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Thoughts on Systematic Theology vs Biblical Theology, the Doctrine of God, and the Trinitarian Debate

April 26, 2019 11 comments

Lately I’ve been considering the issues of systematic theology, confessionalism, and the Doctrine of God and the Trinitarian Debate.  Over at the Mortification of Spin podcast, Carl Trueman has several recent posts in a series, Some Thoughts on Systematic Theology as Poor Relation:  Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

This is a recurring topic in recent years, one I often come back to, from frequent interacting with the errors from non-confessional Calvinist Baptists: minimalist doctrinal approach, overemphasis on biblical theology (and absence of any type of systematic theology) and the related anti-confessional New Covenant Theology.  For reference, see these previous posts such as these about Confessionalism (article 1, also this article, and this one).

In the above posts, Trueman is coming from the opposite perspective, of confessionally Reformed churches where people are redefining the words of the confessions to mean different things today than the 17th century Reformers understanding.  His points, though, are just as applicable to the anti-confessional group, as the basic issue of present-day evangelicalism (after pointing out the merits of biblical theology):

even with all of these important contributions, we need to remember that a narrow focus on the storyline of scripture has its limits.  If the danger with Systematic Theology is that it can so emphasize conceptual unities that it misses the particularities of the biblical text, then the danger with Biblical Theology is that it so emphasizes the particularities that it misses those underlying unities. The answer to missing the trees for the wood is not to miss the wood for the trees.

The importance of systematic theology relates to the more specific issue of the doctrine of God, including the controversies of recent years – the impassibility of God, and the “Trinity Debate” (Eternal Submission of the Son error) of 2016.  For further reading on the 2016 Trinity Debate, see this web page from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, with links to the many blog posts back and forth during summer 2016.

From browsing the Alliance’s collection here are some helpful sermon series from Liam Golligher (the current Senior pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia) —  three sets of messages (the “Trinity” set in response to the 2016 Trinity Debate) from the early chapters of the book of Hebrews:  Trinity: The Eternally Divine Son (8 messages), Trinity: The Two Natures of Christ (8 messages), and Trinity: Christ the Mediator (6 messages).  I’m in the second half of the second set now, so more to report later.

From the content I’ve listened to so far, these messages emphasize the transcendence of God, the reality of a God that is different from and above us, the eternal God who does not change, the Creator/Creature distinction, and the big picture view of God’s dealings with His people throughout history.  The doctrine of God, and the Trinity, are things that our finite minds will never completely grasp, yet the Christian creeds and confessions set forth the truths that we affirm.

From the first set, one message specifically addresses the Old Testament theophanies as part of God’s plan to familiarize His people with their God.  Another message, ‘Mary, did you know?’ references the words in the Mark Lowry song along with many scripture references.  A later message in the first series mentions a not-so-well-known history fact:  hymn writer Isaac Watts’ later writings indicate that he was a Unitarian and viewed Jesus as a created being, as the archangel Michael.  Googling on the topic indicates that a lot of people question this (is it really so?), and provides further historical details regarding Watts and the New England slide from Puritanism to Unitarianism.  Certainly Watts, who disliked creeds, did not articulate Trinitarianism and left himself open to the charge of Unitarianism, leaving us the question ‘will we see Isaac Watts in heaven?’  For further reference, here are a few interesting articles about Isaac Watts’ Unitarianism:

The above posts and sermon series are very helpful for a good overview of the whole issue of the doctrine of God and proper, orthodox understanding of the Trinity.  The link between the historic creeds and confessions, and orthodox Christian belief, especially comes out when studying the doctrine of God, a topic/study that is not as easy from the human viewpoint.  It is all too easy for us finite humans, as creatures, to think of God as somehow an extension of ourselves, someone greater than us but like us (in ways beyond the “communicable attributes”).  In this modern anti-creedal age, a time of “no creed but the Bible,” some doctrines are still easier to ‘get’, such as the doctrine of scripture, of the authority and importance of God’s word; but taking the same anti-confessional approach to the doctrine of God, more often than not, leads to error and even heresy.  As stated in the above article (Implications from Isaac Watts’s Trinitarian Controversy):

Furthermore, claiming to have no creed but the Bible may sound noble and pious, but it is a fact of history that when individuals or groups completely reject confessional language, even with noble desires for Christian unity or biblical authority, they almost always end up with significant theological problems. And this is exactly the case with the Nonconformists in England following Watts: those who, like Watts, claimed to accept no human creed ended up fully denying the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and even the sufficient atonement of Christ.

