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Reformation History: Confessionalism and Its Relevance Today

January 28, 2015 1 comment

Continuing through Carl Trueman’s Reformation history lectures, later messages provide excellent background and teaching regarding the confessional era and the development in the 16th century of “confessional states” (geographical regions defined by their common confessional belief), as well as the overall historical background of confessions.  As Trueman points out in the introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism (lesson 27), confessions — and catechisms to teach doctrine — really began in early church history (the first few centuries), yet reached a peak during the 1560s with the development of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) and the Belgic Confession (1561), following the Anglican Church 39 Articles also in the mid-16th century.

This basic historical understanding (and its lack thereof) is very relevant today, as seen even in the Christian blog world recently.  Witness the many recent reviews-of-reviews-of-reviews regarding John Frame’s systematic theology and Frame’s revision of Reformed theology. Tom Chantry’s latest post this week, “Popping Interpretive Bubbles,” provides links to the other relevant posts – including the Triablogue’s rather anti-confessional (and lack of understanding) response to previous reviews of John Frame’s work — noting that “Somewhere in Orlando, John Frame must be chuckling.”

Chantry’s post provides a good synopsis, in written form, of this same background presented in Trueman’s audio lecture series, especially the following two points:

First, I wish confessional critics could understand and appreciate that confessions represent the settled opinion of a community of faith, not the fevered imaginations of any one Christian.

and

Second, recognize that the confessions paid great attention to earlier statements, from the Apostle’s Creed onward, in their summary of Christian doctrine. The Thirty-Nine articles are not original in the ordinary sense of the word; they are mainly a summary (in the English language) of the ancient and catholic teachings of the church. The Westminster Assembly set out to revise those articles because, in good conscience, the Divines could not continue to uphold episcopacy. Nevertheless, the Assembly retained the orthodox language of Anglicanism. The Savoy Declaration and the Second London Confession do not parrot the Westminster Confession because their authors lacked originality, but instead because they eschewed originality! Being conscience-bound to maintain a distinct baptismal practice, Baptists of the generation of 1689 nevertheless maintained the sound pattern of words already in use in the English language to express the catholic faith.

Trueman’s lectures #27 and 28, on the Heidelberg Catechism, provide this basic reference point along with further historical details, such as the beginnings of the Question-Answer catechism format during the High Middle Ages with a Catholic catechism developed in the 11th century and the pedagogical purpose, the very practical purpose that Martin Luther also experienced of needing to teach his young children.  Overall this series provides an in-depth look at society and politics and theology in the 16th century, lessons so needed in our very secular and individualistic culture.

Several posts from Tom Chantry have addressed the problems with the New Calvinism, (see especially the posts from summer 2014) which include the anti-confessionalism of those who disdain church history, its lessons and the importance of having creeds and confessions.  I highly recommend the “New Calvinism” posts also as quite instructive regarding the new Calvinism which puts the Doctrines of Grace in today’s culture of individualism.  As Chantry well observed:

Again we note that the Old Calvinism was serious about both ecclesiastical affiliation and confessional fidelity. Even where Old Calvinist fellowship has taken place across denominational and confessional lines, it has been between men who know both where they stand and who holds them accountable to stand there. It is hard to imagine how the Old Calvinism could have arrived where we are today.

and

The seeds of the newness of the New Calvinism are not, I believe, to be found in Calvinism at all. What has instead happened is that Calvinism has had its resurgence in the midst of an evangelical and secular culture which is profoundly different from that of Geneva or New Haven. Ours is a culture of individualism, and American evangelicalism is an individualistic form of Christianity. … New Calvinism has arisen where Calvin’s soteriology has been adopted without much challenge to the individualism of our age.

Hermeneutics: The More Literal Your Understanding, the More Spiritual Your Condition

January 23, 2015 2 comments

Lately I have been reading through past issues of the Sovereign Grace Advent Testimony’s “Watching and Waiting” quarterly newsletter (back to 2012), and find the following quote very insightful, a concise expression of many truths regarding hermeneutics and our Christian walk:

The antithesis of ‘spiritual’ is ‘natural.’ The antithesis of ‘literal’ is ‘figurative.’ We believe that these are important distinctions which God’s people should understand clearly. We would contend that the more literal you are in your understanding of God’s precious Word, the more spiritual is your state. We have always understood that God means what He says and says what He means. When a person puts a figurative interpretation on the words of Scripture (and calls it a spiritual interpretation) it is possible to make the Bible say anything. That is exactly what the modernist and liberal theologians love. — James Payne; quote in Sovereign Grace Advent Testimony “Watching & Waiting,” (Jul-Sept. 2012)

So well said, a very good point applicable to all biblical teaching – prophecy and many other areas. Certainly in discussion of doctrine with other believers, we can see a scale of relative degrees of literal understanding; many believers are inconsistent in their hermeneutics. Here is a list of several non-salvific doctrines, which some people interpret literally while others spiritualize/allegorize (“a figurative interpretation … and calls it a spiritual interpretation”). This is not an exhaustive list, and certainly it could be expanded to minor doctrines, such as whether one believes Jesus used literal wine – or spiritualized (figurative) to mean a non-alcoholic variation.

