25 January 2011

Answering Questions 8A- continued discussion on Confessions and Polity

 A note to those following along....

This is probably a little exasperating to those who aren't familiar with the issues. There are many who are trying to avoid the free-for-all that we find in American Christianity. We all come to the Bible with baggage. Like it or not as we read and think, we're interacting with our culture and with history. So what do we do? Do we embrace that and work within these ideas that have come down to us....or do we throw them out entirely? Even the most ardent little Independent Fundamental Baptist Church is still standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before. Even the hyper-hysterical pastors I've seen jumping up and down and screaming are still in some sense depending on historic formulations of doctrine and drawing from them in the terms they use.

Groups like the Campbellites, Church of Christ, have tried to divorce themselves from history. They're very interesting, but even they bring in exterior forces and ideas. American Culture and philosophy has done much to shape their doctrine. They are more Biblical on some fronts than other churches, but they also read the Bible through a lens....like it or not we all do.

For years I've been wrestling with what to do about that, and that drives some of the general doctrinal discussion that you find in this project. I'm often attacking Christian Sacralism, but I'm also interested in peeling back a layer and delving into what I think has led to it. If I'm right, then what I find is a core problem that has led to lots of other problems as well.

For many, they look back to the times of the Reformation and after as a time when groups of men studied out these matters and formulated Confessional documents which integrated what good and Biblical doctrine had come down through the centuries with their own Reformation-inspired ideas.

Even when we say, I just believe the Bible...when we describe what that means and when it comes to certain doctrines, we're standing on their shoulders.

To ignore everything that's happened before us and to suggest that no one before our day has understood the Bible. That's dangerous. That's how cults and even theologies like Dispensationalism have arisen. If the Bible teaches a specific doctrine, it's unlikely someone just came up with it in the 21st century.

But to what extent do we need to operate within the framework of past expressions and formulations of the faith? That's the issue. Rigidly? In which case, which tradition? Broadly, soberly borrowing a little from here and there? Or not at all? In which case, where do we draw the line? One need only look at modern American Evangelicalism to see where that's taken us.

Or, is there really no good solution? Does the embrace of any of these positions ultimately lead to an abuse of the principle?

That's what we're talking about if anyone is interested.

Like I said, I'm trying to answer these questions without restricting myself to the comments box. This is probably a little more than a mere answer, more like something of a ramble. I'm just throwing a bunch of thoughts out on the table.

Maybe it will make it more clear where I'm coming from...maybe it will make it that much more confusing.

It's good to think about these things. Maybe some others who read here will also benefit. I know a lot of folks...and I mean it as no insult...haven't given some of these matters a lot of though.

You wrote:

You seem to have a good handle on Biblicism and the problems with it so I will not bother to copy and paste the definition of the term in the blog I wrote.

I'm interested in hearing your impressions of the guy who writes the Aporetic Christianity blog. He wrote an interesting review of Horton's new systematic theology book. He and Hart go at it all the time and Hart has blasted him on a few occasions. But he fights back and does not back down. I have had some runs ins with him too. He sometimes comes across as arrogant and kind of fond of the wisdom he has accumulated but he is a smart guy and has some valid points I think in his critique of confessionalism.

You seem to be a bit more humble than the Aporetic Christian guy. BTW, that is very refreshing. Being a Congregationalist I imagine you are fond of Jonathan Edwards. That may be a reason why you differ with Hart and Clark. I have also found those who disagree with Hart and Clark read a lot of Frame too. After I read your blog on Gnostic dualism and those who accuse you of it I'm sure I will have some more comments to send your way.

I'm not sure I am getting your middle tier point but we can dialog about that in the future. You do not think that revised confessional standards are the way to go? Your comment about it seems right to us and the Holy Ghost bring up some sufficiency of scripture and closed canon issues. That is a whole nother can of worms and Pandora's box. I am not against innovation if it stays within certain boundaries. Kline was very innovative in his theology and he is probably one of the best models for theological innovation. Innovation can lead one into dangerous waters and lots of times theological innovaters are misunderstood and accused of heresy before their ideas are given a chance to be studied and thought about more carefully.


I couldn't get to the Aporetic blog....you have to log-in. Is there some other way? If not, could you summarize? I'm quite interested.

I'm Congregationalist, but I'm not necessarily into the people that have been associated with that movement. I remember one PCA minister saying...."Oh, you're a Savoy man," and then proceeded to attack the Savoy. (smile)

For those unfamiliar, I'm referring to the Savoy Confession which was the Congregationalist version of the Westminster Confession. The London Baptist Confession is the Baptist version of the Westminster Confession. These are all from the 1600's, roughly a century after Luther, Calvin and the original Reformers.

