Results tagged “Creeds” from Reformation21 Blog

The current debate surrounding the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS) has highlighted a number of existing tensions in evangelical theological circles. Perhaps one of the most significant of these is the tension between dogmatic and biblical theology.

The dogmaticians and systematic theologians have principally made their case through appeal to the creeds, patristic sources, and other important theologians from the tradition. They have discussed the deeper logic of orthodox Trinitarian theology, and have shown the ways in which the ESS position departs from it. However, their engagement with Scripture itself has been relatively slight. By contrast, Scripture has played a very prominent role in the arguments in favour of ESS.

It is noteworthy that the egalitarian theologians with the greatest sympathies for an ESS position have been exegetes and biblical scholars, people like Craig Keener and Andrew Perriman. There have been accusations and counter-accusations. For instance, Perriman claims that theologians are attempting to 'retrofit their worldview on scripture under the guise of an epistemologically privileged Trinitarian hermeneutic,' criticizing such an approach for failing to attend properly to history, or to grant it its proper priority.

While I doubt any of the complementarian advocates will favour Perriman's broader approach, Perriman isn't the only person complaining about the role that systematic or dogmatic theology are permitted to play in these debates. Owen Strachan insists that the philosophical and historical Trinitarian arguments 'must ultimately kneel before exegesis-and-theology' and warns of the danger of a 'New Scholasticism', where doctrine becomes the preserve of 'arid scholars', leaving laypeople feeling unqualified to understand the Bible for themselves.

Mark Jones' response to Strachan pulls no punches. Strachan's criticisms of systematic and dogmatic theologians are comparable to the naïve 'anti-metaphysical Biblicism' of the Socinians. Appeals to the plain reading of the Bible have long been the refuge of heretics, who have pitted exegesis against the philosophizing of orthodox theologians. Besides, when actually examining the 'plain readings' that Strachan and others champion, one is all too often disappointed to discover lazy exegesis, which also departs from mainstream historical readings of the texts in question.

There is a palpable and not unjustifiable frustration on both sides here, a frustration occasioned by a breach between dogmatic and biblical theology and by an unhealthy relationship between systematic theology and exegesis. This frustration is particularly pronounced for the doctrine of the Trinity, which, on account of its dogmatic centrality, makes strong demands of exegetes, without seeming to be open to exegetical correction and clarification itself.

There appears to be a widespread sense among biblical theologians that the doctrine of the Trinity was propelled into a faulty dogmatic orbit through various miscalculations in the Church Fathers' exegesis and their failure to compensate for the gravitational pull of Greek philosophy. While ESS advocates may generally affirm and value the doctrine of the Trinity, they often seem to have a suspicion that the flawed trajectory of the doctrine must be addressed and that the coordinating function of the doctrine, while largely serviceable, is nonetheless somewhat compromised. Engaging with dogmatic theologians heightens their impression that the doctrine, unless its faulty course is corrected, is at risk of leaving the orbit of Scripture and spinning off into the deep space of speculative philosophical theology.

Of course, many of the prominent advocates of the ESS position are systematic theologians themselves. However, they typically lean heavily on the plain sense of Scripture in their arguments and, where they diverge from the stances of traditional Trinitarian orthodoxy, argue that they cannot see the doctrines in question within Scripture. Bruce Ware, for example, has formerly cast doubt upon the doctrines of the eternal begetting of the Son and the procession of the Spirit, claiming that they seemed 'highly speculative and not grounded in biblical teaching' (Father, Son, & Holy Spirit, 162n3).

Whatever the merits of classic Trinitarian doctrine itself, Ware's claim has something of the sting of truth when applied to the arguments of many of its advocates. Dogmatic theologians--even the best ones--often don't do a great deal of helpful work with Scripture, perhaps especially on the subject of the Trinity. In a debate where scriptural texts like 1 Corinthians 11:3 have been prominently featured on the side of the ESS position, beyond highlighting the readings of key figures from the tradition, remarkably few of the defenders of classic Trinitarian orthodoxy have closely engaged with this and other texts or provided alternative readings. It is far more commonly insisted that the texts cannot mean what ESS advocates say that they mean, as such meanings conflict with orthodox Trinitarian doctrine.

The neglect of Scripture is common even in the work of the most able dogmaticians. For instance, I recently read Webster's superb treatment of Trinity and creation, and was struck by how it largely functions in a manner independent of exegesis, or reflection upon the biblical narrative (I would have loved to have seen Webster engage closely with something akin to Francis Watson's suggested Trinitarian reading of Genesis 1 in Text, Church, and World). ESS is, more than anything else, about the reading of key biblical texts, rather than about the parsing of a theology of God that, no matter how orthodox, increasingly floats free of the text.

