Archive for April 2012

Fading Lines in the Sand

April 27, 2012

Dr. Paul Elliot of Teaching the Word Ministries, and author of Christianity and Neo-Liberalism, has some harsh but timely words for  those in the PCA who consider themselves among the “Truly Reformed.”

Will they listen?

Here’s a sample:

The Federal Vision controversy is but the latest in a series of issues on which PCA “conservatives” have, for more than a decade, kept drawing lines in the sand and saying, “If the liberalizers are permitted to cross this line, it will be the last straw.” But always, when the liberalizers cross the line or simply obliterate it, the “conservatives” quietly step back and draw a new one….

The SJC to the Rescue?

Many professed conservatives insist that the PCA’s Standing Judicial Commission will come to their rescue and, in time, restore orthodoxy. But among its membership one finds men who are a long-standing part of the problem. Dr. Brian Chappell, president of the PCA’s heresy factory at Covenant Seminary, is a member of the SJC. Ruling Elder and SJC member Howard Donahoe has advocated permitting women to preach [10] and was a defense counsel for Peter Leithart at his heresy trial. Ruling Elder Terry L. Jones is a member of the Missouri Presbytery which virtually unanimously acquitted the heretic Jeffrey Meyers. Ruling Elder Bruce Terrell is a member of the session of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, where theistic evolutionist Timothy Keller is the pastor.

We could go on. Many other present and former members of the SJC have been men of the same ilk. They can hardly be called staunch guardians of orthodoxy. They would more appropriately be called foxes guarding the hen house. The bitter irony is that self-described conservatives, who claim to be guardians of Biblical truth, serve collegially with such men on the SJC.

You can read all of Dr. Elliot’s comments here, although I suspect many PCA conservatives will simply cover their ears (Acts 7:57).

Epistemological Confusion

April 26, 2012

Since it looks like the Christological dust up over at the Green Baggins blog has burned itself out, at least for now, I thought I would take this opportunity to again focus on  what I consider to be the anti-Christian nature of Van Tillian epistemology.  That’s not to say that I consider Van Tillians  to be anti-Christian, only that the epistemic framework they operate from negatively impacts their understanding of Scripture along with the historic creeds that are supposed to be the product of biblical study, reflection and deduction. As I quoted Gordon Clark in a recent “Clark Quick Quote”:

It must forever be kept in mind that a theologian’s epistemology controls his interpretation of the Bible. If his epistemology is not Christian, his exegesis will be systematically distorted. If he has no epistemology at all, his exegesis will be unsystematically distorted. – The Incarnation 46,47

Epistemology, or the study of knowledge and justified belief, whether in theology or philosophy, logically comes first in any system simply because unless you can explain or demonstrate how you know something you can’t really say you know anything at all.  So, the question of epistemology is as fundamental as it is foundational.

With that in mind I would like to briefly look at a couple of statements made by Dr. Alan Strange on the Green Baggins blog.  Readers of this blog will recall I’ve had a few previous run-ins with Dr. Strange in the past that you can read about here, here, and here.

Strange, who is an OPC minister and an associate professor of church history at Mid America Reformed Seminary, is unlike many of those who have simply been influenced by the epistemological ideas of Cornelius Van Til. Strange is a true believer. In political terms he might be called an ideologue just as I’m sure he would consider me an ideologue when it comes to the Scripturalism of Gordon Clark.  And we all know about those annoying “Clarkians” ideologues, right?  Well, I admit we can be pretty annoying at times.  I know I certainly can be and I have fail miserably at times trying to bridle my tongue when dealing with men like Strange and too often I simply lose my patience. Admittedly, it’s not always easy to be part of a derided minority where Clark, who is arguably the most important theological and philosophic mind that the Lord has seen to bless His church with in the modern era, has had his work systematically expunged from the curricula of virtually every major Reformed seminary (which many of us have good reason to believe is due to an ongoing and concerted effort by Van Til’s followers like Strange, John Muether, R. S. Clark, Scott Oliphint, James Anderson and others).  Why even Strange’s fellow OPCer, John Muether, who is also a professor of Church History at Reformed Theological Seminary and the official historian of the OPC, attempted to organize opposition in order to block Dr. Robert Reymond from being received as a minister in the OPC because of his “Clarkianism.”  According to a paper Muether distributed in advance of the Presbytery meeting that was to vote on receiving Reymond,  Muether claimed Reymond’s error, if you want to call it that, and what should keep him from ministering in the OPC, is that he rejects Van Til’s theory of “analogical knowledge”  Muether writes:

In failing to recognize a place for Van Til in Christian epistemology, Reymond seems to be rejecting a central part of OPC identity, and beyond that, a core tenet of the Reformed tradition (the archetypal/ectypal distinction). The Presbytery must ask why Reymond would seek to affiliate with what he perceives to be such a grave error, and it must consider the wisdom of brining into its company someone who appears so antagonistic to the denomination’s historical, corporate understanding of the Reformed faith and the Word of God.