The Congregationalism I'm advocating is a different than that. I'm not really into Edwards and I wouldn't say I've read a lot of Frame. I've looked into his Perspectivalism and read some other stuff....like I said, he's always interesting, but I almost never agree with him.

As far as the Gnostic page...I just put that on there, because that's the most common attack you hear from Dominionist-types. They immediately try and pin that label on you....it sounds really bad, and is meant to turn people quickly away from listening. I think it's dishonest, and I think most of them know that.

Nevertheless, some people who don't know better immediately get suspicious, so I decided to throw that in there, and will probably keep adding to it. If distinguishing between those who are part of God's Kingdom and those who aren't is Gnostic Dualism...I don't know what to say. I realize there's more to it than just that, but pegging that label on non-Dominionists is not helpful. It's just like when you reject the Theonomic interpretation of the law...immediately you're antinomian. Not helpful, not honest.

Revised Confessional Standards? That's interesting, I guess I hadn't really thought of it that way. I suppose something like that could work. Congregations could revise or amend portions and yet still retain a position within the larger framework...and then groups of Churches could decide what parameters to accept or reject. I'm assuming the Presbyterian mode for a moment....something like that might work. I hear groans (smile)....again, it depends on what you think is necessary for the Church to be held together.

Or, leave them as is....and Congregations could basically say...we're in general agreement with these Confessional paradigms. We think Confessions X, Y, and Z reflect a good and accurate way of dealing with the message of Scripture and express it more or less faithfully. I can say...sure, I'm very favourable to the Reformed tradition, but in no way does that mean I sign on or subscribe to the exact wording and formulation of the Confessions. I realize it's something of a coherent system, or is meant to be in the minds of many. You can pick it apart and show that in some ways its not coherent, or I could even argue that perhaps to formulate a coherent system and then bind every one to it...that might not be a good idea. And again, as everyone knows, a big problem is, where do you draw the line? I've certainly had some Praise Team, Zwinglian, US Constitution worshipping, Sunday football fan- types in the PCA slam me for not being Confessional. Go figure. I'm not trying to be mean sounding. I'm just trying to make the point, that I don't really know who has a claim to being in line with the Confessional standards. There seems to be problems all around. I think maybe the whole way of looking at is wrong. Maybe we should use and reference historical expressions of the Christian Faith, to make sure we're not off on Mars in our thinking, and to acknowledge that we didn't just invent the faith yesterday. The Confessions are helpful, but shouldn't be authoritative.

I realize that wouldn't be acceptable to many, but look at what's happened...

Look at the PCA with a shall we say more broad and inclusive idea of what Confessionalism is....you've got everything under the sun...some churches with rock bands, others quite conservative....some are theonomic, some are just sort of broad evangelical.

So then the OPC says....ah, the answer is strict form....so you've got a much smaller group or denomination....but it's been my experience in the 6 OPC's that I've either attended, been a member at, or visited regularly when staying with friends etc.....most of the people sitting in the pews don't really know much about the Confession and the doctrinal tradition it represents.

So, I kind of say...well, what's the point then? So what if the officers know it? It's not trickling down to the people...in the pews so to speak, you hear all kinds of stuff. And if the officers are guardians....how's that working? There's still no agreement and everyone argues over the whether or not the confession supports them. Are the confessions for the officers? Is the unity of the Church based on Elders subscribing to man-made documents? It just seems to me, and I realize many Presbyterians will raise their hackles at this....it's just empty form. If the Scripture's aren't alive and being studied and questioned by the common people, then something's amiss. Some will take offense at this, but I've always detected a little bit of reticence among Reformed pastors and elders with regard to the people studying the Bible. They seem nervous that people will study the Scriptures and begin to argue with the Confessional standards. But if the Confessional Standards which remain somewhat nebulous to the people, are all that's holding it together...then that's not trusting in the Holy Spirit to lead and guide the Church (I'm a cessationist, don't worry)...that's trusting in forms.

Even worse, then you have to concoct a whole additional system, the Book of Church Order, Committees and Courts, to hold it all together.

It's interesting that when someone says...but the confession says...and then I reply, 'the confession is wrong on that point,' it's kind of like that debate's over. I went out of bounds.

Am I wrong in thinking the confessions are being treated as Scripture? The confessions are helpful but it just seems like the way they're being used...is harmful. It's certainly not uniting the Church.

I appreciate the comments about Kline. He's a good example. He was innovative in how he taught, organized, and framed arguments, consequently giving them a different emphasis without actually changing their meaning.

It's interesting that in the current Monocovenantal context he's thought of as an innovator when it comes to Covenant Theology. His whole Covenant of Works framework and viewing the Mosaic Covenant as a republication of the Covenant of Works is straight out of the Westminster-Puritan era.