When readings of Scripture that have a prima facie plausibility to many readers are met with forceful objections from Trinitarian doctrine, but little by way of careful alternative exegesis, it is unsurprising that tensions will arise between exegetes and dogmaticians. Indeed, there is a danger that dogmatics may come to be regarded chiefly as the creator of obstacles, burdens, and Kafkaesque demands for interpreters of Scripture.

If this were to happen, it would be deeply unfortunate. Although the standard of orthodox dogmatics must be authoritative (even if not the final authority) for interpreters of Scripture, once again we face the question of how such authority is to be conceived and handled. Does the authority of dogmatics justify it lording over exegesis, or is its authority primarily given to serve exegesis, which will be empowered and flourish as it heeds its guidance?

In my next post, I will articulate a vision for the fruitful interaction of dogmatics and scriptural interpretation.

Reviewing Ligonier's Christology Statement

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Ligonier Ministries have produced a Creed, as well as Affirmations and Denials, with a focus on Christology - a "Christology Statement". While I wonder what possible ecclesiastical authority a Creed can have when offered by a parachurch organization, I think their instincts to defend the truth are in many ways commendable. 

Historically, Reformed theologians and pastors have sought to improve Confessions that were already in existence. Thomas Goodwin stated that the additions and changes in the Savoy Declaration (1658) were the "latest and best" by incorporating "clearer expressions" than what was found in the already impressive Westminster Confession of Faith. 

Personally, I think writing new Confessions could be an extremely helpful enterprise, especially given the rise of (somewhat) new errors in the church. We cannot simply take for granted the truths for which our forefathers fought. John Owen disdains, according to Ryan Kelly, "a kind of mindless and lazy confessional allegiance, especially when they have 'lived [in] the comfort of' them for a time. Confessional assemblies, then, are to be 'put upon a new search' of divine truth." 

Owen had a remarkably "progressive" position regarding the writing of Confessions. His view on the progress of theology meant that confessions need to be re-stated, sometimes even modified or changed, in order to meet the particular needs of the church in each age. Reformed confessions were sometimes written within years of other Reformed confessions in Britain during the seventeenth century. 

Kelly adds: "Owen suggests that there is always an ongoing need for the church 'to defend, improve, give and add new light unto old truths' (Works, 11:11). Such a concept of adding 'new light unto old truths' at least suggests the possibility of a better articulation and fuller explanation of an old truth in a new confession; but it, in fact, goes further to include an improvement of old truths with 'new light'" (Works, 4:223-31). 

An Analysis of Ligonier's Creed and Affirmations and Denials

In the spirit of "iron sharpening iron" I would like to provide an analysis of some of the theological content of the Creed in the hope that my own critical observations might lead to some further reflection by those associated with the producing of this document. Who knows, it may be that instead of adopting a defensive attitude (as some undoubtedly will), the "framers" might acknowledge the validity of one or more of these points and revise their documents accordingly! Doesn't public theology demand this sort of thing, i.e., external scrutiny?

1. In Article 2, their understanding (and thus rejection) of homoiousios is mistaken. They overlook or are not aware of the fact that homoiousios is not an alternative to homoousios. It's a later corrective to the modalist error, just as homoousios corrects Arianism. As an Arian cannot confess homoousios so a modalist cannot confess homoiousios. That's by design. Each term has its advantages and disadvantages, and we need both. Many might find this odd, but that's because many confuse the origin of the term (e.g., Eusebius) with its constant sense. The term was quite serviceable against the modalists. 

Also, this phrase in Article 2 appears a little sloppy: "We affirm that Jesus' divine nature is consubstantial (homoousios) and therefore coequal and coeternal with the Father and the Holy Spirit." 

The Son is consubstantial, coequal, and coeternal with the Father and Spirit. Surely they want to say "The Son, in accordance with his divine nature, is..." rather than just predicating things of Jesus' divine nature abstractly. Some have worried about a type of mild Nestorianism in R.C. Sproul's Christology, and this statement doesn't help, especially when read against comments he has made on stage at conferences justifying images of Christ because they are "images of the human nature", not of the divine. Not even the East uses that argument for icons. Rather, they insist that Christ's glorified humanity is on display in fully glorified saints, rather than humanity or human nature as such.

2. I notice that the Affirmations and Denials do not address in any explicit detail the impeccability of Christ. From what I have heard and read from R.C. Sproul, I believe he denies impeccability - at least in the past he has. Thus the Creed is silent on an aspect of Christology that, to me, is of fundamental importance to our view of Christ's person. Affirming sinlessness is not the same thing as affirming impeccability (i.e., that he cannot sin). Affirming Christ's impeccability would have been a salient point in today's context. Denying impeccability leads to massive implications for our doctrine of God and the Trinity.

