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September 26, 2008


Hi, Jeremy:

Thanks for your thoughtful interaction with my comments. It might help the conversation along to make two clarifying comments of my own.

1) I raised the question about contextualization simply because people often forget that our theologizing is already contextualized. However, the way I defined the task of theology in the first paragraph of my comments (and which you quoted in your second section in your reply) obviously recognizes the "positive" aspect of contextualization--the need to witness to a particular cultural moment or within a particular cultural system.

To advance the ball a little further on this, though, and picking up a bit from Stan Hauerwas and John Yoder, there are times in which the church must name the world as the world in order to proclaim the Gospel. That may mean a very antithetical response to the very cultural system in which the church witnesses to the apostolic tradition. And so, the question needs to be asked, "As the church proclaims the gospel in a particular moment, appropriately contextualized so that people can hear and respond, are there places in our theologizing for a prophetic word?" In other words, how do we contextualize our proclamation in such a way that the Gospel can be heard without cultural adaption that causes an formalistic or banal response?

[Note: I'm asking this question recognizing our agreement on the negative and positive sides of the contextualizing task.]

2) I'm a little worried that my point about history within theological method may have been missed, so I'm going to restate it a bit. A church that requires confessional subscription to a particular standard for office implicitly privileges one particular historical witness among others. So, the question here is not merely "how does history impact theological method" generally. Rather, the question is, "how does theological method privilege one particular historical witness in such a way that it regulates and boundaries theological creativity?"

I use that language of witness advisedly; careful readers will recognize witness as Karl Barth's understanding of the human task in response to God's revelation in Jesus Christ--hence, Scripture, preaching, sacrament, mercy, and theology/dogmatics all take on a role of witness. And yet, witness is never decontextualized, is always located, and because human is often flawed (excepting Scripture at this point, which as the unique Word of God is God-breathed and without error as originally given). And so, theological witness can be and is flawed. That has to be said.

But having said this, there are two things that cause us to pay attention to historical witnesses. One is the confidence that the Holy Spirit is leading the church into all truth--and the remarkable continuity through 2000 years is some proof of that. The other is that our particular church has singled out one particular witness as privileged for holding office in our church. Hence, the central question--how should theological method privilege the Westminster Standards in its witness?

Anyway, I've gone on long enough. Thank you, Jeremy, for such thought-provoking remarks and a worthwhile exchange. Hopefully these comments will continue to advance our and others conversations on these vital matters. sml

I think Jeremy's been listening to that rock & roll music.


Kudos for a spectacular presentation and response. Very compelling and winsome. I appreciate your use of Bavinck, Vanhoozer and Newbigin- all favorite theologians of mine.

I really benefitted from your explanation of contextualization as both the de-acculturation and the re-presentation of the gospel “core” to changing contexts. Have you read Harvie Conn’s book on anthropology, theology and mission- “Eternal Word in Changing Worlds”? I think the title of that book (and of course its content) are a great example of contextualization.

Your reflections on the sectarian tendencies of the PCA were dead on. I’ve come to personally experience that one of the favorite defense mechanisms of the sectarian impulse is the constant return to the “slippery slope argument”. If you start believing “this, this, or that” then you will become too liberal. We’ve all seen it! But I think the opposite is equally as plausible. Looking at it from a more moderate perspective, one could say that if you adopt position “a, b and c” then you will become too conservative.

Let me give a quick example. I have heard several individuals in the PCA say that if we begin to commission women to do diaconal work, then this will ultimately lead to us ordaining women as elders and pastors. It could lead to that, but it is not a necessary step. Now what about the opposite end of the “slippery slope argument”? Is it true that if certain PCA churches do not allow their female members to read Scripture in the service or pray that these congregations will slowly but surely prohibit their female members from speaking at all in the service (even being silenced in the pews) and from attending college? This sounds absurd to me. I would never make those conclusions. But shouldn’t the other side also be a little bit more careful in their constant use of the slippery slope logic?

We should never wear theological liberalism or theological conservatism as our badge of righteousness. I think our ultimate goal is to be biblically faithful, not theologically conservative.


