Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Talking about the Federal Vision Controversy on the Heidelcast (Part 2)

The second part of my conversation with Dr. R. Scott Clark on the Heidelcast is now up. Here's the blurb from the Heidelblog:

For those who are outside the Reformed churches, the so-called (and self-named) Federal Vision movement probably seems like a tempest in a teapot. For those of us, however, who worship in Reformed churches, the FV is no theoretical discussion. There have been actual Federal Visionists in pulpits preaching their errors. As a result. some believers have been robbed of their assurance through a corruption of the gospel and through the FV corruption of the doctrine of apostasy. Others have been led into a false view of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (e.g., paedocommunion). The FV errors have led to a series of ecclesiastical trials. Most believers, even those in Presbyterian and Reformed churches, have probably never seen an ecclesiastical trial. In these two episodes we’ve been able to get a behind-the-scenes view of one such FV-related trial. 
Here is part 1 of the interview with Pastor M. Jay Bennett with links to background materials. 
Here’s episode 54.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Talking about the Federal Vision Controversy on the Heidelcast (Part 1)

This week I had the privilege of discussing the Federal Vision controversy with Dr. R. Scott Clark on the Heidelcast. Here's the blurb from the Heidelblog:
The self-described and so-called Federal Vision movement has been troubling the confessional (NAPARC) Reformed and Presbyterian denominations since before it had a cool name. It presents itself as Reformed theology but is only Reformed in the way that Arminius was Reformed. He was a Reformed minister. He was never convicted of error yet his theology was soundly rejected by the Reformed Churches at the Synod of Dort. The FV has been rejected by most of the NAPARC denominations in assemblies and in study reports. Nevertheless, that rejection has not always translated into successful prosecutions on the ground, most notably in three cases in the PCA. In cases in the Pacific Northwest, Siouxlands, and in the Missouri Presbytery the prosecution of particular Federal Vision cases has failed. So, what happened? That’s a good question and the Rev. Mr. M. Jay Bennett, pastor of Neon Reformed Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Neon, KY joins us in this episode and the next to help us understand what happened in one high-profile case....
Here’s episode 53.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

When Church Courts Err

Westminster Confession of Faith 31.3 states: "All synods or councils, since the Apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both." I believe I recently witnessed this first hand. Let me explain.

On Jan. 20, 2009 after successfully completing my ordination exams, I became a member of the Missouri Presbytery (MOP) of the PCA. A few months later MOP received a letter of concern from various men around the PCA regarding the Federal Vision teachings of one of its members, Jeffrey J. Meyers. After several months of investigation MOP found no strong presumption of guilt in Meyers's teachings. Three members of MOP, including me, complained against that decision. Our complaint eventually went to the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC), where a panel of five men voted to sustain it. Before that decision became finalized by the whole SJC, MOP determined to try Meyers. I was appointed assistant prosecutor in that trial. Part of my duty as the assistant prosecutor was to cross-examine Meyers. The full transcript of that trial can be found here.

MOP, of course, voted overwhelmingly to exonerate Meyers of all charges. I complained against that decision, but by the time the complaint was answered by MOP (in the negative, of course), I transferred into the Presbytery of the Southeast of the OPC, having received a call to serve as organizing pastor of Neon Reformed Presbyterian Church. I continued the appeal process by sending the complaint to the SJC, but since I was the only complainant and was no longer a member of MOP, the SJC ruled my complaint administratively out of order without ever seeing it. Initially I was very disappointed in the SJC's decison. After all, I had been part of the judicial process concerning TE Meyers from the beginning and was in fact a member of MOP when my complaint against the action in question was first filed. But given that the SJC voted last week to deny a complaint regarding the exoneration of Federal Visionist Peter J. Leithart by the Presbytery of the Northwest, my disappointment has been somewhat quieted. I'm certain my complaint would have met the same end.

Yesterday I learned that Leithart is now teaching at a place called The Trinity House in Birmingham, AL. I "googled" it and found this: http://trinityhouseinstitute.com/solomon-among-postmoderns/. The announcement says: "Trinity House fellow Rev. Jeff Meyers and Peter Leithart will lecture at the annual All Saints conference at Community Presbyterian church in Louisville, Kentucky, November 1-3. Click here for schedule and registration."

