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September 26, 2008


Mr. Walker,

I just want to be the first to say, thank you for this post. This seems to me to be one of the most helpful, articulate and balanced replies we have seen yet. Perhaps it demonstrates the value of what several of the posters have mentioned: gaining a perspective from outside your immediate circles so that you can become more aware of what you miss due to familiarity and assumption.

Michael, as an elder of a PCUSA congregation I want to thank you for the work you're doing on behalf of those of us struggling to maintain Biblical orthodoxy. As you alluded, the shape of the playing field is quite different in our corner of the Presbyterian world. As I've read some of the criticism and complaints about the PCA (from the right and the left) I've felt like saying "guys, stop it -- you don't know how good you have it". Hopefully our PCA brothers and sisters (and all of us) will be able to wisely chart a course between factionalism on the one hand and a generic, anything goes evangelicalism on the other. I for one appreciate and benefit from both John Frame and Daryl Hart. Grace and peace.

TE Walker,

Thank you for your thoughtful essay. I find much in it with which to agree. I was especially heartened by these sentences: "For better or worse, the Reformers did not see themselves as embodying a particular tradition within catholic Christianity, as Jones had hoped to show. For example, the way Jones identifies catholicity would include the Roman Catholic Church, but for the Reformers, the "Roman" aspects of the Roman Catholic tradition are, at least implicitly, a denial of the catholic tradition on which it is built." I've been trying to make that exact point in earlier comments. Thank you for making it here.

I found this question particularly appropriate to this forum: "If the conditions of catholicity are not found in strict adherence to the Reformed confessional framework, does that undercut the theological justification for the continued separate existence of confessionally defined Reformed denominations? " I believe that therein lies the rub. Perhaps I'm mistaken, but I see issues in basing a "renewal" on a condition that never existed, yet possibly changes the very character of what it was and is to be Reformed. If the answer to your insightful question is yes (and I believe that it is), then the PCA ceases to exist as a faithful Reformed body if that's the way that we go.

Although there is much more to say, I will respectfully dissent explicitly on only one point now. You posited: "When discerning the nature of justification, however, we cannot assume that the specific formulations and dogmatic location of justification in the Reformed confessions must be maintained unaltered." The nature of justification is the heart of both the gospel and the Reformation. We all vowed that the Westminster Standards (and others the 3FU) are the purest encapsulation of justification and hence the gospel. I'm not suggesting that further illumination within the context of the Confession cannot be had, but to move in the direction of, say NPP, would be leave the reservation and abandon the gospel altogether. I find that most unacceptable, as do many others.

But again, thank you for your thoughtful post. May God richly bless your ministry in His name.

By His grace,
Bob Mattes


Thank you for your comment. You observed: "As I've read some of the criticism and complaints about the PCA (from the right and the left) I've felt like saying "guys, stop it -- you don't know how good you have it"."

Amen, brother!

By His grace,
Bob Mattes

Stephen: Thanks for the kind word. Your name comes up frequently at HPPC, always with praise!

Bob: Thanks to you, too, for your careful response to my response. A couple further thoughts that, please remember, come from someone who has not been on the inside of the PCA debates:

1) The role of confessions in forming and maintaining ecclesial identity these days is a complex matter, and the nature of my brief response could not begin to capture the various options. There are, of course, more options than "strict adherence" on the one hand and, on the other, re-thinking unity along the lines of a catholic unity that would include Roman Catholicism. I mention this because I think that firmly believing that a Reformed view of justification is essential does not itself answer the question about how the Westminster Standards should function for the PCA today. There are many options.

2) On the matter of justification in WCF and NPP, from my vantage point there hasn't been a clear enough handling of the NPP in PCA circles that would "justify" (pardon the pun) the conclusion that such a view is an abandonment of the Gospel. The NPP is, of course, not really one thing, but refers to a general methodological innovation regarding how we read the New Testament documents that can result in a variety of perspectives on various doctrinal issues, including the nature of justification. Any view that dismisses "the NPP's view of justification" seems to me to be an oversimplification of the NPP, an oversimplification that, from my vantage point, has characterized the debate in conservative Reformed circles so much that it's not clear what is being debated (or dismissed).

