Reformed Theology

It’s Worth Defending

Evangelicals overall do a fine job at defending the trivial but struggle to defend the hard things. Machen observed long ago in his monumental Christianity and Liberalism that “it appears that the things that are sometimes thought to be hardest to defend are also the things that are most worth defending (8).”

Machen was deeply concerned about where the lines were being drawn. He was sure that if we abandoned this battle, we would be swallowed up by heresy and forsake the tremendous work of our godly forefathers. He saw liberalism as another religion altogether; a totally different class of religious expression than Christianity (7). He saw the resurrection, virgin birth, and the divinity of Jesus being threatened on a consistent basis. But, he argued, these are the battles worth fighting; they are the hard battles of the faith. Once we lose the creedal ground, we will sink into oblivion. For Machen, this was not an option.

We Need New Ears and Eyes

I began my day reading through Jim Jordan’s magnum opus, Through New Eyes. Jim is a dear friend and we have worked together for three years (09-11). I have literally read and listened to hundreds of articles, sermons, & lessons. If Jim publishes, my eyes will seek to scan it. In many ways, he has taught me to love the Bible in a deeper way than before.

My seminary days were wonderful days. I had the privilege of sitting under some of the most renown Reformed theologians alive. It was filled with excitement and theological epiphanies. But none of these men came near to the theological revivals that James Jordan  caused in my own thinking. Jordan enabled me to appreciate the Bible for its own merit. He caused me to love the Bible for its own structure, poetry, cadence, rhythm, and music. Yes, the Bible is a beautiful song sung by Yahweh Himself in Genesis 1 and closing with the eternal song of eternity in Revelation 22.

In TNE, Jordan observes:

…the universe and everything in it reveals the character of its Creator. God designed the universe to reveal Himself and to instruct us. The problem we have is that sin has made us deaf and blind. We need new eyes and ears, and the Scriptures can help us get them (13).

These new eyes and ears are only re-shaped and re-designed as we allow the Scriptures to do so. The Bible shapes us as a people. The Word of the Lord re-orients our minds to see God’s instruction in everything. The world, and in particular, Scriptures, communicate to us through vast symbols. The revelation of Yahweh contains a specific language that we need to master. And the only way of mastering it is by seeking its guidance day and night.

Hear the Bible

One strong emphasis James Jordan has made over the years is that reading the Bible is not enough. Listening to it is equally important. The ancients did not manuscript copies available as we do, but yet their minds were saturated by the language of Scriptures. Their minds delved deeply into the rich types and symbols of the Old Covenant Scriptures. They heard it read and began to make connections. They did not only accept explicit types and symbols, but they saw that the entire Bible was one story pictured in symbols and types, and since this is the case, therefore every narrative is connected to the one previous and the one after.

Hearing the Bible especially in a community setting takes us away from our natural tendency to isolate ourselves. The isolation of evangelicalism is due to hermeneutical isolation. Individuals are perfectly satisfied to pietize the Bible. And as they do so, they turn their individualism into a standard for others. But when we hear the Bible, when we listen to one another in our communities, and when we allow the Church to speak–as she should–we become part of a greater hermeneutical project.

Hear the Bible, but don’t hear it alone. Hear it, and then contextualize it in this grand story of redemption. And when this is done, sin’s hermeneutical effects began to fade away and our eyes and ears will be able to do those things they were created to do.

For book resources, see here. For his audio series on How to Read the Bible, see here.

Should Reformed People Read N.T. Wright?

It doesn’t happen quite often, but once in a while when I recommend a book or a quote by N.T. Wright on facebook, I will receive a question that goes something like this:

“Do you approve of N.T. Wright? Do you think it’s fruitful to endorse N.T. Wright? Or don’t you know that N.T. denies Justification by faith alone?”

I addressed the first question on facebook and I thought I’d make it available here. My response goes like this:

I think the question ought to be more nuanced. In other words, humans and their ideas, especially new humans recreated by God, ought to be analyzed more carefully and charitably. As a pastor I recommend Wright to my parishioners with the same enthusiasm I would recommend C.S. Lewis, Schmemann, and Martin Luther. I have disagreements with all of them, but charity allows me to communicate with these great thinkers and gain from what they offer, while expressing sometimes strong disagreements on some of their contributions.

Yes, Reformed people, in fact, Christians of all stripes should read Professor Wright. His profound insights, his vision for a renewed humanity in Christ, his invaluable defense of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and his commitment to the historical, Biblical Jesus make him one of the most gifted teachers and scholars of our time and The Jesus Seminar’s worst nightmare.