It seems [to] me that the question before the Presbytery of the South is not, “Is there room at the table for Dr. Reymond in the OPC?” Rather, the question is this: “is there room at the table in the OPC for the consistently Reformed apologetic witness of Cornelius Van Til if Reymond’s views gain the sanction of this Presbytery?”  Putting the matter this way does not seem too strong a response to the rhetoric that Dr. Reymond has consistently applied to the theology of Cornelius Van Til.  – “Robert Reymond and Cornelius Van Til: Some Reflections”

Let me just say actions like raising Van Til’s epistemological peculiarities to the level of Reformed orthodoxy, even providing the justification for eliminating from the ministry those who do not subscribe to Van Til’s epistemic eccentricities  (and with good reason), doesn’t engender much brotherly love and fraternity.  As far as I’m concerned there is little doubt that Van Tillians like Muether and Strange would love to purge every last remaining “Clarkian” from every church that calls itself “Reformed” and in fact are working toward that end.  That certainly is not meant to excuse my own lack of patience and frustration with Van Tillians like Strange, only that it becomes tiring having to repeatedly answer the same Van Tillian canards against Clark over and over again.

With that preface out of the way, Dr. Strange wrote:    (more…)

The Protestant Reformed Church vs R. Scott Clark

April 26, 2012

In the latest issue of the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, Clayton Spronk and Joshua Engelsma dismantle Dr. R. Scott Clark’s chapter in the book The Pattern of Sound Doctrine, entitled “Janus, the Well-Meant Offer of the Gospel, and Westminster Theology.”  Here’s a taste:

The Reformed orthodox used the archetypal/ectypal distinction, not to explain how God’s knowledge of Himself conflicts with the knowledge man has by revelation, but to explain how man cannot know God comprehensively and yet is able to know God truly. The distinction explains that there is harmony between what God knows and what man knows. God is high above man, and therefore man cannot know God comprehensively as He knows Himself. Yet, man knows God truly in ectypal theology. The mystery is that the infinite God is able to accommodate the truth about Himself so that finite man will know the truth about Him. Man can never know that truth apart from revelation. But from revelation man knows God as He knows Himself ectypally (with this difference, of course: that God knows Himself as God, and man knows God as a mere creature).

Without trying to determine whether the Reformed faith teaches that there is an intersect between the mind of God and the mind of man, at the very least it is clear that the Reformed faith teaches that the believing man who knows God ectypally through revelation knows God as He knows Himself. God knows Himself as a God who only ever loves the elect and hates the reprobate. Believers know God as a God who only ever loves the elect and hates the reprobate, not because they have peered behind revelation and seen God’s archetypal or ectypal knowledge directly, but because God has revealed this truth to us through Scripture.

Calvin on the Human Fallibility in the Councils

April 24, 2012

“Leo, the Roman pontiff, does not hesitate to charge the Council of Chalcedon (which he admits to be orthodox in doctrines) with ambition and unadvised rashness. Indeed, he does not deny that it is legitimate, but he openly declares that it may have erred.  Perhaps someone will think me foolish because I labor to show such errors, since our opponents admit that councils can err in those matters which are not necessary to salvation.  But this is no superfluous labor! For even though, being compelled, they confess it by mouth, still, when they thrust upon us the decision of every council, on whatever matter, indiscriminately as an oracle of the Holy Spirit, they require more than they had originally assumed. In doing this, what do they affirm but that councils cannot err; or if they err, it is not lawful for us to discern the truth, or not to assent to their errors?” – Institutes 4.9.11

It’s a shame more Protestants don’t think like Calvin when it comes to the so-called “ecumenical” Councils.

