2 Books on Reformed Natural Law / Theology

A popular (mis)perception of Reformed theology is that it rejects natural approaches to theology and ethics. However, this thesis has been challenged recently by a number of Reformed scholars. This dual book review considers two books that make a great pair, as they make a thorough case, historically and philosophically, for the presence and positive use of natural law and natural theology in the Reformed tradition.

The first book is Stephen Grabill, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2006), x + 310 pp.  The thesis of the book is the consistent use of natural law in Reformed theology:

The Protestant Reformation carried over, though with some critical modifications  certain theological, philosophical, and legal ideas common to the western Christian church. These common teachings include the idea that God promulgated a natural law that directs and binds human creatures; that this law of nature has been written on every human heart; that conscience and reason serve as natural lights leading people to act in accord with natural law; that the natural law and the Old Law (Decalogue) differ only as means (or conveyors of moral information) but not in fundamental moral content; that while human cognition of the natural moral order was obscured by sin, the natural law still yields sufficient data to assist people in distinguishing between good and evil; that neither knowledge of, nor adherence to, natural law is sufficient for either justification or redemption; and that a natural-law jurisprudence is crucial to maintaining just and well-ordered temporal polities, regardless of whether they are governed by Christian princes or legislatures. (2)

Grabill believes that a recovery of natural law would be useful to contemporary Reformed theologians, because it would give them more contact points with the broader Christian tradition and because it offers an approach to moral conversations with secular culture. However, he does not develop this theme in any detail.

Rather, the book is a historical examination. It begins, somewhat counter-intuitively, in the 20th century with the theologian Karl Barth and a few other theologians. Grabill starts here because Barth and his conversation partners are largely responsible for the perception of Reformed theology as opposed to natural law. Grabill surveys their objections to natural law, but stresses that their objections to natural law stem from their own theological projects and represent a departure from traditional Reformed theology. Their historical claims are suspect because (1) they illegitimately separate Calvin from the Reformed tradition and privilege him against it and because (2) their appeal even to Calvin is suspect.

The second chapter deals with a second source of the misconception that Reformed theology is opposed to natural law. Many Catholic scholars have asserted that natural law belongs to the realist (predominately Thomist but also Scotist) philosophical tradition of the Middle Ages, whereas Protestantism is tied to the nominalist philosophical tradition, which has at best a defective natural law theory. Grabill argues that the difference between the two medieval philosophical traditions has been exaggerated and alleges that, in any case, significant Reformed theologians fall on the realist side.

The rest of the book covers four Reformed theologians, representing the various phases of Reformed orthodoxy according to the periodization of historian Richard Muller. John Calvin (1509-64) and Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-62) both belong to the pre-orthodox phase, but both are necessary to demonstrate, contra the Barth thesis, that Calvin was in substantial agreement with his Reformed colleagues. Johannes Althusius (1557-1638) was an exceedingly influential Reformed jurist and political philosopher in the period of early orthodoxy; Grabill shows his indebtedness to the very early orthodox systematic theologian Jerome Zanchi (1516-1590). Last, Francis Turretin (1623-1678) was the preeminent Reformed systematic and polemical theologian of the high orthodox era. Also, a conclusion sketches the way natural law thinking succumbed to rationalist influences in the late orthodox era and was transformed into a rather different project.

The first achievement of this book is its thorough coverage of a few highly significant but unfortunately neglected Reformed thinkers. Grabill’s analyses are sure to become a point of departure for other interesting projects. The second contribution lies in its success at reframing the conversation about Reformed theology and natural law. Examining the Reformed tradition as a partial critique of the medieval Western church rather than as a full rejection of it makes possible a more nuanced discussion of continuities and discontinuities, perhaps leading to even more clarity about the distinctive character of Reformed theology. I thought the one weakness of the book was the conclusion, which hastily covers the 300 year gap from Turretin to the present. I would rather have seen a more thematic conclusion that strove to answer the question of what makes Reformed natural law theory distinctively Reformed, or how the broader framework of Reformed theology transposed the medieval natural law tradition into a new key. Despite frequent intimations that this happened, the details are scant.


