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.

But he said he was sorry

U. S. Attny General and drug lord/gun runner Eric Holder urged America to have “an honest talk about race.”  What he meant was, “Shut up and listen to me gripe.”  I doubt an honest conversation will ever happen because emotions run high on both sides.  Still, it’s worth a shot.

The Impossibility of an Honest Talk about Race

I saw on my Facebook feed a PCA thinker, who is a black man, complain about Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary’s creating a chair in Morton Smith’s honor.  He is angry because Smith created the PCA with the values of the Old South in mind (He seemed surprised.  I thought this was common knowledge years ago to anyone who read more than an hour’s worth of Southern Presbyterian history).   Of course, the situation today is somewhat amusing since the PCA is more likely a pale reflection of the SBC’s Worship Committee’s than a continuation of Dabney, but I digress.  I really don’t care one way or another that GPTS is doing this.  The Reformed seminary world has long been dead to me and I refuse to even look back.  However, it raised other questions.

Is the PCA still racist?

The aforementioned black gentleman is concerned that the PCA is still allowing racist things like this.   How does one respond?  Morton Smith’s actions simply aren’t representative of the PCA.  In fact, he is probably the minority (no pun intended). But the gentleman wanted to the PCa (and presumably by extension any white Presbyterian male) to really apologize for racism.   Here is where it becomes problematic.  How does one really apologize for racism?   Well, the PCA (and the Missouri Lutherans and the SBC) issued statements condemning the nebulous entity known as racism (the SBC does this on a yearly basis).  Is that good?

No.  It isn’t.  Presumably he wants “racist” ministers disciplined.  Fair enough, but keep in mind this is the PCa and no one ever gets disciplined.   A PCA pastor pointed that out to the gentleman.  Not good enough, but we need to remember if the PCA will publicly condemn the Federal Vision but refuse to discipline guys who write books promoting the Federal Vision, that should tell you something.

But all of this raises an even harder question that is at the heart of the problem.  Hating other colors is wrong (and not even Kinists advocate that).  Discriminating at the communion table is wrong (and maybe I missed something in the PCA during the 80s, but was even that a problem?).  Heck, I remember attending Auburn Avenue one Sunday during its Confederate Heritage Conference and I saw a number of black people in church “amen-ing” and “Oh glory-ing.”

So we’ve ruled out “discrimination” and “hating” so what else is left?  It wasn’t exactly said, but I think “racism” in this context means “continuing to love the Old South.”   That is a bit more concrete, but is still problematic.  Loving “what” about the Old South?   I highly doubt Morton Smith means sitting on the front porch of the Massa’s House drinking mint juleps while watching the slaves happily sing in the fields.   I could be wrong, but I doubt it.

But maybe he means “Loving the Confederacy.”  But even this is ambiguous.  Do I love the Confederacy?  Not really.  I think their political system was doomed from the start and the only way they really had a chance of winning the war was to let Stonewall and Forrest go nuts and do whatever they wanted.  That wasn’t going to happen.  The Confederate Establishment thought Virginia’s soil too sacred to be polluted by the foot of an invader. So maybe to prove to the world I am not “racist” (undefined Marxist term that it is), maybe they want me to “apologize” for the Confederacy.

Well, that’s problematic on several levels.

  1. The Confederacy doesn’t exist today.  You aren’t a slave.  I am not a Confederate soldier.  This is silly.
  2. 2/3 of my ancestors weren’t even in America at the time.
  3. The 5th commandment and Hebrews 13:7 demand I honor my superiors and those who brought me to the faith.  Stonewall Jackson is one of those.  To attack him is open sin.

In fact, all of this reminds me of Sheldon Cooper’s trying to apologize to Howard.

And the truth of the matter is I don’t really like the Southern Presbyterian ethos.  They were Baptistic on the sacraments and their descendants made it worse, if anything (this is one of the few areas where the Federal Vision guys legitimately nailed them).  If we are going to have an honest conversation about “race,” then the infractions must be concrete.  Saying, “They really mean otherwise” or “They really don’t like us” or “They really have their fingers crossed” isn’t helpful.  If they are saying things like “Coloreds and Whites should live in different neighborhoods or go to different churches,” then that’s entirely different.  The fact is, and I have read Smith’s Q & A and he is ethically wrong, but probably sociologically accurate, most people aren’t saying this.

