Monday, April 01, 2024

On ministry in an anti-Christian place

While reflecting on ministry, I recalled a piece I had read some time back. Titled "Arise Jonah, Go to California that Wretched State and Preach Jesus!," the blog article by Pastor Christopher Gordon sets forth reasons for Christians continuing to be in California and specifically for preaching Christ in California. Now if this article is arguing for Gospel ministry to be done in the most godless of places, certainly that would be correct. But what should ministry in an anti-Christian setting look like?

There has been discussions over ideas of a "positive," "neutral" and "negative worlds" as it pertains to ministry. While the labels might be helpful, the Scriptures are clear about how Christians are to behave and ministers have to minister on objective issues of morality. Biblical morality is "inflexible," inasmuch as it does not care what the cultures thinks but proclaims God's standard for all time, always. In other words, it does not matter whether the culture celebrates, tolerates or detests Christian morals; the pastor has to be prepared to preach the truths of Scripture regardless.

In a hostile, anti-Christian setting, the pastor has the uneviable job of being en emissary from a hated land of a hated King. It does not matter whether that place is California, or the many places around the world where Christians are persecuted. The pastor has to proclaim the whole counsel of God. Knowing the message is detested, he would know Christians would be persecuted for holding to biblical truths. The role of the pastor is to preach and prepare his people for persecution. In other words, unlike a "typical Western church," the pastor is not looking for businesss as usual. He should not expect the church to be well-liked, to be well settled in a commmunity, and for the secular rulers to be godly. Besides proclaiming the Gospel, part of catechesis is to teach the congregants the wickedness of the culture, and to not partake of its wickedness. The pastors while proclaiming the Gospel to wicked and dying men is to be a witness of something different, a "counter-culture" if you will, and be unflinching against the tide of wickedness of that culture.

What that means is that ministry in Babylon is decidedly counter-cultural, but not as a withdrawal from culture, rather a condemnation of the wicked culture. In other words, a Gospel minsitry that does not condemn wickedness in culture is merely creating a small protected "space" for Christians to retreat to in their churchly culture. While Christians do need oases to refresh themselves, the church should not be about creating protected spaces but about reaching the world. This is a hard calling but those who are called to such must do so, and not "agree to disagree" on whether sin is indeed, sin. Or worse of all, hide behind a mutilated version of "2 Kingdoms" theory, as if the Reformers did not condemn the wicked rulers of their times!

Friday, February 23, 2024

The problem with the new scholasticism - "Retrieval of classical theism"

According to the philosopher, the people on the first story have no visible stairway by which they may walk up to the second story and actually see the nature of who God is. They can look at pictures that God the owner has placed on the first story. Some of the pictures are very good and very beautiful. But it is still all the first story. The philosopher, however, is like the manager of the house. He knows about a secret, hidden back stairway, used only by the manager of the house.

He has been up the stairway, by means of reason and Aristotle’s categories. He has special qualifications. He can tell us what the actual situation is. The secret back stairway is an exciting discovery because of its intellectual power.

But does the secret back stairway actually exist? Or is the philosopher himself under an illusion? …

[Vern S. Poythress, The Mystery of the Trinity: A Trinitarian Approach to the Attributes of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2020), pp. 336-7]

There is concealed a pride, a self-satisfaction, and a knowing superiority to ordinary Christians who have not achieved such heights of reverence for the Almighty. (p. 460)

The fourth response, classical Christian theism, attempts mediation by prioritizing transcendence, that is, prioritizing the second story. But to do this prioritizing, we must first have adequate knowledge of the second story itself. And so the back stairway enters the picture. (p. 487)

In his book promoting a form of "classical Christian theism," a phrase which up till now seems amorphous, Vern Pothress cautioned against the over-use of philosophy in understanding the doctrine of God. Without pointing out anyone today in particular, Poythress points out the problems with utilizing Aristotelian categories to understand God. Of course, the rest of us can be less restrained, and point out the arrogance and superiority mindset that infects modern day neo-Thomists, who insist that anyone rejecting Thomas Aquinas's doctrine of God are heretics who should be de facto excommunicated from the Church.

The main problem with the new scholasticism promoted by Matthew Barrett, Carl Trueman, Craig Carter et al. is not so much whether they think that a Thomistic doctrine of God is good, but that that is the only way one must conceive of God. While claiming the Creator-creature distinction, and holding the distinction between archetypal/ ectypal theology, they undermine it with what Poythress call their "secret, hidden back stairway," where they can behold God as He truly is. They are the only ones who truly know God; the peons must just bow down to their superior intellect, and don't you dare question the Great Tradition™ !

God is God; he is beyond all human comprehension, and that applies to philosophers and theologians. Instead of thinking that we must have it correct, Christians especially should understand that the only reason why we can know God is that God reveals Himself to us. Instead of trying to recover "Natural Theology," wwith the idea that Man can somehow grasp a knowledge of God by His own intellect, we should understand that total depravity extends to the intellect. We are sinners, even in and especially when we think, and the idea that somehow we can climb a hidden back stairway to understand God is a mockery of the God who reveals Himself to us.

Therefore, we should be humble in our assertions of who and what God is. By all means hold to Thomstic views if that is what one is convicted of, but do so with humility. A little less pride and more humility, more teachability, will go a long way in preserving the peace and unity of the Church.

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. (Col. 2:8)

Thursday, February 22, 2024

The corruption of monasticism on the life of the church

After the victory of icons, the number of monks who became bishops grew. (John Binns, The T & T Clark History of Monasticism, p. 77)

The monastery was a centre of support for icons during the iconoclast controversy in the eighth and ninth centuries. (p. 90)

Monasteries were places of ascetic struggle and were populated by women and men who lived by different standards and had a different set of values from those of the city. They were suspicious of education and learning, which they associated with the world which they had left behind. They recognized the need to read and understand the Bible and other books but wanted to distinguish this form of knowledge from secular education. (p. 175)

Monasticism, with initial good motives, became a snare and a curse to the church over time. With the idea that the "spiritual" was superior, and the mundane is of the world, monasticism led Christians aways from education and learning, causing a steady deterioriation in the interpretation of Scripture. One just has to read the allegorical sermons of medieval times to see how over-spiritualizing had led people away from the Word of God into fanciful interpretations, distorting the Word of God for their own traditions.

