Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Doctrine of God and the distinction of nature and action

In defense of divine impassibility against the avalanche of criticism and rejection within conservative Reformed and evangelical circles, Michael Horton proposes that it could be beneficial to shift the discussion of divine passions to the persons of the Trinity, rather than God's essence. (Charles J. Rennie, "A Theology of the Doctrine of Divine Impassibility: (I) Impassibility and the Essence and Attributes of God," in Richard S Baines, Richard C. Barcellos et al, eds., Confessing the Impassible God, 285)

This particular proposal, though well-intended, provides more confusion than clarification. As argued above, Horton is correct to insist upon the distinction between the human essence and a particular human person ... His attempt to posit similarly of God, however, is incoherent, since God is his essence and the essence if not "shared" in a generic sense, but is numerically and indivisibly one. The persons of the Trinity not only each have the whole undivided divine essence, but they have no subsistence outside of or apart from the divine essence. The divine essence is not a fourth "thing" that the divine persons "share." The divine essence is undivided and common to all three persons of the Trinity. (Rennie, "Attributes," in Baines et al, 286)

I have always suspected that there is an over-fixation on ontology in many areas of theology and philosophy, and here is one more example that seems to validate my suspicion. In fact, interactions like this make all the crazy misrepresentation during the EFS debacle more understandable, since it seems that those who hold to "classical theism" are incapable of thinking of anything but being, being and being.

Dr. Horton in his systematic theology, when he is trying to shift the discussion of passion from the essence to the persons of the Godhead, is operating under a personalist ontology and epistemology, or what he calls "covenant ontology" and "covenant epistemology." One of the books in our reading lists in his Christian Mind class at Westminster California, essentially the prolegomena course, was a book by Ester Meek entitled Longing to Know, which is Meek's retooling of Michael Polanyi's philosophy towards a more Christian context. In my opinion, the Polanyi-Meek reworking of epistemology is deeply flawed, but I do agree with it on one issue - the desire to get away from traditional philosophical categories of being and knowing. Operating under a personalist or covenant ontology, Horton shifts the discussion of passions to the dynamism of the persons of the Trinity, thus preserving impassibility of the Godhead while having the persons being able to be emotionally involved.

Whatever one thinks of this proposal, we must note that there is indeed a shift away from a traditional focus on ontology. The differentiation of the persons of the Godhead of course start with the nature of God as being both one and three. But the persons of the Godhead are also in action, or dynamic. Thus, before creation, God covenants with God in the Pactum Salutis. Thus, God hears our prayers and interacts with us. Thus, God speaks and continue to speak through His Word the Scriptures. In other words, the persons of the Godhead have a "being" or nature, but they are also in act. The ad intra relations of the Godhead are there, but there is also the ad extra works of the persons of the Godhead. In God ad extra, we can and should say that God interacts with His Creation, and expression of emotions is one such interaction.

When Charles Rennie therefore writes that "The persons of the Trinity not only each have the whole undivided divine essence, but they have no subsistence outside of or apart from the divine essence," he is the one in confusion, for it is clear enough from Horton's writings that he is precisely not dwelling on ontology, neither of the essence or of the persons. Of course, for orthodoxy, we should all agree that for the persons, "there is no subsistence outside of or part from the divine essence" and that "the divine essence is not a fourth 'thing' that the divine persons 'share.'" But one can hold those orthodox truths and still believe in Horton's proposal, because Rennie totally is confused over Horton's proposal. This confusion is because of the incessant focus it seems on being, being and being.

Look, I get it that the doctrine of impassibility is denied and attacked in many quarters. But retreating back to 17th century theology and philosophy isn't going to do anything except hurt your cause, and those of us who are interested in truth and apologetics instead of intellectual retreat and beating drums aren't going to join you there.

God, Infinity and (Im)mutability

God's immutability seems to be an entailment of his infinity. Anything actually infinite in being and perfection can neither lose a perfection it already possesses and remain infinite nor receive any additional act of being since it lacks no actuality; thus it cannot undergo change either by augmentation or diminution. (James Dolezal, God without Parts, 81; as cited in Charles J. Rennie, "A Theology of the Doctrine of Divine Impassibility: (I) Impassibility and the Essence and Attributes of God," in Richard S Baines, Richard C. Barcellos et al, eds., Confessing the Impassible God, 283)

Now, before interacting with this quote, let me just say upfront that I hold to divine impassibility, and the immutability, infinity and eternity of God. With that out of the way, let's look at the quote here. In this quote by James Dolezal and argued by Charles Rennie, the point is made that the various divine attributes are related to each other such that modification or rejection of any one attribute would undermine and result in the unraveling of belief in other divine attributes. To some extent, that is true, for a denial of divine immutability would entail denial of divine impassibility for example. But I am not so convinced that they are so related that every single doctrine is jeopardized by the denial of one of those attributes.

On the doctrine of divine infinity, what does infinity mean? It means that God is not finite, that God is beyond anything and everything. Divine infinity implies omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence. But does infinity necessarily imply divine immutability, as Dolezal and Rennie argue? Now of course perfection understand as God being pure act (purus actus) does imply immutability, but does infinity itself imply immutability? I think not!

Dolezal and Rennie argue that changes would either augment or diminish one's being. If perfection is understood as pure act, then of course change would imply the presence of potentiality within God and thus God cannot be perfect and thus cannot be infinite. But we see here that the deduction from infinity to immutability has a few steps to follow.

  1. God is infinite which means He is perfect
  2. Perfection entails God having no potentialities
  3. Any change must result in either augmentation or diminuition
  4. Therefore, infinity implies perfection which implies immutability.

Now, if all 3 premises are true, then of course the conclusion (4) follows. But points 2 and 3 are not implications of infinity. In fact, I can't think of where they can be implications of any other attribute of God. It seems to me that points 2 and 3 are implications of immutability rather than the other way around. Apart from belief in immutability, why should we accept points 2 and 3?

Let's look at point 3. Why must any change be either augmenting or diminishing? What about horizontal changes, i.e. change from one state to another equal and alternate state? And since there is no reason why (apart from immutability) there cannot be equal and alternate states, point 2 is also called into question, for there can be an infinite number of perfect states. One can always posit an infinite, mutable God. Such a "God" would of course not be the God of the Bible, but I do not see why it could not be conceived without having its other attributes unraveled.

