Saturday, July 15, 2017

Turretin: Christianity is not fatalism, and God is not the author of sin

V. … For since they [Stoics –DHC] are said commonly to place a necessity out of God in the perpetual and eternal connection of things, we place it in God himself and his eternal decree. They subject God to necessity, we subject necessity to God. … [Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1.6.II.5]

XVII. The predetermination of God in evil acts is not repugnant to his permission because they are not occupied about the same things. The former regards the substance of the act, the latter, however, its wickedness; the former reaches the material (effecting it), but the latter the formality (leaving it to the free will of man, which alone is the deficient moral cause). For as in an evil act, there is, as it were, a twofold formal relation (one having the relation of effect, the other having the relation of defect), God can move and predetermine to that which has the relation of effect, but can only permit the other which has the relation of defect. [Ibid., 1.6.VI.18]

Friday, July 14, 2017

Turretin: God does not will to save those He will not save

XIX. Third, if God has a universal will to save all, it is either absolute or conditional. If absolute, all will actually be saved; if conditional, he wills either to effect the condition necessary to salvation in men or only to exact it. If only to exact it, he does not will and intend the salvation of such by exacting from them an act which he knew to be impossible to man. Again, that condition will certainly be about to come to pass or certainly not about to come to pass. If the former, each and every man will certainly be saved; if the latter, God would be made to will vehemently that which he nevertheless well knew would never take place (as depending upon a condition such that it never would come to pass in this respect because he himself, who alone can, does not will to effect it). Now if it does not belong to a wise man to will anything under a condition which he knows to be impossible, how much less can this be attributed to the most wise God? [Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1.4.XVII.19]

Turretin: Election not based on foreseen faith

XXII. Third, if election is from foreseen faith, God must have foreseen it in us: either as an act of nature proceeding from us, or as an act of grace depending on God, or as a common act, arising conjointly from both (partly from God, partly from man). If as an act of God, he foresaw is therefore as his own gift (i.e. decreed by him from election) Thus it would follow, not precede election. IT as an act of nature we therefore elected ourselves (contrary to Paul, 1 Cor. 4:7), Pelagius gains the victory. If as a common act, either the act of God takes its form from the act of man (and so man would be the architect of his own salvation and could sacrifice to his own net, since he would bring to his own salvation the principal part) or the act of man takes its form from the act of God (and so election will be the case of faith, not the contrary). We must either ascend with the Scriptures to God discriminating among men by his own gift, or descend with Pelagius to man discriminating himself by his own free will (for there can be no middle way). [Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1.4.XI.22]

Monday, July 10, 2017

What is reprobation?

XVII. The election of some being supposed, the preterition of others follows. By this he [God] not only was unwilling to confirm them in good, but decreed to permit their sin. The fall taking place, he decreed to leave them in and condemn them on account of their sin. Their reprobation to this is referred. It is also contained in two acts: one negative (dereliction in the fall); the other affirmative (damnation to eternal punishment). ... [Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology. 1.4.8.17]

What is reprobation? Reprobation is God's active decree to pass by some (all those whom He did not elect unto salvation) and decree them to eternal damnation. Reprobation, like election, is unconditional. As it condemns people to hell even before they were created in time, it seems to imply injustice in God. That is why Paul had to write Romans 9:14-24, as reprobation seems to be unjust. After all, how can God punish someone before they have even done good or bad?

When one looks more closely at the doctrine of reprobation however, it can be seen that at least some of the concern is misplaced. Reprobation is made up of two parts: Pretertion and Damnation. In preterition, God passed over those whom He did not elect. In damnation, God condemns to hell reprobate sinners because of their sin. Thus reprobation is not conditioned upon the sinner, but at the same time, sinners will never be condemned to hell apart from their sins. It is hypothetically possible for a creature to be passed over (preterition) but not condemned if that creature did not sin, and thus not be sent to hell. It is however not actually possible for any human to only be passed over without being damned, because all Man have fallen in Adam and thus all Man would have and will sin. Thus, God's decree of reprobation will have worked out in preterition and damnation for all of the reprobate, all without exception, and yet there would certainly be no injustice with God.

There is no such thing as a conditional decree of God

VIII. It is one thing to maintain that God has not decreed to save anyone except through legitimate means; another that the decree to save these or those persons through legitimate means is conditional and of uncertain event (which the adversaries feign). ...

IX. It is one thing for the thing decreed to be conditional; another for the decree itself. The former we grant, but not the latter. There can be granted an antecedent cause or condition of the thing willed, but not immediately of the volition itself. Thus God wills salvation to have the annexed condition of faith and repentance in the execution, but faith and repentance are not the condition or cause of the act of willing in God, nor of the decree to save in the intention.

[Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology. 1.4.3. 9-10]

Is the Gospel conditional or is it not? Is salvation conditional? The answers given by many people nowadays are incoherent, because they have lost the clarity of thought that characterized Reformed Scholasticism. Those like the PRCA (Protestant Reformed Churches of America) in their attack against the "conditional covenant" showed forth their theological incoherence as they simultaneously attacked the idea that there are conditions in the Covenant of Grace, yet will defend that faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation (which would make "faith in Jesus Christ" a condition). Others like the Federal Vision will state openly that faith is necessary and thus a condition in the Covenant of Grace, then like Norman Shepherd assert that conditionality implies humans are to fulfill those conditions, thus undermining the "faith not works" principle of the Gospel and the Covenant of Grace. In both of these examples, failure to think clearly and logically result in theological error and incoherence, with further implications for the lives of believers as they are worked out (either in Legalism or Antinomianism).

In contrast to such confusion in the modern broadly Reformed sphere, Turretin's clarify shines forth. There is no such thing as a "conditional decree" or a "conditional covenant," but there are conditions within God's decree and covenant. Faith is a condition, but faith is conditioned as absolutely decreed, not as a decree that is conditioned upon Man having faith. This is the clarity we need to reject the errors in our time in the Reformed sphere of churches, and keep to the narrow path of orthodoxy.

Monday, July 03, 2017

Who is the Spiritual Man? - 1 Corinthians 2:6-16

Here is last week's sermon on 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, dealing with the topic of who is the spiritual man, as opposed to the "carnal" or "worldly" man.

Language and the problem of discourse

1) These Terms Are Ideologically Loaded

They’re not ‘value-neutral’.

When words like ‘patriarchal’, ‘privilege’, and ‘gender-inequality’ are used, they don’t merely describe a state of affairs: they also evaluate it.

...

What’s more, when you introduce ideologically loaded jargon, the evaluation is already assumed – it’s smuggled in, as it were, underneath our worldview radar. For example, what secular ideology means by ‘oppression’, is often different to what the Bible means by ‘oppression’. It is of concern that when this language is used, we rarely see any corresponding discussion of particular Biblical passages, arguing whether such evaluations are true to the Bible. (And when these Scriptural discussions do happen, they tend to be secondary rather than primary.) Importing this type of jargon into our discussions with each other means that, if we’re not careful, we can uncritically swallow the non-Biblical worldview.

[Akos Balogh and Dani Treweek, "Christian Discusson and Feminism: Here's What We're Getting Wrong," TGC Australia Blog (30th June 2017), here]

"When did you stop beating your wife?" For an ordinary couple, there is no right answer to that question, because the husband did not even begin to beat his wife in the first place. Questions like these are loaded questions, complete with many assumptions that attempt to sway the direction of discourse, in that particular case, into a presumption of guilt of wife-beating on the part of the one questioned.

Likewise, terms and phrases are not necessary value-neutral. Utilizing terms such as "patriarchal," "privilege" and all other "social justice" terms are likewise not value-neutral. These terms have assumptions built into them that will direct the framing of discourse concerning these topics, even for those who might disagree with them. Utilizing these terms predisposes the users towards the theories in which these terms originate, and thus it should not be too surprising for example that people who utilize the terms "social justice" and "racial inequality" tend to veer left and socialist, while those who use the terms "welfare" and "charity" tend to veer right. None of these terms are value-neutral: "social justice" has the connotation that one is righting a social wrong in pursuing it (which should also be or become illegal), while "charity" has the connotation that what one is doing is done out of love and grace and the recipient totally does not deserve the charitable action, not even if coming from the State. As is clearly seen in this example, although these terms are used to refer to approximately the same thing (from the center), adopting either of these terms clearly slant the manner of discourse concerning the subject matter.

It is therefore very important not just to believe in truth, but also to know how to believe in truth. That is also why, while doctrine is propositional, it cannot be reduced to propositions only. It is why we have to watch over the manner of our discourse, and refuse to utilize loaded words from the world without scrutinizing these terms according to the Scriptures.

Just to take one more example, the word "privilege" when applied to social situations has the connotation that the difference between those who have "privilege" and those who do not have "privilege" is a matter of social injustice that must be corrected by the use of the law. It doesn't matter even if one were to attempt to take the term out of the context of Critical Race Theory, for as long as it is used to refer to the same sociological phenomenon, it retains that connotation. The only way it could lose that connotation is to take the position that "privilege" is natural and to be celebrated, something no social justice warrior on the left would ever conceive of, and a position that defeats the entire choice of adopting the word "privilege" in the first place!

