There goes Tullian Tchividjian under the bus! I can certainly wish that Greenbaggins would be one blog above cheapshots about some sort of, maybe, kind of connection between Tullian’s fall and his doctrine of sanctification. Lane Keister, after all, knows well what it’s like to go into the lion’s den and get utterly smeared by the PCA’s liberals. I hate to say it, but I think Lane has taken the line of poor taste and used Tullian’s personal flop as a chance to write off his views on sanctification. We get all we need from Lane’s piece– which is nothing. He doesn’t try to demonstrate a causal link between Tullian’s views and his affair because there isn’t one. It’s all very confusing and sad when a minister (especially a prominent one) falls into sin. But at another level it’s rather simple. Tullian certainly knows just as much as his critics that having an affair is wrong. He blew it. Do we really want to go this way? I mean, is every ministerial scandal an occasion for the poor chump’s ideological opponents to say “See, I told you so!”? Well somebody could bring up Mark Driscoll but the Mars Hill debacle is really about a long string of unforced errors.

Lane ought to remember that this same thing played out after Jason Stellman shocked his supporters and gratified his enemies by joining the false church of Rome. Failures like those of Tullian and Stellman just confirm that they were flawed men fighting for a good cause. It’s sad that their theology has to get the blame for their personal failures. We are witnessing that popular fallacy– the circumstantial ad hominem– in all it’s glory. Those of us who want to challenge burgeoning legalism in Reformed circles can’t give up before one of the classic cheapshots. We certainly have a lesson to learn here. Not the platitudes like “But for the grace of God go I” but rather “Vain is the help of man.” We feel the blow of Stellman’s sell-out and Tullian’s scandal just so far as we’ve bought into the folly that the justness of our cause depends on the spotless reputation of our point men. We might as well give in and join the legalists if outward appearance matters so much to us. After all, those who think they can stand before God in their own works are the masters of hypocrisy, the gurus of appearance. But that’s not what we stand for. We know man looks at the appearance but God looks at the heart and in that way we know we have to stand in Christ or fall in our works.

So I was looking around on the web trying to figure out the Tullian Tchividjian controversy. Basically he was under accusation of taking the Law-Gospel distinction too far toward the error of antinomianism. The news says that he was asked to hurry up and move on with a ministry initiative called Liberate. The upshot is that the Presbyterian grandson of Billy Graham has taken his clout elsewhere and the The Gospel Coalition is free of a resident trouble maker. I get the sense that Tchividjian as a mega-church, ministry empire type guy is simply too busy to respond to all the doctrinal heavy hitters that have been challenging him to a debate. I’m curious to see where the controversy goes because the matters of Law/Gospel, the Law in the Christian life, sanctification, assurance and grace are fascinating in their own right. But the potential pitfalls are serious.

Some would say that antinomianism is the error besetting the church. If only that were true. It’s important that we get it right because confusion on either side, whether Law or Gospel, is possible. The confessional heritage of the Reformed churches shows that the Law has a place in the Christian life beyond just showing us our sin and need of a Savior. On the other hand, I’ve heard preaching in Reformed churches that takes the dialectical route (theology by balancing two equally ultimate truths). The results are confusing at best. You’ll just have to take the preacher’s word for it that he affirms justification by faith alone. That’s hard to swallow coming from someone who says that your salvation depends on what you do, period, and that those who show forth Christ in the Old Testament are in error.

The latest “antinomian” controversy calls this blogger, at least, to patiently and diligently attend to the Bible. One resource for making sense of the flourishing debate comes from a wise pastor. When we’re talking about Law and Gospel, we need clarity about whether we’re thinking of Law as a covenant or as a principle. Scripture certainly speaks highly of the Law as a guide for life but we’re warned against marrying ourselves to the Mosaic Covenant rather than to Christ. Now that’s food for thought!

It’s refreshing to come accross a simple answer to one of those nagging objections to a biblical doctrine.  Morton Smith, answering the notion “that the doctrine of the decrees removes all motive for human exertion,” proposes two answers with the first being almost too obvious. Sadly, the simple and basic is where the critics of Calvinism start having trouble, given the history of the debate over the decrees. Smith’s first answer is “the decree is not addressed to man as a rule of action, and cannot be such a rule, since the contents are not revealed to man. The revealed will is his Word, and it is the obligation of man to obey it” (Systematic Theology: Volume 1, 162).

So there you have it. The next time you hear the tired old jab that the doctrine of the decrees means we can all just sit on our hands, remind your friend that the you aren’t discussing our duty before God (but you sure can once you both settle the decrees!). The objection only gets traction once confusion has already set in.