God is an infinite, immutable and impassible God. But we do the doctrine of God a disservice when we think we can articulate 17th century arguments and expect everyone to buy into unspoken and unproven premises. In the modern age when every single attribute of God might be questioned, and where Aristotelian metaphysics is hardly known and most definitely not embraced, arguments like these by self-professed confessionalists only serve to make classical theism look like dinosaurs by others. I guess they don't really care, but for those who are interested to be confessional and be intellectually honest and engaged, such a treatment of the doctrine of God is really disappointing.

[P.S.: Along similar lines, I do reject the ontological argument for the existence of God]

Thursday, August 25, 2016

R Scott Clark on the issue of Spiritual Disciplines

Dr. R Scott Clark not too long ago did a podcast with a couple of guys on their Theocast on the topic of spiritual disciplines, which can be listened to here. From the time I heard about them after I became a Calvinist, I was uncomfortable with the issue of spiritual disciplines, even in their New Calvinist form in Donald Whitney's book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, which is better than others like Richard Foster's (a Quaker) Celebration of Discipline. I was wondering whether and when I would have to analyze the issue further, but Dr. Clark has done all the work, so I guess I can just link to that podcast where he deals with the topic.

Friday, August 19, 2016

On Divine Incomprehensibility and Ineffability

What do we mean when we say God is incomprehensible, or that God is ineffable? The typical definition is that God is incomprehensible because we cannot comprehend, fully understand, God. But we can apprehend God, which is to say we can know something about God. To say God is ineffable is to say that God is beyond words of description. Of course, as Fred Sanders kindly pointed out, "Clever philosophers of religion have even observed that if something were absolutely ineffable, we could not say so, because that would be saying enough about it to prove we could say something about it." This brings us to the problem at hand: If God is truly incomprehensible, then how can we even apprehend Him, since any comprehension reduced by infinity is certainly zero? If God is truly ineffable, then how can we even speak about Him?

The traditional explanation of the doctrines of incomprehensibility and ineffability in my opinion does not help us to better understand God. The traditional explanation starts with the God who is infinitely above the creature, and this Creator/ creature distinction gives rise to God being incomprehensible and ineffable. God is so far above us, so qualitatively above us, that all our knowledge is wrong in comparison. All our words fail before Him as the Infinite One. But all of these seem to lead us to the conclusion of agnosticism about God. Are these doctrines wrong, or perhaps are the explanation of these doctrines wrong?

Scripture does show us the qualitative transcendence of God and His thoughts (Is. 55:8-9). But note here that the focus is on elevation and loftiness. In other words, here are our thoughts, and God is qualitatively higher than them. Instead of starting with God as a category, we start our understanding with men, and this I think is the better way we are to understand these two doctrines.

So we humans have thoughts and knowledge about God. God's thoughts and understanding transcend ours. In other words, we are to understand God's thoughts and understand as being much much greater than ours. Our thoughts and knowledge can be stated as a variable quantity n. God's thoughts and understanding however transcend ours in infinite degree, thus it is ∞. And to show the qualitative difference, we can even express it as (∞a, ∞b, ∞c, ...., ∞∞). The key point to note here is that God is incomprehensible as a plus infinity, instead of us being negative infinity from a large fixed value. Therefore, "incomprehensibility" is not a function of how terrible we are, but how superior God is. Seen in this way, God as incomprehensible allows us to truly apprehend Him in some significant way.

Similarly, when we say that God is ineffable, we are to understand that God is beyond words as a plus infinity, not of us as negative infinity from a finite point. God is beyond words because we cannot exhaust Him in words. We have words about God, but God is plus infinity from them. Therefore, we can truly speak about God even at great length, but ineffability means we cannot ever exhaust God. Seen this way, ineffability should lead to much praise, not to silence since words and praise to God is to be positive infinity. This is unlike the mystical appropriation of ineffability which takes God as a finite (although very high) point, therefore to render Him ineffable means that we cannot say anything about God (minus infinite words).

The doctrines of incomprehensibility and ineffability are biblical, becuase God is infinite. But how we understand them is also important, in order that knowing them brings us to glorify God as the High and Lofty One, instead of moving us towards soul-destroying mysticism. Imcomprehensibility and ineffability has a God-ward thrust, and should not be used against us and God-given revelation

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Concerning the Via Negationis

The Scriptures speak of God as immortal (1 Tim. 1:17), invisible (Col. 1:15) infinite (Psalm 147:5), and so forth. These are apophatic, or negative, predications. ... In reality, we know nothing about what it is to be infinite, invisible (i.e., not merely unseen, but unseeable), or immortal. We do, however, know what it is to be finite, visible, and mortal... [Charles J. Rennie, "Analogy and the Doctrine of Divine Impassibility," in Ronald S. Baines and Richard C. Barcellos et al, eds., Confessing the Impassible God: The Biblical, Classical, and Confessional Doctrine of Divine Impassibility (Palmdale, CA: RBAP, 2015), 75]

God is infinitely beyond us, the Creator transcending everything in creation. We can only know God through His revelation, and the three ways of knowing God are through causation (via causalitis), through negation (via negationis) and eminence (via eminentiae). All this is basic orthodox Christian theism. Concerning the way of negation (via negationis), we know God through a contrast with what He is not. Thus, God is infinite, as opposed to finitude. He is invisible, as opposed to being visible, and so on. But it is one thing to hold to negation as the manner of how we know more about God, and it is another thing to think that the way of negation implies negation of knowledge so that we "know nothing" about what God is concerning those attributes revealed through the via negationis.

It seems to be some weird twisted sense of false humility, but it seems some classical theists prefer to contradict themselves as an exercise in false piety, as if irrationality pleases God. When they say that God is invisible for example, it is a positive declaration of something, i.e. God is not visible. How can it be said that we "know nothing about what it is," as if we cannot picture the negation of something we understand from the natural world? It is true that we cannot comprehend it fully, but to state as if we cannot apprehend something about it is false piety.