And yet Theonomists call him a Dispensationalist and insist their model is Confessional!

The problem is...and I imagine it aggravated Kline a bit, others would know.....though much of his theology actually was in concord with Westminster....the spirit of the Westminster and Puritan era- in terms of Constantinianism, Politics, and Power- belongs to the Theonomists. In the Institutes, Calvin mocks the specifics of the Theonomic thesis, but in spirit...he was in many ways a brother to their cause. Calvin wasn't always consistent...but Geneva was a Theonomic dream and a Two Kingdom nightmare. I'm not with Knox, it wasn't the most perfect school of Christ since the time of the Apostles. It was a dreadful mistake.

But the problem was, as an OPC minister was Kline going to come out and say that? Not very loud...though certainly he was appreciative of the Westminster Revision after the American Revolution. I would think Horton and Clark would appreciate that as well. But if it could be revised in the 18th century, we sure can revise it today.

But there we go? As Tevya in Fiddler on the Roof says....where does it stop?

Ah...this is good, you're stretching my brain a bit on the Confession issue. I'm sorry if I'm hard to nail down. I guess that's part of where I'm coming from. I appreciate what men like Hart and Clark are trying to do. I don't doubt their motives. I just see it as not being the way to go....but a free-for-all isn't quite right either is it?

Humor me a moment with a hypothetical.....

Say you've got the American Presbyterian Church the APC.

Everyone subscribes to the confession.

But the Bethesda congregation is Theonomic.

While the Alexandria congregation is Redemptive-Historical.

The Arlington congregation is exclusive Psalmist,

and the Anacostia congregation has a praise team.

Now they're all part of the same denomination and yet when the Bethesda group needs a substitute preacher on Sunday morning are they going to call Alexandria? I doubt it.

Will the Arlington congregation ask the Anacostia Praise Team to come on over on Sunday morning? Not likely.

So even though they're all part of the same denomination...are they united?

Now some in Bethesda might say...we need to cleanse the APC of Alexandria and Anacostia.

While the Alexandria group might want to remove all of them.

What good does it do? There's no unity, just empty form.

Can't all the groups just say that in some form or another they hold to Calvinism and then let each of the congregations decide who and what from there?

Pooling resources? Maybe they'll all give to a Crisis Pregnancy center....

While only the Bethesda Theonomists and the Psalmody folks in Arlington give money to a political lobby.

Maybe only the Alexandria group will give some money to the church in Anacostia to help the poor.

I realize some might say....right, that's what NAPARC is for. All the groups coming together and acknowledging each other.

But how many levels and tiers and organizations and bureaucracies do we add? At what point can we say this does not represent the Church Government and Polity of the Scriptures? At what point are we guilty of innovation and denying the Sufficiency of Scripture with regard to Church Government?

Most Presbyterians will now reply...huh? Because to them, you can keep going forever.

I think the whole frame of mind, the whole model is derived more from pragmatism and a desire to maintain form than from Scripture.

I'm not sympathetic with Episcopal government...but they're take is kind of like hey, it's not in the Bible, but it works. The Bible doesn't give us enough to form anything that could be called a Biblical model of Church government.

I don't agree, but I appreciate the honesty.

With Presbyterianism....I find they're really doing the same thing....but they're trying to insist it's Biblical and THAT casts the whole argument in a different way. The stakes are much higher. People aren't trying to determine what works, they're trying to argue, who's right. But I can't find the Presbyterian system in the Bible either.

Now at this point some Presbyterians might say...what's the problem with rule by elders? None. The Bible clearly teaches a plurality of elders...I don't find an official or titular distinction between elders, but I realize some do. And there must be congregational fellowship and accountability.

Okay, fine, I'm a Presbyterian right?

But that's not it. Now add on Confessions, Books of Church Order or Canon Law as I call it when I'm trying to be confrontational, Courts, Standing Committees, Robert's Rules, Regional Presbyteries, Pensions, Budgets, and on and on, ad infinitum.

Call me naive....but I don't think it was supposed to turn the Church into a corporate machine, a big bureaucratic organization. Ask anyone in the government or even in the corporate world....these things take on a life all their own.

Again I think this hearkens back to some real basic questions about the Sufficiency of Scripture. Does the Bible give us what we need for Church Government?

I would say....it doesn't tell us much, but it's enough.

Not enough in the sense of a few building blocks that we then erect a skyscraper on top of...that's what Presbyterianism seems to do...from my perspective.

Just a few blocks and that's it.

I guess someone might say I'm a minimalist when it comes to issues like polity and theological method.