By the time of Niceae II (787AD), monks had devolved into a movement away from Scripture, as they were at the forefront for pushing for the use of icons, which a cursory read through the Scriptures should have shown to be contrary to what God has said. The Second Commandment clearly forbids the use of any form of images of in worship (Ex. 20:4-6), and this prohibition against images (which includes icons) extends throughout the Old Testament, a prohibition that Jesus nowhere rejected. There is simply no way to support icons from Scripture, and Eastern Orthodox arguments are speculative based upon tradition rather than Scripture.

"You shall know them by their fruit" (Mt. 7:16). The seeking of God by speculative mysticism leads to darkness and disobedience, and Nicaea II is proof of that, as monks, not knowing the Scriptures, violate Scripture with impunity, leading to a council promoting falsehood and heresy. If there was any doubt of the spiritual darkness of monasticism, Nicaea II is its irrefutable proof.

Monasticism in violation of Scripture: The case of Amoun

Another pioneer of Egyptian monastic life was Amoun. He was born in 295 and lived in the north of Egypt in the region of the Nile Delta. He was an orphan and at the age of twenty-two was forced by his uncle to marry. He went unwillingly through the ceremony but then read passages of the Bible to his illiterate new wife instructing her about the importance of chastity. She had little option but to accept his preferred way of living but wanted at least to live in the same house. Amoun worked growing balam, ate and prayer with his wife, then retired at night to a different room. This went on for eighteen years after which his wife suggested they lived separately. Amoun then happily moved to the nearby mountiain of Nitria, when he was thirty-four years. (John Binns, The T & T Clark History of Monasticism: The Eastern Tradition, 38)

Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. (1 Cor. 7:27)

The case of Amoun, one of the pioneers of monasticism in Egypt is instrumental in showing us how seeking supposed good things led many to sin. In this case, Amoun violated Scripture and broke his marital vows to his wife. Scripture is clear that those who are married to live as married men and women — the husband to love his wife and the wife to honor and respect her husband (cf. Eph. 5:22-33). It is also clear from Scripture and its context that one's happiness or "consent" in the matter of marriage is irrelevant to the obedience of these commmands, noting that many marriages in antiquity were arranged without the concept of consent or romantic love. Amoun entering a marriage through being forced by his uncle to marry is therefore irrelevant to the issue of how he ought to conduct himself in his marriage.

God is God, and He is the one who ordains each person's station in life. The greatest virtue comes in obedience to God in our daily lives, not to create an artificial "holiness" through human means. Thus, the one who enters into marriage ought to obey God in the midst of his/her marriage, noting the marriage covenant that binds husband and wife in one flesh (Eph. 5:31 cf. Gen. 2:24). There is therefore no legitimate reason for Amoun to violate his marital covenant, breaking it with the view of "living for God." Instead of living according to God's revealed will, monasticism replaces the words of God with the commandments of Man, and in so doing showing us how sin enters through Man's sincere attempts to be good.

The beginnings of monasticism

Where did Christian monks come from? There were certainly no monks or nuns in the Bible, yet, for we know that monasticism infests the lands in the time of Martin Luther. Most certainly, monasticism is a departure from biblical Christianity, yet how did it emerge in the first place?

In his book on the history of monasticism, John Binns details the emergence and development of monasticism [John Binns, The T&T Clark History of Monasticism: The Eastern Tradition (New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2020)]. As someone sympathetic to the Eastern tradition, Binns holds that monasticism is nothing more than Paul's supposed ascetism taken to heart, but more on that at another time. Formally however, monasticism begins with the first monk, Anthony of Egypt, the father of eremetic or solitary monasticism, around 304 AD. Pachomus began the first coenobitic or communal form of monasticism aound 320 AD. From then on, monasticism spreads rapidly through Christendom, becoming a feature of both Eastern and Western Christianity.

The beginnings of monasticism come about due to a few factors. A major factor is the fermenting of pagan views of ascetism through the views of condemned heretics like Origen and Evagrius, something which Binns could not deny, although he separated their heretical "metaphysical speculation" from their "ascetical teaching." (p. 182). Another factor is the elevation of marytrdom and martys to a holy status in the early church (the "cult of the martyrs"). Those who attain to this yet are denied actual marytrdom can aspire for the "white martyrdom" (p. 36) that symbolizes a removal from the world. A third factor is the zeal for holiness, which became difficult when more and more people became Christians. When Christianity became normal, those who seek purity ran to the desert to live out their separate lives, a choice easier to make after Constantine legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire resulting in an influx of nominal Christians into the Church.

As it can be seen, two of the main factors of the beginnings of monasticism come from a desire for good things. There is nothing wrong with honoring and respecting those who pay the ultimate price for their faith in Jesus Christ. There is likewise nothing wrong with a desire for holiness, and the influx of worldliness into the church should trouble Christians. But is the solution a withdrawal from the world, as monasticism would do, in a personal pursuit of one's subjective holiness? The answer of the Reformation was a resounding no. We are called to be in the world, but not of the world, as it is written:

I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. (Jn. 17:15-6)

Marytrdom is a gift, and so is continence, but none of these things are things one can dictate to God. The problem with monasticism from its inception is its vain attempt to control what gifts God should give to His people. One desire matyrdom, so one seeks after the "white" variety when the "red"' version (real martyrdom) is not given. One thinks ascetism brings one closer to God, so one becomes a monk, usurping God's prerogative over who should be married and who is to be celibate. In the end, instead of submitting to God, one attempts to climb Jacob's ladder to reach God, never understanding that God is the only one who can reach us, never we him.

