I’m reading Letham’s The Westminster Assembly. As other reviewers have noted, the book is full of great information, including two excellent excursuses: on the imputation of Adam’s guilt and on the covenant of works. In both areas, Letham details how the Reformed tradition developed these two lines in protology, but neither are necessary for the Reformed faith (that’s my conclusion; Letham mostly sticks to the history). Neither were found — at least, not explicitly — in the earliest Reformed churchmen, and, even when both gained prominence in the 17th century, Reformed churchmen in good standing can be found in the opposition. On such matters, Letham criticizes some of the Princetonians for anachronistic readings of the Westminster Assembly: projecting backwards certain “conclusions” which were then still in development and still heavily disputed. On this, I commend Letham for his careful historical reconstruction and appropriate amount of nuance concerning the precise language being used.

However, when it comes to Letham’s criticism of Thomas F. Torrance, I’m not nearly as impressed, to say the least. Letham is not happy with Torrance’s judgment, in Scottish Theology and elsewhere, that the Westminster divines neglected the theme of “union with Christ,” as found in Calvin and the early Scottish reformers. Letham’s argument — and only argument — against this criticism is that, while the Confession indeed lacks any statement on union with Christ, the Larger Catechism (questions 65-90) gives ample attention to this theme, thus “destroying” Torrance’s thesis. The number of times that Letham repeats himself, on this point, is a bit excessive:

[Torrance] argues that the Confession did not follow the lead of Calvin and the 1560 Scots Confession in holding justification and union with Christ inseparably together. But while this may be true, Torrance ignores the Larger Catechism, where this connection is clear. This also evaporates his contention that the Confession’s ordo salutis is medieval, with a series of steps leading to union with Christ, a reversal of Calvin’s teaching on union with Christ as the source of his benefits. The Confession, he insists, does not demonstrate the spiritual freshness and freedom of the Scots Confession. The earlier evangelical Calvinism was here replaced by a more legalistic variety of theology. …Torrance gives little attention to the historical context…. He does not pay attention to the whole theological output of the Assembly, but is fixated on the Confession. [pp. 106-7]

T. F. Torrance castigates the Assembly for what he considers to be a medieval conception of the ordo salutis, with various stages of grace leading to union with Christ. Superficially, it mights seem so, since there is no chapter on union with Christ in the Confession, nor is union with Christ significant in the discussion of the elements of salvation. However, Torrance’s thesis is shattered by Larger Catechism 65-90, where all of God’s grace is said to be found in union and communion with Christ. The two documents need to be taken together, for their lines of approach are different but complementary. [pp. 242-3]

T. F. Torrance accuses the Assembly of departing from Calvin’s teaching and that of the Scottish Reformation, in which justification is held inseparably with union with Christ. But he fails to consider LC 65-90. It is astonishing that such a careful and meticulous scholar should be so neglected on a matter that is so close to home. [p. 269]

When we turn to the Larger Catechism, we see a different, but entirely congruous, picture. Whereas in the Confession justification is the first of the blessings of salvation, followed by adoption, sanctification, perseverance, and assurance, the Catechism treats them all as aspects of our union and communion with Christ in grace and glory (65-90). …Union with Christ is no more incompatible with forensic justification than justification is incompatible with sanctification. This undermines Torrance’s caricature of Westminster as conveying a harsh legal view of God and salvation, which, we argued, requires him to ignore the Larger Catechism. [pp. 273, 275]

So, what are we to make of this? First, it should be noted that Letham concedes Torrance’s assessment of the Confession, insofar as it lacks union with Christ, but Letham doesn’t think that this is important since the Larger Catechism bears this out. Am I the only one who thinks this is strange? The Confession is surely the more important of the two documents, and, regardless, a major inadequacy in the one cannot be “made up for” in the other. At best, we have to say that the Confession fails where the LC succeeds. Thus, Torrance’s point remains: the Confession is an inadequate and misleading statement of the Reformed faith, given its priorities for decretal and federal categories instead of union as a pervasive hermeneutic. As for the LC, while union is indeed present, it does not really obviate the concerns of Torrance (and others) that union has not been thoroughly worked through all the contingencies of the Reformed faith, especially the union through Christ’s homoousion, which Letham entirely ignores.