If cultures are organic outgrowths, which thousands of years of human history have demonstrated beyond doubt, then they will inevitably reflect this.  Am I arguing for segregation?  Of course not. I would be against government-enforced segregation and government-enforced integration.  Why?  Because it isn’t the government’s business.  People want to live where people want to live.  (Of course, I’m the exception on this since I have many black neighbors around my street.  Which white liberal agitator can say that? None).

By all means attack racism, but attack concrete examples, like when Ice Cube talks about killing white girls.

On the Soul of the South

This is a hard post for me to write.  Somebody will be offended.  Since there is no avoiding that, the only fair thing to do is to piss everyone off.    And a warning note: some of the language I use will be coarse, but when I am using it I will be quoting Yankee generals, who as a general rule despised black people (contrast that with Stonewall Jackson).

This article has several goals:  I will use the thought and “soul” of High Southern culture to show the inadequacies of the Confederate position, the sinful hypocrisy of the North–which continues to this day, and to show the utter bankruptcy of modern Conservative thought (I like the moniker “High” as contrasted with “Old,” “New,” or worse, “Paleo.”  I will explain why below).

As to the actual legitimization of the Confederacy I have no wish to enter that debate.  I can give a passing answer: in terms of the Solemn League and Covenant, neither the Federals nor the Confederacy were ultimately legitimate.  See? I can make both sides angry. I will make a few passing remarks on the Confederacy, though.  I really don’t think Jefferson Davis was a competent leader.  No doubt he was morally superior to Lincoln, but Lincoln was a true genius; Davis was not.  Davis made a better martyr than he did a leader.  (Trick question:  If the Confederacy was necessarily treasonous, how come the US Government refused to try Davis for treason?)

A few words about slavery.  That the Bible does not categorically condemn slavery is another instance where the sons of this world are wiser than the sons of the kingdom.  Not only does the Bible legitimize forms of slavery, it is quite specific and provides details on how slavery (or indentured servitude) can better society.   I remember at RTS Jackson we got to Philemon in Pauline Theology.   Everyone was quick to point out that the Bible made it possible to get rid of slavery:

Me: Really, what verse?
RTS:  (Silence)

Don’t get me wrong:  I think a theology of dominion can place the discussion of slavery in a better light.  Following Rushdoony (Politics of Guilt and Pity) I believe that regenerate man is dominion man; he is a priest-king ruling over the new creation.  It’s usually better if he were free.  Of course, modern Reformed people are scared of dominion, so they really can’t combat the secularist on this point.  Chalk another one up to the sons of this world.

One thing I do not intend to give is a naive, pollyannish defense of “The Old South.”  I do think it was strong in areas we are weak.  Further, I think it’s existence (at least mentally today) sheds painful light on modern conservatives.  It is schizophrenic for modern American conservatives to condemn Obama’s big government yet praise Lincoln.  What was Lincoln but the consolidation of Federalism?  And while I love the Covenanters–and I consider myself in the Covenanter tradition on the Establishment Principle–and while I understand their desire to end slavery, I do not think they were wise to support Lincoln.  They are absolutely correct to condemn the anti-Christian nature of the American state.  How on earth do they support Lincoln, who further empowered this anti-Christian State beyond Richard Cameron’s wildest nightmare?

Conclusion

So where do we go from here?  As the current government spirals out of control the issue of secession will be inevitable.  I only pray we can have wise thinking beforehand.

regenerate and renewed south can sing with Dr F. N. Lee,

Now the Triune God must never be forgotten!
Again He’ll march through the land of cotton
and from here, Dixieland — we’ll yet win, America! 

For the Brave New World that now is so perverted,
in God’s good time is going to get converted
and the Earth, will get full — of the fear, of the Lord! 

Our God will yet revive us
and our King will bring
both Dixieland and Yankeeland
and all the world to serve Him!
Don’t shirk, let’s work,
and live the Gospel Story!
Begin, we’ll win,
and give God all the glory!

 

Covenanter, not Constantinian

(I write this out of extreme respect for Dr R. Clark.)

