Results tagged “reformed theology” from Reformation21 Blog

Why We Are Still Protestant

|

This year marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's nailing of the 95 theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany. This act in itself was relatively conventional: he was essentially initiating a debate about the use and abuse of indulgences in the Roman Catholic Church. But the pastoral concerns of this small-town professor set ablaze Europe with the flames of Reformation.

Within a short time it was clear that Luther's concerns had implications far beyond indulgences and relics; they went to the heart of the medieval Roman church. In the years immediately following the publication of his famous theses, Luther had occasion to engage in other highly significant debates on some of these implications. It was in Heidelberg in 1518 that Luther made it clear that humility was the key to salvation and theology. In Leipzig, about a year later, Luther declared that the decrees of the pope and of the church deserved close scrutiny; some were indefensible.

In 1520, Luther wrote treatises challenging the church's view on the sacraments, on justification and good works, and on the relationship between the civil authorities and the authority of the church. During the next year, Luther was summoned to appear before the Imperial Diet of Worms in a last-ditch attempt to get him to recant. He did not.

In further years Luther would turn his attention to the translation of the Bible into German, to the thorny problem of how a congregation freed from the grip of Rome should worship and operate, and to the perennial questions related to Christian work and the Christian family.

These kinds of questions and many more had to be addressed by Luther and the other early Reformers. This should remind us that the reform set in motion 500 years ago this October has a number of far reaching implications. While individual Christians might boil down the core of Protestantism to one or two major points, the reality was and is far more complex.

Over the next few weeks, across all of the websites of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, we'll be surveying many aspects of the Protestant cause. Some of the articles will be historical in nature, giving further detail about the specific figures, events, and debates that shaped the early years after the break from Rome. Some will be theological, bringing clarity to the animating ideas that drove Luther and so many others to pursue the truth of the gospel at great personal cost to themselves. Some will be polemical, making the case explicitly that what was true then is true today.

Our hope is that this series will renew your interest in the Reformation and its implications. But more than renewing interest, we pray that the posts will awaken in you a greater conviction of the importance of this great work of God in the history of the church.

Sometimes the nature of Reformed theology has been summarized by the so-called five solas of the Reformation. These five Latin slogans could be translated as: the Bible alone; grace alone; faith alone; in Christ alone; to the glory of God alone. Ultimately this series of articles, and every article we publish, has one final end in mind: that God would be glorified. As we look back to God's great and gracious work 500 years ago, may God be pleased to use this series to bring about a Reformed awaking in today's church.

Geerhardus Vos' Reformed Dogmatics Giveaway!

|
5V.jpg
Geerhardus Vos' Reformed Dogmatics (5 volumes) represents the early theological thought of one of the premier Reformed thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Originally self-published in Dutch under the title Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, this important work was not available to an English audience until recently.  For the first time ever, Lexham Press Publishing Group--with the editorial help of Dr. Richard Gaffin--has been able to bring this Reformed systematic theology to English readers. 

The fifth and final volume released on Wednesday, October 26th. Lexham Press has graciously provided the complete five volume set to the Alliance for a give away (USA mailing addresses only). Enter the drawing today. One entry per person. Deadline to register is Friday, November 11.

ChinaSource is, in my estimation, the premier resource for anyone interested in Chinese Christianity. The dedicated crew observes closely, researches thoroughly, documents meticulously, and consistently publishes high-quality reports and essays written by Chinese church leaders and others with years of experience living and working in this ancient, complicated, and rapidly changing culture.

Why bring all this up now? The just-released summer 2015 issue of ChinaSource Quarterly is titled "Theological Reflections on Urban Churches in China" and is devoted to current trends in Chinese theology. As the opening editorial by Brent Fulton and Ji Lin puts it, "with the rise of civil society has come a new theological stream that seeks to position the church constructively within society, yet with a prophetic voice toward social and political institutions." This stream is quite braided in its course but one significant strand, made clear by the lead article  written (originally in Chinese) by a notable reformed church leader, is Reformed Theology.