Letham is correct that union is present in the LC, and, yes, I will agree that Torrance should have recognized this fact (though his criticism of the Confession remains). Question 65 states, “The members of the invisible church by Christ enjoy union and communion with him in grace and glory,” and question 66 states, “The union which the elect have with Christ is the work of God’s grace, whereby they are spiritually and mystically, yet really and inseparably, joined to Christ as their head and husband, which is done in their effectual calling.” And, importantly, question 69 states, “The communion in grace which the members of the invisible church have with Christ is their partaking of the virtue of his mediation, in their justification, adoption, sanctification, and whatever else, in this life, manifests their union with him.” Likewise, questions 82 and 83 come back to the theme of union/communion with Christ. Thus, Letham can say that the intervening questions on justification and sanctification are framed by union with Christ. However, the LC lacks any extensive treatment of the decrees/election, as found in the Confession (probably because the LC is a catechism, with a pastoral focus, and the Confession of Faith is a confession, with a doctrinal focus). This is a crucial point, because this is precisely where Torrance’s criticisms, related to union and causation, are aimed. Perhaps Torrance ignored the LC because it had no bearing on his concerns about the doctrine of election. Letham fails to recognize this point.

I would still recommend Letham’s The Westminster Assembly, but it is unnecessarily marred by (1) Letham’s failure to really deal with Torrance’s concerns about a doctrine of union with Christ that extends from Christ’s homoousion and (2) by his failure to recognize the limitations of the Larger Catechism in regard to Torrance’s critique of the Assembly’s doctrine of election. This shallow handling of Torrance is a real shame, since Letham has already demonstrated his ability to capably handle Torrance (and Barth) in his book on the Trinity.

The Plowed Life

October 25, 2010

A. W. Tozer, once again, demonstrating his descriptive powers in prophetic prose:

There are two kinds of lives also: the fallow and the plowed. For examples of the fallow life we need not go far. They are all too plentiful among us.

The man of fallow life is contented with himself and the fruit he once bore. He does not want to be disturbed. He smiles in tolerant superiority at revivals, fastings, self-searchings, and all the travail of fruit-bearing and the anguish of advance. The spirit of adventure is dead within him. He is steady, “faithful,” always in his accustomed place (like the old field), conservative and something of a landmark in the little church. But he is fruitless. The curse of such a life is that it is fixed, both in size and in content. To be has taken the place of to become. The worst that can be said of such a man is that he is what he will be. He has fenced himself in, and by the same act, he has fenced out God and the miracle.

The plowed life is the life that has, in the act of repentance, thrown down the protecting fences and sent the plow of confession into the soul. The urge of the Spirit, the pressure of circumstances and the distress of fruitless living have combined thoroughly to humble the heart. Such a life has put away defense and has forsaken the safety of death for the peril of life. Discontent, yearning, contrition, courageous obedience to the will of God: These have bruised and broken the soil till it is ready again for the seed. And as always, fruit follows the plow. Life and growth begin as God “rains down righteousness.” Such a one can testify, “And the hand of the Lord was upon me there.”

The static periods were those times when the people of God tired of the struggle and sought a life of peace and security. Then they busied themselves trying to conserve the gains made in those more daring times when the power of God moved among them.

Bible history is replete with examples. Abraham “went out” on his great adventure of faith, and God went with him. Revelations, theophanies, the gift of Palestine, covenants and promises of rich blessings to come were the result. Then Israel went down into Egypt, and the wonders ceased for four hundred years. At the end of that time Moses heard the call of God and stepped forth to challenge the oppressor. A whirlwind of power accompanied that challenge, and Israel soon began to march. As long as she dared to march, God sent out His miracles to clear the way for her.

“Miracles Follow the Plow,” in The Best of A. W. Tozer / Book One, pp. 240-241.

Where to study theology?

