Friday, December 27, 2013

By Confession Alone?

In response to this comment, I attempted to post the following at Scott Clark’s Heidelblog. (My comment was “awaiting modification” for some time today, but as of the last time I checked, it has been removed):

* * *

Scott – of course I still believe in Sola Scriptura, justification Sola Fide. And no popes, anywhere.

I’d like to preface my comment here by saying that I believe that the Reformation was absolutely a movement of the Holy Spirit, and that the fruitful period of theological study that followed the Reformation (for 100 years and more) was absolutely the richest and most profitable period of study in the 2000 year history of the church. The many confessions of faith that came out of that period are absolutely worthy of our study and reverence.

I also can’t fail to comment on the tendency, which has historically been manifested among Christians, to the effect that “if you believe A, therefore you believe B. Since you believe B, and B is heretical, you’re a heretic”. I believe that tendency to be both unChristian and unhelpful.

You defend biblicism, in this case, you defend the apparently even more radical biblicism of Frame’s lieutenant. In every case of biblicism someone is still interpreting Scripture. That interpretation leads to some confession, whether formal or informal. In this case, it’s his reading of Scripture that trumps all. There’s your pope.

First, I would urge you to re-think your comment here that Hays is anyone’s “lieutenant”. He is a clear thinker in his own right, and he has no problem to challenge anyone, including Frame.

I would also ask you to rethink the notion that “in his case, it’s his reading of Scripture that trumps all”. I think these are unfair and unfounded statements. He is quite clear that no one is without presuppositions as we approach the Scriptures. But he is enough of a student of Scripture to understand that the Scriptures themselves (and God working through them in a way that is consistent with confessionalism) can and do enable us to see things in clearer and clearer ways. He says:

One way of becoming presuppositionally self-aware is to acquaint yourself with competing interpretations or competing theological traditions. That can make you conscious of interpretive possibilities which wouldn't otherwise occur to you. Help your break out of one myopic way of looking at the text. You can then test these alternatives against the text of Scripture. Which has more explanatory power? Which is able to harmonize and integrate more data?

From his blog post “Critical Biblicism”, which is a statement of how Biblicism works. This is one of the most important things that you fail to understand about his method.

You wrote:

Without a churchly confession, to whom is the biblicist accountable? No one but himself or perhaps his self-selected pope. Either way he’s back to papalism.

There is a middle way and you have [rather uncharitably] failed to mention it, even though he is quite open about to whom he is accountable. Hays is accountable every day as he publishes his thoughts, and opens himself to challenge.

Where does this sort of neo-papalist biblicism lead? To the defense of Norman Shepherd.

I don’t recall Steve ever having defended Norman Shepherd. And in this particular episode, he has posted about why this is irrelevant here though:

It's unclear what exactly Clark is alleging. His accusation seems to amount to this:

i) Frame's exposition of justification is traditionally Reformed.

ii) Shepherd's exposition is contrary to traditional Reformed theology.

iii) Frame superimposes his own exposition onto Shepherd. Frame imputes to Shepherd a position at odds with Shepherd's actual position.

But if Frame's own formulation is sound, then Frame's association with Shepherd, even if that's injudicious, is a red herring.

Put another way, even if Frame's friendship with Shepherd affects his objectivity, making him an unreliable interpreter of Shepherd, how is that germane when Frame is speaking for himself rather than putting in a good word for an old friend?

See also:

You criticize the Reformed churches for not revising the confessions AND for revising them. Which is it? You cannot have it both ways. Either confessions are irreformable or they aren’t?

This is not my “having it”. This is a statement of reality. You may reform any or all the confessions that you want to reform. The questions will be, what status will those “reforms” have, and with whom?

Seriously. If you “reform” the WCF, who is going to consider himself bound by the reforms? Only those in the Reformed world whom you can persuade. That’s all well and good. I’m all in favor of persuasion. However, I think it’s effort in a direction where persuasion could be put to better use.

Assume you could modify a particular confession in some way. I asked a question in my earlier comment – if you’re going to modify some confession, which one? What becomes of the status of the ones you don’t modify? But even so, what of the confession that you do modify? There are still people around who fail to recognize the “reforms” made in the LBCF of 1689. Or the “American revisions”.

We have no pope. We read and submit to the Scriptures together. This is why we haven’t abandoned the doctrine of justification sola fide or the catholic doctrine of the Trinity (One God, three persons). This is why the core of our confession has remained stable all these years, because it is a biblical faith and because we are accountable to each other for confessing that.