But what about justification? Shouldn’t we stand for the principal article of the Church? And by standing shouldn’t we reject anyone who denies it?

First, N.T. Wright has written and clarified many of his statements. He stated again and again that he does not deny justification by faith alone. I take him at his word. “But hasn’t he been unclear?” To those who think so, he will always be. To me and many others, I take his project to be fruitful, though not always agreeing. I find Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s humorous, but yet serious points on the Wright vs. Piper debate to be very helpful, and from what I hear from reliable sources, Wright agrees and finds Vanhoozer’s attempt to bridge the two paradigms extremely beneficial.

Secondly, the Reformation did not settle every issue. There are contemporary issues that still must be handled within our context. The Reformers did not exhaust the fullness of justification. There is indeed a robustly corporate view of justification that the Reformers–rightly preoccupied with Romish theological abuse–simply did not address explicitly in the 16th century. In this sense, Wright needs to be read and listened to attentively.

Thirdly, when one poses the question of whether we should eliminate such an author from our library because he is wrong on an issue, no matter how important the issue may be, he is betraying the charitable nature of the Christian vision and our personal libraries. Of course, he may choose to avoid Wright, and other authors who also had some skeptical theological presuppositions (like C.S. Lewis), however, his theological vision will be widely narrow and his ability to articulate a vision of the world will stop at the wardrobe, while we prefer to open it up and see Narnia in all its beauty.

Finally, the West’s over-emphasis on the individual is tragic. The individual matters, but Adam himself knew that the individual is not alone. Just as the Trinity is not alone, so too man needs to be a part of something greater. “Community” is not just a buzzword no matter how often hipster Christian groups use it. In its biblical sense, community is the essence of the Christian experience. Paul’s vision was highly ecclesiastical. The individual who divorces from the community loses his ability to be truly human. He breathes and eats as a human, but his breathing and eating desecrates God’s intention to incorporate him into  a multitude. N.T. Wright offers immeasurable contributions on this subject.

Naturally, there is the possibility of over-emphasizing community, but that hardly seems to be the problem in our day. The reality is if you stress the community you get the individual, if you stress the individual you don’t get the community.

Should we read N.T. Wright? Yes. Read him often with the eyes of discernment. But again, discernment is the Christian’s best friend in any human activity.

You are a Sinful Wretch!

This is what sonship proponents and some extreme Calvinists have declared to their congregations again and again. But is this a true biblical teaching in light of the redemption of Christ? My old seminary friend, Jake Belder, has done a fine job untangling this wretched mess. 

Liturgical Strategy

The worship of the Church accomplishes work in the world. Battles are won or lost as a result of how our churches worship God. Too often we act as though our differences over liturgy were simply differences over decoration, instead of differences over effective strategy in the midst of a fearful war. There should be no disagreement over whether the warfare of an army should be coordinated or not…when the choir in militant joy goes out as the advance guard of the army, then God’s name is glorified, and His enemies are scattered.

{Doug Wilson, Mother Kirk, 146}

God Before the Reformation

Things were falling to the ground long before Newton described how they did so, and men were being put right with God long before the Reformers were included in their number.

{Douglas Wilson, Mother Kirk, 30}

Reformation Sunday: The God the Reformers Believed!

People of God, this is the Sunday when we consider the Protestant Reformation. It would be easy this morning to use our code words, the famous Latin Solas of the Reformation[1] that shaped the Western Christian world, we could emphasize our distinct doctrines of the Reformation like predestination, or the covenant of grace, we could oppose the Ana-Baptists, we could talk about how the Revolutionary War was actually a Calvinistic War, we could talk about the influence of the Reformation in the early colonies in this country, we could talk about the boldness of John Knox, the genius of John Calvin, the titanic might of Martin Luther, the rescuing of the Lord’s Supper from the abuses of the mass, the effects of Protestantism in shaping education, economics, law, and politics. Yes, we could talk about all these things, and all of them would be worth pursuing. Providence Church would not exist today were it not for the Protestant Reformation. We boldly affirm our connection and continuation with the 16th century Reformation. More

Dead Man’s Bones

“If we exist to defend a 16th century event—however noble that may be—while not looking to Jesus, resting in Jesus, and honoring Jesus with our lives, then our tradition is nothing more than dead man’s bones.”

-From this Lord’s Day Sermon entitled: The God the Reformers Believed!

