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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.

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.