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.

Posted on Tuesday, January 29, 2019 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

In Part Two of this four part series, I offered some thoughts on the nature of doctrinal development.  Now I want to turn to the discipline of Biblical Theology. 

 

Biblical Theology as a discipline emerges formally with the work of Johann Philipp Gabler in the late eighteenth century.  In his justly famous 1787 inaugural address at the University of Altdorf, he distinguished between the disciplines of Dogmatic Theology (what we today typically call Systematic Theology) and Biblical Theology.   Gabler saw the former as marked by a systematizing and philosophical bent and deeply shaped by the intellectual context of the individual theologian; the latter sought to set forth the ideas and beliefs of the biblical writers themselves, being always sensitive to the particular historical context of specific books of the Bible.  And Biblical Theology lacked the overriding desire to find the kind of greater doctrinal syntheses which distinguished its dogmatic counterpart. 

 

Gabler himself made it clear that he was no great fan of orthodox systematics, and his method proved popular and influential with others in the field of Biblical Studies who were uncomfortable with what they regarded as a Procustean bed of dogma.  In short, his approach essentially untethered analysis of the content of scripture from what he and his followers suspected were alien dogmatic structures that surreptitiously distorted how the Bible was read. 

 

Orthodox theologians had, of course, been aware of the historical dynamic of the biblical story before – the work of a covenant theologian such as Johannes Cocceius provides an obvious example – but the level of historical sensitivity that emerged in the late eighteenth century created an intellectual culture much more attuned to the development of historical consciousness.    

 

This is where Geehardus Vos, one of the fathers of modern conservative Biblical Theology, is significant.  His contribution was to baptize the Biblical Theology paradigm into an orthodox context, such that it became useful to conservative Christians. The post-Vos modern redemptive-historical method of interpretation is continuous with Gabler in taking the historical nature of scripture seriously, but orthodox in seeing the whole Bible as containing one, consistent story which has a unity.  This is because it is inspired by one divine author, God, and points towards and then culminates in the work of Jesus Christ, God manifest in the flesh. 

 

In reflecting on orthodox Biblical theology, it is therefore important to acknowledge with gratitude its obvious strengths.  The Bible does contain a dramatic story and there is such a thing as a progressive revelation of God and his purposes in the text.  Readers need to be aware of this and pay heed to it because that story is the narrative of how God has acted in history.  

 

Redemptive-historical preaching based upon such Biblical Theology is also an important tool: my own great love in the pulpit is preaching Old Testament narrative; and a redemptive-historical approach, if properly applied, helps to make sure that Old Testament sermons never lose sight of the overall Bible story, culminate in Christ, and avoid practical applications which are divorced from the gospel and therefore merely legalisms. 

 

I might add a further personal note -- my own reading and understanding of the Bible is deeply indebted to the work of Biblical Theologians, most notably my former colleague and friend, Greg Beale, but also the distinguished Southern Baptist scholar, Tom Schreiner.  In helping me to understand the way in which the Bible’s storyline develops, these men have been exceptionally useful to me. 

 

But, even with all of these important contributions, we need to remember that a narrow focus on the storyline of scripture has its limits.  If the danger with Systematic Theology is that it can so emphasize conceptual unities that it misses the particularities of the biblical text, then the danger with Biblical Theology is that it so emphasizes the particularities that it misses those underlying unities. The answer to missing the trees for the wood is not to miss the wood for the trees.  

 

Further, there is a second danger: Biblical Theology, with its focus on the drama of the developing biblical storyline, is naturally tilted towards catching a very significant thread of biblical teaching (narrative action) and away from other important aspects of the Bible, such as the metaphysical realities to which scripture also points.  These might be explicit metaphysical statements as in Jn. 1:1, or the implicit but necessary ontological assumptions that lie behind the historical action in verses such as Gen. 1:1.  As New Testament scholar, C. Kavin Rowe, puts it: 

 

The New Testament and the early Church made claims about the human person Jesus of Nazareth and about the Spirit... that required specification in terms of ontology. 

 

Put simply: fidelity to the Bible’s teaching about Jesus and the Spirit – the scriptural narrative –demands that we press through the events and actions ascribed to them to discern who they actually are in terms of their very being.  In short, the Bible does not reduce God’s identity to his actions.  He is not cabined within the historical process.  It also points to a God who has a reality prior to, independent of, and thus foundational for, those same actions.  No account of the Bible’s teaching which omits those strands of biblical teaching can be described as complete. 

