Posted on Sunday, April 14, 2019 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Preaching on Sunday for my friend, Jeff Stivason, at Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church I was reminded of how beautiful unaccompanied psalm singing can be.  While I am not an exclusive psalmodist, I was first ordained as ruling elder in a (then) psalms-only denomination (the Free Church of Scotland) and still believe that they should provide the core of Christian worship and a basic element in regular Bible reading.   Human beings are emotional creatures and sometimes mere prose is not enough to give voice to that part of our experience in this world. The Book of Psalms speaks to that.  And it is why, years ago, I wrote a little piece, ‘What Can Miserable Christians Sing?’   Ironically, I think this little article took me just a few minutes to write, but over the years I have had more positive correspondence about it than anything else I have ever done.     

 

Recently, the good folk over at 9Marks reprinted it on their website.   They have been more than appreciative of it over the years and this week I will be recording an interview with them to talk about it.  They also invited me some five years ago to reflect on the article in another piece, still available here.  They seem to have helped others beyond anything I could ever have hoped.  From bereaved parents to those simply struggling to find their place in this life, I have received kind and moving notes from them all. 

 

Some weeks ago, my wife and I had the pleasure of chatting over a drink with one of our heroes, Tony Esolen, the great Dante translator.  He commented on how recent suffering in his professional life had culminated in him being driven by slanderers from his tenured position at Providence College but had also led him to a deep and renewed love of the psalms, especially those where the psalmist laments his ill treatment at the hands of others.  The conversation brought to our own minds how the psalms have been a constant source of strengthening for us in times of trouble.  And we have particularly come to appreciate not only reading and singing the psalms but also hearing them, both in classical arrangements by composers such as Heinrich Schutz and the traditional Scottish a capella renditions of the ‘1650’ but also newer arrangements by younger artists – my wife has an especial fondness for the recordings of Wendell Kimbrough. 

 

That is the genius of the psalms.  The words and the emotions they convey transcend the particularities of each of our cultures and go to the heart of the Christian's experience as a new creation in the mists of the fallen old creation. And, praise God, we live in such a remarkable time for bringing them to the fore of the practice of the Faith, for there are now so many psalters, ancient and modern, from all across the globe and so many resources to help us understand and use them devotionally and litugically.

 

From Athanasius to Luther to Bonhoeffer, the psalms have been the central expression of Christian spirituality for many of the great figures of church history. Even the vastly overrated Bono introduced an edition of the psalms with the surprisingly insightful comment that they were like the blues of the Bible, often expressing the painful experience of a people longing for liberation from bondage.  There are fine daily devotionals devoted to them, classic Psalters, split-leaf psalters, modern Psalters, and even a new Psalter-Hymnal produced by the joint effort of the OPC and URCNA. There is even that most incongruous sounding of all things: yes, there is even app for that -- for a split leaf version of the Scottish 1650.

 

The psalms can be ‘culturally appropriated’ by us all because they speak of the universal human condition.  They allow us to be honest with God in a deep, dramatic, and yet reverent way.  Indeed - is it not wonderful that God is not simply so gracious that he gave us his Son but that he even gives a liturgy by which we can praise him even in times of weakness, darkness, and even virtual despair?  There is now no excuse why the church’s greatest hymnal should not be part of the liturgical and pastoral arsenal of the church today.   The broken-hearted – indeed, all of us – can only benefit from its regular use.   

 

Psalm singing: not just cultural appropriation we should all believe in, but cultural appropriation that is true pastoral kindness and practical spiritual prudence.  They are for all who suffer.  And, in the end, that is all of us.

 

Posted on Wednesday, April 03, 2019 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

I have been asked to put together an undergraduate elective course on the doctrine of God for Grove students for next year.  There is, of course, a current (and most welcome) revival of interest in Protestant circles in classical Trinitarianism and the theology of the first four ecumenical councils, built on the back of the historical scholarship of the last thirty years in patristic, medieval, and early modern areas.    We now know so much more about what the church through the ages thought about its greatest dogmas that, for orthodox Christians today, one could borrow the words of Wordsworth on the French Revolution:

Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive
But to be young was very heaven.

Yet teaching such a course raises peculiar challenges, not least the fact that pre-modern theology was typically driven not simply by exegetical or polemical concerns but also by doxology.  Debates about the Trinity offer a good example: for all of the rarified distinctions and arcane language of Nicene and post-Nicene theology, the driving issue could be summarized in this way: ‘What are we saying about God when we baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit?’   And while the ferocious back and forth between Nestorius and Cyril and their followers can sometimes make the reader’s head spin, the basic concern is this: ‘When we cry out in praise, “Jesus is Lord!”, what are we saying and on what grounds can we say it?’   Surely there is nothing more simply doxological in Christianity than baptism and praise?  Classical theology was founded in praise and terminated in praise.

