Iain Murray wrote a book titled The Day Church and State Failed. I don’t really know what it is about, but I will borrow the title. I am trying to figure out why I ditched middle-of-the road “vanilla Presbyterianism” and read Eastern Orthodoxy so sympathetically?
My senior year in college I was thoroughly imbibing the biographies and writings of the Scottish Covenanters. I listened to all of Joe Morecraft’s lectures on the History of the Reformation. These lectures, I might add, were wildly theocratic. Yes, I was a theonomist, and I do reject theonomy now. (However, it must be said that the Reformed community never came up with a response to theonomy that didn’t sound like either pure Dispensationalism or the Platform for the Democratic National Convention. ) This caused me no small grief in seminary.
Before I start bashing RTS, which I intend to do mercilessly, I need to first say where I was wrong and wrong-headed. I was wrong on theonomy (though RTS certainly was not right on the matter, being quasi-dispensational). Still, I went to seminary thinking we would carry on the great, magisterial Presbyterian tradition. I thought we would thoroughly read and pass down the teachings found in Dabney, Rutherford, the parts of Calvin no one wants to talk about (Sermons on Deuteronomy and Book IV chapter 20 of The Institutes).
I was underwhelmed upon arrival. The campus was still in a hang-up over theonomy and the Federal Vision controversy was raging. On one hand, there felt an air of suspicion of whom you could quote as a source and not be seen as a Federal Visionist or theonomist (I quoted Berkhof in a covenant theology paper, but deliberately left the name blank, and the prof said i was using “federal vision” theology. Seriously). I do almost understand their fear/paranoia. Fifteen years ago a Jackson pastor became a theonomist and shot an abortionist. I guess most of the people in Jackson had trouble making distinctions.
In any case, the fear of theonomy precluded them from truly appreciating their Reformed heritage. If theonomy is so evil, what do we make of John Knox, George Gillespie, Samuel Rutherford, Thornwell, and the parts of Calvin we don’t like (Servetus, anyone?). Now, I reject theonomy simply because the exegesis “almost works, but not quite.” Anyway, the moral vision of the Covenanters and even men like Gustavus Adolphus give you roughly the same thing without all the grief.
But politics isn’t the gospel and the preaching ministry, one might object. And they are correct. However, the presuppositions behind these objections carry over into other areas. The presuppositions more often than not reveal a post-Jeffersonian view of America that is wildly at odds with historic Reformed teaching (remember the changes to the Confession?). The presuppositions reveal an underlying “Americanism” that will condition the rest of one’s framework. Among other things, this will subtly redefine what it meant to be Reformed (I realize how silly that sentence is because in the Federal Vision debate, everyone accused each other of doing that, yet none could demonstrate that).
I’ll expand upon that last claim. I am taking Reformed as largely meaning those who come from the magisterial Reformation and in some sense seek to embody those principles (including that of the civil magistrate!!) in their faith and spirituality today. (As a result, Baptists can claim to be four or five point Calvinists, but not really Reformed.). Among other things, this will also include a magisterial defense of these principles. Inability on the latter is not that great a fault (it is if you are a prof, though). Inability on the former is a culpable fault.
The Reasons I am staying in the Magisterial Protestant Tradition
Eastern Orthodoxy, especially for those whose worldview has been shattered by Reformed ineptitude, is a powerful attraction. While I’ve sung its praises in the past, here are the reasons I will not go (for now; unless I am convinced by reason and plain scripture, etc). Some of these reasons are my own reflections. Others are taken from Drake, whose tone I don’t always appreciate nor am I using his arguments in the same way, but I will give credit where credit is due.
- The EO argument against Sola Scriptura backfires and becomes a good argument against reading the Scripture in light of the Fathers. Yes, the fathers were holy men and we should read Scripture in light of the Fathers. I myself have read about 5000 double-columned pages of the Fathers. Here’s the problem: when the Fathers say things that are mutually exclusive–like when Athanasius says the Son is begotten of the essence and the Cappadocians say the Son is begotten of the Father–who adjudicates? Who is right? We can’t say we have to interpret the two passages in light of the Patrum Consensus, because these two passages are themselves part of the same Consensus. Orthodox apologists have said we have to interpret the fathers in light of the church councils. Great. Which church council adjudicates these two fathers?
- John 6 speaks of limited atonement. 2 Peter 2:1 seems to deny it. How shall we decide which is right? Orthodox and Catholic apologists love to say “what good is an infallible bible without an infallible interpreter?” This claim, practically speaking, is useless. The Church has not given us anything like a list of infallibly interpreted verses.
- The idea of doctrinal development and liturgical development is inevitable. While I agree with the Christology behind 2nd Nicea, the fact remains that there aren’t any defenses and presentations of iconodulism in the early Fathers. yes, I know about Dora Europa. That, however, is not a passage from the fathers. It is a picture on a wall. Most importantly, it is not functioning as the Patrum Consensus.
- Great heroes like Fr Seraphim Rose warned against basing theology and liturgy on private visions. What do we do about several prayers to the Theotokos? These date from the 9th century and seem to come from a vision. Yet, as Fr Seraphim rightly points out (and one can only think of the Fatima vision), this principle is highly dangerous theology.
- On the practical side, I have to think of my family’s well-being. The local Greek parish, the only option for 200 miles, is a handful of people, the service is mostly in Greek, and there is deliberately no preaching. Good theology aside, this isn’t good for my family’s spiritual development, to which I, the father, have been entrusted to guard.