Let's just take as an example the attribute of invisibility. Why is that so hard for a modern person to grasp? Rennie did make a distinction between "unseen" and "unseeable," but that has no bearing on whether we can perceive something as invisible, since for most of us, most of the unseen realm is really invisible. Most of us don't walk around with X-ray scanners, or personal sonars when we swim in the ocean, so we can grasp the notion of the unseen. Something that is invisible in the classical sense can be understood as something that extends the range of non-perception beyond the capability of all known detection devices, something like (but certainly beyond) the postulated "gravitons" that are the particles associated with gravity and of which we have not been able to detect.

Even apart from scientific analogies, many things are truly invisible. A man's thoughts are invisible. The laws of physics are invisible. Certainly, God's invisibility is of a different kind from all these, but still it is wrong to say that we cannot apprehend something about what invisibility is.

Similar arguments can be made for almost any attribute known through the way of negation. Again, the point is not whether those attributes possessed by God is qualitatively in a class of its own, which they are. Rather, the point is that just because the way of negation is used does not imply that we "know nothing about what it is like" to have any of these attributes.

It is well and right to be circumspect in dealing with the lofty things of God. We should tremble when dealing with such sacred truths. But we ought not to think ourselves holier than God, and think intellectual self-flagellation pleases God. God reveals Himself in order for us to know Him, not in order for us to turn His truths into unknowing.

The "Two Wills of God": Common Grace

Common Grace

What exactly is "common grace"? That is a question that is more confusing than the answers, for it seems that everyone has their own definition of what "common grace" is. McMahon puts forward a definition of "common grace" that is probably embraced by many. According to him, and summarizing Louis Berkhof's idea of "General Common Grace, [Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 435. In Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology: New Combined Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996)] "common grace" refers to "good gifts to the wicked" from the Holy Spirit to all men indiscriminately (pp. 112-3). McMahon did not mention this, but Berkhof did make it clear that the phrase itself (at least its initial iteration) is a late development from Abraham Kuyper and Kuyperians like Herman Bavinck.[Berkhof, 434] McMahon also gave another definition of "common grace" later in his work, which is probably held by some Neo-Kuyperians and is more heterodox, that "common grace" leads or even prepares men for special grace unto salvation (p. 460). This "natural light" definition of "common grace" is so obviously contrary to Scripture we can discount it altogether and deal with the more general version stated above.

McMahon rejects "common grace" while affirming God's indiscriminate providence to all. In other words, McMahon affirms the substance of God's goodness while denying this goodness the appellative "grace." McMahon's main point here is to state that grace is not in things but grace is always "being in Christ" (p. 128). If grace is always grace "in Christ," then certainly it would sound strange to state that the reprobate who are outside of Christ can partake of this grace. Thus, McMahon makes his case that God's indiscriminate providence does provide good to men but it is not grace.

What are we to say in response? To be sure, if grace is only found in Christ, then of course there is no such thing as "common grace." And we would certainly agree with the content of the goodness God has given to all men including His restraint of sin. But what exactly is grace? Of course we affirm the notion of saving grace, but can we say there is a grace that is not salvific?

Here, I think a look at the Noahic Covenant is in order. Under this covenant (Gen. 9:1-17), we see no promise of salvation from sin but merely the preservation of the creation order. [This is different from the covenant of Genesis 6:18-21 which is a salvation covenant from the Flood]. As it is in the context of a covenant, grace is certainly involved. While it can be argued that there is a salvific event that happened just prior to the making of this covenant, still the covenant parties include all living creatures (Gen. 9:12) and thus animals, which are not saved. Therefore, it seems that limiting "grace" to only being in Christ is too restrictive.

The phrase "common grace" therefore I think is a valid phrase and describes a valid doctrine, only insofar as it is limited to the blessings of the Noahic Covenant. That said, since the Noahic Covenant has regard to earthly realities only and is thus penultimate, the end result is the same as McMahon's case in denying any idea that God has any salvific intent or desire of any kind towards the reprobate.

The "Two Wills of God": Free Offer of the Gospel

Free and/or well-meant offer of the Gospel

McMahon sees correctly that holding to an idea that God sincerely desires and wills something (the repentance of the reprobate) which "he has not been pleased to decree"[John Murray and Ned Stonehouse, The Free Offer (Phillipsburg N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1979), 26] is to put forward two contradictory propositions (pp. 31-4). The offer of the Gospel is "sincere" or "well-meant" because God is not lying when He issues the proclamation or invitation for sinners to come and believe in Christ (p. 306, 311, 317) . But it says nothing about what God intends or desires, contrary to what neo-Amyraldians think. Accordingly, the OPC Minority Report on the Free Offer for the 15th General Assembly of 1948 repudiates the irrational nonsense of the "Free Offer" as articulated by John Murray and Ned Stonehouse (The Majority Report).["The Free Offer of the Gospel," Report for the 15th General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Accessed at (Aug 16, 2016)] There is a genuine offer of the Gospel, but this offer is a presentation of the Gospel to all, and predicates nothing whatsoever of what God intends of desires. As McMahon states, "The Puritans and reformers used “offerre” in the sense that the Gospel was a proclamation, or invitation to come and believe on Christ, the Savior." (p. 306)

McMahon attacks the revisionist idea of the "Free Offer." But should we or should we not use that particular term "free offer"? Or how about the term "well-meant offer"? Since these terms do not have fixed definitions, it is not possible to say whether these terms should or shouldn't be used. It seems that, depending on what one means by the phrases, one could or could not hold to the "free offer" or the "well-meant offer." Nevertheless, it seems best that based upon the makeup of words in the phrases, the term "free offer" could be used since the predicate "free" emphasizes that the offer is open to everyone without price, whereas it seems that the term "well-meant offer" is liable to interpretation according to neo-Amyraldism as focusing on God's intent on the offer being to genuinely save everyone. Thus, it seems wise to reject the usage of the phrase "well-meant offer" or "sincere offer" while preserving the more neutral "free offer." For my personal usage, I would use "free offer" for the biblical and orthodox view of the offer, and "well-meant offer" for the Neo-Amyraldian view of the offer.

