Archive for September, 2007

Can the gospel be a stake depending on where you are? Before proceeding, let me start by affirming my belief in the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, and so I’m cool. But let me add that I don’t believe, just as John Owen didn’t believe, that denial of it amounts to a denial of the gospel. Here’s why.

Unless we are far gone in sectarianism, the gospel is the same gospel wherever you go in the world. It is not possible to give the Lutherans a pass on their failure to affirm the imputation of the active obedience of Christ while nailing Presbyterians who don’t affirm it. It is possible to frame the gospel more or less accurately, more or less fully, and more or less confessionally. But if one group scores 87% on their gospel purity test, and another group scores 87%, and it was the imputation of the active obedience of Christ part of the test that tripped them both up, then it is not possible to flunk the one and pass the other. If the gospel is at stake in Presbyterianism, then it is at stake across the board. If it is not at stake across the board, then the gospel is not at stake here. If we grade the tests differently, then one of two things is happening. Either this is old-fashioned favoritism (the religious form of which is sectarianism), or it is some form of postmodern relativism.

This does not mean that debates cannot or should not occur. But it means that the stakes of the debate should be represented accurately. Differences should concern whether or not the position is fully scriptural, or confessional, or right in the theological details — something ramped down. But if the Westminster Assembly contained men who disputed the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, and it did, and the language of the Confession was deliberately framed in such a way as to allow these men to subscribe it anyway, and it was, then it seems to me that faithfulness to the Standards today would require the same latitude. Moreover, this latitude would not land us in the unseemly position of saying that the Lutherans were denying the Reformation, and the gospel to boot.

Like the majority of the men at the Assembly, I affirm the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. And also like the men at Westminster I do not believe that questioning it is a denial or rejection of the gospel. Who’s with me on this?

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Subscription & Freedom

Dr. Hart asked me why I reject “the imputation of the active obedience of Christ” (IAOC). My answer to the question is simple: the most significant reason denying the IAOC is important to me is the odd recent insistence by some that confessing that formulation is necessary in order to maintain one’s Reformed credentials.

I will deny the IAOC with gusto as long as people keep insisting on binding my conscience with such a formulation. You see, I confess and embrace the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 20 “Of Christian Liberty, and the Liberty of Conscience.” I believe that God alone is Lord of my conscience and has left it free from the doctrines and the commandments of men, which are in anything contrary to his Word; or beside it, in matters of faith, or worship.

You ask me what I gain by denying the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. Not much theologically. I just don’t think such a formulation is helpful and adequately summarizes the Biblical data. I certainly don’t think that the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone requires such a formulation. That’s all. I’m not sure why a denial of the IOAOC is inexorably linked with Shepherd’s project.

The real reason I deny it is because I’m being told that I must affirm it even though I do not find it in the Westminster Standards or in the Bible.

Perhaps a story will help.

In 1537, Peter Caroli, a Reformed minister at Lausanne, accused Calvin and Farel of Arianism. It seems that the Genevan Reformers were not using the precise Patristic terminology in their teaching about the deity of the Son and the Trinity. Their opponents wondered whether they were truly “orthodox” in their statements about the Trinity.

At a special synod, Caroli demanded that Calvin subscribe to the early church creeds. Calvin refused. No, that’s not a typo. He refused.

It is part of our Calvinian heritage to refuse to be bound by extrabiblical categories and terminology. The Bible has absolute priority over all traditional formulations, the Westminster standards included.

Consider Warfield’s discussion of this episode and its significance in his “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity” in The Works of B.B. Warfield, vol. 5, pp. 180-220.

Warfield says, “Calvin refused to subscribe to the ancient creeds at Caroli’s dictation, not in the least because he did not find himself in accord with their teaching, but solely because he was determined to preserve for himself and his colleagues the liberties belonging to Christian men, subject in matters of faith to no other authority than that of God speaking in the Scriptures” (p. 207).

Beautiful. Freedom!

Calvin himself says, “I have long learned by experience, and that over and over again, that those who contend thus pertinaciously about terms, are really cherishing a secret poison” (Inst. 1.8.5).

But listen to what Warfield says and apply it mutatis mutandis to the current controversies in our circles:

“[Calvin's] sole design was to make it apparent that Caroli’s insistence that only in words of these creeds could faith in the Trinity be fitly expressed was ridiculous” (p. 211).