A book to look for

2014/04/09

Tolle Lege has an exciting release coming out this month. I remain keenly interested in sacramental piety, especially the Reformed variety, even though a somewhat curmudgeonly friend of mine recently attempted to pour cold water on my interest in the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. How can it be otherwise? I seriously doubt that the Lord intended that Christians would repeatedly encounter baptism and His table within the life of the church without also calling us to reflect deeply on the significance of these means of grace. Hughes Old’s latest work has the look of a thorough overview of the history of Reformed Eucharistic piety. It also ought to make for some fruitful comparison with works such as Mathison’s Given For You, Maclean’s The Lord’s Supper, and Byars’s Lift Your Hearts On High. All of those works cover the history of Holy Communion in the Reformed churches to some degree but none with the scope and detail that Old’s table of contents promises.

Internet chat about the Federal Vision frequently goes off the rails because someone asks the loaded question, “Is it heresy?” Someone else invariably chomps on the bait and that someone’s alleged ignorance, lack of charity, lack of discretion, etc. takes the spotlight rather than the propriety of the FV. I do think the question, “Is it heresy?” isn’t as far fetched as many assume. Most confessional Reformed bodies have either handed down opinions against it or commended committee reports to the churches filled with trenchant critique of FV theology. The best of these reports is probably the one produced by the OPC in 2006. Denominational tolerance of the FV is limited to possibly the Canadian Reformed Churches and the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches (a young body formed to accommodate a novel take on Reformed theology). The PCA is boiling over the FV, but that’s only one of many internal controversies.

Here is how I once offered a corrective to the false dilemma that often derails debate over the FV:

My own view, avoiding the pitfall of “is it, is it not heresy,” is that it is a movement that has unnecessarily divided the Reformed churches through provocation, obfuscation and novel and bizarre formulations. Of course FV proponents say some good things. That’s not the issue at all. It’s the attacks upon the Cov. of Works, the Invisible/Visible church, the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, and the positing of a bifurcated concept of Election (decretally elect/ covenantally elect subject to apostasy and hell fire). That’s just a partial list. I tend to think the FV has at best offered us a wobbly ride in a zealous effort to remake the wheel.

Revising a revision

2013/12/23

Whereas my original proposed revision wasn’t up to date with the internet age, and

Whereas so many dynamic proposals for retooling and recasting Reformed theology are posted on the internet, and

Whereas many of said dynamic proposals for retooling and recasting Reformed theology are first enunciated at pastors conferences, along with critiques of conventional Reformed theology as hopelessly captive to Enlightenment Rationalism and other “isms” that Doug Wilson doesn’t like.

Therefore, be it resolved that my proposed revision be revised as follows (additions in italics):

Do you mostly receive and reservedly adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as sort of containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures; and do you promise that if at any time you find this system of doctrine out of accord with any of the fundamentals of your own system of doctrine, you will, on your own initiative, make known to your flock, pastors conferences and the internet the changes which need to take place in the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms due to changes in your own views since the assumption of your ordination vow?

The second volume of a projected three volume Systematic Theology is on its way. Those who enjoyed the first volume are doubtless anticipating this publication. Kelly’s newest may be the most important contribution to Reformed systematic theology in 2013-2014, even with Michael Bird and John Frame releasing one volume systematics texts late this year.

I remember reading a review of the first volume that complained about the arrangement of the text, particularly the inclusion of appendices with each main chapter. My feeling was that this added some interest to the flow of the argument. Indeed, Kelly’s numerous focused appendices work well as applications of the principles of the main chapters. It also provides the opportunity to address special topics with greater freedom than one possibly could in the general body of argument. I look forward to see how the method applied in the first volume works itself out in the second.

I was talking with my wife about C.S. Lewis recently and she made an observation that I thought was quite engaging. She said that she had read that Lewis had wondered whether The Screwtape Letters would be complete without a companion work from the Heavenly perspective. My wife went on to state that Lewis finally decided against such a project. The Heavenly perspective was beyond our ken. I began to think of all sorts of connections. We simply cannot think the thoughts of the celestial beings in the presence of Almighty God. For one thing, though they are created, they are unfallen. I also thought that a book about cherubim and seraphim carrying out the decrees of the Heavenly Father (as opposed to the devils and the directives of their father below) would get too close to transgressing the distinction between our ectypal knowledge and the divine archetype. As the Protestant Scholastic theologians observed (following Medieval precedent), we can only engage in “our theology” (theology nostra), our theology on the way to the heavenly city (theologia viatorum). Still, for those who love the insights of C.S. Lewis, the wish for such a book can remain strong. Never mind, we have something better, the divine condescension, adapted to our creaturely, fallen understanding: the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.

