Tuesday, January 20, 2015

In the choice between “catholicity” and “correctness”, “correctness” should win every time

The topic of Biblicism is being raised again, in a way that is not helpful.

For example, citing this article, I think (the provided link simply went to a TGC page), Mark Jones has made this statement on Reformation21:

Theology, thankfully, has never been done in terms of "pure biblicism." When it has, the consequences have always been deleterious. "Pure biblicism" is a Socinian way of theologizing, historically speaking. And biblicism can lead someone to hell.

And Ryan McGraw writing at The Aquila Report makes this statement:

Frame unashamedly notes that he includes less historical theology than other comparable works because he wants to be biblical. While this sounds appealing to many Christians, it is impossible to do theology in a historical vacuum… 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.

A third writer picks up McGraw's argument and takes it further:

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.

First of all, no “Biblicist” that I am aware of advocates “readily discarding the confessional formulations of the church anytime … [a Christian] … arrives at a personal interpretation distinct from confessional orthodoxy”. This is just simply a mischaracterization of what is being said.

Second, Jones shows, in making the statement that I cited above, that he has failed to read the original article he cited with any discernment:

[We] learned years ago that we got into trouble by attaching our own meanings to the other’s words. One of us would reason, “If I said that, what I would mean is this.” Then we’d take each other’s words to their logical conclusion (according to our own logic, not the other’s). Only when we realized this did we learn to understand and appreciate each other.

And McGraw seems to work very hard to present the false dilemma. Frame does not “ignore historical theology as a conversation partner” (he lauds Frame for being “simultaneously brilliant, innovative, and eccentric”. It is the “eccentric” part to which he objects).

What Jones and McGraw do, in the name of “confessionalism” or “historical theology” is just plain fear-mongering, although it going on for centuries within the Christian church.

But in fact, it is the phenomenon such that one writer or theologian “attach[es] [his] own meanings to the other’s words” and then imputes false conclusions to the other person. This is precisely what happened to precipitate “The Great Schism”, at which time:

On Easter Sunday in 429, Cyril publicly denounced Nestorius for heresy. With fine disregard for anything Nestorius had actually said, he accused him of denying the deity of Christ. It was a direct and incendiary appeal to the emotions of the orthodox, rather than to precise theological definition or scriptural exegesis, and, as he expected, an ecclesiastical uproar followed.

* * *

McGraw’s criticism of Frame’s method (“something close to Biblicism”) leads to this criticism:

Without historical theology, systematic theology becomes detached from the church. Historical theology does not tell us what to believe, but it helps us be self-critical. Without drawing from the past, we will have the unfortunate circumstance of holding communion with the church at the present day. This unavoidably detracts from a biblical catholicity of doctrine, which by definition cannot reinvent itself in every generation. A Reformed theology distinguishes itself from everything that is not Reformed. Yet a common confession that is steeped in Scripture provides inroads to a greater biblical catholicity. In the name of being biblical, Frame distances himself from the Reformed tradition to some extent and modifies this tradition in a way that appears to be sui generis. It is hard to see how this promotes catholicity in relation either to the Reformed community or to the broader Christian world.

The point is, do we hold our “biblical doctrine” up to the standards of “historical theology”? Or should we rather hold “historical theology” up to “biblical” standards?

It seems that some “confessionalists” hold to the former (in the name of, perhaps, holding on to some purity of doctrine that has been enshrined in a creed or confession?)

We should be less concerned about whether a doctrine is “catholic” (a term undefined by most writers who use the term) than we should be that it is “correct”. Rome holds to many doctrines that are “catholic”, but that deserve to be rejected because they are incorrect (unbiblical). Even among doctrines that are considered to be “catholic” among some post-Reformation groups are considered “not correct” by others.

McGraw suggests that Frame’s view “of the nature and use of creeds is more deeply troubling”:

He argues that creeds are optional, if not unnecessary, because the NT protected orthodoxy reactively rather than proactively. In other words, he argues that the NT responded to error rather than providing positive summaries of doctrine. This ignores the fact that early summaries of doctrine in the pages of the NT, such as 1 Cor. 15:1-11 and 1 Tim. 3:16, were almost always reactive in response to some error. This is the biblical pattern for creed making. Creeds are stable and well-defined statements of common belief that churches or officers adopt to express their convictions. Frame does not appear to grasp the historical purpose or their biblical necessity of creeds and confessions. He argues that if ministers subscribe to creeds, then they will stifle theological growth and development and they will not be able to amend their creeds. However, the Reformed creeds themselves acknowledge the right of synods and councils to determine matters of doctrine alongside of the possibility that they may err and need correction.

On the subject of “creeds and confessions”, everyone seems to have recourse today to Richard Muller (“Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics”). But if there’s one thing that I learned from reading Muller, it is that even “the Reformed Orthodox” cast a wider net than most “confessionalists” will ever admit – they disagreed among themselves, despite their adherence to “the confessions”, far more than is admitted:

In the high orthodox era, orthodoxy continued to be defined in terms of the major confessional trajectories of the Reformation as a churchly theology in academic and popular forms, whether positive or polemical, exegetical, catechetical, or dogmatic, conceived in the context and within the doctrinal boundaries set by the Reformed confessions.