As an aside, the Neo-Amyraldian view of the offer is that God genuinely desires in His emotions to save everyone both elect and reprobate. The reason why it is called "Neo-Amyraldian" is because, in the classical Amyraldian scheme, the decree to elect comes logically after the decree to provide universal atonement. This idea of God desiring to save everyone, and then having a "subsequent" sovereign will as it were to save only the elect, sounds very much like classical Amyraldism with its idea of God providing atonement to all but then electing only some to salvation.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The "Two Wills of God": The Compound and Divided Sense

C. Matthew McMahon's book The Two Wills of God has three main points, and I will go through one point per post.

There are three questions here: One, are there two wills of God? McMahon's answer to that question is no, but the one will of God has two senses, the compound sense and the divided sense. Two, is there a sincere offer to all men of God desiring their salvation? McMahon's answer is God sincerely desires the salvation of all in the divided sense, but not in the compound sense. Three, is there common grace, defined as a disposition in God towards the well-being of the reprobate? McMahon's answer is no, but there is indiscriminate providence towards both the elect and reprobate.

Compound and Divided Senses

So what exactly are the compound and divided senses? The compound sense is "God's interpretation of His own being given to us in the condescended language of the Bible" (p. 507), while the divided sense is "the revelation of God in the realm where perspective of man would be used" (p. 74), or "the human view of God seen through the historical narrative and written letters of the Bible" (p. 507). The descriptions of these senses more closely match the divine and human perspectives, as revealed for us, respectively. These two senses, since they operate on different planes, are not contradictory, functioning like pieces on two different boards of chess (p. 77). If however, one were to collapse the two senses into each other, one would operate with a very crowded "board" and justice would not be done to all the truths of Scripture. In this light, the PRCA (Protestant Reformed Churches of America) according to McMahon would not escape the charge of Hyper-Calvinism because they fail to differentiate the two senses (p. 82). Likewise, the primary opponents of McMahon's thesis, the sub-Reformed teaching concerning the two wills of God, "common grace" and the well-meant offer of effectual grace, are guilty of the same failure to do justice to the full teaching of Scripture.

How should we think of McMahon's differentiation of the compound and divided senses? The terms are coined by him of course, but the concepts seem to be helpful. We most certainly must hold to God's simplicity so God cannot have two wills, and the division between the compound and divided senses help us to preserve the one will and also to note how God's will is expressed differently, which traditionally is stated as the difference between the preceptive and the decretive wills. What is traditionally known as the "preceptive will" can be thus expressed as the divided sense of God's will while the "decretive will" as the compound sense of God's will.

Aside from the heuristic benefits in differentiating the two senses, the terms themselves ("compound" and "divided") are rather cumbersome. While helpful, I do not believe they go far enough in showing us in what manner the compound sense convey God's interpretation relayed to us, and in what manner the divided sense convey the human view as shown by God. The technical fine line will certainly be lost to most people. To this, I think that bringing in the notion of corporate or federal identity would be more helpful. Instead of leaving it as the compound sense, why not we understand that as the sense towards individuals, towards particular individuals? Instead of leaving as the divided sense, why not we understand it as towards the collective, as an expression of God's principles?

The compound sense speaks about God's interpretation, and thus its locality is in God's intention and desire. It is analogous to the decretive will, which is what God desires and enacts and decrees. It is thus what God will do to individuals, in particular election and reprobation. It seems that the three can be placed side by side as analogous ways of looking at God's will as what God desires: Compound sense - Decretive (Sovereign) - Particular.

The divided sense speaks about the human view, and thus its locality is in God's commands showing forth His nature. It is analogous to the preceptive will, which is what should be done to be congruent with God's ethical nature. It is thus also what God would see as being perfective for all corporately, in covenant solidarity. Side by side the three are to be seen as analogous ways of looking at God's will as flowing from what is perfect: Divided sense - Preceptive - Collective (Federal).

For simplification, we can say that God wills something for the whole (collective) that is realized for the part (Particular). This I think is a good and biblical and simpler way of understanding the compound and divided sense, from another point of view.

On the "two wills of God"

It has been a long time since I first read C. Matthew McMahon's book and PhD dissertation The Two Wills of God. In that book, McMahon deals with the topic whether God actually has two wills. Along the way he touches on the issue of logic and God under prolegomena, then deals with the topic of the Free Offer of the Gospel and Common Grace. I last read the book before I entered seminary (i.e. before 2010), where I was less knowledgeable about many things, and thus I probably didn't have a good grasp of the issues to properly benefit from the book. Re-reading it now in 2016 after seminary has really been much more beneficial.

In light of my second reading of the book, I have re-did my book review of the book here, where I now properly interact with McMahon's proposals. I will be posting the added portions in subsequent posts here, but those who want to read it all can just go to the link to do so.

Why was I interested, and still am interested, in this topic? The impetus for my interest in this topic comes when those promoting the view that God really desires everyone including the reprobates to come to faith, and see that as being the Calvinist view (who were denoted as "Ponterites"), begin accusing everyone who deny their version of the well-meant offer as "Hyper-Calvinists." Besides it being a derogatory slur, I have denied and still deny that what I have believed and still believe is extreme and cultic. McMahon's book on this topic was very helpful in this regard. I have come to recognize these sub-Calvinists as basically Neo-Amyraldians, since their view of God's desire is analogous to the way Amyraldians think of salvation.

In classical Amyraldism, God's decree to elect is subsequent or follows after God's decree to atone for sins. Classical Amyraldism therefore holds to a universal atonement and a particular election. Since Christ died (atoned) for all head for head, therefore the preacher can proclaim that Christ has actually died to save all men head for head, yet only the elect are saved. Likewise, in this new Amyraldism, God actually desires (a universal desire) all men to be saved, while election is particular. Classical Amyraldism splits the work of Christ as atoning for all but interceding for some like some two-minded deity. Neo-Amyraldism splits the desires of God as desiring all to be saved yet wanting the elect to be saved, like some two-person schizoprenic deity. The former has a schism in the mind of God; the latter a schism in the emotions of God.