On the theological front, language is even more important, if that were possible. The classic case of the need for theological precision is the Nicene distinction between "same essence" (ὁμοουσιαν) and "like essence" (ὁμοιουσιαν), where the difference between orthodoxy and heresy is the presence or absence of a single iota. But beyond the need for precision is establishing the language of discourse about how we are to talk about God and about Christ. Without the final framework of the meaning of "essence" (οὐσια), "hypostasis" (ὑποστασις), and "person" (πρωσοπον), thus establishing a proper manner of discourse concerning the doctrine of God and of Christ, Nicene and Chalcedonian orthodoxy would be unable to be established.

Our manner of discourse can never be a value-neutral thing. This is not to suggest absolute postmodern relativism concerning words and their meaning, but rather to have a more chastened realism concerning the nature of language. As we deal with social, philosophical, theological and even scientific discourse, we should realize the value-imbued meaning of various words, and then decide whether these are suitable words to be used in the context of Christian discourse.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

On Critical Race Theory

What is Critical Race Theory (CRT)? Over at the Harvard Law Record, a student-run newspaper, Bill Barlow has written a succinct description of what Critical Race Theory is, here. As it can be seen, Critical Race Theory is just racism (of the "minority" against the "majority"), or "reverse racism" (discrimination against real and perceived racism). It is something that nobody who is actually interested in equality should be promoting. Yet we know that CRT is being promoted by Progressives, and even worse, by organizations such as RAAN (Reformed African-American Network).

One of the many problems with those pushing such nonsense is that they treat people as their "race" not as individuals. They do not care to actually get to know individuals first, but rather they see everything through the lens of "race" before anything else. After "race" of course comes ideology. Thus, whites have to "confess" their "privilege" all the time, and be an "ally," before they can be accepted by blacks for example. Those who refuse to buy into such nonsense are by default "racists" and "bigots," without any regard for how they actually treat those who are different from them.

Among many reasons, this is a reason why Christians ought not to buy into CRT in any form. The solution to discrimination (real or perceived) is not more discrimination. The solution to racism is not more racism, in the opposite direction. An eye for an eye, and the whole world becomes blind! The solution is have true equality, color-blindness, which does NOT imply that minority cultures are unimportant but that all (both majority and minority) are to be treated equally before others and before the law.

Even to utilize their language is problematic, because the language itself partake of the racial tones of CRT. To use the word "white privilege" or even "Chinese privilege" is already to state something in racial tones, which is racist. There is no redemption of CRT terms possible, just as there can be no redemption of terms such as "Racial Hygiene."

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The pilgrim context of not living by "bread alone"

And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothing did not wear out on you and your foot did not swell these forty years. Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you. (Deut. 8:3-5)

Man shall not live by bread alone, but by our Daily Bread. OK, bad pun. But the point is how often we, and Evangelicalism as a whole, have taken what is truly deep and rich and trivialize it into cheap piety saleable to the masses. From a pietist background, how else should we think about showing our dependence upon God and His Word than in spending 5 minutes of each day reading shallow "Christian" drivel and calling it a devotion? And then we wonder why is that Christianity is not practical, or that this daily reading seems more like ritual than actual true enjoyment. Perhaps the problem is because we have trivialized God's Word, and make the reading of God's Word into something more like the reading of inspirational sayings. In fact, for some "pastors" like Joel Osteen, there is no real difference between what He says and the inspirational sayings of self-help gurus!

The real context of the phrase that "Man shall not live by bread alone" is not in a time of comfort and ease. Many people might think the Exodus was a great time of deliverance from slavery, and that is true. But many people do not consider the costs of the Exodus, as if deliverance is such an enjoyable event. It is not! In leaving Egypt, Israel thrusts herself into the unknown. Her calendar was disrupted, one's daily routine in life is disrupted. The food has changed, there is no permanent home, and everything seems to be settled upon the whim of one man's decrees, a man that none of them have elected to be their leader. When Israel cried to return to Egypt, it is not so much that they love slavery, but that Egypt offered stability and certainty. But what certainty or stability do they have with Moses in the wilderness? And while it is true that God is leading His people, for most of Israel most of the time, since God is unseen, the earthly impression is that of an unelected dictator telling them where to go, what to do, and how to worship. And if any of them object, like Korah, supernatural punishments and plagues will come upon them (Num. 16).

