VerMeer's Geographer

VerMeer's Geographer
The Geographer, by Vermeer, c. 1669


"The Trinity is Like 3-in-1 Shampoo". . . And Other Stupid Statements

Alternate title: “Trinitarian Heresy 101″
“The doctrine of the Trinity is like an egg: three parts, one thing.” Ever heard that? How about this, “The doctrine of the Trinity is like a three leaf clover: three leaves, one clover.” Or how about THIS, “The doctrine of the Trinity is like water: three forms (ice, steam, liquid) one substance.” But the greatest I ever heard was by a guy in one of my classes. He said that he thought that the Trinity was like 3-in-1 shampoo: three activities, one substance.”
Stupid statements. Creative, but stupid. Don’t use them. Any of them. Ever.
Explanation coming… Hang with me.
Last week I taught a group of kids about the doctrine of the Trinity here at the Credo House as part of our Theology for Kids series. The ages were anywhere from 7 to 13. Though I regularly teach this subject to adults, this was the first time that I taught the doctrine of the Trinity to kids. I was surprised that it went well. It is confusing enough for adults, how much more for kids?
Teaching the Trinity, I have found, is more about giving basic principles of what it is and then shooting down illustrations about what it is not. Proper Trinitarianism is about a delicate balance between the unity and diversity in the Godhead. Christians believe in one God, i.e., one essence, who eternally exists in three separate persons, all of whom are equal.
We often employ illustrations that help us to make the ineffable, effable, the abstract, concrete. But when it comes to the nature of God, especially with regard to the Doctrine of the Trinity, illustrations should only be used to show what the Trinity is not.
Let me list the three major heresies or departures from orthodoxy with regard to the Trinity:
1. Modalism: The belief that God is one God who shows himself in three different ways, sometimes as the Father, sometimes the Son, and sometimes the Holy Spirit. It describes God in purely functional terms. When he is saving the world on the cross, he is called Jesus. When he is convicting the world of sin, he is called Holy Spirit, and when he is creating the world, he is called Father. The error here is that this is contrary to what we believe: one God who eternally exists in three persons, not modes of functionality. It is not one God with three names, but one God in three persons.
2. Tritheism: The belief that we have three Gods, all who share a similar nature, but not the exact same nature. In this, the nature of God is either distinguished or divided, which destroys the unity of God. We don’t believe in three persons who share in a species called “God,” but three persons who share in an identical, united nature.
3. Subordinationalism: This is a subset of tritheism, but deserves its own category. In other words, if you are a subordinationalist, you are also a tritheist by definition, even if you don’t recognize it. The subordinationalist says that there is one God in three persons, but the essence of each person exists in a hierarchy. For example, many believe that God the Father is the greatest and the most powerful. Coming in second is God the Son, followed by the second runner-up, the Holy Spirit. Orthodox trinitarianism confesses an essential equality among all the members of the Godhead. None are greater in essence than the other.

Here is a “Trinitarianism Heresy Test Chart” I have created. Keep this by your bed.

