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The Reformed Confessions: Balance and Structure

March 20, 2017 3 comments

Following up from the last post, some more thoughts concerning the use of confessions in understanding Christian doctrine.  As I mentioned last time, it is actually the person learning individual doctrines apart from the confessions (which are a type of systematic theology, doctrinal summary) who is more likely to become proud,  full of head knowledge, and to have an imbalanced view concerning Christianity.  For the confessions provide a balance and a structure, considering all the doctrines and the proper view of them.

One example of this is the doctrine of predestination, which is addressed in the third chapter of the 1689 Baptist Confession.  The Credo Covenant blog  provides a good daily devotional study, a new post every day in the series “A Little Time with the 1689.” Each day’s post provides a look at a phrase or sentence from the 1689 Confession, in sequence through each chapter.  Recent posts addressed the end of the third chapter, on the doctrine of predestination.  Here the confession even has a response, from hundreds of years ago, to the common modern-day problem of “cage stage Calvinism.” So many today learn the Doctrines of Grace (aka the Five Points of Calvinism), outside of its original context (Old Calvinism; the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms) – and thus this one doctrine, learned by itself without proper perspective regarding other doctrines, often leads to pride and arrogance.  Yet the confession itself, in chapter 3 paragraph 7 well summarizes how we should handle the teaching of predestination:

The doctrine of the high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men attending the will of God revealed in His Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election; so shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God, and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the gospel.

Other examples of this include the understanding of different measures/levels of faith, and the balance between man as a fallen sinner and yet made in the image of God.  Without the confessions as a framework, too much emphasis may be given to the teaching that we are such wicked, depraved sinners (LBCF chapter 6) – while completely ignoring that we are also made in the image of God (LBCF chapter 4), and what it means to be image bearers of God.  Another common imbalance, often seen in “Sovereign Grace” New Calvinist churches, is to over-emphasize the sovereignty of God to the point of hyper-Calvinism and a passive approach to the Christian life, which thus reasons that since faith is all from God, everything comes from God, then “how can there be any difference between believers, such that some have ‘little faith’ and others have ‘great faith’?”  Again, the confessions – which themselves affirm the highest priority to scripture (chapter 1), and provide the detailed summary of what scripture teaches – provide in summary form the details of saving faith.  From the 1689 Baptist Confession, these excerpts from chapter 14 on saving faith:

The grace of faith…  is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word; by which also, and by the administration of baptism and the Lord’s supper, prayer, and other means appointed of God, it is increased and strengthened.

14.3 — This faith, although it be different in degrees, and may be weak or strong, yet it is in the least degree of it different in the kind or nature of it, as is all other saving grace, from the faith and common grace of temporary believers; and therefore, though it may be many times assailed and weakened, yet it gets the victory, growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith.

Reference the full chapter, including scripture references for each point, here.

So, with the structure, balance and depth of the confessions as excellent summaries of Christian truth, we can heartily agree with and appreciate Charles Spurgeon, including what he wrote in his “Morning and Evening” devotional regarding faith (the March 7 entry):

The best servants of God are those who have the most faith. Little faith will save a man, but little faith can not do great things for God. Little faith is powerless to fight against the Evil One. Only a faithful Christian can do that. Little faith is enough to get to heaven most certainly, but it often has to travel the road in fear. It says to itself, “Oh, it is such a rough road, filled with sharp thorns and full of dangers; I am afraid to go on.” But Great faith remembers the promise, “Your shoes will be like iron and brass; and your strength will be with you all of your days,” and so she boldly pushes forward.

Do you want to be happy? Do you want to enjoy your relationship with Christ? Then “have faith in God.” If you don’t mind living in gloom and misery, then be content with little faith; but if you love the sunshine and want to sing songs of rejoicing, then earnestly desire to have “great faith.”

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The Reformed Confessions and Evangelical Anti-Creedalism

March 15, 2017 4 comments

From my recent studies and conversations with others, I continue to notice and appreciate the amazing detail and depth in the Reformed confessions; these great statements of faith  encompass everything related to each doctrine, even our proper attitude towards the doctrines.  The anti-confession (really, a lazy and anti-intellectual) idea that people who know their confessions inside and out may just have a lot of head knowledge, and that we shouldn’t be so concerned about systematic theology – because it’s more important to have Christ in our hearts, and communion with Him – is misguided on several points.