This understanding of orthodoxy (which, arguably, belongs to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) has not been consistently obliged by modern discussions of post-Reformation Reformed thought.

Thus, if one anachronistically draws a rather strict and narrow line of development from Calvin to Turretin and denominates only what fits in this particular Genevan trajectory as “orthodoxy,” then various Reformed views, developed entirely within the confessional understanding of the sixteenth and seventeenth-century Reformed, can be cordoned off and identified as opponents of the Reformed orthodox.

Bullinger’s covenantal thought can be segmented off from “Calvinism,” and Cocceius’ form of covenant theology can then be set against the strictly “orthodox,” as if they (or, indeed, Calvin!) objected to an emphasis on covenant. Infralapsarian and supralapsarian forms of the doctrine of predestination can become identifiers of alternative orthodoxies—which, however bitter the debate, they clearly were not.

Indeed, any variation of doctrine incapable of being accommodated to Calvin’s 1559 Institutes can come to be viewed by the older scholarship as a deviation from the norm of Reformed theology—without any recognition of the fact that doctrinal variations and even highly polemical debates over doctrinal formulae that took place within the confessional boundaries all belonged to the broad stream of Reformed orthodoxy.

This approach, albeit characteristic of much twentieth-century historiography, does not accurately represent the seventeenth-century orthodox understanding (or, indeed, understandings) of “orthodoxy.”

To define orthodoxy in terms of the more traditionalist line of Geneva, culminating in Turretin, or in terms of the Voetian theology at Utrecht prejudices the case from the start by creating subconfessional lines of demarcation for orthodoxy and by offering an anachronistic picture of a “rigid orthodoxy” operating within the narrow limits of a single school.

The historical materials do not support the picture.
Just as Calvin did not speak for the entire early Reformed tradition, so was Geneva less than the arbitrator of the Reformed tradition in the seventeenth century.

Whereas, therefore, some distinction can be made between various lines of development within Reformed orthodoxy, such as between the Swiss orthodoxy of the line of Turretin and Heidegger and the Academy of Saumur [A Huguenot university and the home of Amyraldism], between the northern German Reformed of Bremen or the Herborn Academy and the rather different approach of Franecker theologians in the tradition of Ames, between the Cocceian or federalist line and the Voetian approach, between the British Reformed theology of Owen and that of Baxter, or between the British variety of Reformed theology in general and the several types of Reformed teaching found on the continent, there is no justification for identifying any one of these strains of Reformed thought as outside of the bounds of Reformed orthodoxy or as not evidencing the characteristics of Reformed scholasticism.

Voetius and Cocceius obliged the same confessions—and Voetius could identify several lines of Reformed thought on, for example, the work of Christ, including that of Crocius and the Saumur theologians.

He disagreed with these thinkers but did not set them outside of the Reformed confessions.

Turretin, similarly, indicates his disagreement with the Saumur theologians on various issues, but consistently identifies them as Reformed and as “our ministers.”

Owen and Baxter acknowledged each other’s theologies as belonging to the same confessional tradition. Owen, moreover, thought highly of Cameron and Amyraut on such issues as the divine justice and the doctrine of the Trinity—at the same time that he abhorred elements of the teaching of Twisse and Rutherford, both of whom stood closer to him than to the Salmurians on the issues addressed in the Formula consensus Helvetica.

All of these branches of the Reformed tradition stood within the boundaries established by the major national confessions and catechisms of the Reformed churches.
Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise And Development Of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 1: Prolegomena To Theology (2nd ed., pp. 78–80). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Writers like Jones and McGraw, while claiming the “catholic” or “confessionalist” mantle, are really, both subtly and overtly, doing the same thing to those who call themselves “Biblicists” that Cyril did to Nestorius: “with a fine disregard for anything they said …”

This approach by Jones and McGraw and the others fails to account for the fact that there are both naïve and critical thinkers; there are both naïve Biblicism (“the illusion of presuppositionless exegesis”) and “Critical Biblicism”, through which, as Steve Hays has noted:

[with a “critical Biblicism”] You can cultivate an awareness of your hitherto unquestioned presuppositions. Once you become self-conscious of your operating presuppositions, you can compare and contrast your operating presuppositions with the teaching of Scripture. Scripture can correct your presuppositions. Give you new presuppositions. It's a dialectical process in which some of your governing assumptions are confirmed by the study of Scripture while others are challenged and overturned.

This is what is meant by the fact that creeds, councils, and synods “may err and need correction” (WCF 31.2-3). It is by Scripture alone that these errors may be pointed out or even discussed.

In the choice between “catholicity” and “correctness”, “Biblical correctness” should win every time.


  1. Thanks John. Have you found or developed any good, one sentence, definitions for biblicist, or is the term so tainted that it is beyond redeeming?