  • Creation (the beginning)
  • Eschatology (millennial views)
  • Israel in the purpose of God (including future)
  • The “Sabbath principle” of one day of seven set aside (Lord’s Day Observance)
  • Existence and purpose of Old Testament Israel (spiritualized by NCT that they never were a believing people but only a “type” of New Testament believers)

The quote from Payne notes the scale with a range — “the more literal….” — as well as the logical consequence of non-literal hermeneutics: that it is possible to make the Bible say anything. Here we also see the reason why the literal person is more spiritual: the root of trusting God in His promises, that God really “means what He says and says what He means.”

From my own admittedly small sample, of fellow believers in my daily life, I have observed the outcome of what Payne so well describes, including extreme cases of believers who spiritualize all five doctrines above. Many believers are inconsistent, taking a literal understanding of some doctrines but not of others; the common ground provides a basis for fellowship in that we at least agree upon some teachings. Calvinist dispensationalists typically will affirm four out of five of the above list (excepting the Sabbath principle), though even there some groups, such as the “Institute for Creation Research” also teaches that idea. Though many of today’s confessional Reformed Baptists reject premillennialism and a future purpose for Israel, yet — in keeping with overall Reformed Protestant teaching (only they have forgotten the premillennialism of the original Reformed including many of the Westminster Divines) and in contrast with today’s NCT Calvinist Baptists, affirm three of the five (creation, the Sabbath principle and the basic unity of God’s people: that the Mosaic economy really did include actual believers and that Israel really did receive the covenant promises).

But what about the person who takes a “spiritual” interpretation of all five of the above doctrines? Payne’s analysis seems especially “spot-on,” as it is this person who comes across as being very natural-minded in general life and attitude toward the scriptures. From the sample of people I know in this category: the plagues described in Revelation are the result of man’s technology (nuclear and/or chemical war instead of God’s wrath similar to His mighty acts in the book of Exodus); great reliance on man’s medical science to provide miracle drug cures (a correlation to their equal emphasis on man’s knowledge for old-earth creation ideas)– here reflecting the mindset of a person who does not really understand “God means what He says and says what He means.” What does it say about someone (in this category) who quips a reversal on a common saying: “most of us are too earthly minded to be of any heavenly good” (an assertion I would dispute; one may speak for himself, but should not assume that others really think in the same terms and thus conclude that most others are really “too earthly minded”)? Again this correlates to Payne’s observation: those who (in many doctrinal areas, not just one or two) put a figurative interpretation (the opposite of literal) and call it spiritual, are really making the Bible say anything — and showing tendencies toward modernist, liberal theology.

 

The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology (Review: Pascal Denault Book)

January 20, 2015 1 comment

Pascal-Denault-book-coverFollowing up on this post, I am now reading through Pascal Denault’s “The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology” (now available in Kindle format for $3.99).

As previously noted, from reading Charles Spurgeon I had an idea of Baptist Covenant Theology, particularly the definition of the Covenant of Grace. Pascal Denault’s book provides more details, including a thorough explanation of the Westminster “Covenant of Grace” (with both “substance” and “administration” of the “Covenant of Grace” within the Old Covenant) and a look at the writings of the 17th century Baptists, including Nehemiah Coxe and Benjamin Keach – as well as John Owen, who, though he held to infant baptism, nonetheless viewed the covenant of grace in the same way as did the Baptists (who themselves also referenced Owen’s writings).  Denault has done an excellent job with primary sources, and good presentation including basic charts showing the differences between Westminster CT and “1689 Federalism.”

At the most basic level, the Baptist idea of the Covenant of Grace is that all people throughout history are saved the same way, through faith in Christ and His atonement on the cross; those who believed pre-cross had that (then future) work applied to them. As John Owen observed: “I will take here for granted, that no man was ever saved but by virtue of the New Covenant, and the mediation of Christ in that respect.” So this has been an interesting discovery — a theological term to describe how I have understood this for the last few years, as even the understanding among Calvinist/ Progressive Dispensationalists I have associated with. The “covenant of Grace,” the Baptist definition, is the term to describe the fact that redemption was promised throughout the Old Testament, starting at Genesis 3:15 with further revelation to Abraham and Moses, but still a promise not fulfilled/completed until its ratification in the New Covenant at Calvary.