 

So constructing a course to teach such in the present day is a challenge, because the matter is not simply one of the grammar of theology proper, nor of mastering the semantics of the vocabulary of classical theism.  It involves capturing something of the awe and wonder and humbling mystery of the truths of God in Himself and of God made flesh -- of the soverign and transcendent God who yet stoops to save.  And for a younger generation that wants to see an immediate practical pay-off (read: connecting to action in this world) for any theological idea and also wants a God who is immediately sympathetic and approachable, the transcendent God of the creeds seems rather remote and even abstract, the preserve of pointy-headed theology wonks.

 

Thus, I am convinced that teaching the doctrine of God must involve two further elements, in addition to both tracing out the historical and exegetical story of creedal formulation and addressing the various systematic and polemical concerns.  It must also pay attention to the church’s language of praise; and it must cultivate a humble piety which prevents the collapsing of the Creator and creature, an which piety was such a hallmark of key players in the development of the doctrine of God, not least men such as the great Gregory of Nazianzus and, from a later epoch, Anselm.

 

And so when I teach the course, I intend not simply to read the classic polemical and systematic texts with the students – ‘On the Incarnation’ by Athanasius, ‘On the Unity of Christ’ by Cyril, ‘On the Trinity’ by Augustine etc.  Such texts are basic and vital.   But I also intend to look at the liturgies and the poems and the sermons and the hymns and prayers which many of these men wrote.  That will hopefully take the students to the heart of the Christian devotion which really drove these men and which led them (often reluctantly) into the fire of the sadly necessary polemics.

 

In this context, readers might want to look at the following books which help to connect classical theism to devotion and praise:

On God and Man: The Theological Poetry of St. Gregory of Nazianzus

Daily Readings: the Early Church Fathers

Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm

John Owen, On Communion with God

Posted on Wednesday, March 27, 2019 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

It was a real pleasure to see Barry York’s very kind interaction with my recent DenDulk Lecture.   The lecture itself was, as I confessed, long on analysis of the manifold temptations to corruption and incompetence to which religious institutions are prone and rather shorter on solutions.  Barry’s response beautifully fills that lacuna.  He offers a vision of seminary life that is not simply committed to protecting the brand, whatever the cost, which actually cares for and respects the church, which humbly listens to more than just the local gods, which prioritizes competence and catholicity in theological thought, teaching, and writing, and which stewards its resources for the good of the kingdom not for the good ol' boys.

Here’s a taster, where he summarizes a point I made and then offers an answer:

 

Intellectual Incest Breeds Idiot Children

If the above subtitle (When Your Universe is Small, Your Tiny, Local Gods are Powerful) was provocative, this one is far more so! What does Trueman mean? He is continuing with the thought above, that when seminaries become isolationist they develop an "us versus them" attitude. They become suspicious of outside influences and, given inherent blind spots in their theological system and overemphasis on certain distinctives, begin to narrow down to protect their turf and consequently become inbred. A spirit of Pharisaical pride is cultivated and breathed in by the students. The seminary can begin speaking in terms of manifest destiny, using pious, kingdom language to describe their initiatives and projects as if they were ultimate in nature.

Read more broadly. This suggestion is actually the main application that Trueman offered in his lecture. Despite saying he did not have any solutions, he did encourage this one at least to students. Seminary curriculum should contain a healthy dose of classical theological literature, not just a focus on the literary minutiae of the theological or ecclesiastical camp of the seminary. One encouraging trend for the church at large, that the seminary should encourage, is reading and discussion groups of classic texts. Reading beyond our own camp helps maintain an appropriate balance in our theology.

 

Thanks, Barry.  And apologies for forgetting RPTS in my introduction.   I will buy you dinner next time you are at Grove or I’m in Pittsburgh.

Posted on Monday, March 18, 2019 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

In our ongoing discussion of the doctrine of God, it is worth reflecting on the fact that a church needs two things to be confessionally healthy: a sound form of words (a creed or confession); and a form of government by which the content of this can be preserved from generation to generation.  Positively, that means an eldership which promotes sound preaching and teaching; negatively, an eldership which disciplines those who deviate from the same.

