Confessional Baptist Ecclesiology (Part I)

Confessional Baptist Ecclesiology (Part I)

The catholic or universal church, which (with respect to the internal work of the Spirit and truth of grace) may be called invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ, the head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all. (Hebrews 12:23; Colossians 1:18; Ephesians 1:10, 22, 23; Ephesians 5:23, 27, 32)

~ The Second London Baptist Confession (1677), 26.1 ~

In Matthew 16:18 Jesus tells Peter, “I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” Statements such as this one, and others like it, led the 17th century London Baptists to maintain the conviction that there is one church, the bride and body of the Lord Jesus Christ which He secured with His blood. “The catholic or universal church… (26.1),” as our Baptist predecessors called it, is a doctrine surrounded by no small amount of controversy. The controversy largely centers on the misuse of the doctrine by the Roman Catholic Church, though it has suffered confusion since the 4th to 5th centuries. However, the perversion of a doctrine should not lead us to conclude the doctrine itself is false. Good doctrine has suffered much abuse. Examples include but are not limited to the Trinity (cf. John Biddle’s confession), Christology (Arius), and soteriology (Pelagius). But these doctrines ought not be rejected outrightly simply because they’ve been misused by sinners! If misuse were the measurement of what is true or false, there would be no Christianity left.

Returning to Matthew 16:18, Jesus came to secure, establish, and continue a building project. The bride of Christ did not appear in the first century absolutely, as if there were no bride previously. The body of Christ are all those who are united to the Lord Jesus Christ and are, thus, His members. This body comprises both Old Testament and New Testament saints, and has sojourned under various covenants since the time of Adam. In Colossians 1:24, Paul writes, “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church…” And in Ephesians 5:25-27, we read, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.” The church achieves such permanency in the mind of Paul so as to secure a place as the very object of our Lord’s atoning work. He “gave Himself for her.”

John Gill, commenting on Ephesians 5:25, says this church is “his bride and spouse, whom he betrothed to himself from all eternity, the Father having given her to him; and is no other than the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven, even all the elect of God. Ver. 26 That he might sanctify and cleanse it, &c.”[1] Matthew 16:18 probably serves as one of the fundamental teachings set forth by Jesus upon which the apostles, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, further develop the doctrine of the one church. If this is true, it would be prudent to make a few observations that might further bolster the confessional Baptist conception of the universal (or catholic) church.

Christ Builds One Church

Historically, Baptists have confessed the one or universal church of Christ simply because the text demands it. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus promises to build His church. This is a singular usage of the term ekklesia, and thus demands a more robust understanding of the church of Christ not entirely reducible to particular or local bodies. The church Jesus speaks of here has its genesis in His own sufferings, death, and resurrection. To reduce the church to a particular local church neglects this two-millennia-old institution, especially since local churches rise and fall regularly. Most are started and ended within half a century or less. Some churches are planted spontaneously and are not planted from a previously constituted church. This was the case in the 17th century. The Jacob-Lathrop-Jesse church (JLJ church) was not planted from a previously constituted Baptist church, yet was nevertheless a true church.

In Matthew 16:18, Jesus employs the singular or the universal/abstract term ekklesia and promises the continuance of its construction from Pentecost onward by the power of His Holy Spirit. As Gill notes above, this church just is the fullness of the Lord’s elect.

Jesus Possesses This Church

This church is defined, in part, by Jesus’ special possession of it. This is His church. “I will build My church…” He says. He does not say, “I will build My churches…” albeit the existence of local churches is inevitably implied. If ecclesiology were indeed reducible to the local church, one would expect Jesus to reflect such a reduction in the employment of the plural form, ekklesias. As it is, He employs the singular which universalizes the concept. Jesus does not possess several churches, brides, or bodies, He possesses a single church that instantiates in the visible institution of local churches throughout time and across the globe, as we will hopefully discover in a later installment within this series.

The Meaning of Ekklesia

The term often translated to “church,” but is perhaps more woodenly translated to “assembly,” means a “gathering of citizens.”[2] While local assemblies are a concrete and experiential picture of this larger citizenry, the term ekklesia is by no means restricted to local assemblies circumscribed by geographical nearness. It rather has connotations consistent with national assembly, a theme picked up by the apostle Peter, “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light… (1 Pet. 2:9).” This assembly exists on earth and in heaven, that those who’ve preceded us “should not be made perfect apart from us (Heb. 11:40).” Such is implied by Paul when he appeals to our heavenly, mother-Jerusalem, “but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all (Gal. 4:26).”

The term ekklesia is also linked to the “household of God” in Ephesians 2:19-22, “Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” The same term in Matthew 16:18 (oikodomeo) is utilized here in Ephesians 2, albeit in the aorist tense this time. Furthermore, 1 Timothy 3:15 explicitly identifies the “house of God” with the church, “I write to you so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God…”

The English translation of the word ekklesia to “church” is apparently the result of theological interpretation of Scripture (TIS). The English word “church” finds the start of its etymology in the Greek term for “of the Lord” (kuriakon) with “house” (doma). From the Greek, such was translated in Dutch to kerk, finding its German counterpart in the term kirche. It eventually ends up in the old English as cirice. The interpretative translation seemingly occurred in light of the church’s Biblical identification as the “house of God,” or the “house of the LORD.”

