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.

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Don’t let nobody take your joy!

The poor grammar is deliberate.  One of the most precious spiritual joys I have–have had–can have–is hearing the announcement extra nos that God reigns and that the finished work of Christ applies pro me, and that nothing can snatch me out of Jesus’s hands. Jesus really did something on the cross.  He really bought me back from the slave pens of Egypt.  He really gave me His Holy Spirit as a down-payment which guarantees future blessings.

That is literally the best pillow someone can have.  People think I have a bulldog mentality on Anchoretic traditions.  It’s not that I can’t change my mind and won’t change the subject.  If my life is any indicator–and please do not do as I did–I can attest to the loss of joy for almost five years.  Here’s how it happened.

I started studying the early church and Trinitarianism around 2007.  Even now it was a rewarding experience.  But some problems came up and I just couldn’t deal with them.  I came across sayings from Cyprian, “Outside the Church There is No Salvation” and numerous ones from Ignatius along the lines of “Stay close to the bishop” and “schismatics forfeit the kingdom of God” (sorry John of San Francisco).  I came to reason:  sh!+, I better make sure I am in the right church, because on these guys’ glosses, even if they don’t draw the inevitable logical conclusion, If I am in the wrong church I am going to roast in hell for all eternity.  I lost sleep for weeks, if not months, at a time.

SIDEBAR:  My focus of salvation at this point was more on “which organization am I in so that I can be saved” rather than the finished work of Jesus Christ.  Of course, God did not leave me without witnesses.  Ironically, it was N.T. Wright’s work on the Gospels that made me realize that even if Orthodoxy is true, N.T. Wright’s exegesis is just better.

And it does no good to say, “Oh, even though those saints said that, we don’t mean that.  Who knows who is going to be in heaven and hell?”  Well, the problem is that those statements by those men have to mean something and if you say no one can know, then Cyprian’s and Ignatius’s statements are simply pointless and devoid of all meaning.  If that’s the case, please stop quoting them since on your gloss they don’t mean anything.  I am not in his organization; therefore, I cannot be saved.  Being damned is the contrary of being saved. Q.E.D.

I’m skipping a lot of material, but one of the men that helped me get this straight is Michael Horton.   I didn’t want to read him earlier because as theonomists, we were taught to hate Horton because of his (admittedly) schizophrenic social ethics.  This was a shame, since Horton was one of the few Reformed writers who could actually mount a response to Anchoretism.    His response was in the way of ontology.   I’ve summarized these elsewhere.   It is simply unanswerable.

Concurrent with Horton’s project was Bruce McCormack’s lectures on Christology.  I would link to them but in a moment of failure of nerve, the Henry Center took them down.    Besides showing some fatal tensions in Cyril’s project, if McCormack’s reading is correct and the post-Damascene tradition relies on substance metaphysics, then the believer is fully warranted in rejecting that tradition.  Further, if that infallible tradition is indeed shown to be quite fallible, then they aren’t an infallible tradition after all.

But here are some thoughts on the Ignatian claim:

  1. Granted that Ignatius makes much of Christ at times, but to the extent that claims of “staying close to the bishop for salvation” take prominence, to that extent Christ has been eclipsed.
  2. Admitting that Ignatius was close to the apostle John, how are we epistemically warranted to project Ignatius’s vision onto the whole of the Roman Empire?
  3. Most basic of all questions, “Who died and made him king?”  Why should we privilege his statements more than any others?

This next line is more subjective, but here goes.  Why would God mislead Martyn Lloyd-Jones?   The better model is that God simply wanted to shed his love abroad in MLJ’s heart.  (I realize my example is quite problematic for Reformed Cessationists!)

Am I under the Stoichea?

Paul writes, “When we were children we were slaves to the elemental spirits (stoichea) of the universe: (Galatians 4:3).  O’Donovan comments, “These elemental spirits are actually identified with the law given by the hand of angels on Mt. Sinai, and yet at the same time they are the beings which by nature are not gods, to which even the formerly Gentile pagans were in bondage (4:8-9)!  How can Paul so daringly associate the revealed morality of the Old Testament faith with the superstitious idolatry of paganismBecause the order of creation, whether in a pure or impure form, can encounter us only as a threat” (22).