Short, programatic, and pastoral, it's worth the few minutes it takes to open a new tab and read it. It's an encouraging insight into the kinds of discussions and concerns at play among our Reformed Chinese brothers and sisters. (The issue also includes a review of my China's Reforming Churches and interesting discussions of liberalism, eschatology, pentecostalism, and public theology in China today. The full issue, in pdf, is available here.)

A Response to Mark Jones and Gert van den Brink

|
We're grateful Oliver Crisp has offered his response to the two reviews of Deviant Calvinism which were published this week. Oliver's contribution serves to extend an important conversation over the character and sources of Reformed theology ~ Editor 

I wish to address two reviews of my book Deviant Calvinism that have appeared in the pages of Reformation21. (There was a third review of the book by Professor Paul Helm that was published earlier in Reformation21, but I shall have no comments to make on that here.) The first review is by Gert van den Brink. The second is by Mark Jones. My response fall into three parts. In the first, I want to correct some factual inaccuracies (by van den Brink). In the second, I want to consider matters of theological method. In the third, I offer some more general reflections on the book in light of these reviews.

As to the first, Gert van den Brink writes this in the closing paragraph of his review:
My last point has to do with the coherence of the book as a whole. Crisp pleads for justification from eternity, salvation for all people, universal efficacy of Jesus' sacrifice, but also for more room for the freedom of the human will, [as allowable views within the Reformed tradition, not as his own personal views] (updated to clarify). For each of these points, he mentions the names of Reformed authors, but it is clear that, historically speaking, there is nobody who (as Crisp wants now) pleads for these positions together. Furthermore, it is logically impossible to combine freedom as indifference with the absolute predestination of all people. Crisp does not answer the question why the position he defends did not become accepted in the Reformed tradition. The answer, however, is obvious: it is not a coherent position. And for those who even now wish to be regarded as Reformed and as Calvinistic, this is a weighty argument.
I do not endorse justification from eternity, salvation for all people, or the universal efficacy of Christ's sacrifice in the book. Rather, I set out a number of different views that have been taken in the Reformed tradition, but which I do not necessarily endorse. There is value in trying to understand from the inside-out, so to speak, views you don't hold personally. That is what I try to do in this work, in order to correct what I perceive to be a narrowing of how the Reformed tradition is understood in much literature today. I  do this by providing a series of doctrinal studies on nodal issues in the tradition--not by attempting to set forth a single unified view on the range of topics I deal with. But I emphatically do not plead for these views, if that means seeking to make an appeal for doctrines that I endorse--and I make that plain at the outset of the book. (The explanatory gloss offered in square brackets in this citation was not written by Gert van den Brink, but offered by Mark Jones when I queried this in personal correspondence.) 

On the matter of whether there is a single Reformed theologian who holds all the views I set forth in the book, that would appear to be beside the point given its rationale. But, in any case, systematic theologians don't worry too much if someone has not held precisely the view they espouse, otherwise there could be no constructive theology. We would simply be reiterating the views of those who had gone before us. Just read Calvin's Institutes and then Turretin's Institutes: there is clearly doctrinal progression and difference between these two Reformed thinkers, a matter that I don't think is unusual. This is even more clearly the case if one compares Barth with Calvin--yet both are Reformed theologians.