3) The cloudiness of the debate, in my view, has in part been the result of insisting that those working within the NPP define key words and phrases in the same way that the WCF does and that they embrace the particular systematic logic of the WCF as well. With this presumption, it makes it virtually impossible to judge the views of this or that NPP thinker. And what one ends up critiquing is something other than the view supposedly under consideration. (To give an example outside the PCA, I find this to be the case in Piper's attempt to critique Wright.) We should engage these matters with all the passion we have for the Gospel, but to some extent careful readings and analyses of the views of others must be done in a "dispassionate" way so that we can get clear on how their views intersect our passion for and the truth of the Gospel. If I may say so, I think this concern also applies to the way in which the Federal Vision was handled by the PCA General Assembly.

4) This is a side point and a simple one that I'm sure is repeated frequently in PCA circles, but I do not think we should narrowly define the Gospel in terms of justification (nor do I think the Westminster tradition does so). As Calvin liked to say, the Gospel offers a "double grace" -- justification and sanctification, freedom from the guilt of sin and from the power of sin. If we are concerned with "Reformed distinctives," surely this is one of them, in this case relative to the mainstream of the Lutheran tradition. Even if we believe that the way sanctification works is that the Spirit pushes the truth of justification deeper into our hearts to shape our affections and actions (though it's a caricature of Keller's view of things, it's true enough), we cannot lose sight of the fact that the Gospel is about all of life, individual and communal, and that the communal aspect of the Gospel is not merely a means of individual salvation but is itself part and parcel of a demonstration of the Gospel. Lurking in the background of the debates over justification, especially when the debate touches upon sacramentology, is this communal character of the work of the Gospel in us. I sometimes wonder whether or not the truncation of the Gospel to individual justification is not partly responsible for provoking an equally unhealthy over-reaction that leads to a Reformed sacramentalism (if there can be such a thing).

God be with you!


Maybe a reliance upon the Westminster Standards, the way we use a dictionary or a thesaurus (why don't word processing programs come with doctrine check?), is sectarian. It treats our confession and catechisms as if a reference work, far removed from the books in the library we would rather read. But if we rely upon the standards as part of Rich Bishop's endeavor of a Reformed resourcement, and appreciated those as not simply a rule book but as an embodiment of a theological and ecclesial tradition that was differentiating itself from both Rome and Wittenburg and doing so for very good reasons, then it may look warmer and fuzzier than it does. Even so, to appeal to catholicity without also recognizing the theological whoppers that Roman Catholics taught and still teach, is to miss the genius of the Protestant Reformation and the Reformed tradition in particular. Any one who has read the Canons of Trent (not to mention the Baltimore or contemporary catechisms) may appreciate the virtue of Reformed sectarianism.

Michael, thanks for your response to my presentation.
One initial note: I didn’t get to see your response before I wrote my Friday response, so that’s why I didn’t deal with any of the issues you raised in that piece.

I’m going to focus on clarifying what I see in your post as two key misunderstandings of what I was saying; these make me feel like we’re talking past each other from the get-go (and that probably has more to do with the format of this discussion and our different church settings than anything else).

First, I think perhaps you (along with Joel Hunter) misunderstand how I’m using the term ‘sectarian.’ Because the DR conference wasn’t academic in nature I didn’t think it wise to go into this in my oral presentation, but I am not using the word ‘sect’ in the tradition of Troeltsch and Niebhur. They distinguished religious ‘sects’ over/against culturally established ‘churches,’ the former being a dirty word because it names those who adhere strongly to a certain belief system, morality, and occupy a marginal station in culture. But by this definition, any serious Christian is a sectarian – me included! I’m not using the term that way, and I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear.