On Church Statements of Faith (and Historic Creeds)

April 27, 2018 9 comments

My appreciation for the Reformed confessions continues to grow, especially from interacting with the anti-creed, anti-confession attitude — and the consequent superficial, shallow and even false teaching — so prevalent in evangelicalism today.

As noted in Brian Borgman’s series (sermon audio here) from 18 years ago, the historic creeds and confessions provide valuable information to the church as Christ’s body, teaching preserved for future generations.  These statements were carefully developed to refute various heresies, and down through the centuries, the next generation of the church learned its doctrine from the wisdom of past ages.  Then, the 19th century American pioneering culture of ‘rugged individualism’ along with the bad part of the Second Great Awakening revival movement (Charles Finney and others) started us down the wrong path: a view that thinks what is new and modern is better than what came before, a view that does not learn from history, and instead proclaims “No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible” (originally said by Alexander Campbell of the “Disciples of Christ” group in the early 19th century).

Christians in the 20th century did provide several Christian declarations, often focused on particular causes/issues of our day, such as the 1974 Lausanne Covenant on World Missions, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, and the 1980s Danvers Statement (Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood).  Then came the controversial, doctrinal compromising ECT and ECT II (Evangelicals and Catholics Together) in the 1990s.  Since 2000 we have seen more of the specific purpose statements such as the Manhattan Declaration  and now the Nashville Statement.  Borgman’s series from 2000 ended the final lesson (about modern day creeds) on a positive note: the Cambridge Declaration of 1996, the origin of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.

In response to the increasing anti-creedal attitude prevalent today, Founders.org has provided a few recent articles that make the positive case for why churches should (still) use creeds and confessions, as with these two:

The problem that comes up in churches that do not reference the historic creeds and confessions can be seen when an independent church with a relatively small congregation attempts to come up with its own “statement of faith” — a (supposedly) simple, not complex or lengthy, original document.  In desiring to use their own statements – apart from the careful analysis and wording used by the large assemblies and church councils in years past – and trying to say things briefly in their own words, their resulting statements have a tendency to be incomplete, misleading, and in some cases stating actual error.  (I realize that this is not their intent; they believe that they are trying to be faithful in expressing Christian truth.  It is their method, and the underlying presupposition to not reference historic creeds, that is problematic.)

As an example, a local church’s statement of faith mentions the inerrancy of scripture “in the original writings” – yet is silent on the related issue of scripture in translations, leaving the topic open to be challenged by others.  Since the original writings are not in common use by most of us, the Reformed confessions, as well as the recent Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, felt it was important to address the attributes of scripture in our translations.  From the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, Article X (emphasis added):

We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.

We deny that any essential element of the Christian faith is affected by the absence of the autographs. We further deny that this absence renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant.

The Reformed confessions of a few centuries ago also expressed the point, in language less technical, for the purpose of the edification of the saints.  From the 1689 London Baptist Confession, chapter 1 (Of the Holy Scriptures, paragraph 8):

The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which at the time of the writing of it was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentic; so as in all controversies of religion, the church is finally to appeal to them. But because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have a right unto, and interest in the Scriptures, and are commanded in the fear of God to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come, that the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship him in an acceptable manner, and through patience and comfort of the Scriptures may have hope.

More troubling is when a church’s statement of faith includes faulty hermeneutics, with sentences such as since all Scripture points to Christ, the Old Testament should be interpreted through the New Testament.  Such an idea has serious implications:  if the Old Testament cannot be understood on its own, apart from the New Testament, then no one who lived in the Old Testament age, or in the early church before the NT was written — when the Old Testament was their Bible – could possibly have understood God’s word on its own basis, since the ‘key’ to explaining what the Old Testament ‘really means’ did not yet exist.  Consider that the apostle Paul himself taught the truth of Christ and the resurrection by directly quoting from the Old Testament.  What about the believers in the book of Malachi (Malachi 3:16-18), or any of the other believers who lived before the New Testament was written?