Wednesday, December 06, 2023

John Damascene on energies

For activity is the natural power and movement of each essence. (St John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith, 147)

ἐνέργεια γάρ ἐστιν ἡ φυσικὴ ἑκάστης οὐσίας δύναμίς τε καὶ κίνησις (pp. 147-8)

And again: Natural activity is the innate movement of every essence. It is therefore clear that those things that have the same essence have the same activity, and those things that have different natures also have different activity. For it impossible for an essence to be without a natural activity. (p. 148)

Natural activity, again, is the power that makes each essence manifest. And again: Natural and primary activity is the ever-moving power of the intellectual soul, that is to say, its every-moving reason flowing out naturally from it. Natural activity is the power and movement of each essence; only non-being is without it. (p. 148)

One should know that the second way embraces both potentiality and actuality, for on the one hand, the latter is in potentiality, on the other, the former is in actuality. (p. 148)

Χρὴ οὖν γινώσκειν, ὁτι ὁ δεύτερος τρόπος κοινός ἐστι τοῦ δυνάμει καὶ τοῦ ἐνεργείᾳ, δεύτερος μὲν τοῦ δυνάμει, πρῶτος δὲ τοῦ ἐνεργείᾳ (p. 148)

Far from the static view of the classical God, the Eastern tradition has preserved a more dynamic view of God through its preservation of the difference between "essence," "energies," and "acts." In John of Damascus' work, all essences must have energies, and part of these energies includes the actions being do. However, the main focus of "energies" is to manifest the essence, not the actions themselves. Actions are part of the energies, but are not all of the energies. That is why actions are discussed later, after discussions of the "natural and primary activity" of the intellectual soul. We note here that discussions of "actuality" and "potentiality," where the same term is used for "actualities," should be taken to mean that "actualities" is a subset of "energies," rather than the two being the same.

God is thus not the "unmoved Mover," but rather He constantly "moves" yet never changes. The Father loves the Son, yet neither change despite the dynamism of the relationship. God has His own movement, and it is we who are blessed because of it.

John Damascene's view on the will

One needs to know that here is a faculty naturally implanted in the soul that is appetitive of what is in accordance with nature and embraces everything that is essentially characteristic of nature. This is called the capacity for willing (θέλησις, thelēsis). For the essence of being and living and moving, both mentally and sensibly, has an appetency directed towards its own natural and full realization. For that reason, this natural will (θέλημα, thelēma) is also defined as follows: Will is a rational and vital appetency that depends solely on what belongs to nature. (St John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith, 144)

Θέλημά ἐστιν ὄρεξις λογική τε καὶ ζωτικὴ μόνων ἠρτημένη τῶν φυσικῶν (Ibid., 143)

Actual willing or wishing (βούλησις, boulēsis) is a natural capacity for willing of a particular kind, that is to say, a natural and rational appetency in relation to some specific thing. For there lies within the human soul a faculty of reaching out in a rational manner. Therefore when this rational appetency in relation to some specific thing is set in motion in a natural manner, it is called wishing. For wishing is an appetency and yearning for some rational specific thing. (p. 144)

One needs to know that the capacity for willing (θέλησις, thelēsis) is one thing and actual willing (βούλησις, boulēsis) is another, and that what is willed (τὸ θελητόν, to thelēton) is one thing, the faculty of volition (τὸ θελητικόν, to thelētikon) is another, and the agent of willing (ὁ θέλων, ho thelōn) is another. For the capacity for willing is the simple power itself of willing. Actual willing is the direction of the capacity of willing towards something. What is willed is the matter that is subject to the will, namely, that which we will. (For example, appetency is oriented towards food. Appetency on its own is a rational capacity for willing but when appetency is directed towards food it is actual willing, and the food itself is what is willed.) The faculty of willing is that which possesses the power to will, such as a human being, and the agent of willing is the one who exercises the capacity for willing. (p. 147)

Much has been made over whether God has one will or three wills. When one look at the Church Fathers on the issue, one of course know that they insisted that God has one will and that will is tied to nature not to the persons. But why is that the case?

When one reads carefully what they are saying, it is clear the Father are definining "will" in a very specific way. They are defining it not as how most of us today think of as a will. No. According to them, "will" (το θέλημα) is the "rational and vital appetency that depends solely on what belongs to nature." Put it another way, "will" is capacity. One does not "will" (θέλω) to do anything, but rather one chooses (βουλομαι), thus a distinction is made between "actual willling" (βούλησις) and "the will" (θέλησις).

The distinction works in its own way of course, and if one holds to these definitions, then most certainly God has one will, the Father and the Son do not have different wills but merely different βούλησις. If one wants to holds to Patristic terminology, then one should be able to say of the Trinity that there is one θέλησις, three βούλησεις. The problem of course is that the new classical theists do not go there even though that seems to what John of Damascus is moving towards.

That said, I would gladly hold to the technical difference between θέλησις and βούλησις, but not to calling θέλησις "will" as belonging to the nature. That is because that is not how the Enlish language works. "Will" is a dynammic term in modern parlance, not a static term in later patristics/ early medieval thought. Rather, it stands to reason in the modern context that we should translate θέλησις as "disposition" and βούλησις as "will," so as to better appreciate their use in the texts.

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Confessions of a former Strict Confessionalist (Consolidated, with footnotes and conclusion)

I have completed my personal reflections on strict confessionalism and my time in it. The whole article with footnotes and conclusion can be read here. Here is an excerpt from the conclusion:

The promise of Reformed Confessionalism is to plot a path between Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism, to not pick fights on minor issues while keeping fidelity to the Christian faith. Evangelicalism has failed in its fiduciary duty to the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Fundamentalism has failed in its duty to love others, especially those of the household of the faith. Sadly, strict Reformed Confessionalism is no different from Fundamentalism, just more scholarly, more organized and institutionalized, and thus more powerful as they weaponize theology against their opponents.

[continued]

So, what's next? What's next is for me to continue in my Christian faith, free from the lies I had believed in. I need to focus on my walk with God, and to serve wherever I can. God will judge the wicked-doers; it is my call only to warn any who would listen to avoid the strict Reformed confessionalists, for the good of their souls.

