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Being creedally orthodox is a badge of honor these days, and in days past, for what it means to be a sound Christian thinker and disciple of Jesus Christ. This becomes all that more acute when we start thinking about creedal orthodoxy within the confines of Protestantism; particularly in relation to Protestantism’s lack-luster exuberance for recognizing the role of tradition in the interpretive process of Holy Scripture. I just came across a quote cited by my friend Steven Nemes on another social media platform; a passage that helps illustrate what I am referring to:

The Reformers did not intend to sever themselves entirely from the Christian past. Calvin’s writings in particular contain numerous references to the church fathers, and he clearly attempts to align the program of the Reformation with Augustine. The significance of Calvin in this regard is noted by Jaroslav Pelikan, who states that the Geneva Reformer became the one figure who ‘more than any other, enabled the leaders of the Reformation to claim that they were not throwing over the Christian past after all.’ Yet in spite of attempts by some of the Reformers to maintain a place, albeit a limited one, for the tradition of the church, the trajectory of Protestantism coupled with its ongoing polemic against the Catholic Church inevitably served to diminish, if not eclipse, the significance of tradition for Protestant theology.[1]

While in many sectors in the evangelical and, in particular, the Reformed churches there is a revival, particularly among her theologians, of theology of retrieval. As the early portion of the above passage notes, the intention of what became known as sola scriptura was not to elide reference to the catholic Christian faith of the ecumenical creeds and grammar; instead the move had more to do with undercutting the magisteria of the papacy of Rome, and in-placing that instead with the authority of Holy Scripture.

It is within this ‘Protestant’ spirit that someone like Karl Barth approached the orthodoxy presented in the conciliar faith of the ecumenical councils; really in the spirit of what we find in someone like John Calvin, as mentioned previously. In light of this, I thought it would be helpful to read along with some of Darren Sumner’s treatment of Barth’s relationship to conciliar Christianity, and how he (Barth) understood the role of councils; particularly as that has to do, materially, with the grammar it has presented the churches with for the last many centuries. We pick up with Darren as he is discussing the various periodic circumstances and occasions that gave rise to the need for the so called ecumenical councils to convene in the first place. It is in this context that Sumner places Barth’s own sense of need to translate from that period to his, while (as the thesis goes) retaining not just the spirit, but often the very letter of the councils’ permutations as those, in particular, had to do with theology proper and Christology.

Darren writes:

As a response to particular situations the creeds of Nicaea, Chalcedon, and others have a particular prehistory, and their promulgation is the form of the church’s decision regarding that which made the confession necessary (and not a free and unconditioned doctrinal reflection, a “truncated summa theologiae”).

That a confession retains these limits, of course, does not by any means suggest that its real truth, and its authority in the church, are marginal. Barth simply means to make clear just what sort of thing a confession is, so that we who owe so much to the Fathers do not mistake it as something else. In fact, it is upon its very limitation that the authority of the confession decisively rests: this admits it humanity, and therefore shifts the burden of truth and authority off of the human speech of the church and onto the Lord of the church who guides it. That a confession is conditioned by its immediate context only goes to show that the authority it continues to bear for Christian witness is an authority not its own.

The result of all this is Barth’s conviction that, in each new generation, the dogmas of the church not only can be subject to scrutiny and revision but must be so—because “in every century the Church has had to find out anew the meaning of Scripture.”

The task remains. We must trust that the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth. We have no pope in Protestantism, but we do have secondary criteria. Sound exegesis will be done within the communion of the saints. The Bible is given to the community of the Church. Tradition helps us toward sound exegesis, and tradition includes the whole history of the Church (including the nineteenth century!). Confessions also help, but none of these is an absolute criterion. In interpretation, tradition and Church Fathers and confessions are our “parents” whom we must respect and honour, but there are times when a breach must be made (Reformation!). [Karl Barth’s Table Talk, p. 97]

Confession and dogma rest upon Scripture and so continually point the church back to it. But “the confession cannot and will not deprive us of our own responsibility to Scripture”—to hearing, understanding, and applying it. And since theology is a human work, the confession of the church and of the theologian is a task left unfinished until its own eschatological consummation—which itself is, Barth says, not in the church’s dogma but its praise offered to God. The authority of the confession “is thus an eschatological concept, to which no present actualisation corresponds, to which every reality of Church confession, everything we now know as dogma old or new, can only approximate.[2]

I have pressed this point before, about the eschatological character of the confessions, and thus their relative and organic force, but I thought Darren’s articulation was prescient and worthwhile for our consideration.