 

For Reformed and Presbyterians, J. Gresham Machen stands as both a fine advocate of the former and a tragic victim of the failure of the latter.  His book, Christianity and Liberalism, remains a hard-hitting and concise summary of the issues at stake between supernatural Christianity and its liberal counterfeit.  And his own career is tragically ironic: prosecuted by a church for breaking church law by a denomination that had signally failed to prosecute others for lethal deviations for theological orthodoxy.

 

Central to Machen was his experience at Princeton Theological Seminary.  When the Seminary was reorganized in 1929, he left to form Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.  Westminster, unlike Princeton, was not a denominational seminary.  Machen was convinced the denomination had pulled Princeton down, and he was gravely concerned that the changes to its governance would ultimately lead to its being populated by professors, “who consent to conform to the opinions of the party dominant for the moment in the councils of the Church.” In order to avoid being subject to the whims of denominational drift, he established Westminster with an independent board of trustees.

 

Most Reformed seminaries today follow Machen’s model. But the threats to confessional orthodoxy are different today to those in 1929.  One such, which is often unnoticed, is that created by the educational marketplace.  Since most students can easily travel for their education many seminaries holding to the same confessional standards are competing for the many of the same students. In such an environment, it is tempting for them to gravitate for their identity to sub-confessional theological distinctives.  Some of this is inevitable – institutions have their own histories and small faculties are bound to have particular strengths.  But it becomes dangerous when these get accented and the catholicity and balance of the confessions becomes distorted. 

 

Notwithstanding his approach to seminary oversight, Machen is unequivocally clear and forceful on the question of the creedal basis of the church. He writes: “…even if a creedal Church were an undesirable thing, it would still remain true that as a matter of fact many (indeed in spirit really all) evangelical churches are creedal churches., and that if a man does not accept their creed he has no right to a place in their teaching ministry.” He knew the dangers of such deviations, and in fact much of his polemical writing was focused on just this problem:

 

If the “constitutional questions” do not fix clearly the creedal basis of the Presbyterian Church, it is difficult to see how any human language could possibly do so. Yet immediately after making such a solemn declaration, immediately after declaring that the Westminster Confession contains the system of doctrine taught in infallible Scriptures, many ministers of the Presbyterian Church will proceed to decry that same Confession…

 

Today we have to remind ourselves that the dangers to creedal orthodoxy can arise not simply from individual congregations, but from larger institutions that shape denominations: the seminaries and influential pulpits and conference speakers. It still may be wise in our current climate for Reformed seminaries to have boards untethered by the apparatus of a particular denomination. But at the same time, seminaries and other parachurch organizations need to make sure that their rhetoric of serving the church is not just rhetoric, and that when matters arise which are properly dealt with by the church courts, these matters are then left to the church courts. The past victories of Machen’s warrior children are no guarantee of the present orthodoxy of the institutions and platforms which they represent. For those institutions that serve denominations (whether formally or informally), confessional integrity – through creedal fidelity and submission to the church courts – is the end to which their efforts must be directed.

 

Jonathan L. Master and Carl R. Trueman are ministers in the Philadelphia Presbytery of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

Posted on Saturday, March 16, 2019 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Given the positive response to our first two posts, and the fact that the doctrine of God is now emerging as a contested locus within our own denomination, we continue this ongoing series with some reflections on the type of questions that should be asked of candidates relative to the Christology of the Reformed confessions.

 

Last week’s second Den Dulk lecture, Follow the Money, contained a section with the crassly insensitive title, ‘Intellectual incest breeds idiot children.’ The basic point was that certain types of institutionalized Reformed theology dialogue only with themselves, engage those outside of the inner circle only to critique them, and thus dangerously detach themselves from the teaching of the wider Christian tradition. The result is that mistakes and errors can be unchecked, replicated, strengthened and magnified over time, and culminate in an actual departure from confessional orthodoxy. We see the sad fruit of this in the loss of true Trinitarian theology in evangelicalism, and in the disparagement of catholic doctrines such as simplicity, immutability, and impassibility in Reformed churches and institutions.

 

Nowhere is this risk greater than in the doctrines of God and Christ. The Reformers did not offer distinctly Reformed understandings of these.  As the Reformation advanced, they found that the catholic creeds provided them with exactly what they needed to articulate the Bible’s teaching.  Therefore, as noted a few weeks ago on this blog, knowledge of church history, of the controversies, heretics, categories and definitions of ancient Christological debates, of the formulations of the Councils of Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451), along with collateral writings such as those by Cyril of Alexandria and the Tome of Leo, are important for understanding what the Reformed confessions teach.   Knowledge of later problematic movements – the Socinians and their passible, limited God, for example – is also key if we are to understand both what our confessions affirm and what they reject.

