doctrines that are essential to the denomination's theological system. If the length of the creation days are essential to such a system, for example, then let the confession reflect this. If not, then don't mention it.

2. A confession that is sufficiently vague about peripheral issues will allow for theological development and fresh exegesis without posing a threat to the denomonation's doctrinal standards. So if a ministerial candidate's view of the law, for instance, reflects the developments of biblical theology introduced by men like Vos and Ridderbos, he won't need to do the confessional gymnastics necessary to prove he is within the pale.

3. To maintain our catholicity with the broader Christian church, it seems more consistent to adopt the Apostles', Nicene, and Athanasian creeds, rather than to restate their doctrines in our own confessional documents.

4. Candidates for church membership should be expected to subscribe to the ecumenical creeds, but only officers should be expected to subscribe to doctrines that are not essential for salvation.

OK, fire away....

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Coffin on the Logic of Confessional Subscription

In his The Justification of Confessions and the Logic of Confessional Subscription, David F. Coffin, Jr. argues that "... the justification for having a confession ought logically to determine the manner of subscription to that confession." In his estimation, a denomination's adopting the Westminster Confession and Catechisms is fine and dandy, but when exceptions to core doctrines and approval to teach these exceptions are allowed, this "clearly undermines the very rationale of having a confession in the first place."

In Coffin's view (and this is key), "the debate about subscription is really a conflict about which articles ought to be subscribed to, not the strictness or looseness of the subscription." His conclusion follows as a matter of course: "If the PCA could agree on what I take to be a sound view of subscription, I, for one, would be amenable to discussing what elements in our Confession must be removed in order for the PCA to find in that Confession a real expression of our articles of unity."

I don't know about you, but whenever we examine candidates for the gospel ministry, and those candidates take the usual, unchallenged exceptions (i.e., to recreation on the Sabbath or to God's creation of all things "in the space of six days"), I often wonder, "If those statements are incidental to the 'essentials of the Reformed system,' why not just take them out?"

Echoing Coffin, if the PCA could agree on what comprises the elusive and mysterious "Confession within the Confession" (which would naturally eliminate those propositions not essential to its "system of doctrine"), then would not the demand for strict subscription finally make sense?

But as long as the majority of our presbyteries deem exceptions to the number of creation days, recreation on the Sabbath, the language of "works" in the prelapsarian covenant, and the requirement for covenant children to examine themselves before coming to the Lord's Table as not only incidental and acceptable, but also teachable to our congregations, the call for strict subscription will leave the PCA with approximately eleven ordained ministers.

(Not counting the faculty of Greenville Seminary, of course.)

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Fesko on Old School Subscription

In his article entitled The Legacy of Old School Confession Subscription in the OPC (JETS 46/4 [December 2003]), J.V. Fesko challenges the strict subscriptionist's claim that theirs was the historic practice within Old School Presbyterianism, a practice crucial in stemming the system subscription of the New School which inevitably paves the way for theological liberalism.

Fesko's thesis, however, is not intended to endorse New School subscription, but to challenge the common version of strict subscription that masquerades as "the historical Presbyterian position" in contemporary Reformed churches.

Citing Hodge's and Warfield's belief in theistic evolution, Thornwell's rejection of 24-hour creation days, Machen's allowing OPC ministers to hold an eschatological view which he considered "opposed" to the Westminster Standards (i.e., premillennialism), and Murray's complete re-casting of traditonal covenant theology and rejection of the covenant of works, Fesko argues that historic Old School subscription "is conservative, in that it requires the adoption of every article and doctrine, yet it is liberal in that it does not require the adoption of every proposition."

In a word, contemporary strict subscriptionists are correct in their historical claim, but mistaken in how they implement it.
"... Officers must subscribe to the Standards because (quia) they contain the doctrines of Scripture as understood by the Church, but they can bind the consciences only in so far as (quatenus) its propositions accord with the teaching of Scripture."