First, we all have a creed.  The question is not whether to have a creed — but the content of that creed.  The earliest belief statements arose in response to heretics who said they believed the Bible, but who clearly did not have in mind the same definitions of basic orthodoxy.  The many statements of faith that have come down through church history contain excellent summaries of the Christian faith.  As S. Lewis Johnson well observed:

Now remember, everybody has a creed, and in fact the person who holds up the Bible and says, “I have no creed, I simply have the Bible,” well, that’s his creed; that’s precisely his creed. We all have a creed, but the Christian church has been characterized by some outstanding creeds. The Augsburg Confession of the Lutheran church is an outstanding Christian statement. The Westminster Confession of the Presbyterian churches is an outstanding statement. Other statements come to mind immediately such as the thirty-nine articles of the Anglican church, also an outstanding statement. The Heidelberg Catechism of the Reform churches is an outstanding statement. These are great Christian creeds, you should study them. You should know them. They are not creeds that were constructed by half a dozen fellows who met over the weekend in order to give us a statement, but most of those creeds were the product of the study, debate, discussion of outstanding leaders of the Christian church over, sometimes, lengthy periods of time. As you well know, some of those creeds are the product of years of study and labor by men who were very competent in the word of God.

Also, in response to the anti-intellectual idea that belittles serious study of God’s word, because it might lead to puffed-up head knowledge:  as Dan Phillips expressed (in his book on the Proverbs), our nature is such that anything can make us proud; he observed that he could just as easily become proud of nothing, of not knowing, as with having knowing.  As has also been observed by many: just because a particular doctrine (any doctrine, and including the study of systematic theology) has been abused or misused by others, is NOT an excuse for YOU to not study God’s word for yourself.  This view is actually a form of post-modernism/ deconstruction – here, as Dan Phillips describes it:

In God’s eyes, there simply is no greater arrogance than rejecting Yahweh’s viewpoint in favor of my own. It is grimly fascinating that some Christians abhor the believer who dares to think that he or she knows something from the Word. To such folks, claiming certainty on any given issue is the height of arrogance. They are certain that certainty is certainly bad. By contrast, it is the height of arrogance to have a word from God and refuse to trust it by incorporating it into our way of thinking and living.

Thirdly, I would suggest that it is the non-confessional Christian – rather than the one who understands and has studied the confession statements – who is more likely to have his or her doctrinal perspective out of balance.  I’ll expand on this in the next post, but to state it briefly here:  the confessions themselves include statements about how we are to view certain doctrines.  Reference the LBCF chapter 3 paragraph 7, for instance, as an answer to the all-too-common “cage stage Calvinism” among today’s non-confessional “Sovereign Grace” Calvinists.  A full reading and study of the LBCF (or any similar confessions) will address all the doctrines, not just one’s own “pet doctrine” to the neglect of other doctrines.  God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, and the distinction between justification and sanctification, are a few examples of this – where non-confessional Calvinists tend to go astray, emphasizing one doctrine and neglecting or simply not understanding the other.

More next time, with a look at specific doctrines and how they are explained in the 1689 Confession.

The Regulative Principle, and Spurgeon on “Thus Says the Lord”

November 12, 2015 Leave a comment

From my current reading, Going Beyond the Five Points includes a helpful chapter on the Regulative Principle, explaining what it is (and what it isn’t), including the theological background of it (that public worship is something God gives us more specifics on, and holds a higher standard, than our everyday life) and the scriptural basis. Among the interesting points: the regulative principle – unlike what I always associated the idea with – does not necessitate exclusive psalmody or music without instruments. Such practices are often (but not always) associated with churches that hold to the regulative principle, but not a necessary conclusion — and as I have observed, at least a few current-day Reformed Baptists have stated their disagreement with exclusive psalmody. As noted in this chapter, the doctrine of original sin and infant baptism also have such historical association, but that does not mean that the one (infant baptism) follows from the other.