We will begin the added material in the next post.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

ESS, Partisan "Confessionalism" and True Confessionalism

It has been some time since I have addressed anything much less the issue of ESS or EFS. On the latter, it is simply discouraging to see the usual suspects lie about other believers, and then they get into their usual echo chambers to reinforce their slanderous accusations against the brethren. Slander and lies are not particularly edifying, and after some time hashing out my views on the topic and on the controversy, I am all for leaving the dogs to their own vomit. I have stopped following Reformation 21, and probably there are a few others I will block off in order to leave the sewer of "confessional" discourse. The childish tweet of Mark Jones did once again remind me of how bad the situation has become. As my last parting shot, since I was taught the value of creeds and confessions, I see the need to disavow these "confessionalists" and stake out a confessionalism different from where these slanderers are going. In other words, this is what I view as true confessionalism, and I will not let the noble quest of treasuring the creeds and confessions of the church to be besmirched by EFS-denying-hound-dogs.

True Confessionalism focuses on the treasures of the creeds and confessions as the doctrinal constitution of the church. It is a positive good, a beautiful thing in the life of the church. It is focused on the truth, as Scripture is true. Confessionalism exists because that is the best way to be biblical, not because it is one more tribe among others. It is the TRUTH that matters, not sides. That is why I believe confessionalism is a "big tent" when it comes to denominational affiliation such that there can be Anglicans and Baptists and Lutherans in this tent, because it is not denominational affiliation per se that marks one as confessional or as Reformed, but rather the truth. Truth of course excludes error, so the "big tent" is obviously not a broad tent. But the criteria for exclusion is not one's "tribal" allegiance, but the degree to which one holds to the truth.

It seems however that the "Confessional" movement has evolved into just another tribe. Thus, we see the call to join forces in denouncing the "ESS error." The "in group," consisting of the MoS/ Ref21 guys like Carl Trueman, Todd Pruit and Aimee Byrd, together with Liam Goligher and Mark Jones, are intent on "weeding out" the "ESS error" which is a priori regarded as wrong. Quotes either out of context or wrestled out of their original paradigms are taken to suggest heresy. Nowhere among these folks is there any attempt at truth, thus there is no self-critical reflection on whether they are going about the issue all wrong. Thus, there is no real engagement with what their critics are saying. To this end, I once again repeat my challenge to any from these groups to actually interact with what I have said so far, but I'm not holding my breath for that to happen.

True confessionalism pays heed to truth. It is truth that is important, not side. Partisan "Confessionalism" however pays heed to which side one is affiliated with. Anyone who takes a different method (i.e. biblicism) is of another tribe and does not deserve to be treated fairly. True confessionalism is about stating one's position as true; partisan "confessionalism" is about stating one's method as the only legitimate one for all truth. True confessionalism desire others to embrace confessionalism because that is the best biblical position; partisan "confessionalism" desire others to embrace confessionalism because confessionalism is the only legitimate position.

I am a confessionalist, because I love the creeds and confessions and treat them as my secondary authority. But I am not their kind of confessionalist. God will one day judge them for their slander, and by distancing myself from them, I state that I have no part in any of their sins.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

On the issue of dreams and visions in the mission field

The second evasion—and this one is increasingly popular—is that God speaks today to unevangelized heathen (especially, it would appear, to Muslims) by dreams or visions. A number of former Muslims have said that Christ appeared to them in their Islamic lands in a dream or vision and told them to go to such and such a place to hear God’s Word from such and such a church or person. [Angus Stewart, "Charismatism (IV): Ongoing Prophecy," Salt Shakers 38, 8]

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. (Mk. 9:38-40)

I seriously cannot believe I am doing this — defending "ongoing prophecy" against a Reformed minister. But of course, I am not defending ongoing prophecy, but rather the viewpoint that God could very well grant dreams and visions to lead people to Christ.

One may be a cessationist or a continuationist, but the reason why and how one is a cessationist or a continuationist is just as important. The cessationism that I am promoting is similar to that by Dr. Richard Gaffin, but not the same. True biblical cessationism has to do with the telos, or the purpose or end, of the gifts. It is not an arbitrary drawing of the line between "this is the period when the gifts are functioning," and "this is the post-apostolic era when the sign gifts have ceased." Such a thinking is not defensible by any means, and tying them to the apostles as people (instead of their telos within the apostolic era) (1) elevates the significance of the gifts into special "superpowers" instead of gifts given for a purpose, (2) breaks the continuity of the giving of gifts between the Old and New covenant administrations, (3) goes against the biblical data where the gifts were given to other people besides the apostles including women. Ironically, this version of cessationism pushes people uncommitted to either view into the charismatic camp because of their unbiblical view of the gifts, and making the gifts into superpowers invite curiosity and desire for them.

Taking a telic understanding of the gifts means that one does not start with some desire to draw a line between the "era of the functioning of the gifts" and the "era where gifts have ceased." There is definitely a difference between the apostolic and the post-apostolic eras, and a difference between the kingdom inauguration and the kingdom established, but that is not where we should be starting. If we understand the telic nature of the gifts, then we know that the presence or absence of a gift is defined not by the "era," but whether there is a need for the gift to function. For the sign and revelatory gifts in general, God's purposes of giving them have been fulfilled, and therefore they are not given today to believers and to the church.

But since our view of the gifts start with God's intended purposes and not some temporal limitations, therefore we do not have an idea of cessation limited to time but rather limited by God's purposes. This plays out in how we are to think of dreams and visions reported in closed countries that lead people to Christ. Can God give those dreams and visions? Of course He can. Did He? Perhaps, perhaps not. We know that God's revelation is always true, therefore any dreams and visions that lead people to cults are by definition not from God. So the question then becomes: Does God give dreams and visions, that lead people to true Christianity, especially to those in closed countries?

It is here that the telic idea of the gifts come into play. Since dreams and visions has its telos in revealing God's truth, therefore the question then becomes whether there is a need in those contexts where dreams and visions can operate, and we should affirm there is such a need. In those closed countries, those people do not have the remotest chance to hear the Gospel, such that God if He wants them to be saved must either lead an evangelist or a Christian to them, or lead them to an evangelist or any Christian. God obviously does the former, and God does the latter too through providence. Since God works according as He pleases, and dreams and visions have the telos of communicating God's revelation in a more direct manner, it is not inconceivable that God may use them to lead those in close countries to the Gospel message so that they may turn to Christ for salvation. We must note that it is precisely the close nature of these societies that cause these nations and societies to more closely resemble the apostolic era than the post-apostolic era, and therefore the notions of dreams and visions being given to lead them to the place when they can hear the Gospel message is a fitting use of God's communication through the use of these supernatural means. We further note that, with their purposes being fulfilled, God would no more communicate in dreams and visions to these new converts, since post-conversion, they would now be in a situation that resembles the post-apostolic era.