The context of Deuteronomy 8 therefore is one of destabilization. God removed the pillars of stability of Israel's life, such that they have nothing whatsoever to depend on but God alone. This is the context of the phrase "Man shall not live by bread alone," not the idea that it is a good thing to get daily "spiritual nourishment" through 5 minutes of devotion every day. It it for those whom God has brought to the end of themselves, so that they will say

Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Ps. 73:25-26)

And we respond, like Peter, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life," (Jn. 6:68b).

Deuteronomy 8:3-5 itself shows us that it is God's discipline that brings us to Himself. He Himself removes our pillars of support and security, because we have made them into idols and put our trust in them. We have put our trust in job security, in having peaceful lives (as if God owes us peace), relatively just government (as if God owes you a good government), and for Singaporeans, our CPF. Those are the crutches and idols in our lives that take the place of Christ, and that is why it is hard for people to trust in Christ, because we have become too comfortable. We have taken God's blessings of health and prosperity and made them into a curse upon our souls. And thus we cannot say that we have learned dependence upon God, because we have not. We trust in all the other things God has given, and think we are entitled to them. If God were to remove them, we curse God for taking any of them away from us, as if we are entitled to all these things. And then we ask how we can make Christianity practical to us! Ever read the story of the rich young ruler? Unfortunately, many Evangelicals are just like that rich young ruler, someone who is looking for something he can do to make himself better, but unwilling to let God actually touch the things He puts His trust and security in.

It is only in times of trials and tribulations that the worth of a man's faith is made manifest. When God begins to shake your life, will you, following the advice of Job's wife, curse God and die? Or will you surrender what God has blessed you with, acknowledging that it is God who gives, and God who also takes away, and regardless of what happens, God is to be blessed. Can you therefore say that you have learned to not live by bread alone but by the Word of God?

Christ of course is the fulfilment of this passage, as He took our punishments on our behalf and live the righteous life, with trials and tribulations, for us. But this does not imply that God is no more disciplining His children. We continue to need to learn this lesson of trusting in God alone, not for our salvation but for our sanctification. Those whom God loves He disciplines, and conversely those whom the Lord does not discipline, He does not love. True Christians living in this life will face trials and tribulations, and much sorrow, as God disciplines us for our good. We will slowly learn from experience what it is to trust in God alone, and thus, like Israel, learn that man is not to live by bread alone but by the Word of God.

Christology and Theology conundrum

A claim about the incarnate Son—particularly a claim about the relationship of the incarnate Son to the Father—may be a trinitarian proposition, but it may also be a christological assertion. To take a classic example, well worked through in patristic thought, when we hear Jesus pray, either in Gethsemane or in the high-priestly prayer of John 17, we necessarily hear the authentically human voice of the incarnate Son pleading with God, not an internal triune dialogue between the eternal Father and the eternal Son. [Stephen R. Holmes, "Classical Trinity: Evangelical Perspective," in Jason S. Sexton and Stanley N. Gundry, eds., Two Views on the Doctrine of the Trinity (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 44]

When Jesus prays to the Father, is it an intra-Trinity dialogue? According to Holmes, who claims the support of the Church Fathers, it is the human voice of Jesus praying to God the Father, not the Second person of the Trinity praying to the First person of the Trinity. Now, of course it is admitted that the voicing of the prayer in human words and language is necessarily human, but is the prayer also "human"?

The problem it seems to me comes down to Christology. The Christian position has always been Christ is one person with two natures and two wills. The "two wills" is meant to safeguard the fact that Christ has two natures, in the sense that a nature comes with a will, and thus Christ having two wills safeguards the fact that Christ is both fully human and fully divine, not a mixture of the two in any sense. But orthodox Christology has similarly deny that a nature is its own actor, as if Christ has two separate wills in him warring over what to do. Christ is one actor, thus one person. Unlike humans who have one nature and thus our persons, natures and wills coincide, Christ's two natures are in one person and thus one act of willing (through two wills of course). The view that Christ's natures can subsist independent of His one person can be considered to be some variant of Nestorianism, which holds that Christ is two persons, two natures and two wills.

Thus, in embracing Chalcedon, it seems that we must reason in light of this orthodox doctrine of Christ's one person. Christ's natures are not personalized in any way, but rather it is Christ who acts according to either of his natures in whatever He does. In other words, Christ in His person is the actor, not His natures. Natures don't act, but persons do. Therefore, while it can be said in a human action that Christ acts to, for example, eat His lunch, according to His human nature, yet it is the one person of Christ who chooses to eat His lunch. Yes, such human actions are done according to His human nature. BUT, it is Christ's person who does so, according to His human nature.

