1 Bible does not = a million popes

A common rebuttal to sola scriptura is that it makes each man a pope.   But let’s examine this reasoning. Are they saying that each person reading the bible comes to his own conclusion?  Well, so what?  People interpret material and come to conclusions.  That’s called having a brain.  The objection only holds water if we add one more premise: and is such a judicial authority in the church.

Now, this is a devastating rebuttal to Congregational governments because they are islands in the stream (sorry, bad Dolly Parton reference).  It doesn’t touch synodical governments.  Billy Bob in the Presbyterian church can read his Bible and come to wacky conclusions and it doesn’t mean anything judicially, for Billy Bob as an individual member does not have judicial authority in the synod (and hence isn’t offering his interpretation of the Bible as normative).

Let’s pretend that Billy Bob’s presbytery takes his interpretation and makes it official, would not the objection hold then?  Well, it might hold but consider what has happened:  the representative form of government has limited Billy Bob’s initial appeal.  Billy Bob–or thirty Billy Bobs–only has a normative voice in the context of his synod, and that synod is simultaneously being checked by higher and lower courts.

Ecclesiastical Republicanism is the most perfect form of government, but it is not completely flawless.  I was a part of Louisiana Presbytery when it imploded (and caused no small amount of grief).  But even its implosion illustrated the truth:  higher and lower courts were acting upon the Presbytery, albeit unsuccessfully.

Someone could further object, “Yeah, well if there are 30 Presbyteries, then there are  30 different teachings.”  To which I say, “Prove it.”  That usually ends the debate.  But let’s pretend there are a lot of different teachings.  So what? That’s the cost of doing business in a fallen world.

Southern Presbyterianism and the Culture War

D.G. Hart has long been a whipping boy among postmillennialists and Reconstructionists.  Indeed, it took me about 8 years to warm up to his arguments.  I used to be a hard-core Recon.  I thought the highest goal in my life would be to take back city hall for Christ (okay, maybe it wasn’t really that, but you get the idea). Through various shifts and trials in my life, I have backed away from that rhetoric.  Something else appeared as superior to the culture war:  ecclesiastical statesmanship.  Christ’s promises were specifically made to his church, not to parachurch ministries and quasi-political cell groups.

Both sides in the debate, R2Kers and Kuyperians, have a troubled use with Thornwell, Dabney, and Southern Presbyterianism.  On one hand, Hart and Co. have correctly identified and applied Thornwell’s “Spirituality of the Church” doctrine.  This is a slap in the face to Kuyperians, at least modern-day ones.  On the other hand, I am not sure how thoroughly Hart can fully apply Thornwell.  Thornwell had no problem with society being governed by “right reason” in accord with a general biblical outline.  (Few Van Tillians hold to Common Sense Realism).  Further, Thornwell (and especially Dabney) are not dis-interested in political and economic questions.

Still, I can’t help but wonder if the 2Kers have a practical point: whether we ought or ought not to “transform” society for Christ, we have to look at issues on the ground.  I am not going to trumpet the typical R2K objections to Kuyperianism (e.g., the world is evil and transformation is impossible).  I think there is a far more troubling objection:  what if the  transformationalists actually succeed?  The problem is that a lot of transformationalists think they are going to go back to Patrick Henry.   More like, though, and more troubling, is that we won’t get Patrick Henry.  We will get Tim Keller.  Tim Keller is a more likely bet for transformationalism.  He is a gifted speaker, a talented organizer, and has a growing church in a large, important city.   The problem:  Tim Keller isn’t really Reformed.

And such a “reformed” society would end up looking like the broader PCA culture.

But what about the points where the transformationalists seem like they got it right?  Should they just be abandoned?  Maybe not.  This is where simply being a student of the magisterial reformation pans out:  we get the theocratic impulse behind such views but we root it in a robust ecclesiology.

A Bibliographical Reflection on a recent debate

I keep coming back to the recent debate between OrthoBridge and myself.  I was puzzled by the admin’s insistence that I prove my case using only Calvin and Confessional documents (though he was fuzzy on the identity of the latter).  For what it was worth, I actually felt I was able to do that but I can’t seem to dodge people’s fascination with Calvin.  He’s a great theologian, sure, and I am generally in agreement with him, but he never intended his work as the “be-all” of dogmatics.  His work, by his own admission, was simply an outline to help young minister’s navigate the Bible.   Interestingly enough, few of the post-Reformation theologians felt any obligation to do their work around Calvin (and references to “Calvin said…” are increasingly rare as the generations go on).  For example, as Coffey notes, Samuel Rutherford never called himself a Calvinist (Coffey, p. 75 n 57).  This was likely universal among Reformed theologians.

So why the fascination with Calvin? I can surmise several guesses:  1) Calvin’s actually easy reading.   While the Institutes are long, with a few exceptions most sections within it are not.   One can easily read a section or two a day.  2)  In the 19th Century the Calvin Translation Society fastlaned the mass-production of Calvin’s works into English.  That’s obviously a good thing, but one of the negative consequences is that few people felt they had to read anything besides Calvin.  3) Turretin wasn’t translated in English (at least for the general public) until the early 1990s.

What sources should the Farrellians at OrthodBridge have used?

For starters, Charles Hodge.  I quoted Hodge in rebuttal to the admin (and the quote completely refuted his view of what Protestants think original sin was) and he said it was, “irrelevant.”  Let’s put Hodge into historical context:  in his 57 years as professor at Princeton Seminary, he trained up towards 10,000 ministers in the United States!  By the very nature of the case, Hodge is easily one of the most representative voices of Reformed theology.   I can only attribute the lack of use of Hodge to plain ignorance (more on that later).  And it is not that Hodge is too expensive:  CBD has him on sale for $30.

If not Hodge, then Dabney.  One can access all of Dabney’s works for free here.

What about Warfield?  I am iffy on Warfield.  His scholarship is impressive, but it is not systematic and organized enough to be helpful.

How about Thornwell?  Thornwell can be tough to read at points, and his works are not always accessible (which is inexcusable on the part of publishers), but he is one of the patriarchs of Southern Presbyterian theology and any quotes by him would be representative.