Saturday, October 28, 2023

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

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

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


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

Friday, October 27, 2023

Confessions of a former Strict Confessionalist (Part 4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

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

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

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

Machen on creation

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

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

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

Confessions of a former strict Confessionalist (Part 3)

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

Racism and the Reformed Tradition

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

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

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

American racism from the left

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The failure to excise racism and American narcissism

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Confessions of a former strict Confessionalist (Part 2)

Into strict confessionalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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