Letham’s Westminster Assembly

With this volume Letham has established himself as the leading English-speaking Reformed theologian.

HOLY SCRIPTURE

Letham gives the basic Reformed understanding of Scripture.

Continuationism

It’s there, albeit in a mild form.  Letham notes that William Bridge, George Gillespie, and John Knox received (or claimed they did; or others claimed they did) prophetic revelation.  Letham is quick to point out this is only “providential” illumination of Scripture (127).  Letham is correct that the Assembly felt no need to deal with this issue (nor would they have affirmed it), but other studies clearly demonstrate that the Scottish Reformation (both in its First and Second phases) saw manifestation of prophetic gifts beyond that of simply “illuminating” Scripture.  When Cargill and Cameron prophcied the deaths of certain (specific) wicked men, they weren’t merely “applying” the general sense of Scripture.  If “prophecy” means illumination, then every pastor is a prophet!  In which case prophecy is still valid today, but nobody reasons that way.

Part of the Reformed world’s problem here is the presupposition that every prophetic utterance necessarily carries the full binding of God with it.   In another place Wayne Grudem shows that is simply not the case.

God the Holy Trinity

Without passions…

Letham is aware that a hard division on God’s not having passions must take into account the fact that the Incarnation brought into true union with humanity.  Jesus experiences human thoughts, human emotions, etc (162).  Letham is certainly on the correct path, but the problem is much deeper (and this isn’t a slam against Reformed Christology;  all Christological traditions hailing from the Chalcedonian definition must face this problem:  does our definition of what it means to be a person today include self-reflection?  If it does, then we are on the road to Nestorianism. If it doesn’t, is it really coherent to speak of person anymore?)

Letham gives a competent discussion on Creation, though one that will annoy many.  He admits, contra many Klineans, that the divines likely held to six solar days, yet he points out that the more pertinent goal was to reject Augustine’s view of instantaneous creation.  Further, what we must also admit, no matter where we land on this discussion, is that the divines did presuppose a geocentric cosmology which saw theology in spatial terms.  Indeed, one wonders if George Walker even knew that the world is spherical (Letham 191 n.50).

Christ and covenant

“Condescension”

  • Makes the Klinean meritorious reading strained.
  • CoW, while perhaps the correct reading, is not necessary to maintain Reformed theology.  It was developed over time and if Kline’s reading is correct, then huge swathes of Reformed theology would have proved defective before Westminster (233).

Covenant of Redemption?

Letham highlights a number of problems.  While he doesn’t note the problem of person, if person does not include mind (which is usually subsumed under nature), then does it make sense to speak of three individuals who all share the same mind making an agreement?  I’m not saying it is a wrong idea, and the CoR certainly preserves a few key values, but it does have problems.

Assurance

Great section on assurance and he places these (sometimes) painful discussions in their pastoral context, which context is often lost on critics of Reformed assurance.  For the record, I agree with Goodwin pace Owen on the Spirit’s sealing.

Law, Liberty, Church and Eschatology

Great section on Law and Liberty–and he avoids getting involved in the painful theonomy disputes.  Letham shows how the RPW should be read and interpreted in light of the Laudian imprisonment and persecution of Reformed believers.  On another note, he points out how the Presbyterians really failed on clinching and continuing the “liberty of conscience” victory it justly won.   I will elaborate:

Did the Solemn League and Covenant bind the consciences of those who didn’t vow it?  Said another way, was Cromwell later on obligated to establish Presbyterian government?  If he was, how does this square with what (Covenanter) Samuel Rutherford said, “It is in our power to vow, but not in the church’s power to command us to vow” (quoted in Letham 299)?  Maybe the two points don’t contradict each other, but the tension is certainly strained.

And it appears the Presbyterians couldn’t maintain this tension.  They chose to deal with the tyrant Charles I and supported (to their fatal regret later) the pervert Charles II.  Cromwell’s victory at Dunbar is fully justified.

Conclusion:

This isn’t a commentary on the Confession.  It is a theological exploration of the historical circumstances behind it.  Letham’s scholarship is judicious, measured, and quite frankly awe-inspiring.

Will the Reformed world turn on the Klineans?

When the Institutional Reformed wanted to beat up on Bahnsen (after he died, especially) and his students, they used Kline’s arguments.  When this was happening I warned that Kline came very close to dispensationalism and that Bahnsen’s “TR Critics” didn’t really have a coherent response.  I then predicted that they would have trouble applying God’s law today.

