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October 10, 2008

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I am a tad curious what contextualization means from a man ministering in Brooklyn and self-identifying as a Red Sox fan. Clearly, being all things to all people has its limits, at least when it comes to MLB.

Questions follow from Pastor Brown's assertion that the Westminster Divines were addressing new questions and needed to write a new confession from Nicea. The implication seems to be that we face new realities that the divines weren't facing, and so the Standards can't bear the weight of our time.

One point of response is that the Divines were in fact asking the same questions as the commissioners to Nicea. What is God, what is man's relationship to him, and how is man saved -- those were questions that creeds throughout the Christian past up until the rise of the Social Gospel asked. They were explicitly religious, not seeking to be relevant to social and cultural matters. Granted, the answers are a lot longer in the WCF, and that's because a lot of "issues" had surfaced between the fourth and seventeenth centuries. But creeds addressed the same questions because those religious questions having to do with being saved and worshiping God were the most important, as well as the ones the church was called to answer.

Another point concerns how little of their time is revealed in the Divines answers to these permanent questions. They were writing at the time of great political and social upheaval. In fact, they were the product of a civil war, a war which led to the unthinkable act of regicide. And yet, modern readers would not detect a whiff of gun smoke in the Standards. Arguably the biggest reference to the politics of the UK at the time is the chapter on oaths and vows. And yet almost no living Presbyterian has a sense of the politics of that chapter (except for the Covenanters).

So my question for Pastor Brown is (not what's up with the Sox garb) but what are the questions the church today is facing that the Standards do not address? Could it be that those are illegitimate questions for denominations to answer? (It may be cheating, but reading the CRC's "Contemporary Testimony" might be revealing for anyone wanting a more relevant confessional witness than the one provided either by the Westminster Standards or the Three Forms of Unity.)

Matt,

I have not been party to your many conversations with Greg, Jeremy, Bill and Jeff, over the years, nor the conversations you've surely had with dozens of other brothers and friends. My exposure to your thought about these matters is limited to hearing your talk, brief discussion at GA this June, and conversations since planning the forum began.

There is probably a good deal that you take for granted because you've been having these conversations for years, but I'm not up to speed on the substance.

All to say, please forgive (and indulge, if you will) some elementary questions.

My sense, perhaps incorrect, was that Greg's talk at the DR conference and response essay in this forum focused on this: there exists a climate in the PCA that is unhealthy, a climate of suspicion and freedom to malign brothers for their theological reading and discussion that doesn't fit within a particular understanding of Presbyterianism.

Greg called this a problem of doctrine (I agree!) because to treat brothers badly shows a failure of Reformed anthropology (among other doctrines). Greg was not asking for sentiment nor was he non-specifically asking for a change in Westminster or BCO; rather he was asking for brothers in the PCA to repent of their sins of treating their brothers inappropriately, and this sin stemmed from de-formed theology.

To be more specific than he was would require naming names because Greg was not advocating re-writing the Confession but rather adherence to it, fully, and even more so the Scriptures themselves.

To say this another way, Greg was unable to be specific the way some commenters wanted him to be because those commenters assumed Greg has an agenda to change the Standards and/or BCO. Greg's agenda was to call on brothers repent of malignant treatment of other brothers.

Or so I think. Jeremy's talk and response essay seem similar to me.

Here's what I think might be different about your response essay above. First, a tangent. You say that in pastoral work the Confession has to be contextualized. I'm with you. When you say the Confession isn't able to bear the weight asked of it today, I can agree with you if you're still talking about contextualizing the Confession in myriad cultural instances today.

But then you write, "My point is simply that our confessional standards weren’t built to support the weight they are being asked to bear. They can’t possibly answer all the questions that are being asked today and if the divines felt at liberty to re-configure creedal categories, why shouldn’t we be free to do the same?"

I may mis-read you but that strikes me as saying, "Why aren't we free to revise the Confession today?"

Perhaps contextualizing the Confession in pastoral work and "re-configuring creedal categories" are the same task. Please hear this: I'm not criticizing but asking out of ignorance for you to inform me. I'm literally confused and you can probably resolve my confusion with a brief answer.