Both theonomists and critics of theonomy share the same assumptions on “Constantinian.”  For some reason theonomists (and many right-wing Reformed) want a “Constantinian” society, while common-grace amillennialists point out the evils of religious persecution.  But why should Covenanting Reformed want a Constantinian society?   It sounds a lot like a supra-national religious commonwealth.  Like Roman Catholicism or the Holy Roman Empire, historic enemies of Protestantism.  Does this mean I accept the common-grace alternative?  No.   Neither side really understands the term “Constantinian.”  Ironically, the people who cavail against Constantinian don’t realize they are using the same arguments as today’s hippie Anabaptists.

The heart of the matter concerns whether the civil magistrate has the right to use the sword to protect the true religion.   Dr Clark points to the ironic case of Guido de Bres, who authored Article 36 of the Belgic Confession, yet was martyred by Roman Catholic political authorities.  Perhaps it is ironic, but we’ve missed something in the argument:  is Guido’s position normatively true or not, regardless of current situations?  For example, adultery and sodomy are wrong, yet they will not be punished by the American magistrate?   Should I alter my theology to accommodate pagan political ethics?

We also see the common question, “The Apostles didn’t do x.”   It is amazing how often Reformed folks default to a quasi-dispensational hermeneutics on political ethics.   There are several lines of response:  1) the aforementioned objection is a logical fallacy of arguing what we ought to do from the silence of what is the case (even better, it’s two logical fallacies in one).  2) More often than not, the Roman state bailed out the apostles against anti-Christ Jews, so why would the apostles attack Rome?   3) We do see the NT move in language to the kingship of Christ (and eventual transformation of laws); cf any passage on the Ascension; Rev. 1, 11:15

The truth of the matter, we don’t want a Constantinian society.  We want a covenanted nation.   The problem with a Constantinian society is the same problem with natural law international relations (and I can’t help but point out that historic advocates of natural law also believed in “Constantinianism”).  When two nations or corporate bodies both use natural law reasoning and yet are at odds, who gets to adjudicate?   The Romanists have an easy (and consistent) answer:  The Pope!  I maintain, by contrast, that a Covenanted nation better actually represents (by analogy) the New Testament teaching on the Church (as a mirror): covenanted nations do not rule other nations, yet each nation is bound to the Covenant with Christ as the Head.  Likewise, one presbytery doesn’t rule another presbytery, but each synod has Christ as the head.

Is the SL&C Binding Today? Some Initial Thoughts

The most bothersome fact about modern Covenanting–to some people, anyway–and to the Solemn League and Covenant (SL&C) is that it binds a posterity to a specific historical context centuries earlier.   In other words, if one’s great-grandfather…x, Rev. Dougal McDougal swore to uphold the (SL&C) as part of a nation’s general obligation to (SL&C), then it seems rather odd to argue that one is bound to it today.  In fact, it seems outrageous.   I will argue below the biblical covenanting is good for the Christian life today and necessary for society.  I will argue that the Solemn League and Covenant is one of the most faithful expressions of Christian Testimony.  (To ward off fears, though, I am not a Steelite and will critique some Steelite claims in another post.)

I understand both sides of the argument, and I will try to present them fairly.  The negative position–that one is not bound to them–is fairly straightforward and is most people’s default position.   The first objection:  how can one claim that people today are bound to an ancient oath made centuries earlier.   While having a prima-facie plausibility, this is actually a weak counter and it will be dealt with below.  The second objection is a bit weightier:  does America have such a relation to England that warrants such a binding to (SL&C)?

Response to objection 1:  if this is taken seriously, then a number of similar theological and civil positions become untenable.  Is it fair for posterity (and all of the cosmos) to suffer the results of Adam’s sin?  Is it fair for children to be bound to the vows made by their parents’ at baptism?   Is it rational that I am an American based on the decisions of Masonic Deists like Jefferson, Washington, and Franklin?  Further, Scripture routinely assumes not only that ancient covenants are binding on posterity, but that children can suffer for the civil crimes of their ancestors.   Galatians 3: 15 says, “Though it be but a man’s covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth, or addeth thereto.”  Amos 1:9 says, “ “For three transgressions of Tyre, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof, because they delivered up the whole captivity to Edom, and remembered not the brotherly covenant.”  Amos is referring most likely to the Covenant made between Solomon and Hiram.   This is a civil covenant with no theological overtones, yet God deems it binding.   The entirety of 2 Samuel 21 has God exacting vengeance on Saul, his household, and all of Israel because he broke Joshua’s covenant with Gibeon.