Pastor Stewart therefore is in error when he thinks that those dreams and visions are false. In fact, if at least some of them lead people to true Christianity, Stewart is taking the position that the Devil uses false dreams and visions to lead people to true Christianity, a strange (and ridiculously false) position to take. Or Stewart can bite the bullet and asserts that anyone who is led by dreams and visions must necessarily be a false Christian, a truly horrible and judgmental position to take.

Steward compounds his error by stating that "We do this because receiving a revelatory dream or vision from God, especially one that does not declare divine judgment upon the recipient (cf. Daniel 2; 4), constitutes a person as a prophet" (Steward, "Charismatism," 8). This is so obviously erroneous that one does not know where to even start. Was Abimelech, a pagan king, a prophet (Gen. 20:3-7)? Was Nebuchadnezzar a prophet (e.g. Dan. 4:4-18)? Yes, Nebuchadnezzar's dreams were ones that have the element of judgment in it, but he does not hold the office of a prophet, ever. The Old Testament narrates other episodes where those who do not have the office of prophets receive dreams and visions, so Stewart's assertion is just plain wrong. Those who have the office of prophets especially in the Old covenant economy obviously receive dreams and visions (c.f. Num. 12:6-8), but the mere receiving of dreams and visions does not constitute a prophet (If p,q does not imply If q, p). Stewart did not defend his assertion in this article, but a possible defence based on the fact that those with the office of prophet receive dreams and visions unto revelation, therefore dreams and visions mark the office of a prophet, commits a major logical fallacy.

In conclusion, while I agree that continuationism in any sense is an error, I cannot agree with errant arguments that imply that anyone who turned to Christ because of a dream or a vision must not be a believer. While I hold that sign and revelatory gifts have ceased in general, to make that into a general prohibition based upon a difference in epochs is unhelpful and leads to wrong conclusions regarding how God works in the former times and in the present.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Contra Don Codling: Refutation and Conclusion

Final refutation

After his attempts to refute cessationist arguments, Codling tried to put forward a positive case for the modern exercise of charismatic gifts. Here, we see how he fails to take into account the difference between the history of salvation (historia salutis) and the order of salvation (ordo salutis), thinking that Pentecost, while not repeated in full, should be a pattern to be repeated in some manner in the lives of believers (p. 106). Also, he operates from a view that the gifts are there and then presumed they should continue unless otherwise stated (p. 115). But how we should deal with the gifts is to inquire into why they were given in the first place. Their gift was an "exception," not the norm, which is why they are called extraordinary and miracles, instead of ordinary and providence!


Don Codling in his book has tried to prove that the revelatory gifts at least, with an eye to all of the gifts, are present today and can coexist with a high view of the sole authority of Scripture. It is my contention that he has failed. We note that he fails to take into account the church's catholic nature through time in his appeal to the edification of prophecy and thus he fails to show how continual prophecy does not undermine the sufficiency of Scripture. Codling also fails to note that a completed revelation is much more of a blessing than having the revelatory gifts, thus reversing the priority of blessing as if incomplete revelation is better than complete revelation. We further note that he fails to take properly into account the focal point of the revelation of Christ in Hebrews 1:1-2 which points to its definite, non-continuous nature, following which we looked at how non-canonical special revelation fits into the biblical paradigm. Lastly, we have seen how Codling confuses the work of the Spirit in preparing the final revelation with foundational work, noting that not everything has to be foundational work in order for it to be necessary for the final revelation.

We ought to go about the topic of spiritual gifts by looking at their purposes first. God is not a God who just does magic tricks to excite and inspire people, or for no reason at all, but He does anything and everything for a reason. Since these sign and revelatory gifts are extraordinary, it should hint to us that they are a dated occurrence. While God does work miracles, let us not be too enamored of the "supernatural" that we become dissatisfied with creation and providence, and look for God and His works in all the wrong places.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Contra Don Codling: Apostles and Redemptive History

Are revelatory gifts signs of the Apostles?

Codling continues with his third rebuttal, against the argument that revelatory gits are the signs of the apostles. I do not particularly find this cessationist argument persuasive, since it focuses the attention on the apostles instead of on the apostolic era, on men instead of God. Regardless, I find Codling's attempted rebuttal weak. First, Codling thinks that the cessationist view is that revelatory gifts were given through impartation from the apostles (p. 81). While that is true, that is only part of the argument, which states that the revelatory gifts were given through the ministry of the Holy Spirit through the apostles, not necessarily by the Apostles meting it out as if they decide who to give and who not to give the Holy Spirit. Second, Codling raised the example of Paul's reception of the Holy Spirit directly from God as a counter-example (p. 82). But this ignores the fact that Paul is called to be an apostle so obviously he received the gifts directly from God the Holy Spirit.

Besides this, Codling did score some hits against sloppy argumentation in his response to the use of Hebrews 2:1-4 (pp. 84-5) among others, but this cessationist argument is not a strong one anyway.

Finality of the revelation of Christ

The cessationist argument that is being responded here is that Scripture teaches the finality of special revelation, therefore there is to be no more special revelation today, and thus no more revelatory gifts. Codling attempts to refute this argument by looking at the texts that have been adduced to promote this position. First, he looks at Hebrews 1:1-2. In a startling piece of eisegesis Codling claims that Hebrews 1:1-2 just teach a division between the Old Covenant revelation and New Covenant revelation, and charge that the traditional way of interpretation of this text creates "a new dispensation with an apostolic and a post-apostolic dispensation in place of the new covenant period" (p. 87). But note what the texts actually is saying. Yes, it contrast the former times with the last days. But the former times consist of all the period before Christ, while the last days here has is focused on Christ. Is Christ a definitive revelation, or a continuous revelation? That is the issue which Codling does not address, the quality of that revelation not the seeming duration. It is the revelation of Christ that is definitive and therefore fixed, which militates against continual revelation today. Christ as the Incarnate Word has fully revealed Himself in the Inscripturated, Breathed-out Word, and thus Hebrews 1:1-2 teaches the finality of revelation because Christ's revelation is final in the canon.