 

For students, we would suggest comparing whatever new teaching you might receive in the classroom with both the confessions upon which your denomination is founded and with the Christian consensus which these confessions seek to represent.  After all, you do not want to pay good money to be taught incorrectly and thereby trained to fail presbytery exams. You surely want to pass them.  And remember that on matters of the Trinity and Christology in particular, the Reformed confessions make no claim to originality. The idea that they were overthrowing the previous teaching of the Church – or setting their followers on a trajectory to do so – is contrary to their entire spirit.

 

This could not be more clearly stated than in the Second Helvetic Confession. Bullinger puts it this way:

And, to say many things with a few words, with a sincere heart we believe, and freely confess with open mouth, whatever things are defined from the Holy Scriptures concerning the mystery of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, and are summed up in the Creeds and decrees of the first four most excellent synods convened at Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon -- together with the Creed of blessed Athanasius…and we condemn everything contrary to these.

This is especially notable because, in the recent past, attempts have been made to use a misshapen and frankly unorthodox Christology as a starting point – either for new doctrinal formulations about the scriptures or for changes in the traditional doctrine of God. It is no accident that the Reformed confessions assume the traditional understanding both of the Trinity and of Christology. They explicitly require those who follow these confessions to do the same.

 

We must therefore familiarize ourselves with the traditional Trinitarian language that is affirmed and denied in the confessions, and with the Christological distinctions which are either stated or assumed in the formulations of the 16th and 17th century. This will offer a corrective against any tendencies to teach or to approach these key truths in a novel or unique way.

 

Our Christology, the Christology of the Reformed confessions, is the Christology of the church catholic. And it is inseparably connected to the traditional doctrine of God. With this in mind, we offer the following questions as a way of guiding both presbyteries and candidates towards the kind of ideas and distinctions with which they should be familiar – and which they should affirm – if confessional subscription is to be undertaken with integrity. These questions seek to highlight not merely the Christological questions with which ministers should be familiar, but the underlying implications that they might have for our overall doctrine of the Triune God.

 

  1. What is Adoptionism? Why was it rejected? What would it mean for our Christology to understand God as at some point adopting merely created things and adding them to Himself?
  2. Why was Arianism rejected by the Church? Why did the Church reject the idea that there was a mediating created being, similar in substance to God, that acted on behalf of creation?
  3. Why was tritheism rejected? What would it mean to posit three wills or three minds in God?
  4. What is Eutychianism? Why is this insufficient for understanding the Son of God as He reveals Himself in scripture and history? What implications would there be for our doctrine of God if we used a Eutychian Christology as our starting point?

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are both ministers in the Philadelphia Presbytery of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. 

 

Posted on Monday, March 11, 2019 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Matthew Barrett, a professor at Midwestern Baptist Seminary, recently wrote to us with some questions that he verbally asks of seminarians in his classes.  As the author of a recent book, None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God, he is rapidly emerging as a leading advocate of historic biblical, confessional orthodoxy on the doctrine of God. We have posted them below as useful additions to the ones we suggested before. It cannot be emphasized enough that in the history of the church mistakes in the doctrine of God have been taken with the utmost seriousness. There is a reason for the precision in the traditional Trinitarian language. Seminaries and denominations – particularly ones which advertise themselves as orthodox and confessional – ought to be very cautious in what they teach and what they expect from candidates on these matters.  The doctrine of God is holy ground And those preparing for gospel ministry ought to be as clear possible in what they affirm and deny.  Lackadaisical approaches to education and ordination will only foster damaging teaching which church members are then likely to encounter.

 

Dr. Barrett suggests asking the following questions:

  1. How extensive is God's immutability, not only ad intra (in God considered in himself) but ad extra (in relation to creation)? How would you respond to the following claim: God does not change in his essence but nevertheless changes in his relations to the world and mankind? 
  2. When God enters into a covenant with his people, does that mean he must himself change in order to be relational with his people?  
  3. Define God's eternality. When God creates the world, does he remain timelessly eternal?
  4. How does God know all things? Does his knowledge depend on us in any way? 
  5. How can God be simple if he is triune? How can God be triune if he is simple? 
  6. Must God suffer in order to be a God of love? 
  7. Compare and contrast the doctrine of God in the history of the church with how God has been portrayed in the last one hundred years or so. 

 

Again, as we offer these questions to students and their examiners, it is important to remember that confessional ministry is just that – ministry shaped by a confession.  And that makes subscription – the commitment by solemn vow before God and the church on the part of the minister to teach in accordance with the confession subscribed – something that must be done with personal, historical, and theological integrity.

