Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Imputation, nominalism and extrinsicism

The imputation [of Christ's righteousness] — according to the Reformers, a forensic declaration — was external or nominal in nature

—Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: the weaving of a sacramental tapestry (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 92

Among certain segments of Christianity, like the (misguided) "Protestant" appropriation of the Roman Catholic Nouvelle Theologie, the accusation is made that the whole idea of imputation is a nominalist or extrinsic notion. In Boersma's thought, nominalism is one of the bogeyman that caused the crisis of secularism. Frankly, I don't see much of a crisis, and reject the rosy primitivist picture Boersma is painting of a (general) golden age of the "Platonist-Christian synthesis." I don't see much appeal in the "glory days" of superstition, ascetic practices and the promotion of celibacy as a higher form of Christian life (which flow out of any "synthesis"), but if Boersma loves those, I guess he is certainly entitled to his preferences.

The question here however concerns the doctrine of imputation. Boersma makes the claim that the imputation of Christ's righteousness, being forensic, was by nature external or extrinsic, or nominal. Presumably therefore, rejecting nominalism should imply that the imputation of Christ's righteousness should be jettisoned as well. Is imputation therefore considered extrinsic and nominal?

For something to be "extrinsic" means that it pertains to the external circumstances, touching only the surface of a thing, not its nature. For something to be "nominal" means that it is so merely by fiat or naming (hence "nominal"), not by nature. But how does the Scripture portray imputation to be? Imputation touches the nature of a person's relationship to God, and it not a mere change of nomenclature but a true change in one's relationship to God and Christ. If a judge were to acquit someone of a crime, will we say that the acquitted is still "by nature" guilty since the forensic judgment is merely "extrinsic" or "nominal"? Of course not!

The problem with those claiming imputation to be merely external (extrinsic) and/or nominal is that they confuse nature (ontology) with ethics (relations). The two are not the same, nor is one subsumed under the other! A change in one's ethical relation to God is real even though one does not change in nature. Why do people focus so much on "being" (ontology)? The issue with Man has never been principally with being, but with sin (ethics). Yes, punishment for sin in God's curse upon creation does corrupt creaturely being, but as consequence not as cause! Being is never primary in Scripture. The emphasis on Scripture is always ethics (sin), then epistemology (illogicity and ignorance), and then it deals with being only by positing three types of being: Creator, Man, and the rest of Creation.

Imputation is thus not external or nominal in nature, because it is an ethical term, not an ontological term. It has absolutely nothing to do with "being," and unless we start differentiating ethics from metaphysics, we can never truly understand imputation.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Roman Catholic ressourcement and the limits of reform

The prophecy of the prophetic spirit in the church [for reform] takes place within the structures of the church's life. It presupposes this ecclesial structure and is only exercised within the limitations of this structure. (p. 188)

This means that the Augustinianism of Augustine and the Augustinianism of Jansenius, even if they are materially same in their details, are nonetheless formally different [because they did not remain in communion with the whole church]. (p. 234)

I said earlier that one of the fundamental errors of Jansenism was to take its inspiration from the texts of St. Augustine without maintaining sufficient docility towards the concrete life of the contemporary church (p. 261)

...the church does not like the via facti. ... But there is also a via facti that does not usurp the place of authority. It does not undermine the church's structure, but rather acts in and for ecclesial life. (pp. 277, 280)

— Yves Congar, O.P., True and False Reform in the Church (Translated with Introduction by Paul Philibert, O.P.; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2011)

The Nouvelle Theologie is a movement within Roman Catholicism which triumphed in the Second Vatican Council. It is supposedly a return to the patristics (ressourcement), followed by an updating to present times (aggiornamento), and then development for the future. Yves Congar's book True and False Reform in the Church in the original French was influential for the calling of Vatican II, a council which rather radically changed Roman Catholicism.

The idea of ressourcement (a French term) seem to be similar to the Reformation principle of ad fontes (in Latin). The concepts are similar in their going back to the original sources and to the patristics. But there ends the similarity.