Of course, I am no longer a theonomist, but I think I was right.  Current sanctification debates bear this out.  I will make another prediction:  Mainstream Reformed will no longer find Kline useful.  They will turn on him. Outside of pockets on the West Coast, Kline’s students views on Two Kingdoms and Republication will be outcasted.

The irony is that I am somewhat sympathetic to Kline now.

Review of Horton, Covenant Ecclesiology Part Two

Horton recapitulates the argument of his book in chapter 6. Chapter 1 argued the where of Christ’s presence (Ascension), chapters 2-5 argued the how of Christ’s presence (Covenantal Speech-Act), and chapter 6 argues the what of identity on earth. In what sense is the church one and many?

Horton makes several key distinctions between “unity” and “unicity.” Unity is a healthy respecting of differences best seen in a covenantal community. This can only be by the Spirit. Noting Leslie Newbigin’s poignant remark, when we make the church an “extension of the Incarnation,” we confuse sarx (Christ’s flesh) with soma (his body as the church). In such a move any union is at the level of fused essences flowing downward in a hierarchy (as is necessary in all Platonic and Dionysian visions; 187). Rather, our union with Christ is through the Spirit in anticipation of the age to come.

This has important practical applications. When faced with high-church claims to “unity over Protestant divisions,” one may rightly ask if unity is even possible on a Roman or Orthodox position? Does not their own version of unity reduce all to sameness, in a sense losing unity altogether for unicity? If they hold to a Dionysian ontology in which differences are overcome through an ascent on the divine ladder (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 34), do they not lose the many to the one? Indeed, to borrow a line from the postmoderns, does not differance become violence?

Throughout this discussion Horton engages in some very important analyses of John Zizioulas and Miroslav Volf, thus adding a particular relevance to his work

Horton correctly condemns the political maneuvering of Urban II (259ff), but fundamentally misses the point and result of the first crusade. While many knights did see themselves as waging war against the infidel, the first crusade is better seen as a sustained defensive measure against Islam (remember, the Muslims invaded first). Further, he then invokes–ironically, in almost a religious manner–liberal democracies litany of “bad guy countries:” South Africa, “colonialism,” and Serbia.

Normally, I would let it slide but since I probably know more about Serbia than 90% of Americans, I feel compelled to expand the point. Serbs before 1999 simply did not see themselves as King David. Milosevic remained an atheist until shortly before his murder in The Hague. He only claimed the mantle of Tsar Lazar on Kosovo Poltje in the final days of the war–and that for political, not religious reasons. As Orthodox theologian Vladimir Moss points out, Serbia was the most secular post-Communist country in the 1990s (with also the highest abortion rate). As C.I.A. analyst John Schindler (Unholy Terror) remarks, “The sad irony is that Serbia was already close to Hilary Clinton’s vision of a secular state in the new world order.” To make the irony worse, Serbia only became interested in its religious heritage as a response to Hillary’s War. I only belabor the point because it seems to contrast with Horton’s earlier (and admirable) resisting the collapse of cult and cultus. Is not his endorsing–however seriously he meant the statement–the litany of liberal democracy a similar collapsing? (To be fair, he later critiqued the nigh-ubiquitous equation of the Kingdom with liberal democracy, p. 287 n.100) I share his suspicion to Christian Reconstructionism, for example, and I am equally skeptical of Van Tillians’ chanting “No neutrality,” but this may be the one area they actually have a point.

Concerning the Temple (or “Temple-speak” as I shall call it), Horton is correct to note that the person and work of Christ replaced the Temple economy with its sacrifices (268ff). Further, he is correct that we should not as Christians seek a rebuilt Temple. While Horton’s final conclusions may indeed be correct, the inference does not follow that because Revelation “spiritualizes” (whatever that word means) a Temple that all prophetic references to “Temple-speak” are necessarily about Jesus. What then is the point of a temple, one may ask? The answer to that question hinges on several eschatological presuppositions, but those aside, one may posit that a newly-built temple, while having no relevance for Christian worship (indeed, it would be blasphemy) is necessary to Anti-Christ’s false covenant with the Jews.

Oddly enough, Horton quotes Jurgen Moltmann with approval (Moltmann elsewhere has given one of the most penetrating critiques of ideological amillennialism). At this point, almost without warning (270-271), Horton shifts from his “spiritual temple” to why Christian activism in politics is wrong.

