Friday, February 21, 2014

The enemy of my enemy is my friend

Barring unforeseen developments, this will be my final response to Tom Chantry's screed against John Frame. I'll alternate between Chantry's original post and his sequel:

I call Frame’s approach to knowledge “relativistic” because it elevates personal interpretation to the same level as the thing interpreted.

To the contrary, Frame explicitly distinguishes our interpretation of Scripture from Scripture itself. 

Saying that the normative perspective is our understanding of the Word and not the Word itself does not help.

Notice that Chantry is now chiding Frame for distinguishing between Scripture and our understanding of Scripture, when just a sentence before he chided Frame putting them on a par. You can't get more confused than that! So Chantry's allegation is self-contradictory on the face of it.

This makes the Word something other than perspicuous.  It may only be guessed at, never truly apprehended.  That is the essential character of relativism.

i) I think this is the source of Chantry's muddleheaded objection: you can't say in the abstract whether our interpretation is on a par with Scripture because that's not a fact-free claim. Rather, it depends on whether or not our interpretation is correct. If our understanding of Scripture is correct, then we could say our understanding of Scripture coincides with the meaning of Scripture. There would be "identity" at that level.

ii) But, of course, Christians can misinterpret Scripture, so it's necessary to distinguish between the meaning of Scripture and our understanding of Scripture. Sometimes that distinction is bridged, and sometimes not.

iii) It would be "relativistic" to say Scripture has no objective meaning. It would be relativistic to say Scripture has objective meaning, but that meaning is humanly inaccessible. But Chantry doesn't quote Frame saying that. 

iv) While we're on the subject, here's Darryl Hart's stated position on the regulative principle:

[The] distinction between the historical and normative definitions is not so easy to pull off, since the historical and the normative will naturally overlap.  The way I come to understand the normative will be affected by the historical if I have subscribed to it, and the way I come to subscribe to the historical will be affected by how I read the normative.  In other words, interpreting the Bible is a whole lot more complicated in a Calvinistic psychology than the distinction between the historical and normative senses of the RPW allows.

Why is triperspectivalism "relativistic" but Hart's position is not? Remember, Hart is on the faculty of WSC. The institution that Chantry is vouching for.  

v) Finally, there's a persistent air of unreality to Chantry's objection. Frame has an enormously long paper trail in theology and ethics. That's a concrete illustration of how Frame himself understands triperspectivalism. How he actually goes about doing theology and ethics. There's nothing "relativistic" about Frame's positions in theology and ethics. You may disagree with some of his positions, but they aren't relativistic. If you want to see relativism, try John Hick. 