Following Eugene Peterson, I’m using “sectarian” to name an ecclesial pride that poisons our attitude towards other genuine believers and warps our own tradition. I think we can all agree that this kind of ‘sectarianism’ is a perpetual temptation and is a bad thing.

It seems that this potential misunderstanding of how I employed the term sectarian may have played into your misconstrual of how I attempted to relate “catholic creedal orthodoxy” and the Reformed tradition. I was trying to show that one of the antidotes to Reformed sectarianism is for us to see the extent to which the Reformation itself was ‘catholic’ in nature. I tried to argue, citing Muller, that catholic creedal orthodoxy was the fundamental theological framework for the Reformers and their followers. The Reformed tradition sprang forth from this catholic Christianity and became one of the great traditions within the catholic church.

However your presentation of my remarks makes it sound like I wish to abstract and separate the catholic tradition from the Reformed tradition and then prioritize this free-floating catholicism over/against the Reformed tradition. Following from that, you also seem to suggest that I see any emphasis on the Reformed tradition or distinctives as, in and of itself, ‘sectarian.’ None of this was my intention.
I don’t believe the catholic tradition can be abstracted from more particular traditions. Further, I believe the Reformed tradition has a marvelous integrity as a tradition in its own right. I have no interest in discarding Reformed distinctives for an amorphous ‘catholic orthodoxy’ or even in playing the two over/against each other. I do think the Reformed tradition has even greater integrity when wed to an appreciation for the wider catholic tradition from which it flowed, and when seen as a part of the wider catholic church of which it has been and remains a part. I drew attention to these connections because I believe they expose sectarianism as a betrayal of the best Reformed impulses and can help the PCA form a greater catholic spirit in our theology.

With all this made clear (or not), some other things can be clarified as well. I don’t see myself as seeking to “re-appropriate” the Reformed tradition merely for contextual purposes (though certainly such contextual considerations are important). My thinking along these lines has literally nothing to do with some wider ‘ecumenical movement.’ I have no interest in dislodging justification from its central place in our theology. I think your questions at the end aren’t bad questions; they’re just not really pertinent to us in the PCA. We struggle to have much to do with other denominations at all and having to justify a separate ecclesial existence is not really part of the debate.

A final question: I find your presentation of the catholicity of the Reformers confusing. You state that my proposal “moves beyond the self-understanding of the reformers and the original function of the Reformed confessions.” And: “the Reformers did not see themselves as embodying a particular tradition within catholic Christianity, as Jones had hoped to show.”
Perhaps I’m misunderstanding you here, but I simply disagree with this on these points…and perhaps you do too?
For you point out that much of the Reformed critique of Rome was built on their claim to be more faithful to the catholic tradition than Rome itself. But this implies their comprehension of this tradition, of which they saw themselves as a part.
You then say: “the very purpose of the Reformed confessions is to elucidate catholic Christianity.” Exactly! But this implies that they saw themselves as part of a larger catholic body on earth, something that the WCF on the visible church explicitly states. (My understanding of the catholicity of the Reformers and even their later followers is shaped by the interpretation of the sources advanced by scholars like Oberman, Muller, Carl Trueman, et al.). Maybe you could help me out here if I’m misunderstanding you.

Since this is a flat medium, I assure you I’m not upset here at all; just trying to clarify our communication.



Thank you for your gracious response. I think it fair to say that we'll have to agree to disagree on some of these issues. I'd just like to clarify a few things from one who has literally been in the middle of these discussions in the PCA. I'll stay with your numbering scheme.

2) I respectfully disagree. NPP has been extensively studied, reported, and rejected by a number of orthodox, Reformed denominations and seminaries, as well as a host of orthodox Reformed authors. The OPC's report centered on justification by itself and ran over 90 pages. Although I could have been much more specific, I used the phrase "NPP's view of justification" as a summary of the core errors in NPP in the interest of conserving space.

3) This was covered explicitly in the PCA's Federal Vision/NPP study report. It's available on our PCA website if you are interested.