I can't tell if I really like this, or if it is mere doublespeak. But either way, Pipa can't be happy....

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Chapell on Good-Faith Subscription

When a candidate for gospel ministry is examined on the floor of presbytery, Bryan Chapell argues,
"... he should in good faith declare his lack of accord with any proposition in our Confessional standards.... A presbytery should exercise its right to determine its membership by judging whether any declared difference with our standards is an exception, and whether the presbytery will allow or in any way limit the teaching of that exception" (Perspective on the Subscription Standards of the Presbyterian Church in America).
"In my heart," he continues later, "this protection of the sacred status of Scripture alone is the core issue, not whether we have a strict- or full-, good-faith- or system-subscription standard."

While I think Chapell makes some good points (especially given the highly-detailed nature of the Westminster Standards), he does seem rather idealistic at the end of his paper where he appeals to the expectation that, as long as we are "entranced with the message of grace" and "enchained to the Spirit's vision," we will love one another enough that our doctrinal difference will increasingly fade away.

First: Is enchained a word? And second: Really?

Is it a realistic expectation that all of the presbyteries in our denomination will suddenly see eye-to-eye once they begin loving one another more? Was that the fault of the many Protestant mainline bodies that are currently ordaining homosexuals to the ministry? Sheesh, if you ask me, maybe they're loving each a little too much.

If strict subscription betrays an over-realized eschatology as was recently alleged, what does that say of Chapell's view?

Monday, May 21, 2007

Pipa on Full Subscription

Joseph A. Pipa, in his The Practice of Subscription, argues that "full subscription is the historical position of Scottish and American Presbyterianism," and that "system subscription has invariably led to liberalism and subjectivism in the church. In other words, system subscription is in effect no subscription."

Makes sense, right?

Why bother to adopt the Westminster Confession and Catechisms as the doctrinal standards of a denomination if candidates for gospel ministry can simply pick and choose which parts to believe and which to deny (with presbyteries determining whether the exception is "essential to the system")?

But then again, the Westminster Standards are pretty detailed, making it rather difficult to be able to affirm every single one of their propositions. Plus, there has been some significant theological advancement since the confessional canon (supposedly) closed in 1648.


Is full subscription really as simple and beneficial an idea as it sounds? Is there some sense in which the nature of a particular confession should determine the nature of our subscription to it?

What say you?

Sunday, May 20, 2007

On Confessional Subscription

As I have been arguing, there is "a wide gulf fixed" between the Reformed doctrine of Sola Scriptura on the one hand, and the evangelical insistence upon Solo Scriptura on the other. The former locates the revelation of God in the Bible alone, and then recognizes that Bible as the church’s Book to interpret with a secondary and derivative authority. The latter also recognizes the Scripture as the sole source of divine revelation, but then dismisses as legalistic any attempts at authoritative interpretation (except those that result from the still small voice of God to the autonomous individual).

In a word, the Reformed believer seeks to understand Scripture in community with the cloud of witnesses that has gone before us, while the evangelical often sees the church's prior creeds and confessions as dusty old threats to the fresh revelations of the Holy Spirit (for being "the shy member" of the Godhead, he sure seems to have a lot to say these days).

This brings up an interesting conundrum for the Reformed confessionalist, however. What does it mean to "subscribe" to a confession, creed, or catechism? Must every jot and tittle be affirmed, or only the parts that are "essential to the system"? If the former, how much detail (or lack thereof) should our doctrinal standards contain? If the latter, who gets to decide what is included in this "confession within the confession"?

Personally, I have never been satisfied with my own position on this issue, so I hope that my mind gets at least a little closer to being made up throughout this discussion.

Opine away….