To re-state this for hoped-for greater clarity-- it seems to me that that Greg and Jeremy did was one thing, but maybe you are advocating something different. I didn't see them advocating to change Westminster or BCO (perhaps they want to, I have no idea), but this last line of the paragraph that I quoted inclines me to think that maybe you do want to revise the Confession and/or BCO.

If I am reading this correctly and I may not be, my sense is that Ligon Duncan and others who have been pressing for specifics might now legitimately ask you for specifics. What specific re-configuring do you wish to do?

Darryl,

Great specific question: where does the Confession remains silent or only whisper where we might need a louder pronouncement.

First we need to agree (or disagree) on the nature of the theological enterprise, our ecclesiology and subsequent mission. Sometimes I think this is the great division: those who assume a basically defensive place for theology and those who assume basically offensive place. Though I lean toward offense think you need both. But I have a problem with those who see it has a prevent defense—like gates that must withstand the unorthodox onslaught. I’m pretty sure Jesus talked about it in opposite terms. The Confession is not just a litmus test for theology first but the fruit of theological enterprise in their time. So to lump Bob and your questions together, I hope I summarize well when I restate as such: Where does the Confession lack in such a way that requires the work creative, contextualized thoroughly Biblical theology?

Positive theological pronouncements outside of the Confession have always been a part of faithful theologizing—even in our tradition. The mission of the Reformed church has been shaped well outside of the Confession—no matter how clear you think WCF 25.3 may be. All sorts of topics that have been formed or reformed outside of the Confession: Pastoral Care, Work on the Kingdom of God, Sphere Sovereignty, The Function and Nature of the Diaconate, Political Engagement, Cultural Engagement, Vocation, the Spirituality of the Church, Complementarian Theology. Now I’m sure we’d agree that some are better than others. Some suffer from over contextualized psycho babble, some from over-contextualized concepts of state’s rights. Some suffer from amnesia, others suffer from nostalgia. But I don’t think anybody would say the Confessions handled them all—or that more can’t be written to flesh out biblical implications for our day.

Tacitly we get this; we don’t use the original confession, in fact Christ Central uses the fabulous modern language version. And all of our bookshelves have non-divines on them. We look elsewhere for help. This is good. The divines would probably be troubled with any thought that their consensus document was exhaustive. That’s why we have so many expositions of the catechisms written by folks who were there or came after. There was more to say to their people. It’s a pastoral instinct that drove them and the same drives us.

Here’s an example of the why I teach my own commentary on the Shorter Catechism. I pretty sure we all have some example of this. I wish we’d add “love” to the Shorter Catechism question “What is God?” And when I teach the question for our leadership training, I assure folks that the Confession has tons of places that declare the Love of God—they just missed it there. In fact I wish the question adjusted to a “who” instead of a “what,” and that the Trinity had gotten at least an honorable mention in the answer. But I still love the confession. The Confession is fully Trinitarian and proclaiming of the Personhood of God, but if I had my druthers—and I do—I’d adjust it a bit out of the philosophical construct categories and do more Biblical Theology. But that’s as much because I serve a highly narrative post-everything people as anything esle. They don’t get constructs; they get people. If I was in a different context, I may keep the question just the way it is.

But there are still more whispers in the Confession that may need to develop for our day. Where will I go for some of the issues pressing my congregation right now? Immigration, The function and level of authority in the Diaconate, Bankruptcy, Marital Separation, Gay Christians, Gender Issues? Where will Sam Wheatley go for understanding how to minister to an almost theocratic state in Utah—and a pagan theocracy at that. I read the Confession regularly; these questions are not handled there. Greg said somewhere that to hold to preservationist approach to theologizing is ultimately to remain silent. The issues of our day are talking loud. We must answer them theologically and that will mean we have to use something in addition to the Confessions and our tradition—while still resisting the temptations of nostalgia and amnesia. (thank you, Rick).