As mentioned above, in 1 Timothy 3:15, the “house of God” is the church of the living God. Such language is almost certainly carried over from Old Testament temple language. In 2 Chronicles 2:3, Solomon writes to Hiram, saying, “As you have dealt with David my father, and sent him cedars to build himself a house to dwell in, so deal with me. Behold, I am building a temple for the name of the LORD my God, to dedicate it to Him, to burn before Him sweet incense, for the continual showbread, for the burnt offerings morning and evening, on the Sabbaths, on the New Moons, and on the set feasts of the LORD our God. This is an ordinance forever to Israel.” According to the Hebrew, the same idea, i.e. “house,” is clearly conveyed here. The Septuagint rendering of 2 Chronicles 2:3 even uses the same term used for “house” in 1 Timothy 3:15, i.e. oiko.

A further parallel exists in the fact that the temple had pillars and a foundation, both of which are attributed to the church of the living God. In 1 Kings 7:15, we read, “And he cast two pillars of bronze, each one eighteen cubits high, and a line of twelve cubits measured the circumference of each.” And 2 Chronicles 3:3 says, “This is the foundation which Solomon laid for building the house of God: The length was sixty cubits (by cubits according to the former measure) and the width twenty cubits.” See Revelation 3 for “pillar” language applied to members of Christ’s church.

The New Testament is replete with language identifying the church with the temple of our God, “If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are (1 Cor. 3:17).” And, “And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God (2 Cor. 6:16).” Speaking to the church, Jesus says, “He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more (Rev. 3:12).”

The Old Testament continually links the temple with the presence of God. In fact, the entire significance of the temple was wrapped up in it serving as the special dwelling place of God. And following the finished work of Christ revealed in the New Testament, we learn that the house/temple of God is the church in which God dwells. It is this presence of God which makes the church the temple of the living God. Where the Spirit of God dwells, there is the temple of God, as seems to be basically assumed by the Scriptures themselves. God dwelt in His tabernacle, “So I will consecrate the tabernacle of meeting and the altar. I will also consecrate both Aaron and his sons to minister to Me as priests. I will dwell among the children of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them up out of the land of Egypt, that I may dwell among them. I am the LORD their God (Ex. 29:44-46).” First Corinthians 3:16 makes this same association, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?”

Ezekiel 47 seems to have a multinational scope, since “everything will live wherever the river goes (v. 9b).” The land allotment appears to be larger than that originally promised to Abraham and conquered by Joshua. The land of rest will spill beyond Israel’s then-current borders into Gentile territory. Revelation 21:16 makes the New Jerusalem multinational in scope, since it far surpasses the bounds of the Old Testament promised land, “The city is laid out as a square; its length is as great as its breadth. And he measured the city with the reed: twelve thousand furlongs. Its length, breadth, and height are equal.” Twelve-thousand furlongs equate to 1500 miles. The New Jerusalem of Revelation 21 is cubic in structure, and therefore represents an expansion of the holy of holies, not only beyond the Old Testament temple grounds, but beyond the borders of national Israel. If antecedent New Testament revelation is allowed to be utilized in our interpretation of Revelation 21, the New Jerusalem, or the New Holy of Holies, is the church of the living God. The New Testament could not be clearer that the church is God’s dwelling place, and is therefore the New Covenant temple. In such a light, Revelation 21:16 apparently understands the temple/church as a single entity that transcends geographical and politico-national barriers.

Conclusion

There are several other observations we could make that would further the point of a Baptist doctrine of the universal church. That Christ’s bride must be one, that His body must be singular, etc. could all be used as supporting evidence for this doctrine of the universal church. In the following installment, I will work to distinguish the confessional Baptist doctrine of the catholic church from that of other ecclesiological traditions.

Resources

[1] Gill, John. John Gill’s Exposition on the Entire Bible-Book of Ephesians. Graceworks Multimedia. Kindle Edition. Loc. 2417.

[2] Thayer, J. H. (1889). In A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: being Grimm’s Wilke’s Clavis Novi Testamenti (pp. 195–196). Harper & Brothers.

The Creator-Creature Distinction & the Doctrine of Scripture

The Creator-Creature Distinction & the Doctrine of Scripture

Though the three most influential Reformed confessions (Westminster, Savoy, 2LCF) begin with Scripture, it may surprise the reader to learn that neither confession begins with Scripture as a stand-alone authority. In contemporary discussion revolving around the doctrine of sola Scriptura, too often is the authority of God mixed up with the authority of Scripture. Unwitting or not, the consequence of such a confusion not only insinuates Scripture stands alone as a non-derivative source of knowledge, but it also obscures the influence of theology proper in accounting for the nature of God’s Word. God’s Word is authoritative precisely because it derives from the chief Authority, God Himself. But if Scripture is unhinged from its divine cause, then its very nature falls into question. Inevitably, we begin to subject Scripture and its meaning to various other prejudgments rather than understanding the doctrine of God as the seat and determining agent of what Scripture is.