The Abuse of Introspection

Some people dwell so much on their sinfulness that they find themselves constantly bombarding their status with doubt. Am I really a Christian? Am I worthy? These questions are not atypical of those who grow up in environments where internalized Christianity is emphasized. There is a healthy form of self-examination and Paul informs Pastors (II Corinthians 13:5) to encourage parishioners to examine themselves. At the same time, there is a difference between self-examination and introspection that is not often considered.

It is worth mentioning that God cares about our hearts. Out of it can flow the waters of destruction or waters of peace (Ps. 42). The repentant psalmist cries that God would create in him a clean heart, and that God would restore the joy of his salvation. Here again it is important to notice that this salvation has a face, a joyful one.

Martyn-Lloyd Jones wrote that a depressed Christian is not a good apologetic for Christianity. Whether there are physiological components at the root of this depression or not, it is still not a good presentation of the Christian faith. Depression is a form of despising God’s gifts and goodness. All of us are prone to it, and all of us must fight it. Schmemann once wrote that “Of all accusations against Christians, the most terrible one was uttered by Nietzsche when he said that Christians had no joy.” Joy is not forced, rather it is the natural outflow of a heart saturated with grace.

But aren’t we all sinners in need of repentance? While Simul Iustus et Peccator is true, we can over-stress the clarity of our sinfulness. I am aware of pastors who declare with great boldness the sinfulness of men without declaring with great boldness the sublime fact of the justification of men through the act of the ascended Messiah. This latter part seems to be missing in our day. The doctrine of total depravity has had the effect of depriving many Christians from a life of common joy lived in the presence of the One who has become our joy. While stressing man’s condition as sinful is important, an over-use of this hermeneutical tactic can lead men and women to live lives of doubt and insecurity.

While we invest time in our spiritual journeys to reflect and examine our lives, and to see if there are any wicked way in our thoughts and actions, we must invest an even greater time nourishing the spiritual magnitude of our status before God. When we live our lives in a constant environment of self-mortification we will mortify not only our flesh, but also our joy.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes in his insightful Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cures that “we cross the line from self-examination to introspection when, in a sense, we do nothing but examine ourselves, and when such self-examination becomes the main and chief end in our life (17).” When the chief end of man becomes self-examination there will always be a temptation to morbidity and spiritual depression. By constantly “putting our souls on a plate and dissecting it” we are showing the world a severe level of insecurity in our union with the reigning and risen Lord.

There are vast implications for all of this. Two examples will suffice to make this point:

First, introspective people–as I hinted earlier–rarely find time for others’ needs.  They have the immensity of their own depraved heart to occupy themselves. I have seen this played out throughout the years and, in fact, I speak from experience. When one delves deeply routinely into the many conspiracies of the heart he will sink in them. The heart is deceitful above all things, even deceiving us to think we only need to dwell in it.  The pastor may encourage his people to examine whether they are loving, desiring, and pursuing God as they should. But if this is the theme of his preaching and pastoral ministry he is building a congregation of morbid purists. This is why–I argue–there is legitimacy to those who call us to look to Jesus (Heb. 12:2). But generally when some call us to look to Jesus, they are in fact calling us to look back to our hearts to see whether we are looking to Jesus. Again, this is problematic and only exacerbating the problem. We do not look to Jesus as a lucky-charm, rather we look to Jesus because we reflect his glory and righteousness. Those who are united to Jesus become like Jesus. Those who worship Jesus become like Jesus. We look to Jesus, so that we move from self-examination to living out our faith with joy, peace, and abundant satisfaction (Ps. 16:11).

Ultimately, introspection is deadly. It is not surprising, then, to see those who walk about with defeatist spirits sporting their defeatist introspective theology.

Secondly, this motif plays out in the Eucharistic life of a church. At this point, I criticize even my own Reformed tradition. Though strongly committed to Reformed truth I am also aware that instead of producing joyful Christians, our tradition produces an army of introspective experts.

This is seen most clearly in the Reformed liturgy. Some churches justify their monthly or quarterly communion by stating that the congregation needs a week or more to examine themselves for the day (usually Sunday evening) of the Lord’s Supper. But what kind of vision are we perpetuating for our people? That the Lord’s Supper depends on our worthiness? That the Supper demands an environment of perfected introspection? That the Supper and somberness are part of the same context?

It is my contention that until we are able to undo the decisively introspective evangelical culture we are going to provide ammunition to non-Christians. We must recover a healthy self-examination, but also a redemptive display of over-abundant joy.