What this implies for Holmes' interpretation of Christ's prayer is that we have a real problem here. According to Holmes' interpretation, which claims patristic support, Jesus' prayers on earth was done according to His human nature. So far, so good. But since Christ's natures don't act, it is Christ's one person that chooses to act according to His human nature. Or to emphasize, it is Christ's ONE PERSON who acts. In other words, yes, we hear the "authentically human voice of the incarnate Son pleading with God." But it is also the authentic voice of the one person of the SON who is pleading with God the Father. So, since it is the one and same person of the Son whether He is incarnated or not, does it really change the fact so that such interactions are not somehow intra-triune dialogues? The person of the Son remains the same pre-incarnated or incarnated. So why does the incarnation somehow makes the dialogue between the Father and the Son no longer an intra-triune dialogue?

Seeing as how Holmes claim patristic support, it is possible that such a conundrum was addressed by any of the Church Fathers. However, based so far on what I have read, I do not see how this rejection of the presence of intra-triune dialogues in time can be maintained. Not to mention that this idea of reading the Gospel accounts does not seem to me a natural way of reading Christ's interaction with His Father, which does suggest a genuine interpersonal relational interaction between God the Father and God the Son, rather than the triune God with the human nature of Christ.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The problem of reversed virtue

In my latest sermon, one point that I had made, but did not elaborate too much on, was in my second point concerning the problem of what I would call "reverse virtue." Due to the growing progressive liberal trend in Western society, cultural Marxism has infiltrated mainstream American society, such that Marxist ideas have become the trendy thing. In Latin America, Marxism in its various forms have long been influential, resulting in much devastation to the region (see e.g. today's Venezuela, also Argentina under Peron). Liberation Theology is the Marxist reading of theology, and its religious idea of "God's preferential favor towards the poor" has followed closely upon the heels of cultural Marxism, the latter infecting society while the former infecting religious thinkers and activists. Thus today in Western society, neologisms such as "white privilege," "confess your privilege," "woke" among other redefined terms have redefined social discourse, all for the worse.

The problem with Liberation Theology and contemporary Social Justice Warrior (SJW) religious Marxism (e.g. RAAN) is that it will not ever solve the real problem of human sin and actual inequality. What it does is that is merely flips societal values 180 degrees. What was once lauded as social virtues like wealth, thrift, intact families, law-abiding, truthfulness etc, are now labeled as vices, while what was once scorned as social vices such as poverty, wastefulness, single parenthood, law-breaking, being illegal aliens, lying etc, are now labeled as virtues. I will not be speaking here of the many social problems with such a scheme, but merely would like to point out how this does not conform to the Gospel at all.

The Gospel is all about salvation by grace alone, which excludes works of any kind. That is why God chooses the weak, and the foolish, and the lowly, because there is nothing virtuous about being weak, being foolish and being lowly. But in a Marxist scheme with the inversion of virtue, that would make God chose the newly-minted virtuous people. In a Marxist scheme, God choose the weak, the foolish, and the lowly because they are now virtuous in their weakness, folly and lowly status. But such is a betrayal of the Gospel message of salvation by grace alone! In a Marxist scheme, the poor can now boast that God chose him because poverty is a virtue. The foolish can now boast that God chose him because folly is a virtue, and so on.

Thus, whatever problems the problem of Marxism has socially (e.g. denial of Natural law), when it comes to the Gospel, religious Marxism with its reversed virtue scheme is an assault against the doctrine of salvation by grace alone. It is thus "anti-Gospel." It is a real indication that works-righteousness is not so easily expunged from the consciousness of men that the supposedly Reformed RAAN is promoting a theory that is contrary to the Gospel. We children of Adam are forever trying to make ourselves better and more deserving of salvation, and it is this tendency to think of ourselves better than we are that we all need to repent of, continually.

God glorified through our lack: 1 Corinthians 1:25-31

Here is my latest sermon preached May 28th 2017, on 1 Corinthians 1:25-31, entitled "God glorified through our lack."

Monday, May 15, 2017

Evaluating the Bebbington Quadrilateral

The Bebbington Quadrilateral denotes the four qualities that David Bebbington claimed are characteristic of [the Old] Evangelicalism, as described in his book Evangelicalism in Modern Britain A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London, UK: Unwin Hyman, 1989). In the book The Advent of Evangelicalism: Exploring Historical Continuities (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2008), various scholars interacted with Bebbington's thesis that Evangelicalism, as described having these four characteristics, originated in the 1730s and in the First Great Awakening in that era. The last chapter was a response by Bebbington to the diverse essays which interacted with his thesis, often critically. It is interesting to read Bebbington's response, to see how he dealt with critiques of his thesis and to observe whether it holds up to scrutiny.