Another PCA False Teacher Cleared

April 16, 2012

PCA Pastor and Federal Visionist, Jeffrey Meyers, has been cleared on all charges that he is a Federal Visionist even though he is one of the chief signers of the FV Confession of Faith and has defended and promoted the false gospel of the FV for years.  You can read about the PCA’s continued slide into complete apostasy here.

Clark Quick Quote

April 15, 2012

“It must forever be kept in mind that a theologian’s epistemology controls his interpretation of the Bible. If his epistemology is not Christian, his exegesis will be systematically distorted. If he has no epistemology at all, his exegesis will be unsystematically distorted.” The Incarnation 46,47

Christological Confusion

April 7, 2012

There have been a couple of very interesting Christiological discussions over at Lane Keister’s Green Baggins blog recently.   You can read Lane’s posts and the subsequent discussions here and here.  One of the central questions in that entire discussion was whether or not we can or should say that God suffered and died “in some sense.”  And, if we can say these things in “some sense,” what is the sense that we can say them, or are we just saying nonsense.  Concerning the question of God suffering Lane writes:

I believe that the answer is that His divine nature sustained His human nature, but did not itself suffer. This sustaining would not be limited to the physical suffering, but would also include the spiritual suffering, as well as the sin-bearing. This is not a communication of properties of the divine to the human, since God also sustains us without communicating Godness to us. The divine nature was therefore active in the suffering, but not as the direct recipient of the suffering.

I would have thought that this was a perfectly acceptable non-controversial answer since God cannot suffer for the same reason He cannot tire or thirst (Isaiah 40:28).  Among other things, the Westminster Confession of Faith states that God is immutable and the Incarnation, which includes suffering and dying, implies change.  However, according to others commenting on his blog drawing such clear distinctions between the two natures of Christ is “Nestorian.”  Further, and this is something I didn’t realize, the historic Reformed position concerning the Incarnation is routinely attacked as Nestorian by its critics and a more decidedly Lutheran understanding of the Incarnation appears to be the only consistent understanding of Chalcedonian orthodoxy.   Lane provided a helpful illustration to help contrast both views below:

Lane writes:

I actually believe that our entire question can be much clarified by asking the question this way: can God die? To ask the question is really to answer it. But we cannot separate part of the suffering of Christ from any other part: it is a seamless whole. If God suffered on the cross, then God died on the cross. I, for one, cannot go there.

Well, evidently not “going there” is not going far enough as Jonathan Bonomo of the Evangelical Catholicity blog, a blog dedicated to an “ecumenical discussion founded upon historic Christian orthodoxy,” explains:

When [Perry Robinson] makes that charge [that Calvin was decidedly un-Chalcedonian], he’s talking about the very same thing that’s been at issue here: Was the person who suffered for our sins a divine person, who suffered in his human nature? If we say “no,” then we really are open to the charge of Nestorianism.

Calvin, and other 16th c. Reformed, affirmed that the person of Christ was none other than the eternal Son of God–the Word. But because they at times also spoke of the human nature as composing “part” of the Person after the hypostatic union, they’re said by Reformed antagonists to be open to the charge of Nestorianism. But this is only the case if the analysis of the sources stops at isolated statements. Calvin et al needn’t be read to mean anything by such statements other than the meaning provided amidst these discussions–the human nature subsists in the person, and so after the union can be said in that sense to be “part” of the person. They were Chalcedonian, and their Christology followed the Exposition of John of Damascus fairly closely.

Bruce McCormack wrote an essay a few years back that provided much ammunition to this charge. However, regarding all this I would highly recommend the following two articles by Steven Wedgeworth:

All of this is very interesting and I would recommend taking the time to read Wedgeworth’s discussion of Jesus Christ as a “compound person” along with the debate as it unfolded on Lane’s blog. But, what struck me in the many pages of discussion on the Reformers and in defense of their fidelity to Chalcedonian orthodoxy, is that nowhere is the word “person” clearly defined, or, in the case of Wedgeworth, even defined at all.  So if one were to say that Jesus Christ is one person or two or twenty-two it makes no difference unless one first defines what a person is.

Gordon Clark, who has also been accused of being  “Nestorian” (so it would seem that he’s in good company), explained the problem this way in his earth-shattering monograph on the Incarnation:

A. A. Hodge (Outlines of Theology, p. 380,”#7) first says “He [Christ] is also true man” and few lines below makes this impossible by adding, “Christ possesses at once in the unity of his Person two spirits, with all their essential attributes, a human consciousness, mind, heart, and will.” We ask, How can a human consciousness, mind, heart and will not be a human person?  All Hodge can reply is “It does not become us to attempt to explain” all this.  In other words, the doctrine is based on ignorance. The creeds and the theologians assert “a true man” and their explanations deny it.