Thanks for your talk and final response. If I understand correctly, I very much share your desire for an environment conducive to reasonable and robust theological dialog. But I wonder about one sentence near the end of your final response: “But tradition alone can never finally settle any theological debate, unless of course we abandon sola Scriptura…” Yet, in at least one important sense, tradition alone does settle theological debate. As a judge on the PCA’s Standing Judicial Commission, I annually vow that “I will judge according to the Constitution of the PCA” and “If in a given case I find my view on a particular issue to be in conflict with the Constitution of the PCA, I will recuse myself from such a case, if I cannot conscientiously apply the Constitution.” Now, I am firmly convinced the Bible teaches that covenant children should be admitted to the Table on the same basis that they are admitted to Baptism. And I am saddened by the unwillingness of many to listen to a different understanding of 1 Cor 11:27-29. But in any paedocommunion case before the SJC, I would need to rule on the basis of the Church’s understanding of sola Scriptura, not my own. So, the issue is resolved – at least confessionally and judicially – for the moment. Hopefully, that theological debate is not forever settled that way. And I yearn for the day when our ministers can more freely discuss and write on important matters like this without fear of retribution – indeed, with encouragement. New consensus will not likely develop on anything apart from discussion. And I am confident our TE's are mature enough to realize there is a difference between creative and free theological dialog amongst the eldership and the propagation of non-confessional ideas amongst the parishioners. The work of your conference and these discussions is an encouraging step in the right direction.

Jeremy Jones writes: "Thus, a robust Biblical contextualization calls us to remain faithful in two directions at once: we must preserve the truth from cultural corruption and seek to communicate (even embody) that truth to a lost culture." Well-said! How can a reader do other than applaud? And yet, "contextualization" is a word to conjure with. What is one preacher's "incarnation of the Word" is another's "compromise of the Gospel." As always, the problem is in the devilish details. What one pastor labels "accomodation to my audience" another describes as "the omisson of the offense of the Gospel." (And understandably a concern about liberalism, which assumes, rather than confronts, comes about.) What one pastor sees as a necessary strategy, another views as a failure to trust the efficacious Spirit and the life-giving Word. We all agree on the generalization; a given sermon is another matter.Does "contextualization mean, for example, that we avoid using the word, "truth" because the post-modern mindset theoretically does not recognize objective truth?
I am, obviously, not a pastor, and this seems to be an esoteric discussion. Still, a sheep may bleat to the undershepherds, and, to quote C. S. Lewis, wise shepherds listen to the sheep.

Thanks for reading. Here's a quick reply.

First, I hear you on the contextualization stuff; I certainly agree about the church playing a counter-cultural prophetic role in every culture even as it also engages the culture in a more positive way. Perhaps we're emphasizing different aspects of the task (although I wonder if you, with Darryl, are a bit uncomfortable with the cultural engagement or transformationist angle? That would be a difference in our understanding of what the positive side of contextualization requires of the church).

Beyond that, I don't think there's an easy answer as to how to always get the contextual task perfectly right. What we can do, in desperate reliance on the Spirit and earnest prayer, is seek to neither over-adapt nor under-adapt the gospel to our context. When that Incarnational balance (or whatever word is appropriate here) is reached and the Spirit at work through the Word, serious fruit can be borne. Tim Keller has great thoughts along these lines in his lectures on contextualization given at Covenant Seminary a few years ago (available at the CTS website).

As to your second point, I'm with you on the importance of past witnesses playing a role in our present witness. No argument there. The question of the detailed role Westminster should play in current theologizing is a difficult one to answer. It has a unique place of privilege in our tradition and denomination as a past witness; as part of our Standards Westminster sets up certain ecclesial boundaries for ordination (the 'system of doctrine').