This raises another question which O’Donovan handles skillfully:  we cannot separate creation ethics (e.g., natural law) from kingdom ethics (revealed, theonomy, anabaptist).  A kingdom-ethic which Jesus brings is a reaffirmation of God’s good, created order (and thus some natural law ethics find a legitimacy).

O’Donovan, Oliver. Resurrection and Moral Order.  Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI.

Did the Church Fathers teach theonomy?

These kind of questions give Eastern Orthodox apologists all the ammo they need against Calvinists.   The problem with the post-Bahnsenian theonomists is that they will scour church history for examples of “theonomy.”  Rushdoony really wasn’t as bad on this point as people will think (more later).  In order to prove church history is on their side, Young Turk theonomists will read church history sources and look for guys teaching theonomy.  The question then becomes, “What does theonomy mean?”  Does it mean some form of God-oriented social order which takes account of the law of God?  If so, then most everybody in church history is a theonomist.  It’s hard to see why Bahnsen even got in trouble.  Heck, RTS-Jackson even believes that (kind of).

That’s cheating, though.  Joseph Farrell has pointed out that everyone, even the pagans, believed in theo-krasia.  But theonomists will quickly rebut, “We see church fathers employing the judicial laws as still valid.”   Technically, that’s true.   They did employ some judicial laws.  My question is “Did they adopt the Bahnsenian hermeneutics that the judicial law in exhaustive detail is binding”?  The answer is clearly no.  Eastern fathers have a theoretical antinomian streak (2nd Commandment, anyone?  footnote1).  True, we do see some fathers like Gregory the Great arguing for the Sabbath, but that’s unremarkable on anyone’s gloss.

The problem is that Church Fathers were more interested in Christology, Trinity, and monasticism than they were in the social functions of the law of God.  To read otherwise is to commit the worst of anachronistic fallacies.

Footnote 1:  There actually might be more of a parallel.   Theonomists for the most part reject the practical applications of the 2nd Commandment, too!

Retractare After Seven Years

My friend Daniel Ritchie has offered his own version of retractare in the past.  I want to do mine.  These are in no particular order.

The Theonomy People

I’ve listed problems with theonomy before.  They are to be commended for influencing Reformed scholars to go back to careful study of the Old Testament (Poythress said he wouldn’t have written his work if it weren’t for Rushdoony).  They are to be commended for their critique of absolute statism, but there are problems.  The post-theonomy (for lack of a better word, this would be the third generation theonomists) are probably guilty of violating the 9th commandment.  Their unceasing attacks on men like Michael Horton and others at Westminster Seminary California are uncalled for.  I disagree with Horton and Co.’s  social ethic, but the man is a minister in Christ’s church and Horton has probably done as much as anybody in spreading the Reformed faith.  I admit; it’s sometimes funny to watch D.G. Hart get riled up, but the falsely so-called “R2K” guys have majored on the majors:  The doctrine of worship and the church.  Modern American Theonomy, by contrast, has largely failed in this area.

  1. As for my own position, I believe the Old Testament law can be used today when necessary.
  2. This does not preclude natural law, but presupposes it (more below)
  3. Theonomy is not the position of the Reformers; natural law is.  Yes, Bucer used the Mosaic judicials, but only because he saw them as part of his natural law heritage.  We should do likewise.
  4. This is where I am different from most natural law amillennarians:  I do not believe common grace is sufficient as an ethical category for government.  It merely describes how unbelievers are not as bad as they could be.  I remain unconvinced that it has ethical content.

Van Til

I’ve gone back and forth on Van Til for some time now.  I think when it comes to Roman Catholicism and explaining what Reformed theology is, Van Til is as fine as anybody.  His lectures on “chain-of-being” theology are quite good.  His apologetic method, though, is completely indefensible.  I think Reformed people are better served by a mix of Reformed scholasticism and Common Sense Realism.

  1. As for my own position, I think the TAG method is an open-door to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy.   It explicitly attacks the foundations of knowledge and inadvertently relativises truth-claims.  No longer having a clear revelation from God, one has Tradition (as interpreted by a certain community).
  2. As for a positive apologetic, I don’t really care.  I think Anselm is interesting and his ontological argument has some subordinate value.