4) I apologize for my lack of clarity earlier, but I do not believe that I made the argument that you refute here. I had in mind Calvin's statement that "Justification is the hinge upon which true Christianity stands." I don't disagree that the gospel entails more than justification, but I'll also say that there is no gospel without a correct understanding of justification. Where I go from there depends on what you meant in your comment, so I'll just leave it at that for the sake of bandwidth.

Thank you again for your kind response.

By His grace,
Bob Mattes

I found Jeremy's response (Sept 27th) very helpful and clarifying- both with regard to his initial talk and your interaction. I know the dialogue is moving on to new topics, but I would be helped if you had any further interaction related to his clarifications.




Apologies for a late response to your response to my response. I am overly busy these days but will do my best to respond further if you have further thoughts.

I appreciate your clarifications. It didn’t occur to me that you were using the term “sectarian” in a Troeltschian sense; I attempted to use the term as it was shaped by the argument of your paper. On your other main point, I do appreciate that you are not intentionally employing an “ecumenical” framework; I just think your argument employs one anyway, wittingly or not. By raising the questions I do at the end of my initial response to your paper, I am indicating a couple questions that I think the mode of your argument naturally leads to, rather than suggesting these questions are on your mind. In short, I’m suggesting your argument leads you into a number of unintended areas that I would not expect to fly in the PCA. I do think the aim of your argument is a very good one. And I thought your description of “Reformed sectarianism” was very good; but I think overcoming it, which would be a good thing, will require modifying your antidote. I will try to spell this out, and to avoid appearing to speak past each other, I will attempt to re-state your argument – so pardon the length.

I understood your paper to have three main sections: 1) First, the diagnosis of the problem that stands in the way of theological renewal, which is Reformed sectarianism: it imagines the Reformed Faith to the be the only truly Christian faith, reduces theology to the task of preservation, interprets all departures from current Reformed categories as creeping liberalism, employs an overly rigorous view of the logical inter-dependence of doctrine and so employs slippery slope arguments, such that anything new introduced into the theological system threatens the whole thing and the Christian faith as we know it is in peril. Creatively faithful theology that helps the church incarnate the Gospel in our own time and place, which is what you are seeking, is thus impossible in such a context, because it will always be considered threatening and subject to the suspicion of creeping liberalism, etc.

2) Second, we can overcome such Reformed sectarianism by “a return to the ecclesial identity of the reformers themselves. They understood themselves as merely a branch of the orthodox, catholic church and tradition.” You argue that “the church is one building,” and that the various Protestant traditions are like the second floor of the building that rests on top of a first floor occupied by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox communions. Your basic point here seems to be that we Reformed Christians are not “the only Christians in the world.” Rather, the PCA “as a Reformed church is part of the catholic church and the orthodox theological tradition.” How does realizing this help us? You note: “reformed Catholic identity illumines a broader ancient theological framework”; “what this means is this brings a different scale of authority to different parts of our theology. Catholic creedal orthodoxy becomes more basic than our Reformed distinctives”; “what this means is there are more central doctrines and less central doctrines…there are different degrees of theological error.” And you note that the “ramifications of this new ecclesial identity are huge for our ethos,” which then leads you into your third section. If my reading is right, this section serves a primarily negative function, in that it attempts to dethrone Reformed sectarianism by demonstrating that maintaining Reformed distinctives unaltered is not equivalent to maintaining the Christian faith; a healthier sense of our location amidst a broader “catholic creedal orthodoxy” relativizes, to some degree, the debates we have about this or that way of articulating the Reformed distinctives. Therefore, we can be creatively faithful without worrying that every idea that does more than repeat 17th-century Reformed theological formulations is somehow a liberal threat that challenges the foundation of our Christian faith.