 

Some might object that confessional subscription places the confession above scripture; for those concerned, the argument of Trueman’s book, The Creedal Imperative, might help.   And we should all remember that nobody is required to be a minister in a confessional denomination. That is a free and voluntary decision. Those who cannot subscribe to the Westminster Standards or the Three Forms of Unity may well be free to minister in other denominations which lack formal confessions or have loose terms of subscription.   What they cannot do is give the confessions their own private meaning and thus effectively cross their fingers at ordination or subsequently at the pulpit or lectern.   Then the issue becomes not so much theological as moral.

 

Jonathan Master and Carl R. Trueman are ministers in the Philadelphia Presbytery of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

Posted on Saturday, March 09, 2019 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

The last few years have seen a significant – and most welcome – revival of interest in the Christian doctrine of God among Reformed and evangelical writers.  Scholars working in patristic, medieval, and Reformation periods have enriched our knowledge of the creedal and confessional heritage of the church; and, as our knowledge of what the creeds and confessions meant has deepened, many of us have become acutely aware of the (unintentionally) heterodox and even heretical nature of many of our own previous beliefs on these matters. And this development is not simply something of personal significance – because this directly connects to the church’s own confessional position, it is also profoundly ecclesiastical.

 

Both of us have had the privilege of examining candidates for licensure and ordination. With the recent public controversies regarding the doctrine of God, many students are confused.    They want to take ordination vows seriously.  They know that confessional subscription is not merely a matter of verbal agreement; it is a matter of deep, conceptual agreement expressed though agreed verbal formulations.  It is not enough for ministers to affirm, say, that God is without parts or immutable or that the Son’s relationship to the Father is one of eternal generation but then to give those terms any meaning they choose.  The church has chosen these terms precisely because they best express specific concepts.   And so candidates for ministry need to know exactly what those concepts are.

 

As they prepare for ordination, some students have asked us to provide sample questions designed to represent the main contours of historic Christian teaching on Trinitarian theology. A Ruling Elder has also recently asked us for the for the same thing. In the interest of clarity, we therefore offer the following as suggestions to those preparing for ordination and those charged with examining candidates.

 

What is God? Please give exegetical detail for each aspect of your definition.

Give a definition of the doctrine of the Trinity. Please support your answer from scripture.

What are the personal properties of each Person of the Trinity?

Define eternal generation. Describe where the doctrine of eternal generation is derived biblically, and why the doctrine matters.

Is it proper to refer to the Son as subordinate to the Father? Why or why not? Please support your answer from scripture.

Do you affirm that God is without, “body, parts, or passions”? What is the significance of this exegetically, theologically, and pastorally?

What does it mean to call God “simple”?  

Can God add parts or properties to Himself?

What is the significance of divine simplicity -- exegetically, theologically, and pastorally?

Does God change? Please support your answer from scripture.

Must God change in order to perform His work of creation, or to engage relationally with His creation? Please support your answer from scripture.

How are we to understand passages which speak of God’s “repentance”?

Does God grow in knowledge? Please give exegetical details to support your answer.

How many minds are there in God?

In what ways would you speak of the Son of God changing in His assumption of a human nature in the incarnation? Please explain the exegetical and historical background of your answer.

 

 

When asking these questions, it is important to remember that the student should also give a rationale for their particular answer.  Every candidate (one hopes!) will affirm that God is Trinity.  The question is – what do they mean by that, and how would they argue for it exegetically and theologically.

 

 

Of course, it is always hard to reject a candidate at an ordination exam.  They have probably spent tens of thousands of dollars in pursuit of the MDiv degree, not to mention the time invested therein. Their error might be unintentional, the result of poor teaching, or based on a careless reading of the tradition. With this in mind, there are a couple of things which students and presbyteries might consider.

 

 

First, seminary students should never be afraid to ask their professors how their teaching on these matters (as on any others) would be received in a presbytery examination.  That is vital information for any ministerial candidate. Not all candidates attend confessional seminaries and so finding out how the classroom teaching squares with the requirements for ordination in a confessional denomination is a prudent strategy; and, in the cause of being safe rather than sorry, it is always worth asking such questions even within the context of a confessional seminary.  If there is no problem, then this should cause no ill-feeling on the part of the professor.