If there is any excitement over the Roman Catholic idea of ressourcement, the excerpts from Congar should crush it. We see here that the concept of ressourcement categorically ruled some areas out of bounds for reform, i.e. ecclesiology. In fact, Congar's idea of reform and ressourcement deals only with the practical pastoral matters, not doctrinal issues per se. It's all about expression and pastoral care, not about substance. The substance has already been decided dogmatically by the Magisterium, and it is not up for debate, or at least it seems. Blurring the lines between doctrine and pastoral care though is Congar's dissection of the Jansenist movement, a Neo-Augustinian pro-papal Roman Catholic movement in the 18th century that attempted a via media between Calvinism and what they perceive to be the Pelagianizing tendencies of the Jesuits. In a surprising statement, Congar claims that the Jansenists were wrong because they were not in communion with the whole church even though their doctrines were materially the same as Augustine. In other words, in the Nouvelle Theologie of Congar, doctrines are relativized and subsumed under expression and pastoral care.

In this light, any such reform thus cannot challenge the already pre-determined parameters. Even if through looking at the sources it is found that the papacy is not in the early church, that cannot by fiat be part of ressourcement. After all, ecclesiology is not within the operational parameters of ressourcement.

Roman Catholic ressourcement is thus not the same as the Reformation ad fontes. Unlike the Nouvelle theologians, we should not go back to the sources with preconceived notions and parameters concerning what we are looking for. Unlike them also, the Scripture are taken as the infallible primary source through which all other primary sources are evaluated, patristics or otherwise. Roman Catholic "reform," being restrictive, will never actually recover the church fathers, for they come to the project already with colored glasses.

Is being a Christian sufficient?

The way of salvation is to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and that person will be saved (e.g. Acts 16:31). So in that sense, to be saved one must be a Christian. However, is being a Christian sufficient? Surely trusting in Christ for salvation is enough, isn't it?

The question however goes deeper than what it seems to be asking on the surface. Rather, the question can be phrased thus, "Is bearing the name 'Christian' sufficient?" In other words, should we say that the name "Christian" is enough, and thus we should all just be Christians alone?

The problem with that approach is that it is idealistic and cannot work in the real world. The problem is not with the term, but with Man. People appropriate the label "Christian" all the time when they have no actual right to the term (i.e. liberals like John Shelby Spong). Even for those who seem to be "Evangelical," whatever THAT terms means, does the mere term "Christian" suffice for all of the Christian life? I would say not!

Historically, the Stone-Campbell Movement beginning in the early 19th century was one such movement that wanted to unite all believers who are then just known as Christians. In fact, the early Stoneites called themselves "Christians" with no modifiers attached, and their churches "Christian Churches." Barton Stone was of course extremely shaky on the doctrine of the Trinity (to put it as charitably as possible), and to be honest ought not even to be ordained in the Kentucky Presbytery of the PCUSA, if not for the New Side pastors who focus on experience more on doctrinal fidelity. Stone desired greater unity between all denominations, and the tent revivals on the then American frontier (the most famous being the Cane Ridge revival) was the place where Baptists, Methodists and others can mix and mingle and worship together, united by their pursuit of revivals complete with proto-Pentecostal manifestations. After the union with the "Reformers" headed by Alexander Campbell, the Stone-Campbell movement soon split into the northern Disciples of Christ and the southern Churches of Christ around the time of the Civil War. They were split over issues like instrumental music and the presence of mission boards and other denominational agencies for the Stone-Campbell pseudo-denominations, the anti-institutional institutions.

The history of the Stone-Campbell movement only shows that the idea of just being a Christian is not possible. For what does being a "Christian" mean not seen through the narrow scope of salvation, but also about the church and ministry? Before the CMA, there were Barton Stone and Thomas and Alexander Campbell. Their desire of uniting Christians, and in that time they only had to deal with Protestants who had a stronger link to the Reformation past compared to us, could not be fulfilled. Trying to form a umbrella gathering of all Christians, they only succeeded in creating another new denomination, which then became two denominations. If we are to learn from history, shouldn't it evident that "being a Christian" is manifestly insufficient for the Christian life? If Stone and Campbell cannot pull it off, and neither could subsequent restorationist movements, we shouldn't think any of us could succeed where they fail, this side of heaven.

That is why denominations are necessary. The only alternative to denominationalism is the chaos and faux unity that can be found in the present-day Roman Catholic communion (where there is "unity" between liberals and conservatives), or the splintering into groups ("tribes") based around central dogmas, personalities, parachurch organizations and any other sociological factors (e.g. ethnicity). Far better to have some measure of imperfect ecclesiastical unity, than to have its alternatives.