The second book is Michael Sudduth, The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2009), xii + 238 pp. This book is a hybrid of historical analysis and analytic philosophy. Sudduth’s goal is to determine whether Reformed theology provides a cogent objection to natural theology, and his conclusion is that it does not. Sudduth distinguishes between natural theology α, which is natural knowledge of God either implanted or acquired, and natural theology β, which consists of formal theistic arguments that codify and develop the raw materials from natural theology α. Sudduth maintains that Reformed theology allows for both types of natural knowledge.

Natural theology can be developed and employed in various ways. The first distinction is between dogmatic and pre-dogmatic natural theology. Dogmatic natural theology occurs within the sphere of Christian theology (i.e., dogmatics), as Christians assert, with the support of Scripture, that there is natural theology. Dogmatic natural theology is used several ways: “(i) confirming and explicating the natural knowledge of God as a biblical datum, (ii) assisting the systematic development of a biblically based doctrine of God, and (iii) strengthening and augmenting the Christian’s knowledge of God” (53). A pre-dogmatic natural theology purposefully brackets out all theistic faith commitments and attempts to construct through reason alone a natural theology that will serve as a foundation for dogmatics. A third use is the apologetic use, which defends theism against skeptical claims. Sudduth shows that the dogmatic and apologetic uses are predominant in Reformed theology. After the Enlightenment some thinkers take a pre-dogmatic approach while others, reacting against the pre-dogmatic approach, back away from natural theology entirely.

After an opening chapter that surveys a very wide range of Reformed thinkers from the Reformation to the present, Sudduth moves on to his main theme of looking at potential Reformed objections to natural theology. He is particularly interested in project objections, ones that do not merely target a particular argument or mode of employing natural theology, but rather insist that the entire enterprise of natural theology grounding theistic arguments is inconsistent with Reformed principles. He identifies three general approaches that might generate project objections.

The first set of objections concerns immediate knowledge of God. If natural knowledge of God were exclusively immediate, then any inferential theistic arguments would be at best redundant. One way of developing this objection would be to say that the naturally implanted knowledge of God is immediate. Sudduth argues instead that the Reformed tradition asserts that there is, alongside the immediate sensus divinitatis, a knowledge that is spontaneously inferred from creation by mature, properly functioning minds. It is inferred in the sense that it rests on premises (e.g., the beauty of the cosmos implies God), but spontaneous in that the inference does not take concentrated reflection over time. It is similar to the automatic inference of seeing a light turn on in a living room window and concluding (perhaps even unconsciously) that someone is inside. Sudduth takes an entire chapter to cover the recent objections of Plantinga and Baillie to natural theology and concludes that the logic of their own positions actually allow for more natural theology than they suppose.

A second set of objections arises from the noetic (cognitive) effects of sin. The thrust of these objections is that whatever theoretical validity theistic arguments might have, the presence of sin  keeps people either from recognizing them or being persuaded by them. Sudduth appeals to the Canons of Dordt and to Calvin, which affirm an ongoing natural knowledge among unregenerate people. Some natural knowledge is necessary for it to perform its role of rendering people culpable for not acting on it. Sudduth does acknowledge, though, that sin affects both the range and scope of natural knowledge for the unregenerate, rendering their knowledge unreliable or at least less reliable. However, he thinks that some objectors have gone astray by focusing on non-propositional or existential knowledge of God, which is not the sort of knowledge natural theology delivers. Also, some have connected too closely the concepts of natural theology and the image of God. Sudduth affirms that regenerate people are in a good epistemic condition to recognize and use natural knowledge. Scripture both authorizes and guides theistic arguments