Clark argues, “But a doctrine insisting that Jesus Christ was a divine person and in no way a human person fails without such a definition.” One would think, if only to better understand Lane’s illustrations above, that defining what we mean by “person” would be the first order of business seeing that so much rests on that question.  But that’s not the case. In fact, and as we shall see, it has never been the case. Instead the protectors of orthodoxy are extremely quick to slap the label of “Nestorian” on any deviation first and ask questions later.  And, a deviation could be as simple as failing to draw out an implication of the historic Chalcedonian formulation far enough.  That’s why even Lane, who said he “cannot go there” when it comes saying “God suffered on the cross, then God died on the cross,” was slapped with the label: “Nestorian.”

Obviously any understanding of the issues surround Christology cannot progress in such an environment.  So I asked how do any of these self-appointed protectors of all things Chalcedonian define the word “person”?  Thankfully, Jonathan Bonomo mentioned above, and who was one of Lane’s two primary interlocutors (although prosecutors might be a better description),  took up the challenge.  Actually, he said he had defined the word “person” many times throughout the debate and I just missed it.  No wonder, because according to Bonomo a person is an “individual reality/subsistence.”  Now an “individual reality” is pretty self-explanatory.  Rocks, trees, roof shingles, men, mice, and various other rodents all have  “individual reality.”  Subsistence (or hypostais or substance) “denotes an actual, concrete existence, in contrast with abstract categories such as Platonic Ideals.”  So, a person is an individual reality that has an actual concrete existence.  Colloquially, subsistence can also mean that which supports life, which would at least exclude rocks, trees and roof shingles.  According to Bonomo “the traditional definitions are the best we’ve been able to come up with these many many years, and they’re part of the received, accepted vocabulary.”  Bonomo explains:

I’m just trying to be faithful to the terminology that’s been passed down since the fifth century. It’s not that hard to grasp. A person is an individual reality, a nature is that which subsists in the individual reality. Nature is the general category, person is the particular. The divine nature subsists in three persons in the Trinity. The divine and human natures subsist in one person in the hypostatic union. If you’re not satisfied with this, then you’re free to reject Nicea and Chalcedon.

See the dilemma.  Either accept this definition of person which has been handed down since the fifth century or reject Nicea and Chalcedon.  Actually, accepting the traditional and historic definition is easy and Bonomo is right that it’s not hard to grasp at all.  The problem is that any definition of “person” that can just as easily apply to plants, polar bears, koalas, and Christ is about as useless and as meaningless as they come. It’s not really a definition at all.

Now, and to his credit, Bonomo offered a slightly refined definition:

Ok, Sean, What if we were to say that “Person” is individual reality, or “particularity,” as it subsists in God and those made in his image? This rules out all other creatures besides God and human beings. Would that then be satisfactory?

While arguably an improvement it hardly satisfies.  For one thing God consists of three Persons, but I don’t think it would be accurate to say those three Persons subsist in God since all three are God. Further, the three Persons of the Godhead are not made in God’s image. So, while this revised definition rules out plants, polar bears, and koalas, it rules out the Persons of the Holy Trinity as well.

Here’s the rub: for nearly two millennium the dividing line between heterodoxy and orthodoxy in Christology has rested on an idea of person without anyone really knowing what they’re talking about.  As Clark observed:

But when a council, or a pope, or a theologian uses the terms nature, person, substance, and sits back with a dogmatic sense of satisfaction, it reminds me of a football team that claims a touchdown while the football is still on the thirteenth or thirtieth yard line.  But football teams are usually not that blind.

. . . Neither Nestorius nor his opponents had any clear idea of what a person is. They used the word but attached no meaning to it.  In their discussion and writings the term was as much nonsense syllables as substance and nature. However distasteful it may be to those students whose knowledge is confined to fifteen minutes of a broader lecture in the Systematic Theology class, and all the more distasteful to the professor who knows little more than those fifteen minutes, they must be forced to acknowledge that the Chalcedonian bishops and the later theologians were talking non-sense, because their terms had no sense at all.

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