Friday, October 27, 2023

Confessions of a former Strict Confessionalist (Part 4)

The failure of strict confessionalism: Theological lies and the failure to tell the truth

It is not a secret that the American Reformed churches are extremely divided. After studying Reformed theology, it is my opinion that many divisions are not warranted and driven more by ego and the need to “prove oneself.” For example, the whole republication (of the Covenant of Works in the Mosaic Covenant) controversy, while interesting and worth of discussion, is in more opinion not worth the amount of heat and ink it generates. Readers can read the OPC report on this issue themselves and ask if the amount of sophistication is worth actual bickering and fighting over.

Now, it is true that some things are worth fighting over. John Gresham Machen was right to fight liberalism for example. But the amount of stuff American Reformed Christians fight over is shocking given the small proportion they have among professing believers.

This idea of fighting to establish themselves was brought to the fore in 2016, when first Todd Pruit and then Carl Trueman lobbed theological grenades accusing those who promote a doctrine called “Eternal Functional Subordination” (EFS) or “Eternal Submission of the Son” (ESS) of heresy. This set a firestorm that continues to have its embers even today. Now, charges of heresy are serious charges, and the first step of proving any doctrine is heretical is to actually represent it correctly. If one misrepresents what one is critiquing, then it does not matter how eloquent and how biblical one argues. One is engaging in a straw man and nobody should take what is said seriously.

The 2016 ESS controversy caused me to read up on the topics raised, and the more I read the more disturbed I feel. The initial feelings were one of astonishment and anger that these prominent pastors and theologians are hypocrites when they engage in the sort of slug fest that they deplore and attack in others. Evidently, when pastors and theologians told their congregants not to attack other Christians, or not to fight online, they mean only THEY can engage in attacking other Christians, and fight online. You see, only Reformed pastors and theologians can engage in the type of conduct other Christians should not engage in. For normal Christians to do so is sin I guess, but the clergy have privileges the laity do not!

As I read into the topic, I start to feel disturbed because what the critics are saying is not what the proponents of ESS are saying. Many critics are insisting that ESS necessarily imply this and that, which are heretical. But they do not prove this point, instead taking such implications as a given. This is just for the more honest critics. Then you have militant polemicists who just want to tar ESS any way possible, like Matthew Barrett who attacks ESS as tritheistic, Sabellian and Subordinationist. Barrett’s dishonesty is seen in his attacking ESS as both tritheistic and Sabellian. Just as something cannot be A and not A at the same time, something cannot be both tritheistic and Sabellian, given tritheism holds to three gods, while Sabellian holds so closely to the unity of the one God the persons are mere “appendages” or “manifestations” of the one unitary God.

Ironically, while it is among the hardcore anti-ESS “Reformed Confessionalists” that truth has gone missing and hatred festers, it is among the egalitarians that charity continues. Glen Butner, while a critic of ESS, is fair in his critique, and makes some points that ESS proponents should address. In my engagement with Butner on social media, I have found him charitable and willing to engage, while my engagement (where there is any) with Reformed Confessionalists has been either absent, or rude and condescending, just shy of hurling anathemas.

Just stand and ask yourself: From a human point of view, who would you be predisposed towards: a rude and condescending Reformed Confessionalist, or a supposed “biblicist”? I have interacted with Bruce Ware as well as Owen Strachan, and they have been extremely courteous. They have also consistently denied the positions attributed to them. Just on the issue of optics, which side is anyone more predisposed to think is in the right?

Of course, truth is one thing, and conduct another. This is where my reading comes in. In my own personal reading, while I do not think everything said under the banner of EFS is biblical, I find it to be not the monster, the heresy, that Reformed Confessionalists accuse it of being. Again, it means a big deal when these polemicists are busy burning straw men. Lying about one’s opponents, even after being called out on it, is a sure sign that one is probably in the wrong. The sheer venom that these Reformed men spit against “biblicists” and “Arians,” while lying over and over again about their opponents, does not endear me to them. But then, who cares perhaps, since I am a non-white and a non-American, so I am nobody to them?

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Machen does not hold to the modern Ressourcement view on the "Great Tradition" of the church

If we could imagine all the creeds of Christendom as having been suddenly wiped out of men’s memories, so that we should have to start all over again in our understanding of the Bible and in our summary setting forth of what the Bible teaches, I believe in tie the necessary creeds of the church would again be built up. It might take another nineteen centuries – if it be God’s will that the present age shall remain that long; it might take twice that time. But sooner or later it would be done. The Bible is the really essential thing; it is the foundation. The creeds of the church are the superstructure. Take away the foundation, and all is lost. But take away the superstructure, and the superstructure can be built up again if the foundation remains. (J. Gresham Machen, Things Unseen, 332)

If we were to remove all creeds and confessions of the Church, the Church would face a setback in understanding God's truth, but it would not be lost. The "Great Tradition," even if one can agree on it that it is true and beneficial, according to Machen is not essential for the Church.

Machen on creation

The book of Genesis seems to divide the work of creation into six successive steps of stages. It is certainly not necessary to think that the six days spoken of in the first chapter of the Bible are intended to be six days of twenty-four hours each. We may think of them rather as very long periods of time. But do they not at least mark six distinct acts or stages of creation, rather than merely six periods in which God molded by works of providence an already-created world? [J. Gresham Machen, Things Unseen: A Systematic Introduction to the Christian Faith and Reformed Theology (Glenside, PA: Westminster Seminary Press, 2020), p. 228)

On the other hand, to the person who does not share those naturalistic presuppositions, that leap from the actual evidence to the evolutionary hypothesis will seem to be a reckless leap indeed. To the person who does not believe that Jesus Christ was a product of evolution, but who believes that he came into this world by a stupendous miracle, the testimony to an equally supernatural origin of the first man will seem to be overwhelming. Such a person will say with great confidence not that man is a product of evolution but that God created man. (Ibid.,p. 234)

As it can be seen, Machen is agnostic over the issue of 6-24 creation, but appears to hold the Day-Age view of creation days. On the issue of creation versus evolution however, Machen emphatically rejects any form of evolution with regards to humans. Machen would thus have rejected Theistic Evolution if it was present at his time.