Response to objection 2:  This objection appears to have moral force because of postmodernity’s antipathy to the nation-state.   National boundaries are scorned not only by liberals, but even Reformed conservatives.    Indeed, the worst insult one can suffer is being called a “nationalist” or a “racist.”  As a result, men don’t normally think in terms of  national identity.   Notwithstanding, and I admit my own conclusions are somewhat tentative, most people will see America as a child, whether legitimate or bastard, of Great Britain.  The American Revolution is a negative proof for it.  America inherited the legal and religious traditions, not to mention the language, of England.   America was bound to the English crown for almost two centuries.   Formidable American divines like Edwards and Whitefield saw themselves as good English monarchists (cf. Mahaffey, 2011).   In fact, Whitefield openly championed the Protestant British throne against Roman Catholic Jacobites.

Another objection surfaces:  “Your references are from the Old Testament, which isn’t binding on Christians today.  God only covenanted with the theocratic state of Israel.   The Church is Israel now.”  I am not necessarily quoting Dispensationalists.   This position is the default position among Reformed biblical theologians today.   Let’s consider it:   not all of the quotations were from the OT (cf. Galatians 3:15, which is probably the strongest argument) .  Secondly, while it is true that God uniquely covenanted with Israel, it by no means follows that God frowns on nations today who want to covenant with him.   The objection seems absurd.  Finally, in a promise of the New Covenant, God anticipates Gentile nations seeking to covenant with him.   Isaiah 19 says,

And the land of Judah shall be a terror unto Egypt; every one that maketh mention thereof shall be afraid in himself, because of the counsel of the Lord of hosts, which He hath determined against it.

18 In that day shall five cities in the land of Egypt speak the language of Canaan and swear to the Lord of hosts; one shall be called the City of Destruction.

19 In that day shall there be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt and a pillar at the border thereof to the Lord.

20 And it shall be for a sign and for a witness unto the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt; for they shall cry unto the Lord because of the oppressors, and He shall send them a savior and a great one, and He shall deliver them.

21 And the Lord shall be known to Egypt, and the Egyptians shall know the Lord in that day and shall do sacrifice and oblation; yea, they shall vow a vow unto the Lord and perform it.

The language of covenanting cannot get any more specific.   We have God prophesying that a Gentile nation will seek to covenant with God, even using the language of “vowing.”

So what should we do?

Saying we ought to uphold the SL&C today isn’t that shocking, once considered.  Do you as a Christian believe that Jesus rules over the nations (Ps. 2, 110)?  Do you believe nations are obligated to confess Jesus as Lord?  Do you believe that God judges covenant-breaking?  Is it not true that God destroys nations who actively violate his law?  Most conservative Westminster Presbyterians will agree with everything I have just said.  It’s merely a summary of Reformed political ethics (No, I am not a theonomist).   They simply chafe at seeing the SL&C as binding today, but it need not be seen that way.  We need to consider a number of factors:

  • No one, outside some Steelites, believes that the SL&C should be woodenly applied in a ham-handed way today.  Being obedient and faithful to God means being obedient and faithful in the situation in which he has placed us.  This means:

  • Our relation to the SL&C must also take into account our relation to the U.S. Constitution.  To what degree do we owe allegiance to the U.S. Constitution?

  • And the most problematic application, as seen in objection #2, is the fact that we are currently subject to a country which is legally sovereign and independent from the United Kingdom.

  • This means that the critique must cut deeper:  was the U.S. born in iniquity?

These and other questions can be raised.   Raising them means thinking about the issues.   One of the reasons that Theonomy did so terrible a job in America is that theonomists did very little reflection on the issues beyond cliched slogans like “No Neutrality.”  I think Covenanting has a better future.  It is more faithful to Westminster, has a higher view of the church, and did not originate among fringe groups.