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!

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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.

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.

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.

Specifically, baptism is a sign and seal of the benefits of forgiveness (Acts 2:38 and 22:16) and of regeneration (Titus 3:5), a being incorporated into the fellowship with Christ and His Church (Rom. 6:4). Therefore baptism is ministered not only to such adults as have been won for Christ through the work of missions, but to the children of believers also, for they together with their parents are included in the covenant of grace, belong to the church (1 Cor. 7:14), and have been taken up into fellowship with the Lord. And when these children grow up, and by public confession personally acquiesce in that covenant, and have come to the years of discretion, and can distinguish the body and blood of the Lord (1 Cor. 11:28), then they are called together with the whole church again and again to proclaim the Lord’s death till He come, and so strengthen themselves in the fellowship with Christ. For, although baptism and the holy supper have the same covenant of grace as their content, and although both give assurance of the benefit of the forgiveness of sins, the holy supper differs from baptism in this regard that it is a sign and a seal, not of incorporation into but of the maturation and strengthening in the fellowship of Christ and all His members (1 Cor. 10:16:17).

Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith: A Survey of Christian Doctrine, trans. Henry Zylstra (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002), 541-542. Translation of Magnalia Dei (1909).

However, difficult it be for us to grasp, it is important we should recognize that God’s eternal decree gave the elect a super-creation subsistence before Him, so that they were capable of being loved and of receiving a grant of grace. In other words, in God’s eternal thoughts and foreviews, the elect were conceived and contemplated by Him in the Divine mind as real entities in a state of pure creaturehood, above and beyond any consideration of the fall. Even then they were “Blessed with all spiritual blessings in the heavenlies in Christ” and “accepted in the beloved” (Eph. 1:3,6). It is of great moment that the Church should thus be first considered by us, that we never lose sight of the original dignity and loveliness of the Church, anointed and blessed in Christ before the foundation of the world. Her state by the fall was not her original one, any more than her present state is the final one.

Arthur W. Pink, Spiritual Union and Communion (Pensacola: Chapel Library, n.d.), 61.

Those two sacraments have the whole covenant of grace with all of its benefits, in other words, they have Christ Himself as their content, and accordingly they cannot convey those benefits except by the way of faith. They were, accordingly, instituted for the believers and assure these believers of their portion in Christ. They do not precede the Word but follow it; they have not the power to grant a particular grace which cannot be given by the Word nor be accepted by faith; rather, they are based on the institution of the covenant of grace on God’s part and the confirmation of that covenant of man’s part.

Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith: A Survey of Christian Doctrine, trans. Henry Zylstra (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002), 541. Translation of Magnalia Dei (1909).

The Bible, of course, is not a systematic presentation of theological data. Rather, it is the record of God’s redemptive revelation. Or, to put it in another way, it is a record of redemptive history. It is the historical record of what God has done–his redemptive acts, and also of what he has said. In other words, we find in the Bible not only the mighty acts of God, but also his own interpretation of those acts. There is much emphasis today on the idea that revelation is event or act, and that propositions are not revelational. A study of the Bible itself reveals a combination of both.

Morton Smith, Systematic Theology: Volume 1 (Greenville, SC: Greenville Seminary Press, 1994), 39.

The Aquila Report is carrying the news that Robert L. Reymond has died. Today we mourn the loss of a minister of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a past minister of the Presbyterian Church in America, a theological educator of many years, and the author of a major one-volume system of theology. Reymond also wrote monographs on various topics and contributed to “debate books.” The latter effort includes arguing (I’d say courageously) for a supralapsarian perspective in a multiple views book on the doctrine of election. We will certainly miss this teacher of the church but we can be happy for him that on the deep theological conundrums, faith has given way to sight.

The Scriptures are not laid down in a systematical form, though some of Paul’s epistles come near to it. Such a form would neither comport with the majesty of God their author, nor with the weak capacities of some men.—It would not shut up men to a diligent comparison of Scripture texts. It would not admit of such delightfully diversified connections of divine truths, nor represent them so suitably to the diversified conditions of men; nor could they be so usefully illustrated with a variety of historical facts.

The Systematic Theology of John Brown of Haddington (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2002), p 58. Originally published as A Compendious View of Natural and Revealed Religion.

It is encouraging to see in this older author, this Scottish divine of the 18th century, that he was untroubled by the fact that the Bible was not written as a doctrinal handbook. What is more striking is how he was spurred on by it. If I could take one thing from this quote it’s how John Brown felt compelled to search the Scriptures by the fact that it is a collection of different writings, by different authors, in different genres. In fact, he found the diverse form of Scripture an encouragement to the enterprise of systematic theology.

Note also the spirit different from what one sometimes finds today. Too often I have heard the diversity of Scriptural writings put forward as an excuse for claiming contradiction and clouded obscurity for the Biblical message. Never mind that often proponents of Biblical obscurity (as opposed to perspicuity) need some confusion to cover for their unsound doctrines. No facile justifications for sloppy doctrinal formulations here!

John Brown, in contrast to modern evasions, strikes a balance. He points to the near systematical form of some of Paul’s letters. Doubtless Romans comes to mind as it has impressed Bible students through the centuries with it’s sustained thinking through glorious and awe-inspiring themes. May this meditation on the diversity of Scripture lead you to treasure the Bible more and more.