 

Kevin Vanhoozer expresses this point as follows: 

 

Descriptions of redemptive-history, while necessary, are theologically incomplete until one spells out their ontological implications (ie. their presuppositions about what is real), not least because history itself is a staging area for divine speech and action. 

 

In short, the ‘big story’ may be the whole story, but it is not the whole message.  God acts in a certain way in history because he is a certain kind of God in himself in eternity.  Any theological account of redemptive history which terminates simply on questions of economic action rather than divine being is therefore not false so much as it is inadequate.  This basic point lies at the heart, for example, of Matthew Levering’s respectful and appreciative but nonetheless penetrating critique of the New Testament scholars N. T. Wright and Richard Bauckham in his book, Scripture and Metaphysics.   

 

And this brings me to the key issue now being faced in confessional circles.  As I argued in Part Two, the creeds and confessions to which we subscribe contain theological truth claims which were not originally based on narrowly redemptive-historical approaches to scripture. Indeed, they were formulated long before such approaches emerged in their modern form.  Nor were they constructed by those who pursued biblical exegesis and consequent doctrinal synthesis in isolation from ontological questions or from that history of controversy that drove the development of doctrinal formulation.   So here is the question: Can such doctrines as, for example, simplicity, impassibility, and the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity – in other words, the orthodox doctrine of God as confessed by the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and confessional Protestant churches -- be maintained on the basis of a Biblical Theology to which Systematic Theology is rendered nothing more than a poor relation or where Historical Theology plays little or no role?    

 

To put the matter in a more pointed ecclesiastical fashion: Can the classic confessions of Reformation Protestantism be faithfully upheld by those who have detached their own approach to scriptural exegesis and doctrinal synthesis from the theological, exegetical, and polemical concerns which led to such confessional formulations in the first place?   

 

That is a matter of great and urgent significance for churches, for ministers, and for the institutions who train them. And it is to this concern that I will turn in my fourth and final post.

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

 

Posted on Tuesday, January 22, 2019 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Last week, I offered some preliminary thoughts on the relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology.  This week, I want to consider why it is that theology demands more than just harvesting the immediate results of the exegesis of biblical texts. 

 

Proper Christian theology is always speculative, in the specific sense that it has to address matters not only of economy (how God acts in history) but also of ontology (who God is in eternity).  The great creeds of the ancient church, and the confessions and catechisms of the Reformation which affirm their teachings, are the fruit of this speculative theology, addressing not just the acts of God but also his identity, something which requires more than just the construction of a redemptive-historical narrative culminating in Christ. To understand why this is so, we need to see how and why the church has come to confess Christ in the way she does – in other words, a knowledge of theological controversies.

 

Here is an example.   For many years, I taught a basic introductory course in patristic theology, the anticipation of which was typically not a cause of great excitement for students.  They (rightly) wanted to learn about the Bible.  And the Ancient Church Fathers seem too remote, historically and intellectually, to be of much use to their future ministries.  Given this, I started each course with a question designed to unsettle them.  I would randomly pick on a student in the first class and ask ‘How many wills does Christ have?’   I recall only one occasion when the student gave the correct answer.  Every other victim intuitively responded ‘One.’   At which point I offered the lethal follow-up: ‘So which does he lack, the human will or the divine?  Or perhaps his will is a fusion of the two into one, and therefore neither human nor divine?’

 

The students usually knew they had been trapped but tended to offer a defense along the lines of ‘But you don’t find the teaching that Christ has two wills anywhere in the New Testament!’  To which I would reply that that might be the case with reference to explicit texts, but it was nonetheless the only position that ultimately made sense of the New Testament’s witness to the identity of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Only a two-willed Christ could save; and to understand why, they needed a firm grasp of the development of theological arguments over time.

 

This is just one instance of what we might term the development of doctrine.  'Development’ terminology can disturb Protestants as it might imply that the truth of the gospel fundamentally changes over time.   But I am not using the terminology that way.  I am referring not to the essential change of truth but to the elaboration and clarification of doctrinal concepts in a manner which refines the theological grammar and metaphysical framework necessary for a correct understanding of the Bible’s teaching about God and Christ.  These concepts and the language in which they are expressed do not operate as alien impositions on the Bible.  What they do is keep us alert to what the whole of scripture says even as we read particular passages.  In short, as Mike Allen at RTS put it to me recently, ‘theological jargon helps with reading canonically.’