The current fight for sola Scriptura appears not to be a fight for that doctrine classically understood, but a fight for a particular modern understanding which unwittingly blurs the Creator-creature distinction. Is Scripture creature? If it is, it has a Creator and thus must be understood in light of that Creator. Is Scripture not creature? Well, then, it would be Creator (and we will go ahead and assume this option is off-limits to all of us). Divorced from a robust theology proper, our doctrine of Scripture will slowly but surely erode. If Scripture is caused, then it must be viewed in light of its cause. If we perceive it to be uncaused, with no determining ontology (God) in the background, then it becomes anybody’s wax nose. If there is no immutable cause, then why think the meaning of Scripture is anything but fluid?

Appealing to Confessional Doctrine

At this point, it would be helpful to note that the Second London Confession (1677) explicitly grounds the doctrine of Scripture in God Himself. It reads:

The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the author thereof; therefore it is to be received because it is the Word of God (1.4).

Noteworthy in this paragraph is the transfer of Scripture from the hands of men (or any church) into the hands of God Himself. The negative influence of the Papacy is, of course, behind this paragraph more than any other prevalent institution during the 17th century. Perhaps the church of England, controlled as it were by the monarch, falls within its purview as well.

The central detail is the sufficient reason for why the Scripture ought to be received, that is, because it proceeds from God. The explanation for why we ought to receive Scripture is not the creature but the Creator. The explanation of Scripture’s authority and thus our obligation to receive it is found outside Scripture itself, namely in the God who authored it. And though human institutions may serve as a means to increase our interest in and appreciation of Scripture (cf. 1.5), the sufficient reason for receiving Scripture is its divine Author.

Even though ch. 1 of the confession is purposed to elucidate the doctrine of Scripture, par. 4 can’t help but to bring the doctrine of God into it—a move which apparently anticipates ch. 2. Apart from the doctrine of God, the doctrine of Scripture is rendered void—being detached from the cause that makes it what it is. This is why the doctrine of Scripture and the doctrine of God come first in the confessional order—they are the principles of the faith. Scripture is the principle of knowing God unto salvation. God, however, is the principium essendi, or the principle of Being which explains the nature or ontology of Scripture in the first place.

Theological Interpretation of Scripture

Because God is the cause of Scripture, we are automatically summoned toward a theological interpretation of it. All texts must be interpreted in light of the One who inspired them. Not a single biblical text stands in isolation from its divine Author. Moreover, there is no consideration of a single text in isolation from the context of all the other texts. Knowledge of God, therefore, will shape how we understand the shape of the biblical canon and its particulars. This knowledge comes from two distinct places. 

First, nature bears the inescapable fruits of divine knowledge such that all people know God. Genesis 1:1 resonates even with the first-time Bible-reader because they have been created with the habitus to know God. More than this, throughout the course of their lives, they have discerned Him through His works (Rom. 1:18-20). Hence, Francis Turretin enlists natural theology as a preparatory help in one’s approach to revealed theology. For Turretin, natural theology is useful, “as a subjective condition in man for the admission of the light of grace because God does not appeal to brutes and stocks, but to rational creatures.”[1]

More pertinent to our purpose, however, is the question of how to prioritize theological data derived from Scripture, and how the clearest parts of Scripture illuminate obscure passages. The Second London 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 (1.9).” Clearer texts help us to understand less clear texts. Similarly, the divine cause of Scripture should temper our understanding of the creaturely language utilized by Scripture. Texts about the creature should not determine the meaning of texts about the Creator.

This is not to say God’s works as recorded in Scripture teach us nothing about God. Certainly, God’s works reveal God to us. But in spite of God’s works acting as a medium of divine revelation, we must understand that neither these works nor our apprehension of them condition God as He is in Himself in any way. As Dr. Richard Barcellos notes, “Though we learn of God in the economy, God’s external or outer works, we cannot account properly for those works without a theology of the One who works prior to accounting for them.”[2] Quoting Dr. John Webster, he writes, “God’s outer works are most fully understood as loving and purposive when set against the background of his utter sufficiency—against the fact that no external operation or relation can constitute or augment his life…”[3] And finally, Barcellos helpfully observes, “Without allowing first place to theology proper, we cannot make sense of the cosmological assertions of Scripture, nor, in particular, its anthropomorphic language pertaining to divine action…”[4]

Divine sufficiency accounts of Scriptural sufficiency. Apart from distinguishing between the ontology of the Creator and the ontology of the creature, throughout our Scriptural exegesis, our Scriptural exegesis cannot be expected to either yield or preserve a consistent Creator-creature distinction. This is why Biblicist accounts of Scriptural meaning tend toward numerous forms of heresy—from pantheism to patripassianism to Arianism. On a consistent Biblicist hermeneutics, nothing should be allowed to influence biblical interpretation, not even God Himself who is the very Author of the Bible. On this account, the creature will inevitably have priority, and God will slowly but surely be recrafted into man’s image instead of the other way around.

Conclusion

The Creator-creature distinction is that in light of which we ought to read Scripture. If our exegesis yields conclusions which effectively drag God into His economy, we should retool our exegetical approach in order to avoid such a miscalculation. Scripture must be understood in light of its Author. And though Scripture reveals its Author to us, it also reveals His works. Biblical revelation of God’s works must be tempered by biblical revelation of God Himself. This theological interpretation will not only preserve theology proper, but it will preserve the integrity and objectivity of Scripture and its purpose. Moreover, it will protect us from ourselves. If left to ourselves, we would perceive Scripture to be a wax nose. But if accountable to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in our biblical interpretation, seeing all of Scripture in light of its divine cause, we will be led to uphold an orthodox doctrine of Scripture as well.