The third set concerns the logic of theistic arguments themselves. The first type of objection asserts that the theistic arguments are unsound. An underlying premise for many of these critics is that the arguments must function as logically demonstrative proofs. Sudduth agrees that they fail if employed in this manner, but argues that they can be employed as probabilistic arguments that do not form the basis for the knowledge of God but are useful for showing how the knowledge of God is justifiable. Another objection is that the theistic arguments, even if true, supply an inadequate description of the God of the Bible or perhaps even misrepresent God. Barth and other criticized the theistic arguments for not being Trinitarian. Sudduth points out that, if one is not looking to the arguments as a basis of one’s theology or for salvation, they need not be Trinitarian. Further, natural theology in general is not Trinitarian, but it is true knowledge of God; why should theistic arguments, which merely codify natural theology, be held to a different standard? A related objection is that the theistic arguments do not even yield a robust theism, but perhaps simply an Aristotelian first cause or a very powerful but not infinite, eternal, omnipotent being. Sudduth gets into some detail here, but one of his key insights is that the theistic arguments taken simultaneously and cumulatively yield a far more robust theism than they do individually. For theistic arguments to be valid, they do not need to give a complete description of God, but merely offer enough overlap that we can identify the being they represent as compatible with the God of the Bible.

In summary, Sudduth argues that all people possess some knowledge of God and that regenerate people are authorized and guided by scripture to codify that natural knowledge into theistic arguments. These arguments serve to reassure Christians that there is no conflict between rational reflection on God and the biblical witness and to ward off counter-arguments by unbelievers. They may also decrease unbelievers’ warrant in their own positions and increase his willingness to consider Christian claims. The Reformed tradition provides no objection to this project.

I found this book very useful and persuasive. One note of caution is that certain sections use techniques from analytic philosophy that may be off-putting to the uninitiated. However, the book is still intelligible even to those without analytic training, and if a reader decided to skip or skim those parts, I don’t think she would miss any crucial elements.

Together, these two books provide a firm basis for Reformed thinkers to engage in natural theology and natural law from within their own tradition. I hope many do.

To Reading and Reviews

The Justice Game: A Patristic Critique of the Reformed Tradition

Predestination was the topic of a fierce debate between the Catholic humanist Desiderius Erasmus and the Protestant reformer Martin Luther. The historian Roland Bainton expressed the debate as Erasmus’ plaintive cry, “Let God be good!” and Luther’s resolute reply, “Let God be God!” Both theologians were much more nuanced in their arguments, but Bainton captured a valid insight. Advocates of predestination, when pressed, tend to emphasize God’s rights over his creatures.

The Reformed tradition, which issued out of the theological insights of Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and others, has integrated this stress on God’s sovereignty into all aspects of its theological system. The Westminster Confession of Faith, for instance, immediately after defining God, discusses God’s eternal decree, by which he “freely, and unchangeably ordain[ed] whatsoever comes to pass.” The Confession then treats creation, and then defines providence: “God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least.” In each case, the Confession mentions God’s power as coordinate with his wisdom and goodness, but the first impression of God gleaned from the Confession is his awesome power and absolutely strict control over creation.

Likewise, God’s rights over creation are expressed in the Reformed theology of worship. Calvin’s Institutes reserves its harshest criticism for idolatry, the hubris that humans exhibit when they seek to worship God on their own terms. From that premise, the Puritans developed the regulative principle of worship, which states that whatever God has not commanded is forbidden in public worship. Human invention in worship is wholly negative. A similar logic governs the Confession’s treatment of good works: “Good works are only such as God hath commanded in his holy Word, and not such as, without the warrant thereof, are devised by men, out of blind zeal, or upon any pretense of good intention.” Ironically enough for an anti-Catholic document, doing good seems to be mostly a matter of learning the rules well and following them to the letter. Neither virtue nor discernment receives a mention.

Predestination, of course, is the issue that demonstrates most brusquely the Reformed appeal to God’s untrammeled rights over creation. Calvin himself, it is true, approached the subject with a pastoral humility, and never reveled in the “horrible decree” of reprobation. And, it must also be admitted that the appeal to God’s rights has at least some scriptural foundation. In Romans 9, Paul answers the objection of the vessels of dishonor not by explaining God’s logic, but by denying their right to object. Yet, one wonders whether the appeal to Romans 9 doesn’t come a bit too quickly and glibly from the mouths of Reformed theologians, who perhaps have responded to concerns about God’s justice and goodness merely by reaffirming his sovereignty.