While his section on “Holy War” has much promise, I am skeptical of Horton’s invoking Meredith Kline’s “intrusion ethics” (272). Whatever merits intrusion ethics may have, and while it does mitigate some of the harsher passages in the OT for today’s application, I doubt it would have been of much comfort to the Canaanites! (Admittedly, Horton realizes “intrusion” is a terrible ethical term, as it implies relativistic ethics. His use of “irruption,” while perhaps not allaying all of the difficulties in his position, is much better and doesn’t have the situation-ethics overtones). While “irruption ethics” sounds good in broad, general outlines, it is by no means clear that it automatically follows “mean texts” (which itself is a subjective judgment). Horton, in responding to Kant, says that “imprecatory psalms” are delayed because God delayed his judgment (277). Maybe so, but he is reading that into the passage.

Intrusion ethics becomes particularly troubling in this quote, “Other examples of intrusion ethics appear in the ‘sacrifice’ of Isaac and Hosea’s marriage” (ibid). Admittedly, these are ethical nightmares (the former more so than the latter) for any systematic theologian, but Horton’s position at this point seems to reduce to a voluntaristic Divine-command ethic, which is odd given his commitment to natural law.

While perhaps not a criticism of Horton, in another place we see how tenuous the sharp divide between cult and cultus is. While we should be wary of “killin ‘em terrorists for Jesus” (GOP?), Horton himself shows, even if does not realize it, how difficult it is to dichotomize one’s life: “As throughout the history recounted above, the cosmic battle is waged through earthly agents; personal and institutional; religious and social; cultic and cultural; rhetorical and political. Yet the church knows the real enemy behind behind these penultimate agents” (283). He is correct that this battle is taking place in history. And he is correct that we cannot take an AK-47 against the “real agents,” but the unspoken conclusion hangs heavy in the room, a conclusion I suspect he would disavow: may we not, acting as good citizens in the Kingdom of God’s Left Hand (actually a good name for a political party!), take the AK-47 against the penultimate agents? On a 2 Kingdoms ethic it’s hard to see why not (all other things . Even more, as Horton states this battle is in history, we are historical beings (per his correct critique of Karl Barth), we cannot divorce our lives from this history. As Aragorn tells King Theoden, “Open war is upon you, whether you wish it or not.” This has always been the fatal flaw in neo-Two Kingdoms ethics: as long as the state says its not acting as the church, it’s hard to see how any one program the state is wrong. Natural law ethics helps but only to an extent.

Retractare: R. Scott Clark and Natural Law

I used to be a firm critic of Scott Clark’s natural law theory, but the more I read of natural law, the more I realize that they have as many variations as do theonomists. The more I read of his understanding of natural law, the closer I realize I am to his position. The following link from his blog shows just how close I am to his position, but there are still a few differences.  As I’ve suggested elsewhere, I think the real reasons that theonomist reacted unfairly to natural law is: 1) they didn’t understand the position, 2) then-current scholarship advocating natural law was terrible (think Norman Geisler’s dispensationalism and Roman Catholicism’s pop-Thomism), and 3) many of the critics didn’t have any coherent ethical position, which led Gary North to (unwisely) call it “natural law,” thus poisoning the well.  If you read North’s Westminster’s Confession, he labels all of his critics as natural law adherents.  Of the 16 chapters in Theonomy: A Reformed Critique, maybe a mere handful advocated natural law (remember this is in the late 80s/early 90s where Reformed thought hadn’t yet rediscovered Reformed natural law sources).

There are other issues involved which I do not plan to deal with right now.  RSC is a Van Tillian; I am not (not in the apologetic sense anyway.  If Reformed scholasticism is true, and Turretin and Co., held to a principia form of epistemology which sort of coincides with the Common Sense Realism of Thomas Reid, then wouldn’t it be more consistent to go with principia over TAG?  Just thinking out loud.)   Further, there are other disagreements on ethics.  I am still nervous about the Klinean intrusion ethic.  While I’ve come to appreciate more and more of Kline’s system, I just don’t think intrusionism is logically or biblically coherent.

Back to Clark’s post.

He writes,

The Bible is not intended to be used as a textbook for civil policy any more than it is intended as a “playbook” for sports. That does not mean that God’s law does not apply to contemporary social and civil issues but it is not faithful to Scripture to use it in a way that it does not intend to be used. That is one of the great differences between the confessional Reformed appropriation of Scripture and the non-confessional.

I can agree with this on surface level.   Whether the Bible is to be used as such or not, any application thereof has to take in account of current situations which suggest how the Bible is to be applied.  In any case, I would certainly agree with him that facile applications aren’t helpful.   Applying God’s law takes wisdom, even kingly wisdom, and the average Christian America evangelical does not have this.