Confessions of a former strict Confessionalist (Part 3)

The failure of strict confessionalism: Racism and the failure to love

Racism and the Reformed Tradition

With the main expression of the Reformed tradition currently in North America, the Reformed tradition unfortunately has to struggle with American history, specifically the history of slavery and racism. Americans in the late 19th century fought a civil war to end slavery, but ending racism proved more elusive.

During the American civil war, it is undeniable that Southern Presbyterian theologians like Robert Lewis Dabney promote racism under the Reformed banner. While I am not one of those who will reject everything someone says merely because of gross sin and wickedness, Dabney’s racism still needs to be called out and rejected. Unfortunately, Dabney continues to be promoted without qualification, and his ideas live on in the movement called “Kinism,” mediated by people such as R. J. Rushdoony, the father of the right-wing fringe movement Christian Reconstructionism, with which kinists have a natural affinity to. While not disagreeing with everything that the movement advocates for, the fact of the matter is that the Reformed tradition has a problem with racism from the right.

“Kinism” can be stated as the view that the “races” of the world are ordained by God to be kept separate, and thus the mixing of peoples and most definitely inter-racial marriages (miscegenation) are sinful. Spoken or not, it comes with the view that the “white race” is superior and should not be led by the “lesser races,” a view that permeates parts of Reformed Christianity in the US, even those not overtly kinist, despite it being verbally denied. In my experience, while one can certainly be members of and serve in Reformed churches, if one is not white ‘culturally,’ it is almost impossible to be treated equally and to be taken seriously. The “white man’s burden” continues to be a problem in many American Reformed circles, and the idea that non-whites are to be patronized instead of treated with respect as equals is something I have personally experienced.

American racism from the left

If one thinks right-wing racism is bad, the left-wing version is even worse. After all, society has made right-wing racism unacceptable in much of modern society. Embraced by liberals who believe they are really open-minded, loving and tolerant, and most definitely against racism, left-wing racism became popular as Critical Race Theory erupted into the scene after the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States in 2016. It seems that the key to solving the real problems of racism, the consequences of racism, and the Democrat mismanagement of America’s major cities, was to blame “white supremacy,” attack “whiteness,” demand reparations and affirmative action, and call for all forms of special treatment of “People of Color” (POC), which they interpret through Marxist lens to apply only to non-whites who are “oppressed” (so ‘Asians’ do not qualify). All of a sudden, you have those more liberal-minded Christians in the Reformed camp embracing aspects of Critical Race Theory and calling for the need for “racial justice.”

As with most theories, Critical Race Theory can be critically analyzed and engaged with, not rejected outright. However, the essence of Critical Race Theory is racist and antithetical to biblical Christianity. Critical Race Theory sees everything in racial categories, and attacks the very notion of “color-blindness,” the idea that one should not discriminate on the basis of one’s skin color and thus ethnicity. Many woke advocates see “color-blindness” as a rejection of their innate racial differences, which is a false interpretation of “color-blindness” – a rejection of innate racial differences only in the sense that they should not be used for discriminatory purposes. Color-blindness is a rejection of what racism is – discrimination based on one’s skin color and ethnicity, and thus a focus on our common humanity, all humans being equal in the eyes of God.

In my experience interacting with Americans as wokeness enveloped their nation, I was shocked at how people can be previously outwardly friendly yet react so vehemently when their embrace of left-wing racism was called out. Right-wing racism sees non-whites as “inferior races” to be patronized, as “converted heathen” who should be grateful for the “white man” bringing the Gospel of salvation to them. But if you think left-wing racists treat non-whites with respect, you would be sorely mistaken. In fact, it almost seems that left-wing racism allows one to suddenly vent one’s repressed racism in a socially acceptable way.

For the next section, it will be mostly anecdotal evidence, based on my “lived experience” (to use one of those neologisms), especially since I did not take snapshots of the incidents.

My personal encounters with left-wing racism were certainly eye-opening for me. One such encounter was back in 2018, as the staff at the White Horse Inn veered towards promoting “racial justice” issues. On one tweet on the Modern Reformation Twitter account back then, I had responded to it with a ping to Michael Horton pleading for him to stop promoting such trash. The response from whoever was behind the Modern Reformation Twitter account then was nasty, to say the least. Of course, I unfollowed the account after some attempts at communication.

On another incident on Facebook, I had attempted trying to get a former acquaintance from my seminary to veer away from such nonsense, to no avail. What made it sadder was that of another acquittance who mocked my comments, making it seem I am just calling wolf “to the left.”

That same acquaintance subsequently claimed I am too tightly wound, evidently thinking racism is no big deal and that the correct response was to do “triage” and ignore left-wing racism. He subsequently managed to block me before I could unfriend him, but this episode shows that for many white Americans, even those that call themselves Reformed (or for those who went full steam into the woke movement, “formerly called themselves Reformed”), racism is evidently not a big deal.

The failure to excise racism and American narcissism

What does this mean for Reformed Confessionalism? On the one hand, nothing. The failure of individual Reformed Christians, even Reformed Confessionalists, is the fault of the persons and not any one doctrine or movement. On the other hand, it matters a lot, because Reformed Confessionalism in its strict form claim to move Reformed Christians to being biblical in both faith and life, and to unity in the bond of Christ. For a movement that promised right living, is toleration of various forms of racism acceptable? What is the use of being “Truly Reformed” if one remains a racist? Jesus says that a good tree bears good fruit, and you will know them by their fruits (cf. Matt. 7:17-20).

In R. Scott Clark’s book Recovering the Reformed Confessions, he mentioned Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield, Herman Bavinck, and J. Gresham Machen, who he claims would be excluded by a boundary marker that makes 6/24 creation necessary for orthodoxy. In his own words, “any boundary marker, however, that includes the Adventist and excludes Hodge, Warfield, Bavinck, and Machen should not commend itself to confessional Reformed folk as a way to mark out Reformed identity.” Well, many Reformed pastors and theologians in the past were racists, like RL Dabney, so I guess any boundary marker that includes the liberals and excludes Reformed theologians like Dabney “should not commend itself to confessional Reformed folk as a way to mark out Reformed identity”? Presumably, Reformed Confessionalism according to Dr. Clark can exists side by side with racism, although one can still assert that racism is a sin. But well, so is gluttony, which many Americans are guilty of, so I guess: What’s the big deal anyway? As one liberal I used to interact with (in a different context) used to say with regards to the presence of neo-Nazis, “Well, there are neo-Nazis everywhere, so what?”