From my ongoing Spurgeon reading comes a sermon related to this overall topic. Though Spurgeon never mentions the term “regulative principle,” his sermon #591, “Thus Says the Lord,” is an interesting one in which Spurgeon addresses the emphasis found in so many scriptures, “Thus Says the Lord” as a way to address an error in the Anglican church and its “book of common prayer.” This message was one of several such messages from the 1864 volume in which Spurgeon – age 30 at this time, several years before the Downgrade controversy — first publicly addressed errors in the professing Christian church, publicly challenging those of the establishment (the Anglican Church) to prove their practice from scripture. (The issue here was infant baptism, including statements in the Book of Common Prayer, such as having godparents vow saving faith and commitment on behalf of the infant being “baptized.” In a style well familiar to modern-day blog readers – links to all the posts in a blog series – the notes at the end of this sermon list the numbers and titles in this series regarding this issue.)

Alongside specific comments that tell us about the controversy itself, and some of the specific criticism Spurgeon had experienced (and in this sermon he names names), Spurgeon continually emphasizes the issue of authority, the only authority as “Thus says the Lord.” His explanations relate to the 1689 Confession (which Spurgeon agreed with) understanding of the regulative principle, as he notes God’s concern for proper worship, as God wants it.  Here, strong words from Spurgeon about God’s authority in His Church:

“Thus says the Lord” is the only authority in God’s Church. When the tabernacle was pitched in the wilderness, what was the authority for its length and breadth? Why was the altar of incense to be placed here, and the brazen laver there? Why so many lambs or bullocks to be offered on a certain day? Why must the Passover be roasted whole and not boiled? Simply and only because God had shown all these things to Moses on the holy mount; and thus had Jehovah spoken, “Look that you make them after their pattern, which was shown you on the mount.”

It is even so in the Church at the present day; true servants of God demand to see for all church ordinances and doctrines, the express authority of the Church’s only Teacher and Lord. They remember that the Lord Jesus bade the apostles to teach believers to observe all things whatever He had commanded them—and He neither gave to them nor to any man power to alter His commands. The Holy Spirit revealed much of precious truth and holy precept by the apostles, and to His teaching we would give earnest heed; but when men cite the authority of fathers, and councils, and bishops, do we give place for subjection? No! Not for an hour! They may quote Irenaeus or Cyprian, Augustine or Chrysostom; they may remind us of the dogmas of Luther or Calvin; they may find authority in Simeon, or Wesley, or Gill—we will listen to the opinions of these great men with the respect which they deserve as men, but having done so, we deny that we have anything to do with these men as authorities in the Church of God, for in the Church of God nothing has any authority but, “Thus says the Lord of Hosts.”

If you bring us the concurrent consent of all tradition—if you shall quote precedents venerable with 15, 16, or 17 centuries of antiquity, we burn the whole lot as so much worthless lumber, unless you put your finger upon the passage of Holy Writ which warrants the matter to be of God! You may further plead, in addition to all this venerable authority, the beauty of the ceremony and its usefulness to those who partake, but this is all foreign to the point, for, to the true Church of God, the only question is this—is there a, “Thus says the Lord,” for it? And if divine authority is not forthcoming, faithful men must thrust forth the intruder as the cunning craftiness of men.

Terms and Distinctions: Reformed/Covenant Theology, NCT, and Covenantal Premillennialism

September 16, 2014 7 comments

Among some Christian circles today, especially Calvinists and dispensationalists, a more superficial understanding of theology persists, and the tendency to think that:

  • anyone who is not “dispensational” adheres to covenant theology
  • anyone who holds to amillennialism believes Covenant theology, and vice versa, AND
  • covenant theology equals “church replacement theology” (amillennial/preterist ideas)

Accordingly, some will use the terms “Calvinist” and “Reformed” interchangeably, though in discussion it becomes clear that what is actually meant is Calvinist soteriology aka the “doctrines of grace.” Yet as I’ve recently come to understand more clearly, 5-point baptistic Calvinism, as popularly seen in the “Sovereign Grace” movement characterized by smaller, non-denominational churches with informal affiliation — and often associated with amillennial or postmillennial eschatology — is but one component of what is included within overall “Reformed/Covenant  Theology.”   Covenant Theology aka Reformed Theology includes not only Calvinist soteriology, but also understanding and adherence to the 16th and 17th century Reformed confessions. The confessions include the teaching of the theological covenants (covenant of works, covenant of grace, and covenant of redemption), and understanding of the Old Testament law as having three parts (moral, civil, ceremonial) and a “third use” of the law (the moral law, the ten commandments), as a guide in sanctification (not salvation) for the believer.