But, I'm afraid a more developed answer here follows the same lines as my response above: I don't see how we can hold in good faith to sola Scriptura and say that Westminster automatically settles a theological debate. We could say "but X position clearly violates Westminster" and we may be right (or: we may be wrong. Westminster, as we know all too well, has to be interpreted!). But let's assume we are right and Westminster does denounce X doctrinal idea. Even then we're still not out of the woods, in terms of the theological task. After all, Westminster itself says "councils may err" and urges upon us the Scriptures as "the only rule of faith and practice." Our polity always has allowed the Standards to be changed (and they have been changed); Thornwell said it's oxymoronic for a Protestant to have an unchangeable creed. The fact that the Spirit has led the church into more glorious truth in the past means the Spirit can lead even our church into more glorious truth in the future.

It does seem to me that when a serious debate arises in our midst among men of good standing, we not only have to listen to what Westminster says very carefully; we have to engage in the full theological enterprise I outlined above. In such a situation to automatically default to Westminster as if that alone settled the issue is no different from the RCC shutting down debate over the Scriptures by citing its own historic witness (Trent or whatever). At least I don't see it as different but perhaps you could help me here.

Also, the situation is no different when the church courts have spoken; church courts can err, change their minds, make mistakes of judgment, etc.

I suppose what I'm saying is that nothing gets us "off the hook" from having to wrestle with the Word, our tradition/Standards, our current context, each other and our own consciences when theological issues arise. Our commitment to discerning "the Spirit speaking in the Scriptures" is at the heart of what it means to be Reformed; and that process can be severely challenging, even risky. But perhaps that's not such a bad thing: for it might force us to pray, to listen to our brothers (both past and present), to study the Word, and, finally, to trust our Sovereign Lord for the outcome.

The classic statement about "the Reformed church always reforming" seems to get at the tension at the heart of our discussion. If we privilege one side of this formulation over the other then we (I believe) are in error and actually departing from one of the wisest truths of our tradition. But that seems to be what the differing parties in these debates in the PCA believe the other to be doing: some worry that I am downplaying our Reformed identity or the role of Westminster; I worry about those same brothers downplaying the need for the church to practice sola Scriptura, especially when contextualization raises new questions that require biblical answers.

And that gets me to one more point.
Another reason Westminster can't automatically solve many of our most important conflicts in the PCA is because many of these debates revolve around extra-Confessional issues that the Confession does not speak to or settle. But, again, Tim Keller has pointed this out in his paper on subscription "How Then Shall We Live Together?" also available online.

In listening to the talks and reading these posts by Prs. Thompson and Jones, I'm struck by what I can only describe as their articulation within a controlling discourse of political liberalism. For example, how are we to understand the meaning of 'sectarian' that has been deployed here unless the context is one that makes the kind of imperial demands such as those of our dominant contemporary culture? Thus, I understand the substance of the criticisms so far, which are more or less unified in their request for positive theological content from the self-identified non-sectarians. It seems like a reasonable request to me. What are we offered here beyond the demand that ethos and theology employ a non-sectarian vocabulary?

It seems to me that in our striving to become faithful disciples that our ethos and theology must needs be not only christocentric but ecclesiocentric. Both entail exclusivity and, yes, sectarianism. Again, this is only a problem if political liberalism is the over-arching narrative. I'm curious what aggravates the ecclesial frustration voiced here.

Furthermore, in Pr. Jones' response, he insists (incredibly, it seems to me) that his configuration of the theological task is more faithful to a Reformed tradition and confession ("I do think that the kind of Reformed catholic theological paradigm I’m advocating is historically faithful to our tradition and even to our Confession."). I should like to hear more justification of this claim to ecclesial continuity, especially in light of Michael Walker's insightful response.

It seems to me that this overreaching for one's claim to "authentically Reformed! No, really!" (mind, on all sides of this "debate") masks an unwillingness to undertake the practical reasoning necessary to justify the actions and passions which cannot and do not conform to the particularities of the Reformed past. Let's begin with the empirical fact of contextual discontinuity between now and then. So what? So this: if the relevant particularities of the current context are not addressed by adhering to Reformed confessionalism, let's just come out and say so. But rather than do the hard work of redefining what 'Reformed' now means, we are confronted by a constellation of visions of what ethos, theology, church, mission, etc., must be now and later, with very little publicly accessible positive content of those visions. Practically speaking, that means you can believe and do whatever you want about, say, the regulative principle, while still honestly believing that you are confessional. IOW, there's dogma and there's practice, and never the twain shall meet.

