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September 22, 2008


In #1, Dr. Frame argues that factional spirit in the NT was identified as unhealthy and sinful, but then jumps to say that denominations are therefore always sinful. Denominations may serve other purposes besides merely to satisfy sinful impulses - even if they have historically started partly for that reason, that doesn't mean in principle they cannot have legitimate purposes. Are we required by the data from the NT period to conclude that modern organizational structures like denominations are therefore always wrong? Maybe they serve some other purposes, not all of which are borne out of sinful jealousies and hatred towards other Christians. For instance, maybe the denominational banner provides information to other people about a church (much like a brand does), or is a way of dealing with an explosively large church population in a way that is not practical given a smaller number of churches.

Hey, what a great addition to Jeremy Jones's talk! I love succinct posts and think points 2 & 3 really have a lot of material worth discussing. I have often felt that the WCF and the truths discovered in the Reformation (as wise and wonderful as they are) do not adequately address or encompass many of the pressing issues in the churches I've been a member of. Take, for example, adult baptisms and community. In the very large PCA church I have attended for the past two years, I have seen less than five adult baptisms (though the real number could be higher since we have multiple services). Although harder to quantify, finding people who are connected, accountable and doing life together (eg. small groups) has also been very difficult.

Of course, many have addressed these issues since the time of the Reformation and have a lot of profound things to say! Perhaps these applications of Scripture (ie. theology) deserve more weight and emphasis than they normally receive?

I'm pretty sure it is a constant in any kind of human society for members to be more critical of those to the right of them, and more open to those to the left. But for all of Prof. Frame's talk about the dangers of pride, negativity, and criticism, can't he possibly say something positive about Presbyterians who are more conservative than he is?

You seem to be missing the the point of what Dr. Frame is saying in #1. The ideal for the church is to be a unified body of believers that strive to forward the kingdom together under the banner of Christ. There are times when church splits are healthy and excise a cancer from the body, but more often than not they are based upon pride and lack of understanding. The current climate of denomination seems to foster sectarian feelings and increase the schisms between various traditions. The vision for the church ought to be one of reunification. This will be a very slow process that will most likely take centuries, but it is a right goal, which is only hindered by denominational infighting and interdenominational squabbles.

"We need to be careful about labels and to seek to help someone clarify their teaching before we make a judgment of it."

Definitely a wise suggestion from Jeremy's talk. I'll admit that my defenses are heightened right now due the current push from within for the church to embrace questionable aspects of our postmodern culture. As a result, I find myself categorizing people as sympathetic to a specific theological persuasion once I've been exposed to a dose of their instruction. Yet I also struggle with being categorized myself as a "trouble maker" when I've asked for doctrinal clarification so as to squelch any possible misunderstanding. I realize that my experience could be unique, but it sure hasn't helped convince me that what's really desired is a "conversation".

Also, I'm of the opinion that if Jeremy isn't wishing to be categorized himself (see, I'm doing it again), then he should consider making his points without quoting Vanhoozer or Newbigin, which he did several times, since I'm certain many recognize which circles/movement(s) their works are often identified with these days.

From Dr. Frame: "Does confessionalism itself lead to sectarianism?"

I'm not certain what this question's driving at. I'm sure all here would agree that truth unites and divides, but we don't all agree on what non-salvific issues are worthy (if any are) to cause division. We certainly can't view everything outside of the gospel as merely adiaphora issues. In so many instances that would comparably be minor, Scripture is not indifferent. I agree that the "slippery slope" fear isn't enough reason for division, but neither should the danger it represents be overlooked.

Do we, as a denomination, believe that we've arrived at orthodoxy yet? If so, then we should be confident in our confessional standards to the extent that they clearly and accurately represent the unchanging truth of Scripture. Or, is it epistemologically arrogant to say that we've arrived at orthodoxy? To seems to me one's "ethos" is often determined by their stance on the truth question. If we aren't able to speak confidently where Scripture has spoken, then why not do away with confessionalism altogether? That way we can look more "charitable" and distance ourselves from those who believe they have truth mounted, stuffed, and hanging on the wall.