Jason Stellman Resigns from the Presbyterian Church in America

The news of Stellman’s departure is one that adds a great fuel to the current debacle occurring in the PCA. The PCA is having an identity crisis. This event adds to an already fragmented denomination.

Stellman, a staunch opponent of the Federal Vision and prosecutor of Peter Leithart in his trial in the Northwest Presbytery of the PCA, has resigned from his post as a PCA minister. Stellman argues that his views on Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide no longer comport with the Westminster Confession of Faith. According to Stellman, Sola Scriptura does not do justice to the process of how the canon came to be. In Stellman’s view, Sola Scriptura–as defended by the Reformed Church–fails by denying any role for ecclesiastical authority. Hence, Sola Scriptura is ultimately Scriptures read through the eyes of autonomous man.

Further, he says that Sola Fide fails the New Testament test. Stellman writes:

 I have become convinced that the teaching that sinners are justified by a once-for-all declaration of acquittal on God’s part, based upon the imputation of Christ’s righteousness received by faith alone, is not reflective of the teaching of the New Testament as a whole. I have come to believe that a much more biblical paradigm for understanding the gospel—and one that has much greater explanatory value for understanding Jesus, Paul, Peter, James, and John—is one that sets forth the New Covenant work of the Spirit, procured through the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ, as internally inscribing God’s law and enabling believers to exhibit love of God and neighbor, thereby fulfilling the law in order to gain their eternal inheritance (Rom. 8:1-4).

This is in many ways a sad account of someone who never considered the broader Reformational claims. Stellman lived in a world where the Church and interpretation suffered from subjectivity overdose. Further, he embraced a soteriology that lacked any intention to harmonize Paul and James in a coherent fashion, or that placed union with Christ in a more preeminent role. He further  defended a Christianity that prided itself in non-cultural engagement. These theologies offer nothing more than the crumbs, and they fall far short of the feast of the Reformation’s table.

In my estimation, Stellman’s conversion to Roman Catholicism is the result of finding an authority (WCF) unsatisfying and seeking refuge in another authority (Rome). The TR movement (strict confessionalists) suffers from a dis-placed authority problem. They cherish the confessions to such an extent that the Scriptures are interpretively strangled. For many of them, the Westminster Standards are elevated to such a status that psychologically it is not difficult to see such a transition occurring (one wonders how the Divines would have treated such exaltation of a document). When one authority fails you seek another authority to take its place. This is a sad state of affairs.

The Bible is the final authority. “Solo Scriptura” (to use Keith Matthison’s language) is the antithesis of Sola Scriptura. Solo Scriptura isolates the Bible from the community. “Me and my Bible” arrive at a conclusion divorced from the Church context and any form of accountability (cults are formed through this means). Sola Scriptura acknowledges the supremacy of the Bible, but it dares not separate or isolate itself from the Ecclesia. Responsible Sola Scriptura knows the limitations of autonomous man. Stellman’s failure to consider the aiding function of tradition led him to conclude that Sola Scriptura is fallacious, and that we need an infallible tradition from whence the source of our interpretation comes.

These conclusions are saddening. Jason Stellman–though guilty of accepting the presuppositions of a fallacious system as the Roman Church–is in many ways a product of  Protestantism light; a Protestantism that lacks the strength and vitality of the 16th century Reformers. As Peter Leithart observed: “Biblicist, liturgical, sacramental, ecumenical Protestantism is the antidote to Roman fever, not the cause.”

Let this compel us Protestants to love the Church more. To serve one another more. To encourage one another to good works. To submit to those in authority over us (Heb. 13). To engage the Scriptures with a sure sense of its interpretive history. To refuse the interpretive isolationist temptation, and to commit ourselves to the Berean call.

As for Mr. Stellman, I pray for his return to Protestantism. I pray for his re-assessment of his newly found narrative. I pray that he will re-consider his decision and embrace a more thorough Reformed catholicism that does not exalt confessionalism, but places confessions always–both academically and psychologically–at the feet of the revealed Word of God in Sacred Scriptures.

———

Additional Notes and Quotes:

Doug Wilson has added a few thoughts: “In the meantime, I wish Jason Stellman well, and consequently I earnestly pray that — before he does one thing or another Tiber-wise — he seeks out godly counsel from more expansive and robust Protestants than he has been accustomed to, including men he once thought of as adversaries. The Protestant faith is a great city, not a tiny village.”

Peter Leithart wrote in a twitter post: “Biblicist, liturgical, sacramental, ecumenical Protestantism is the antidote to Roman fever, not the cause.”