The Church Fathers may offer a helpful insight. Their discussions of Christ’s atonement wrestled with God’s power and justice. When the Fathers explain the meaning of Christ’s death, they employ a panorama of metaphors that cannot easily be condensed into a single logically consistent theory, but two major themes stand out. First, the Christus Victor leitmotif represents Jesus’ death as a cosmic triumph, liberating humanity from the dominion of dark spiritual forces. Second, the ransom idea envisions Jesus as in some way buying back humanity from the Devil, who as a consequence of the Fall came to have certain powers and rights over people, including the power of death. The ransom idea was always a bit murky, as it is not clear whether the ransom is paid to God or to the Devil, or whether Jesus in some way tricked the Devil into this arrangement. Often the Christus Victor and the ransom concepts are found mixed together in the same Father.

The looming question regarding these two presentations is why the death of Christ is necessary. If the purpose of Christ’s death is to free humanity, couldn’t that be achieved much more easily by raw divine power? Surely God could at any point snuff out the existence of the Devil and his minions. The Fathers unanimously affirm God’s capacity to overpower the Devil, but they assert that Christ’s death is a more fitting way for God to conquer him. The Devil gained his power over humanity illegitimately, by deceiving Eve. By contrast, Christ played entirely fair. He was born under the law and kept it perfectly. In the wilderness, he overcame the Devil’s temptations. As Jesus was flawlessly filling the role of God’s Messiah, the Devil decided to win at any cost. He possessed Judas, prompting him to deliver Jesus into the hands of a crucifying mob. But the Devil miscalculated. In taking the life of a sinless person, he overstepped his bounds and was thus deprived of his earlier prize, humanity. Surely some of the details are a bit strange, and one would not be blamed for choosing to explain the atonement through other metaphors and theories. Yet, a striking insight remains.

The cross, according to the Fathers, is a demonstration arranged by God to show how he is different from the Devil. God’s superiority is not merely overwhelming power, but more significantly, unimpeachable righteousness. Whereas the Devil uses his superior power over humans to deceive and kill them, God restrains his power to win humanity back in a way that respects the rules of fair play, even  when playing against the Cheater himself. In so doing, God sets an example for humanity, that justice is more desirable than power. Augustine explains it in a beautiful passage:

The devil would have to be overcome not by God’s power, but by his justice. What, after all, could be more powerful than the all-powerful, or what creature’s power could compare with the creator’s? The essential flaw of the devil’s perversion made him a lover of power and a deserter and assailant of justice, which means that human beings imitate him all the more thoroughly the more they neglect or even detest justice and studiously devote themselves to power, rejoicing at the  possession of it or inflamed with the desire of it. So it pleased God to deliver man from the devil’s authority by beating him at the justice game, not the power game, so that humans too might imitate Christ by seeking to beat the devil at the justice game, not the power game (On the Trinity 13.17).

Reformed theology has not been wholly insensitive to concerns about God’s goodness and justice, but a prevalent style of rhetoric and the general cast of the theological system can serve to negate this crucial patristic insight, that God is most fully recognized for who he is, not when he is praised for his excellent power and minute control, but when he restricts his infinity and his sovereignty to make room for finite, rational creatures. May God teach us to play and win at the justice game.

Review – Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed by Philip Benedict

Philip Benedict, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism, Yale University Press: 2002, xxvi+670 pp, hardcover.

15 years in the making, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed is the product of herculean effort by Philip Benedict, currently the director of the Institute d’histoire de la Réformation in Geneva. Its covers the full geographical scope of the Reformed churches from their founding to the end of the seventeenth century. It is essentially a replacement of John McNeill’s The History and Character of Calvinism, bringing the best of new approaches in historiography and recent studies to the task. The introduction, itself a fine piece of scholarship, delineates four goals for the work:  1) to provide a clear narrative of the Reformed tradition’s development that answers important analytic questions; 2) to assess classic theories of Calvinism’s importance/influence in development of Western society; 3) to highlight church institutions and the struggle over church institutions; and 4) to trace the emergence of various Reformed modes of piety. Regarding method, Benedict states, “This book seeks to exemplify an alternative kind of social history of religion. It is a social history insofar as it attends to the actions and beliefs of all groups within the population and draws upon the methods pioneered by social historians. It does not assume that the religious can be equated with the social or is ultimately explained by it” (xxi).

