Understanding Confessional Retrieval (Part 2)

Understanding Confessional Retrieval (Part 2)

In this post, I’d like to discuss the main problem that arises in the project of theological retrieval.

While it’s easy to define theological retrieval, trying to understand its object is much more difficult. 

Remember, retrieval finds a place within the sub-discipline of historical theology, but it’s not mere history. It’s also the appropriation of the past to within the present. There are many things we observe in history that we wouldn’t necessarily want to appropriate into the present. For example, Christian persecution at the hands of a Christian state, military conflicts fought over religious relics, the papacy, or transubstantiation are historical doctrines and practices most of us wouldn’t want to drag into the present.

More specifically, as a Particular Baptist, I wouldn’t want to appropriate infant baptism, Presbyterianism, or the bishopric of the Church of England. So, a more specific—if not more difficult—question arises: What keeps us theologically accountable as we engage in the task of theological retrieval? 

Further, How do we prevent ourselves from using retrieval as a means of subjectively reacting against the culture? We might be tempted to retrieve only those beliefs and actions of the historical church that seem most opposite to our present culture. This would be wrong-headed and dangerous. It would be reflexive and ungrounded.

The problem of retrieval is as simple as it is difficult. Theological retrieval, by itself, doesn’t really have any guidelines or parameters. Without context, anyone can retrieve anything they’d like. The work of retrieval would become an arbitrary and consumeristic exercise in picking one’s favorite theological candy from the historical bucket.

A person engaged in theological retrieval may one day prefer Richard Hooker’s hypothetical universalism or John Gill’s eschatology. By next week, they’re trying to find a place for Aquinas before flirting with Duns Scotus after boredom with Thomism sets it. A month later, they’ve decided both those guys are wrong and now they’re looking to John Henry Newman or Gregory Palamas. This is not a fruitful way to engage in the work of theological retrieval. And it can even become spiritually destructive.

How, then, should we think of retrieval soberly and contextually?

In the next part, we’ll look at a proposed solution to the retrieval problem, i.e. the “confessional imperative.”

Understanding Confessional Retrieval (Part 2)

Understanding Confessional Retrieval (Part 1)

Just a few years ago, I would’ve never imagined the evangelical landscape would include relatively deep conversations revolving around classical metaphysics, theology, and even politics. But thanks to a collective evangelical itch to retrieve the old ways, along with simultaneous disenchantment with the novus ordo of the evangelical industrial complex, Western Christianity is beginning to rediscover its roots. A contemporary reformation (of sorts) is afoot.

This is a good thing.

But as with any positive development, the danger of overreaction, over-realization, and a lack of wisdom looms. In particular, the question of retrieval always seems to be, What should we retrieve?

Monasticism? The episcopacy? Christian imperialism? The college of bishops? What do we retrieve? And do we ever stop retrieving? Does theological retrieval have a goal?

These are complicated questions. But they are questions I hope to address to some extent in the series that follows. This is the first of a few parts in that series. I hope it’s helpful.

What Is Retrieval?

In some ways, “retrieval” is a biblical principle. Throughout the Old Testament, deference is paid to the “old ways” and the “multitude of counselors.” It is a proverbial dictum that we ought not “remove the ancient landmark Which [our] fathers have set.” (Prov. 22:28) The “old paths” are “where the good way” is found. (Jer. 6:16) And we find safety in listening to the many voices that are wiser and older than ourselves. (Prov. 11:14; 15:22; 24:6)

When we speak of “retrieval” within a Christian context, we speak of what is a subset of historical theology. Historical theology is the science of exploring and appropriating the theology of the church’s past to the church’s present. What did our spiritual ancestors believe, and why? More strongly, is what they believed something we ought to be believing today? Have we stepped off the “old paths”?