So today I clicked over to the Fellows page on the website and found this list of Federal Visionists:

John Barach
Richard Bledsoe
James B. Jordan
Peter Leithart
Rich Lusk
Steve Wilkins


Jeffrey Meyers

That got me to thinking about some of the questions I asked TE Meyers from the stand during the trial:
Q. Thank you. Moving on. I'm going to move on to baptism here. You said that you're unsure about what happens exactly to the reprobate in baptism. Is that accurate?
A. I believe that there's some mystery involved in what is -- what is and what isn't received by the reprobate in baptism, yes.
Q. Joint Federal Vision Profession states we deny the common misunderstanding of baptismal regeneration, that is that an effectual call or rebirth is automatically wrought in the one baptized. That's from Section 5. My question is is there a less common understanding of baptism regeneration that you do believe?
A. What section is this again?
Q. This is Joint Federal Vision Profession, Section 5, we deny the common misunderstanding of baptismal regeneration, that is that an effectual call or rebirth is automatically wrought in the one baptized. And my question is is there a less common understanding of baptismal regeneration that you do believe or that you do affirm?
A. Well, I do not affirm baptismal regeneration, and I've made that clear in my answers to both investigative committees.
Q. Was that a yes or no, sir?
MODERATOR STUART: I think he answered that.
A. What was the question?
MODERATOR STUART: He basically said he denied baptismal regeneration, and that would a categorical statement when you asked if he believed in something lesser than what --
MR. BENNETT: Well, I said is there a less common understanding of baptismal regeneration that you do believe? Because the profession -- the Federal Vision Profession, or Joint Federal Vision Profession says --
MODERATOR STUART: I think we need to move on. He's denying baptismal regeneration, period.
Q. (By Mr. Bennett) You're denying it in all senses; is that accurate? You would be uncomfortable in any sense of talking about baptismal regeneration?
A. Well, you would have to list all the senses for me to affirm or deny them.
Q. Well, I would say it this way.
A. What we mean by regeneration in the Westminster Standards and in our reform tradition, given that, I deny baptismal regeneration.
Q. Is there any sense in which you affirm bap -- any sense of baptimsal regeneration?
A. No, I don't believe so.
Q. I'm going to read this quote from Peter Leithart, The Baptized Body, Page 76. In baptism God judges sin, declares the baptized righteous and delivers the baptized from death into new life of the spirit-filled body of God the son. You believe this view contradicts our Standards, right?
A. Would you read it again, please?
Q. In baptism God judges sin, declares the baptized righteous and delivers the baptized from death into new life of the Spirit-filled body of God's son?
A. Do you have a context for that; what comes before and after because I might read to you Romans 6 and ask you if that contradicts our Standards.
Q. You're saying you're unable -- given that one statement you're unable to say that's out of bounds or not?
A. I would have to --
Q. Yes or no?
A I would have -- I don't know. I'd have to think about the context. I'd have to know what he means by some of those statements. He is not using baptismal regeneration language there.
Q. Okay. Thank you. I'm going read this quote from Rich Lusk out loud. This is from Some Thoughts on the Means of Grace. He writes, preaching alone is insufficient to make them believer -- them, that is believers and their children, participants in Christ's work of redemption. Baptism, not preaching, per se, is linked with forgiveness and the reception of the spirit. Clearly Peter believes God will give them something in baptism that they have not received through preaching alone. Baptism will consumate the process of regeneration begun by the Word preached. Would you say that's an accurate summary of what Acts 2:38 teaches?
A. Acts 2:38?
Q. Yes. Is that an accurate summary of repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins?
A. Are these comments on Acts 2:38 that Mr. Lusk has made? Is that what you're telling me?
Q. I'm just asking you if it comports, if it's an accurate summary of Acts 2:38?
A. Well, no. Is it meant to be an accurate summary of Acts 2:38?
Q. If someone read that statement to you and said does this reflect the teaching of Acts 2:38, would you say it does or not?
A. I would say like I usually do in cases like this, show me the whole context. Let me try to understand what you're saying; who said this, when did he say it, why did he say it, what's the point, what does he mean by these terms, and other questions like that.
Q. In the indictment on Page 6, beginning at Line 19, you begin to write about Paul's conversion. You said it's pretty certain that the reason baptism was offered immediately is because the forgiveness of sin -- because the forgiveness of sins is attached to the action. When were Paul's sins forgiven? When was he, quote, converted, end quote. On the road to Damascus or in Damascus when Ananias poured water over his head in the name of the Triune God. The text is pretty clear. Would you say you still agree with that statement, sir?
A. I have had opportunity to interact with the committee, the Complaint Review Committee, and there is a great many questions to me and answers by me that have clarified that in the record.
Q. You write on Page 6, Lines 25 through 27, sure let God take care of the exceptions. We don't do theology by exceptions. Normally God forgives sins and grants new life in baptism. Is this something that you would still agree with, sir?
A. Where is that?
Q. Page 6, Lines 25 through 27.
A. Another comment made on the Wrightsaid discussion list many years ago. I have again in my questions and the questions and answers to the two committees clarified that kind of statement. There are things in there that I agree with that we don't do theology or we should not do theology by exceptions, otherwise we overqualify everything, but this quote normally God forgives sins and grants new life in baptism needs to be qualified, and I have done that in multiple contexts.
Q. Yes. Thank you. You also wrote in the -- in that response I'm not willing to restate -- this is from Page 6, Lines 34 through 38. I'm not willing to restate it because, as I said in my answer to the last question, I'm not confident I can formulate a slogan that will express the abstract apart from concrete circumstances exactly how God uses baptism in every situation. Would you say you still agree with that?
A. Yes. 
Maybe I'm just a pessimistic amillennialist, but I find it hard to believe that TE Meyers wasn't sure about the teaching of these men who are now his teaching fellows at The Trinity House.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