I think this is a good thing. I think being accountable to each other is a good thing. I think that the Reformed “theology, piety, and practice” are shining lights in the Christian world. This is a true gift both to the Reformed and to the larger Christian world.

I think your approach, though (being critical of Frame or maybe those who call themselves “Reformed” in TGC, for example) is like holding too firmly onto a handful of sand – the Reformed world that you want to protect seems to be getting frittered away, historically.

Instead of rejoicing that the broader Christian world sees the benefits of some aspects of Reformed theology, and working to persuade them of others, the attempt is made to seek out an all-or-nothing acceptance of “the confessions”.

I’ll tell you, I disagree with Arminian theology, and I dislike Leithart as much anybody. But put this into perspective: while the various church bodies are voting down “Federal Vision” theologies, Leithart is “out there” writing and publishing and persuading. And then everybody is amazed that “church courts” have acquitted him.

In the link I provided above (“Dissent and Discipline”), Hays cites several instances in which church bodies have ruled on things, and yet the “disciplined” individuals really go free to do whatever it is that they want to do.

And of course, none of this happens “in a corner”. To be sure, there is something to said for working faithfully and methodically. But the “method” is no longer a functional reality in today’s world.

All of this happens in the context of a watchful and dying world, that currently accords more value to a seemingly humble pope (an actual pope, not just one who’s being falsely called a pope for being a Biblicist, by the way), than to the true Gospel of Christ. Why? It seems to be because this man comes off as humble, as “worthy of being imitated” (see below).

You wrote:

You quite misunderstand the Reformed view of authority. We say that the church has ministerial authority. In contrast to triperspectivalism, when the church speaks as church, it does not create reality. We are simply recognizing and announcing what is and what God has said. It is God who does the binding. We do the ministering. As biblicist (of any sort) how can you appeal to Clarke against the unequivocal, quite non-dialectical words of our Lord?

You then cite Matthew 18:18-20, but that verse (and similar verses Matt 16:19, John 20:23) are among the most contested verses in the NT. What does it mean to “bind and loose”?

These concepts are made more clear by the exercise of WCF 1.IX: “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture, is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it may be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly”.

So referring to Clarke (and his very thorough analysis of Paul’s view of authority in the church of the Apostles) is highly relevant for clarifying what that means. I think that the WCF is correct about ministerial authority, but I think that you misconstrue what that actually means.

[For you or anyone who’s interested, I believe that one of the best explanations of what “binding and loosing” meant in the Gospels is that the Apostles had the ability to craft “the Gospel” accounts – for example, the factual accounts of the life of Christ in the Gospel of Mark came from Peter’s account. In recounting his eyewitness accounts, Peter was “binding”, in the form of the human authorship of Scripture, “The Gospel According to Mark”.]

As for Clarke’s study of Paul’s “ministerial authority, I think he is right to reject the notion of “human wisdom”. He says: “In addition, it has been seen from both the synoptic and the Pauline texts that there remains a significant emphasis on the servile nature, not only of Jesus’ and Paul’s ministries, but this is also commended by both Jesus and Paul as something which should more widely be characteristic of all Christians” (245).

Paul, on a number of occasions, applies to himself the title of ‘father’ to the community. It is significant, however, that this usage is contrary to the honorific application of the titles Father/Mother of the synagogue found on a number of Jewish inscriptions. This is not a title redolent with status, conveyed upon the community’s chief benefactor. Paul’s fatherhood is, rather, exercised out of love. His relationship with them as father gives him, not simply a unique authority, but a unique motivation of loving concern.

On numerous occasions, Paul enjoins believers to imitate a given model, variously God, Christ, himself, or other believers or churches. This non-exclusive [“latitudinarian”?] use of the imitation motif should not be conceived as a call to obedience, or as a means by which Paul can reinforce group boundaries to his own advantage. Paul’s own life is modelled on that of Christ, and this is the ultimate goal of the motif.

One of Paul’s preferred titles is that of ‘apostle’, a commission which derives from God and is founded in the gospel. Paul’s ministry is challenged not when his apostleship is challenged, but when believers are being drawn away from Christ and his grace. Apostleship is regarded as a ministry of weakness, rather than status and grace (246).