Some have said, “The way back is the way forward.”[1] This sums up the project of retrieval quite nicely. The church is not a biological, chemical, or mechanical laboratory. We’re not looking for the latest developments in “Christian theology.” Our science is very old. Its purpose is not to locate the new or the most expedient. It’s not even oriented to what we take to be the most interesting or cutting-edge. 

The science of Christian theology concerns itself with a God that calls Himself the “Ancient of Days,” “everlasting,” and, “without end.” We are, fundamentally, a people who derive their knowledge from an eternal God who has sustained an ancient institution for over two millennia through means of an imponderably old Book. Paradoxically, this moves us forward—not only through time but unto everlasting beatitude. This isn’t true with every science. But it is true with ours.

Retrieval is the task of locating the old ways for the nourishment of contemporary spiritual life which, in turn, helps us to persevere well in the faith.

In the next part, I will discuss the “retrieval problem.”


[1] I’ll credit this statement to Dr. Richard Barcellos who, if memory serves me rightly, heard it from the late Dr. Mike Renihan.

The Analogy of Scripture

The Analogy of Scripture

What is the analogy of Scripture?

We’ve all probably heard the phrase, “Scripture interprets Scripture.” When we say “Scripture interprets Scripture,” we are talking about the analogy of Scripture. Second Timothy 2:15 says, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”

In order to “rightly divide the Word of truth” we need to have recourse to God. God must teach us how to rightly divide His Word. Apart from a divine standard of interpretation, we will always foist our culturally conditioned assumptions and prejudices into the text. We need an ultimate Interpreter, and this ultimate Interpreter is God Himself through His Word.

The Second London Confession 1.9 reads, “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched by other places that speak more clearly. (2 Peter 1:20, 21; Acts 15:15, 16)”

Clearer texts further our understanding of more ambiguous or less clear texts. So, when it comes to less clear texts, e.g. Rev. 20:4-10 (millennium), and 1 Cor. 7:14 (holy children), we need the rest of the Bible—the clearer texts therein—to better understand them.

Richard Muller, in his Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (one of the most important books of our century), defines the analogy of Scripture (analogia Scripturae) in this way, “[it is] the interpretation of unclear, difficult, or ambiguous passages of Scripture by comparison with a collation or gathering, of clear and unambiguous passages or “places” (loci) that refer to the same teaching or event.”[1]


[1] Richard Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 25.

What Is the Gospel?

What Is the Gospel?

NOTE: I do want to qualify that the word “gospel” is used in different ways in Scripture—

First, “gospel” can be used in a general sense—describing all the doctrines of Christ and His apostles. And in this sense, it comprehends the law as well as the gospel.

Second, “gospel” is used in the strict or proper sense, i.e. “good news, glad tidings, or a joyful message.” And it refers to the free grace of the gospel apart from our works. It’s this second sense with which I’m most concerned—the proper use of the term.

The gospel, in the strict sense, is what our triune God does for us. Full stop.

We should be careful not to insert ourselves, or what we do into the gospel equation. If we do this, we essentially become co-mediators and co-redeemers with Christ. Let’s take our cue from Mark 1:15 and other illuminating texts—

In places like Mark 1:15, it becomes very clear that the “gospel” is something distinguishable from commandments requiring us to do something, e.g. “Repent, and believe…” And while the ability to repent and believe is given in the gospel, our actual repenting and believing are not the gospel but our obedience to God’s commands. Our text presupposes this. The gospel is that in which we believe. Our belief is not itself the gospel. Our repentance is not itself the gospel. So what is the gospel?

First, according to our text, the gospel is something we “believe in,” it is something to be believed. More technically, it is something to be apprehended by faith. We might even say that the gospel is something in which rest instead of something for which we work. And this is an incredibly helpful starting point for understanding what the gospel is fundamentally.

If the gospel is something we are to believe, something that is given by God and apprehended only by faith, then it is distinguished from the works of the law. In Romans 4:5, Paul makes this distinction, “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness…” The gospel is that in which we believe. It is not that for which we work. And so, the first observation in terms of what the gospel is is that it is to be distinguished from what we do. And this means it comes to us freely since it’s not conditioned upon anything in us or anything from us.