This brings me to the matter of method. The first objection Gert van den Brink raises has to do with the "intermingling" of historical and systematic theology. I take it he does not have much truck with retrieval theology, which (as I indicate in the Introduction) is the sort of approach to the historical material that I attempt in the subsequent chapters. He goes on to say,
Normally, Crisp's approach is as follows: he claims that in the history of the Reformed tradition there were one or more people [sic] who took a certain position, and because they did so in the Reformed context, the specific position can be regarded as a Reformed one, being within the bounds of Calvinism. In this way he mentions the fact that Arminius lived in a Reformed context, and subsequently he argues that Arminius's views can be seen as Reformed. However, such an approach is a categorical mistake. From the fact that somebody worked in a specific context, we should be careful about their theological leanings or proclivities. Not everybody in Rome is Romish. Crisp's claim that Arminius's views were "merely controversial; they were not unorthodox" (p. 82) is apparently wrong: on the Synod of Dordt, not only the opinions of his followers, the Remonstrant party, but also Arminius's own views were labelled as heretical. 
This is what I actually say about Arminius in the book (p. 85):
Jacob Arminius lived and died as a Reformed pastor and professor at Leiden, though he espoused a version of Molinism and may even have been responsible for the introduction of Molinism into Protestant thought. Although the Synod of Dort repudiated a number of his views in its canons, this was subsequent to his death. During his lifetime, his views were merely controversial; they were not unorthodox. What is more, his views are more measured and careful than the Remonstrant party that took up his cause at the synod. 
There doesn't seem to be any historical misreporting here; no category mistakes. Mark Jones also takes up my remarks about Arminius and Arminianism, but from a different direction. He worries that Reformed theologians must be monergists (i.e. think that God alone brings about human salvation) whereas Arminians are synergists (i.e. allow that God and humans together bring about human salvation). He notes that I am not convinced that all Arminian theologians are synergists. To this I would add: I'm not convinced that the distinction between monergism and synergism is always a terribly helpful way to characterize the differences that certainly do exist between Arminian and Reformed theologians--as if the Arminian account of human salvation is somehow bordering on semi-Pelagianism, whereas Reformed theology is solidly Augustinian.

Gert van den Brink also accuses me of misrepresenting historical material cited in the book, and this is something Jones also seems concerned about. With regard to justification from eternity, van den Brink alleges that I cite authors that don't espouse this position as if they did. It would be tiresome to deal with each of these in turn, but to take one example, it is well-known that Tobias Crisp (no relation) was regarded as a defender of justification from eternity. Admittedly, Crisp's views are complex and this is reflected in scholarly discussion of his work, e.g. that by Carl Trueman. But Trueman himself writes, "The name most associated with sophisticated expressions of the doctrine of eternal justification in [John] Owen's day was Tobias Crisp." (See his John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man [Ashgate, 2007], p. 114.)

Gert van den Brink goes on to say, "Crisp does not at all even allude to the historical discussion, let alone that he is in dialogue with the positions. Even if he cites Reformed authors, they are seldom from the seventeenth century. There is a lack of interaction with the Latin sources from the seventeenth century, which would have helped his discussion immensely." This is true, and it is a point reiterated by Jones. But (to repeat), this is not a work of historical theology as the Introduction to Deviant Calvinism makes plain. Moreover, it is odd to object that an author hasn't cited works the reviewer would have preferred to have seen used, instead of the Reformed theologians actually cited. We all make selections in the interlocutors with whom we interact. It is surely appropriate to choose interlocutors from the Reformed tradition that speak to a particular topic. The fact that they weren't the interlocutors the reviewer would have chosen is beside the point. (To take a hypothetical example, am I not allowed to use G. C. Berkouwer as a resource when tackling the doctrine of election because John Calvin wrote about it before he did? Must I compare Berkouwer to Calvin on this topic in order for my work to be theologically responsible? It does not seem to me that an affirmative answer to these questions is always the right answer to give, depending on the sort of inquiry envisaged, and the nature of the sources used.)

Of all the things written in this book, the chapter on libertarian Calvinism has come in for the most criticism, and some of that may be justified. But, as I have already indicated (and as Jones makes clear), I was not endorsing this doctrine. I was trying to lay out an account that is there in the Reformed tradition, treating it with seriousness and a certain intellectual sympathy--both of which I take to be hermeneutical virtues. My recent article in the Journal of Reformed Theology on John Girardeau's doctrine of human free will is a kind of follow-up piece that gives one important historical precedent for something like libertarian Calvinism, which Girardeau certainly did think was consistent with the Westminster Confession (whether he was right or wrong about this is another matter, of course). And, as recent historical work has shown, there is certainly a significant change in the way Reformed theologians thought about this matter from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. (See, e.g. Richard Muller's essay on Jonathan Edwards' views in this regard here). Gert van den Brink writes as if my views have no historical precedent, but that is to ignore this recent revisionist historiography, and the minority report of authors like Girardeau and others like William Cunningham, to whom I refer in the book. It is also very strange to find van den Brink distancing the authors of the Reformed Thought on Freedom from any accusation of libertarianism, when the writers of that work clearly indicate that a number of early Reformed theologians were not what today we would think of as theological determinists, and that a number of these thinkers utilized the doctrine of synchronic contingency, which is a principle that fits rather nicely with a certain sort of libertarianism. Interestingly enough, it was a conversation with Professor Donald Macleod, then Principal of the Free Church College, Edinburgh, that first alerted me to the existence of libertarian Calvinism. Macleod intimated, much to my surprise, that such was his own position!