    1. Ted -- I've picked up on the term "critical biblicism" here, in relation to "confessionalism":

      Steve's original article (a short one) is here:


      As I mentioned on Facebook the other day, F.F. Bruce classified himself as a biblicist ("Tradition Old and New",pg 13), and while Frame's "Something Close to Biblicism" has drawn some fire, I think it is misunderstood. This isn't to say that Frame gets everything right about everything. But Scripture is the measure against which every other doctrine should be measured.

  2. Thanks for the links and allowing me to catch up with something you and Steve have already hashed through.

    Sorry for Clarke's condescending tone, too.

    So, it looks like the word biblicism requires clever adjectives, which end up being ignored by Reformed men anyway?

    1. Ted – I’m not sure what you mean by “clever adjectives” – do you mean “heavy qualification? As I’ve been describing it here, there is no need for a qualifier. I think Frame qualifies it adequately enough and clearly enough in this article. What he does is to deal with some misconceptions.

      Here, too, is what F.F. Bruce says about the word (in the context of “tradition” or of “subordinate standards”):

      [T]his term (“biblicist”) is used in no disparaging sense. By heritage and conviction I myself am a biblicist; theologically as well as academically I am “homo unius libri” (a man of one book). One of the functions of recognized subordinate standards, like the Westinster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms in the Presbyterian tradition, is to provide guidelines for the interpretation and application of Scripture. Where subordinate standards are not recognized, it does not follow that there are no such guidelines: Guidelines and even more precise canons are quite likely to be laid down, but because they take the form of “unwritten” traditions, their true nature may be overlooked. Indeed, in some of the more enclosed traditions the authority of Scripture will be identified with the authority of the accepted interpretation and application, because it has never occurred to those inside the enclosure that Scripture could be interpreted or applied otherwise.

      For Bruce, these “subordinate standards”, whether they conflict with one another, or they don’t, should be tested against “Scripture alone”.

      Footnote on “Scripture alone”: “Concretely expressed, the relationship of the community [the church] and the Word of God is not reversible; there is no dialectical process by which the community created by the Word becomes at the same time an authority set over the Word to interpret it, to administer it, to possess it … for the community remains the handmaid of the Word” (citing Ernst Kasemann)

      So there are going to be written and unwritten “subordinate standards”, all the way from the Roman “Magisterium” (which wants to be the “authoritative interpretation”) to the single person or small community – the Word of God is to be the arbiter of all of these. Why?

      To many it seems safer and more comfortable to stay within familiar and old-established boundaries. The admission of more light may show up inadequacies in cherished traditions – inadequacies that would otherwise have remained hidden – and they may be disposed to question whether what is claimed to be “more light” is in fact light.

      But light by nature is self-evidencing, and John Robinson’s choice of this figure for the further truth that might be learned from Scripture was apt. There are those who demand authority for truth, forgetting that truth is itself the highest authority. Where the Holy Spirit guides the people of Christ into further truth, that guidance (though meeting with some initial resistance) tends in the long run to commend itself to their general acceptance. It will not conflict with truth already learned and established, even if it shows that some things previously reckoned to be truth were only imperfectly so, or not so at all.

      It will be acknowledged to be in harmony with the mind of Christ, as His mind is primarily revealed in Scripture and progressively appreciated in the church. The word by which tradition is to be tested and the church’s faith and life continuously reformed is no mere deliverance of antiquity laying down precedents for all time to come: the Spirit who spoke in that word to the churches of the first century speaks in it to the churches of the twentieth, and does so in terms which address themselves dynamically and relevantly to our present condition.

    2. Thanks much, John. Yes, I meant heavy qualification, because anyone calling themself a biblicist is distrusted among Reformed and Roman Catholics and EO.

      In the case of RCs and EOs, so what. But from Reformed men, its just strange when they want their claims to be under the authority of Scripture to be taken seriously by anyone outside their circles.

      Have you or Steve developed a mechanism by which a man can be challenged to see if his theology or practice is in fact under the authority of Scripture?

      By the way, Kasemann's tidy little aphorism, that the church is "the community created by the Word" was the topic of a recent book by Matt Chandler and 2 others, "Creatures of the Word."

      But here's push back - if they are created by the Word, why do they resist it's authority in their ecclesial practices? According to 1 Pet. 1:23-25?

    3. "Have you or Steve developed a mechanism by which a man can be challenged to see if his theology or practice is in fact under the authority of Scripture?"

      There's no mechanism that can force someone to acknowledge something. It comes down to people, not mechanisms. Men of good will. Absent that, there's nothing more to say.

  3. "There's no mechanism that can force someone to acknowledge something. It comes down to people, not mechanisms. Men of good will. Absent that, there's nothing more to say."

    How about the sword? (jusssss kiddin')

    Steve, I'd appreciate your studied feedback on the cross-check method of precept and example I write on here: http://www.churchsonefoundation.com/precept-and-example/ .