 

 

Second, presbyteries should deal gently with those who have been badly taught or are confused on this point.   Instructing the candidate to do some reading on the topic and then to return for re-examination at a later date would seem a most charitable way of handling such a situation.  If the candidate persists in error, then a more decisive rejection may regrettably be required; but that should not be the first line of action.  To that end, we recommend the following books and blogs as entry points for those wishing to deepen their knowledge of the catholic Trinitarianism of the Reformed confessions:

 

 

Athanasius. On the Incarnation

 

Gregory of Nazianzus, On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations

 

Matthew Barrett, None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God

 

Fred Sanders, The Triune God

 

Also the blog series hosted by Scott Swain and Michael Allen at Common Places, beginning here.

 

 

The doctrine of God is no less important than the doctrine of scripture or of justification.   An uncompromising vigilance on this point is vital for the future health of the church.  We hope that the above questions and reading suggestions will prove helpful to those with the solemn responsibility of deciding on the suitability of candidates for the ministry of Word and Sacrament.

 

 

Jonathan Master and Carl R. Trueman are ministers in the Philadelphia Presbytery of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

Posted on Sunday, March 03, 2019 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

A number of people have emailed with regard to my recent series asking versions of the following questions: But don’t words change their meaning over time?  So doesn’t the nature of what we subscribe inevitably change as well? 

 

A number of observations are in order. 

 

First, words do indeed change their meaning over time.  Even the process of creedal formulation bears witness to this: in 325, claims that there was more than one hypostasis in God was anathema; by 381, the claim that there were less than three hypostases in God was anathema.  The reason?  Theologians had redefined hypostasis to serve the purpose of orthodox doctrinal formulation. 

 

Second, when it comes to confessional subscription, the question is not ‘If we wrote this confessional document today, would we use the same words?’  Most likely we would not.  The question rather is ‘Can we affirm the concepts which this language was originally intended to express?’  That requires those of us subscribing to be taught well what the document meant – hence the importance of historical theology -- and then to decide if we can subscribe it in good conscience. 

 

Third, the claim that one subscribes to the words of the confession but that we need to understand them today in a different way is a long-established technique in Christian theology, but not one with a very impressive pedigree.   ‘We cannot believe in literal resurrection today but we still honestly affirm that Christ was raised – we just take it to mean the experience of his resurrection power in the life of the Christian community’ was the German liberal move in the nineteenth century.  ‘We do believe scripture is without error – we just define error today in such a strict way that we cannot apply it to claims about scripture in earlier confessional documents’ is another play on essentially the same historicizing approach.  And ‘Yes, I affirm simplicity and impassibility – but we now know that they cannot mean what the Westminster divines intended them to mean in the seventeenth century’ is a third.  In each case, one might respond that (a) subscribing a confession is a voluntary act and if you do not believe what they intend to express, you do not have to subscribe them (b) subscribing the confession but saying that the words now mean what I or my favorite modern philosopher/theologian want them to mean is the Humpty Dumpty fallacy (see my earlier post).

 

I think it was Cornelius Van Til who saw Karl Barth’s problem as being, in part, that he used the language of orthodoxy but to mean something that was far from orthodox.  Whether that is a fair characterization of Barth is beyond the scope of this blog; but Van Til’s point would seem to have potential relevance to more than just Barthianism.

 

Posted on Monday, February 11, 2019 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Etienne Gilson once commented that to be a competent philosopher, one also needs to be a competent historian of philosophy.  Given some of the heterodox ideas currently being promoted by those who claim to be confessional Protestants, Gilson’s rule would seem to apply to theologians as well. 

 

In my recent lecture on the doctrine of God for the Paideia Center at Reformed Theological Seminary, I observed that one of the justifications for Protestants today revising and rejecting the classical theism of Nicaea and subsequent Nicene developments is the assertion that the Reformers did not subject the doctrine of God to the same rigorous examination in light of scripture as they did other doctrines, such as justification or the sacraments. 

 

Those who make such an assertion demonstrate an incompetent grasp of history. Yes, it is true that the Reformers did maintain the classical doctrine of God.  But we cannot conclude from this simple fact that this was because they did not subject it to their view of scripture as the norming norm.  We first need to take account of how and why the Reformers did reaffirm the classical position.  When this is done, the assertion that the Reformers held unreflectively to an unreformed doctrine of God appears at best to be only a half-truth -- and a mischievous and ill-informed one at that. 

 

It is mischievous because the argument that the Reformers did not sufficiently reform the doctrine of God is typically deployed by someone who wants to justify their own significant revision of the classical position while yet seeming to be orthodox and Protestant.  The move is thus rhetorically very clever: It allows the one repudiating the content of the Reformers’ theology to present that repudiation as if it is simply a more faithful and consistent application of the Reformers‘ method.   In short, he claims to reject the Reformation doctrine because he honors the Reformation spirit.   