October 19, 2010

In the latest edition of First Things, R. R. Reno has given his thoughts on the best places to study theology. By and large, it’s a well-informed survey of theological education across North America. He does limit himself to North America, and, importantly, he limits himself to looking at the graduate doctoral programs. If you’re looking for an M.Div. program, you will likely have other considerations, especially ecclesiastical priorities, to keep in mind.

The first several paragraphs of the article are especially important, namely his emphasis on professors who teach and foster student development and his emphasis on the ecclesial context of theology:

Unlike the study of philosophy or mathematics, and more like the study of history and literature, the study of theology is given sharp outlines by the coherence and integrity of a historical community. The reality of the Church—her doctrines, her endless problems, and her alluring beauty—sets the agenda for theology. The best programs have a connection—not necessarily official, not always happy, but still fundamental—to living churches.

So, Reno is looking for institutions with a faculty that exhibits these characteristics, along with, of course, academic excellence. Duke and Notre Dame are his top two picks. Both have a fairly extensive list of impressive faculty members. Notre Dame, he notes, has not been as impressive when it comes to systematics, but “new hires in systematic theology have strengthened the Notre Dame program. John Betz, a fine young scholar of modern theology, joins the faculty this year, along with Francesca Murphy, one of the most creative and forceful theological writers of her generation.” All of us who went to Aberdeen can testify to Professor Murphy’s excellence, both as a teacher and scholar.

Along with Princeton University’s Department of Religion, Reno lists Princeton Theological Seminary next, noting, “A Protestant doctoral student will find a rich atmosphere in which classical debates continue. By my reckoning, Princeton Theological Seminary is the best place in the United States to study Protestant dogmatics.” After Princeton, the list goes: Wycliffe College (Toronto), Catholic University of America, Marquette, Boston College, Yale, Southern Methodist University, Wheaton (thanks to Kevin Vanhoozer), Ave Maria, and the University of Dayton (thanks to Matthew Levering).

As Reno recognizes, the list is subjective, accorded by his priorities and interests. So, the more liberal project of integrating social-cultural-psychological-historical variables, as it continues at the University of Chicago and Harvard Divinity School, is slighted by Reno. Likewise, the contemporary development of confessional Reformed theology, as it continues at Westminster California (masters-level) and at Calvin Seminary, is slighted.

Since we’ve been discussing the New Calvinism, a selection from Indelible Grace Music is appropriate. This is from the album, By Thy Mercy. The interesting history of this hymn can be read here.

[This post is prompted by Mike Cheek’s comment, in this thread, that the New Calvinism is not Barth-friendly, from what he could tell. This also addresses some of Matt Shedden’s concerns.]

What has Barth to do with the “New Calvinism,” or what does the New Calvinism have to do with Barth? Well, nothing…or close to nothing. I’m defining the New Calvinism as the resurgence, especially among young people, of Reformed doctrine within a broad array of evangelical churches, not just Presbyterian but especially Baptist and other free churches. Piper, Mohler, Carson — all Baptists. And in the music scene, Louie Giglio (founder of Passion) and most of the artists associated with Passion (David Crowder, Chris Tomlin, Steve Fee) are Baptists, to some extent. Crowder continues to do the music ministry at University Baptist Church in Waco. So, the New Calvinism is a cross-denominational movement within evangelicalism, but the Baptist contingency is especially important — why?

The New Calvinism is not primarily an academic movement with academic concerns. Rather, the New Calvinism has gained traction because of deficiencies within broader evangelicalism at the ground level, i.e., at the local church. My previous post on “Calvinism and Suffering” gives an account of this deficiency and the attraction of Reformed doctrine. Because this movement is largely taking place at the ground level, the Baptist influence makes a lot of sense. The Baptists have done far more to shape contemporary American evangelical piety and pathos than any other denominational tradition. Thus, in order for a broadly influential movement (like the New Calvinism) to gain traction within evangelicalism, the Baptists have to be at the forefront. The Presbyterians can do a lot of the academic heavy-lifting, which does trickle-down, but nothing like Passion or Desiring God or T4G could occur without the Baptists.