Second, the gospel is good news. What is the good news? Paul, in Romans 1:16, says, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.” The gospel is the “good news of Christ…” So, it comes through the Son of God incarnate, the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. And in terms of what it is, it is the “power of God unto salvation…” It’s not the power of man. It’s not the works of man. It’s not man’s act or quality of repentance, his act or quality of faith—though both of these things result from the power of God unto salvation. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation “for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.”

Third, this power of God unto salvation which comes through Jesus Christ (alone) refracts into specific aspects—the Person of Christ sent, the work of Christ accomplished, the work of Christ applied to the believer by the Holy Spirit, and the hope of glory at the end. All of these are expressions of God’s power worked out by God Himself in favor of our salvation. But then this power, accomplished in history, is applied to us in terms of justification, adoption, sanctification, and (eventual) glorification. These are things that happen to us, not things we cooperate with. Justification is freely given. Adoption is freely given. Sanctification is freely given. Glorification is freely given. You get the idea.

John Colquhoun (18th -19th c.) helpfully defines the gospel in the following way—

The gospel reveals to us what the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have done for us and are willing to impart to us, how fully and freely these are offered to us, and how they are to be received and enjoyed as gifts of infinitely free and sovereign grace.[1]

In summary, when we speak of the gospel in the most technical sense, it refers to what God has done for us through Christ. The good news is what God does for us, not what we do for God. Understanding this helps us to understand that our redemption, from beginning to end, is of God. The reason why we are made right before God—why God is pleased with us—is not to be found in ourselves but solely in what God has done for us through Christ. And when we understand this, then and only then will our assurance be properly grounded.


[1] John Colquhoun, A Treatise on the Law and the Gospel, (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2022), 102.

An Account of Credobaptism From Matthew 8

An Account of Credobaptism From Matthew 8

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been preaching through Matthew 8 at Victory Baptist Church. And let me just say, it’s a stunning chapter.

It has everything. 

Life, death, resurrection. Fear, faith, and fruitfulness. It’s a microcosm of the overall redemptive arc of our Lord’s incarnate ministry. From Capernaum, through the trial of storm, landing in the nether regions on the other side of Galilee (and Jordan). 

It’s a colorful chapter, no doubt.

But one theme I tried to maintain while preaching through Matthew 8 was discipleship.

Beginning in vv. 18-22, our Lord feeds a hard-to-swallow pill to two wannabe disciples. Then He actually takes His real disciples and draws a vivid and historically real picture of what discipleship looks like—trial, death, victory at the end of it all. From life in Capernaum, to trial at Sea, to death in the tombs, and at long last re-emergence unto life in Matthew 9:1—a return to Jesus’ “own city.”

Recently, as I was once more chewing the gum of Matthew 8 between the teeth of my mind, something emerged that I had not yet noticed:

Jesus’ real disciples follow Him onto the boat. In v. 23, there is a clear connection between an active, outward following of Christ with what it means, fundamentally, to be a disciple.

The Text, Discipleship, & Following Jesus

In vv. 18-22, the emphasis of the chapter turns to discipleship.

This become abundantly clear when we consider v. 19, “Then a certain scribe came and said to Him, ‘Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go.’” The scribe introduces the enduring emphasis from this point on. Our Lord’s response aims at the utter and unapologetic realism of discipleship, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” (v. 20) Discipleship is an “unforgiving” environment by worldly standards.

In v. 21 “another of His disciples” asks Him if he can “first go and bury [his] father.” To which Jesus responds, “Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” (v. 22) 

Given that “disciple” (μαθητής) describes one who learns or follows, it is appropriate to connect that term here with Jesus’ imperative “follow” (ἀκολουθέω), which is to join or accompany someone. A disciple naturally follows his teacher. 