And add to this that our Constitution lacks much and we really need some help. The BCO is good but it’s only 30 years old. It seems to me that Books of Order get better with age as they are perfected and ours is still a toddler. DNA looks good but we need to grow up and that just takes time. Another example: Howard and I were asked to lead our neighborhood in prayer over a community member in our midst. It was the closest thing to a funeral the guy would have. I’m not sure if you’ve tried to do a funeral from the BCO for a non-believer in a completely belligerent post-Christian community before, but the resource is pretty scant. So we grabbed PCUSA, Methodist, and Anglican books and we were in business. Our constitution just doesn’t handle it—especially because when are resources are only 30 or 350 years old.

Last example on a positive note: I’ve watched the debate between Egalitarians and Complementarians on the perpetual submission of Son to the Father. The Complementarians who are responding are doing so from deep into church history—bypassing the Reformation all together. Who predicted Chrysostom would be so helpful re: submission in the Trinity applied to the contemporary issues of egalitarianism. Certainly not Chrysostom.

I guess in conclusion, I think we are freed to admit that the Confession nor the tradition handle everything—and that’s good. It means we have to rely on people who have the Spirit residing in them—even if we disagree how it might have gotten there.

P.S. Go figure on the Red Sox. Matt has some explaining to do.

Matt and I are leaving in a couple hours for our congregational Fall retreat where we will have no internet access for the weekend. I'm unsure, then, that he will be able to respond until next week. More importantly, I am not intending or presuming to speak for Matt; anyone who knows him is aware that would be a foolhardy endeavor! I'm only his friend and fellow pastor here.

For myself I would answer Glen's question in two ways.

1) Though it's a good question, Glen, my hope is that this thread doesn't turn into a discussion of the potential revisability of the WCF while we're away. In many ways that would be a somewhat fruitless discussion, I imagine. As you suggested in alluding to your sense of the DR 'agenda', I agree that DR would be an unparalleled 'success' in my mind if the PCA became a place where every minister and elder: a) understood that the WCF has to be interpreted just like any historical document, b) believed there is plenty of room--indeed the inevitability of--various interpretations, c) possessed a humility about our own interpretations and the awareness of the ways in which we have each been influenced by various interpretive traditions, d) engaged in openness and even gratitude for diverse viewpoints and applications in light of our various histories, gifts, and contexts.

If that is 'all' that happened, then there would be much for which to give thanks. Think of how our personal interactions, presbyteries, GAs, blogs, charges, credentialing committees, etc. might change. That would be quite a lot.

2) The more theoretical questions as to where the form and some of the content of the WCF might be updated after so many centuries is a good one. I can say it's continually surprising to me that this idea is met with such incredulity and suspicion. Nevertheless, I fear that this question might not help us to get further in the first and more attainable order of business: that of renewing the manner in which we currently engage and employ one another and our confession.

Matt Brown writes, "Therefore, let me reiterate: none of us is pitting truth against unity;" he reasons that responders have come to this conclusion because the talks are not heard in context. The context was an audience of PCA pastors, and their committment to the truth was assumed and did not need to be re-iterated.

But I have been to many pastors' theological conferences (they were kind enough to let non-pastors in) and have not come away with this concern.

I believe it is something more subtle. It is not a matter of re-iterating the Truth, it is a matter of a passion for Truth (and wonder and joy because of what God has done in Christ) permeating, saturating, informing all aspects of the subjects being discussed.

Sadly, I have encountered PCA preaching in which no Biblical truth was denied, but the supernatural Gospel was minimized. The real excitement lay in transforming our culture by means of social action--done in love, true, but social action, nonetheless.

It is not enough to say, "We are not liberal or post-modern." Why does the defense need to be made? Why does the charge arise? Is it because hearers come away convinced that the real emphasis, the fervency in the speaking, was not the greater holiness of believers and the faithful, loving preaching of the Cross to a lost world, and but making that world a better place?

And in response to my good friend Glenn, who says that Greg Thompson was arguing for a needed change in "the climate of suspicion" where brothers are maligned for "theological readings and discussion that doesn't fit within a particular understanding of Presbyterianism," I can only say that, while lack of charity among brothers calls for repentance, that exhortation, for me, begs the question. Without further specificity (not names) we are left wondering what these "new theological readings" are. Our current theological climate abounds with errors that Biblical scholars and denominational study commissions have addressed. Many have serious implications; some are subtle--more a matter of emphasis than systematic theology--but all-important, since they affect both the pastoral care of men's eternal souls, and our proclmation to those who are not yet in Christ.