So, as an intra-evangelical movement in the American scene, the influence of Barth is pretty much nil, and the vast majority of the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” have never heard of him except maybe in passing. They know Edwards and Owen, not Barth. The situation is different if we look at the evangelical academy, where Barth is read and discussed, but the New Calvinism is primarily a populist movement. It is a reaction against the practical consequences of fundamentalism, revivalism, and prosperity preaching. Barth does indeed have some profound answers to these problems, but Barth is not really a figure of interest for the New Calvinism. In the academy, however, Barth is seriously engaged, but reaction to Barth is hardly monolithic. Colleges and seminaries like Wheaton, Trinity, Gordon-Conwell, and even Biola have an influential Reformed contingency, among teachers and students, where Barth is mostly treated with respect and even positively appropriated in theological thinking. At other places, like Westminster Philly, Barth is treated with far more suspicion and often as a danger to theological thinking (e.g., listen to this broadcast of the Reformed Forum or read Gregory Beale’s The Erosion of Inerrancy — Beale left Wheaton for WTS this year). Al Mohler at Southern would be another example of someone who considers Barth to be more of a source of ills than of vitality.

So, why am I writing this? Because I’m trying to offer some vindications of the New Calvinism, especially as seen on the ground level. When compared to the dominant ailments within evangelicalism — fundamentalism, revivalism, and prosperity preaching — then the New Calvinism looks pretty good. The benefits for the church, in preaching and catechesis, are undeniable, at least if you have any commitments (like myself) to Reformational distinctives. This is not to say that the New Calvinism is a comprehensive solution to all the ailments of the church. We can rightly complain about a narrowness here which is far too akin to that of the older fundamentalism. I’ve complained on this blog about an overly restricted form of inerrancy, to use one example, or superficial defenses of Creationism, to use another example, and both examples are prominent within the New Calvinism. Al Mohler is as representative of this movement as it gets, but this does not reflect the internal motives in the local church for the adoption of Reformed doctrine. That’s the distinction that I’m trying to make. If we look at the local church, the New Calvinism has been a great blessing.

Suffering and Calvinism

October 9, 2010

[This post is a brief reflection, from one particular angle, on the good that I’ve seen from the influence of Calvinism within evangelical churches. This does not cover every criticism of the movement, some of which is legitimate but much of which fails to account for the internal motives at work.]

On the way to the Desiring God conference, I had the fortune to carpool with one of the senior members of our church. The fortune came with her testimony, which I had never heard. She had been a committed believer for most of her life, but several years ago her husband was diagnosed with cancer, challenging her assumptions about God and the course of this life. They were both well-educated with successful medical careers. Life was good, and their faith was a nice supplement to this good life. As a result, her faith had not matured much beyond what it was when she first believed. From the common presentations of the life of faith, she assumed that God’s beneficence was contingent, to some degree or another, upon her faith. As is so often the case, this understanding was brutally challenged by her husband’s severe affliction and eventual death.

As she tells it, their faith would have been lost, with confusion and cynicism taking its place, if it were not for Reformed theology. The God who existed for their material well-being was found to be an idol. The idol was replaced with — not her words exactly — the God of Reformed theology. They had come across the ministry of R. C. Sproul and discovered Calvinism for the first time. She was very explicit that the peculiar emphases of Reformed literature — God’s sovereignty in creation and redemption — were the succor that brought them closer to God, more trusting of God, more in awe of God, than anything they could have imagined. There was no happy ending that the world could see — he died — but they knew the depths of reconciliation that happen at the moments of greatest dependence. They knew the clarity of vision that only comes in affliction. They saw, for the first time, that God was most honored in their lives when he appeared to be most absent.