"Being a Christian" is insufficient for the Christian life. Only "being a Christian" creates more problems than it supposedly solves, is unworkable, and thus we should not be a biblicist in this regard. For example, I am not just a "Christian," but a Christian who is a confessional Presbyterian.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Quote on tongues

Cross-cultural investigations have shown that a glossolalic utterance is drawn from the basic sounds of phonemes of a speaker’s native language. Those phonemes erupt, not at random, but in patterns that resemble the phonological patterns of that language … Unlike all known languages, living or dead, glossolalia has no grammar. Nor does it have any semantic value, because the “words” are unrelated to the stock of public meanings within the speech community (although they may have a private meaning for the speaker, or a purely connotative meaning for the hearer)

— Grant Wacker, “Playing for Keeps: The Primitivist Impulse in Early Pentecostalism,” in Richard T. Hughes, ed., The American Quest for the Primitive Church (Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 211

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Debate of Micheal Brown and Sam Waldron over the continuation and cessation of the sign-gifts

Some time back, Dr. James White moderated an online Skype-facilitated debate between the Charismatic Dr. Micheal Brown, and the Reformed Baptist Dr. Sam Waldron. The debate can be seen as follows:

It seems to me that there is a much better way to deal with the issue of tongues and prophecy — return back to the Old Testament. What is the biblical theological understanding of language, and what is the biblical theological understanding of prophecy? Far too often, Charismatics think they know what tongues is, and what prophecy is, without any idea of how the themes are developed in the Scriptures. God does not just do the miraculous for a capricious show of power, but everything is done for a reason. Instead of challenging the Charismatics using various proof texts, the better way IMO is to show that the Charismatic idea of tongues and prophecy are not biblical. Tongues did not just leap out de novo on the Day of Pentecost, neither did prophecy begin in the book of Acts.

Reformation and the restorationist principle

In America, the Restoration movement is normally linked with the Stone-Campbell movement. Consisting of a merger between the followers of Barton Stone and of Alexander Campbell, the Stone-Campbell movement with its biblicism strove to remove all forms of accretions not found in Scripture, and go back to, restore, the New Testament church. Subsequently of course, other restorationist groups sprang up, all claiming to restore the Church back to its New Testament "glory" days. Probably the one with the greatest following today is Pentecostalism and its step-daughter the Charismatic movement. Both movements claim to restore all the gifts of the Spirit back to the Church. How Pentecostals and Charismatics interpret church history of course varies, yet regardless of how one strains to find precedents throughout church history, it cannot be denied that before the Azusa Street revival, at least most of the professing church did not hold to the continuing validity of the sign-gifts.

The restoration principle is best defined by Richard T. Hughes as “a reversion undercutting both Catholic and Anglican appeals to a continuity of tradition, to the first, or primitive, order of things narrated in the Protestant Scriptures" [Richard T. Hughes, "Introduction," in Richard T. Hughes, ed., The American Quest for the Primitive Church (Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 2]. How does that compare however to the Reformation principle of Ad Fontes, going back to the sources? The two certainly seem very similar to its appeal to the Scriptures and the New Testament Church. Its similarity can be seen in the fact that in that same book edited by Richard T. Hughes, Thomas H. Olbricht claimed that the New England Puritans were engaging in primitivist/ restorationist thinking (the two terms are not differentiated in the book). But are the two the same? No they are not. The Restorationist principle is largely ahistorical. It ignores history, and skip over history since what matters is to return back to the "pristine New Testament church." The Reformation principle of ad fontes however goes back to the historic Christian Church through interaction and engaging with others, acknowledging the fact of time and history and our distance from the original events. We can never go back to the New Testament Church, for we cannot go back in time. As Mark Noll makes plain the distinction between primitivist Christianity and historic Christianity, in historic Christianity "the Bible was a book to be studied with the history of the church, not against it" [Mark Noll, "Primitivism in Fundamentalism and American Biblical Scholarship," in Ibid., 125].

The issue of history divides the Reformed tradition from any and all restorationists. We affirm history and the need to wrestle with history. Restoratinists minimize history, even if they may not outrightly deny it. History to them is not to be regarded as real temporal progression but rather a mere passing of time which leaves concepts and ideas and everything else more or less intact. That is why Pentecostals and Charismatics think that the mere repetition of 1 Cor. 14:39 is sufficient to deal with the topic of whether the sign-gifts have ceased. There is a strong strain of the denial of the historical situatedness of the Word of God in its current ectypal expression, making the Bible into a Systematics textbook instead of the ectypal expression of God's Word that is situated in history.