The law obligates civil authorities to preserve and pursue civil justice as God’s ministers but Scripture does not spell out exactly how that is to be done. The Apostle Paul did not prescribe civil policy to those civil rulers with whom he spoke but he did preach the gospel of the resurrection. Nowhere does the NT advocate a particular form of civil polity nor does it advocate specific civil policies.

I mostly agree. I think a lot of American Reformed need to realize that the Bible, outside of a few suggestions in 1 Samuel, does not mandate a Constitutional Republic.   That’s why Calvin and Rutherford were fine with limited monarchies.

I did write, “that some of us really do take the Scriptures as a guide to civil government and moral renewal for American society and not chiefly as the infallible and inerrant revelation of God’s saving work and Word in history. This episode is an example of the attempt to achieve epistemic and moral certainty on questions that are properly matters of liberty.”

I agree, but I want to add something else, and this might be my conspiratorial vein:  Simply quoting 2 Chron. 7:14 is not enough.  If you want to reform America, then you need to begin with what is wrong at the systematic, foundational level:  Trilateral Commission, IRS, Council on Foreign Relations, and the list goes on.  This suggests another problem with the Christian America folk:  there are problems in American government and simply electing Reagan II without addressing these problems is putting a band-aid on a tumor.

Let’s make matters worse:  America is too big.  I realize these points aren’t germane to Clark’s article, but they point out how woefully under-thought out the average right-wing Kuyperian vision is (and I hasten to remind readers that a leading Kuyperian, Ralph Reed, speaks at Bilderberg Conferences).

I have no confidence that, after the death of Christ, God has any specific, special relationship with any nation or civil entity. Your letter seems to assume that if a nation will obey God’s law, he will bless it materially etc.

This is perhaps where I offer mild dissent.   Isaiah 19 does say that nations will covenant with God.   Is there a 1:1 causal relation on material blessings?  Kind of.  Calvin in his sermons on Deuteronomy 27 held out the possibility that God will bless, but also reminded believers that we are mature in the New Covenant and sometimes God sends us difficulties as well.  It is a fact, I think, that the land rebels when covenant-breakers reign and sin against the land (we can probably even offer a natural law argument to the effect!).  If natural law is better known as the Creation Ordinance, with its own built-in teleology, the breaking of which is sin, then it stands to reason that sinful rulers will see a cursed land.

In conclusion I think I am largely in agreement with Professor Clark.  It must be admitted that the Reformers were natural law adherents and not merely in an incidental way, as Gary North maintains.  They worked it in their system (think of all the times that the Confession refers to the light of nature).

Covenant —-> Canon

Here is an interesting argument for the canon.  It came from Meredith Kline, a man with whom I made it a point to disagree fervently.   Kline’s theology, specifically his ethics, had a deleterious effect on American Presbyterianism.    Still, this argument bears some thought.   I think most will agree with Kline that ANE covenants resembled suzereignty treaties.   Besides the stipulations of these covenants, there were also canons (written documentation) included within the covenant.  Applied to God, something like this appears:

  • If there is a covenant, there is a canon.
  • Whoever authorizes the covenant, authorizes the canon.
  • God authorizes the covenant; God authorizes the canon.
  • Therefore, the canon’s authority depends on God, not the church (if you accept the first three premises, which OT scholarship makes abundantly clear, you have to accept this conclusion).

The above is a fairly straight-foward, non-controversial take on OT canonization.  Can it also be applied to the New Testament?   I think it can.   Jesus makes the new covenant (diatheke) in his blood.   His death ratifies the diatheke.   As Sutton clearly argues, the New Testament itself resembles a diatheke.  But does the New Testament canon depend on human ratification?  Peter didn’t think so, since he called Paul’s writings Scripture.  While we don’t know which writings he referred, the point remains that Paul’s writings were self-evidently Scripture.  Further, Paul says he got his revelation from God, not man (Galatians 1).

I don’t deny that there was disagreement about what constituted the canon in the early church.  I just don’t see how that is only a problem for Protestants and not one for EOs and Catholics.  For the latter, the Fathers are reliable and necessary  guides to the faith, yet they can’t even give us matching lists of what is in the canon.

But what about the Apocrypha?   Big deal.  If you want to include it within the binding of your bible, it doesn’t matter.   I have no problem calling them Apocrypha “deutero-canonicals.”  Here is why it doesn’t add anything to the EO and RCC argument (keep in mind those two traditions differ on what is actually in the Apocrypha):  neither tradition reads these books aloud in liturgy, and only in Maccabees is a key point of doctrine at stake, and even then it is a highly strained reading.  Say it another way:  if the EO took the Apocrypha out of their bibles, nothing would change for them in terms of liturgy and doctrine.