3) Third, with Reformed sectarianism critiqued by the ecclesial identity of the Reformers themselves, namely through a Reformed Catholic identity, we are free to “recover a different vision for theology in our day.” You have one main point here, with several implications. The main point: “The PCA needs to recover the truth that the purpose of theology is service of the church in its mission.” In order to do theology that helps the church in its mission, such theology would need to be contextualized theology, because the mission of the church is to incarnate the Gospel in and for the world. You don’t want to leave the Reformed tradition behind at all; but “the call is to creatively re-appropriate this tradition for our own theological work in the PCA,” which means moving beyond sectarian preservationism and toward “creatively faithful, constructive theology that really equips the church.”

Initially, let me say that I really liked the first and third sections of your paper. And I hope that affirmation is heard as loud or louder than my critique of your second section. I share your critique of the Reformed sectarian spirit and its methods; I share your commitment to the Reformed Tradition and find Reformed sectarianism a poor representation of it; and I find the outline of your third section to reflect my own theological disposition. However, I think there are better ways to critique Reformed sectarianism and move towards your new vision for theology in the PCA than the argument you present in your second section regarding the Catholic character of the Reformed Tradition.

One statement I quoted above gets at what I think is the crux of the problem. You referred to your approach as “a return to the ecclesial identity of the reformers themselves. They understood themselves as merely a branch of the orthodox, catholic church and tradition.” In the context of your argument, the “catholic church and tradition” refers to “that body of believers across the world and history who have confessed the core doctrines of Christian orthodoxy.” Those doctrines are found in the “catholic creeds,” so that the “body of believers” who are Christians as much as we are includes the Roman Catholic Church – indeed, you noted that the Reformed tradition rests upon the Roman Catholic Church (and Orthodox). At a basic level, here’s my objection: if this were what the reformers believed, then they would have understood themselves to be schismatics for insisting on the “distinctive” tenets of evangelical faith as conditions of ecclesial unity. Neither the material cause of the Reformation (justification by faith) nor the formal cause (the Scriptures) is set out in the catholic creeds, and yet for the reformers they came to be included in the conditions of catholicity. It is quite true that the magisterial Reformers did not set aside but built upon the “Catholic tradition,” but they insisted the true Catholic tradition included the doctrinal core of the Reformation. Did they think being “Catholic” was more foundational than being “Reformed”? I suspect they would have been confused by that way of putting it. To be one is to be the other. And so it is difficult for me to see how what you are calling for “is a recovery, a return to the ecclesial identity of the reformers themselves.”

The notion of Protestant confessional particularity within a wider catholic unity that includes the Roman Catholic Church is foreign to the mindset of the Reformers; it is indeed a subsequent notion that is fairly described as “ecumenical.” By employing this framework, your argument necessarily leads to the questions I posed, based on the Reformers’ own insistence on the unity of the church grounded in the Catholic faith. If we drop the theological “causes” of the Reformation as conditions of catholicity, then how do we, without being subject to the charge of being schismatics, continue to justify our separate ecclesial existence? This seems to me to be a real problem.

Why did not even the Lutheran and Reformed churches of the 16th-century achieve ecclesial unity? Setting aside the Roman Catholic Church, if we are aiming to embrace “the ecclesial identity of the Reformers themselves,” then I think you’ll even need to establish why catholicity extends beyond the Reformed Tradition to other Protestants.

These are not easy problems to solve. I don’t think you want to return to the Reformers’ ecclesial self-identity. This would require you either to draw the boundaries of catholicity too narrowly to achieve your desired end, or it would require you to work toward institutional unity with all those you include within Catholic Christianity, and your argument seems to want to do neither.

I think it is telling that, in your paper, the case for the kind of catholicity you are seeking is initially made on the basis of our changed context: “I think a lot of us have had this experience of being thrust into post-Christendom environments where you really realize the enemy is not the church down the street, the enemy is the world, the flesh and the devil. Right?” Our environment is different from that of the Reformers. You mentioned our “post-Christian” environment, and that’s a big factor. In addition, the whole idea of doing theology that is self-consciously “contextualized” is a very modern notion. (Can you imagine Calvin thinking that way?) Stretching further back, by the 17th century, Christians began to accept the idea that more than one church in a particular location was acceptable, even when those in different churches recognized the other churches as genuinely Christian. “Denominations” formed around matters no longer deemed to be conditions of catholicity, and denominationalism became an expression of preferences. Calvin would, of course, have been horrified by this. Nevertheless, it has become our reality; it almost no longer sounds strange when someone extends catholic Christianity to include Protestantism, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, and yet at the same time is not interested in an “ecumenical movement”! (That’s a friendly reference to something you said in your response, above).

