Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Bubble-boy catholicity

I'm going to comment on a review of Frame's systematic theology:

Doing so is important in pursuing a theology that stands in catholic continuity with our Reformed forefathers in the faith. As we do so, we pursue unity around the teachings of Scripture and are better able to pursue a catholic unity with all who rest on the supreme authority of God’s Word by appealing to and promoting a common understanding of the Bible.Frame’s Systematic Theology is profound and thought provoking. Yet the very features that make his theology innovative make it less clear what relationship he has to the historic Reformed faith. His lack of historical theology makes his work less catholic in character.It is hard to see how this promotes catholicity in relation either to the Reformed community or to the broader Christian world.
i) McGraw makes "catholicity" a chief criterion in his evaluation. However, he never explains why we should treat catholicity as an overriding criterion or priority. 
ii) He doesn't define what he means by "catholicity." Is he using "catholic" as a historically and theologically resonant synonym for "universal"? If so, his overwhelming emphasis on catholicity is highly ironic. McGraw is an OPC pastor. Nothing wrong with that. In general, I think the OPC is a very admirable denomination. But whatever other things the OPC may have going for it, catholicity isn't one of them. Do Anglicans think confessional Presbyterianism represents catholicity? Do Lutherans think confessional Presbyterianism represents catholicity? Do Baptists think confessional Presbyterianism represents catholicity? Do Anabaptists think confessional Presbyterianism represents catholicity? Do charismatics think confessional Presbyterianism represents catholicity? Do Plymouth Brethren think confessional Presbyterianism represents catholicity? Do Dispensationalists think confessional Presbyterianism represents catholicity? McGraw has a comically insular and provincial notion of catholicity. It's only catholic within the snowglobe of his particular theological tradition. 
Fact is, catholicity and confessionalism tug in opposing directions. Confessionaism is sectarian. Confessionalism distances you from everybody else who doesn't subscribe to your own theological tradition. I'm not saying that's a bad thing. I'm just pointing out that McGraw's means (confessionalism) work at cross-purposes with his goal (catholicity). 
iii) Assuming that catholicity ought to be a goal, that leaves open the question of how to pursue that goal. McGraw assumes that catholicity and confessionalism go together. But what if catholicity is something we should achieve indirectly? Instead of aiming at catholicity, what if catholicity is the effect or end-result of something else? For instance, Christians have a duty to understand God's word, believe God's word, and live obey God's word. The more that more Christians live according to God's word, the more they converge. 
Frame unashamedly notes that he includes less historical theology than other comparable works because he wants to be biblical.[41] While this sounds appealing to many Christians, it is impossible to do theology in a historical vacuum. Frame’s situational perspective reflects this fact. Downplaying historical theology in the name of being biblical can be a dangerous way of introducing radical shifts in method with little notice. The question is not whether we are influenced by the historical teachings of the church, but which ones will influence us and whether they are correct.
i) Like any wise man, Frame plays to his strengths. He does what he's good at. He does what he does best. He has an analytical mind. You get things from him that you will never get from more historically-minded, but less acute, writers like Scott Clark and Darryl Hart. 
ii) Given the specialization of knowledge, no theologian can be an expert on everything. Systematic theology involves exegetical theology, philosophical theology, and historical theology.  To a great extent, the emphasis depends on the aptitude and training of the theologian. 
iii) Life is short. We only have 24 hours in a day. The time you devote to mastering historical theology is time you siphon off from mastering exegetical theology or philosophical theology. Something has to give. Should a Protestant theologian skimp on exegetical theology so that he can devote more time to researching nooks and crannies of church history? 
iv) You get different things from different theologians. If you want a greater emphasis on historical theology, read Douglas Kelly. Keep in mind, though, that Kelly's orientation is not above criticism. He's quite ecumenical in his sources of theology. The church fathers. Eastern Orthodox theologians. Thomas Torrance. Is that really more Reformed or more confessional than Frame's orientation? If anything, could it not be argued that that is less anchored in confessional Calvinism. More eclectic. Open to many influences outside the Reformed stable. 
Ignoring historical theology as a conversation partner in the name of producing a theology that is more biblical gives readers a false impression and threatens to confuse Frame’s innovations with a bare reading of Scripture. Without historical theology, systematic theology becomes detached from the church.
Which church? The present church? The church of living Christians?
Historical theology does not tell us what to believe, but it helps us be self-critical. 
So does philosophical theology. Indeed, one could argue that philosophical theologians are self-critical in a way that historian theologians are not. 
Without drawing from the past, we will have the unfortunate circumstance of holding communion with the church at the present day. 
Without drawing from the present or the recent past, we will have the unfortunate circumstance of holding communion with a dead church, a paper church–a church that only exists in history books.
This unavoidably detracts from a biblical catholicity of doctrine, which by definition cannot reinvent itself in every generation.
But you must identify what qualifies as biblical doctrine in the first place. And every Christian generation must confirm that for itself. 
Scripture has ultimate authority beyond which there is no appeal, but unity and trust is not possible without some agreement over what the Bible says. 
But, of course, McGraw is extremely selective about the unity he privileges. Agreement that Scripture teaches confessional Presbyterianism. Unity within a fractional subset of professing Christians in time and place.  