How Has God Revealed Himself? (Part 4)

In Part 3 we looked at the teaching of the Westminster Standards on the supernatural revelation of God (1) broadly considered and (2) narrowly considered in the doctrine of Holy Scripture. Today we will take a look at the doctrine of the canon as it is presented in WCF 1.2-3, LC 3, and SC 2.

WCF 1.2-3 reads:
Under the name of Holy Scripture, or the Word of God written, are now contained all the books of the Old and New Testaments, which are these: [then it lists the 39 books of the OT and the 27 books of the NT]. All which are given by inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and life. 
The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the canon of the Scripture, and therefore are of no authority in the church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings.
LC 3 reads:
Q. 3. What is the Word of God? A. The holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the Word of God, the only rule of faith and obedience.
SC 2 reads:
Q. 2. What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him? A. The word of God, which is contained in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.
It is one thing to say God has revealed himself through Scripture. It is another to actually identify those texts. The doctrine of the canon serves to identify particular texts as Scripture. 

The word "canon" means rule or standard. Those texts identified as canonical are therefore the rule of faith and life. No other texts have this status. No other texts are inspired (i.e. God-breathed, 2 Tim. 3:16). No other texts carry the authority of God.

We agree with Eastern Orthodoxy (EO) and Roman Catholicism (RC) in recognizing the 39 books of the OT and the 27 books of the NT as canonical. We disagree with them in recognizing any other texts as canonical. In 1546 RC's Council of Trent defined 12 additional OT books as canonical. These 12 books are commonly referred to as the Apocrypha. In 1672 EO's Synod of Jerusalem defined 4 of the same 12 books as canonical. We expressly reject the Apocrypha as canonical. 

The doctrine of the canon is of fundamental importance for the church, because Christ establishes and governs us by his Word and Spirit (WCF 8.8; LC 67). If we get this doctrine wrong, then the rule of Christ over us will be hindered at best and usurped at worst. This could happen in two ways: (1) the omission of canonical texts thus hindering Jesus' rule and (2) the addition of non-canonical texts as canonical thus usurping Jesus' rule. The former is an accusation RC and EO make against Protestantism. The latter is an accusation Protestantism makes against RC and EO. Protestants believe that the teachers of RC and EO have usurped the rightful headship of Christ by binding the consciences of their members to the opinions of men. This is a violation of the doctrine of the liberty of conscience, which is spiritual tyranny. 