“He [Calvin] considered it intolerable that the Christian teacher’s faith should be subjected to the authority of any traditional modes of statement, however venerable, or however true; and he refused to be the instrument of creating a precedent for such tyranny in the Reformed Churches by seeming to allow that a teacher might be justly treated as a heretic until he cleared himself by subscribing ancient symbols thrust before him by this or that disturber of the peace” (p. 208).

Wow. How the Reformed church has fallen. Fallen into the sterile trap of Westminster traditionalism. These days, in some quarters of the Presbyterian church, if you don’t define theological terms in exactly the same way as some branch of the Reformed tradition, you are a heretic.

Part of the problem is that we have so little theological imagination, not to mention intellectual honesty, that we cannot admit that the substance of a matter might be confessed using nontraditional words and categories. If someone is not speaking the language of the 17th century, defining terms like they did, that doesn’t mean they are not Reformed, or worse, heretics.

Maybe the most troubling example of this is when men are accused of denying salvation by grace because they do not use the precise language and categories of some branch of the Reformed tradition. Someone thrusts the words “the imputation of the active obedience of Christ” in my face and says sign this or you deny the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone. I say, I won’t sign that. Presto! I’m an Arminian or worse.

No matter how loudly we protest that we don’t believe in salvation by works and that we do believe that we are saved by Christ’s righteousness alone, our traditionalist opponents accuse us of Arminianism or worse, and all because we won’t sign our names under their pet theological formulations.

Maybe we’re not right about our own doctrinal formulations. Maybe we misunderstand the Bible. We should all be open to correction from one another. But one thing we are doing, in good Calvinian fashion, is exegeting the Bible with the freedom that the Reformers won for the liberated churches of Protestantism. We want to go where the Bible leads us. That’s a good thing. We may be wrong in our exegesis. But that’s where the debate ought to be fought—at the level of biblical exposition, not subscription to idiosyncratic formulations no matter how venerable or traditional they may be.

If we are not careful, we will out do Rome in our Romanizing traditionalism. In some circles the Westminster standards seem to have become the infallible voice of the Reformed magisterium. If you deviate from the exact words, definitions, and formulations therein, or if you suggest that they might be corrected by the Bible, you may be hauled before a Reformed inquisition.

As the traditionalists are ripping out various ministers’ ecclesiastical entrails, perhaps a loud cry of “freedom!” now and then might be appropriate. Calvin would be proud.

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I agree with Darryl Hart’s reading of Robert Rollock. Rollock was an early covenant theolgian and it is anachronistic to demand that his theological language look exactly like it would after various controversies helped us define our more precise understanding.

Rollock, like Ursinus in his Large Catechism, is rolling Christ’s active and passive obedience into His total righteousness:

Q. 87. What benefit accrues to us from the suffering and death of Christ? A. The one sacrifice, by which he has merited for us reception into the covenatn of divine grace, that is, remission of sins, the gift of the Holy Spirit, RIGHTEOUSNESS, and eternal life.

Now, the point is not whether you will say it the same way but whether you accept the substance. The substance is that the justified is not just forgiven but stands before God as absolutely righteous. He does not stand with a righteousness like Adam, one that is not consummated, but with the perfect righteousness of the 2nd Adam who consummated the covenant. Do you agree?

Jim Jordan’s earlier comment stated: ” affirm Christ is all in all for us, and that His perfect sinless life, His suffering on the cross, and His glorious resurrection are all credited to us. Christ is the new Adam, obeying God where the first Adam did not obey God.” I take from the is agrees with the substance. Am I right? Does Pastor Meyer’s agree?

Finally, if this is not what Meyers has in mind, please clarify where you leave the justified believer? Back where Adam was? Forgiven but in need of a personal obedience unto righteousness? Does he need to be like Adam and/or Jesus, obedient and faithful unto righteousness? Or is he already, perfectly, and eternally righteous?

To me, the gospel is at stake in the way this question is answered.

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Playful Calvinism


I got suckered. Darryl challenged the seriousness of FV. Harumph, said I – touchily. Of course I’m serious. I mean, I write books. How could I not be serious?