The failure to excise racism shows the American captivity of the American Reformed churches, from which strict Reformed Confessionalism has emerged. This American narcissism is seen most clearly in my last experience on this topic I am sharing here. I had a friend who is doing church planting in the Chicago area. For whatever reason, he leans into the social justice movement while claiming that he rejects Critical Race Theory. When he had posted a video promoting the TGC AND campaign trying to seek a “middle way” embracing both Christianity and “social justice” concerns, I responded to it in a blog post. I pleaded with him not to promoted this kind of racist trash, but was rebuffed. One of the points I had conveyed was how promoting such racial stuff would cause problems in other countries including my home country of Singapore. In his response, he essentially told me that what such woke stuff does in other countries is not his concern. In other words, screw the world, as long as ‘Murica has “justice.” The fact that Christina Edmonson, wife of OPC pastor Mika Edmonson, was promoting racist trash without repercussion is indeed a serious point of concern, all while they were at one time serving in the Chicago area, a point I also made in response to him, without avail.

Strict Reformed Confessionalism, or basically Reformed Confessionalism in the hands of white American theologians, has proven itself unable to excise racism from her midst. Strict Reformed Confessionalism is also culturally bound to America, despite its claim to be just Reformed, and partakes of all the malaise infecting American society, including her narcissistic view of the world. In other words, strict Reformed Confessionalism is American, and not truly Reformed.

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Confessions of a former strict Confessionalist (Part 2)

Into strict confessionalism

Reformed theology is rigorous, and precisely the type of spiritual food that appeals to one starved of biblical truth. It was not fast before I encountered what I now recognized as strict confessionalism, particularly as mediated by one of its foremost proponent R. Scott Clark.

In his book Recovering the Reformed Confessions, Clark argued for his idea of confessionalism, utilizing his expertise in historical theology to buttress his claims. According to Clark, situating the Reformed churches (in the United States) in the sideline denominations, the divisions in the Reformed churches comes about because people are tempted towards two errant paths: The “Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty” or QIRC, and the “Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience” or QIRE. QIRC is “the pursuit to know God in ways he has not revealed himself and to achieve epistemic and moral certainty on questions where such certainty is neither possible nor desirable.” QIRE is the “quest to experience God apart from the mediation of Word and sacrament.” Utilizing these motifs, Clark addressed the issues of 6/24 creationism and theonomy under the motif of QIRC, and revivals and emotive worship under the motif of QIRE. The main point of Clark’s argument against 6/24 creationism is not whether it is right or wrong, but that the issue is not an issue addressed by the Reformed tradition in a way that excludes other views. In other words, with the Reformed confessions as boundary markers, we must not draw boundaries more tightly than them, leaving room for disagreement. Clark points out the diverse ways Reformed theologians have addressed scientific issues in the past, in order to buttress his assertion that 6/24 creationism is not a proper boundary marker but one imported from rationalistic fundamentalism.

Clark’s view of confessionalism, where the Scriptures are foundationally the ultimate source of authority, while the Reformed confessions became the secondary standards norming our faith, practice, and life, sounds indeed like that of confessionalism proper, and indeed it mostly is. Strict confessionalism is however lurking behind the scenes, when one reads between the lines, something I failed in my earlier days. For example, it sounded charitable to not want to draw narrow boundaries on the issue of 6/24 creation, which both the OPC and the PCA Creation Reports agreed upon. It seemed helpful to warn against moralism, and call for Christians to return to historic Reformed worship. The problem comes however when we question the use and breadth of these categorizations (QIRC, QIRE) and how it relates to differences among the Reformed who hold to the Reformed confessions as well.

On the issue of 6/24 creationism for example, Clark gives the impression that those promoting 6/24 creation are using these as boundary markers to throw Christians out of the church if they do not hold to 6/24 creation. There does not seem to be any discussion of the diverse ways one can or cannot hold to a belief in 6/24 creation and its application in the church context. In fact, on this issue, Clark shows a shocking ignorance of the modern creationist movement, citing Ronald L. Numbers’ false history asserting a Seventh-Day Adventist origin for modern day creationism. He then asserts that “proponents of 6/24 interpretation have been unable to explain the theological reason for making the 6/24 interpretation a standard of orthodoxy.” That Clark has not seen even one theological reason for such shows his ignorance of the writings and teachings of Young Earth Creationism. One can agree or disagree with these reasons, but for Clark to claim that there has been no theological reason ever given for making the 6/24 interpretation a standard of orthodoxy is a bad sign.

My focus on 6/24 creation is not to litigate whether 6/24 creation should be placed into the category QIRC per se, but rather to make it clear that there is no real discussion over whether the categories apply to any one thing and thus how one should place anything in any category. In other words, QIRC and QIRE are broad categories that Clark can use to place anything he disagrees with as long as he can link those doctrines or teachings to something resembling “rationalism” or “pietism.” The categories function as a rhetorical sleight-of-hand enabling Clark to discount anything he does not like as either QIRC or QIRE, hoping that the smear or association is enough to tar whatever he dislikes with the label of being contrary to the Reformed Confessions, without any argument over why that is so.

In my time over at Westminster Seminary California, Dr. Clark was a major topic of discussion among the students. While strict confessionalism calls for charity towards others who are Reformed, calling for unity around the Reformed confessions, one starts to suspect unity was not the goal here. Clark had asserted in his book that “it is not a belief that the Bible is true which makes one a fundamentalist; rather it is the belief that one’s interpretation of Scripture is inerrant which qualifies one as a fundamentalist.” Interacting with Dr. Clark, one gets the impression that he views his own interpretation of the Reformed tradition as inerrant, which qualifies him as a “Reformed fundamentalist” I guess. Dr. Clark absolutely detests Douglas Wilson, John Frame, and who knows how many other enemies he has. This is not to say that Wilson or Frame are right or wrong, but I find it really strange that the idea of returning to the Reformed Confessions can go hand in hand with such vitriol and hatred.