Here again, we do not have to look back very far in history, as the Chicago statement also was clear regarding the hermeneutic of how we understand and interpret scripture.  As Article V explains (emphasis added):

We affirm that God’s revelation in the Holy Scriptures was progressive.
We deny that later revelation, which may fulfill earlier revelation, ever corrects or contradicts it. 

The 17th century Reformed confessions (including the WCF, the Savoy Declaration and the 1689 London Baptist Confession) were written by those who saw the importance of doctrine for all of life, those who saw the need to provide detailed answers to the many questions, and to provide instruction to the common people.  The first chapter provided many paragraphs on Scripture , and these hold up very well, to this day, as excellent summaries of the faith, useful for instructing local congregations in Christian truth.  The modern-day attempt to “reinvent the wheel” regarding definition of doctrine manifests the very problem with trying to do so – belief statements lacking in detail and with faulty doctrine.  We would all do well to remember church history, and learn our doctrine — and how to say it clearly and accurately — from those who went before us.

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.”

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?

Is Evangelism the Primary Purpose of the Christian Church?

October 8, 2010 1 comment

A recent blog discussion at Pyromaniacs considered the words of John Piper at the recent Desiring God conference on the topic of evangelism, also with reference to Rick Warren (one of the speakers there).  I didn’t quite understand the point of the author, though it seemed a type of criticism of John Piper for admitting that evangelism is not his first thought when he’s preaching.  As later comments brought out, the Pyro writer gives great emphasis to creeds, specifically citing numbers in the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Confession, and thinks that a pastor’s work is a both/and with reference to shepherding his flock AND high concern for evangelism.

I have limited knowledge concerning the ministries of Piper and Warren, choosing to spend most of my free time in reading the Bible or other Christian writings, so the blog and its comments delved into unfamiliar specifics.  But it seems clear that an underlying issue in the discussion was, what is the focus and purpose of the Christian church, including the pastors and the members of the congregation?  Many believers emphasize the Church’s purpose as evangelism, including intentional evangelism.  Very few pointed out that we need to go beyond evangelism, to focus on the truth of God’s word, and none brought out a point that I find very interesting:  evangelism is not the great work of the Christian church.

In the Divine Purpose series, S. Lewis Johnson addressed this in a message that looked at Ephesians 2.  Ephesians 2:18 shows a trinitarian focus:  “For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father.”  Here we see Paul’s perspective, that what our Lord wants is to have access to and communion with Him.  Jesus Christ wants to introduce us to the Father.

Johnson expands further on this point:

You know that is really the great end of the trinity.  We sometimes forget that.  We think the great end of the trinity is that we be saved.  It’s amazing to me after nineteen hundred years people still say the great work of the Christian church is evangelism.  That’s not the great work of the Christian church.  It is a great work.  One would not want to downgrade evangelism, but as we see in Colossians and through the New Testament the whole work of salvation is the great work of the church —  evangelism yes, but evangelism with a view to communion, with a view to maturity, with a view to edification.  Never forget that.  Don’t be carried away because some popular person has made a cliché statement like that.  That’s not true.  Stick to the Bible.  Stick to the words of Scripture.  Follow Scripture and you’ll be wise unto full salvation.  That’s what the Lord would like for all of us to have, a closer more intimate relationship to Him in edifying growth and the knowledge of Him.  So through Him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father.

Considering this understanding, and the words of the apostle Paul in Ephesians 2 — and the whole thrust of the book of Acts — like many others, I see nothing wrong with John Piper’s statement:

but mainly I want to feed the sheep in such a way that the sheep love God, are so thrilled with God, they tell other people about him, and they come and worship and they love God so much, they tell other people about him.

That sounds a lot closer to what S. Lewis Johnson said, in Piper’s own style, concerning the primary work of the Christian church: to bring us into a closer, more intimate relationship to God.  Sure, evangelism is an important part of the Christian life, but I don’t see it as of such primary importance, as being in a “both-and” with reference to the work of the pastor and the Christian church.

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