Finally, some reflections on the project of Deviant Calvinism. Often, the way one frames an intellectual discussion is important. Perhaps I could have been clearer about the framing of my work, but it seems to me to be a natural development of previous forays into similar territory (e.g. my Revisioning Christology, and Retrieving Doctrine), and I say more about the method of theological retrieval in those works. Jones worries about the lack of biblical exploration in Deviant Calvinism, as well as about the use of historical sources. That is a fair point. But it is difficult to do all these things in the covers of one book. Whether one likes it or not, the complexity of specialist literatures today means that traversing territory as wide as that which I did undertake is no small task. Adding to that more historical work than I did, and biblical exegetical work as well, would have made this into a very different book. I do not seek to disparage Jones' comment. I only point out the limitations placed upon scholars by the complexity of disciplinary boundaries, and the inevitably limited scope of one short book. I shall redouble my efforts to do a better job in future.

In the closing section of Deviant Calvinism I wrote that one of the aims of the work was "to commend to those within and without the ambit of the Reformed community a way of looking at several central and defining doctrines of Calvinistic theology that broadens out what is regarded as appropriately Reformed doctrine." (p, 233.) No merely human author is infallible, and I certainly see that this is not a perfect book. However, in reviewing the work of others it is surely appropriate to expect charity and a real attempt to read a work accurately. I am grateful to Mark Jones for his comments, and his willingness to engage my work. I hope that Gert van den Brink and I can both learn from it.

Oliver Crisp is Professor of Systematic Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California
China may be emerging as another global center of Reformed faith and practice. If so, East Asia would seem to be well on its way to becoming the heartland of the Reformed tradition in this century. True, outside South Korea, the Reformed tradition in East Asia lacks the long and relatively unbroken history of institutional development and cultural influence it enjoys in parts of Europe and the Anglosphere (including South Africa in this case), but that is changing rapidly. There are remarkable developments taking place in Indonesia, Singapore, and China. Two major Chinese cities--China's Geneva and Edinburgh, if you will--particularly stand out. Only God knows how all this will turn out, but present appearances our very encouraging despite some glaring issues.

Evidence of the advance of the Reformed tradition in China is not hard to find. (At the risk of indecent self-promotion, I happily point you to China's Reforming Churches, which attempts to tell the backstory, set present developments in proper context, and assess opportunities, needs, and challenges going forward.) Just this week, ZGBriefs, a digest of news of interest on China, highlighted a piece by Brent Fulton entitled "In Search of Structure: The Pull of Denominations in China." 

Brent, founder and director of ChinaSource, is a keen observer of Christianity on the mainland. He notes a significant change among house church leaders in their views on denominations. For decades China's house churches tended to despise denominations but that has been changing rapidly as they face the need for institutional structure and better church practices in order to support the work of the ministry--defending the faith, practicing discipline, training up the children, ordaining ministers, sending out missionaries, and so on. Interestingly, their quest for structure is driving many church leaders to the resources of Reformed theology and biblical presbyterianism, broadly construed. Brent is clearly right to view these two trends--the embrace of structure and Reformed theology--as thoroughly entangled. And, despite certain dangers, this is very encouraging since the embrace of Reformed theology in China is a church-centered affair.