The work is divided into four parts, each containing several chapters. The first three parts are arranged chronologically, covering the formation, expansion, and transformation of the Reformed churches. The first and third parts present fairly straightforward narratives, as the first details the original impulses of the movement and the third the common challenges facing Reformed churches in the seventeenth century. The second part, which covers the expansion of the churches past the second generation to the end of the sixteenth century, is arranged geographically. The fourth part breaks from chronology to discuss key topics: the reformation of the ministry, the exercise of discipline, and the practice of piety. This fourth part examines the effect Calvinism had on the peoples who embraced it, evaluating popular theories of Calvinism’s role in modernity. The book can be (ought to be!) read straight through, but the ransacking researcher will be glad to find that each part has its own introduction and conclusion. It is possible to glean Benedict’s approach and conclusions without reading every page.

The book is commendable in both its depth and breadth. Despite the subtitle, intellectual concerns receive significant treatment throughout, including an entire chapter in part three. Benedict has drawn on a plethora of secondary sources, incorporating census data, diaries, private correspondence, town registers, church records, and other sources to draw a remarkable portrait of daily life in the Reformed churches. He is always sensitive to the limits of quantitative studies, suggesting at several points that previous conclusions may be overextending the data. Many maps, illustrations, figures, and graphs are included. Almost all of them are well-fitted to the text; very little is filler or decoration.

Benedict’s lack of theological agenda is refreshing. His avoidance of the term “Calvinism” (despite the subtitle) in favor of “Reformed” is a welcome choice to many students of the Reformed tradition. He shows no interest in ferreting out one particular church as truly Reformed at the expense of others. He adopts a flexible approach to Reformed identity, asserting that churches identified themselves as “belonging to a common tradition by accepting one of a relatively narrow range of positions on the doctrine of the Eucharist, by endorsing one or more of a common set of confessions of faith, by inviting one another’s theologians to their synods, and by sending future ministers for higher education to one another’s universities” (xxiv). He attempts to assess the influence of individual theologians relative to one another and to chart the prevalence of certain kinds of worship, institutions, theology, and personal piety in various regions. The result is a rich tapestry in which several key markers of Reformed identity stand out amid gradual yet continual change.

I consider Christ’s Church’s Purely Reformed to be an unqualified success. Little more could be asked of a single volume treatment spanning two centuries of a major Christian tradition. Benedict’s style is admirable: inviting, precise, and concise. Frequent humorous anecdotes drawn from primary sources enrich rather than detract from the intellectual force of the work. Copious endnotes permit the scholar to indulge while leaving the text free of minutiae. The balance of approaches and extensive use of secondary sources ensure that even specialists will come away from this work with some fresh perspective.

To Reading and Reviews

Published in: on May 29, 2012 at 8:28 am  Leave a Comment  
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Calvin Beyond Luther: The Law of Moses

One of the textbook differences between Lutheran and Reformed theology is the Reformed assertion of the “third use” of the law, that is that the law serves to guide the conduct of believers. Thus, there is a way in which law and gospel co-exist in the believer’s life. Lutherans emphasize the contrast between law and gospel. Law comes “before” gospel in the sense that it prepares the sinner to receive the gospel. Gospel is deliverance from the law and the beginning of life in the Spirit. Part of the disagreement seems to me to derive from different descriptions of the content and function of the law. Randall Zachman gets at the problem:

Although both Luther and Calvin agree that the Old Testament contains attestations of God’s mercy as well as commandments and threats, it is nonetheless true that when Luther thinks of the law of Moses he thinks of the Ten Commandments in their theological use, whereas when Calvin thinks of the law of Moses he thinks of “the form of religion handed down by God through Moses” that sets forth God as Father to Israel in Christ under the double image of the tribe of Levi and the posterity of David.