So we keep coming back to the reality that what one person calls "suspicion," another calls, "crucial discernment." That is the question.

I wish I could make the tone of this post more gracious, more appreciative, more positive. Maybe Glenn will decide it is too inflammatory. I don't mean to be. I am just expressing the burden of my heart.I also wish I could say this in fewer words!

Mr. Hiatt,I wonder if you realize that your expansive view of the topics the church needs to address is making the world safe for theonomy. There are hard and soft core theonomists, the former go to the OT most, the latter to the NT. But in both cases theonomists and transformationalists want the church to address all areas of life because supposedly the Bible does or because Christ is Lord of all things. And yet, there is a long train of Reformed reflection that limits the church's responsibilities to those things stated in chap. 25 of the confession, which in turn explains why the divines did not include a chapter on monarchy vs. republicanism (a question that was vexing in the 1640s).

So I guess the question is what does the Bible teach because the church is called to minister the Word of God. If the Bible reveals truth about immigration or 8-hour work days, then it is the duty of the church to declare so with the words, "Thus sayeth the Lord." But if the Bible does not reveal such truths, the church should remain quiet. Either way it is striking how transformationalists and theonomists both want the church to speak to "all" of life, with king Jesus ruling over all (btw, N.T. Wright is also giving aid to the theonomists with his biblical theology of the Lordship of Christ).

As for the church's posture, whether it is defensive or positive, my sense is that the image of the keys of the kingdom points to a guardian-like character of the church, admitting those who believe, and keeping out those who don't. That seems pretty defensives as in maintaining the integrity of the kingdom.

Hello all: Matt is out of town and wanted me to post something on his behalf that clarified something he wrote that generated some discussion above.
In his response he wrote:
"Therefore, we must contextualize our theology. The Divines were doing the same thing when they wrote the confession. They understood that Nicene categories were useful but insufficient for the task at hand, so they wrote a new confession that addressed new questions. My point is simply that our confessional standards weren’t built to support the weight they are being asked to bear. They can’t possibly answer all the questions that are being asked today and if the divines felt at liberty to re-configure creedal categories, why shouldn’t we be free to do the same?"

Matt is arguing that we should be able to "re-configure creedal categories" in our current theologizing; in other words, we should feel free to address issues the Confession does not address, as well as use different categories and language than used in the Confession.

Matt wanted me to stress that in this statement above he was not arguing that we *should* change or amend the Confession; nor has that possibility ever been discussed by any of the Denominational Renewal conference speakers.

Daryl: You wrote: "If the Bible reveals truth about immigration or 8-hour work days, then it is the duty of the church to declare so with the words, "Thus sayeth the Lord." But if the Bible does not reveal such truths, the church should remain quiet. Either way it is striking how transformationalists and theonomists both want the church to speak to "all" of life, with king Jesus ruling over all."

Can you help me understand what you mean by this statement? Do you really mean to state that the church "should remain quiet" on all matters that are not explicitly stated in Scripture? The Bible says nothing about driving a car, or filing a W-2 or watching a movie or surfing the internet or a host of endless activities that make up life in the 21st century. Yet I assume that you drive a car and file taxes and watch movies and surf the internet. Further, I assume that you want to do all these things for the glory of God and in obedience to Christ and that you think that there is a wise and godly way to drive a car or file taxes, etc. and a foolish and sinful way to do these things EVEN THOUGH the Bible does not "reveal such truths."

Am I to remain silent as a pastor when someone tells me they've lied on their W-2 or visited inappropriate web sites? Am I not to "speak" to these issues and tell them that King Jesus has rights over their work and leisure or actions and thoughts?

How does your view that the church should remain quiet on truths that have not been explicitly revealed line up with WCF 1.6 which states: The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture?

It seems to me that Rev. Brown and Hiatt are seeking to be both biblical and confessional. They're trying to deduce from scripture ecclesiastical and ethical issues that pertain to God's glory, salvation, faith and life. We may not agree with their conclusions, but if God's people aren't to speak to the difficult issues that face us today, who should?