Resources:

[1] Turretin, Francis, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 1992), 10.

[2] Barcellos, Richard, Trinity and Creation, (Eugene: Resource Publications, 2020), 13.

[3] Barcellos, Trinity and Creation, 13.

[4] Barcellos, Trinity and Creation, 13.

Yes, We Still Believe Sola Scriptura—A Response to Dr. Sam Waldron

Yes, We Still Believe Sola Scriptura—A Response to Dr. Sam Waldron

That those who hold to classical theism and the originalist intent of the Reformed confessions have embraced the antonym of sola Scriptura is not only baseless, but it also appears to be what might be aptly called a red herring

What is a “red herring”? 

A “red herring” is a distracting argument, retort, or allegation intended to take attention away from the relevant issues. The most relevant “red herring,” for our purposes, is the allegation that those brothers imbibing classical theism have begun to compromise on the doctrine of sola Scriptura. Expressing his concern in a recent article, Dr. Sam Waldron writes, “With such clear and crucial scriptural truth and confessional affirmation before us, it is nothing less than shocking to be confronted in recent years with assertions by Reformed men that (seem to me) directly undermine the truth of the supremacy and sufficiency of sola scriptura.”

Waldron offers what we might call circumstantial “proof” for this alleged slippery slope. That is to say, no one currently on the front lines propagating classical theism has directly called into question the doctrine of sola Scriptura. And, for what it’s worth, those same individuals are currently trying to prevent the drastic revision of Reformation and post-Reformation doctrine.

The doctrinal landscape doesn’t look too good. On the one hand, Waldron and others are criticizing confessional Reformed Baptists for neglecting sola Scriptura, a reformational doctrine no doubt. On the other hand, these same confessional Reformed Baptists (currently under the gun) are actively promoting and defending reformational doctrines, beginning with the doctrine of God—the causal foundation of sola Scriptura in the first place!

As Bertrand Russel would say in his debate with Frederick Copleston, “We are at an impasse!

Two arms of Reformedom—classical trinitarianism and sola Scriptura—are at apparent odds with one another. But how is this so? Either the side alleging compromise regarding sola Scriptura has gotten its definition wrong, or every framer of every Reformed confession of the 17th century had no idea what sola Scriptura meant. I would imagine the former would be off-limits to interlocutors like Waldron, leaving only the latter. But is it really the case that the confessional framers were wrong about sola Scriptura? It’s possible. But are we even equipped to make that kind of a judgment call? And how egotistically bloated are we if we bow out our chest, thump it a few times while saying, “Of course we are!” Our friends don’t appear to go there, not presently at least. Although, increasingly I think they’re becoming flirtatious with that idea (cf. words on Waldron’s closing toward the end of this article).

Given what I’ve expressed above, I will make the assumption throughout this article that we all agree with the confessional doctrine of Scripture as stated in places like the Second London Confession (1677/89), 1.1.

Why I am Concerned

After asserting his alignment with the confessional doctrine of Scripture, Waldron begins giving reasons for his “concerns” in the form of five un-sourced statements. Why they are un-sourced, I’m not entirely sure. One would think if the subject-matter were so “concerning,” the vulnerable would need to know what to look out for and from which direction it may be coming. Instead, Waldron offers five statements of what amounts to hearsay. Thankfully, for the readers of this article, some friends of mine have gathered citations for two of the statements. I will include those citations when I come to them.

First Troubling Statement

The first statement says, “Semper Reformanda … does not mean changing doctrine, but it means applying the doctrine to our lives. It is a clarion call to a vital experiential understanding of the truth in the lives of Christ’s sheep. So it’s not changing our doctrine, but applying the doctrine that we already know to be biblical.” Waldron is quick to call foul, writing, “it seems to me, whatever semper reformanda originally meant, we must embrace the notion that our confessions are subject to being reformed on the basis of sola scriptura.” One has to wonder, however: If we were to engage in revising our confessions, would it truly be on the basis of Scripture, or would it be on the basis of our interpretation of Scripture?

I’m not sure about you, but I live over three-hundred years into Enlightenment history. I have picked up bad habits from the teachers of my culture, my society, my educational system, and even my own parents (and they from theirs, and so on). It’s a perennial, generational issue because since at least the 17th century, the culture has been soaked in a thousand different idealisms all vying for first place.

We are, to some degree, an intellectual product of the circumstances in which we live. Thankfully, in order to transcend our immediate milieu, we have things like formal logic useful for analysis of the present, but we also have history, in which we explore the what and the why of yesteryear. Maybe earlier ages had lesser intellectual and societal baggage than we do. Scripture itself testifies to the wisdom of looking back to older generations when it says, “Do not remove the ancient landmark Which your fathers have set” (Prov. 22:28). YHWH, in Jeremiah 6:16, says, “Ask for the old paths, where the good way is, And walk in it.”