The suspicion that strict confessionalism is something separate from and going beyond confessionalism is seen in the book On being Reformed: Debates over a Theological Identity. In this book, Chris Caughey and Crawford Gribben wrote an essay essentially arguing that there is no such fixed identity of being “Reformed” in such a way that certain “Truly Reformed” (TR) people can use to exclude others from the Reformed tradition. Rather, there is indeed a Reformed tradition, but one that proceeds as branches of a tree throughout history, a “theological family tree” as it were. In their response to Caughey, Gribben [and Matthew Bingham], [R Scott] Clark and [D.G.] Hart argued that there is a real Reformed tradition and identity that is determined not by scholars but by the churches, and therefore Reformed identity is real and what they see as attempts by the other scholars to deconstruct the Reformed tradition have failed.

The problem with reading such a book is that there are valid points all around, and certainly Clark and Hart are correct in claiming the Reformed tradition is real and Reformed churches are the living legacy of what it means to be Reformed. But on the other hand, there is a deeper problem at play here, which ties in with one of Caughey and Gribben’s main point: the diversity among those that call themselves Reformed. If “Reformed” just refer to the body of Reformed teaching in the Reformed tradition, and “Reformed” is determined by the church, why not “Reformed” as defined by the PCUSA? After all, they are a church with a “Reformed” tradition of sorts. Of course, we can assert that the PCUSA has apostatized and so on, but those are not part of the criteria given by Clark and Hart. If the argument is made that they deviate from the “substance” of the Reformed faith, how do we find this substance as a canon within the Reformed “canon” of its own tradition, without at the same time assuming this “substance” to be truly its substance? Clark’s and Hart’s rejection of theocracy as part of the “substance” of the Reformed faith, for example, presupposes that theocracy is part of ethics instead of part of the third mark of the church (right discipline), a position which I personally agree but which has not been proven by either of them. After all, would Calvin or the Magisterial Reformers hold that theocracy is merely an ethical issue? I sincerely doubt it!

All this is to say that arguments for a “Reformed” identity, as defined by Clark and Hart, argue in a circle. Something is or is not “Reformed” because it is or is not part of the substance of the Reformed faith. Something is or is not part of the substance of the Reformed faith because it is traced to the Reformed Confessions. Something in the Reformed Confessions is part of the substance of the Reformed faith because it is traced to the Reformed churches and tradition. Something that is traced to the Reformed churches and tradition is Reformed, but other teachings or practices traced there are not, because … it is or is not “Reformed”? It can be seen here that attempts to claim a “Reformed” identity in the manner Clark and Hart do, even if they are correct, cannot work.

This is not to claim that confessionalism is wrong, but rather that this book makes clear Clark and Hart’s project of strict confessionalism, even if and where they get various things correct, does not work. Strict Confessionalism asserts definite ways of being confessional, promises unity and biblical fidelity around adherence to said principles, yet in the end it does not deliver.


[I have decided to put the footnotes in a consolidated document which will be published after this is done]

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Confessions of a former strict confessionalist (Part 1)

[I am currently busy with work commitments and preparing for my next phase of life, so updates here will be sporadic]

My life has been quite a journey, and with my current progress in the Christian life, I thought it would be helpful to tell parts of that story here.

Introduction

How does one relate to God in this world? To the church? What should a Christian do in order to glorify God? All of these are questions that I struggle with, especially after I have been awakened to the things of God by the Spirit of God. Having brought up in staid traditionalism, I was exposed to Charismatic influences. It is admitted that there are many biblical problems with the Charismatic movement, and the particular strain that I was eventually exposed to, the Third Wave New Apostolic Reformation, is heretical. Yet, for someone raised in staid traditionalism, this was a breath of fresh air. In particular, it cannot be denied that, through focusing on the imminant and the practical, Charismatic Christianity preserve an important aspect of Christianity, which is that Christianity has to be practiced and not relegated to mere cognition. Christianity is a whole person faith. The idea that one can be Christian in mere intellect is not biblical, but more on that later.

As a biblically deficient movement, Charismatic Christianity left me feeling dry over time. God graciously led me to Reformed teaching and Reformed theology. Through seeing the latitudinarian approach in much of Singapore Christianity, I was led to reject New Evangelicalism, which I see as the movement allowing false teaching like the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) to infiltrate the church. In a sense, I became a Fundamentalist, Fundamentalist in approach not in doctrine. If New Evangelicalism is marked by toleration of false doctrine under the guise of charity and respectful disagreement, then the reaction is to be strict on doctrine. Laxity of doctrine is spiritual adultery, leading to spiritual destruction applauded by those going to heaven under the guise of charity. It was evidently clear that New Evangelicalism is a movement of spiritual negligence on the part of its pastors at best, so the way to combat it is to be its opposite.

I notice quickly of course that Fundamentalism does not work, noting the problems and church wreckages it has caused. If everything is important and one must separate from other Christians on almost every doctrine, then everyone will eventually form a church of one. Yet it is evidently clear that New Evangelicalism does not work either. The so-called triage method promoted by Albert Mohler, when I heard about it, does not work either. "Triage" presumes that one can rank doctrines in order of importance, but where is this ranking found? Who gave us this ranking list, and upon what basis should we grant that list authority? "Triage" is basically an intellectual version of New Evangelical compromise, allowing pastors to feel less guilty or not guilty while being indifferent about other people going to hell.

The Promise of Confessionalism

New Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism are a dialectical pair, with the one feeding into the other. Those who reject New Evangelicalism veer Fundamentalist, while those reject Fundamentalism veer New Evangelical. It is a zero-sum game either way, and in no way is Christ's church and Christians properly served. Believers are destroyed by false love and unity under the banner of triage or whatever term New Evangelicals use. Christ's sheep are broken by fundamentalist attack dogs slashing the sheep they were meant to protect, guide, and feed. While wresting with this dialectic, I came to hear of Confessionalism, which holds itself to be a third way in the dialectic.