3. There is practically nothing on union with Christ, sanctification, and glorification. There is only a mention of the gift of the Spirit, but the document does not say what the gift is for. All of this doesn't necessarily need to be a problem for a statement on Christology, except for the fact that the Affirmations and Denials clearly deal with applied soteriology concerning justification by faith. The Creed also only mentions one applied aspect of salvation: justification ("He took our filthy rags and gave us His righteous robe.").

In the Preface, R.C. Sproul makes the laudable commitment to defending the whole Christ, arguing that the whole Christ is necessary for our confession and faith and life. But to say this and then reduce that whole Christ to justification is an interesting omission. The document may only convince Roman Catholics that Protestants are hell-bent (pardon the pun, per Trent) on "abstract imputation." Will this document help our cause against Rome, especially given Rome's polemics against Protestants for being weak on sanctification? 

4. Article 7 (the Affirmation) is odd. It is written in the present tense, which gives the impression that in his glorified, ascended state Christ still partakes of infirmities. Surely that is only true of his life of humiliation?

5. Article 12 could be worded better. They almost appear to make the atonement purely about substitution. What is denied should actually be affirmed about his death (see Heb. 2:14) in terms of his victory over Satan. While they are correct that Christ's death is not only or merely a victory over Satan, it is at least that, even as it is important to say it is other things as well. After all, the first promise of the gospel (Gen. 3:15) is victorious language!

6. There is nothing justifying the current situation for why the Creed was written. They do not talk specifically about contemporary Christological heresies or crises serving as the provocation for this. Why do they think the present generation of the Church is unprepared without this creed? I am of the opinion that the historic creeds are still adequate. 

Indeed, most of what is good in the Ligonier statement is not new but old; what is questionable or imprecise is not old, but new. 

7. I don't quite understand the "because" in Article 13 (Affirmation): "We affirm that because of Christ's life of obedience and death, our sin is imputed to Him and His righteousness is imputed to us by faith."

What is it about the fact per se of Christ's life of obedience and death that entails imputation? The "because" suggests a relationship of necessity: because of Christ's life of obedience and death, ergo our sin imputed to him etc. It is at least imprecise and sloppy. "Because" should be dropped. Instead a different preposition should be used, or the syntax should all be reconfigured to clarify that imputation is the issue being confessed, without grounding it in the fact of Christ's life and death. 

In my view, Christ's life of obedience and death, on their logic, also entails impartation, but in this document imputation gets all of the attention in terms of applied soteriology.

8. I am not sure about this in Article 10: "...and that He bore the penalty for our sin by His sinless life and His death on the cross." While Christ bore the penalty for our sin on the cross, is it correct to argue that he bore the penalty for our sin "by His sinless life"? It could be true, but I wouldn't put it that way, as it will no doubt confuse more than clarify.

9. A number of the Affirmations and Denials require a lot of "reading into" or excessive explaining to make the meaning work. In other words, they are making things difficult for the reader by stating, for example (Article 6): "We affirm that Jesus is the perfect and supreme image of God, and that to be truly human is to be conformed to His image." Was Adam, before the Fall, conformed to the image of Jesus? Perhaps this is a Supralapsarian document? Or was Adam not truly human, in which case this would be close to a Socinian position. Ironically, what they say could also be read in a Barthian direction. Whatever the case, Article 6 is a mess.

Elsewhere, they say: "We deny that we are justified on the basis of any infusion of grace into us; that we are justified only once we have become in ourselves inherently righteous; or that any future justification will be based on our faithfulness." This last part ("or that any future justification...") could conceivably rule out many Reformed Protestants who spoke of a double justification. Note they say, "any future justification", as if there were not a type of justification that takes into account our faithfulness. A charitable reading would mean that "based on" means meritorious, in which case I would agree. But "based on" can be used generally, in which case previous Reformed luminaries would have to disagree with the statement. Would, then, these Reformed Protestants end up denying justification by faith alone, which, in the words of the document, is tantamount to denying the gospel (i.e., "We further affirm that to deny the doctrine of justification by faith alone is to deny the gospel.")? Do Arminians, with their different understanding of justification by faith, also deny the gospel? 

In one respect, I wish they would have altogether avoided applied soteriology in these documents, not only because they almost entirely only deal with justification, but because when they do they, unwittingly perhaps, end up excluding some from the Reformed tradition. 

10. Article 3 is also regrettably put: "We deny that Jesus is in any way lesser than God." But consider the words of the Athanasian Creed: "equal to the Father as regards divinity, less than the Father as regards humanity." Otherwise, how could Jesus have said, "The Father is greater than I" (Jn. 14:28)?