Codling next deals with Galatians 1:6, which is a puzzle since it does not deal with cessationism at all. He next touches Revelations 22:18-19, but his argument here is a mess. The point of Revelations 22:18-19 is to prohibit adding to said revelation, so how does that reconcile with the assertion that "this does not preclude direct communication between God and his people" (p. 89)? If there is personal direct communication between God and man today, why should we not add that to the canon as an addition to the Scriptures? One could raise the issue of non-canonical special revelation during the apostolic era, but, since these are the revelation of the later days, their focus is on Christ and partake of the finality of canonical revelation, and thus have ceased according to Hebrews 1:1-2.

Excursus: Non-canonical special revelation

At this point, I would like to deal with the issue of non-canonical special revelation. We know that not all prophecies by New Testament prophets made it into the canon of Scripture, like the prophecies of Philip's four unmarried daughters (Acts 21:9). Codling utilizes these non-canonical prophecies to undermine the finality of revelation, for by decoupling revelation from canon, he can advocate for the continuous presence of the revelatory gifts.

How should we understand these special revelation? We are to understand them like scaffolding, with the canon being the structure. Both structure and scaffold are geared towards one purpose, the revelation of Christ in the later days as what Hebrews 1:1-2 states. But with the completion of the canon and the transition to the post-apostolic era, God's revelation is finalized and thus the scaffolding is dissolved. Was the scaffolding necessary during the inaugurating phase of the New Covenant? Yes, it was. But just as surely, these special revelation are tied to the structure and therefore they have served their purpose. To desire non-canonical special revelation is to ask for the scaffold, which is the same as asking for baby things. We have the final revelation, so why do we need the scaffold that helps to build it?

Revelatory gifts and redemptive history

The last argument that Codling will address is that the revelatory gifts are tied to the initiation of the kingdom of God, which is essentially Richard Gaffin's argument. While Codling has many parts in his argument, he has one main point that I would like to interact with.

Codling's main point is that not all the work of the church is foundational work (pp. 97-8). The problem with this is that it confuses the work of the Spirit in preparing the finality of revelation with the gifts being used explicitly for the foundation of the church. The Spirit gives gifts which manifest in various ways. Some may not be foundational in the strict sense, but they are all needed to create the environment and church life for the revelation of Christ to be written down. Codling is in error here because he takes a too narrow view of what the initiation of the kingdom actually means. Along these lines, Codling's assertions of restriction on the exercise of the gifts at Corinth in 1 Corinthians 14:26 (p. 99) fails because not all revelatory gifts are for the foundation of the revelation of Christ, but they are all required for the kingdom to be inaugurated.

[to be continued]

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Contra Don Codling on spiritual gifts: Spiritual gifts and edification

On the topic of the spiritual gifts, I was informed that Don Codling has written the best book on the topic from a continuationist perspective. His book is entitled Sola Scriptura and the Revelatory Gifts: How should Christians Deal with Present Day Prophecy? (Rice, WA: Sentinel Press, 2005). The book is an apology for the continuationist position that present-day revelatory gifts are still present in the church today, and the author claims in the foreward that "no one has made any visible attempt" to respond to his argument (p. 11). I suspect part of the reason why that is the case is less about how sound his arguments are and more about how little known this booklet is and how little effort has been put into trying to refute it. Since he asserts the invincibility of his position, I would think he would certainly welcome anyone taking a shot at his arguments.

This book by Codling sets forward his position that special revelation is still present in the church today but it is non canonical. Codling does a decent job summarizing the current cessationist arguments (pp. 49-60), then the rest of his book he goes around trying to refute those cessationist arguments. The first rebuttal is to an argument that all special revelation is canonical, which is fine since we don't hold to that position. But we will look at the other arguments because that is where he stumbles.

Spiritual gits and edification

The second cessationist argument that Codling would like to address is "Scripture is sufficient for our needs," and he does this with the title "Grace beyond what is sufficient." Codling expresses his main objection to this argument as follows:

If the gifts are for edification ..., then the church which lacks them is impoverished by that lack. To deny this is to presuppose that the gifts have no value. Assertion of the sufficiency of Scripture does not demonstrate that the gifts have no value, because there was a sufficient Scripture in Paul's day, but the gifts abounded for edification. The point can be illustrated in terms of the sacraments. The church which has the Bible, studies it diligently and applies it, but does not celebrate the sacraments, is an impoverished church. Yet it has the sufficient Scriptures. The point is that while the Bible is sufficient, that church's application of the Bible is not sufficient. The sufficiency of the Bible does not deny the place of the sacraments, rather it established their place. Similarly, the sufficiency of the Bible does not deny a place to the revelatory gifts. (pp. 73-4)

What should we make of this argument? First of all, the analogy with the sacraments is invalid. The sacraments are not word-revelation, but word-act drama. Sacraments do reveal God and the Gospel, BUT only in conjunction with the Word. The sacraments do not work ex opere operato, as what Rome believes. Sacraments are divine sanctioned holy acts, not word-revelation, and thus the analogy does not work.

Secondly, there was NOT a sufficient Scripture in Paul's day. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is not speaking just about the Old Testament Scripture, as Codling thinks (p. 75), but rather everything that is Scripture (πασα γραφη). It is not a quantifiable term, but a qualifiable term, viz, everything that fits the genus "Scripture." At the coming of the New Covenant, the current Old Testament revelation is insufficient, thus the creating of a new covenant necessitates a new canon.

The main error of Codling here, which is a common one among charismatics, is that he assumes that no prophecy given today means that there are no prophecies for the edification of the church. We need to take a step back and ask ourselves what era we are living in, and we are living in the New Covenant era. Therefore, the treasures of the apostolic church are ours, for our edification. Therefore, is there any church that lacks the apostolic spiritual gifts for edification? NO, for we have the fruit of their prophecies — the Scriptures. We who are cessationist have the spiritual gift of prophecy, in the apostolic church, for our benefit. We have the spiritual gift of tongues, in the apostolic church, for our benefit, and so on. The church is one and apostolic, and we partake of the benefits of the apostolic church, which are the fruit of the revelatory and sign gifts in the covenant making period of the apostolic church.