In the best of Protestantism, we read our Bible’s as Steven Holmes has said by, Listening to the Past. In this spirit Barth is just like so many other of the best thinkers that the Protestant church has to offer; if not, in my biased opinion, the best of the best. Hopefully though, while recognizing Barth’s commitment to indeed, ‘listen to the past,’ we can also see how not only to approach the tradition, but the way we should place the tradition; particularly as that is given catholic form in the conciliar Christianity of the paleo-past. Instead of imbuing the creeds with Divine sanction, like in a causal sense, Barth rightly sees them as the wrestlings of our brothers and sisters of the departed past; to boot, faced with a variety of unique circumstances, that to lesser or greater degrees have global ingredients that make them valuable for all times till Kingdom come. But it is precisely because of their human character that Barth, according to Sumner, rightly recognizes the lassitude conciliar Christianity presents itself to us with. In other words, because Christianity is a reality that gains reality from beyond itself in its eschatological ground in the Triune Life as revealed and given as gift in Christ, we are always in via. As such, there is lassitude within this via towards greater precision and erudition in regard to the burgeoning knowledge of God the church is growing into as she is being ostensibly transformed from glory to glory. This, I think, is what Barth’s relationship to conciliar Christianity entails.

What Barth offers Protestants, particularly those who are grateful for their conciliar trajectory, is a way to engage with the grammar of the councils while not also being slavishly determined by them when there might be a greater (not lesser) way to press out some of the inchoate ideas pregnant within the womb of the creeds. But it is in just this regard that I would suggest, that Barth offers a way towards being a Protestant, committed to sola scriptura that is also able to partake of the great tradition of the church. Of course it is Barth’s resistance to natural theology that won’t allow him to simply be chained to an ecclesiological discourse that seemingly just is of God’s direction. He would rather allow the Lord of the church to have room to still speak as Lord of the church; particularly as the church needs to be contravened by God’s voice rather than her own.

 

[1] Franke, Evangelicals & Scripture, 198 cited by Steven Nemes, accessed 01-19-2019, Facebook feed.

[2] Darren O. Sumner, Karl Barth and the Incarnation: Christology and the Humility of God (New York/London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), Loc. 4115, 4123, 4131, 4140 Kindle edition.

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Evangelical Calvinists such as myself are a confessional people, we are; seeing as we’re members of the Reformed faith, which is if anything else a confessional faith. Over these last couple of days I became, unfortunately, embroiled in a debate/discussion about a statement I made in the Reformed Pub. The Reformed Pub is an online forum/group within the confines of Facebook, and it boasts a membership of approximately 12,500 people (which is pretty massive for a FB group). It consists of, what I have observed, classically Reformed folk of both the Baptist as well as the
Beer-CigarsPresbyterian types; albeit there is a heavy strain of dominion theology as well as sabbatarianism that permeates this rarified online Reformed space. I became a member of the Reformed Pub a few weeks ago, and then after observing what I saw de-joined because it really was a bridge too far for my Reformed tastes. But being me, I joined back up maybe a couple of weeks ago, and sat idly by checking in on the Pub now and again. Well, last night I decided to post something on the fly, and off the top; it had to do with, you guessed it, the Reformed faith and the confessions. Unfortunately, after spending probably (and literally) four or five hours between last night and this morning debating, clarifying, and discussing my position it finally came to a head. One of my interlocutor’s seemed to be getting impatient with me and from what I could perceive made a snarky comment to me. So getting wild up I responded, not in kind at first (mind you I had about five hours of what I consider collegial debate with these guys previous), and provided more push back to this guy. But I let the moment get the best of me, and after I made the collegial response, I made a pretty low-blow snarky comment. This forum has moderators keeping tabs on all the discussions in the Pub, once I made my snarky comment in response to my interlocutor they both chimed in and told me I was out of line (of course they didn’t say anything to anyone else, except once, as I receive a barrage of comments, some not in the best of tone — in passive aggressive forms). Once that happened I decided to delete the whole post and comment threads associated with it; I resigned myself once more from the Pub; and have concluded that it is not a healthy place for me to be.