This means that Calvin, in contrast to Luther, forces us to understand the Ten Commandments not as prior to, but as already contained within, the self-revelation of God the Father in Jesus Christ. This point will have direct implications on how Calvin understands the impact of the law in the narrow sense upon the conscience. On the one hand, it will mean that we cannot acknowledge that we are sinners who lack every good thing unless we at the same time know God as Father; on the other hand, it will mean that the principal use and proper purpose of the law will be in the lives of those who have already been adopted as children by the Father, and that this third use of the law will itself be given a christological meaning and shape just like the rest of the law of Moses. (The Assurance of Faith, 144)

Often the form of the question we ask determines the shape of the answer. An investigation into how a person might be assured of the favor of God will quickly (on Protestant principles) lead to a contrast between law and gospel. Likewise, an inquiry into the principles of Christian life seems to sputter or descend into subjectivism if “law” in some broad sense does not enter the picture.  Perhaps Christian theology needs multiple perspectives on law and gospel in order to handle every theological problem. I find it likely, though, that one conception will end up becoming architectonic, while others wills be slotted into it to fill out the picture. So far, I’m more confident in the ability of the Reformed system to appropriate the Lutheran contribution than vice versa.

Review – Union with Christ by Robert Letham

Union with Christ: In Scripture, History, and Theology by Robert Letham explores what many have called the central teaching of the Reformed doctrine of salvation. Indeed, one of the purposes of the book is to unravel the many threads that tie union with Christ not only to personal salvation, but also to creation and recreation, the incarnation, and the Church. Union with Christ, then, is a comprehensive perspective on God’s activity toward mankind, especially toward his elect. Union is not so much a locus of theology in itself as it is a way of relating and integrating the various themes of theology.

Because union is the sort of doctrine that is discussed in relation to other doctrines, Letham does not organize the book according to Scripture, history, and theology. Rather, he arranges the book thematically, incorporating the three components into each chapter. The first chapter, “Creation,” establishes the foundational principles for union: Christ as mediator of redemption and man as the image of God. These two truths provide the cosmic or natural foundations for union, which provide a platform for a higher level of union in grace.

The next chapter, “Incarnation,” develops the theme of union by showing that in the person of Christ, God and man are perfectly united. The history of Christology comes to the fore in this chapter, as Letham retells the early Church’s struggle to articulate the Incarnation as the basis of salvation. As a man Christ had to live in perfect conformity to God’s law, die as a propitiation, and conquer death with new life. However, the Incarnation does not, by itself, ensure our salvation. Christ was united to human nature in general, not to the elect. Thus, the third chapter, “Pentecost,” explains how the Holy Spirit unites the elect to Christ so that they, as individuals and as a corporate body, share in him and his benefits.

So far the book follows a redemptive-historical format, explaining the trinitarian and narrative basis for union. The final three chapters explicate in what union with Christ consists, grouping aspects of union into three categories: representation, transformation, and death and resurrection. The chapter on transformation is masterful. It covers issues relating to the ordo salutis (order of salvation), the relationship between the Greek Fathers and Reformed theology, and the bumpy history of Reformed thought on sacramental theology. It concludes with ten theses on union with Christ and transformation. It is worth reading the book simply for this chapter.

On the whole, though, the book is a bit disappointing. Despite its admirable breadth, logical progression of thought, and interdisciplinary awareness, it possesses one fatal flaw: length. The book is simply too short to develop properly the ideas it contains. Letham’s previous book, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship, comprises 551 pages. This one is a miniscule 164. Often, a provocative statement is left unsupported or a significant historical figure is given the most cursory treatment. Detailed exegesis is sorely lacking, insufficiently compensated for with abundant parenthetical citations. Almost all the chapters seem more like sketches than finished products.

Also, the book varies in style. At times, it reads in a popular, almost unscholarly, tone. At others, long strings of Latin obscure the text. For example, Letham is relating a comment by Calvin, “Paul testifies that we are of the members and bones of Christ (Paulus nos ex membris et ossibus Christi esse testatur).” More often than not, the Latin takes up space rather than clarifies a point. A few times, I noticed that something was underlined in the Latin, presumably for emphasis, without any correspondingly indicated emphasis in the English translation. Since I read Latin, I found these choices to be mere annoyances, but I suspect non-Latinists will be much more frustrated by this. The Latin should have been either omitted or moved to the footnotes, except in cases of special significance.