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Rome Vs. Wheaton, Round Three: Scripture

Francis Beckwith, in discussing with Christianity Today his recent return to the Roman Catholic Church of his youth, highlighted the relationship of the church to Scripture. The former president of the Evangelical Theological Society remarked:

"At some point, there has to be some connection between the church and its role and the phenomenon of Scripture.... In a weird way, there's an assumption [within evangelicalism] that all authority is authoritarian. I deny that assumption. I think that the church was given the authority to make these judgments, and that the Holy Spirit allowed them to make those judgments.... So [the Bible’s canonicity and the church’s authority to interpret Scripture] are not inconsistent with each other."
Keith Mathison, in a recent article in Modern Reformation, very helpfully pointed out that what often masquerades as "the Protestant view" of the Bible’s authority is actually a distortion of the Reformation position. The latter has been called Sola Scriptura ("Scripture Alone"), while the view more common in evangelicalism has been dubbed Solo Scriptura ("Just me and my Bible").

While the confessional Reformed position argues that Scripture is the church's only source of divine revelation, it also maintains that the Bible is the church's Book, and her interpretations—expressed via creed, confession, or catechism—do carry a secondary kind of authority that should not be trumped by fresh revelations, divine whisperings, or still, small voices.

As expected, the classical Protestant position is a tertium quid (a third thing) in distinction from both evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism. But when the debate excludes Geneva and leaves us to decide between Wheaton and Rome, we may still disagree with Dr. Beckwith’s decision, but can we blame him?

Monday, May 14, 2007

Rome Vs. Wheaton, Round Two: Tradition

"Evangelicals kid themselves," insists former Evangelical Theological Society president and recently re-converted Roman Catholic Francis Beckwith,

"when they believe that they can re-invent the wheel with every generation, that you have to produce another spate of systematic theology textbooks to teach people the stuff that has already been articulated for generations."
Instead, "The way that we read Scripture is through the ideas and concepts that have been passed down to us by a great tradition." The average believer, he concludes, would never simply sit down with the Bible and come up with the mature and well-developed Christology of the Nicene Creed (a Christology the reformers themselves took for granted).

This is certainly a valid criticism, especially for those, like me, who grew up thinking that after the apostle John died there was nothing but rampant apostasy until the Jesus Movement began in 1965 (it is so typical of moderns and post-moderns to insist that their generation is unique among all those that have lived on the earth).

As I pointed out in my last post, if evangelicalism can no longer claim to trumpet a doctrine of justification that differs significantly from that of Roman Catholicism, and if the former's latent distrust of the wisdom and tradition of its forefathers necessitates reinventing the theological wheel every twenty years or so, then its appeal is lost, it seems, amid all the confusion and hassle.

The issue here is not the Bible vs. tradition, but whether we read that Bible in conjunction with, or in isolation from, those who have gone before us. By adding to its confusion of law and gospel the burden of its generational snobbery, evangelicalism will continue to fail to make a compelling case for retaining the high-profile intellectuals it values so highly.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Rome Vs. Wheaton, Round One: Justification

To begin our consideration of Francis Beckwith's jettisoning of evangelicalism for Rome, we'll start with the first issue he raised in his interview in Christianity Today. He says:
"The issue of justification was key for me.... As an evangelical, even when I talked about sanctification and wanted to practice it, it seemed as if I didn't have a good enough incentive to do so. Now there's a kind of theological framework, and it doesn't say my salvation depends on me, but it says my virtue counts for something."
If evangelicalism ever had a chief architect, John Wesley would be at the top of the list. His famous rationale for holy living ("fear of punishment and hope of reward") is admittedly a factor, but "a good enough incentive" it certainly is not. Without gratitude, and a healthy grasp of the grace which occasions it, any and all motives for godliness are surely selfish and lacking the necessary dynamic to keep the wind in our sails.

Now if, in the mind of the former president of the Evangelical Theological Society, Roman Catholicism provides a better incentive for holy living than evangelicalism's fear of punishment and hope of reward, what does that say about the latter's view of grace? At the very least it would indicate that, despite the anti-Roman rhetoric and all the "Solas" it can muster, contemporary evangelicalism is a far cry from that which Trent anathematized thirty years after Luther nailed his theses on the castle door at Wittenberg.