- That and the Ecumenical Patriarchate has always remained too close to the higher levels of Freemasonry. Sharing the Eucharist with a Freemason, or with a jurisdiction that tolerates Freemasonry, is sharing and communing with Freemasonry.
- EO requires the convert to renounce his former theology and theologizing. Yet, it is those very things that would have led me to EO. Therefore, I have to condemn the road that led me here.
- St Ignatius of Antioch said to join a schismatic is to lose the Kingdom of God. Well, did ROCOR “schism” from Moscow Patriarchate? I agree with their reasonings, but it still kind of looks like a schisming from the Established Church. Few, however, will deny that St John of Shanghai is not going to inherit the Kingdom of God.
- I have other reasons concerning the various jurisdictions and how that isn’t working in America, but I’ll save that for later.
Can American Reformed Thought be Salvaged?
It doesn’t seem likely, but we’ll try. If American Reformed thought wants to maintain its identity in the face of a distinction-eroding American culture, it must consider the following options.
- Go back to the original confession on the civil magistrate. This will provide a safeguard against the worst aspects of American culture.
- The seminary education in the South needs to be revamped whole-scale. When I saw a youth minister out-debate a Reformed professor of 20+ years on the doctrine of sola scriptura, I knew that the Reformed world would be in for some rough treatment if this were the norm. How should the professor have handled himself? He should have relied on the arguments from Richard Muller’s Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics. It’s not just a series of books. It’s an outlook. The key principle is the archetype-ectype theology. God’s principium essendi is the archetype. God’s principle of essence (call it aseity, simplicity, whatever). Such a God can only make himself known through Revelation, which is the principium cognescendi of theology. This is only an example of a deeper problem.
- The problem is that Reformed people really don’t care about their roots in the magisterial and scholastic Reformation. I was interested in Eastern orthodoxy for so many years simply because reading the current Reformed world, and examining major Reformed seminaries in the South left me with the only conclusion that the Reformation in America had failed. I was wrong, of course, but I was working on very good (available) evidence.
- Continuing the Reformation can work provided we draw upon stronger Reformed sources. I have in mind the men in Muller’s four volume work. This means the seminaries need to have a stronger emphasis on Reformed scholasticism, the Scottish Reformation (I don’t remember the Solemn League and Covenants ever being mentioned), and the strong moral and political vision found in men like Hodge, Dabney, and Thornwell. A thorough diet of these men can help the young minister not only explain his faith, but explain the internal causal connections of his faith (that is what made Dabney so great). If someone can explain the internal connections, then he knows his faith and won’t be shaken. Someone–and institutions–that simply parrot pop “Reformed” arguments by big-city preachers won’t last five minutes against Dave Hodges or Perry Robinson.
What should the seminaries do?
- My immediate thought was “shut down.” But anyway, they need to revamp the entire project and give stronger emphasis on historical theology. Yeah, we were told how cool it would be to just focus on Hebrew and Greek and one day we would be able to do our quiet times in Greek. That’s wonderful. We also missed out on most of the Reformed heroes.
- I suspect that one could integrate historical theology and epistemology in one project. Keep in mind that the archetype/ectype distinction covers both.
- Get rid of most “adjunct professors” who are actually pastors and best friends with the Board of Trustees. I understand you are saving money, but at the cost of a good education. You haven’t been in a seminary class until you’ve seen the “professor” literally go insane and call you (and your pastor, and your pastor friend at the church you are attending) a “homosexual Marxist feminist” because you believed in theonomy (if you are scratching your head about the relevance, don’t bother). The next best thing was watching your friends leave the class and just holler the “F” word because it was so bad.
- While you might think it is nostalgic to have a deep South school that is nothing more than a “preacher mill,” the implications are actually quite bad. Because the focus of some of these institutions is simply to “churn out pastors,” the grading scale is quite insane and at the detriment of the student’s future goals. If you are simply going to be a pastor at Bodunk Presbterian Church in Tarwater, MS, then you don’t need no fancy schooling beyond a Master’s. So what that we gave you a D- on a B- paper? Passing is passing and Old Aunt Bessie May on the front pew don’t care. Well, she might not care but the Admissions Office at a PhD school will care. I actually got denied for the first grad school I applied to after RTS because they didn’t understand that 1) RTS was on crack, and 2), like Law Schools, the grading scale isn’t 1:1. Why is this a problem? Well, it is keeping young minds from getting PhDs and defending the very faith that someone forgot to do.
Difficulties (still) with Calvinism
I am not ready to affirm a full-orbed Confessionalism (though I am probably more Confessional than Yankee PCA pastors).
- While I affirm predestination, I do not read Election the way the “U” in TULIP reads it. Every time “elect’ is mention in the OT it is mentioned as “elected unto service.” And before you quote Romans 9, even apostate Israel was “elect.”
- I would take an exception on images of Christ. Mind you, I don’t have any icons in my house of Christ. I don’t venerate them. But I agree with Rushdoony: an Incarnation that cannot be demonstrated is a contradiction in terms.
- I agree with rulership by elders, but the word “bishops” is also used in the NT and it doesn’t always mean “elders.” If it did, why bother using two different words?
- I can agree with imputation provided it is first grounded in union with Christ. Otherwise it is a legal fiction.
- I agree with justification by faith alone 100%. But when Paul is worrying about the gospel being threatened in Galatians, he and Peter are talking about table fellowship and who is a member of the covenant, not Roman catholic works righteousness.
- As to the presence of Christ at the Supper and the Person of Christ, I am with the Lutherans on this one. I won’t drop the Nestorian bomb anymore, but I have my own issues with WCF 8.2.