The latest episode of the White Horse Inn, “The Origin of Scripture,” should be of interest to those who, like me, have been thinking through the issue of canon and ecclesiology. In the opening monologue, Michael Horton has some great things to say about the canon (of Scripture) as the constitution of God’s covenant, through which the Church recognizes both her salvation and the rule of God. As such, the priority is given to the broader paradigm of God’s freedom to make a people unto himself. Here are Horton’s final comments from the monologue:

A covenant is like a constitution, and the kingdom of God is never a democracy or a hierarchy of earthly rulers. It’s a monarchy of the Triune God who saves and rules by his Word. This Word is both the means of grace that creates this people out of nothing and is also the rule for faith and practice of this same kingdom. The Word that saves also rules. The same Word by which Christ brings his Church into existence is the Word by which the Good Shepherd keeps it under his protection.

I’ve been working my way through the Institutes. It just so happens that I recently finished reading Douglas Wilson’s To a Thousand Generations, a defense of paedobaptism according to the unity of the covenant made with Abraham and the covenant with Christ. So, I’ve been pondering the relation of the old and new testaments: law and gospel, circumcision and baptism, promise and fulfillment, etc. In my reading of the Institutes, I’ve come up to Book II, chapter XI, where Calvin gives a brilliant exposition of the unity of faith under the law of Moses and the Church of Christ. However, he then gives an equally brilliant exposition of the differences. I was surprised by how strongly expressed are the differences. After quoting Jeremiah 31:31-34, Calvin explains:

The Old Testament is of the letter, for it was published without the working of the Spirit. The New is spiritual because the Lord has engraved it spiritually upon men’s hearts. The second antithesis is by way of clarification of the first. The Old brings death, for it can but envelop the whole human race in a curse. The New is the instrument of life, for it frees men from the curse and restores them to God’s favor. The Old is the ministry of condemnation, for it accuses all the sons of Adam of unrighteousness. The New is the ministry of righteousness because it reveals God’s mercy, through which we are justified.

…Scripture calls the Old Testament one of “bondage” because it produces fear in men’s minds; but the New Testament, one of “freedom” because it lifts them to trust and assurance. [Calvin goes on to explain this using Romans 8:15, Hebrews 12:18-22, and Galatians 4:22-31.] …To sum up: the Old Testament struck the consciences with fear and trembling, but by the benefit of the New they are released into joy. The Old held consciences bound by the yoke of bondage; the New by its spirit of liberality emancipates them into freedom.

But suppose that our opponents object that, among the Israelites , the holy patriarchs were an exception: since they were obviously endowed with the same Spirit of faith as we, it follows that they shared the same freedom and joy. To this we reply: neither of these arose from the law. But when through the law the patriarchs felt themselves both oppressed by their enslaved condition, and wearied by anxiety of conscience, they fled for refuge to the gospel. It was therefore a particular fruit of the New Testament that, apart from the common law of the Old Testament, they were exempted from those evils. Further, we shall deny that they were so endowed with the spirit of freedom and assurance as not in some degree to experience the fear and bondage arising from the law. For, however much the privilege that they had received through the grace of the gospel, they were still subject to the same bonds and burdens of ceremonial observances as the common people. They were compelled to observe those ceremonies punctiliously, symbols of a tutelage resembling bondage; and the written bonds, whereby they confessed themselves guilty of sin, did not free them from obligation. Hence, they are rightly said, in contrast to us, to have been under the testament of bondage and fear, when we consider that common dispensation by which the Lord at that time dealt with the Israelites.

(pp. 457-459, McNeill edition)

Calvin’s point about the OT patriarchs and prophets is highly interesting. They were given a measure of freedom, but not complete freedom. They lack the freedom of a pure conscience, which is only given with the complete abolition of law-sin-death by Christ. How does this relate to baptism? If baptism is “an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21), then baptism is a mark of an accomplished regeneration for the individual. Thus, the credobaptists are seemingly correct for their emphasis on Jeremiah 31, and the “now” (not just “not yet”) of a redeemed people as an essential mark of the new covenant, as distinct from the old covenant. Of course, if circumcision is understood as an appeal to God for a good conscience (i.e., forgiveness), then the symmetry between circumcision and baptism can be upheld, allowing the baptism of infants.

I’m still working through this issue, but those are some of my thoughts for now. Doug Wilson’s book, by the way, is very well done.

I got a new camera, so I’m playing with it. I am treating all the theology nerds who read my blog to this picture of my larger bookcase. Click to enlarge.

Please note: I have my Calvin, Thielicke, Newman, novels, and much else on the other bookcase.

And here is the corner of my desk. Old man Barth keeps me straight!

I really gotta get out of Iowa. I miss all the craziness of my Southern brethren.

HT: Patrick Archbold

If we define the church as “a free association of believers gathered by the Holy Spirit before the Risen Lord,” how would such independent communities ever come to the recognition of a canon of Scripture?

I was watching a fundamentalist Baptist preacher the other day — yes, I should spend my time more fruitfully — and he was harping on and on about how he didn’t believe in denominations because the church is nothing more than an independent, local assembly of believers. The only authority for his church — and other “properly constituted” churches — is the Bible. This pastor actually left the Southern Baptist Convention because of his convictions about the independence of the local church…yes, the SBC is too denominational for him! In other words, this pastor and this church doesn’t need “the church.” Thus, in principle, no church has ever needed a church other than itself, much less does it need synods, councils, assemblies, and other compromises to the independence of the local church. Therefore, no creeds and no confessions are necessary; moreover, creeds and confessions are illegitimate bindings on the local church. The Bible alone can bind the local church.

Of course, this raises one striking curiosity: the Bible itself, as a particular canon of texts, is a confession. The same justifications that give a denomination the authority to bind churches according to a confession (e.g., Augsburg or Westminster) are the same justifications that gave rise to a canon of Scripture. The local church needs other churches. It needs the witness of other churches to know “where to look” for the promises of God. It needs the discernment and accountability of other churches when it points to these texts, and not other texts, as the Word of God. As such, the testimony of the early church is given priority even as the Reformation re-evaluated the discernment of the early church in this matter, as in other matters. The Reformation churches, through her confessions, recognized the authority of the prophetic and apostolic texts as they have been handed to us, with the assumption that the Word of God was to be found there and, indeed, it was found there! From generation to generation, this assumption and this awakening sustain the church’s confidence in her Holy Scripture.

I have always liked the definition of the church that I gave above, which is roughly taken from Brunner’s very fine volume on ecclesiology (Dogmatics, vol. 3). However, I don’t see how such a definition can account for the authority of the canon. I don’t see how such a definition does not logically entail the clear absurdity of the above fundamentalist Baptist preacher, who speaks for vast swaths of evangelicalism (not just the fundamentalist wing) when it comes to this understanding of the church and the Bible. If there can not be, in principle, any confession other than the Bible, then we would not have a Bible. If the early church had operated with this “freedom” of independent churches, there would not — could not — have been a canon formation. Herein, the Reformed position, with the rest of the magisterial Reformation, has definite advantages and greater coherency.

[By the way, I am a member of the Evangelical Free Church of America, and I was raised a Baptist. So I am writing this as a criticism from within my own tradition.]

[HT: Fr. Chris]