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September 22, 2008


"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?"

Perhaps I misunderstand your question. I don't want to come across rudely AT ALL, so please don't take my response this way. But, for what it's worth, I think John Frame frequently compliments Presbyterians who are more conservative than he. I could probably post a dozen examples if I had the time and if his books were in front of me. But, again, I may (probably am) misunderstanding your point. Please forgive me and correct me if that is the case. Thanks. And I hope I didn't come across rudely - that wasn't my intention.

Dr. Frame,

Thank you for your thought-provoking essay, and for your many contributions to the cause of Christ. I must admit to being surprised by some of your questions, as I believe history answers them for us. I do not pretend to lecture you on that history, so please do not read that in these words. I simply wish to show that I believe the answers are available.

On your second point, I believe that the Reformers showed their commitment both to theology and practice. The two have always gone hand-in-hand. Reformed denominations have been active in the mission field throughout their history, both domestically and overseas. The earliest Presbyterian and Reformed Congregationalist churches established in this country were missionary efforts from Europe. I believe that orthodoxy and orthopraxy have found their most favorable balance in Reformed doctrine and practice. Could we sinful men do better? Sure, but it isn't the theology that's the problem. If I've missed your mark, perhaps you could cite what you had in mind.

On your third point, again I believe that history provides some key insights. You ask "The PCA is a “confessional church,” as we are often told. We should, however, forthrightly ask the question whether this is a good thing." History says absolutely yes. It was the Westminster Standards that united the churches of Scotland, and again in America, and the Three Forms of Unity that united the continental Reformed churches. These are the basis of our fellowship in NAPARC. When questions arose early in the American Presbyterian church about ordination standards and the orthodoxy of seminaries, it was again the Westminster Standards that provided the unifying framework. Going down through the history of American Presbyterianism, it was the acceptance of the Westminster Standards the kept uniting those with sound doctrine and enabled them to organize against those who turned liberal. As we have learned throughout church history, those who say they "believe the Bible" can mean anything by that statement. Scripture tells us that even Satan believes it to a point. The Reformed church since the very beginning has penned confessions to distill what they believe that the Scripture teaches. There is a 4-volume set coming out now that attempts to collect and translate all of these confessions--4 volumes! It is only when what we believe is codified in a confession do we find clarity of meaning and intent, can therefore have peaceful fellowship (or as peaceful as it ever gets in the human sphere), and a just and objective court system for when that peace breaks down.

You ask: "If it is, what role should a 350 year old confession have in a contemporary church?" I would suggest that the same role as it has played for 350 years--to unite those with an orthodox Reformed faith. It continues to play a key role in ordination examinations, in succinctly answering questions for those considering the Reformed faith, and for the study of both church officers and congregants. If we really believe, as we all swore, that the Standards "contain the system of doctrine taught in Holy Scripture", then how can we not find them useful today? The spiritual truths taught therein are timeless, speaking to all generations. They are contextualized to the common human experience in light of the Scriptures. While technology has changed so much in 350 years, man himself has not changed at all. Not even since Adam, Able, and Cain. iPods and Dockers do not fundamentally change man into some kind of different, post-modern construction who needs a different gospel.

You ask, "Is it plausible to suggest that we should treat the confession in effect as an infallible presentation of biblical doctrine?" Nothing man-made is infallible, and no such claim has been made for the WCF as far as I know. Yet, in 350 years, no error has been found in the confession or catechisms. We don't treat it as infallible, but rather as a faithful and accurate human document that "contains the system of doctrine taught in Holy Scripture." If someone thinks that after 350 years they have found an error in it, there's a process to amend it wisely included in our PCA polity. If someone wants to, as one individual has suggested, rewrite Chapter VII of the WCF, let them put it forward as an overture to their presbytery and then the General Assembly. If someone thinks that something needs to be added, let them put forward an overture. Last I checked, there's no line at that door.

You ask, "How then can we do justice to the immense amount of quality biblical scholarship and theological reflection that has taken place since that time?" I'm not sure that I understand what you mean by this question. Given my response to your last question, do you wish to say that someone has found an error in the Standards in the intervening period? Surely one can (and many do) write books and papers in reflection upon Scripture, theology, and our Standards. Not all that can be said has been said, at least by everybody. :-) If orthodox, these writings do not compete with the Standards but rather cast an appreciative and perhaps illuminating light upon their contents. Responsible and orthodox scholarship stands upon the shoulders of our forefathers, it doesn't build a parallel and different stack of contrary doctrine and expect to remain inside the orthodox Reformed community. Of course, one can write anything unorthodox one wishes, but not within the Scripture and Westminster-defined fellowship of the PCA (BCO Preliminary Principle 2).

You ask, "Does confessionalism itself lead to sectarianism?" I would answer no...and yes. Doctrine unites believers together in a faith community. Without common doctrine, there can be no true community. That isn't Bob's opinion, but the judgment of Scripture and human history. On the other hand, when some in the community have wandered or run across the doctrinal boundaries of the community, then doctrine does divide, as it should. Jeremy said in his remarks that there were times when this is appropriate, as theology is also preservative. The hard part is to discern wisely when that time comes. By God's grace, we have done extraordinarily well in the PCA at preserving our unity in conflict, aided by the Holy Spirit and our polity.