Matt,

Thank you for your clarifications. They were most helpful. I'm especially pleased to hear of the DR group's affinity for the PCA and our Standards. Perhaps there needed to be much longer background essays to provide the backdrop and rules of engagement for this forum. Even with that background, though, there remain troubling issues in the presentations.

I must agree with Glenn's questions and Darryl's initial response about the Confession's suitability for today. I have asked before if people today are so different from those 350 years ago or even 2000 years ago that they need a different construct of the gospel. And just how are the "creedal categories" no longer descriptive of the system of doctrine contained in the Holy Scriptures?

Lois' points on climate need open acknowledgment as well. You hinted at the same in your first paragraph remarks on context. I wish that it were not so, but some proponents for "cutting-edge theology" teach departures from the confessional doctrines of salvation. We do no one any favors by covering these facts with a veneer of philosophical ethos.

In regards to the relationship between the Gospel and our Confession, I must stand with Rick. While I agree that there are many ways to communicate the Good News, there is only one Good News. If we really believe that the Confession contains the system of doctrine taught in Holy Scripture, then that includes its formulation of the Gospel. How can one stray from that and remain Reformed?

I had hoped that you would address the issue of praying for the growth and success of apostate churches. For me, that highlighted a number of issues. Without clarification, I'm left wondering about the definition of unity that is being proposed as this seems in conflict with your first paragraph.

Thank you again for your clarifications. It was heartening to hear that none of the speakers with to pit truth against unity. I pray that your retreat this weekend proves profitable for your folks and the Kingdom.

By His grace,
Bob

Giorgio,

Thank you for laying out some specifics. I greatly appreciate your patience and willingness to provide them.

Perhaps I'm missing your point, but it seems that your conception of the Confession differs from its historic purpose. We swear that the Standards contain the system of doctrine taught in Holy Scripture. That system of doctrine centers on the nature of our Triune God, His plan for our salvation, and how that works out in His redemptive economy in the church. Period-specific and social-specific issues were removed from the American version of the Standards long ago. I believe that the list of issues that you'd like to include--" Immigration, The function and level of authority in the Diaconate, Bankruptcy, Marital Separation, Gay Christians, Gender Issues"--are passing social issues or polity concerns that have no place in a Confession of Faith. Some can be dealt with through the BCO, others through PCA position papers as has been the case in the past.

As for God's attribute of love, that's historically been included under His goodness. I personally don't object to having it included explicitly in the Standards, but don't believe it absolutely necessary there.

On the purpose of the Confession, I'm drawn to Robert Shaw's Introductory Essay in his outstanding Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Although written in 1845, it reads as if he penned the words this week to argue against a persistent kind of biblicism and for the core nature of the Confession. His opening paragraph reads:

"There have been many objections urged against the use of Creeds and Confessions of Faith, at different periods, and with various degrees of skill or plausibility. It is not necessary either to enumerate all these objections or to answer them all, since many of them have sunk into oblivion, and others have already met sufficient refutation. Almost the only objection which is now urged with any degree of confidence, is that which accuses Confessions of usurping a position and authority due to divine truth alone. This objection itself has its origin in an erroneous view of what a Confession of Faith really is, and of what it is in which the necessity of a Confession being framed consists. The necessity for the formation of Confessions of Faith does not lie in the nature of the sacred truth revealed to man; but in the nature of the human mind itself. A Confession of Faith is not a revelation of divine truth—it is "not even a rule of faith and practice, but a help in both," to use the words of our own Confession, but it is a declaration of the manner in which any man, or number of men—any Christian or any Church—understands the truth which has been revealed. Its object is, therefore, not to teach divine truth; but to exhibit a clear, systematic, and intelligible declaration of our own sentiments, and to furnish the means of ascertaining the opinions of others, especially in religious controversies."

I'll close by saying that the Standards are not social or polity handbooks, but clear and timeless statements of the Biblical Reformed understanding of timeless theological issues.

Thank you again for your clarifying comments.

By His grace,
Bob

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