If I'm right....don't misunderstand my tone, I'm not being uppity....it would seem that those who are trying to build huge denominational structures and confessional frameworks derived from philosophical and systemic methodology....well, aren't they the innovators?

I'm innovating in the sense that I want to park the SUV and go back to the bicycle.

The problem is....you said something about Pandora's Box.....it's already been opened. You can't put it all back in....and I will admit, that's tough and I don't have an answer. A tangled web has been weaved, there doesn't seem to be a way out.

I'm trying and just getting started to throw out some ideas...that might help...some people.

If we all can agree....which we don't....that somehow things have taken a wrong turn, then let's look back and see where it went wrong. But there's the rub, no one wants to do that. It's out of bounds. Correction....if you go back as far as I'm trying to go, then it's out of bounds.

I hope I'm making some sense. Anyone else who's reading this...feel free to jump in.


John Y said...

Proto said: "I've certainly had some Praise Team, Zwinglian, US Constitution worshipping, Sunday football fan- types in the PCA slam me for not being Confessional. Go figure. I'm not trying to be mean sounding. I'm just trying to make the point, that I don't really know who has a claim to being in line with the Confessional standards. There seems to be problems all around. I think maybe the whole way of looking at is wrong. Maybe we should use and reference historical expressions of the Christian Faith, to make sure we're not off on Mars in our thinking, and to acknowledge that we didn't just invent the faith yesterday. The Confessions are helpful, but shouldn't be authoritative."

That first sentence made me chuckle and the fact that the congregants are not getting what the confession teaches falls on the teaching ministry of the local congregation. Pastors need to be more involved in the personal lives of their congregants and making sure that what they are being taught is sticking. The model of the Reformed Pastor as expressed in the ministry of Richard Baxter is what is needed in most local churches.

IF the confessions are accurately summarizing the teaching of the scriptures and are extensions of the scritptures why should they not be authoritative? If they are not accurately summarizing what the scriptures are plainly teaching then there has to a mechanism in place in the Church tradition to get them changed or modified.

The Sunday evening service should be focused on the teaching of the Churches confession of faith. If the Church does not take its confessions seriously neither will the people who go there. Its seems to me to be as simple as that. If some congregants have problems with what the confessions teach they should be able to express their differences and show their reasons why from scripture they disagree. If they cannot come to some kind of resolution of the matter the congregant should leave and find a Church which adheres to his interpretations. That does not seem that complicated to me and I do not get why people get up in arms about it. There are really only a few possible explanations. One, they do not want to know what the scriptures teach; Two, they do not like to take responsibility to get to know the doctrine of the confession,ie., they do not like to read and learn; Third, they are more into relgious experience rather than grounded the faith in the historical events of the Gospel.

Confessions force us to learn what we believe and why we believe it. That is something Churches need to spend more time on with their congregants. And doctrine also needs to be wed with worship and the practice of the faith. They all go together and the Pastor should oversee the whole process in the Church. That is their commission straight from the mouth of Christ Himself.

Protoprotestant said...

Aye, Baxter was a good man.

Again, I totally appreciate and understand where you're coming from...but I don't think any Confession will ever accurately summarize the Scriptures....except in a very broad sense. The more detailed the Confession, the more of a Reductionism I think you'll end up with. I don't think they should be treated as extensions of Scripture. That's the problem. You're absolutely right. If they are extensions, then they should be authoritative. But the minute we do that...an alarm should go off somewhere.

I agree if someone can't explain why they differ with a doctrine that a Church holds to...they should be slow to speak. But when the Church teaches it...don't appeal to the Confession. I don't get the impression you would do that. But many do and leave many an inquirer quite frustrated. That doesn't invalidate Confessions, but it shows something of what happens to some who treat them as Authoritative.

As far as leaving...that's not always so easy. I'm not a Baptist by any definition, but I've seen cases where Ref. Baptists attend a PCA or OPC because there's literally nothing else for several hours drive in any direction. They don't agree with the Confession but they are in a general sort of agreement. I'll be the first to admit Credos and Paedos together are problematic on a practical level...but should they get the boot? We're attending something or other of a Reformed Baptist Church at the moment. I don't agree with the 1689 and there's literally nothing else around. The nearest PCA is almost 2hrs away. Should we have to leave the Baptist church? I don't know, that seems rather partisan. At the same time, I would be most upset if one of my daughters wanted to marry a Baptist. I'll worship with them, but I don't care to bring them into my family....that also seems problematic.

Your Third point regarding experience is probably the most common situation...sad but true.

Your last paragraph is excellent, but I think that can be done even with my understanding of the Confessions.

You've obviously thought about this a bit....that was a compliment. We don't quite agree, but I think we're after the same thing...a God glorifying Church.