Regarding Context and Confession

Rick Phillips

Let me express my appreciation to Mark Jones for his gracious reply to my concerns regarding his previous two posts.  Mark and I are covering ground that is familiar to us both and to others who have read more than a little covenant theology.  Part of my concern is that many of our readers may not have read all that much covenant theology and so clarifications like this can be important to them.

In general, I am wanting Mark to draw clear confessional boundaries and he is wanting me not to restrict our theology to the strict contours of the confessional language.  I agree to both of these, acknowledging with respect to both the topics of grace and merit that there is continuity as well as discontinuity.  Following the Confession, I want to see the discontinuity emphasized so that we distinguish between Adam's situation before the Fall and that of the sinner after the Fall, and thus the discontinuity between salvation under the covenant of works vs. the covenant of grace.  Mark, it seems to me, wants to make sure that these distinctions don't keep us from appreciating the fullness of the biblical presentation as developed in Reformed scholasticism.  For me, the way to accomplish both of these is through a clear and careful use of theological terminology.  I freely agree that "voluntary condescension" is conceptually not extremely different from that of "graciousness."   Yet there is great value in keeping such terms straight, so that while their similarity is noted, the distinctions are also preserved.  To say that Adam would have obeyed by grace and that I believe the gospel by grace sets up a parallel between two situations that really are not so parallel. 

It is with this concern - largely pastoral - for conceptual clarity that I beg us to refrain from speaking of grace before the Fall.  I will be very happy to speak of God's benevolence or condescension, realizing that there is unmerited favor at work prior to the Fall, but I think our duty of theological clarity will be best served if we use different terms for different things, preserving the term "grace" only for the post-lapsarian situation.  In his rebuttal, Mark is concerned that I am not agreeing with selected theologians that he highlights from Reformed history.  I confess that I am not so grieved by this data, since I have made no vows to uphold the teaching of every important light from Reformed scholasticism, however much respect I wish to accord them.  I have, however, vowed to uphold the Westminster Standards and I would point out that while the divines may also have seen "voluntary condescension" and "grace" as similar ideas, they nonetheless employed these different terms for the two different situations.

My second concern has to do with respecting the context of these ideas.  Mark is concerned that we not interpret these past theologians in such a way as to neglect the theological context of the 16th and 17th centuries.  I appreciate and value this concern and am grateful for men like Mark who point it out.  However, there is another context that is relevant to our writing, namely, the 21st century context in which we are writing and being read.  Our context is a post-Shepherd context, when versions of these arguments have wreaked havoc against the gospel.  I would mention as well the post-Barth/Torrance context that also has to be reckoned with when speaking of grace before the Fall.  Now, I do not believe that our polemical context should determine our actual theological formulations, since this would produce a reactionary imbalance in our own thinking.  (Those of us who are concerned about the antinomian climate of our times should bear this in mind as we emphasize the place of works in salvation.)  But I do believe that our teaching on these matters should account for this context.  We should therefore make plain how what we are saying differs from how others used similar arguments to ill effect.  It is in this respect that I was not surprised that Mark's pieces on grace and merit received charges of a pro-Shepherd position, even if they were not completely fair.