For evidence of this, and further evidence of the indigenization of the Reformed tradition in China, consider this recent interview with a house church pastor from a midsize eastern city (not one of the two noted above it is worth noting). The interview, translated and divided into three parts for our benefit by the good folks at Chinese Church Voices, first appeared on Christian Times, a leading Christian website in the People's Republic. Does it surprise you there is such a thing as a leading Christian website in China? Read the interview, there are far better surprises than this in store.
Seminary changed my life. Spending time both inside and outside the classroom with my godly professors, learning from them, praying with them, and receiving counsel from them revolutionized my walk with Christ. I cannot remember a time when my professors were unavailable to meet with me. Everyone from Robert Godfrey to Michael Horton, R. Scott Clark to Dennis Johnson made themselves easily accessible. I graduated from seminary thankful for all the time (i.e., personal mentorship) they provided. 

As I look back on my experience, there are many things that I would change. Fortunately, those things that I would change have more to do with me than the faculty and curriculum. While I cannot mention that enough, there are a few things I would change regarding my learning experience (i.e., the curriculum). I share this one thing not to indict my seminary -- I love them a great deal -- but more as a reflection of my time in seminary now that I have been separated from that environment for a couple of years. You can think of this as the final evaluation that students had to complete upon graduation now two years removed.

I imagine that many of the reformed seminaries in America have similar curriculum. If so, maybe this will be of some help to them as well. If not, they can discard this post like many of the others I have written.

What I wish I had learned in seminary:

I have learned a tremendous amount from those in the reformed tradition. In particular, I am grateful for those American theological giants who helped mold me. Although dead, their words live. B. B. Warfield, Charles and A. A. Hodge, James Henley Thornwell, J. Gresham Machen, and many others were instrumental in my theological outlook both while in seminary and now, but what do these men have in common besides their theology and American citizenship? They are all white. Is that a problem? Absolutely not! Again, I am grateful for these men. They have shaped my understanding of the Bible. In fact, I still read their literature. I wonder, however, if others, specifically African-Americans and Latinos, have contributed to reformed thought in an influential manner much like the men listed above?

Why do I raise this question?

The vast majority of the time when an African-American or Latino was highlighted in my theological education, they were associated with liberation theology (of the negative fold). Is that all people of color in America have contributed to theology, or reformed theology more specifically? I would have never questioned this until I graduated from seminary and began reading more broadly. I can specifically thank Dr. Carl Ellis, Dr. Eric Washington and Reverend Thabiti Anyabwile. Some of the materials they have published, and classes they have taught, have helped me realize that people of color have contributed in a positive and influential manner to reformed thought. In other words, there is more to their theology than the social gospel. 

How can this help you? How does this help me?

First, it expands our view of church history and the theological contributions of others to the church. Secondly, and perhaps more subjectively, when I speak with many people of color, they believe that to be reformed is to be white. As they look at the dominant ethnic composition of reformed congregations, they see white skin and immediately make that association.  When I, therefore, as an African-American PCA pastor, come along side my brothers and sisters of color and begin explaining the truths of reformed doctrine, there is an association with reformed theology that I must overcome while explaining the biblical accuracy of reformed doctrine. That association is the "whiteness", at least in their minds, of reformed theology. If I, however, willingly acknowledge that our congregations may presently be composed primarily of white people, although I hope to see that change, but also share other information of which they are unaware, that will help them. Particularly, if I am able to demonstrate that there were people of color who contributed significantly to reformed theology, I can slay the notion, at least historically, that to be reformed means to be white and perhaps gain a greater hearing for reformed theology among my people of color.

We do this all the time. Whenever we appeal to history to help people more clearly see how a particular doctrine was rooted in the church for hundreds of years, we appeal to the history of the church to demonstrate the validity of that doctrine. While history, in this instance, may not provide all the help we require, it is an aid for us. It can help people move toward a certain denomination or doctrine when they more fully understand its roots in church history.

Final thoughts:

Learning about how African-Americans, Latinos, and other people of color have contributed to reformed theology in America is something I wished I had learned in seminary. Although this a desire of mine now, I am confident that my former professors did not neglect this area to somehow degrade my educational experience. As I shared previously, those men, along with their teaching, changed my life. I still keep in touch with them; I am thankful for them! I love them. Nevertheless, what I would like to see in my seminary, as well as others, is a curriculum that provides the positive and influential contributions that people of color have made to reformed theology in America. They are out there. We simply must do our research to find them.