All of that is the background to the rest of this post. Unfortunately because I quickly deleted my original post from the Pub I don’t have, verbatim, my original statement about the Reformed confessions. But it went something like this:

The Reformed confessions were originally intended to be regional statements of faith made by local confessing Reformed Christians, and thus not intended to be universally binding statements for the church catholic. This is not to say that these confessions were at odds with the ecumenical council’s settlements; in fact they sought to complement the entailments provided for by the catholic and ecumenical pronouncements made about God’s life as Triune, and His life in the Son as both God and man in one person.

This comes close to the gist of my original post (although my wording here is even more explicit about what the entailments of the ecumenical settlements are). This statement set off a firestorm, which I really wasn’t ready for. The gist of the push back towards me was that the Reformed Confessions actually were intended to have catholic and universally binding force for all Protestant Christians. Further, that the Westminster Confession of Faith should be seen to be definitive for what it means to be Reformed for all Reformed Christians even today. Of course my point was that this just is not the case, and that there are Reformed Christians, like myself even, who repudiate, say, the metaphysics that fund the doctrine of God found in the WCF, as well as other loci like how grace and salvation are conceived (i.e. through substance metaphysics with all of its implications). The response to this (from the commenter who was really pushing back at me) was that if someone rejects the metaphysics of the WCF then they aren’t Reformed; further he responded that if “it ain’t broke then why fix it?” in reference to the Reformed confessions in general.

But all of this really missed the point of my original post (in a way); my original point was that the Reformed confessions, catechisms, creeds, and canons should be received in an ‘open-structured’ way rather than ‘closed.’ At this point in my commenting I offered a quote from our thesis 15 found in our Evangelical Calvinism book. The quote comes from Jack Stotts and it is this:

The Reformed sector of the Protestant Reformation is one that holds to what can be called an “open” rather than a “closed” confessional tradition. A closed tradition holds to a particular statement of beliefs to be adequate for all times and places. An open tradition anticipates that what has been confessed in a formally adopted confession takes its place in a confessional lineup, preceded by statements from the past and expectant of more to come as times and circumstances change. Thus, the Reformed tradition—itself a wide river with many currents—affirms that, for it, developing and adopting confessions is indeed an obligation, not an option. These contemporary confessions are recognized as extraordinarily important for a church’s integrity, identity, and faithfulness. But they are also acknowledged to be relative to particular times and places. This “occasional” nature of a Reformed confession is as well a reminder that statements of faith are always subordinate in authority to scripture.[1]

My respondent looked for dirt, and for his money found what he was looking for. He let everyone know that Stotts is a liberal PCUSA theologian who contributed to the current state the PCUSA is in, particularly with reference to how homosexuality is viewed and even applauded and encouraged. I responded back that it is a genetic fallacy to attempt to marginalize the substance of Stott’s quote by referring to his personal affiliations and views (one way or the other).

But I want to press this “open” rather than “closed” confessional tradition. Those in the Reformed pub represent quite well the sentiment of the classically Reformed tradition in general; it is a mood of Reformed theology that is more concerned with repristinating the past rather than reformulating and/or reforming it (semper reformanda) per the reality of Holy Scripture, who of course is Jesus Christ. The classically Reformed, largely, are driven by ecclesiocentric identity, as far as posture and hermeneutic, rather than christocentric identity; at least insofar as they approach their usage and deployment of the Reformed confessions as boundary markers. But as Karl Barth rightly notes it is this mood that we currently find in the classically Reformed that is at odds with the reality of confession making within the spirit of the Reformed faith. Barth writes (in one of my favorite books from him The Theology of the Reformed Confessions):