Of course, I don't think either Rome or Wheaton provide a decent rationale for holiness. So if both get justification wrong, what other factors should tip the scale?

Evangelicals and Catholics: Together?

As I've been thinking about Francis Beckwith's recent resignation as president of the Evangelical Theological Society in order to return to the Roman Catholic Church of his youth, my reaction has not been nearly as bitter and venemous as that of some evangelicals.

I think I yawned actually....

Sure, if one's view is that the good doctor left the pristine and pure confines of a Shire-like evangelical movement so that he could ride piggy-back on the Harlot who sits upon a scarlet Beast with seven heads and ten horns spouting incessant blasphemies, then perhaps a measure of lamentation is in order. But if Beckwith's crime amounts to exchanging Pepsi for Coke, then it will hardly ellicit a strong reaction (especially from those who prefer ale).

My point, for the metaphorically challenged, is that from where this confessional Presbyterian stands, things in Rome look surprisingly similar to what going on in Wheaton.

I plan, perhaps later today or tomorrow, to interact a bit with Beckwith's own rationale in the interview he gave in Christianity Today.

Stay tuned....

Monday, May 07, 2007

Get Thee Behind Me, Ye Shiny Happy People!

We all desire to see the evidence of divine handiwork in our lives (we see enough of the other kind, don't we?). But what do we do when the token of the Spirit's work within us is not a song but a sigh? Not fulfillment, but only more longing?

According to Paul in II Corinthians 5:1-5, the presence of the ache, the groaning, and the burden are part and parcel of this semi-eschatological epoch in which we toil between the already and the not yet. In other words, you're supposed to feel that tension that you feel, and if you didn't, something would be drastically wrong.

But things get interesting when we compare this to what we often hear from the pulpits of our contemporary megachurches (well, podiums to be more accurate).

If your children aren't perfectly behaved (i.e., they act like children), then you must not be "growing them God's way." If your evangelistic efforts are characterized by "weakness, fear, and much trembling" (like Paul's), then you need to read Leonard Ravenhill's Why Revival Tarries while simultaneously listening to "Asleep in the Light" by Keith Green. If your "blessed hope" is in the future somewhere, then read Your Best Life Now to cure you of that other-worldliness. If you struggle with sometimes reading Ecclesiastes and actually agreeing with it, then maybe your life isn't "Purpose-Driven"© enough. If indwelling sin still clings to you, just pray the Prayer of Jabez a few more times.

Or to simplify: If you're tired of being looked upon as weak, foolish, and irrelevant (i.e., like Jesus), then take heart! There is a legion of churches to help you make sure that will never happen (pun intended).

I seem to remember Peter offering Jesus some similar advice. Of course, Jesus responded by changing Peter's nickname to "Satan," so, like, maybe we shouldn't go there....

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Whose Kingdom? Whose Glory?

John McWhorter, in his book Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music, and Why We Should, Like, Care, argues that the day of oratory and rhetorical skill is all but over. Jesus’ disciples would probably have agreed after hearing his less-than-rousing speech following his "triumphant" entry into Jerusalem (on a donkey).

After years of insisting that "My hour has not yet come," our Lord finally declared, "The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified" (John 12:23). At long last, the majesty would be restored to languishing Israel, and her preeminence among the nations would once again be apparent. The crowd was primed for revolt, and a mere call to arms from their Messiah surely would have resulted in a great military exploit to overthrow Rome and put their King in his rightful place.

What they got, however, was a cryptic illustration about a seed needing to die in order to grow, and then a bunch of morbid stuff about losing their lives and carrying crosses (vv. 24-26). "What could this possibly have to do with the kingdom?" the scribes, Pharisees, and proto-Dispensationalists must have been asking.

And we’re still asking. The American church wants glory, relevance, and her "best life now." The cross may have been fine for Jesus to die on, but not us (we have our inalienable rights, you know).

So here's my question: Is it a "theology of glory" to expect the American church to surrender its "theology of glory"?