Jason, on adult baptisms-- I think often we compare the PCA (whether consciously or not) with Baptist churches, which may unfairly skew things. Many adult baptisms outside the PCA wouldn't happen in the PCA because they are re-baptisms. I do still think we need to do more evangelistic work, but perhaps we suffer unnecessarily in relation to the Baptists in this regard.

You raise an important point-- it's certainly open to question whether the WCF's agenda closely matches what should be our agenda as a church. Defending the "solas" is a task not to be despised, but defending truth will not unfailingly lead us to the "life together" of discipleship to which we are called (among other challenges).

I love the WCF, 3FU, etc. I consider them a treasure for the church. But in recent debates in the PCA, I have found it strange that the discourse has moved from arguments about what scripture says (to be encapsulated in written form such as the WCF) to arguments about what the WCF says. From there, we get into debates over whether those ratifying the WCF held to the imputation of active obedience, or whether they considered that an essential-- historical inquiries which may change whether a man is being faithful to vows he made to uphold the WCF.

And this, at the same time where significant points of attack within the church (feminism, for one) are not addressed by the WCF.

So to answer the question posed by Darryl, we can at least say this about those who are "more conservative" than John Frame (which is quite an achievement, I think). It was their work which made the resurgence in Reformed theology possible. Without them, I doubt we'd have the luxury of worrying about how well we're handling this success.

Responding to Darryl Hart: Nice to hear from you again, Darryl. I'm not sure where your comment arises in the context of the current discussion. Since my post didn't discuss individuals, only certain positions that I agreed and disagreed with, I don't know what you mean about being more positive to more conservative Presbyterians. My post was about issues rather than persons. Or did you think I should have agreed more with the conservative positions? Well, maybe, but I try not to evaluate of a position simply because of my own niceness or nastiness.

By the way, if you follow my paper trail, I think you'll find that I have been more respectful and positive to opponents to my "right" (Muller, Wells, et al; though my expressions of respect for these brothers were not always reciprocated) than to those on my "left" (liberals, neo-orthodox, limited inerrancy evangelicals). Perhaps the whole early Westminster faculty (Van Til, Murray, Young...) was to my right in a way, but I have praised them to the skies and continue to do so.

But perhaps the distinction between "left" and "right" is not helpful here. You probably consider me to be to your left on matters of tradition, worship, and confessionalism. But some, at least, would consider me to be on your right to the extent that I believe the Scriptures should motivate and inform our political decisions. The worst-case descriptions of us are that you are a traditionalist and I am a biblicist. But is traditionalism to the right of biblicism, or the reverse:? I honestly don't know.

Thank you for this, Prof. Frame. I wish we would all come to gips with your very productive summary of theology as the "application" of Scripture. That alone would keep us from idolizing the formulations of past theologians.

I also sympathize with your frustration with our 350-year-old confessional documents. There has to come a time when we admit that this 17th-century document was faithfully composed to meet the needs of that time and culture but that it no longer has the ability to do so today. I've gotten in loads of trouble saying that the Westminster standards are not sufficient for the Reformed church today. The Bible alone is sufficient. Our symbols are helpful and important, but they are human documents that are time and culture bound. Does anyone believe that the Westminster Divines expected that the church of the 21st century would still be bound to their documents? Does anyone really believe that they would be pleased with us fighting over their formulations? Is the church expected to be bound to these 17th-century symbols for the next 500 or 1000 years? In AD 2408 will there be a Presbyterian church that still requires subscription to these documents? I sincerely hope not.

Dr. Hart,

Neither Jeremy nor Prof. Frame have cast this issue as one between "left" and "right" and so I'm not sure how your comment is relevant. It is my understanding that Prof. Frame's task was to be the "simpatico" respondent to Jeremy's talk, not to post positive comments towards those to the right of HIS OWN theological position.

TE Jones,

First, thank you for your thoughts. I believe that your remarks on renewing theology will spark significant discussion and parts of it will challenge us. Certainly needless sectarianism does not serve the cause of Christ well. The only "pure church" is the invisible church for which we do not have the membership list. Every church on earth is a corpus mixtum of wheat and tares. Protestant denominations, for the most part, share more things in common than we have differences. The most important shared treasure is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

As to a golden age, I am reminded of Carly Simon's old song Anticipation with it's repeated refrain: "These are the good old days." The golden age of opportunity for us is now to preach the gospel. But, we cannot rightfully know who we are and why without appreciating from whence we came. That's largely why church history is an important part of the ordination exams. Our view of history must be balanced so that we appreciate the sacrifices, achievements, and truths espoused and defended by those who have gone before lest we dishonor them or repeat their mistakes. At the same time, we must carefully discern their mistakes, learn from them, and not run down those same paths ourselves. The only really golden era will be when our Lord returns for us.