Lastly, you asked, "If not, how can a confessional church guard against sectarians who appeal to the confession as a “golden age” document?" Ah, the heart is wicked and deceitful, who can know it? I wrote a long comment on a an essay from last week about the value of denominational processes and the levels of courts. I believe that we guard our hearts through mutual accountability. We can do that on a personal level, and certainly through the rulings of the courts of the church. There's no guarantee in any human endeavor that error will not prevail. But, as believers we have the promise that the Holy Spirit will guide us and illumine the Holy Texts. We can resist that illumination in our sinful pride, and we can refuse to submit to the brothers to whom we swore submission. There's no guarantee, but working within our polity is the best, God-given means we have to guard ourselves and our church.

Let me close by saying again that I don't presume to know all the answers. I merely look to the light of history to illumine the path to the future. Our Standards continue to serve us in the same ways they have served our forebearers. They continue to serve us well today, providing critical boundaries within which we preserve the peace and purity of the church. Without boundaries, there is neither peace nor purity. Nor should we trade purity for a faux peace. I anyone thinks that the boundaries could or should be set differently, we are blessed with a polity to effect those changes should the bulk of our brothers agree. And all solely to the glory of God!

By His grace,
Bob Mattes

Maybe I missed something, but at a site that recommends reading "Machen's Warrior Children" from time to time, I shouldn't need to remind readers that Prof. Frame has gone on at length to criticize those of us who self-identify with Machen's defense of the Reformed faith.

Prof. Frame: as for you being to the right of me politically because you invoke the Bible for public life, it all depends on the part of the Bible to which you appeal. If you want the OT theocracy, then I say "uncle." But for us living in the light of the New Testament, Jesus and the apostles have a lot more to say about feeding the hungry, avoiding war, and ending poverty than they do about balanced budgets, strong national defense, and limited government. In which case, if you're a NT politician you're likely with Jim Wallis and Ron Sider somewhere left of center voting for Obama. But if you think that the Bible doesn't speak directly to civil politics, as I do, then it may be possible to be a Christian and a political conservative.

Dr. Frame,
You have been such an example for me of holding strong to orthodoxy, orthopraxy and orthopathos at the same time. I haven’t known many people who are so rigorous and astute in their theology and yet so gracious, gentle and kind in their interaction with others. I’m so glad that I was trained under such an example.

I appreciated your comments to Jeremy Jones’ talk. I’ve been reflecting on your words and I have some questions. If each generation should seek to apply Scripture in a context relevant to their day, I suppose the same is true for different cultures in the same time period. So, for example, is it necessarily a bad thing for there to be different theological emphases in the developing world and in the US? And if not, can denominationalism serve as a way to honor the different needs and contexts between cultures? Is denominationalism necessarily sectarian, or sinful, in this sense?

Oh – regarding the dialogue about conservatism, etc: You said in class once that the point is not to be conservative or to be liberal, but to be biblical. Those words have been so helpful for me the last few years.

Darryl, Thanks for the clarifications. I can't take time now to set forth the shape of my political theology, but I have done some of that in Doctrine of the Christian Life. And I didn't intend to disrespect "Machen's Warrior Children," but I did undertake to disagree with them on some matters. I don't think anybody should take that personally.

Amy, Thanks for the kind words. A few thoughts in response to your questions:

1. The existence of different theological "emphases" is never wrong in itself. If those emphases entail errors (as judged by Scripture) then there is something wrong.

2. Denominationalism, in the providence of God, can sometimes provide a service such as you describe. But that doesn't justify the original separation of denominations from the one body of Christ. Better if there were still a single body, with sufficient flexibility to honor different needs, contexts, and emphases, while maintaining sufficient discipline to deal with real heresy.
Right: the goal is to be biblical, not conservative or liberal.


You said
"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."

He is probably quoting them because of the exposure to their work that he received at Covenant Seminary. We read both of these authors sympathetically in one of our first year courses. Besides, shouldn't we work on avoiding guilt by association thinking rather than asking Jeremy not to let anyone know that he found something really helpful from an author that someone else one might not agree with likes?

Dear Bob,

Brother, I am sorry to say that I have to disagree with your criticism of Jones in the way you characterize the Reformation and its relationship to the RCC.

As a point of history, the reformers were reformers not revolutionaries. Luther’s impetus for a new church was his excommunication from the Roman church, not its inherent corruptions. When the Reformers denounced the practices of the RCC and the pope (Luther seem to have found it hard to do this without employing scatological metaphors) they were criticizing the contemporary practices of the church, not every single thing the church had taught since the apostolic age. To simply paint church history with a black and white brush, where Christianity was completely corrupted from the end of Apostolic era to the time of the Reformation is not only unhelpful but also historically inaccurate.