 

The patristic debates about God and Christ provide excellent examples.   We all know that language of Trinity, hypostasis and substance is not there in scripture.*  But Protestants use that terminology to set forth a grammar or metaphysical framework for understanding how the Bible names God.  And the reasons why those creeds and confessions speak the way they do is intimately connected to the history of debate within the church.

 

Numerous models for understanding this pattern of development have been offered over the years.  Perhaps the most famous example is that of Cardinal Newman who (while still a Protestant) wrote his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.  A long and subtle work, his basic contention was that doctrine develops from the Bible as trees grow from seeds: the final product may not look like the original but is it continuous and consistent with it and its growth is also inevitable.

 

As attractive as it is, this approach is missing one important point: the role of controversy.  Theologian Bernard Lonergan, sympathetically critiquing Newman, points out that doctrinal development is rarely, if ever, linear but rather happens dialectically, through the clash of opposing ideas.  To put this in simple terms: one model for God and Christ is offered which is proved inadequate for dealing with the biblical testimony; and in the process by which it is found wanting, new models are proposed, and so on and so forth until there is some definitive resolution of the question at hand.  So the various modalist and subordinationist debates of the fourth century lead eventually to the Nicene Creed at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

 

The established theological grammar of 381 then sets the terms for future debates on related issues.  Yes, the grammar of divine naming in the Trinity is resolved; but that resolution itself raises questions for Christology and shapes how those can be answered. So we then have the debates of the early fifth century and the consequent resolutions of Ephesus in 431 and then Chalcedon in 451.  These in turn create questions which lead to the development of dyothelitism (that Christ has two wills, not one) and other superficially arcane but really very important concepts such as the anhypostatic nature of Christ’s human nature.

 

This point about the subsequent logic of theological debates after the Trinitarian question has been resolved at Constantinople in 381 has been made (critically) by Brian Daley in his recent volume, God Visible. Nicene orthodoxy sets the terms and provides the foundational concepts of later Christological discussion.  I made much the same argument, though more appreciatively and at a much more popular level, in my book, The Creedal Imperative. 

 

The same applies to other doctrines.  For example, those of divine simplicity, immutability, and impassibility can seem abstruse and counter-intuitive in the light of a surface reading of scripture.  Yet far from being some kind of Greek philosophical intrusion onto the Christian faith, as the bogus bromides of a previous era held, in reality these concepts are vitally important to biblical, Christian, Trinitarian orthodoxy.  Reflecting on the patristic development of Trinitarianism, Rowan Williams states clearly what is at stake in his recent book, Christ the Heart of Creation, p. 69:

 

The logic of creation requires God to be God as much as it requires creation to be finite; without a clear assertion that God cannot be conceived as passive or divisible, we are left with various versions of a universe in which divine and finite being are in some sense understood as univocally related, in such a way that the divine self-subsistence and liberty are put in question.

 

And what Williams says here applies to the doctrine of God found in all churches and institutions which profess Nicene Trinitarianism and Chalcedonian Christology, whether Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic or most important from my own ecclesiastical perspective, Reformed.  Even a quick glance at the Three Forms of Unity, the Westminster Standards, or the Second London Confession makes it abundantly clear that they each affirm that God is simple, immutable, and impassible. This Nicene faith is Protestant orthodoxy too. 

 

At this point, some may be tempted to ask, But isn’t this all a bit abstruse and irrelevant to everyday Christianity?   Well, whatever the subtlety of language and concepts developed in the course of these discussions about God, I would urge the reader never to forget that the basic motivation which drove creedal development and refinement was this: the church was striving to confess with both humility and precision a God in whose Trinitarian name we are all baptized and a Christ who is both Lord and who saves.  There is nothing more doxological or practical than that.  And (again a theme to which we shall return) it reminds us that the church worships God not only for what he has done for us but also for who he is in himself. 

 

In my next post I want to turn to the strengths and limitations of the discipline of Biblical Theology.

As a postscript, anyone concerned that the biblical doctrine of God is either unpreachable or unpastoral might want to see how pastor Liam Goligher preaches simplicity in this sermon and how theologian Todd Billings explains in this article how he has found divine impassibility to be vital in his own time of illness.