Nevertheless, I am glad I read this book, especially for the chapter on transformation. Letham’s overall approach to union with Christ is highly illuminating, and the germs of many worthy thoughts reside here in nuce. Also, the upside to it being a short work is that if you don’t like it, at least you didn’t invest too much time in it.

Published in: on January 11, 2012 at 12:45 pm  Leave a Comment  
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What Makes a Calvinist?

Richard Muller is perhaps the foremost contemporary authority on post-Reformation Reformed theology. In an essay, “How Many Points?” he distinguishes between historic confessional Reformed theology and “Calvinism” as practiced by American evangelicals. The entire essay is available here. Below is a pointed excerpt:

I once met a minister who introduced himself to me as a “five-point Calvinist.” I later learned that, in addition to being a self-confessed five-point Calvinist, he was also an anti-paedobaptist who assumed that the church was a voluntary association of adult believers, that the sacraments were not means of grace but were merely “ordinances” of the church, that there was more than one covenant offering salvation in the time between the Fall and the eschaton, and that the church could expect a thousand-year reign on earth after Christ’s Second Coming but before the ultimate end of the world. He recognized no creeds or confessions of the church as binding in any way. I also found out that he regularly preached the “five points” in such a way as to indicate the difficulty of finding assurance of salvation: He often taught his congregation that they had to examine their repentance continually in order to determine whether they had exerted themselves enough in renouncing the world and in “accepting” Christ. This view of Christian life was totally in accord with his conception of the church as a visible, voluntary association of “born again” adults who had “a personal relationship with Jesus.”

In retrospect, I recognize that I should not have been terribly surprised at the doctrinal context or at the practical application of the famous five points by this minister — although at the time I was astonished. After all, here was a person, proud to be a five-point Calvinist, whose doctrines would have been repudiated by Calvin. In fact, his doctrines would have gotten him tossed out of Geneva had he arrived there with his brand of “Calvinism” at any time during the late sixteenth or the seventeenth century. Perhaps more to the point, his beliefs stood outside of the theological limits presented by the great confessions of the Reformed churches—whether the Second Helvetic Confession of the Swiss Reformed church or the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism of the Dutch Reformed churches or the Westminster standards of the Presbyterian churches. He was, in short, an American evangelical.

Published in: on May 8, 2011 at 3:36 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Review – Covenantal Worship by R. J. Gore

Covenantal Worship: Reconsidering the Puritan Regulative Principle is a historical, biblical, and practical critique of the regulative principle of worship (RPW). Covenantal Worship is a revision of Gore’s doctoral dissertation, adjusted heavily toward a popular audience. Its purpose is to suggest a modified principle for worship that Gore believes is more biblically defensible and practically implementable. He describes his way as a via media between the Puritan way, which almost eliminates adiaphora, and the Anglican way, which gives too much freedom to the Church to prescribe liturgy without reference to Scripture.

The first chapter laments the fragmented nature of current Presbyterian worship and surveys contemporary developments in worship theory. The second chapter provides an uncontroversial definition of the RPW based on an examination of the WCF. After this, the book starts to get interesting. Gore argues that the Directory for Public Worship, a document produced by the Westminster Assembly but lacking binding authority over most Presbyterians, is a compromise document between the Scottish Presybterians, English Puritans and Independents. Thus, Gore concludes that the RPW was ambiguous at its outset, since the Directory treated as circumstances what many Assembly divines considered elements (47). Having asserted some ambiguity in the Westminster documents themselves, Gore turns to Calvin to establish that although Calvin held many theological convictions in common with the Puritans, his own theology of worship recognized much more adiaphora, particularly in which ceremonies and forms may be permissible.