The four characteristics of Evangelicalism are (1) Activism, (2) Conversionism, (3) Biblicism, and (4) Cruci(o)centrism. On top of that, Bebbington had asserted a discontinuity between the Puritans and the Evangelicals concerning the issue of assurance of salvation, an assertion that generated quite a lot of push-back from the various contributors to the book The Advent of Evangelicalism.

In his response, Bebbington modified his thesis to a certain degree. On the issue of assurance of salvation, Bebbington virtually concedes the point to his critics, while stating that "it seems likely that the predominant view on the subject in the seventeenth century was less confident than what was normally professed in the eighteenth" (Bebbington, "Response," in The Advent of Evangelicalism, 421-2). In his response, Bebbington rejects the identification of the notion of "activism" as indicative of Puritanism or any movement prior to Evangelicalism by focusing on an important distinction of Evangelicalism: the emergence of multiple interdenominational agencies (Bebbington, in ibid., 419, 427). On the issue of Biblicism and Crucicentrism, Bebbington focuses on the fact that Evangelicalism was all about making things simple and only for the purpose of salvation, with a corresponding downplaying of theology as an academic discipline, and of right order and discipline in the church (Bebbington, in ibid., 428, 30). On the issue of Conversionism, Bebbington focuses on the issue of revivals, and the idea and heightened expectation of revivals that permeates Evangelicalism.

While Bebbington's response focuses on his response to his critics, we can read in his response how he might have modified his quadrilateral in order to more clearly describe Evangelicalism. The almost 2-decade old definition is in line for an upgrade, and I will attempt such an upgrade in light of Bebbington's response. Instead of merely stating a belief in "activism," we should say that Evangelicalism is marked by interdenominational activism, and a downplaying of denominational difference in lieu of a unified evangelical witness. Instead of merely a belief in "Conversionism," we could say that Evangelicalism is marked by a heightened belief in and discourse of revivals. Instead of holding to Biblicism, we could say that Evangelicalism is marked by an instrumental view of doctrine and a downplaying of academic theology and theological precision. Instead of holding to Crucicentrism, we could say that Evangelicalism is marked by a focus on the doctrine of salvation and anything related to the doctrine of salvation with a de-emphasis of other theological loci.

Thus, the new "quadrilateral" can be listed as follows:

  1. Interdenominational Activism
  2. Heightened belief in Revivals
  3. Instrumental view of doctrine
  4. De-emphasis on anything not related to soteriology

It seems to me that besides new criterion number two (Belief in Revivals), which is one more of degree than of kind, the other three seem to be valid distinctives of Evangelicalism. Evangelicals of any stripe have little concerns over denominational issues, with some even attacking "denominationalism" as an evil. Evangelicals also tend to have an instrumental view of doctrine and truth, and always ask for practicality. Even those that are not anti-intellectual do not see the beauty of truth just for the fact that it is true, but that everything must be able to be put into practice. That is probably why the Doctrine of God and the Trinity are not of major importance among many Evangelicals, although Evangelicals tend to continue to preserve the orthodoxy bought and fought for by the early church.

And lastly, Evangelicals do tend to emphasize soteriology, which is why many conservative Evangelicals today can be Calvinist in soteriology yet they reject Calvin's view of baptism and the Lord's Supper. It is all about people "being saved," but what happens after salvation is of less importance in getting it right. Thus, Evangelicals will fight over getting the Gospel right such that those who get the Gospel wrong are excommunicated, but not even a tenth of that militancy will be displayed on the views of baptism and discipleship, much less church governance.

In lieu of the topic of revivals, I think it is better to focus on Evangelicalism's view of conversion as a punctiliar salvation event which marks a person's salvation. This view precludes children converted in the womb or in early childhood, and makes the focus of salvation about experiencing a "Damascus Road" type experience and less on a person's confession of faith. That is why Evangelicals love to hear about conversion testimonies. Evangelicalism does not really have a category for professing believers who do not have this experience of the new-birth, but yet claim to be Christians (except perhaps "unbelievers"?). With this view of conversion as a repetition of Paul's Damascus Road experience, the Quadrilateral could be recreated anew, as follows:

  1. Interdenominational Activism
  2. Conversion as experience
  3. Instrumental view of doctrine
  4. Soteriological primacy

[And on this note, it can be seen why I am not an Evangelical. I do not believe in interdenominational activism, conversion as necessarily an experience, neither do I hold to an instrumental view of truth and doctrine, nor the primacy of soteriology over all other doctrines.]