Codling follows us with a charge that God withdrawing the gifts because Scripture is sufficient is an act of stinginess, but God is a God of over-abundant blessing (p. 76). That would be true if the sign and revelatory gifts are meant to edify us in the same way as it edifies the apostolic church, but they do not. These gifts edify us best by giving us the fruit of their workings — the Scriptures. So the counter question ought to be: Why should God give us baby gifts when He has already produced from these the complete and mature gift of the New Testament Scriptures for us?

[to be continued]

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

EFS, Nicea and Confessionalism

A rather common accusation against EFS (Eternal Functional Submission) is that it is against Nicea. To people like Goligher, anyone embracing any form of EFS by default departs from Nicene Orthodoxy. Strangely enough, the charge is also made that EFS is a novel doctrine. But if it is novel, then how can Nicea be against EFS since a novel doctrine would be.... novel?

Now, it is possible that EFS contradicts Nicea, but one has to prove that EFS explicitly denies something that Nicea holds to be true and necessary for orthodoxy. EFS deniers commonly do this by stating that EFS teaches some form of subordination of the persons of the Godhead in the immanent Trinity. That EFS proponents have never once stated their position in anything remotely resembling such terms doesn't faze them a bit. One gets the feeling EFS deniers think they understand what EFS teaches better than EFS proponents do.

Since EFS is never phrased in the heretical phrasing that EFS deniers would love it to be phrased, subordinationism is at best a logical inference from EFS, and not the teaching of EFS itself. So in the best case scenario for the EFS deniers, what they should at most assert is that EFS logically entails subordinationism. We of course know that is not where they are going. Rather, they are mirroring the New Calvinists they abhor and are busy circling the wagons and beating the drums, as if their position has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. Having taken a third position on the topic, it is disheartening to see that, with the exception of a few, both sides aren't interested in actual interaction. The echo chamber in one side is just as big and full as the echo chamber in the other. Actually, since the so-called "confessionalists" are the ones working overtime in beating their drums, I guess their echo chamber is currently bigger than the New Calvinist one. Anyone want to dispute that please show me where you have ever interacted with the substance (not form or subsidiary points like historical citations) of what the other side, or what I, have written (and by "interact" I mean engage, not ignore and re-assert your points).

Regardless, I would like to put forward one main point here in this post: the "confessionalists" in this debate are not acting like Confessionalists but Fundamentalists! What is the difference, you might ask? Well, Confessionalism focuses on the historic creeds and Reformed confessions of the Church, and these confessions form the doctrinal constitution for the church. In my other blog which I have recently revived, I have been working my way in trying to put forward what makes a Reformed church Reformed. One of the more recent posts deal with how one should hold to the confessions, and I explicitly contrasted holding to confession-as-constitution with confession-as-doctrinal-summary. The two ways of holding to the confession dovetail nicely with the difference between Reformed Confessionalism and Fundamentalism in application on this particular issue, which I will explicate as follows.

The beauty of true Reformed Confessionalism is that it at once sets a standard while allowing liberty on the "gaps" in the Confession. An obvious example is that one can be either an infralapsarian or a supralapsarian while holding on to the Westminster Confession of Faith. The OPC (also the PCA) has ruled in its creation report that one can hold to the Framework Hypothesis, Analogical Days or the Day-Age theory despite the WCF stating that creation happens in 6 days, which means that they think that the interpretation of "6 days" is one such "gap" in the Confession where a few diverse views can be tolerated. Regardless of what one thinks about the toleration of different views of the creation days, what this tells us is that seeing the confession-as-constitution means that there is both a certain strictness and a certain laxity when it comes to doctrine. Whatever attacks the faith is proscribed, but whatever diverse views that may not attack the system of doctrine should be tolerated.

As opposed to this, holding to the confession-as-doctrinal-summary position means that every single thing in the confession must be strictly enforced according to the strictest possible reading and interpretation. Fundamentalists excel in making everything they care about of primary importance. And officially Reformed churches are not immune to the Fundamentalist zeitgeist; it is possible to hold to Reformed doctrine in a Fundamentalist way.

So let us apply the two paradigms to the issue of EFS. Is EFS a novel view? Yes, because it is neither taught nor opposed at Nicea, whatever Wayne Grudem might have thought. Is EFS a form of subordinationism? Since EFS has always claimed full equality of the persons of the Godhead in nature and honor, except roles, EFS is not subordinationism. But does EFS necessitate some form of subordinationism? That might be argued, but at best is it a logical implication, and the case is by no means strong.

If one holds to the confession-as-doctrinal-summary position, then the actions of Jones, Goligher et al is understandable, since EFS is asserted to be subordinationism, as Fundamentalism doesn't see a difference between logical implication and plain assertion. But if one holds to the confession-as-constitution position, then EFS would not be so proscribed. As we have said, at best EFS logically leads to subordinationism. So EFS itself is not proscribed by the creeds and confession of the Reformed church. In a Confessional church setting, EFS would currently occupy the grey area with other doctrines like infralapsarianism, framework hypothesis and other doctrines neither taught nor proscribed by creeds and confessions. In a confessional setting, the church might in the future pass a ruling that EFS is error, but until then it is not. But you may ask about its logical conclusion, what about that? Well, the argument that EFS necessitates subordinationism at best is not strong in any form it currently takes. Furthermore, if one thinks that possible logical implications must necessarily proscribe the doctrine, then I suggest we get rid of the framework hypothesis and attack it as heresy first, since I think that one possible implication of the framework hypothesis is heresy. But if the OPC and PCA thinks that the Framework hypothesis is a valid interpretation despite the possible logical implications of these theories, then the possible logical implications of EFS have no bearing at all on whether EFS itself should be tolerated in confessional churches.

EFS is not Nicene. But neither is it against Nicene. It is rather extra-Nicene, just like Christ as autotheos is extra-Nicene. A true confessionalist would tolerate EFS even in its Bruce Ware incarnation, unless and until the Reformed Church pass an authoritative ruling on the matter.

So will you choose to be a Fundamentalist or a Confessionalist on the topic of EFS? The choice is yours.