One cannot read the Institutes and conclude that Calvin saw himself as rebooting church history to return to the apostolic age. His knowledge of and dependence upon the great theologians of the church (certainly but not exclusively Augustine) saturates his work as much as does the Bible. Recognizing this in no way downplays the necessity of the Reformation project which God brought about for the good of his church. Were there corruptions in doctrine and practice that were antithetical with the Gospel of Christ? Yes. Were the seeds of these corruptions present in the post-nicene fathers? Yes, maybe even before then.

We may want to say, well then let’s just start over and go back to the Bible. That may be how we tell the story, but the Reformers wouldn’t have recognized that as their project, no matter how bitter their opposition to the sins of the Roman church in their day. There is simply no evidence that Calvin envisioned his efforts as starting over from scratch. At particular points he was returning the church to purity, but he did so by pointing to the Bible and to earlier traditions. As Jones pointed out, at many points (even in Christology) the Reformers were passing on church traditions that already existed, without any serious alterations. So if you have a problem with the idea of our church being built on the traditions of the Roman church, then I am afraid your problem is with Calvin and the other Reformers, not with TE Jones.

I am in no way trying to minimize the real glory of the work of the Spirit in the Reformation era for which we should all have deep gratitude. But we can often paint the backdrop to this story as completely black in order to make the beauty of it shine more brightly. At times that might be a useful tool to teach the gospel by contrasting salvation by grace with salvation by works. But the characterization proves unhelpful when we are trying to understand the real and complex history of the church.


Jeff Dryden

Bob, a few responses to things you said:

"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."

It seems like the only thing you are thinking of as the Roman Catholic Church is the highly compromised and corrupted portion of it that was in full bloom in the late middle ages just prior to the Reformation. That's not accurate though. The early creeds as well as so many of the church fathers and early medieval thinkers that the Reformers draw on were Roman Catholics or in some cases Orthodox.

You also say:

"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."

Why would you say that? Why is it no credit to them? Did the Abbott at Luther's monastery not hand Luther the tools he needed? I mean why be unwilling to give RC's credit for anything? It isn't selling the farm and it isn't good to be unwilling to say anything good about someone even when it's true.

"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."

Again why are these Fathers not being considered Catholic? I don't understand.

Finally you said:
"Yet, in 350 years, no error has been found in the confession or catechisms."

Come on man, seriously? The PCA doesn't use the original. We don't have anything about the Pope being the Anti-Christ in our official WCF. Besides, it would be hard to get through almost any seminary education without hearing a prof say that the confession could be better on X or that it seems to lean too heavily on Y as opposed to X or something. You say "Nothing man-made is infallible" but are you saying the WCF is inerrant? If a man takes an exception to the Confession at his ordination I would take that to mean that he at least suspects a mistake or a poor expression or misplaced emphasis, right?


Thank you for your thoughts. I am mindful of the difficulty in expressing complex topics in a few blog paragraphs. I apologize for any incapacity on my part to paint the nuances of my argument.

I certainly agree that the history of the church is complex. I understand how my comment looked black and white due to the space limitations. I and others do not read the Institutes or Calvin's other writings in the way that would suggest that Calvin expected any reform in the RCC after the initial years. Trent certainly put a stake through the heart of any such suggestion.

Further, there are churches today that splintered from the RCC. Ironically for the point underlying this presentation, there are actually at least two denominations called the Reformed Catholic Church, thought on the surface their reformation seems limited to rejecting the papacy and political aspects. At least one still practice the core of Roman doctrine: sacrifice of the mass, transubstantiation, purgatory, etc. They are more of what I'd expect a reformation of the RCC to look like. That's certainly not what Calvin, et al, had in mind.

I did not mean to say, nor do I think I said, that the Reformers started from scratch. Far from it, they took truth from wherever they found it. That's why I mentioned the early councils in particular. There were men writing useful things over the years, but not the RCC as an official political and economic institution. That is my point.

My bottom line is that we do not need the corrupt RCC as a first floor of any house. No only is it historically inaccurate, it will artificially raise resistance from the pews for any "renewal" so described. I don't believe that our forebearers would back it, either. I believe that they would have preferred Dr. Sproul's model of layers based on confessions rather than denominations. I'm not sure what the resistance to that would be. I didn't see that addressed.

Thank you again for your thoughts. I pray that you find mine clearer.

By His grace,
Bob Mattes


Thanks for reading and responding to me post. I agree that trying to make distinctions on a blog is like trying to slice cheese with a chainsaw. I guess the thing I still have a question about is what is "the corrupt RCC"? Let me ask a specific question. Does it include Augustine? If it does not then it seems like the RCC you are talking about doesn't exist in history, but is just a foil that we use to talk about Luther's gospel.

I am sympathetic to the suggestion of making the foundation of the "house" the confessional truths of the gospel. However those truths did not just drop off of gospel trees, they have a history, and that history is part of our history. What you seem to end up with is a dichotomy where theological and practical error comes from a church tradition (the Roman church) while truth floats down from the clouds.

I take on board the real pastoral concern you express, but I think it is a secondary question. (Secondarily logically not in terms of importance.)

Thanks again for taking the time to listen, think, and respond.

Yours in Christ,

Jeff Dryden

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