  • If equality is denied, on the opposite side it points to subordinationalism.
  • If diversity is denied, the result is modalism.
  • If unity is denied, the result is tritheism (or polytheism —many gods).
With this in mind, let me now cover the “stupid statements” and why they don’t pass the test:
1. The Trinity is like 3-in-1 shampoo. This can only point to modalism or tritheism. It is modalistic if you are saying the shampoo performs three functions, yet is one substance. But you can also break down the various elements that perform each function and see them separately. That is tritheism since all of the elements are not the same. They may work together to perform a specific goal, but they are not really the same substance.
2. The Trinity is like an egg. This is most definitely tritheism. While the egg is one, each of the substances that makes up the parts (shell, white stuff, and yoke), are most definitely distinct. The yoke is completely separate in nature from the shell.
3. The Trinity is like water. This is a modalistic illustration. Ice, steam, and liquid are examples of the same nature which at one time or another has a particular mode of existence. Sometimes it is liquid, sometimes it is ice, and sometimes it is steam. God is not sometimes Son, sometimes Father, and sometimes Spirit. He is eternally each, always at the same time.
4. The Trinity is like a three leaf clover. This is a form of tritheism. Each leaf of the clover is a separate leaf. It does not share in the same nature as the other leafs, but only has a similar nature. In the Trinity, each member shares in the exact same nature.
5. The Trinity is like a man who is simultaneously a father, son, and husband. This is an often used illustration, but it only serves to present a modalistic understanding of God that is false. Father, son, and husband only describe various functions of one person. Each function cannot exist in a simultaneous relationship with each other, can’t talk to each other, and cannot exist in an eternal relationship with each other.
6. The Trinity is like a person who is one, yet has a spirit, soul, and a body. This one, like the first, can commit either a tritheistic or modalistic error, but cannot be used to illustrate the orthodox definition of the Trinity. It is modalistic in that the spirit, soul, and body are three functions of one conscience or person. But it can also be tritheistic when one considers that the spirit is not the exact same nature as the body (or the soul if you are a trichotomist—another lesson).
In the end, I do not believe that there are any true to life illustrations that can or should be used to teach or describe the Trinity. The Trinity is not a contradiction (i.e. one God who eternally exists as three separate Gods), but it is most definitely a paradox (a truth that exists in tension).
This graph is helpful in describing the Trinity. It is called the “Shield of the Trinity.”

 It is always best to remember that the Father is God, the Holy Spirit is God, and the Son is God, but they are not each other.
One more thing. I often tell my students that if they say, “I get it!” or “Now I understand!” that they are more than likely celebrating the fact that they are a heretic! When you understand the biblical principles and let the tensions remain without rebuttal, then you are orthodox. When you solve the tension, you have most certainly entered into one of the errors that we seek to avoid.
Confused? Good! That is just where you need to be.
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The gospel of Inclusion

I'm not sure what the theme of my homily today ought to be. Do I want to speak of the miracle of Our Lord's divine transformation? Not really, no. I don't want to talk about His divinity. I'd rather talk about His humanity. I mean, you know, how He lived His life, here on Earth. His *kindness*, His *tolerance*... Listen, here's what I think. I think that we can't go around... measuring our goodness by what we don't do. By what we deny ourselves, what we resist, and who we exclude. I think... we've got to measure goodness by what we *embrace*, what we create... and who we include.

 This is the homily given by the Roman Catholic Priest at the end of the thoughtfully excellent high-quality film Chocolat.  Chocolat portrays the conflict of a religious moralist--mayor of a small village, vs. a genuinely human-loving non-religious newcomer.  Since the end has the religious majority and the mayor coming over to the side of love and tolerance, one can say it is not an overtly anti-religious film--rather it is anti-moralistic-religion--much like Jesus was against the Pharisees.  One CAN say it is covertly anti-religious in that the heroine never does embrace the grace of Christ, as she, in and of herself (getting by with a little help from her friends), seems to have quite enough grace without any wiff of that nasty religious stuff that seems to always come with Jesus.

I think that was my main problem with the film, the Jesus-less-ness of it all.  While Christianity is tolerated--and never itself openly denounced (even if the most distorted, vile legalism is seen as "normal" Christianity), the most mature, self-giving, genuine, loving, kind, listening, friendly, indeed Christ-like,  person in the film BY FAR, is the single non-religious character.  In essence, she seems to be the most "highly evolved" person there--someone who's transcended the need of any faith to give her faith in the essential goodness of every human being, and is quite able to give grace to all, thank you--without acknowledging receiving any grace herself from above.

As can be seen from the homily, the ultimate message to the Christians is tolerance and inclusion--something of course which is a part, or, a result of the full gospel of Jesus.  Jesus Himself though, is the heart of, and really, the whole of the good news He brings, and salvation (and the tolerance and inclusion the Holy Spirit brings) is found in no one else but Him.

Tolerance and inclusion are also, only a part of the love found in the One John named Love.  Total holiness and purity are also there--and holiness in Chocolat is given short shrift--only caricatured in forced external acts of self denial--by the nasty moralist, which end up only failing in a flailing in chocolate on display.