He defines theology as, ‘the application of Scripture, by persons, to every area of life.’…There is a subtle difference between Frame’s definition of theology and historical Reformed reflections on the nature of theology….By equating theology with the application of Scripture (to use Frame’s terms), the normative aspect of theology no longer remains distinct absolutely from its subjective components. 
Keep that criticism in mind as we move to the next claim:
Christ appointed means to promote a catholic unit in sound doctrine. In Ephesians 4:11-16, the apostle Paul lists gifts that the ascended Christ gave to the church. Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers were foremost among these gifts (v. 11). Some of these offices were temporary and some of them are permanent. It is not important to show which ones are which here.
i) Notice that McGraw is guilty of the very thing he faults Frame for (allegedly) doing. He's going straight to Scripture. Makes a direct appeal to Scripture. Then applies that to the situation in hand. 
ii) Furthermore, his interpretation is hardly catholic. He assumes the text is referring to "offices." But, of course, that's disputed by exegetes like Gordon Fee, Harold Hoehner, and Walter Liefeld. Likewise, he interjects a cessationist expiration date, although the text itself doesn't say some of these "offices" were temporary–and there are scholars (e.g. Michael L. Brown) who deny that. 
My point is not to debate the merits of his interpretation. But his interpretation is sectarian rather than catholic. It's only catholic within the inwardly looking bubble of his favored theological tradition.
And that's unavoidable. And this stage in church historian, it's a choice between different theological traditions. You can also mix-and-match. But whatever you opt for, it won't be catholic. 
Christ promised to furnish his church with teachers promoting doctrinal unity through sound teaching and loving discipleship. Christ has kept this promise. He has preserved the truth in his church throughout her history. Reformed Christians have believed that the theology embodied in their creeds and confessions represent Christ’s faithfulness in giving Scriptural light to the church to promote unity in sound doctrine. If the church would pursue a theology that is biblical, catholic, and Reformed, she must do so in light of Christ’s promises. She must pursue Christian unity not only in light of the present teaching of the church, but in continuity with the unity that Christ has already blessed the church with. Only a theology that is both biblical and catholic can be unambiguously Reformed – and the character of Reformed theology is unmistakably both biblical and catholic.
The obvious problem with this argument is McGraw's arbitrary cut-off point. Did God stop giving teachers to the church at the end of the 17C? What about an 18C theologian like Jonathan Edwards? Or a 19C theologian like William Cunningham? What about 20-21C theologians like Geerhardus Vos, Benjamin Warfield, John Murray, Roger Nicole, or Paul Helm? What about Bible scholars like Bruce Waltke, D. A. Carson, Thomas Schreiner, John Currid, Gregory Beale, Frank Thielman, Peter O'Brien, and O. Palmer Robertson–to name a few?
Not to put too sharp a point on the question, but why does it not occur to McGraw that John Frame might be one of God's gifts to the church? One fulfillment of Christ's ongoing promise to the church?
For his part, Tom Chantry posted a running commentary on McGraw's review:
Like McGraw, Chantry is another bubble boy catholic: 
Of all of Frame’s bizarre constructions, the one which seems to have gained favor among the confessional-revisionists of our circles is his claim to adopt an approach that is “something close to biblicism.” This sounds quite admirably sola-scripturish, but ultimately it amounts to readily discarding the confessional formulations of the church anytime that the Christian, alone with his Bible, arrives at a personal interpretation distinct from confessional orthodoxy.
You mean like John Calvin challenging the religious establishment of his own day? 
This is what confessionalism represents – the consensus of the church as opposed to the private interpretation of the individual.
What consensus of the church would that be, exactly? Let's take a satellite view of Chantry's position. Increasing close-ups. Protestants are a subset of professing Christians in general. Baptists are a subset of Protestants in general. Reformed Baptists are a subset of Baptists in general. Adherents of the LBCF are a subset of Reformed Baptists in general. There are, moreover, two theologically distinct editions of the LBCF. Some adhere to one, some to the other. 
So Chantry's appeal to the consensus of the church reduces to a subset of a subset of a subset of a subset of a subset of professing Christians. That's a pretty contracted definition of catholicity, if you ask me.  
As I read this I was struck by how small my approach to these verses has been. I turn to them when we need to appoint officers in the local church, and then I miss the rest of what Paul said. What does this have to do with confessionalism? After all, the guys who edited the Confession in 1677 weren’t my pastors! Paul, though, revealed a broad historical principle of Christ’s rule over His church. He gives officers to promote unity and commands us to hear them. Can we really imagine that Christ stopped doing this after the Apostles died and then resumed when He established my local assembly? 
And did Christ stop doing this after 1677? 
So Christ isn’t only giving gifts to the church in my lifetime; He has done so in every age. I shouldn’t have to just pick up my Bible and figure out what to think on my own, even if I’m a pastor. Instead, I have the benefit of the wisdom of the ages, particularly as it is collected in the consensus documents we call creeds and confessions.
But what is Chantry's frame of reference? Not the Schleitheim Confession. Not the Thirty-Nine Articles. Not the Articles of Remonstrance. Not the Formula of Concord. Not the Lausanne Covenant. Certainly not the Council of Trent or Vatican II. 
So Chantry deceives himself if he imagines that he begins with the "wisdom of the ages" or "consensus documents." For Chantry, resorting to his private interpretation Scripture, has preemptively discounted nearly all the candidates. 
Here is a line of reasoning which demands careful thought.  If there is to be such a thing as Reformed Catholicity, we will need to move beyond personal interpretations. I know this argument won’t be convincing to everyone. For some it is new and disturbing, being at odds with the Bible-study hermeneutic of our age. Others may be motivated to abandon confessionalism for other reasons. It is, however, a cogent argument, and one which ought to be considered carefully.For those (like myself) who need to have these things spelled out, here is my own simplistic outline: 