The tendency toward confessional unity of these particular Reformed churches is, on the other hand, [Barth is contrasting the Reformed tradition with the Lutheran, which he argues that the latter seeks to achieve ecclesial unity by their singular adherence to the Augsburg confession as a catholic document that stands against heresies near and far] weak in its development. We remember that the section of the Formula of Concord already cited begins with the sentence: “Fundamental, enduring unity (concordia) in the church requires above all else (primo … necessarium omnino) a clear and binding summary and form (forma et quasi typus) in which a general summary of teaching is drawn together from God’s Word, to which the churches that hold the true Christian religion confess their adherence” (M 568). From a Reformed point of view, one can only say No; such a formula and pattern of doctrine may well be very nice and desirable, but it is certainly not that which is “required above all else” for an accord. That which is “required above all else” is that the doctrine of the church everywhere and constantly be grounded upon Holy Scripture, which defines not the confessional unity but the confessional freedom of the particular churches in their relationships to each other. That was one of the first things that Luther noticed in his opponents from the Alps: the unconcerned lack of uniformity in their formulations, which was a sign for him that their doctrine was of Satan (End. 5,294). “The Holy Ghost is a God of unity and grants one meaning, foundation, and doctrine” (53,362). In the sixteenth century, the Reformed were scornfully described as “Confessionists” [“Confessionistae”] because of their many personal, local, and national confessions, and they were quite content to be such. How easy it would have been for Calvin to install a normative Reformed confession, possibly written by him, in the circles and countries open to his influence. But he never sought after such a thing. The fact that he imposed the Gallican Confession of 1559 on the French was not an act of the “pope from Geneva,” as he was called, but rather a fraternal and friendly form of help from church to church. He wrote a catechism, but we find his most loyal adherents—John Knox, John à Lasco, and Caspar Olevianus—all writing their own confessions and catechisms as a matter of course.[2]

Barth would think it is quite ironic that my interlocutors, the classically Reformed in the Reformed Pub and elsewhere, would attempt to use the Reformed confessions as a basis for ecclesial unity and identity rather than statements attempting to freely profess and confess the Gospel and its implications as disclosed in Holy Scripture. Yet, this is what I was up against in the Reformed Pub the last two days, and what so many who are Reformed in the sense that I am are faced with as well.

Surely, just as my interlocutors wiped Stotts away with one fell PCUSA swipe they would wipe Barth away with one fell arch-heretic/neo-orthodox swipe. Be that as it may to do so is not to engage with the material and substantive critiques and developments presented by either Stotts or Barth in regard to the reality and development of the Reformed confessions.

Nevertheless, as evangelical Calvinists we most certainly work from within the ‘open structured’ conception of the confessions (per Stotts), and we see as their regulative reality, Jesus Christ (per Barth) as attested to in Holy Scripture. It is always reforming for the evangelical Calvinists, not always repristinating; it is Jesus Christ as the unitive reality of the church, He alone is her bene esse and the confessions speak after Him, and after Scripture both de jure and de facto! Semper reformanda!

 

[1] Jack Stotts in Rohls, Reformed Confessions, xi.

[2] Karl Barth, The Theology of the Reformed Confessions, translated and annotated by Darrell L. Guder and Judith J. Guder (Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 12-13 [brackets mine].

There are many images, metaphors in the Bible to depict God’s relationship to his creation, humanity. There is the law-court pactumsalutisbatmanimagery, the Shepherd-sheep picture, and so on and so forth. But what undergirds all of it is who God in Jesus Christ is, and that reality–who he is–has been most clearly revealed in Jesus Christ; we know then that he is love, and thus it is God as love that comes before everything else, every other image and relationship depicted of him and us in the Bible. If this is the case it behooves us then to drive deep into this reality (God as triune love) as the interpretive grid through which we construct our primary understandings of how he acts and who he is; it beckons us to live under this pressure as the mode through which we develop our theological frameworks. These frameworks then need to bear up under the given reality of who God has revealed himself to be; we must take our cues from there, and not elevate subsidiary imagery in the Bible over this prime reality of who God is for us in Jesus Christ. And yet this, I would suggest, is the very thing that has dogged, in particular, the Protestant Reformed tradition. A tradition that has taken the imagery of the law-court, and legal metaphors in the Bible and used that as the primary interpretive grid through which God is understood and articulated. Of note, in this vein, is what has been called Covenantal (or Federal Foedus) theology; this framework developed in the 16th century, primarily under the oversight of Heinrich Bullinger and Caspar Olevianus. The basic premise of this framework is described well by Dewey Wallace:

A second development in English Calvinist thought, also international in its scope, was the rising importance of federal theology. Federal theology built upon the covenant theology of the Reformers, especially that of Heinrich Bullinger, Zwingli’s successor of at Zurich, and also of Calvin. For Bullinger, God had made one covenant with humanity, the covenant of grace, known by anticipation in the times of the Old Testament and by remembrance after the coming of Christ. For Calvin too there was but one covenant, that of Grace, but he stressed its testamentary character whereas Bullinger spoke of it as more conditional, although for both the covenant was the means in a history of salvation by which God unfolded his purposes. At the end of the sixteenth century, the Heidelberg Reformed theologians Zacharias Ursinus, Caspar Olevianus, and Franciscus Junius shaped the idea of a covenant of works distinct from and preceding the covenant of grace. Important English Calvinists, beginning with Dudley Fenner and including many later Puritans, adopted this double covenant federal theology with its covenant of works made with Adam, the federal head of humanity, to be followed, after the fall of Adam, with the covenant of grace, which was anticipated in Moses and fulfilled in Christ, the federal head of redeemed humanity. This federal theology was not only a pedagogically useful and biblically warranted scheme for organizing theology but also “a useful vehicle of the gospel message,” closely related to the flowering of Calvinist piety.[1]

So we get this kind of bilateral covenantal understanding of the Bible and salvation history; we get this legal understanding of God as the prominent interpretive grid through which we understand God’s dealings and relationship with humanity. The covenant of works essentially (as the story goes) was a covenant God originally made with Adam and Eve wherein they were to obey his Word, his Torah, his Law, by not eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Of course they disobeyed God, they ate of the tree, broke God’s holy law, and thus incurred God’s penalty which was death. Fortunately, in this accounting of things, God had already ratified another covenant, the so called covenant of grace, wherein Jesus Christ, the second Adam, would come along, pay the penalty of Adam’s sin, and legally purchase back (i.e. redeem) an elect group of individual humans who the Son and the Father had bargained for in eternity past; the only payment required then was the Son’s active obedience for this elect people, climaxing in his passive obedience of death on the cross for these elect people. At this point, God’s holy law and the penalties incurred by humanity (through Adam’s disobedience) have been remitted, and this elect group of people bargained for by the Son and the Father are finally purchased by the Son, and they have legally become his and thus legally rightly related to God who ultimately relates to people by his Holy Law (even if it is said to be motivated by his love).

With all of this background in place, I wanted to underscore all of it by quoting theologian Kevin Vanhoozer’s defense of this legal framework as the primary means through which he believes (along with the rest of the classically Reformed tradition) we should understand God’s relationship to and with humanity. Remember I just quickly (above) mentioned the ‘bargaining’ that took place for these elect group of people between the Father and the Son? This has been called the pactum salutis (or the Covenant of Redemption), and it serves as the middle term between the Covenant of Works and Grace that helps forward this epic Covenantal story between the Father and the Son; it helps to keep the logic of legal Covenantal thinking moving, and fills in the blanks even further (Robert Letham in his book The Westminster Assembly gets into how the ‘Pactum Salutis’ developed among some of the later Westminster divines). Here is what Kevin Vanhoozer has to say about the significance of this ‘pact’ for contemporary understanding of how Christians in general, from his perspective, should understand God’s relationship to humanity:

There are good biblical reasons to expand the idea of an eternal divine decree in a more dialogical direction. This, at least, was the conclusion of the post-Reformation Reformation theologians who discerned, through a careful reading of Scripture, a pactum salutis (i.e. the intra-Trinitarian “pact of salvation”) between the Father and the Son. Consider, for example, Paul’s reference to “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, … in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Eph. 3:9, 11). To be sure, Scripture does not wear the notion of a pactum salutis on its sleeve, but like the doctrine of the Trinity, it appears to be a necessary implication of what is said explicitly. Minimally, it says that both the Father and the Son freely formed a partnership, agreeing on a plan from before the foundation of the world that would be executed on the stage of space-time history: “You were ransomed … with the precious blood of Christ…. He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake” (1 Pet. 1:18-21). The historia salutis is thus the dramatic representation in space and time of the eternal pactum salutis. This is all to say that the eternal divine decree is dialogical, the work of more than one communicative agent.[2]

Remember above as I opened this little essay up how I highlighted how we, in my estimation, should think interpretively through God’s life of triune love instead of elevating other subsidiary biblical imagery as the lens through which we interpret God’s relationship to humanity in Christ? It appears that Kevin Vanhoozer, along with the post-Reformed Reformers, has opted to take this subsidiary imagery as the primary lens through which he believes that we should understand God’s relationship with us.