Here are some other Christians' takes on this story--one perhaps too harsh, and a chorus of others perhaps too indulgent.


The Triune God

from: "We are Beggars, this is true" blog
"If you deny the trinity you lose your soul, if your try to explain the trinity you shall lose your mind"- Augustine

The term the "Trinity" was first used by the early church Father Tertulian, who attempted to provide a succinct term for the tri-unity that existed in God. Simply put this is a term that articulates there is one God, who exists as three distinct persons: the Father, THE Son, and the Holy spirit. Each are fully God and equally God.
The Bible is clear from beginning to end there is one God. Deut 32:39- "There is no God besides me". (etc...Isa 43:1, 45:5, 1 Tim 1:17, 1 Tim 2:5). This notion has always existed as countercultural in our polytheistic world. It is today, it was on the Day that Abraham left Mesapotamian Ur, and on the day that Paul showed up in Athens in Acts 17. There has always existed a plethora of false "gods" that are worshipped by our world. Regardless Christendom has alwasy heralded that there is but one God, the God of the Bible. Now the doctrine of the Trinity is historically what theologians have use to articulate two truths, the first being that there is one God. And the Second being that this God is comprised of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The 3 Persons each as God:
-God the father is God: no need to be belabored simply because few would deny this point. (But John 6:27, 1 Cor. 8:6 "There is one God the father")
-Jesus is God: more debated. John 1 "In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God...and the Word became flesh and came to dwell among us", John 8:58 "Before Abraham was I am" (etc... John 20:28, Romans 9:5, Titus 2:13, 1 John 5:20.)
Holy Spirit is God. The spirit is a person not a force. He is personal not impersonal. He is responsible for convicting, instructing, teaching, guiding, and enlightening us. He can be grieved and resisted (to an extent). 2 cor 3: The Lord is the spirit and where the spirit of the Lord is there is freedom...this comes form the Lord who is the Spirit." (etc...John 4, Acts 5).

1 John 4:8- "God is love", in the very essence and Nature of God there exists a triplicate relation of Love. The trinity brilliantly manifests this truth. Trinitarian Doctrine clearly denies the idea that God could have possibly fashioned the universe out a desire for company. The God of the bible has never had any needs that finite man could possibly meet (Acts 17). But rather the universe was spun into motion by what Jonathan Edwards coined "an overflow of love" pouring out into creation magnificently.

Old Testament evidence for the Trinity.
"In the Beginning God created the heavens and the earth...and the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the deep."Genesis 1:1-2 (In the first 2 lines of the scripture we see distinct doctrine of parts of the trinity, i.e. the word for God here is Elohim and plural word for the Hebrew God "El". We also see the presents of the Holy spirit working his part in creation).
Further evidence from Old Testament Jewish beliefs of the trinity. The Targum Neofiti- 200BC. (A targum is an accepted interpretation of the Scriptures from a Rabbi-- similar to a modernday commentary.) This specific Targum states that "In the beginning by the firstborn, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and void and the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the Deep." - This was 200 years prior to the birth of Christ! There existed at least to a certain extent Jews who were waiting for the coming messiah they believed to be God the son. Now not all Jews may have bought into this but clearly it was by no means a revolutionarily new idea from the 1st century AD Church.
Now why this is so important? Because it is a central tenet of not only Christian orthodoxy, but of the Nature of God. To deny such a principle is to deny a portion of God. It is the beauty and mystery of the trinity that magnifies that sacrifice of the Cross. Had Jesus simply been a creation of God (And not God, like Jehovah's witness, Islam, and Mormonism would all claim) then his sacrifice would be no more noble than that of any other altruistic sacrifice that have taken place throughout the history. (Men dying to save their country, families, faith. Or women dying to save their children...etc All are noteworthy but not monumentally and profoundly altering to the fabric of life, like Christ's sacrifice on the cross was.)
This is why the term used by members of Islam "people of the book", which they use to unify all Jews, Musilm's, and Christians together because we all worship the same God and trace our beliefs back to Father Abraham is faulty. We as believers in Christ believe neither in the God of the Muslims nor the God of the Jews. Because both of these sects fail to recognize Jesus as both our savior and our God. There is one God to deny that Christ is God is to deny God.
This Triune existence does not however operate in a fashion that resembles that of the metamorphic phases of Water. (i.e. liquid, ice, steam). God fully exists (well beyond human comprehension) in 3 distinct persons as one distinct God head. We see them working together throughout and within creation. Thus the economic trinity works in history for the redemptive plan of Salvation, but not in some limited Modalism that would require him to act in one mode discontinuous from the other two modes. Simply put God plays all 3 roles in a simultaneous fashion(Modalism is a teaching in the modern-day Pentacostal church that teaches God works in one mode at a time not in all three at all times, although this is perhaps not quite heretical it is without question not biblical. Matt:3: clearly portrays at Jesus's baptism that all three persons were present and evident).