It would be naive, if not arrogant (or both), to suggest we have the individualistic wherewithal to approach revision of the confessions when we ourselves, as Particular Baptists, have barely scratched the surface in our understanding of the background behind the confessional language in the first place. The current debate demonstrates this to be the case. Therefore, we ought to beware, lest we, rather than Scripture, are the ones doing the revising.

Second Troubling Statement

The second statement is from an article posted on The London Lyceum in review of Jeffrey Johnson’s recent book, The Failure of Natural Theology. It reads—

2LCF 1.1 confesses the following: “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience…” Notice what Scripture is sufficient for. Is it everything? No. It is not sufficient for changing the oil on my truck. It is not sufficient for installing a new hard drive in my computer. It is sufficient for saving knowledge, faith, and obedience. Everything necessary for the Christian life is found in the Bible. But not every detail of the faith is there.

For Waldron, this statement appears mostly correct, except for the last line, “But not every detail of the faith is there.” Waldron rebuts with the confessional language which, in context, reads, “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience…” But Waldron actually changes the sense of this statement by summarizing it as, “Scripture is the only rule for faith.” This is not what the Confession says. 

The Confession states that the Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience…” Scripture is the only sufficient rule for faith, but it is not the only informant of our faith, which is what the guys over at The London Lyceum seem to mean. Jordan Steffaniak, the author of the statement in question, goes on to write, “This does not mean we need things outside of Scripture for ‘saving knowledge, faith, and obedience…’ But if we want to both know and enjoy God to the maximum degree, we ought to utilize all the means God has given us in his good creation.”

Certainly the heavens informed David’s faith, “The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament shows His handiwork” (Ps. 19:1). And Paul explicitly tells us that God has given us (both unbelievers and believers) a witness through providence, “in that He did good, gave us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17). These texts assume a circumstance that preceded the texts themselves, namely, the witness of God through nature accessible to all men. The book of Scripture does not change, add, or annul, but assumes, that which may be gleaned through the book of nature. Thus, there doesn’t appear to be legitimate concern here. And, there is no departure from the confessional doctrine of Scripture.

Third Troubling Statement

The third statement is from Matthew Barrett’s recent book, Simply Trinity, pp. 65-66. Bear in mind that Barrett clearly says things like, “the Nicene Creed is not a dead letter; rather, it carries authority to this day. No, it is not on par with Scripture; it is not a source of divine revelation (p. 65).” Yet, this is never mentioned in Waldron’s representation. What Waldron does quote is partly from the book-proper, but mostly from a side-note on the synchronic definition of the term heresy (how it has been understood in its classical setting). The whole of the quote reads—

To depart from the creed is to depart from scriptural teaching itself. … Heresy is a belief that contradicts, denies, or undermines a doctrine that an ecumenical church council has declared biblical and essential to Christianity. What makes heresy so subtle and dangerous? It is nurtured within the church and is wrapped within Christian vocabulary. Its representatives even quote the Bible. It often presents itself as the whole truth when it is a half-truth.

Why Waldron selected these two parts to go together in his representation of Barrett’s words is a mystery. He certainly did not represent the author well. Barrett clearly says, “since [the Nicene Creed] conforms to Scripture, it is to be adhered to, confessed, and celebrated in the church to this day. To depart from the creed is to depart from scriptural teaching itself.”

In other words, Barrett is clearly setting forth what everyone ought to agree with. When someone or something speaks the Word of God clearly and accurately, it also does so authoritatively (to the extent it gets it right). If the Nicene Creed is in line with the biblical data, then it carries authority. It is, to use the older language, not the norming norm (Scripture), but the normed norm. The creeds are designed to norm us, though they themselves are normed by a higher standard, the Scripture. So, again, there is nothing of concern here. There is nothing that suggests a departure from an orthodox understanding of Scripture.

Fourth Troubling Statement

The fourth statement comes from a friend of Waldron’s after having a conversation with some fellow Reformed brethren. I am going to refrain from commenting on this particular statement since it is said to have come from what appears to have been a private conversation. I do not want to speculate on meaning, intention, etc.

Fifth Troubling Statement

Waldron summarizes this last statement as, “Thomas Aquinas held to sola Scriptura.” Since this article comes with virtually no source material cited, I cannot determine whether this is something truly being stated and seriously defended. But suffice it to say this concern of Waldron’s illustrates the difficulty of summarizing an entire doctrine of Scripture with the moniker sola Scriptura

Sola Scriptura is a statement designed to affirm the preeminence of Scripture’s authority over other authorities, because it comes from God, “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the author thereof; therefore it is to be received because it is the Word of God” (2LBCF, 1.4).

If this is all we mean by sola Scriptura, then Thomas Aquinas believed sola Scriptura. If, however, we mean more than the above statement on primary authority, then, well, Thomas most likely did not believe in sola Scriptura. For example, in the Summa Theologiae, he makes this statement about unwritten apostolic teaching—

The Apostles, led by the inward instinct of the Holy Spirit, handed down to the churches certain instructions which they did not put in writing, but which have been ordained, in accordance with the observance of the Church as practiced by the faithful as time went on. Wherefore the Apostle says (2 Thess 2:14): Stand fast; and hold the traditions which you have learned, whether by word—that is by word of mouth—or by our epistle—that is by word put into writing. Among these traditions is the worship of Christ’s image. Wherefore it is said that Blessed Luke painted the image of Christ, which is in Rome (ST, III. Q. 25, A. 3).