A consequence of this, among many of them, is that who God is for us, for fallen humanity ends up getting distorted. A subsidiary picture of God’s dealing with humanity (the legal picture) becomes the frame, when this is not the frame that God has chosen to reveal himself through in the prime. God has chosen to reveal himself to us as personal triune love in his eternal Son Jesus Christ; any idea of Law-giver, or any other picture must be framed by this reality: that God is love, and because he is and because he loved us first we can love him through the Son as the mediator.

I submit to you that this framework that Vanhoozer claims to be a necessary implication of biblical truth, as necessary (implicitly so) as the Trinitarian conclusion, ought to be rejected. The ‘pactum salutis’ (‘pact of salvation’) is only a necessary conclusion about the Father’s relationship to humanity through the Son, if and only if we first and in an a priori way commit ourselves to this kind of classically conceived Covenantal construction of salvation. But why should we? The Apostle Paul used other imagery (and it is a canonical imagery through and through) to depict our relationship to God in Jesus Christ; the imagery of marriage. Why wouldn’t we follow this imagery instead? It better proximates the theological reality of who God genuinely is for us in Jesus Christ; the lover of our souls. And this imagery is in the garden before the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; the imagery is first appealed to in Genesis 2 (i.e. marriage), while the ‘tree’ imagery is provided for in Genesis 3. If there is a primary covenant then it is framed, even in a straightforward and linear reading of Scripture, in the imagery of marriage; and so we end up with a covenant framing our understanding and relationship with God, a singular covenant of grace, which pre-temporally fits better with God’s choice to not be God without us but with us in the election of our humanity for himself in Jesus Christ (the ultimate bridegroom).

Something to think about then …

[1] Dewey D. Wallace, Jr., Shapers of English Calvinism 1660-1714: Variety, Persistence, and Transformation,(New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 16-7.

[2] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding, kindle loc. 1997, 2003, 2009.

WCF1

I am a confessional Christian, but what does that mean? One of our theses in our edited book is this:

Thesis 15. Evangelical Calvinism is in continuity with the Reformed confessional tradition. 

Evangelical Calvinism fits into the Reformed family of faith as a participant with the confession-making of the Protestant Reformed tradition. Confessions and catechisms are timely voices that mature in different spaces, and due to various occasions wherein the situation calls for a decisive statement to be made by a body of Christians who submit to biblical authority (sola scriptura). Jack Stotts captures well the Evangelical Calvinist perception of the place that confessions have within the Reformed tradition:

The Reformed sector of the Protestant Reformation is one that holds to what can be called an “open” rather than a “closed” confessional tradition. A closed tradition holds to a particular statement of beliefs to be adequate for all times and places. An open tradition anticipates that what has been confessed in a formally adopted confession takes its place in a confessional lineup, preceded by statements from the past and expectant of more to come as times and circumstances change. Thus, the Reformed tradition—itself a wide river with many currents—affirms that, for it, developing and adopting confessions is indeed an obligation, not an option. These contemporary confessions are recognized as extraordinarily important for a church’s integrity, identity, and faithfulness. But they are also acknowledged to be relative to particular times and places. This “occasional” nature of a Reformed confession is as well a reminder that statements of faith are always subordinate in authority to Scripture. (Jack Stotts in Rohls, Reformed Confessions, xi.) [Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church, 451.]

Consonant with the above, I wrote this earlier today, off the cuff, on my Facebook wall:

Doesn’t Barth’s axiom of ‘spirit’ of the Reformed faith V. the ‘letter’ [contained in his book The Theology of the Reformed Confessions] logically conclude in the Free church expression instead of those regulated by Confessions?