The Trinity is a crucial belief that all of Christianity rises and falls upon. To deny this belief is to deny the faith in its totality. But it is important to remind ourselves that the "Trinity" is in no way a new idea, and not a creation of man. Rather man is a creation of the "Trinity" and its beautiful overflow of love in the creation of the Universe. The doctrine of the Trinity is an incredibly important component of our faith. We live in a world that is constantly attempting to pervert Biblical Christianity and tempt it to conform to the more unitarian beliefs of the dying world around it. If this doctrine is not understood, defended, and proclaimed Christendom will only move further towards impotency and heresy.

---God preserve your bride, and cause her to flourish for the Glory of your name.
Posted by davidjames


Imputation - The Connection of Humanity to Adam and Eve

(A fascinating, and concise, examination of why we are born sinners... I really agree with his conclusion, even as I firmly hold to Covenant Theology. In my opinion, Rev. Lewis' organic idea, which includes traducianism, appears not to logically contradict basic Covenant theology. ~ Ralph)

by A. Allison Lewis

Is the word IMPUTE used correctly? When we speak of the IMPUTATION of Adam’s sin to his posterity we are dealing with the connection between Adam’s sin and the resultant depravity, guilt and condemnation of the human race. Is it proper to say that Adam’s sin is IMPUTED to his offspring? We do not believe that it is in keeping with the meaning of the word and the teaching of the Bible.

First there are those who deny any connection whatever between Adam’s sin and that of his descendants. Second, there are those who teach that the connection rests solely in a COVENANT made with Adam as the REPRESENTATIVE of all men. Third, there are those who believe that the connection is a NATURAL one, whereby all men partook of that original sin–all sinned in Adam [ROM 5:12]. Finally, there are various mixtures and/or variations of the above.

The foundational question is: ‘How can we be responsible for the sinful nature which is so very evident in every man and yet a nature which we did not consciously and separately originate?’ To put it another way, 'How can God justly hold responsible, every person born to the first father of the human race, for the sin of Adam?'

The answer is contained in the fact that Adam and his posterity are ONE, and, by virtue of their unity, the sin of Adam is the sin of the race. The name applied to this teaching is TRADUCIANISM. It is not a new or novel idea, though few believe it. This is the third position listed above. We find an analogy in Hebrews 7:9, 10. Man has the nature of Adam just as naturally as the little oak shoot has the nature of the great oak tree from which it came. Man receives by his natural or REAL connection to Adam his sin nature. It is properly his own and he properly bears responsibility for its consequences. Individual acts merely add to a person’s sin. He sins because he is a sinner by nature.

Much is said about ORIGINAL SIN–that is Adam and Eve’s first sin in the Garden of Eden. Liberals and Modernists believe that the Genesis account is just an ancient myth. HERE our concern is with that original sin and our connection with that sin. If we wish to use the term IMPUTATION with reference to God’s accounting us sinners we should be careful not to permit our use of that term to be hindered or prejudiced by the fact that certain schools of theology, notably the popular FEDERAL school, have attached to it an arbitrary, external, and mechanical meaning–holding that God imputes sin to men, not because they are sinners, but upon the ground of a COVENANT whereby Adam, without their consent, was made their REPRESENTATIVE. This is the ESSENCE of COVENANT theology. Other elements often associated with Covenant theology, whether necessary or unnecessary, are simply a filling out of their system and are totally irrelevant as to whether one believes in Covenant theology or not. Even such a contentious doctrine as infant baptism is an unnecessary element.