The Reformation principle and the Restorationist principles therefore are not the same. Historical development has proven that history does play a key role in theologizing. In other words, everyone has traditions. The Stone-Campbell restorationist movement is radically different from the "restoration" by Joseph Smith, which is different from the restorationist movements of the Seventh-Day Baptists and Adventists, and all of them are different from the restorationist movement known as Pentecostalism. As Henry Warden Bowden, after surveying all these various restorationist movements, claimed, "'the restoration ideal' is truly a protean concept" [Henry Warden Bowden, "Perplexity over a Protean Principle," in Ibid., 176]. All the various restorationist movements have proven that it is impossible to situate oneself outside of time and history, and thus "restoration" is a mirage. It is a myth that one can go back to the New Testament Church, and thus Restoration itself is not only errant but absolutely impossible.

Is faith a condition for salvation?

Among certain circles that tend towards or are hyper-Calvinistic, there is a denial that faith is a condition for salvation. After all, if salvation is truly free, then Man cannot contribute anything to his salvation. Faith is something exercised by the individual, and thus it is something the individual has and does. So, if Man cannot contribute anything to his salvation, and faith is a human act, faith therefore cannot contribute anything to the individual's salvation. The reality of faith is not denied, but faith itself is not seen as a condition for salvation.

Now, of course, this seems strange, or it should. Scripture does after all calls us to believe and be saved. Putting both claims together however seems to be pitting the Bible against Systematics. Is the straightforward reading of the Scriptures wrong then, or perhaps more likely there is a serious problem in the Systematic theological understanding of those who deny faith as being a condition?

The main issue at hand is what do we mean by the term "condition"? Does condition mean that the thing conditioned upon would contribute to the process? Such however is not what the term "condition" mean. For the term "condition" is a mere logical term. It describes logical propositions with an "if, then" clause. If X is a necessary condition, then the proposition is simply "If not X, not Y." Conversely, if X is a sufficient condition, then the proposition is simply "If X, then Y." Therefore, when the claim is made that faith is a necessary condition for salvation, we are merely saying "If a person has not faith, then that person is not saved." When we claim that faith is a sufficient condition for salvation, we are merely saying "If a person has faith, that person is saved." Expressed in propositional form, it should be self-evident that the Bible teaches that faith is both necessary and sufficient for salvation.

To this, our objector can of course repeat the claim that having faith as a condition compromises the free grace of salvation. To that, we can reply that our logical propositions are not interested in that issue at all. In other words, saying that faith is a condition says absolutely nothing about whether salvation requires a work of Man in faith (as if faith is a work of Man in the first place!). Monergistic salvation is only compromised if we claim that faith is a purely human work. But isn't faith something done by individuals? Yes. And yet still it is God's doing. Ephesians 2:8-9 claims that the salvation by grace through faith not of works, the whole deal, is a gift of God. But how then can faith be a human action and a gift of God at the same time? Our response to that would be, "Why not"? What exactly about the proposition, that faith is both a human action and a gift of God, is problematic? Wherein lies the contradiction? To claim that there is a contradiction is to claim that God's actions necessarily preclude (genuinely free) human actions, but why should that be the case? Since God does not operate on the same level as us, He being God, why are we trying to flatten the plane of action such that God and Man must compete to see what percentage of actions belongs to God and what percentage to Man?

The problem with using partial truths of systematic theology, abstract it from other parts of Scripture, and then use that new "central dogma" to read Scripture is that it distorts the truths of Scripture. The "central dogma" of God's absolute sovereignty when taken up by the Hypers create all sorts of heretical nonsense. It sounds nice when the statement is made that we want to defend the sovereignty of God in all things. But what is the practical implications for denying the conditionality of faith? It means that those two statements, being expressive of faith's conditionality, must be wrong. In other words, the statements "If a person has not faith, that person is not saved" and "If a person has faith, that person is saved," cannot be true. Ironically, denying faith's conditionality could lead to either (Calvinistic) Universalism or Inclusivism. Faith being decoupled from salvation means salvation is now purely a matter of election. Depending on how one wants to interpret and discern election, that could mean anything from universalism (God elects everyone), inclusivism (God elects some, who may or may not express faith, and thus may or may not be Christians), to Hyper-Calvinistic particularism (God elects some, and how we know who He elects is through them believing in the right doctrine as we do - knowledge being the expressive of election). In all these, there is a unholy desire to peer into God's archetypal knowledge and discern truths that God has not seen fit to reveal to us.

Faith therefore is a condition for salvation. The Reformed tradition of course has qualified it by stating that it is the instrumental condition, since faith does not contribute to our salvation but merely grasps and receives Christ. Yet, it is still a condition, and we should all agree to that.