Gore then moves from historical to biblical examination. He examines the hermeneutics of the Puritans on the RPW, concluding that they are rationalistic (privileging the intellectual in worship) and atomistic (individual texts are over-exegeted through “necessary consequence”) in their handling of the text. He alleges as well that they rely too heavily on logic and not enough on redemptive-historical considerations. Indeed, John Owen’s prohibition against the Lord’s Prayer is an example of the Puritans’ disparaging attitude toward previous economies of faith. Gore takes a simple line of argumentation against the RPW: Jesus did not worship according to the RPW. According to Gore, Jesus’ participation in synagogue worship (not explicitly instituted) and voluntary Jewish feasts (not the Mosaic ones) proves the validity of the church instituting practices of worship that are consistent with their covenantal experience yet not commanded either explicitly or implicitly.  The strained efforts of the Puritans to prove these elements were directly divinely instituted only shows the weakness of the system.

Gore at this point begins to construct his alternative principle.  He picks up the NT emphasis on life as worship, noting that life in general is not regulated by such strict principles as the RPW. If Sunday worship is simply an amplification of life worship, we should expect the same principles to govern them both. The power of this argument has lead some proponents of the RPW, such as Michael Bushell, to deny the continuity. Gore also appeals to the contours of the OT law: as the casuistic law of the OT provided guidelines but did not cover every possibility, so the NT provides space for the living application of wisdom rather than the mechanical application of rules.

Gore draws on Cornelius Van Til to establish a four covenantal principles that regulate worship: “(1) vicegerency, (2) self-realization, (3) individualization, and (4) analogical action” (121). Gore’s exposition of these principles concludes, “Worship was never intended to consist in simple conformity to a comprehensive set of guidelines. Even in the Mosaic economy, filled with ceremonial and typical elements, basic to true worship was the exercise of dominion as faithful obedient creatures. Now, in the cultural diversity of the New Testament church, the occasion for exercising such stewardship has vastly increased” (124). Gore exegetes Acts 16:1-3, Acts 21:15-26, Romans 14, and 1 Corinthians 8 to prove that there is in the NT ample room for adiaphora. The Formula of Concord, Belgic Confession, Scots Confession, Second Helvetic Confession and Thirty-Nine Articles echo these sentiments.

Gore then synthesizes his “covenantal principle of worship.” Covenantal worship includes all that is explicitly or implicitly commanded in Scripture, but it also may include that which is warranted by Scripture, a broader category including much adiaphora. Worship is to be simple, orderly, free, God-glorifying, edifying, catholic, culturally-sensitive, balanced and Christ-centered.

I found Covenantal Worship to be both a provocative and enjoyable read. It is also a good example of how a confessional Presbyterian should interact critically with his own tradition. Both Gore’s critiques of the RPW and his suggestions for modification come from within the broader Reformed tradition. His purpose is one with which all confessional Presbyterians can agree, more biblical worship in our current context. On the biblical side, he makes some strong arguments not easily refuted (as he has shown) by proponents of the RPW. His own principle, although somewhat (purposefully) vague, does provide regulation and direct attention to the covenant life of the church.

Given his purpose and presumed target audience, I found several aspects of the book surprising. First, it is both short (about 160 body pages in a smallish paperback) and popular. I suspect that most people who would care enough to pick up a book on this topic are rather well-versed in the topic already. Such a treatment may seem superficial to them. His section on Puritan exegesis may backfire. Most of the proponents of the RPW view the Puritans as pretty much the best theologians who ever lived; they are not likely to take kindly to his remarks. That section was rife with generalization and sparsely exampled. Either providing much more thorough documentation or muting his claims would have been a better route. Finally, his use of Calvin is somewhat suspect. Most of the disagreements he included do not involve elements but forms. The Puritan argument against kneeling, for example, was not that kneeling was not an element, but that kneeling to take the Supper was a form of the element that communicated a message incongruous with a proper ecclesiology. So at least some of the appeal to Calvin loses its force.

Overall, I’m glad I read this book. It is relevant to my context and provoked thought on a number of levels. I would not recommend it as a must-read, but I would include it in a list of materials for someone thinking through the RPW.

Published in: on April 19, 2010 at 10:20 am  Comments (1)  
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