Let me close by suggesting three things:

1) First, I think what you are after is an “evangelical catholicity.” This is what I think Calvin was after but was unable to achieve, and I think we have a ways to go before the Roman Catholic Church as such is included here. That’s a point of great discussion today (primarily outside the PCA). To cite a few examples from your circles, this would be something more along the lines of what John Frame argues for in his book, Evangelical Reunion, or alternatively what Rich Lusk argues for in his paper, ““An Immodest Proposal For Pursuing Peace and Unity in the Body of Christ: A Plea for Reformed Catholicity.” (I know Frame had no criticisms of your paper; I’d be interested in how he’d respond to what I’ve said here.) This would allow you to be clear on the conditions of catholicity in a way that is more likely to persuade Reformed sectarians. Here, your notion of catholicity would be moving beyond the Reformed Tradition, but not beyond the foundations of the Reformation. It would include the core of the Reformation in the “more central” rather than “less central” doctrines. I realize this puts you back into one of the points of intense controversy recently in the PCA, namely that over the range of acceptable positions on justification, but as I mentioned in my initial response, I don’t see a way around this. You may be thinking all this is implied in your use of the phrase “Reformed Catholicity,” but I’m afraid it’s not in the way you define the phrase, in so far as Reformed distinctives are placed in the category of “less central” doctrines relative to the “more central” doctrines of “catholic creedal orthodoxy,” the latter in your proposal exclusively shaping the boundaries of catholicity.

2) I believe you can sufficiently critique Reformed sectarianism on the basis of a different understanding of the Reformers. I would think Calvin is your best bet, for one who is revered in the PCA and yet had a relatively flexible notion of catholicity. One helpful essay in this regard is Richard Stauffer’s, “Calvin, Advocate of Evangelical Catholicity,” in his book, The Quest for Church Unity: From John Calvin to Isaac d’Huisseau. Stauffer sums up Calvin’s disposition well: “…his attitude is directly opposite to denominational narrowness…[H]e showed himself to be intransigent when it seemed to him that the faith was in peril, [yet] he possessed an extraordinary flexibility in those areas where he felt that the central core of the gospel was not put in doubt. Thus, in his relations with the Zwinglians, the Lutherans, and the Anglicans, he was able to make numerous and perhaps in the eye of some, dangerous concessions.” This sounds to me like what you’re after. Catholicity stretches far into the realms of other Protestant traditions while maintaining the core convictions of the Reformation; just remember that Calvin included the key Reformed distinctives as conditions of catholicity and was also seeking a real unity with all others who embraced them, not just friendly-but-separate relations. What doctrines can we tolerate? Calvin said we can tolerate “those by which the fundamental doctrine of religion is not injured, and by which those articles of religion, in which all believers should agree, are not suppressed, while, in regard to the sacraments, the defects are such as neither destroy nor impair the legitimate institution of their Author” (Institutes. 4.2.1). In other words, the marks of the true church must be maintained, which includes the tenets of “catholic creedal orthodoxy,” the “hinge” of doctrine (the core of the Gospel) and the right administration of the sacraments. If we look at how Calvin applied these principles in his own life, as Stauffer summarized above, it should help us move beyond a disposition of denominational narrowness and doctrinal sectarianism while maintaining evangelical catholicity.

3) Finally, I think you could convincingly show that the “sectarian rationality” you describe owes more to modern rationalism than it does to the Reformers. Hence it is an innovation (like much of evangelicalism).

Thanks again for this conversation and I wish you all the best in your continuing efforts to renew theology in the PCA.

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