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Is Evangelicalism Reformed? The consequences

The position of radical discontinuity in evangelicalism in the 1730s cannot be historically confirmed and is theologically dangerous, for it leaves us with the impression that Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley are the fathers of evangelicalism. The result of this controversial position is that Wesley’s Arminianism could then no longer be viewed as aberrational theology within a solidly Reformed movement. Instead, Reformed and Arminian theology would be given equal status in the origins of evangelicalism, as is often done today. [Joel R. Beeke, “Evangelicalism and the Dutch Further Reformation,” in Michael A.G. Haykin and Kenneth J. Stewart, eds., The Advent of Evangelicalism: Exploring Historical Continuities (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2008), 168]

In closing, I wish to step out of the realm of history by commenting briefly on the consequences of this possibility for evangelical self-understanding. If we think that evangelicalism began in the 1730s, then Wesley and Edwards become its most important fathers. This means that evangelicalism was from its origin equally divided between Reformed and Arminian theology. Neither could claim to be the mainstream doctrinal position. In this sense it is easy to see how Bebbington’s analysis serves to give a strong foothold to Arminianism within the evangelical movement by making foundational one of its most noted proponents. If, however, we reconsider the origins of evangelicalism and find that it is a Reformational and Puritan phenomenon, then the picture looks very different. (Gary J. Williams, “Enlightenment Epistemology and Eighteenth-Century Evangelical Doctrines of Assurance,” in ibid., 374)

The movement spearheaded by John Wesley, notwithstanding his predilection for antiquity, was undoubtedly novel. The historian cannot dismiss it as an aberration, because it was numerically the largest sector of the evangelical movement in Britain. (David W. Bebbington, “Response,” in ibid., 424)

Despite the theological polarity over free will, there was generally a remarkable degree of mutual respect within the diverse ranks of the evangelicals. They had a sense of belonging to a common movement in which their united proclamation of the new birth transcended doctrinal differences. … Methodists were full participants in the Evangelical Revival. Their contribution ensured that the movement as a whole was in many respects discontinuous with earlier Protestantism as well as in other ways continuous with it. (Bebbington, "Response," in ibid., 425)

Let me mention a few things, therefore, which I put into the categories of non-essentials.

One is the belief in election and predestination. Now I am a Calvinist; I believe in election and predestination; but I would not dream of putting it under the heading of essential. [Martin Lloyd-Jones, What is an Evangelical? (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1992), 87]

Is Evangelicalism Reformed? Or rather, is Evangelicalism the overarching set in which we can fit in the Reformers, the Puritans, and then the heirs of the First and Second Great Awakening? That is a historical question with important implications for believers' self-identity. If one is Reformed, is one necessarily an Evangelical? Are Evangelicals the set that comprises all true Christian believers who believe in the biblical Gospel, as many people seem to think so today?

While I am sure there are others who have investigated this issue, David Bebbington has brought the issue of the origins of Evangelicalism into the modern spotlight in academia, with his 1989 book Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. In this book, Bebbington stated that Evangelicalism has its origins in the 1730s and especially through the prominent leaders of the First Great Awakening: George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley. Evangelicalism (the "Old" version, not the "New Evangelicalism" of the 1950s) can be described as possessing four distinct traits: Conversionism (a focus on the necessity of each person to individually turn to Christ in faith for salvation), Activism (a commitment to participate with God in his saving mission in the world), Biblicism (a devotion to the Bible as the Word of God written for all of faith), and Crucicentrism (a focus on Jesus Christ and the substitutionary atonement of Christ for sins) [David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London, UK: Unwin Hyman, 1989), 5-17]. In the early 18th century, a new movement came into being that came to be Evangelicalism, a new distinct movement that was not present prior to the 18th century.

It does not take much thought to realize the implications of the Bebbington thesis for Christian self-identification. In the collection of essays edited by Michael Haykin and Kenneth Stewart, contributors Joel Beeke and Gary Williams pointed out the obvious implications concerning how Arminianism is to be perceived if the Bebbington thesis is to be upheld. In his response, Bebbington plainly states that [Wesleyan] Arminianism is indeed part of Evangelicalism, and points out how Evangelical Calvinists and Evangelical Arminians cooperated in Evangelical enterprises and outreaches. That Evangelical Calvinists have historically regarded the Calvinisism/ Arminianism issue as a non-essential issue is further proved by Martin Lloyd-Jones in his book What is an Evangelical?, where Lloyd-Jones equated "Evangelicals" with "believers" and therefore held that Arminian Christians who believe in the Gospel are "Evangelicals" since they are indeed saved. In other words, it seems that the implications of the "controversial position" Joel Beeke detests is indeed what Evangelicals have always held to. (I guess Beeke has to decide whether he wants to identify himself an "Evangelical," since the Bebbington thesis has some merit along that line)

Ideas and theories have practical implications, and are not limited to academia. That it takes some time for ideas in academia to trickle down to the ground is definite. The only "impractical theories" and "abstract castles in the sky" present are those that deal with things that have little if any relation to reality; everything else is practical if one actually thinks about them. Here, the practical implications of the Bebbington thesis concerns not only a believer's self-identification, but also the status of Arminianism. If one identifies as an Evangelical, it is not possible, given the Bebbington thesis, to claim Arminianism as heresy. Rather, Arminianism must be seen as a minor doctrinal error, about as errant as differences in one's views concerning the Millennium.