Specific scriptures in support of this idea:

  • Hebrews 5:17-18
  • Hebrews chapters 7 through 9, with specific texts including Hebrews 8:6
  • Romans 3:25-26: “the time of God’s patience is situated between the fall of man and the death of His son; this is the period where the Covenant of Grace was not formally concluded in the blood of Christ.”
  • Galatians 3:17-18

At least a few Presbyterians did not understand the Baptists’ definition, such as Herman Witsius, who took the Baptist idea to mean that the “writing of the law upon the heart” was only a blessing for New Testament saints – and pointed to Old Testament texts and the life of David as plain examples of this blessing in the Old Testament era. As Denault observes, only radical groups such as the Socinians believed that. The 17th century Baptists “did not claim that the benefits of Christ’s death did not exist before New Testament times, but that they existed by virtue of it.”

It is said that the 1689 confession, and its definition of covenant theology (as contrasted with the Westminster confession and its view), was largely forgotten or “lost” throughout the 20th century, only returning to the notice of scholars within the last few years: apparently in consequence of the “downgrade controversy” of Charles Spurgeon’s later years, followed by the years of divide between evangelicals and fundamentals and the rise of dispensationalism. In agreement with this history, as an example I note that S. Lewis Johnson, in all his years of ministry (the 1960s through the mid-1990s) often mentioned the 17th century confessions, including the Westminster, Savoy, Heidelberg and Canons of Dort, but never once mentioned the 1689 confession. Accordingly he rejected the “covenant of grace,” yet his actual teaching of the basic idea of Christ’s work applied in advance to Old Testament believers, and the ratification of the New Covenant at the time of Christ’s death on the cross, is quite similar to the basic 17th century Baptist construction – the common root of course found in actual scripture teaching.

Given this background, I now dislike even more the teaching of “New Covenant Theology,” especially because presentations of it at local churches have dishonestly presented only one view they disagree with: the Westminster Confession definition of covenant theology.  NCT (at least what I have seen, and others have observed similar) only interacts with the paedobaptist version of CT and never with the historic baptist construction (baptist CT or “1689 federalism”) that had already been developed long before NCT. It turns out that NCT’s “improvement” halfway-point between Westminster-style CT and classic/revised dispensationalism — with sharp division between OT and NT law including that the nation of Israel never was a believing people but only a “type” or “picture” of the “real people of God… in the New Covenant era” – has common history of beliefs not with Protestant Reformed tradition, but with radical groups including the Socinians, embracing the very error that Witsius denounced.

 

 

The Early English Reformation (Carl Trueman Reformation Series)

January 9, 2015 4 comments

In Carl Trueman’s Reformation series (see previous post), I am now going through the English Reformation section, and again pleased with the level of detail not found in most church history series.

Aside from the well-known facts about England’s Reformation – the basics about John Wycliffe as the “morning star” of the Reformation, and the political event of King Henry VIII’s desire for the pope to grant a divorce, Trueman fills in many more details for the overall background of that Reformation. A starting question, a “debate” among scholars, concerns the issue of how much of the English Reformation was done from the top-down imposed on the people, versus how much came from the grass-roots level of the people influenced by Wycliffe (the Lollards). The short answer is that we really don’t know the full extent of Lollardy among the people, though some areas of it have been researched. We can look at the statements in people’s wills, since in medieval times these usually included Catholic wording with reference to Mary and other saints, etc.; but not everyone wrote wills, so we don’t have that large of a sample. We can also look at cases of heresy trials. But not everyone who was tried for heresy was actually part of any organized “Lollard” type movement; some may have simply had great hatred for the Pope or his bishops or even the local priest. We do have record of “sporadic but significant” Lollard influence, including in Trueman’s home area of Gloucestershire, as well as in Kent and in the mid-lands.

As for Wycliffe himself, though he correctly understood basic Christian doctrine including justification by faith, he also advocated what is now called “Erastianism” (named for 16th century Thomas Erastus): an idea also advocated by Italian city-states during the later Middle Ages, that local government should rule over the church (though instead of the Catholic Pope). Wycliffe defined the church as the sum total of all the elect; then, in agreement with the medieval teaching, taught that no one could have assurance of their salvation, no one could know if they were of the elect – and therefore the Pope himself could not know if he was predestined and therefore the Pope could not know for certain if he was a member of the church – and therefore the Pope could not claim any powers related to the church.