Needless to say, I was rather affected by her testimony. It resonated with moments and thought processes in my own life, and what I’ve seen in others. It may sound strange that doctrines like Unconditional Election and Eternal Security can have such practical consequences, but Reformed communities, including my church, are full of people who have been deeply affected by this theology. Contrary to many assumptions, these doctrines do not remove God from the real world, as if to place him in some distant realm of abstract forms — beautiful and coherent but distant. There are indeed Reformed believers who treat these doctrines in this way and for whom theology is the means for defending the rational integrity of the Reformed faith. If that were the bulk of the attendants and speakers at Desiring God, then I would have no desire to be a part of this fellowship. But, I believe that the motives behind such enthusiasm (for Reformed doctrine) are not as cerebral as often supposed. For most, the doctrines are quite close to the ground, where evil and death are still the enemy.

I just got back yesterday from the annual Desiring God Conference. It was a fantastic weekend, with several insightful speakers discussing the conference theme, “Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God.” Here are some things I learned and general observations:

  • Rick Warren reads more in a year than I do in a decade. In his talk, he said that he reads through the corpus of a single author each year. Last year he read through Jonathan Edwards’ works from Yale U. P., and this year he is reading through Barth’s Church Dogmatics. I would never have pegged Warren as such a bibliophile.
  • Warren is way too much of an extrovert for my liking. His talk was good but jumpy and lacking focus. By contrast, Piper is slow and reflective, aiming for the long-term retention of the main points being made. Piper wants to impress the mind and heart; Warren wants to excite and motivate.
  • Kevin DeYoung is one funny guy and way too intelligent for his age. In his talk, he criticized the over-extension of the term, “missional.” Among other observations, he warned about the temptation among certain missional advocates to emphasize the church’s mercy ministries, for which the world approves, instead of the church’s Gospel, which offends the world (“a stumbling block”). Everyone will praise you for digging a well in Africa; they will not praise you for the condemnation that is entailed in the Gospel. Of course, DeYoung repeatedly reminded the audience that the former is indeed part of the church’s mission.
  • Tullian Tchividgian was a big highlight for me. I’ve been a huge fan of what he’s been doing at Coral Ridge Presbyterian, bringing back the Gospel to a church that has been far too distracted by the culture wars. D. James Kennedy (requiescat in pace), for all his faithfulness to Christ, unfortunately lost his focus in the last several years of his ministry. It was very frustrating to turn on the television Sunday morning and watch Kennedy quoting the Founding Fathers more than the Bible — I’m not exaggerating. Tchividgian gave an excellent talk on the idols that are only revealed when we experience a period of great suffering.
  • Another big highlight for me was to see Michael Horton in the flesh. He did a live taping of the White Horse Inn and then gave a lecture on why he chooses the topics he writes about. If you are familiar with Horton, you can pretty well imagine what he talked about, but I am continually impressed by his ability to articulate/define the Gospel from so many different angles. I especially appreciate his obvious joy in the Gospel and lack of anxiety about the church, even when he is attacking the church (as is usually the case).
  • Al Mohler did a great job in his discussion of evangelical epistemology (our reason is not neutral because the will has precedence) versus non-evangelical epistemologies. Mohler is far better at philosophy than he is at science, which is why he should stick to theology and cultural issues instead of lame defenses of Creationism. Yes, I had to get that off my chest…again.
  • I have mixed feelings about Francis Chan. He is one of the most dynamic speakers that I have ever heard; it’s obvious why he is so well beloved. I readily admit that I was convicted by his sermon on our lack of love for others. Yet, I have strong reactions against any exhortation to love based upon a person’s eternal destiny, and this was Chan’s method at certain moments in his sermon. Frankly, I find it emotionally manipulative. Chan sincerely believes that any person who does not hear the Gospel, before he or she dies, will spend an eternity in hell — a position which I don’t care to attack (though I do reject it). However, I am vehemently opposed by the way this doctrine is used to generate high levels of empathy, which is often enough followed by despair, in order to motivate the spread of the Gospel. Maybe this is just my over-reaction to a fundamentalist upbringing. Thankfully, though, there were not any altar calls during the entire conference!
  • The influence of Calvinism has had immense benefits for the evangelical movement within the last several years — including, yes, the lack of altar calls among most Reformed-leaning churches. There’s much to discuss, and a lot of my own impressions have been solidified over the weekend, but I will wait to detail this (in a future post this week).

If you want to see some of the conference presentations, click here.