It is possible to reject one’s confessional commitments in a forthright and honest way.  One critic complained that I did not similarly attack Meredith Kline.  In the first place, I have not seen Kline’s approach invading Reformed Baptist discussions, and this continues to be my main concern.  I didn’t care for Kline’s view on a number of points, but I’ll tell you what I did appreciate: where he differed with the Westminster Standards, he stood in class and said plainly, “I take exception to the standards at this point.”  You can debate whether or not he ought to have been allowed to do this at Westminster, but at no point did he, for instance, pretend to be Sabbatarian while redefining Sabbatarianism.  Instead, he said, “I no longer hold the confessional doctrine on Sabbath.”
i) Was that Chantry's "main concern"? No doubt that's one of Chantry's professed concerns. But didn't Chantry emphatically lay down a firm principle:
At Nicea the churches recognized the orthodox truth regarding the nature of Christ and formulated that teaching in a creed.  The result was to put an end to personal interpretations within the church – to distinguish between what was inside and what was outside the boundaries.  Anyone who wished to pursue a private interpretation would have to do so outside the boundaries of the communion defined at Nicea.  In other words, the church recognized early on that sinful tendency drives theology away from biblical truth – even where the Bible is quoted.  Corporate recognition of right interpretations put a brake on individual error.  The Eccumenical creeds did this for the entire church; in a more recent era the confessions have accomplished the same task for various segments of the church. 
To confessionalists – Presbyterian or Baptist – the confessional documents represent the settled corporate interpretations coming down to us from the ages.  They are not individual interpretations (no individual can authorize or adopt a confession), but rather the summary of the teaching of the church.  They are secondary standards under Scripture, but they create safe boundaries around our interpretation of Scripture.  To transgress those boundaries in favor of an individual or private interpretation is to tread on thin ice.  Whereas years or in some cases centuries of theological experience went into the language of the confession – often recognizing the dangers of certain misstatements – we live in an age in which far too many a Christian and even theologian is likely to stand alone with his Bible and say, “It seems to me…”  Confessionalism is intended to prevent this error.
Now, however, he actually "appreciates" the fact that Kline's individual interpretations sabotage "the settled corporate interpretations" handed down to us through the ages because he was brazen about it. So long as you openly tamper with the brakes, so long as you defiantly transgress the boundaries, then Chantry won't do two posts attacking you as "dangerous" and "disruptive."
ii) There's something else rather curious about Chantry's nonchalant response to Kline. Chantry touts the "supportive letter" he wrote to WSC in response to The Escondido Theology. Well, who was Chantry supporting? By opposing The Escondido Theology, wasn't he defending Frame's targets?
At a substantive level, Frame's primary target was Meredith Kline. That's because Frame regards Kline as the intellectual architect of the "Escondido theology." He was the brains behind the Escondido theology, whereas writers like Horton and Stellman are popularizers. 
So how can Chantry adopt such a laissez-faire attitude towards Kline? Is it because Chantry doesn't actually know what's in The Escondido Theology? Did he write that obsequious letter based on hostile rumors? Did he prejudge the book unread? Frame is "dangerous." Frame is the author. Therefore the book must be bad. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. 
The antiquity of a confession is necessarily distasteful to anyone who believes that the shifting situation changes our situational perspective, requiring new formulations.  Thus Frame has attacked the very practice of confessionalism – and with linguistic gymnastics as dishonest as anything he has said about the Regulative Principle.  Consider the following statement from Frame’s blog:
In Reformed circles, this tendency leads to a fervent traditionalism, in which, not only the Confessions, but also the extra-confessional practices of the Reformed tradition, in areas such as worship, evangelism, pastoral care, are placed beyond question. In an atmosphere of such traditionalism, it is not possible to consider further reform, beyond that accomplished in the Reformation period itself. There is no continuing reformation of the church’s standards and practices by comparing them with Scripture. Thus there is no way in which new practices, addressing needs of the present time, can be considered or evaluated theologically. This is ironic, because one of the most basic convictions of the Reformed tradition itself is sola Scriptura, which mandates continuing reformation, semper reformanda. At this point, Reformed traditionalism is profoundly anti-traditional.
Note Frame’s concern for “new practices, addressing needs of the present time.”  One can see in this the application of a shifting situational perspective. 
Let's compare this to another document:
Testimony to Our Time 
Teachers of Christ's church are called to "contend for the faith once delivered to the saints" (Jude 3) by addressing the challenges to the faith that arise in each generation. The Board and Faculty of Westminster Seminary California (WSC) confess our faith in the Sovereign God who has revealed himself in his creation, in Christ the incarnate Word, and in Scripture the Word of God written.

Our understanding of God's self-revelation is summarized in the Reformed confessions: the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort. In our time, as in the past, biblical faith faces particular challenges. Recognizing that faithfulness to Christ entails our readiness to speak his truth specifically at those points in which it is under attack in our day, we offer to the church this statement of our understanding of the Scriptures' teaching regarding issues now causing controversy among the people of God. The Board and Faculty of WSC have unanimously adopted this testimony.

It goes on to stake out positions on inerrancy, abortion, hermeneutics, homosexuality, and the ordination of women. 

Isn't that precisely the kind of thing Frame had in mind about going beyond the confessions to address modern challenges which weren't on the horizon when the confessions were framed? Yet this is a public statement by the then-faculty of WSC, around the time Chantry was a student. You know, the same institution he wrote that glowing letter about. So how can Frame be so wrong when WSC is so right if WSC was doing the very thing Chantry brands as "relativistic"? 

As a friend of mine wrote, “I don’t think some of the commenters fully understand that John Frame took sacred oaths before God and Men that he subscribes to the confessional standards of his Church.”  Very true, and rather than admit that he could no longer in good conscience maintain those oaths, Frame pretended that he made them on ‘opposite day’; much of the confession that he promised to uphold is eventually discover to mean the opposite of what the confessional words themselves appear to say.
Two basic problems:
i) Frame has already answered that question:
How can I claim to be a Presbyterian? I am a minister in good standing in a sound Presbyterian church. I have honestly subscribed to Presbyterian doctrinal standards, with a few exceptions which my Presbytery knows and accepts as no barrier to my good standing. I have never vowed to learn nothing from non-Reformed traditions, so my interest in learning from them does not constitute any barrier to my confession of Presbyterianism."

II) In addition, why doesn't Chantry ask the same question of Scott Clark? How can Clark honestly subscribe to the Westminster Standards when he repudiates the Westminster Standards on the days of creation and the civil duties of the magistrate?  

iii) Keep in mind that Kline, Clark, and Hart are all targets of The Escondido Theology, which Chantry deplored in his letter to WSC. 


  1. At least on blogs like his, relativism is more often an empty term of abuse than an accurate description of an opponent's position. What philosophers or theologians hold Chantry's definition of relativism?

  2. In reading through Chantry's missives, and combox discussions I was struck by the seeming parallels between his approach, and that of the counter-reformation Romanists.

    Had Tom lived 450 or so years ago, and held his position as tenaciously, one could easily envision him as an inquisitor of Mother Church.