Important to our discussion is the origin of souls. Most teach that the soul of each person is immediately CREATED by God at conception (or birth). Few, if any, believe this concerning the body. The body is produced by natural generation. Those who hold the TRADUCIAN position believe that the soul is created mediately. In other words creation was finished with Adam and Eve so that both body AND soul are produced through the process ordained by God for the replenishing of the Earth.

The term IMPUTATION is commonly applied to:
1. Adam’s sin being imputed to his posterity.
2. The sinners individual sins being imputed to himself.
3. Believers sins being imputed to Christ.
4. The righteousness of Christ being imputed to the believer.

If IMPUTATION is used simply to mean to ascribe, account or reckon to a person some quality, act or possession it is then possible to use it in these four ways. However, the teaching of the Bible with respect to sin would be far less confusing if we restricted its use to numbers three and four. In numbers one and two it is not a quality or deeds being GIVEN. It is merely a statement of fact of one’s condition. In number three the believers sins (not simply "original sin") are GIVEN–laid on Him. Again in number four something is GIVEN to the believer.

Modern dictionaries certainly do not determine Christian theology but they can sometimes be useful and certainly necessary to meaningful communication. Of IMPUTE the dictionary of my college days says: "3. Theol. To ascribe vicariously" [Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 1953]. My current dictionary says: "2. Theol. to ascribe (goodness or guilt) to a person as coming from another" [Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, Second College Edition, 1982]. The wording varies but the meaning is the same. The believers righteousness or justification may be ascribed vicariously or our sins can be vicariously laid on Christ i.e. "as coming from another" in both cases. BUT OUR sin certainly cannot be so described. Men are sinners on their own account. It is therefore confusing to use "impute" simply to mean "to consider," "count" or "reckon" WITHOUT any implication of doing so "vicariously" or "as coming from another."

Some of the various views discussed in the theology books are as follows:


Every human soul is immediately created by God, and created as innocent, as free from depraved tendencies, and as perfectly able to obey God, as Adam was at his creation.

The only effect of Adam’s sin upon his posterity is the effect of evil example: it has in no way corrupted human nature: the only corruption of human nature is that habit of sinning which each individual contracts by persistent transgression of known law.

Adam’s sin injured only himself. The sin of Adam is "imputed" only to Adam. It is imputed in no sense to his descendants. God "imputes" to each of Adam’s descendants only those acts of sin which he has personally and consciously committed. Men can be saved by the Law as well as by the Gospel and some have actually obeyed God perfectly, and have thus been saved. Physical death is therefore not the penalty of sin, but an original law of nature. Adam would have died whether he had sinned or not. This teaching is named after Pelagius, a British monk, in the early 400’s. The Liberal Unitarians of today would for the most part hold to this position, IF concerned with sin at all!


All men, as a divinely appointed result of Adam’s transgression, are naturally destitute of original righteousness, and are exposed to misery and death. By virtue of the infirmity propagated from Adam to all his descendants, mankind are wholly unable without divine help perfectly to obey God or to attain eternal life. This inability, however, is physical and intellectual, but not voluntary. As a matter of justice, therefore, God bestows upon each individual from the first dawn of consciousness a special influence of the Holy Spirit, which is sufficient to counteract the effect of the inherited depravity and to make obedience possible, provided the human will cooperates, which it still has the power to do.

The evil tendency and state may be called sin but they do not in themselves involve guilt or punishment. Mankind is not accounted guilty of Adam’s sin. God imputes to each man his inborn tendencies to evil, only when he consciously and voluntarily appropriates and ratifies these in spite of the power to the contrary, which, in justice to man, God has specially communicated. The soul is immediately created at conception.