Would we disagree with this? Of course. In our estimation, oral tradition is neither a parallel nor a coequal source of authority alongside Scripture. To be fair, however, a parallel source of divinely inspired, but unwritten, instruction did not feature in Thomas’ work to the extent one might expect. Nevertheless, no one wants to argue Thomas held to sola Scriptura in the broadest sense of that term. But did he believe Scripture was the chief authority and source of the chief science (sacred theology)? Yes he did. Furthermore, in other places, he appears to make the “doctors of the church” subordinate to Scripture, “Nevertheless, sacred doctrine makes use of these authorities as extrinsic and probable arguments; but properly uses the authority of the canonical Scriptures as an incontrovertible proof, and the authority of the doctors of the Church as one that may properly be used, yet merely as probable” (ST, Q. 1, A. 8, C. 3).

Waldron further complains that in his Commentary on the Gospel of John, Thomas says, “The reason is that only canonical Scripture is a measure of faith.” This is certainly not a statement implying some belief in sola Scriptura, Waldron retorts. He writes, “First, the contrast Thomas is drawing in context is between canonical Scripture and non-canonical writings. He is not contrasting Scripture with the oral traditions of the church.” In the actual context, there is nothing necessitating this observation. It appears to be conjecture. He further says, “Second, he does not say that the canonical Scripture is the measure of faith, but ‘a measure of faith.’ The author of the article on this site makes this point clearly.” Since Thomas, Waldron thinks, does not say “the measure of faith,” but, “a measure of faith,” he cannot possibly hold to sola Scriptura.

However, we have to remember something: Thomas wrote in Latin. In Latin, there are no articles, e.g. “the” or “a.” Articles have to be added into the English translation. In fact, my translation has Thomas writing, “The reason for this is that only the canonical Scriptures are the standard of faith.”

One Last Issue

Waldron converses at length in an effort to repel allegations of biblicism apparently launched in his direction. I will not cover this conversation here. What I would like to do at this point is look at his closing words. He ends his article by asking the question, “Did the Development of Doctrine Cease in the 17th Century?” In this section, he affirms his love for the high Reformed and Puritan theologians of the 17th century, and then adds—

But I cannot accept the view that the development of doctrine ceased in the 17th century. This really seems to be the perspective of some. The New Testament teaches that the organic development of Christ’s church continues throughout this age and only ceases when the church is finally built and Christ returns. This infers the development of doctrine throughout this age.

Jude 3 says, “Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.” Doctrine itself does not develop. It is what it is, as God revealed it. Is there work that goes into properly understanding this doctrine? Yes. This is why we should make a distinction between doctrine in itself (in se) as an object of human knowledge, and doctrine as it exists—to a greater or lesser degree—in the mind of the knowing subject (in subiecto). Does our understanding grow over the years? Yes, it most certainly does—and I think this is what Waldron is getting at.

However, we must keep in view what that means. This is our understanding. Are we ready to assert our understanding over and against those who have gone before us? To answer this question, we have to take a humble posture and ask, “Are we even equipped to take up such a task?” The answer would unequivocally be, “No!” We have not properly understood the doctrine of the confessions up to this point in a way that would allow us to fruitfully disagree with them. Less than 30 years ago, the majority of American Christians were Arminians, and they didn’t even know it. We are seriously behind! 

Further, we most certainly have not even begun to grasp the hermeneutical methodology that led to the framers’ dogmatic reflections. Once we can confidently say we’ve penciled all this through, we can assert our objections and make revisions. My suspicion, however, is that we are nowhere near capable of performing this task with any shred of humility or skill.

In the 17th century, Cartesian rationalism dawned. In the 18th century, idealism dawned in the face of skepticism. In the 19th century, fideism and biblicism served as the reactionary fruit of the first two centuries. The 20th century gave us the industrial revolution, the sexual revolution, an expansion of the governmental educational system—the likes of which the world has never seen—and the rapid influence of feminism. Not only this, but from the 19th century onward, concomitant with fideism as its opposite, higher criticism took textual interpretation by storm. Nicene (partitive) exegesis was largely lost, the sensus plenoir entirely disrupted, and we can go ahead and forget about the anologia fide. We are dealing with a plethora of influences, each competing for maximal pressure in terms of our understanding of life’s greatest questions.

How can we seriously look back to our forefathers, who did not have (by the way) this same intellectual baggage, and presume to revise their work? We are not ready, beloved! Waldron cites the developments in eschatology since the 17th century. Supposedly, we have made strides since then. I do not believe this is the case. There is more divisiveness and confusion concerning eschatology than there ever was in the pre-modern and early modern eras. Eschatology, in fact, appeared much more cogent, generally, in the first five centuries of the church’s history than it does now.