What is the allure of Confessionalism? Confessionalism asserts that the problem with evangelicalism is that it does not have a true center of unity. Evangelicalism fails in its struggle to be coherent and proper because it is in some sense a false construct. By rejecting the historic creeds and Christian confessions, and trying to create a pan-"Protestant" movement, Evangelicalism cannot truly function as a Christian church. "Evangelicalism" as a movement must be deconstructed, argues historian D. G. Hart, because it has become a "seemingly large and influential religious body, but it lacks an institutional center, intellectual coherence, and devotional direction." [D.G. Hard, Deconstructing Evangelicalism: Conservative Protestantism in the Age of Billy Graham (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004), 176]. Hart in that book was focusing on the New Evangelicals, but the issue of a true center of unity or lack thereof affects the Older Evangelicalism as well. The only difference is that Old Evangelicalism had denominational legacy and thus had a more stable identity despite their trans-denominational slant. The dialectic between doctrinal separation and doctrinal compromise exists because there is no real substantive center in evangelical churches. All claims to be centered on the "Gospel," whether of the older evangelicalism, the New Evangelicalism, or the New Calvinist version (e.g. TGC) have failed because the words "the Gospel" have no substance in themselves. Over time, as it has been shown time and again, a unity "around the Gospel" results in either doctrinal splits or doctrinal compromise and eventual apostasy. The former comes as one group found to their astonishment that error and heresy lies within the camp, and sought to eradicate it, as for example Charles Spurgeon and the Downgrade Controversy, and the various modernist-fundamentalist controversies of the early 1900s. The latter is seen in the evangelical moderates collapsing to the forces of Liberalism in the PCUSA and other mainline denominations. It is seen also in the modern horror story that is TGC, as it is currently capitulating to the anti-Christian lies of LGBTQ+ and wokeness.

Confessionalism's promise therefore is to re-orientate doctrines around a core, forming something that looks like "triage" without the triage. Instead of asking questions about what doctrines are core and what are not, believers are to understand the form of sound words (2 Tim. 1:13) and link themselves to the historic Christian faith. Christians link themselves to the historic Christian tradition, choosing the historic Confession that they hold best approximates to that tradition, the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3). Christians unite around a common Confession of faith and the historic creeds of the church. What the Confession states is core; what it does not there is room for disagreement.

Of course, this does not solve every problem. There is a sense in which we argue from the Confession for logical deductions from that Confession. There is a sense in which inferences from the Confession partake in the derived authority of the Confession for us, yet are less authoritative than the Confessions themselves, especially when the inference is not direct. Nevertheless, the promise of Confessionalism is an escape from the dialectic between New Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism. In it, the believer can rest, more assured in the truths of Scripture and protected from wolves.

[to be continued]

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Once more on the word "biblicism"

What is "biblicism"? Matthew Barrett has found an early work from 1827 that uses the term "bibicism," probably the earliest known use of that word in the English language. Does this somehow imply that the word "biblicism" has that meaning used by its first author Sophei Finngan? If we go strictly by the "first use" principle, then certainly "biblicism" would have the same meaning as what Finngan meant by the use of that term. But should it?

When we examined Finngan's book (as found on Google Books), it can be easily seen that Finngan is an Irish Roman Catholic priest writing a polemical work primarily against the Protestants of England. "Biblicism" by Finngan is a wicked idolatry that uses the Bible wrongly and breaks the unity of the Roman Catholic church. In other words, Finngan's "biblicism" is a derogatory slur against the Protestant practice of Sola Scriptura. Finngan did indeed use the term to attack rank heretics like Spinoza whom he claims as springing from within Protestantism, but he does not see this as a wrong use of the Protestant interpretation of Scripture (as what Barrett and company wants to make it into), but rather as proof that atheism and all manner of heresies have their origin in Sola Scriptura.

Since, I hope, that supposed Protestant Great Tradition men want to insist that they hold to Sola Scriptura, Barrett's reliance on Finngan's use of the term "biblicism" is an own-goal. If one agrees with Barrett and Finngan, then the logical conclusion is to abandon Sola Scriptura altogether. This raises the important question whether Barrett actually checked the primary source here, as relying on anti-Protestant polemics to attack "biblicism" only serves to undermine the Reformation, even if Finngan had a valid point, which he did not. As with many polemics written in church history, reason and rational arguments are far from its pages, and the goal is to rile up the masses with mass accusations and guilt by association arguments.

Shoud we therefore consider that "biblicism" is a word that has many meanings then? Or is the term redeemable in some fashion? Dr. James White has been talking about the term "Reformed biblicism" as his way of approaching the Scriptures. The issue of word usage then is: Who gets to define the word? Or if there is none, should anyone be allowed to define the term in any way they wish? I would suggest not.

As I have mentioned time and again, I see church historian David Bebbington's usage of the word "biblicism" to be normative. Even with this current revelation that the word was used in the 19th century by a Roman Catholic priest, my position remains the same. Finngan had used the term, but few people caught onto the term as it was then used. What has caught on however is the Bebbington Quadrilateral, which remains an important element in the study of Evangelicalism. In other words, it is Bebbington's use of the term that is prevalent in the academy and the study of the history of Evangelicalism. The current bastardized use of the term by Great Tradition polemicists is a more recent invention, and one that plays off the established meaning of "biblicism" while eviscerating it of its historical meaning.

It is this more established use, a neutral historical use, of the word "biblicism" that makes me uncomfortable with Dr. White's attempted appropriation of the term in "Reformed biblicism." "Biblicism" has a certain use and meaning in the history of Evangelicalism. Unless Dr. White's hermeneutics is indeed similar to that of 19th century Evangelicals, he should not utilize that term of his hermeneutics. Dr. White does engage in systematic thinking, is not afraid of dealing with matters of church history, and holds to the historic creeds, so according to Bebbington's meaning of the term, Dr. White is not a biblicist.

For me therefore, it is the desire to be able to talk about Evangelical church history that drives me towards Bebbington's use of the word "biblicism." I have no desire to throw out an entire work of study on the history of Evangelicalism, just to appease recent doctrinal extremists. They are the ones who should stop their ignorant prattle, instead of spewing nonsense and creating their own sects.