Wrong answer.

I don’t know exactly what Darryl means when he talks about our lack of seriousness, and I don’t agree that a “serious” effort at reform has to follow the channels he seems to suggest. But he’s hit on something important.

“Playful” has not been the most natural modifier of “Calvinist.” But it should be. Doug Wilson has often talked of promoting what I think he calls a “sunny Calvinism.” Calvinists above all other Christians have theological grounds to follow Jesus’ exhortation, Don’t be anxious. There should be a buoyancy and lightness to Calvinists since we believe in a God who is in absolute control over everything. Everything, literally EVERYTHING, is a gift from a God who is infinitely good and who has committed Himself with utter faithfulness to us. And knowing that God is in control relieves us of the burden of having to be. We should be the most thankful, joyful, playful of people. We have far more reason than Chesterton to remember that Satan fell by force of gravity.

Take this as another effort to describe the psychology of those associated with the FV. And with no implication that non-FV Calvinists are automatically dour. Darryl, for instance, is hilarious.

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Sectarians All

Peter asks in an earlier post how much of FV the folks here contributing have read. It points to a psychological trait that I am still trying to understand, not simply on Peter’s part but in several interactions I’ve had with folks who identify with FV. It is a certain touchiness about being criticized. When attacked, FV’s defense is to claim that it is well represented in the mainstream Reformed tradition. As James Jordan has insinuated, the mainstream (read: PCA and OPC) are really sectarian; FV is mainstream and catholic.

That perception conflicts with other descriptions of FV on this blog. Doug spoke about FV being a conversation among a select group of pastors and theologians. He also wrote about the importance of worship each Sunday and that FV’s ambitions were not much grander than that. Jeff Myers seconded Doug’s motion.

So I’m still trying to figure out FV’s psychology and sense of purpose. The reason FV has attracted so much attention is not because it’s views have been widely promulgated. James Jordan can claim that FV’s views are out there for anyone to read. But while that’s technically true, FV has not pursued an active publishing program in the “mainstream” publishing world. Auburn Ave and Canon Press have published most of the collections or books commonly associated with FV. That means you have to look fairly hard for FV. It also insures that FV will only circulate as it generates controversy, not as it makes proposals in the wider world of Christian publishing.

I don’t point out the in-house character of FV to impugn its character or motives. I am a great advocate of the local and the provincial. I have even been criticized on this blog for conceiving of the Reformed tradition in such a narrow way. But could it be that FV is even narrower than the narrow tradition I have affirmed, that FV has not circulated outside its local habitat in ways sufficient to justify its own claims to inclusion and catholicity? In other words, do FVers need to get out more?

Back in Feb. (“Who Defines ‘Reformed’?”) Peter wrote about the controversy over FV as one between the center and the margins. He ended by speculating whether FV will remain on the margins and be a passing fad, or whether it will create the new center. I for one am still wondering if FV wants to create that center, if it really wants that responsibilty. I don’t think it has acted that way. It seems instead fairly content to work on the margins, but then get upset when the center tells FV it is marginal.

So does FV want to be the center or not? Does it really want to define what Reformed means/is? If FV’s pater familia, James Jordan, says Reformed is third down on the list of his Christian identities, how much is FV invested in Reformed Christianity?

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Following upon on my earlier post, let me continue.

To reject a covenant of works based on perfect obedience is to create real confusion (pastoral and academic) over the nature of justification. Some argue that the law/gospel distinction is Lutheran and not Reformed. This is because they have not read enough of the Reformed tradition and because they have failed to understand the controling nature of the Covenant of Works as synonymous with the law.

This creates a great threat to our doctrine of justification. Now, I realize that law/gospel is not necessarily absolute and that the law serves the gospel even for the regenerate (3rd use of the law). Still, at the point of justification, law and gospel are absolutely antithetical.

Therefore, although the faith that justifies is the same faith that works by love (Gal. 5:6) we are not justified by the working or the love. Rather faith, acting as an instrument, recieves and rests upon Christ’s benefits (faith’s passive office) and goes on to working through love (faith’s active office).

Further, I realize that faith, in its passive office of resting and recieving is a living and active faith that takes hold of Christ. No one is denying this fact. Rather, we are trying to make clear that faith, as an instruement, is not a work that leads to justification. Rather, it is a faith that takes hold of rest.