Waldron ends by saying, “We must not assume the perfection and finality of the High Reformed construction of doctrine. They did not assume it. We should not either. All of our development of doctrine is subject to the lord and master, sola scriptura!” Ironically, however, Waldron would have to assume his own finality or primacy if he were to revise the confessional dogmas, and that goes for anyone who would enter upon that humbling task. Likewise, to cut the creeds and confessions from any definition of orthodoxy turns orthodoxy into nothing more than a was nose. Every man, it seems, gets to define both orthodoxy and heresy without any reference to guiding traditionary influences. But this does nothing more than transfer the powers of the magisterium from the Vatican to the study desk. Universal popery and individual popery function on the same fundamental principles. Thankfully, a confessional understanding and placement of tradition helps us to avoid either of these extremes.

Whatever happened to our humble admission that the men who went before us knew better than us? Why do we now turn a suspicious eye toward our forefathers? Have we really become skeptics? Confessional agnostics? Is that how we read our fathers in the faith, with skepticism rather than optimistic trust in Christ—that He indeed was building His church then as He is now? And should we not work within that apparatus instead of doubting everything that precedes us?

I will end with a quote by Matthew Barrett, who eloquently summarizes the issue here and provides a succinct solution: “Our default instinct should not be a hermeneutic of suspicion but a hermeneutic of trust, one that breeds humility, an eagerness to sit as a pupil at the feet of orthodoxy rather than stand over it as its lord” (Simply Trinity, p. 66).

When Scripture Becomes A Wax Nose

When Scripture Becomes A Wax Nose

With the contemporary skeptical approach to natural theology has come an influx of Trinitarian and Christological errors. Why is this? Probably because a rejection of the natural truths God reveals about Himself through nature will inevitably lead to a rejection of those same truths even as they come through Scripture—or at least there will be a drastic reinterpretation of them. Immutability, simplicity, self-existence—all three may be known about God through natural revelation. This is what Thomas demonstrates in his Summa Theologiae, and it is what was understood to be the case in the first generation Reformers onward (cf. John Calvin’s Institutes, Book I).

What happens when the data of natural revelation falls by the wayside? The same data perfectly and perspicuously presented in the Scriptures is interpreted on the supposition of some other metaphysical or epistemological standard (admittedly or not). This other standard is what fills the vacuum left by the first principles given through nature. We are then left with the problem of biblicism. But with biblicism, one is not allowed to carry a natural understanding of God into the interpretive task in any measure. Scripture becomes the soul witness to immutability, simplicity, and self-existence. This is not in itself a problem, since Scripture ought to be received because it is from God—the highest Authority. But when the individual Bible-reader rejects the testimony of nature, Scripture becomes a wax nose formable to whatever philosophy he uncritically and unwittingly imbibes.

When Turretin says that natural theology functions as “a subjective condition in man for the admission of the light of grace because God does not appeal to brutes and stocks, but to rational creatures,”[1] he means that man, as imago Dei, possesses a natural intellect providentially direct by God to appropriate Scriptural data. God’s Scriptural appeal is made to rational creatures. And when, by grace, a rational creature is made to accept and trust in the truth of Scripture, his rational appetites are not extinguished but improved. 

Biblicism rejects the reality of the light of reason before and after regeneration. It’s not that the biblicist doesn’t use the light of reason; it’s that he uses it unacknowledged. And rather than critically examine his own philosophical assumptions using the light of reason, keeping the good ones while exiling the bad ones, he refuses to acknowledge he has any philosophical assumptions at all even though he does. This unexamined life then leads to an always-shifting understanding of biblical meaning. 

If a person’s philosophical assumptions change, so will their interpretational approach to Scripture. Just observe the historical-causal connection between the Enlightenment of the 18th century and the church’s interpretational method before and after that period of time. Or, if you like, look at the theological changes that took place from the pre-modern era into the modern era. If philosophical assumptions are never given a voice, they’ll always be changing. A person can only consciously hold their position in place if they are conscious of it.

There is no approaching Scripture as a tabula rasa (blank slate), even after regeneration. A person is going to approach Scripture with some kind of a philosophical precommitment. Classical theism offers a transparent, commonsensical philosophy. Simply put, the light of nature prepares for the introduction of the light of Scripture. The light of nature informs our understanding of Scripture, and Scripture turns us back to nature so that we can understand it to a greater and more perfect extent. And thus, the classical theist may employ natural theology in service to specially revealed theology derived from the Scriptures. Those who reject classical theism cannot see how natural theology may be used in service to supernatural theology.

As a result, they not only remain happily ignorant of the sophisticated expression of the faith, found in the terminology of the creeds and confessions, they actively combat it. It is one thing to remain in ignorance, it is quite another to be confronted with further truths and react by recalcitrantly rejecting those truths. While one may permissibly be ignorant of the more articulate expression of the Christian faith, they do not have permission to reject that articulate expression of the Christian faith should it be true.

Resources:

[1] Turretin, Francis, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. I, (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 1992), 10.

A Note on Political Theology

A Note on Political Theology

The Noahic Covenant remains because no place in Holy Scripture abrogates it. On the contrary, it assumes its continuance in places like Romans 13. It’s institution is neither causal nor characteristic of the domain of darkness (1 Jn. 1:5). But neither is it’s administration granted to the Redemptive Kingdom (kingdom of God). This is because the sword is instituted in the Noahic Covenant, and this is nowhere said to be a power of grace and faith but of nature and law.