Here I observe that some churches that affirm the “Doctrines of Grace” aka Calvinism and reference the term “sovereign grace,” may also hold to covenant theology.  But more often they actually hold to a “dispensational” understanding of the law, particularly with NCT, New Covenant Theology (which has developed within the last 30 years, about as old as progressive dispensationalism, both of which are more recent than classic or even revised dispensationalism). To add to the name confusion, some churches with “Reformed Baptist” in their name actually teach NCT instead of Reformed Baptist theology. The difference shows up while visiting church websites, that some reformed churches will specifically state their adherence to the 1689 London Baptist Confession (or another of the 17th century confessions, such as the 1644 Baptist one or, for paedo-baptists, the Westminster Confession); some of these will state qualified agreement “generally” or “in large part” while others state full agreement; whereas NCT “Sovereign Grace” churches usually will not explicitly mention their “NCT” belief (which is not one single, confessional belief and likely includes several variations).  With specific churches (as true for all doctrinal views) one must look carefully at the stated versus actual beliefs; in recent church-site searching I came across a few church websites stating agreement with the 1689 London Baptist confession but with sermon content of traditional dispensationalism.  Further: though NCT “Sovereign Grace” churches are also predominantly amillennial/ postmillennial, a few are historic premillennial (for instance Fred Zaspel and a few others), and a few that self-describe as “Sovereign Grace” are of the Calvinist-Dispensational variety.

Another important point regarding Covenant Theology and millennial views: though many who hold to “Covenant Theology” also are amillennial or postmillennial – with variations among themselves on the futurist-idealist-preterist line, CT itself does not at all require an anti-premillennial view, or even an anti-future Israel view.  Though the true history has been largely forgotten by many of today’s CT advocates… ironically enough, as noted in Nathaniel West’s “History of the Premillennial Doctrine” and in my recent “Premillennialism in Church History” series, many if not most of the Westminster Divines were in fact premillennial: a truth that returned soon after the Reformation and held sway throughout the early Protestant years.  Many great theologians of the CT tradition, down through the 18th and 19th centuries, were premillennial, and many of these also affirmed a literal future for regathered ethnic, national Israel.

Covenant theologians (such as Horatius Bonar, also J.C. Ryle and Charles Spurgeon) can well articulate BOTH the tenets of covenant theology and the reformed view of the law (see Horatius Bonar’s God’s Way of Holiness, especially chapter 6), AND affirm historic/classic premillennialism, including future restoration of ethnic, national Israel.

Here I note an example of modern-day CT writing which conflates teaching on the Reformed/Covenantal view of the Law, with eschatology and Israel, in this passing statement near the end of this otherwise helpful article about the third use of the law; but such is the author’s own confusion. The article’s statement – This is one eternally important reason why Israel received the Law in the Mosaic Covenant, with the associated typological promise of blessing and cursing. Christ, the antitype of Israel, takes the antitypical curse for the Covenant people and fulfills the righteous requirement of the Law to give them the antitypical (eternal) blessings by faith in Him. – actually has nothing to do with covenant theology itself, and only shows the author’s own confusion and mixing of unrelated issues with excessive spiritualizing. Perhaps, too, this statement could be taken as an illustration or analogy, yet the primary truth and primary meaning (of literal Israel still experiencing literal curses in this age, to be followed by literal blessings in the future) still remains.

To conclude, a selection from Covenant premillennialist Horatius Bonar:

It seems often taken for granted that those who assert the literal interpretation of the blessings promised to Israel, thereby exclude the spiritual. They do not. They assert the literal blessing, because they believe that God has promised it; but they maintain the superiority and necessity of the spiritual as firmly as do the others. They believe that Israel will be converted, and they rejoice in this as the glorious issue towards which the prophets point. But they believe more; they believe not only that they will be converted, but they will be restored to their own land. But does their literal restoration take from them one single spiritual blessing? Or does it prevent the Gentile nations from enjoying one of those innumerable blessings which are given to them for an inheritance?