I have a few differing thoughts on your talk, but it is impossible to comment adequately here on 40+ minutes of remarks. So, I will offer a few points here and perhaps post a longer piece (or several) over on GreenBaggins. Here I will only comment on one point, but it lies at the heart of your proposals so it is a key point.

I respectfully dissent from your house analogy with the clear assertion that the Reformed faith is built as an upper floor on top of the Roman church as a first floor. Certainly Luther's original goal was to reform the RCC, but it wasn't very long before that goal showed itself not to be possible and was abandoned. Unlike Luther and Bucer, men like Calvin, Beza, Bullinger, Knox, etc. were never Roman priests and so cannot be said to have attempted to reform Rome. They struck a separate path based on the gospel, distinct from Rome.

I see a significantly different history than you describe when I read the Reformers. The early reformers used the term "anti-Christ" to characterize the pope and the Roman church more times than any of us can count. Whatever I could say here would pale in comparison to what they wrote about Rome. The adjective "popish" was one of Calvin's favorite derogatories. Calvin's response to the Faculty of Sacred Theology of Paris drips with sarcasm and disdain. Junius' notes on Revelation in the 1599 Geneva Bible included a chart delineating which evil figures in Revelation matched particular Roman church leaders. And then there's the Institutes...

No, the Reformers bypassed the Roman doctrines to study the Bible itself from the original languages. They did not attempt to reform the Roman church in the long run, but strove to recapture the truths of, and build upon, the foundation of Christ and His Word directly. They also used the early creeds which were developed before the corruption of Rome trampled the early church. In response to the Reformation, the Roman church anathematized the gospel at the Council of Trent. The doctrines canonized at Trent weren't new. Rome's long-time doctrines were simply codified there. How can one build upon such a foundation? Surely this is a foundation of sand which our Lord contrasted to the Rock of our salvation.

That fact that the early creeds up to Chalcedon and some orthodox doctrines survived across centuries of corruption and a defective "gospel" is no credit to that apostate church. The Roman church did not "protect and hand down" those creeds or doctrines, but rather God providentially protected those truths in spite of the corrupt leadership and doctrines of the Roman church, handing them to the Reformers who recaptured the Gospel of Jesus Christ to His glory.

I am not denying that we and our Protestant brothers and sisters share a commonality in the gospel. To the contrary, we practice this fellowship in concrete ways to the glory of God alone. Jesus Christ owns the gospel, not the PCA. But I do deny that the Reformed and evangelical faiths are built on the corrupt foundation of Rome's sand. Rather, they are build on the Rock of Jesus Christ and His Gospel, recovered from the apostolic era and early church in spite of Rome's opposition. They did so at the cost of tens of thousands of their lives. I do not believe that we should devalue their blood and sacrifices in this way.

Nor do I believe that you need your house analogy to make your points about sectarianism and working together with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Our common Protestant heritage lies not in an apostate church or tradition, but in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Therefore, I prefer Dr. R.C. Sproul's illustration. He also talks about layers, but layers of doctrines rather than churches. If I remember correctly, he uses the Apostles' Creed as the first level over a foundation of Christ and His Word, and builds from there to the WCF and 3FU. This seems to me to be the preferable approach, as it honors both the great sacrifices of our spiritual forebearers and the gospel itself. Words mean things, and illustrations even more so.

As you said in your talk, sometimes sectarianism contains a lot of truth, and theology includes preservation. In the case of the Reformation, splitting from Rome rather than reforming it or building on it glorified God and His Truths. I do not think it helpful to try to cover that chasm with a thin layer of plaster.

Sadly, since your assertion about Rome lies at the base of your proposals, I believe that it detracts from some of the helpful points that you make in your talk. I respectfully ask you to reconsider this approach.

By His grace,
Bob Mattes

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