He calls himself Baloney but that sure isn’t what he said:

Ironically, Leithart is more sectarian than catholic. All this pretense re: receiving the history of the catholic church as one’s own when so many of his theological views are idiosyncratic nonsense. He is not Roman, not Orthodox, not Lutheran, not Presbyterian. “Leithartism” is a great label.

Thanks Tony.

Peter Leithart has served up another excrement sandwich for those concerned about his controversial doctrinal formulations. Dr. Leithart, with copious name-dropping, has extolled the virtues of “Reformational catholicism” over plain old Protestantism. The latter is apparently the denizen of (among others) the “confessionalists” in his own denomination that took umbrage rather than applaud his comprehensive overhaul of Reformed theology in tandem with the Federal Vision “conversation” (by the way, everyone involved in the FV should consider Prof. Clark’s Form for the Confession of Sin). Leithart’s lopsided post (unless you’re Roman Catholic or Mainline Presbyterian) has already been expertly answered and also diagnosed as a symptom of More-Cosmopolitan-than-Thou. The post you are reading expands upon those blog entries to identify the Leithart Fallacy. This fallacy is really a cluster of muddled thinking and sophistry. Here is how you’ll know it when you see it (I remember Leithart’s colleagues in Presbytery claiming to know error when they see it, but that’s contested):

1.  First, combine a generous amount of straw man representations of Protestantism or Presbyterian confessionalists with outrageous imputations to the same.

2. Stir in fluff about how the “Reformational catholic” is so much more widely read, so sophisticated, so full of brotherly love across the unfortunate chasm separating Romanism and the “Reformational catholics” who seek rapprochement with Rome. Speaking of the divide Rome between Protestantism, Leithart’s piece presumptuously minimizes it and unfairly loads the blame for its continuation on Protestants (whom he doesn’t fairly represent). In contrast to Protestants, you’ll know the Reformational catholic’s savoir vivre and urbanity by the fact that he’s beyond reading Louis Berkhof, Charles Hodge, J. H. Thornwell and Jonathan Edwards and now loves Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox thinkers like Yves Congar and Alexander Schmemann. He has taken up distinctive ministerial attire similar to High Church Anglican, Mainline Methodist and Lutheran clerics in (and out of) worship, complete with clerical collar and accoutrements of varying colors to match seasons of the Church Year. He is so beyond the two-kingdom debate that he is certain that Constantinianism is the way to go (I suppose the doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church is one of those unfortunate results of finding flaws with the Roman Communion, by which the pioneer Reformers risked the Papal Bull or the fiery stake).

3. Now for the main ingredient: Add the amorphous, vague “consensus” around “mere Christianity.” Say to your gauche fundamentalist friends “I answer to a higher power. Judge me not according to your weak, juvenile Protestant confessions. I stand in the strain of Orthodoxy with a capital O!” 

The main ingredient is where we find the principal error. “Orthodoxy” and “the Catholic Tradition” are grand abstractions unless tempered with some historical perspective. All Christians affirm the doctrines associated with this thing called “Orthodoxy” because if it means anything it means affirmation of the doctrinal advances of the great Ecumenical Councils, the historic, unifying statements about the doctrines of God and the person of Jesus Christ. These doctrines are vitally important and a great starting place for seeking agreement but the kind of common ground that Leithart imagines exists with his Roman brothers and sisters is a fantasy. Leithart styles himself as a vanguard of ecumenical development but isn’t joining the Roman Communion and dismisses the Reformed tradition as locked in anachronistic protest. We ought to consider instead the fuller confession to the two traditions to see if Leithart’s tertium quid offers more.

Rome and the Protestant churches have dogmas on many other points besides the resolutions of the early Trinitarian and Christological controversies. Rome and the Reformed churches have never reduced the teaching of the church to the Nicene Creed or the Definition of Chalcedon. So what is Leithart advocating? He emerges from this metamorphosis not readily Roman Catholic, not contentedly Reformed, but holding a distinctive trait of the Evangelicalism against which the Federal Vision overreacts. Evangelicalism necessarily reduces Christianity to the lowest doctrinal common denominator. Evangelicalism is where historic creeds and confessions are are minimized and replaced by sketchy laundry lists of doctrinal affirmations that can appeal to the widest constituency. The Evangelical world is where it’s spiritual success to please most of the people all of the time. That’s the kind of spiritual tradition that results from occupying the inevitably fluid middle. There are strange consequences for rejecting the Reformed faith for who-knows-what.

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