Unless of course confessions are to be read as theologically material witnesses to Christ from the norming norm of Scripture and not restrictive repristinated Procrustean beds of ecclesiological identity. But then in what sense, ecclesiologically, does being a confessional Christian make if in fact what the confessions purpose is, is not to identify particular denominations and their shared unity, but instead the confessions, theologically are transdenominational and ecumenically unitive insofar as they terminate in their bearing witness to Jesus? Who is Lord not just over the “Reformed” churches, but Lord of His church which is catholic.

It seems to me that the logical conclusion to the spirit of Reformed confession making, in a sense, dialectically displaces ecclesiological unity in particular, and replaces it with Christological unity among all churches, with Scripture as the norming norm and Christ as the reality. So maybe being truly confessional means less about ecclesiological unity and more about Christological unity, which then shapes the ecclesial reality.

One of the reasons I am being pressed to think further about this, is because we have recently begun attending a Presbyterian church (USA), and while the PC (USA) has much more latitude and has theological voices that are disrupt from traditional Presbyterianism (like it is willing to take more of its shape from a Barthian trajectory), it is still ‘confessionally’ located and derived. And so given my upbringing in the Free church tradition, I am really working through what it means to be ‘confessional’ in an ecclesiological way. Ironically, the only reason I ever became open to a confessional type of orientation was because I started sowing the seeds of Barth’s thought into my life and theological development; I say ironically, because unless I had already been part of the ‘Free church’ mindset, I probably never would have been opened up to Barth. And it is the radically christocentric orientation in Barth that resonated with me so much as I first began to engage with him—he was a breath of fresh air. As a result of reading Barth, I moved also to reading one of his best English speaking students, Thomas Torrance. Torrance is much more traditional and classical in some ways; and Torrance places a much much higher premium on the ecumenical Church councils as interpretively determinative for his Reformed identity, and so he is much more ecclesiologically situated by way of method than is Barth. Barth, in my reading, fits better with my sense of things, especially in his kind of mode of Biblicism, and in regard to his understanding of the sacraments (my friend’s Travis McMaken’s PhD dissertation notwithstanding The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth [Fortress Press, forthcoming 8/13]).

So getting back to confessionalism; I am thinking about how that should serve as an identity-marker for ecclesial identity (and in particular, mine). Maybe my association with confessionalism will have to be understood as a dialectic confessionalist; meaning that my association with a tradition known for confession making (the Reformed trad) is its self-referential mode as a movement of the Holy Spirit among God’s people in the world that is a people who consciously unite around the fact that a confession remains flexible, and open to its reality; and that good confession making does not result in commitment to binding recalcitrant pieces of legislated dogma, but that are ever new and ever fresh as the Spirit continues to impinge Himself over against the church as He brings the church into fresh encounter with the reality of Scripture, who is Jesus Christ. And so confession making is something as Rohls above notes, that is constantly capable of being revamped and renewed by a commitment to the living Word, and not an ultimate commitment to confessions and creeds (except insofar as those creeds and confessions serve as proximate placeholders as points where the Spirit moved afresh in the past in concert with His present movement in the church today).

Can you tell I am torturedly attempting to think this through? Good, cause I am. And I thought I would bring you along for the ride.

Welcome

Hello my name is Bobby Grow, and I author this blog, The Evangelical Calvinist. Feel free to peruse the posts, and comment at your leisure. I look forward to the exchange we might have here, and hope you are provoked to love Jesus even more as a result. Pax Christi!

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A Little Thomas Torrance

“God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.” -T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 94.

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“A deep brokenness requires a deeper theology.”

Philosophy of Blogging

“I count myself one of the number of those who write as they learn and learn as they write.” - St. Augustine cited by John Calvin

“We must always keep in mind that the reason the Son of God came down from the hidden throne of the eternal Father and revealed heavenly doctrine was not to furnish material for seminary debates, in which the display of ingenuity might be the game, but rather so that human beings should be instructed concerning true knowledge of God and of all those things which are necessary to the pursuit of eternal salvation.” Martin Chemnitz, Loci theol. ed., 1590, Hypomnemata 9 cited by Barth, CD I/1, 82.

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