  1. 1. Christ is the Head of the Church. (Ephesians 1:20-23; Colossians 1:18)
  2. Christ gave us the Bible so that we might have the truth. (Hebrews 1:1-2)
  3. Christ sent us the Holy Spirit so that we might understand the truth. (John 14:26)
  4. Christ appointed officers over the church so that we might understand the truth together, thus having unity. (Ephesians 4:11-16)
  5. He has done this through every age, which is why – in spite of a history of apostasy and heresy – there is such a thing as a catholic (from the whole church) faith.
  6. That unity has taken expression in consensus summaries of Christ’s teaching which we call creeds and confessions. These are not infallible Scripture, but are nevertheless true representations of the unity of Christ’s people.
  7. If we wish to maintain that unity, we ought to give precedence to the arguments of those consensus documents – not receiving them as inspired, but searching the Scriptures to see whether these things are so, hearing with humility and grace, not a proud supposition that our own interpretations must be superior.
  8. If we do this, we will be slow to reject the teaching found in our Confession, but will seek to be instructed by the pastors and teachers Christ has given the church.
  9. If we wished to destroy the unity of the church, the best approach would be to reject the consensus teachings out of hand in favor of our own personal interpretations of Scripture, only aligning with confessions where they happen to align with us.
  10. This is precisely what the modern church has too often done, even in its evangelical manifestations. It is also the increasingly obvious practice of the non-confessional, non-subscriptionist forces both in Presbyterianism and among Reformed Baptists.
Does that successfully "move beyond personal interpretations"? Notice how oblivious he is to his own methodology. He begins by attempting to prooftext his position from Scripture. But isn't that, in itself, an exercise in personal interpretation? He then applies his own interpretation to the case in hand. Once again, isn't that an exercise in private judgment? He's blind to his own blinders. 
Why does he align himself with the LBCF rather than a creed from a competing theological tradition? Isn't it obvious that he's aligning with a confession where it happens to align with him? He's not giving precedence to the creeds of rival theological traditions. 
And is it just a coincidence that he's the son of a Reformed Baptist pastor? His theological journey is a round trip inside the theological enclosure of his dad's backyard. Chantry ends exactly where he began. Wonder how that happened. 


  1. Steve- I wholeheartedly agree with you on this. For the hyperconfessionalist, unless you subscribe to his particular confession, you are not holding to the catholic faith.

    With all of this talk about private interpretation, how would these folks begin to debate a Roman Catholic on the meaning of scripture. Each side would accuse the other of private interpretation, and ultimately each would have to appeal to their particular confession or council. Not exactly what I would call reasoning from the scriptures!

  2. This is excellent analysis, Steve. For some pastors like Tom, whether a church strictly subscribes to the COF (in his case, the 1689) or not is of paramount importance. Which is why he and others label Dr. Frame as "dangerous". It's ludicrous. Yes, Dr. Frame is dangerous if by that you mean dangerous to the theological bubble you reside in.

  3. Also ironic that another hyper-confessionalist like R. Scott Clarke wouldn't even consider Tom's church a "true church of Christ". Consensus of the ages indeed!

    And I would like to know where in the 1677 or 1689 Tom has submitted his private judgment to the "wisdom of the church". Where did he have personal disagreement that he has discarded because of the COF?