The NEW SCHOOL teaching was a reaction to the strict Puritan (Calvinist) teaching. All men, they teach, are born with a physical and moral constitution which predisposes them to sin, and all men do actually sin so soon as they come to moral consciousness. This moral weakness of nature may be called sinful, because it uniformly leads to sin but it is not itself sin, since nothing is to be properly denominated sin but the voluntary act of transgressing known law.

God imputes to men only their own acts of transgression. He does not impute to them or hold them accountable for Adam’s sin. Neither original moral weakness or physical death are penal inflictions. They are simply consequences which God has in His sovereignty ordained to mark His displeasure at Adam’s transgression. God immediately creates each human soul at conception.

Charles G. Finney, a Modernist, taught the NEW SCHOOL position.


Adam was constituted by God’s sovereign appointment the REPRESENTATIVE of the whole human race. With Adam as their REPRESENTATIVE, God entered into COVENANT, agreeing to bestow upon them eternal life on condition of his obedience, but making the penalty of his disobedience to be the corruption and death of all his posterity. In accordance with the terms of this covenant, since Adam sinned, God accounts all his descendants as sinners, and condemns them because of Adam’s transgression.

In execution of this sentence of condemnation, God immediately creates each soul of Adam’s posterity with a corrupt and depraved nature, which infallibly leads to sin, and which is itself sin. The theory is therefore a theory of the immediate imputation of Adam’s sin to his posterity, their corruption of nature not being the cause of that imputation, but the result of it.

It would appear from the preaching and writing of today that most Christians hold to this position. The Federal Theory, or Theory of Condemnation by Covenant had its origin with Cocceius [1603-1669]. It was further developed by Turretin [1623-1687]. It is the position held by Charles Hodge and generally by the Reformed churches. It is also the BASIS of the teaching of most Baptists and independents even though they may attack the term "Covenant Theology" with a passion! NOTE how many doctrinal statements make use of the term REPRESENTATIVE to describe their theology!


This idea was developed by Placeus [1606-1655]. He taught that all men are born physically and morally depraved this native depravity is the source of all actual sin, and is itself sin. So far as man’s physical nature is concerned, this inborn sinfulness has descended by natural laws of propagation from Adam to all his posterity. The soul is immediately created by God, but it becomes actively corrupt so soon as it is united to the body at conception!


This was first elaborated by Augustine [354-430] and is therefore, frequently called the Augustinian Theory. It was the view held by the Reformers with the exception of Zwingle. It is the view promoted most vigorously by William G.T. Shedd.

It holds that God reckons to all Adam's posterity the sin of Adam mediately, IN VIRTUE OF THAT ORGANIC UNITY OF MANKIND BY WHICH THE WHOLE RACE AT THE TIME OF ADAM’S TRANSGRESSION EXISTED, NOT INDIVIDUALLY, BUT SEMINALLY, IN HIM AS ITS HEAD. The total life of humanity was then in Adam. The race as yet had its being only in him. In Adam’s free act, the will of the race revolted from God and the nature of the race corrupted itself. The nature which we now possess is the same nature that corrupted itself in Adam. Adam’s sin is placed to our account mediately, therefore, not as something foreign to us, but because it is ours–we and all others having existed as one moral person or one moral whole, in him, and, as the result of that transgression, possessing a nature destitute of love to God, prone to evil, guilty and deserving of the just condemnation of God, and are dead in our trespasses and sins; . . . by nature the children of wrath, even as the rest [EPH 1:1, 3].

The atonement of Christ was vicarious, substitutionary–He bore our sins in His own body [1PE 2:24]. Though He is our Advocate or Lawyer before the Father, He is far more than just a lawyer REPRESENTING us. Our righteousness is something not ours by nature or the filthy rags [ISA 64:6] of our own doing. It is something freely GIVEN in sovereign mercy [EPH 2:1-10].


Shedd, William G. T. Dogmatic Theology, Volumes I and II third edition, 1891 Volume III Supplement, 1894. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

Strong, Augustus Hopkins, Systematic Theology, Three volumes in one, 1907. Philadelphia: The Judson Press.