Eschatology

This is a difficult one.  I think the Reformers (and quite frankly, the entire church) were wise never to use the “millennial” terms in explaining what they believe.  More often than not, modern Reformed eschatological questions are more political than anything else.  Saying, “I am postmil” or “common grace amil” implies more than the timing of Christ’s return.

  1. As for my own position, I am certainly a Reformed historicist.  This is the Reformed position.
  2. I appreciate a lot of what Kim Riddlebarger has to say on Covenant and New Testament eschatology.  I’ve always liked Vos and Ridderbos.
  3. Historic premillennialism, while having a respectful pedigree, simply entails too many difficulties.  Further, I have found that the deeper I dig into historic premillennialism, the harder it is to be Reformed.
  4. I think it is more important to be clear on eschatological hermeneutics than on identifying a millennial position.

Politics

For around five years I’ve been a fairly staunch defender of limited monarchy.  That’s still the case.  My only difference now is that I do not see the Bible requiring it (or any specific mode of government).  Each style of government has its strengths and weaknesses.

  1. Monarchists (like myself) need to admit that 1 Samuel 8 does place some restrictive parameters on the glory of monarchy.
  2. Republicans (small “r”) need to admit that the Torah did provide (and I think expected) a monarchy.   If that’s not the case, then why is Deuteronomy 17 in the Bible?  Nelson Kloosterman has made a fairly convincing case that there existed a possibility that Israel could have had a king and not sinned in asking so.  Here is how I think it would have worked:  the end of the book of Judges essentially begs for a monarchy.  Deuteronomy 17 had already provided for a shepherd-king (the Christological overtones are deliberate).  Had Israel wanted a shepherd to guide them, I believe God would have praised their request.  Further, biblical eschatology moves in the direction of monarchy, not republicanism.
  3. I am an adherent of an Althusian-style natural law theory.  The problem many theonomists had was that their critics (and the theonomists themselves) had said, “Natural law OR God’s law.”  But this is where theonomists and their critics were wrong.  Natural law is God’s law, provided natural law is defined as creation ordinances.  The problem here is the inferences people drew from that phrase.   I won’t go into that now.  More to the point, Reformed natural law theorists could gladly appeal (and did!) to the Mosaic judicials.   Modern Calvinism’s embarrassment over Moses doesn’t help.   God’s law is morally just and should be consulted.  Theonomists, by contrast, never provided satisfactory accounts of the New Testament’s modification of the Mosaic law.
  4. I have no problem with the two kingdoms doctrine, provided the difference between the two kingdoms is in administration, not ethical norms.

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).

Review of Dominion by Covenant

I think his larger picture is off, though the book is filled with lots of helpful worldview suggestions.  As North admits in the preface, the writing style leaves a lot to be desired.  Often, it is quite pedantic. Sutton takes his cue from Meredith Kline’s covenant model, with a few alterations.  Sutton suggests that covenants follow the 5-point paradigm:

Transcendence
Hierarchy
Ethics
Oaths
Succession

He then has a chapter on each point and shows not only biblical evidence, but historical precedents.  I suppose it works well enough.  I’m simply nervous about making it the paradigm around which to read the entire Bible.  Indeed, in his appendices, Sutton suggests that numerous books of the Bible follow this paradigm.  I’m not so sure.  Certainly, Deuteronomy and even Romans follow it, but the rest is stretching it.

Pros:
Sutton does a fantastic job contrasting biblical, covenantal religion with pagan religion.  He notes that Pagan religions follow a chain-of-being ontology.  This means that there is no divide between “God” and creation.  The difference is that God has more “being” higher in the scale.  Covenantalism, by contrast, posits the Creator-creature distinction in which a transcendent God communicates by his Covenant-Word.  Interestingly enough, his critique of chain-of-being anticipates some things Michael Horton would say decades later.

Cons:
The early “Tyler Theology” comes out heavily.   I say “early” because while there is a heavy influence of Jim Jordan, it is at a time when Jim Jordan was still a theonomist.  Among other things, Sutton argues for paedocommunion.  Caveat emptor.

Conclusion:
While badly written, the book is easy enough to read and for the discerning reader it offers a number of helpful insights.