England’s early “proto-Reformation” of the late 14th and early 15th centuries, including the lay preaching and the Wycliffe Bible translation in the hands of the Lollards, led to a negative association for the government officials: Bible translation equals political radicalism. The result was a delay in official English translations, and translations from the original Hebrew and Greek texts, until relatively late. Germany had its first German translation of the Bible in 1466 without any political controversy, while England’s first official translation, authorized and from the original Hebrew and Greek, did not come until 1539 (the “Great Bible” Coverdale, three years after Tyndale was martyred).

England’s first experience of the 16th century Reformation began in the 1520s and 1530s with the radical Anabaptist groups, as well as with a gathering of intellectuals at Cambridge: the White Horse Inn reading group. Unlike today’s popular online radio show and ministry website of that same name, the original White Horse Inn was not exclusively or particularly Protestant but more humanist, with the influence of Erasmus during his years there; the group included a few later “semi-Protestants” including Thomas Bilney, who came to a basic understanding of justification by faith yet still affirmed the Pope’s authority, the Mass and transubstantiation, yet was burned at the stake as a Protestant in August 1531. Protestant members of this group included Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer, who would later be martyred together on the same stake. However, a few members of the White Horse Inn would become the ardent Catholic defenders against the Protestants in the 1550s.

From the top-down side of England’s Reformation, Trueman points out the history of England’s political view of national sovereignty versus the Pope, including many laws passed by England’s parliament in the 14th century against the promotion of papal laws and authority – laws sometimes worded quite vaguely so as to allow the English government to reject whichever laws introduced by the Pope that they disliked. Another interesting fact: the men that Henry VIII recruited for assistance with his legal problems with the Pope, came from the White Horse Inn group.

 

Study: The 1689 London Baptist Confession as Systematic Theology

January 2, 2015 1 comment

Lately I have begun studying the 1689 London Baptist Confession: as a good summary of Christian doctrine, as compatible with historic premillennialism (and the actual view of many of the writers of the 17th century confessions) , and the confession that Charles Spurgeon used for his church,  complete with his own catechism.

The following Sermon Audio lecture series (by Arden Hodgins at Trinity Reformed Baptist in California) was recommended to me –  not yet complete but quite in-depth, with 230 messages so far over the course of several years, done as a systematic theology covering the many topics in the 1689 confession.

So far I have listened to several messages: the introduction plus the first topic (chapter 1 of the confession), regarding the Bible itself: revelation, inspiration, cessation (five lectures on this specific topic), illumination, interpretation and translation.  At least some of this overall topic I recognize from other systematic theologies, such as this one from S. Lewis Johnson I listened to (in part) a few years ago. The section on illumination addresses three aspects of scripture’s authority: its sphere, the basis of its authority, and recognition of this authority. Here I notice the Baptist covenantal perspective, which (unlike the 20th century systematic theology of classic/revised dispensationalism) understands and presents Van Tillian presuppositional apologetics, pointing out the problem with the “Josh McDowell style” evidential apologetics, along with several good references to Van Til, including the following great quote:

The Bible is authoritative on everything of which it speaks. Moreover, it speaks of everything. We do not mean that it speaks of football games, of atoms etc. directly, but we do mean that it speaks of everything either directly or by implication. It tells us not only of the Christ and His work, but it also tells us who God is and where the universe about us has come from. It tells us about theism as well as about Christianity, it gives us a philosophy of history as well as history. Moreover, the information on these subjects is woven into an inextricable whole. It is only if you reject the Bible as the word of God that you can separate the so-called religious and moral instructions of the Bible from what it says for example about the physical universe.

I look forward to further listening to these lectures related to the various topics from the 1689 Confession, including a few lectures affirming biblical young-earth creation with analysis of various compromise views: one on “debunking Evolution,” plus a full lecture on the gap theory and another on the day-age and framework ideas.

While in one area I, as a Spurgeon-style historic premillennialist, disagree with this particular teacher’s view (amillennialism), there is much here to learn in overall study of many other doctrines. The 1689 confession itself limits its statements on eschatology to “allow for” any millennial view (except, as noted in the first linked article above, the later-developed pre-trib view which splits the timing of the Second Coming). In the 230 messages so far, Ardin Hodges presents only two lectures in “overview” of millennial views, for a more neutral perspective than found in Sam Waldron’s “Modern Exposition of 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith” (1989 edition)  (note Amazon reviews here).