11. Finally, I have a problem with Article 10 (the Affirmation). The problem with this Affirmation is that nearly all modern critics of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ could affirm Article 10. This Affirmation misses the point entirely. 

These critics do not deny the reality of Christ's active obedience. Rather, they deny that that is the righteousness imputed. In fact, Article 10 does not even affirm the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. Even Norman Shepherd would have no problem with Article 10. In addition, Article 13 speaks of Christ's righteousness being imputed by faith, which (again) is something even Shepherd would affirm. Much to be preferred is the Savoy Declaration (1658), which affirms the imputation of Christ's active obedience. 

So while the documents provided by Ligonier are a little too justification-centric for my liking, even when they do speak of justification they don't frame the issue as narrowly or carefully as one might expect from them. 

Or maybe they are intentionally making the door wide on sola fide?

Conclusion

I remain persuaded that the church, not parachurch organizations, should be commissioned with producing Creeds, because only then will the Creed(s) produced have any binding authority on those who solemnly vow to confess the Creed(s). It wouldn't surprise me if a lot of my Presbyterian brothers feel much the same. 

The Ligonier documents offered lack the elegance of Chalcedon (451 A.D) and the precision and balance of Westminster. They fail to make any progress on what has already been written by our Reformed theologians in previous eras, and in some cases what they say is either unclear or wrong.  

To that extent, while I commend Ligonier for wanting to publicly defend the truth, I am not as excited about the content of the Creed and the Affirmations and Denials as some are, especially given how long it took to craft (3 yrs) and the resources they have at their disposal. That is not so much a slight on the authors of the documents as it is praise for Reformed divines from previous eras who framed such beautiful and precise statements regarding our Lord Jesus Christ - statements that are, I think, hard to improve upon.
Seems to be the day of interviews here...

On The Confessing Baptist today, they released episode #60 and join up with The CredoCovenant Podcast for an interview with Carl Trueman (not a Baptist, we know... but he did tell us, "Well, I use to be a Baptist!") on his book The Creedal Imperative.

"The most obvious and the best way of making sure that the faith is transmitted in a stable form, across the face of the globe and from generation to generation, is to have a clearly stated public confession that can be tested by Scripture and can be passed from generation to generation." - The Creedal Imperative


Text links
The book - http://www.reformedresources.org/carl-trueman-books/the-creedal-imperitave/
The interview - http://confessingbaptist.com/interview060/

Of Kenny Rogers and Creeds

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As any poker player knows (and I am not a poker player--I tend to steer clear of competitions where the victor takes home a bracelet), the hand is over when all the cards have been dealt, all the bets have been called, the players' cards are turned over and they reveal who has won the pot.


The image of that poker moment came to mind in a recent discussion with some church members about the role and value of ecclesial creeds for the Christian life, especially when it comes to meaningful theological exchange between two professing believers. I remember a friend who resides in a church tradition that rejects any notion of creeds. He saw them as man's conscious or unconscious attempts to bend Scripture to suit his own desires. Indulging another metaphor, I assured my friend that though the historic creeds of the church are not infallible, they provide a deep theological stream of carefully articulated doctrines that have contributed through the years to unity, health and honesty in the church. I told him he was in the current of that stream whenever he claims that God is triune, that Christ is divine, that justification is by grace alone through faith alone, or when he claims any other orthodox tenet of belief.  And I warned him that to claim "No creed but the Bible" would, itself, be creedal, but, by comparison to the historical creedal stream of the church, his would be but a shallow and muddy ditch.  It would be to show only some of his cards.  It would identify the basis for what he believes, but it would not reveal what his beliefs are.


Creeds help us lay our theological cards on the table for all to see. They differentiate our hand from the hands of others around the theological table.  They tell all who would look at our cards not only that our beliefs are grounded in the Bible, but that "These are the truths revealed in the Scriptures as the Word of God." They tether our confession of Scripture to the content of Scripture.  They do not leave anyone wondering what we mean when we claim the Bible is God's very Word.  Indeed, many through the ages, and even today, who call for creedal revisions deploy words like "inspiration" and "atonement" only to inject those words with unorthodox content.  Poker, then, has an advantage over some of the theological hands being played today.  In poker what the cards are and what they mean cannot be subverted.


At least two lessons are ready for the taking: First, holding to the enduring creeds that present the truths of Holy Scripture is akin to holding a royal flush.  Second, should anyone entice us to abandon the historic creeds of the church, we should remember The Gambler's adage, "You've got to know when to hold'em...and when to walk away."