In 1521 at the Diet of Worms the great Protestant reformer Martin Luther defended himself against the accusations of the papacy by citing the doctrine of the liberty of conscience:
Since then your serene majesty and your lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner, not embellished: Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradict themselves, I am bound to the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand. May God help me, Amen.
Apart from the doctrine of the canon, Luther could not have made this defense.

In Part 5 we will look at WCF 1.4 and the doctrine of the authority of Holy Scripture.

But by Some Voluntary Condescension

This week we began a new Sunday School series at Neon Reformed Presbyterian Church. For the next few weeks we will be studying Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) Chapter 7 "Of God's Covenant with Man." WCF 7.1 reads,
The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God's part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.
Essentially what is being taught in this section is God's relationship to man in terms of obligations. Man is obligated to God by nature (i.e. by virtue of the ontological distance that exists between God the Creator and his creatures). But God cannot be obligated to man by nature. God can only become obligated to man by some voluntarily condescension on his part, which he has been pleased to express by way of covenant. So we see two aspects of God's relationship to man: (1) natural, by which man is obligated to God and (2) covenantal, by which God has obligated himself to man.

This same distinction is made in Larger Catechism (LC) 17 and 20. Man's obligation to God is a work of creation. God's obligation to man through covenant is a work of providence.

It is also assumed in Shorter Catechism (SC) Q. 1., "What is the chief end of man? A. Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever." Here we see the two distinct aspects of our chief end: (1) glorifying God and (2) enjoying him forever, which reflect the distinction established in WCF 7.1 between the natural and covenantal aspects of God's relationship to man, respectively.

Glorifying God
Our obligation to glorify God is established by nature. Creatures owe their Creator all honor and thanks (Rom. 1:21). But even if Adam had glorified God perfectly, apart from God's special revelation through the covenant he could never have obligated God to himself. This underscores God's holiness or otherness.

Enjoying God
Our calling to enjoy God cannot be established by nature. It is established by God's voluntary condescension through covenant. God covenanted with Adam in the beginning, obligating Himself to him on condition of perfect and personal obedience, so that man might enjoy Him (i.e. "have...fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward"). This underscores God's love or personal nature.

Think about some of the astounding conclusions we must draw from this teaching:
  1. If God had never entered into covenant with Adam, Adam may have been perfectly obedient and yet God would never have been obligated to reward him in any way. God could have scrapped the whole creation at any moment without any injustice regardless of Adam's actions.
  2. While Adam could never obligate God to himself, he was nonetheless obligated to obey God and forbidden to disobey under the threat of condemnation.
  3. God has obligated himself to us through His covenant, limiting His freedom with respect to His creation. He could no sooner deny his covenant than he could deny himself (i.e. cease to be God).  
  4. God is not an impersonal tyrant in the sky, commanding us from a distance. He is personal, and He has chosen to condescend to us by way of covenant in order to dwell and commune with us that we might enjoy him forever as our blessedness and reward. How wonderful is this?!
  5. John Piper's (a pastor-scholar that I appreciate and admire) suggestion that SC 1 should be rephrased, "Man's chief end is to glorify God by enjoying him forever," (Desiring God, 1996 Edition, p. 15) fails to account for the distinction between the natural and covenantal aspects of God's relationship to man as taught in WCF 7.1, resting, as it does, on the assumption that man's glorifying God (which he was obliged to do by nature) required his enjoyment of God (which he could only do by covenant). This belies a weakness in the baptist hermeneutic with respect to God's covenant with man.  
  6. WCF 7.1 rests on the assumption that Adam was obligated to God by nature prior to the establishment of the covenant of works. However, natural (or general) revelation is nonetheless dependent on supernatural (or special) revelation for its true understanding, interpretation, and application. This fits with the doctrine of natural law taught in Rom. 2:14 and LC 17. By God's providence he uses this natural law to restrain evil in the world today among all men in common. But it cannot be understood, interpreted, and applied truly (i.e. with a view to glorifying God) apart from a saving knowledge of Holy Scripture. 
  7. Therefore Holy Scripture is the only rule to direct us in glorifying God (SC 2). Before the Fall Adam could not have glorified God apart from God's special revelation in the covenant of works. Likewise, sinners after the Fall cannot glorify God apart from a saving knowledge of the gospel (i.e. the covenant of grace), which is given in the Holy Scriptures.