 

It is ill-informed because it appears to be ignorant of the pattern of doctrinal discussion in the Reformation.  The early Reformation writings of numerous Reformers – most notably Melanchthon and Calvin – do reveal significant hesitancy in deploying the fine-tooled technical language of classical Trinitarianism.   It would seem (not surprisingly) that they desired to set forth the Christian faith in terms as close to those of the Bible as possible.  But by the time we reach the late the late 1530s the traditional Trinitarian language is becoming once again prominent.  And the reason for this is simple.  The Reformers, including Melanchthon and Calvin, learned the hard way – through contemporary challenges to the biblical doctrine of God – that theologians had developed the technical language and concepts of classical Trinitarianism because these provided the best and most effective means of expounding, defending, and preserving the biblical faith.   The idea that somehow the Reformers merely assumed the classical doctrine without thoroughly testing it by scripture is therefore simply incorrect. And contemporary theological revisionism predicated on such a notion is therefore historically incompetent. 

 

Of course, there is a further obvious problem when anyone who subscribes to the Westminster Standards, the Three Forms of Unity, or the 1689 Baptist Confession, claims that classical theism needs revision.  These confessions explicitly affirm classical theism as biblical and those who take ex animo vows to such are therefore committed to believing and maintaining the same. If they cannot do so with a good conscience, they should not take the vows.  It is simply dishonest to affirm at one’s ordination that which one then denies in one’s teaching. 

 

As I noted at the start, Gilson’s rule clearly applies as much to theologians as to philosophers.

 

Carl R. Trueman is Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College, Pa, and a Visiting Professor of Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary in California.

Posted on Tuesday, February 05, 2019 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'  

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'  

'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master — that's all.'  

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass 

 

 

In the first three posts, I highlighted what might be missed or overlooked in contemporary theological education when Systematic Theology is confused with, or even replaced by, Biblical Theology.  In this final part I want to highlight the fact that the issue of the ST-BT relationship is not just theological and pedagogical. For confessional Protestants, it is also ecclesiastical because ministers take vows to uphold the faith as summarized in the great confessions of the Reformation.  Since those confessions were forged through the kind of dialectical doctrinal process which I noted in Part Two, it is highly questionable whether one can subscribe to them wholeheartedly and uphold their teaching without all that such a background involves. 

 

Before addressing this directly, however, a couple of preliminary observations are in order. 

 

First, it is important to note the role of seminaries in shaping contemporary expressions of the Reformed faith.  The reason is simple: they train the men who fill the pulpits of Reformed churches; therefore their curricula play a decisive role in how the Reformed faith is understood, yet these are not driven simply by the content and the priorities of their confessional standards.  There are a number of reasons for this. Faculty interests inevitably shape classroom content.  Institutional narratives often ascribe to local heroes a significance in the history of the Christian faith which they may not intrinsically merit.  That too is often reflected in the curriculum.  We also live at time where the market has many seminaries ostensibly committed to the same confessional standards and yet compete for a diminishing pool of students and donor dollars.  In such a context, there can be a real temptation to market marginal local distinctives as if they are vital to the essence of the Reformed faith.  I cannot address these matters here -- I intend to do so in the second of my forthcoming DenDulk Lectures at Westminster Seminary in California.  But in all that follows, it is important to bear in mind that the realities just described also play a significant part in the story of the relationship of Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology. 

 

Second, we should also note that the Christian faith is a dogmatic faith, a faith of assertions.  And the Reformed branch of Christianity expresses those dogmas and assertions in its confessions.  To be a Reformed Christian is therefore to believe in the dogmas and assertions those confessions contain.  It is doctrine that defines, not commitment to a redemptive-historical approach to exegesis or a particular approach to apologetics.  Those may be important, but they are at best secondary issues in terms of confessional subscription.   

 

Given this latter point, it should be clear from all that I have said in Parts 1-3 that Systematic Theology must play a central role in the theological curriculum and must never be confused with Biblical Theology. The historical and dialectical nature of the doctrinal formulations contained in the historic confessions which define the Reformed faith makes Systematic Theology and Historical Theology vital to understanding what they actually mean. 