So far, I'm left with the impression that denominational renewal depends on a whiggish construal of "Reformed catholicity" that presumes, like American evangelicalism for the last 60 years or so, that the only kind of Christianity that exists is evangelicalism. And for evangelicalism, all that defines the Church is style. Those who think dogma encompasses more specificity than the Aristotelian accidents of style are, on this account, "doctrinalists" (i.e., divisive and legalistic). But how long can renewed interest in theology last without dogma?

I submit these observations as one who is sympathetic with the view that the Church is not defined by confessional documents. But what defines the Church beyond a proactive stylistic pluralism? Anything? If you want to start laying out concrete particularities, I think you'll find many thirsty and hungry listeners. But I'm afraid I already know the response if it is suggested that the Church is defined, for example, by its vital sacramental and kerygmatic activity. That possibility has been foreclosed from the very start of this forum. Understandable, since that immediately involves us in the very unevangelical task of examining how dogma shapes preaching, mission, liturgy, belief, etc., in substantive rather than mere stylistic terms.


Thank you for your thoughtful and though-provoking essays. I have much that I'd like to say, but Sean has already covered a lot of that territory. I'd just like to summarize a few points.

I do not believe that the issues of today aren't so different as to render the Standards any less useful than they've been for 350 years. After all, they contain "the system of doctrine taught in Holy Scripture," and those are timeless. But they are not and never have been a checklist to cure every ill in the church. That said, I believe that our constitution (Westminsters + BCO) together with the superior standard of Scripture can handle whatever is thrown their way. I never said that it would be easy to work through these on every individual issue, but that's our call as officers in the church.

This is not to say in any way that the Standards are infallible. If anyone thinks that our constitution needs improvement, then let them propose changes through the BCO procedures. That's why those procedures exist. If someone really believes that there's some "cutting-edge theology" that indicates an error in the Standards, then let them propose a modification. Tim Keller last revised the paper that you cite above in 2001, yet I've seen no overtures at General Assembly suggesting changes to the Standards since then. If by "renewing theology" anyone means to change our Standards, then I respectfully offer that the door is open and there's no line at it.

Lastly, I don't believe that anyone has said that proper use of the Standards relieves us from having to work through the Scriptures. Yet, the Standards derive from Scripture and include Scripture proofs. If we, for instance, seek to settle a debate on whether a particular view of justification falls within our Confessional bounds, do we need to re-derive the Standards again on the subject? It seems that such an approach would say that we do not really believe that, although they are not infallible, the Standards contain the system of doctrine taught in Holy Scripture. Please hear me carefully on this: That doesn't get us off of any hook, but it does avoid reinventing the wheel every time we go out for groceries. But again, if someone believes that the Standards are in error, refer to my last paragraph.

Perhaps I'm just having a hard time grasping exactly what it is that you specifically propose that cannot be accomplished within our constitutional processes. All the talk about ethos and oppression make great sound bites, but there's no meat there upon which to vote at General Assembly. Maybe I'm missing something.

Thank you again for your kind interaction.

By His grace,
Bob Mattes

Joel: see my comments in response to Michael Walker's post; that may help answer your question.
Short answer: we're not liberals. May try at a longer answer later.

Quique: thanks!

Howie: loved your post about suggestions! And I hear you about acting in an official capacity and following the accepted standards.

Bob: you ask alot of good questions. Sorry to be semi-unresponsive. Jeff Dryden addressed some of them well. I'll try to respond more later, but I do think we see Westminster pretty differently. I certainly think there are many key issues not addressed by the Confession and that some of them are central to our current divisions.

As to your call for particular actions we're proposing at the Constitutional level, sorry to disappoint, but there are none! That was part of the point of the conference; to try to surface some of these theological issues among us. I'm really encouraged by the kind exchanges that have gone on here.

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