Furthermore, the context clearly sisters these terms together.

The man desiring to bury his father is presumably a disciple. He is called such in v. 21. But he wants to put his goal—following his Master—on hold in order to do something else. This is unacceptable so long as someone considers himself a disciple. A disciple follows, most fundamentally. No matter what value another occupation may seem to have.

In v. 23, something subtle, but pivotal, happens.

Jesus climbs aboard the boat first. The same boat He had allegedly mentioned according to v. 18. The order is important. The Lord goes first. He goes before His disciples. Naturally, of course, His disciples follow Him into the boat, “Now when He got into a boat, His disciples followed Him.” (v, 23) This is the second time, along with vv. 22-23, where discipleship is expressly connected to an active life of following Jesus.

The Text, Discipleship, & Baptism

Having established the connection between discipleship and following Jesus, we can now move to the general maritime trajectory of Jesus and His disciples.

The disciples follow their Lord into a boat. The boat sailed directly into a Galilean squall, which Matthew compared to an earthquake (seismos is the Gk. word used to describe the effects of winds and waves). The waves cover the boat according to v. 24. And their destination is southeast from Capernaum, the “other side” of Galilee—and consequently—the other side of Jordan, i.e. the place of the dead.

The geographical significance cannot be missed. Jesus and His disciples “go down” into the place of the dead, i.e. the tombs of the Gergesenes. (cf. vv. 28-34)

And they do so through water. Water that covers their vessel! And water from which only the Lord Himself delivers them, i.e. “Then He arose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was great calm.” (v. 27)

At this point, the reader is invited to consider the relevance of such a watery deluge on the Sea of Galilee to Jonah, the Flood of Noah and, finally, to baptism—all of which point to redemption from sin and death in Jesus Christ. Again, several layers are no doubt at play in this scene. But it certainly appears as though the Hebrew mind would want to connect the Galilee storm with, at least, Jonah. After all, both Jonah and Jesus are found sleeping on a boat in the midst of a storm. And while the responses of the main characters differ, their surrounding circumstances are nearly identical—down to not only the storm itself, but the responses of the men accompanying them.

But if the other narratives, such as Jonah and Noah, may be connected as parallels to the storm on the Sea of Galilee (and I think they easily can be), then it apparently follows that the storm on the Sea of Galilee is a functional metaphor for baptism. Consider the parallels:

  • Noah and his family are delivered by an ark through the water (1 Pet. 3:20, 21)
  • Jonah is delivered by a fish through the water (Jon. 1:17ff; Lk. 11:30)
  • Jesus’ disciples are delivered by Jesus Himself through the water (Matt. 8:26-28)

If the storm on the Sea of Galilee is a metaphor for the waters of baptism, the natural question ends up being: What immediately preceded that storm? What was the disposition of the disciples before the storm on the Sea?

The answer is found in Matthew 8:23, “Now when He got into a boat, His disciples followed Him.” The disciples were determined to follow their Lord leading up to their “immersion” in the Sea of Galilee, which is, not insignificantly, an extension of Jordan, e.g. where our Lord was baptized.

The prerequisite to the “baptism” in the storm on the Sea of Galilee was that the disciples be actual disciples. That is, that they determine to follow Jesus by faith “onto the boat,” so to speak. Apart from this determination, they would have never entered into the storm.

Just as we determine to follow Jesus through a petition to enter the church leading to baptism, so too did these disciples determine to follow Jesus through stepping onto that boat leading, as it were, to baptism.


I understand that this isn’t a knock-down argument for credobaptism.

But the emphasis upon following Jesus as a disciple leading up to their mutual baptism in the Sea of Galilee seems like a noteworthy image related to how we think of the sacrament of baptism. If the image bears any significance upon how we think of baptism, it would seem like we would need to take into account the manner in which the disciples entered upon the Sea and sailed through the storm.

They did so through determining, by faith, to follow their Lord.