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Clarification of dates

There is a bit of confusion (cause by me). This discussion was slated to run from Sept. 17- October 5.

It the contributors feel this discussion is grinding to a halt, we can certainly end early. If there is more to be said, we can press on until Wed. as originally planned.

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Peter wrote:

“Bill, I’m not sure which of my formulations you found confusing. Could you clarify.”

Peter, sorry to open a line and leave it off the hook. My last post grew rather large.

What I am thinking about is the “deliverdict.”

I am thinking it could mean a couple of different things:

1) A way of speaking of our translation from slaves of sin to sons of God like adoption (which Turretin placed under the loci of justification);

2) Or a way of folding a Murray-like definitive sanctification into our justification (something that would raise real problems (why not be justified by our own definitive sanctification rather than Christ’s merits?).

2) Or a way of denying the continuing reality of our total depravity, thus blurring our doctrine of simul iustus et peccator and establishing a kind of striving toward perfection (which I doubt you are saying).

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Grace, Merit, and Innocence

I would like to draw us back into the details. Especially with regard to the question of covenant and its relationship to justification. I was glad to see so many of the participants affirm the Confession. I am still a bit confused by Peter Leithart’s formulations.

Douglas Wilson has argued that the Reformed should, according to their own tradition, affirm God’s graciousness to man even before the fall from innocence. He will be pleased to know the RPCNA Testimony declares, “Covenants are God’s gracious instruments for the accomplishment of His purpose that the creation should serve Him (RPC Testimony, Introduction, paragraph 1.” Included here is the Covenant of Works/Life/Nature. The RPCNA Testimony affirms grace before the fall. So does the vast majority of the Reformed tradition. So far so good?

It is important that the graciousness of the Covenant of Works not be misunderstood. The Reformed Orthodox have understood that the use of grace here is nuanced. The pre-redemptive covenant was gracious, not in its consummation, but in its establishment. It was gracious of God to condescend to enter into covenant with His creature. It was gracious for God to transcend the stark eternal boundries of the Creator/creature relationship and seek fellowship with Adam. It was gracious to the race to offer consummation and higher life in response to the commanded obedience of the federal head. Here, at the point of entrance, is grace. Thus, the Reformed have skillfully steered between the Scylla and Charybdis of medievial realism and nominalism.

Against the via antiqua (realism) the Reformed affirmed that the Creator/creature distinction is so ultimate that no works, fallen or otherwise, can bind the justice of God on the basis of strict, raw (to use Doug Wilson’s phrase) merit.

Against the via moderna (nominalism) the Reformed affirmed that the Creator/creature distinction is not so ultimate that God gracious provision in covenant could not bind the Creator’s justice on the basis of merit according to the terms of the covenant.

Now, between the poles of realism and nominalism that Reformed have found themselves on various points of the spectrum. For some of the Reformed Orthodox, the relationship of merit according to the pact can stress the law as a holy transcript of God’s holiness (bringing it into closer connection with realism… here I would place Turretin, Owen). For others, the stress is on the Scotus school of volunatism seeing God’s covenant requirments as a reflection of soverign will and free choice (here we might include David Dickson and Samuel Rutherford).

The beauty of the position is that while it enjoys aspects of the realist/intellectual and nominalist/voluntarist traditions, it is free from the speculative abuses. It is rooted in the biblical conception of covenant. God has graciously made a covenant and thus His justice is REQUIRED to bless the works He has promised to reward. “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due (Romans 4:4).” The stress here is on the covenant merit upon which the Covenant of Works would be consummated by the federal head. Therefore, we are able to speak of grace and merit in the covenant of works.

Douglas Wilson has suggested that, if Adam had stood, his DUTY would have been to give praise to God. I have no problem as long as we can equally say that his RIGHT was to the covenant blessing of consummation. It is always a creatures duty to give praise to God. Only according to the blessings of the covenant is their a right established against God’s justice.

This is no small matter. It strikes at the heart of the work of the 2nd Adam. More to come.

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For curiosity’s sake


A few comments in the last week have made me curious about how well-informed the non-FV participants in this discussion are about the FV. Can you list what works you’ve read?

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