Thursday, June 07, 2012

Ecclesiology and the Gospel

This past week we have seen the sad specter of the apostasy of Jason Stellman. While I have been working on something similar, Stellman's latest blog post interacting with Carl Trueman's article deserves in my opinion a brief rebuttal.

In his blog post, Stellman addresses the relation of the Church to the Gospel. In Stellman's new understanding, "closely identifying ecclesiology with soteriology" has "everything to do with Pauline theology." Stellman briefly gives two reasons why he comes to the conclusion he does. The first reason Stellman gives is that identifying a true church by the preaching of the Gospel makes the church a mere confirmatory agent of the Gospel that a believer already knows, instead of the church being the teacher of the Gospel. Stellman's second reason is that the mystery of the Gospel in Ephesians 3 is the collection of the Gentiles into the church, and thus the Gospel is the church and vice versa.

In response to Stellman's first point, we note two major errors he has made. Firstly, Stellman has confused the essence of the Gospel with the fullness of Scripture. Christians can discern the truth of the Gospel because of the Holy Spirit within them. But discerning the truth of the Gospel does not mean that believers know the fullness of what Scripture teaches. Herman Witsius had realized this difference and wrote thus in his book The Economy of the Covenants:

... it must be confessed, that in the present dark state of our minds, even the most illuminated are ignorant of a great many things; and that many things are believed with an implicit [tacit] faith, especially by young beginners and babes in Christ, so far as they admit, in general, the whole scriptures to be the infallible standard of what is to be believed; in which are contained many things which they do not understand, and in as far as they embrace the leading doctrines of Christianity, in which many other truths concenter, which are thence deduced by evident consequence, and which they believe in their foundation or principle, as John writes concerning believers, that they knew all things, 1 John ii. 20. ...

[Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants between God and Man – Comprehending A Complete Body of Divinity. (trans. William Crookshank; Original printed 1822; Reprinted Kingsburg, CA: den Dulk Christian Foundation, 1990; Distributed Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing), III.7.9. - Vol. 1, 376]

Witsius' idea of "implicit faith" or rather what I prefer to call tacit faith solves Stellman's problem totally. Believers know the essence of the faith and of the Gospel, but they know it vaguely. They need to be taught by Christ, the Church and her ministers in order to grow into the fuller understanding of the whole Christian faith. Therefore, believes can identify a true church, and yet still continue to need to be taught from God's Word.

Secondly, preaching and teaching God's Word and God's truth is not merely done to inform the uneducated. The Word of God is living and active (Heb. 4:12), not merely a conveyor belt of cognitive information. The proclamation of the Word of God as a speech-act accomplishes what God has decreed for it to do (Is. 55:10-11). Such proclamation and teaching is of use to those who already know its truth, for believers need to be continually reminded of God's truth and continually need its encouragement, its reprove, and all its work in our lives. Therefore, even IF believers already know everything there is to cognitively know about the faith, they still require the Church to preach and teach them God's truth. Stellman's first point is therefore in error.

Stellman's second point confuses Gospel and Covenant. It confuses the Pauline Gospel with the goal of the Gospel. Just because the Gospel is intended by God to bring in the Church does not mean that the Gospel IS the bringing in of the Gentiles into the Church. Ontology is not teleology! The Gospel is not its purpose or effect. Stellman's second point is thus in error.

Stellman ends his post by saying that "After all, we're not evangelicals." But such is a strawman and betrays his ignorance of why Reformed are not Evangelicals. Reformed are not Evangelicals not because we disagree on the Gospel. The problem with Evangelicals is that they are not truly Gospel-centered enough! Their "Gospel-centeredness" as we have seen in Elephant Room 2 degenerates into a "Gospel-nomism" where merely mouthing the words "Gospel-centered" gives anyone a free pass to compromise the Gospel. The problem with Evangelicals is not that they are too individualistic, but that they are not at the same time ecclesiocentric. The Gospel is both individualistic AND corporate. The Gospel comes to each of us individually and then builds individual believers corporately into a church. Evangelicals gets the first part but not the second. We should not react to the errors of Evangelicalism by throwing the baby out with the bathwater!

Yes, we are not Evangelicals, but Evangelicals are not our enemy. We are not their exact anti-thesis! Are we so adverse to the term "evangelical" (which basically refers to the Gospel) that we want to disassociate ourselves from anything that sounds like Evangelicalism? Reformed is not Evangelical, but Reformed is NOT anti-Evangelical. Rather, Reformed is Evangelicalism come into its doctrinal purity and fullness. Reformed is to Evangelical what pure gold is to gold paint.

While Stellman wrote this post in response to Trueman's post, it can be seen that Trueman's analysis is not so wrong after all. Stellman's apostasy seems to stem from his deficient view of the Gospel and a deficient view of the Church. A "high ecclesiology" which does not come from a proper relation between the Gospel and the Church is a defective ecclesiology nonetheless, no matter how "high" it is. There is nothing meritorious about "high ecclesiology" if it does not actually stems from the Gospel and the teachings of Scripture.

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