Reviewing Ligonier's Christology Statement
February 29, 2016
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?
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.