The civil sphere is of the Noahic administration (or civil/common kingdom), and a necessary part of creation (Cf. Gen. 9). It may contextualize the Redemptive kingdom (the kingdom of God is in the world, not of the world), but its ordinances do not belong to the Redemptive kingdom. Romans 13 gives the “sword” to civil government, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God (v. 1).” At no point does Scripture grant the powers of the sword to the kingdom of God.

So, there is a domain of darkness (principalities, powers, etc). But distinctly, there are two kingdoms both of which are afflicted by that same domain and influenced by it in different ways, yet neither are ever defeated—the common/civil kingdom being upheld by common grace, and the Redemptive kingdom through special grace.

The common kingdom is the Noahic institution and administration which remains until the consummation and judgment. The Redemptive kingdom is the New Covenant and all which comes through it. The domain of darkness is the realm of the devil and his demons who were defeated by Christ and have been immutably sentenced to eternal damnation. This realm affects both the common and the Redemptive kingdoms at present, yet the common kingdom remains good in itself, and the Redemptive kingdom remains good in itself. And the domain of darkness will be finally extinguished upon the consummation.

Natural Theology in the Puritan, Thomas Watson

Natural Theology in the Puritan, Thomas Watson

Thomas’ five ways are well known. But fewer know that another Thomas had even more.

Thomas Watson was born in England in 1620. Cambridge-trained (Emmanuel College), he eventually became the vicar of St. Stephen’s Walbrook. But he was a nonconformist and was eventually ejected from licensure around 1660. He would be reinstated in the 1670s before retiring, probably in the early 1680s just before his death in 1686. 

He was beautifully eloquent. Not only was he theologically surpassing, but his literary skill hardly found a match. My wife and I have a running jest that he was the “theologian of breasts.” Not for any perverted reason, but because he always seems to find a place to work in the nurturing Spirit of God through that particular analogy. God’s grace, abundance, benevolence, and love are often the targets of his bosom analogies. To give you an idea, he says, “Mercy pleases him. It is delightful to the mother, says Chrysostom, to have her breasts drawn; so it is to God to have the breasts of his mercy drawn (Works, Loc. 1964).”

Thomas Watson’s Natural Theology

He is an easy and wondrous author to read. But his theological skill and precision continue to be seen, even through the flowers and vines of his gentle ink-strokes. Located in ch. 2 of his Body of Divinity, Watson takes to developing seven ways through which we might come to a knowledge of God. They are—

  • By the book of nature
  • By His works
  • Conscience
  • Consent of the nations
  • Prophecy
  • His power and sovereignty
  • The devils

By the book of nature, Watson intends the engraving of God’s law upon the hearts of men (Rom. 2). “The notion of a Deity is engraven on man’s heart; it is demonstrable by the light of nature.” But by God’s “works” Watson intends the world surrounding the rational person. “We will begin,” he says, “with the creation of the glorious fabric of heaven and earth. Sure there must be some architect or first cause. The world could not make itself. Who could hang the earth on nothing but the great God (Loc. 913)?” And, “The wise government of all things evinces there is a God… Providence is the queen and governess of the world.” Toward the end of the section, he says, “Understanding, Will, Affections are a glass of the Trinity, as Plato speaks. The matter of the soul is spiritual, it is a divine spark lighted from heaven; and being spiritual, is immortal, as Scaliger notes; anima non senescit; ‘the soul does not wax old,’ it lives for ever (Loc. 939).”

By way of proof through the conscience, he writes, “Conscience is a witness of a Deity. If there were no Bible to tell us there is a God, yet conscience might.” And, “it is observable, the nearer the wicked approach to death, the more they are terrified.” The nations also consent to the existence of God, he says, “by the universal vote and suffrage of all men (Loc. 952).” This is notable, seeing how Watson was a nonconformist. Through prophecy, God is proved, “He who can foretell things which shall surely come to pass is the true God… God himself uses this argument to prove he is the true God, and that all the gods of the heathen are fictions and nullities. Isa 41:23.” The sixth line of proof is God’s power and sovereignty. “He who can work, and none can hinder, is the true God… he acts according to his pleasure, he doth what he will (Loc. 965).”

Finally, Watson presents an argument for God from the existence of devils. “There are devils, therefore there is a God.” And, “Socrates, a heathen, when accused at his death, confessed, that, as he thought there was a malus genius, an evil spirit, so he thought there was a good spirit.” These are precious arguments for the existence of God because, though we may think little of them today, they evince a period in time when the supernatural world was taken for granted, even by the heathen, and not suppressed by rationalism, idealism, and materialism. I think it is time we stop granting the latter in favor of the former.

Conclusion

In the whirlwind of recent discussion, I thought it would be calming to sit down with an old, yet familiar voice. Watson has been my friend. I know him, though he may not know me. He has been helpful to me as friends usually are. Agree or disagree, one has to at least ask the question, “Why did he think like this, and why was he not out of league with the rest of his peers?” Such questions, I’ve found, are humbling when answered. We may relegate his time and intellectual milieu to an irrelevant, bygone era. But is that the case? I do not think it is. I think they knew something we’ve allowed to slip away under pressure from the world. And I think that something is worth rekindling, keeping, and defending.