Paul was loathe to claim any kind of authority for himself. And it very much seems to me that movements that claim some kind of “authority” for those in the churches by which someone can say “I’m the boss of you”, or “we’re right and you’re wrong”, including “apostolic succession”, including your notion that the issuing of reports by church bodies carries any kind of “authority”, is wrong-headed and misunderstands the central thrust of what “authority” is to be in the New Testament.

I haven’t said anything about “triperspectivalism”, by the way.

As for “Biblicism”, as Steve wrote recently:

"Biblicist" is typically a term of abuse. Likewise, those who use "biblicist" as a term of abuse frequently distinguish between (bad) solo Scriptural and (good) sola Scriptura. Keith Mathison popularized this distinction. Unfortunately, it's an unstable distinction which Catholic apologists can and do exploit.

You may remember how some of the discussions on that topic went. The arguments of “the Callers” were quite unpersuasive to a “Biblicist” like Steve.

Regarding “Biblicism”, he says:

I think it would be better to distinguish between, say, naive biblicism and critical biblicism.

I’d highly recommend that folks read that entire piece. Go to Triablogue and search “Critical Biblicism”.

You wrote:

Your account of the confessions is quite like that of the Presbyterian Church USA. You’ve adopted the liberal position that the confessions are mere historical documents. We recognize this. That’s why we teach courses on their history, so that our ministers will understand the original context in which they were written and adopted.

I doubt that my account of the confessions is like that of the PCUSA. My account of the confessions is that we can and should learn everything we can from them – that we should not reject anything that these wise statesmen agreed upon. We should cherish the work that they did. As well, that we should not fail to understand that they were not perfect.

They are also living documents, that we still confess.

Just what does this mean? What does it mean for a document to be living? Would everyone here even agree with you in that statement? Certainly the original context is important. Certainly what these documents say is a very good and honest way of understanding the Scriptures, and to borrow from Paul, worthy of being imitated.

But really, from a practical perspective, is the pope an antichrist, or not? Should we take the word of the 1646 WCF? Or the 1788 revision? People here will divide along those lines.

But those aren’t the only differences. Do 1689 Baptists sin grievously for their views? Should they think that Presbyterians sin grievously? What might God say about who’s right and who’s wrong?

Producing confessions does not solve the problem that people will drift into Arminianism or Federal Visionism. What will solve these problems is open discussion involving sound exegesis (using all of the tools at our disposal today) and persuasion. And of course, “being worthy of imitation”.

I know that you have a position, and I don’t fault you for defending it vigorously. My love for the Reformed Confessions is thorough and hard-won. I have struggled mightily in my life to get to where I am. To understand what I understand.

But there is more to understanding the Gospel than simply having church councils to vote on things. Clarke is right about Paul’s insistence on “being worthy of imitation”, and that being a criterion for “leadership”.

The five solas of the Reformation are definitely worthy of defending, but “by confession alone” is not one of them.


  1. I suspect the reason that your comment was not accepted might have something to do with its length.

    1. Could be. But it was a long comment responding to a long comment.

  2. Clark doesn't allow dissenting opinions on his blog. The purpose of the blog is a place for him to pontificate and allow the minions to echo in the chamber. Talk about papalism!

    1. My first comment got through. I'm not aware of having broken any of his commenting rules. He and I have known each other for a number of years -- going back a lot further than my affiliation with Triablogue.

      I wasn't going to charge him with anything like papalism -- I wanted to focus directly on the issues. And I thought it was respectful enough.

      In case he thought that my comment on his blog was too long, I put up a link to this article. At the moment, that too is "awaiting moderation".

  3. The tension between the "priesthood of believers" and "ministerial authority" has been a problem since the beginning of the Reformation. Clark wants to smooth out that tension in a particular direction. I think he fancies himself as a contemporary Reformed Torquemado.

  4. Scott Clark said:

    "Without a churchly confession, to whom is the biblicist accountable? No one but himself or perhaps his self-selected pope."

    The obvious problem with Clark's position is that you're only accountable to a churchly confession if you *hold yourself* accountable to a churchly confession. So he's simply relocated the same issue. It still comes down to individuals voluntarily submitting to a churchly confession. A churchly confession can't impose accountability on them without their consent.

    1. Which then Clark's program enables people like Stellman to more easily convert to Romanism. If blind acceptance of a human construct is the end goal then Romanism will give the appearance of a more thorough-going program.

  5. R. Scott Clark said 'They are also living documents, that we still confess."

    I'm wondering what Confession(s) is he reading that state they are living documents.