 

Take the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) Chapter 2, ‘Of God, and of the Holy Trinity.’   This chapter has both historical roots – it expresses the classical doctrine of God as found in the Nicene Creed and the tradition of Trinitarianism which flows through the Middle Ages to the Reformation  – and a historical context – it is designed, among other things, to rule completely out of bounds Socinianism, a seventeenth century form of open theism.  As a result, it uses technical vocabulary whose meaning has been defined within that historic tradition.  For example, it states that God is ‘infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense’ and so on.   What is important to note is that these words are carefully chosen because they already have precise, established definitions.  They are not empty placeholders onto which the reader can impose any meaning he chooses.  The rather banal conclusion we can draw is this: if the Confession states that God is without parts, or passions, it cannot therefore be understood as teaching that God does contain parts and is passible.  

 

This is where the problem of subscription to the Westminster Confession becomes problematic for those who have sloughed off the exegetical and metaphysical contexts which gave rise to its doctrines and language.   If one abstracts the notion of simplicity or impassibility from the metaphysics of pre-modern Christianity, there is a very great danger that one will subsequently use the classical terminology to express theology that is inconsistent with, or even antithetical to, what the Confession was attempting to express and protect.  The moral onus, therefore, is upon those Reformed theologians and institutions who detach themselves from that wider tradition to demonstrate that they still maintain what the Westminster Confession teaches.

 

My friend and former colleague, Lane Tipton, provides one example.  He is much more passionately committed to Biblical Theology and persuaded by the thought of Cornelius Van Til than I am; he is therefore a good example of the theologian who might well dis-embed the Westminster Confession’s doctrine of God from its original exegetical, metaphysical and polemical matrix and thereby risk losing the meaning of technical terms. But in a recent review of Geerhardus Vos’s Reformed Dogmatics, he asserts (and expresses agreement with) Vos’s commitment to the notion of God’s immutability: 

 

That there is no change in God as he creates—which is what the language of “no real change” is designed to safeguard—is a deeply creedal and confessional strand of orthodoxy. God freely wills a “new relation” that introduces no change in God as he wills that “new relation.” Hence, while not introducing change in God, either ad intra or ad extra, the absolute God freely wills a bona fide “new relation” in the act of creation, yet undergoes no change himself. Hence, God relates to the world as the absolute, triune Creator.  

 

It is worth adding that Vos can do what Dr. Tipton describes precisely because he does not allow Biblical Theology to override classical categories.  Rather, he is a creedal and confessional theologian who applies a Reformed doctrine of an absolute God, the God of classical theism, to his understanding of scriptural language which might seem, on a superficial reading, to impute real change to God.  Vos is still connected to, and appreciative of, the older dogmatic work of true Systematic Theologians. 

 

To repeat: as the terms of the Confession possess specific meaning and connect Presbyterianism to the historic, catholic, biblical doctrine of God, the onus therefore lies on the Biblical Theologians and those who adopt post-confessional theological frameworks to demonstrate that they still maintain the actual teaching of the Confession that God does not change, that the relationship between God and creation is not some kind of mutualism or give-and-take.    

 

Now, creeds and confessions are, for Protestants at least, subordinate standards.  Scripture is the supreme norming authority, as the WCF itself makes clear.  One may therefore study the theological matrix of the Reformed confessions and come to the conclusion that what the WCF teaches about God is wrong.  In that case, Presbyterianism has a means of addressing the concern: the person concerned should be honest about what he is doing and, if no exception to the Standards is allowed on that point, demit the ministry. That would be a perfectly honorable and legitimate course of action. What is not acceptable, theologically or morally, is the propagation of views which the Confession was designed to exclude as if they are actually what it affirms.  That can only be done on the basis of historicizing what the Confession really means.  And if the conservative Protestant world finds such a move intolerable relative to the doctrine of scripture, as taught for example in WCF 1, it should also find it intolerable relative to WCF 2. God is surely no less important than scripture; and deviations on the orthodox doctrine of God have proved deadly to the faith over the centuries.  Indeed, to make the doctrine of scripture a touchstone of orthodoxy and to wink at deviations on the doctrine of God (which seems the default attitude in much of the evangelical world), is to reveal a debt not so much to the concerns of the Bible and of historic Christianity as to the priorities and tastes of modern American evangelicalism. 

 

To return to Humpty Dumpty, when it comes to the meaning of the classic vocabulary of Reformed theology, the question is: Which is to be master, that’s all -- in this case, the Confession or the reader?  And in order to ensure that it is the former, not the latter, Systematic Theology must be properly taught and never confused with or replaced by Biblical Theology; and both ST and BT should be positively connected to Historical Theology.   If that does not happen, then sadly, as with Humpty Dumpty, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men will not put the Faith back together again.

 

Carl R. Trueman is Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College, Pa, and a Visiting Professor of Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary in California.