It is because of this understanding of history, among others, that I do not identify as an "Evangelical," but rather as Reformed. I hold to the Canons of Dordt and therefore am precluded from considering "Evangelical" as a valid self-label, even apart from all other considerations. Perhaps if Bebbington's thesis trickle towards the church then we can get a greater self-understanding among Christians.

Puritanism and Neo-puritanism

But what is omitted from this canon of Puritan literature [by the Banner of Truth –DHC] is just as revealing as what is included.

Missing are the doctrinal works of Richard Baxter that promote a ‘neonomian’ doctrine of justification, a Grotian theory of atonement, and a minimalist, ecumenical creed; the writings of Roger Williams, who believed that the restoration of true churches would have to await the emergence of end-times apostles; the works of John Milton, the great Puritan poet, who defended divorce, freedom of the press and regicide, and was almost certainly Arminian and anti-trinitarian in his later life; the political writings of the Levellers, including the separatist John Lilburne and the Baptist Richard Overton; the Arminian works of John Goodwin, one of London’s lading Puritan pastors in the mid-seventeenth century; the visions of prophetesses like Anna Trapnel; the antinomian tracts of influential figures like Tobias Crisp and John Eaton; the scores of books published by the General Baptists.

[John Coffey, “Puritanism, Evangelicalism and the Evangelical Protestant Tradition,” in Michael A.G. Haykin and Kenneth J. Stewart, eds., The Advent of Evangelicalism: Exploring Historical Continuities (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2008), 261]

What is Puritanism? The movement promoted by Martin Lloyd Jones and then the Banner of Truth Trust is called "neo-Puritianism" only because it seeks to recover the "Puritans" for today, yet they choose and select only the works they think are worthy to be reproduced. That is certainly good in a certain sense, since not everything that the Puritans wrote were good. Yet, if someone were to derive their knowledge of who the Puritans were and what Puritanism was about purely from the Banner of Truth republished books, they would probably not get an accurate understanding of what Puritanism actually is.

Thus, many people might have the idea that Puritanism is about moving deeper into godly living based upon true doctrine. In other words, now that the first and second generation Reformers have gotten the Gospel right, subsequent generations of believers in the Reformed Church, both the Puritans and the Dutch Further Reformation, were all about working out how to apply the orthodox Gospel in godly piety. Certainly, nobody would want to minimize the doctrinal advancement of subsequent generations of the Reformed Church on doctrine, but rather the impression is given that the focus of such subsequent movements in Puritanism was on practice and piety. Thus the question was, "Having gotten justification by faith right, what things ought to be done in order that we might live to glorify God?"

Such a portrait of Puritanism is however wrong. On the one hand, Puritanism is a much more diverse movement, and Anglicans like Archbishop James Ussher are doctrinally in the Puritan camp. Thus, it is not true that Puritanism was all about godly living. Rather, the only thing that can be said definitively about Puritanism is that it was committed to further reform of the Church [Crawford Gribben, The Puritan Millennium: Literature and Theology, 1550-1682 (Studies in Christian History and Thought; Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2008), 8], not that it was about godly piety. Neo-Puritanism may be good for the church, but it is not the same as Puritanism. Again, the republished books by Banner of Truth Trust are good and edifying, but they cannot be counted on to accurately portray what Puritanism actually is.

On the other hand, it is a terrible historiography to sharply dichotomize between the first generations of Reformers and their spiritual heirs, as if they have radically different emphases and focuses. Luther and Calvin were concerned with godly living too (Luther against the Fanatics, and Calvin against the Libertines), while the Puritans of Reformed convictions were concerned about doctrine too (against Arminianism and Socinianism). It is not accurate to say that the Reformers reformed doctrine, while the Puritans reformed piety. Certainly, times change and challenges differ, but both the Reformers and the Puritans were resolute in combating both false doctrine and impiety. There is after all no true separation between right doctrine and godly living. Those who have one without the other are defective in both at best.