* I am grateful to Rev. Chad Vegas for reminding me that 'hypostasis' is found in Heb. 1:3.   I should have expressed myself more clearly on this point: the meaning of the term, as debated and used by the Fathers, is not an obvious given in scripture.

Posted on Tuesday, January 15, 2019 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking at the Paideia Center Conference in Orlando, focused this year on the catholic, creedal understanding of God. I also sat on a discussion panel with Mike Allen, Scott Swain, Blair Smith and Liam Goligher, discussing the Trinity debate of 2016. Asked how it all started, Liam mentioned discussions he had had with my good friend and fellow podcaster Aimee Byrd who launched the debate by posting his writings on her blog; and my own mind went back somewhat earlier to an editorial I wrote in Themelios in the early 2000s.

 

Derek Rishmawy has since found the article and (in addition to using a pleasantly youthful and hirsute photograph of me) commented on it on his blog. The origin of that piece was my concern that Biblical Theology was developing in certain quarters in a manner that so emphasized economic considerations that it was marginalizing questions of ontology. Thus, in the long run it was potentially jeopardizing the categories and concepts of classic, catholic, creedal, confessional theology. Though at the time of writing I had assumed it was an Australian/British problem, in the years since it has become clear that what had alarmed me so long ago was actually part of a much wider problem.

 

In subsequent weeks, I want to offer some thoughts on the relationship of Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology. But in this first post I want to note briefly some aspects of the culture of contemporary Christian theology which shape the discussion.

 

First, it is important to note that there is an interesting practical tendency in modern evangelical Protestantism to prioritize the doctrines of scripture and salvation over that of God. In part this is bound up with matters of identity, having historical roots in the relatively recent (I.e. last 150 years) Fundamentalist-Modernist debates and the subsequent role of the doctrine of scripture as a key boundary. The same applies with soteriology: the Reformation looms large in the imagination with its emphasis on justification by grace through faith as the defining characteristic of a life-giving Christianity.

 

Second, to these historical reasons, we might add the simple and intuitive nature of these two doctrines. To say the Bible contains errors sounds intuitively wrong even to the person untrained in theology, and this is also true to a large extent for the claim we are justified by works and not by faith does. Anyone deviating on these two points is likely to find themselves roundly condemned in evangelical circles because the issue is, at least on the surface, something that almost any Christian thinks that they can grasp with little or no intellectual reflection.

 

When we come to the doctrine of God, however, the defining controversies – those of the fourth and fifth centuries -- seem long ago and far away. The issues they involved also seem somewhat arcane in their careful development of a theological grammar and vocabulary. The result (as the debates of 2016 showed) is that while Christians would of course say they affirm Nicaea, they may actually be clueless as to what Nicaea and subsequent Nicene developments really mean. The writings of the Cappadocians and then the later Christological work of men such as Cyril, the two Leontii, Maximus the Confessor, and John of Damascus seem like so much obfuscatory jargon and pedantic hair-splitting. It is also profoundly counter-intuitive in a way that heresy on God typically is not. To say, for example, that God suffers has an apparent biblical simplicity to it in a way that to assert divine simplicity and its concomitants does not. To understand why the claim to divine passibility is deeply problematic requires a depth of reflection on theology and on the history of dogma with which the biblicism of much modern Protestantism has little or no patience and for which much Biblical Theology has little or no tolerance.

 

What is strange about this situation, of course, is that it is deviation on the doctrine of God, rather than on scripture, which has historically been the more common root of serious theological error in the church -- a notion which we have noted is now profoundly counter-cultural. While today it might end one’s Reformed career if one denies inerrancy or signs an ECT document, it is clear from the Trinity Debate of 2016 that such a black-and-white protocol does not apply to matters of theology proper. Mess up on scripture or salvation and you are finished. Mess up on God and there will be few, if any, consequences, professional or ecclesiastical. As long as one affirms the words of the Creed or the Westminster Confession or the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689, the meaning one applies to them is neither here nor there – a liberal idea which enjoys surprisingly great currency in conservative circles on this one issue. Sadly, the doctrine of God simply does not grip the cultural imagination of conservative evangelicalism in the way that other doctrinal loci do.

 

And at the heart of this problem from the perspective of theological education, at least as it manifests itself in Reformed circles, is the pedagogical (and thereby metaphysical) triumph of Biblical Theology over Systematic Theology as classically understood. It is to that issue I hope to turn in my post next week.