Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Come ride my hobbyhorse

In this post I’m going to briefly weight the pros and cons of “Confessional Calvinism.”

1) There’s nothing uniquely confessional about confessional Calvinism. For instance, you have confessional Lutheranism.

2) The problem is when Reformed confessions are elevated to the status of unquestioned interpretive guidelines for reading the Bible. At that point we have the equivalent of Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, where the church speaks for the Bible. The Bible means whatever the church says the Bible means. The Bible is not allowed to contradict the creed.

3) This, in turn, amounts to sectarian chauvinism. It’s just a matter of which sectarian lens you choose to wear. Which tradition becomes the gatekeeper. You resign your private judgment to your hereditary or adopted tradition.

The church is the spokesman for Scripture. It’s just a choice of which church.

4) This also becomes a roll of the dice or coin flip. Since a given creed chooses your interpretation of Scripture, rather than Scripture choosing your respective creed, then which theological tradition you happen to land in is pretty random. Whether you end up Lutheran or Catholic or Calvinist or Orthodox is a matter of chance.

5) To that extent, I think Reformed confessionalism cedes a key principle to Roman Catholicism and Eastern orthodoxy. I think Mathison’s attempt to distinguish between sola Scriptura and solo Scriptura represents an unstable compromise that inclines one in the direction of Rome or Constantinople.

Mind you, I think critics of “Biblicism” tend to caricature “Biblicism.”

6) That mediating position favors Rome, for Catholicism at least as a more principled basis for privileging its own lens. For it lays claim to a divine teaching office. Of course, the argument is only as good as the premise, but the argument is, to that degree, more internally consistent.

7) At the same time, the Catholic position generates an internal dilemma. An outsider must exercise private judgment to get into the system. To gain admittance. Even if you check your private judgment at the door once you get inside, you had to use your private judgment to get that far.

You can’t rely on Rome to tell you that Rome is the one true Church, for unless Rome is the one true church, Rome is in no position to vouch for Rome. You’d have to know apart from Rome that Rome is what she claims to be. But if you can (and must) exercise independent judgment to arrive at that conclusion, then in what sense are you dependent on Rome?

8) That said, creedalism is unavoidable. Every theological tradition, every theological movement, every denomination, every independent church, every individual Christian, has a functional creed. It may be an unwritten creed, but it’s still a creed. A set of theological beliefs.

9) The corporate life of the church requires a measure of stability. Once the ship leaves port, we can’t rebuild the ship every week. You can replace a plank and plug a hole, but you can’t take the ship apart and reassemble the ship on the open ocean. For the ship would sink in the process.

Imagine if 1 out of 10 ordinands challenged the Westminster Confession. You can’t expect the OPC or PCA to appoint a study committee to reexamine a settled question every time an ordinand has reservations about the WCF.

Same thing with a seminary professor who changes his views after he’s hired or tenured. Given the glacial appellate process in Presbyterianism, as several different presbyteries may rule on the same issue, and give conflicting verdicts, until it rises to the general assembly, where a committee studies the question and issues a report, which is then debated on the floor, and voted on–clearly it’s not feasible to give every litigant his day in court. You can’t expect a denomination to reopen this or that issue every time a pastor or professor or ordinand expresses his dissent and questions the status quo. Just because it’s an issue for you doesn’t make it an issue for everyone else.

10) Apropos (9), dissenters have no right to make unreasonable demands on our time and energy. A confessional denomination already consists of roughly like-minded believers. That’s why they belong to the same denomination. They share a common vision.

A church is not a debating society. Rather, it’s a public assembly where believers come together to worship and fellowship as a spiritual family.

It’s really not their responsibility to convince you in case you disagree with them. Why seek ordination in a denomination unless you’re in basic agreement with the doctrinal essentials and doctrinal distinctives of that body? Why do you think it’s your mission in life to change the denomination?

There are plenty of other denominations to choose from.  The world doesn’t revolve around you. You’re not the center of the Christian universe. It’s egoistical to expect a denomination to drop everything and take a ride on your hobbyhorse.

11) To take a concrete illustration, consider the case of Peter Enns. At the time he was hired by WTS, either he secretly believed the same things he does today, or else he changed his mind after he was hired.

If the former, then he applied under false pretenses. In that event, WTS had every right to fire him.

If the latter, then he’s not entitled to be so condescending to Christians who still believe what he himself used to believe not so very long ago. Was he a fool then, or is he a fool now?


  1. Thanks Steve, this is very helpful.

  2. This reminded me of an anonymous comment someone left on Stellman's website:

    "This is vindication of Rev. Peter Leithart. You brought charges against Peter because he was outside the Tradition of the Westminster Confession. Peter built his arguments on the bible. You wanted your Tradition regardless of what the bible says. Now you have it. God has given you over to your idol--Tradition. Enjoy Rome."

    I don't know what the commenter is referring to with Leithart (I never kept up much on Stellman or Leithart), but it seems to me there is something to take away from the comment and this post, as a warning. Do we Reformed rely too much on our Reformed tradition or pedigree and not enough on exegesis of Scripture?

  3. Hi Jonathan. I heard a lecture by John Frame in which he said that he wished he'd spent more time on languages and exegesis. So I think there's something to that.

  4. Echoing John Bugay's thanks. These meta-analytic posts are very helpful in gaining the wider perspective above the treetops of the forest.

    What puzzles me is that I always thought that Arminianism with its synergism would be more of a Romanizing road than Reform monergism given that Catholicism is synergistic.

  5. Unfortunately, I see a fair amount of this at PuritanBoard. Presbyterians tend to be in the majority I think, and I see them sometimes quote from the Westminster Confession to settle theological questions, even fairly contested things like images of Jesus.