Good stuff on baptism:

The writing is very well done, including footnotes, and briefly breaks into the idea that shoved me into the peado-baptist fold--namely the conditional nature of the New Covenant....and its corollary (which no one denies), that realistically not all people in the visible Church are regenerate. I think it was things like Simon the Sorcerer (who was indeed baptized and had some level of belief.... but clearly apostatized--to the point of being cursed by Peter for it....) in Acts 8 and Hebrews Ch. 6, and Ch. 10 warnings against apostasy, that finally convinced me that yes, in order to logically maintain the perseverance of the saints...or the regenerate....that not all "believers" who are baptized....believe truly, and are regenerate...therefore baptism is appropriate for believers' children--as they are set apart (or made holy) FOR the gospel--as is everyone in the visible Church--even though they have yet to personally respond to it. Otherwise, as is too often the case for Reformed types...warnings against apostasy for Christians don't make a lot of sense....

I like to think of baptism as like a house with a front porch. If a person is baptized, they are (or should be) by definition a part of a church fellowship and, it is as if they have come in out of the rain (of the world) onto the front porch of Jesus' love, the door is open and (if they are old enough) then they can then choose to walk through the front door into personal commitment to Christ (as in the Baptist tradition)--where it's all dry and warm, and true fellowship exists--inside the house. (It may even be possible for an infant to have an infant's John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit from BEFORE birth... (Luke 1:15, 41), but that's another whole issue!) So the idea is there are not just 2 kinds of people in the world (Christians and non), but that there are 3 kinds, visible Church/Christians (all the baptised), the invisible Church (those who have sincerely chosen to believe and follow Christ) and non-Christians.

Without that "front porch" idea, with 3, not just 2 kinds of people in the world (those who've NEVER heard or known the good news of Jesus....those who've heard (they are "set apart" from the world....) but haven't fully or honestly responded yet...and those who've responded and become regenerated by the Holy Spirit by faith in Christ) perseverance of the saints cannot logically be maintained, because surely the bible speaks of, and we as Christians see, people who do actually fall away.

Anyway, I agree with Bunyan, one's position on baptism is not a salvation issue, but, I thought the article below shed light on the paedo-baptist view--of the conditionality (blessings OR curses) of the New Covenant (like every other covenant in scripture), which I agree with the author, is the key in understanding the concept of covenantal baptism.

Anyway, I like it...



Introduction: Autobiography of a Paedobaptist Convert

by Gregg Strawbridge

In my theological mansion are many rooms. I walk down the hallowed halls to rooms named Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Augustine, Anselm, Thomas, Luther, Calvin, Ursinus, Rutherford, Witsius, Owen, Bunyan, Newton, Gill, Edwards, Spurgeon, Hodge, Ryle, Alexander, Vos, Machen, Pink, Murray, Van Til, . . . and other rooms yet to be named. As I reflect on the magnificent portraits lining the walls I see those that have loved our Lord to death. I see teachers of the church that, though dead, continue to speak. These were all mere men, to be sure, yet saints and teachers of the church. They were not all of one mind regarding the subject of this book.

Our challenge as we serve our risen and presently reigning Lord is to become of one mind and so gain a clearer view from standing on their shoulders. I am among the growing number of those, like many of our Reformed forefathers who hold that the future of the kingdom even on this side of eternity is bright. Jesus shall reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. Amen. That reign has commenced. Now, however, among evangelical and Reformed believers, the discussion of baptism's recipients is an intermural debate. Or to use the language of St. Paul, baptism is not listed as a doctrine of "first importance" (protos) (1 Cor. 15:3; cf. 1:13). C.S. Lewis' calls to mind an insightful and instructive metaphor in his Preface to Mere Christianity.

[Mere or essential Christianity] is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. . . .even in the hall, you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house. And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and paneling. In plain language, the question should never be: "Do I like that kind of service?" but "Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this? Is my reluctance to knock at this door due to my pride, or my mere taste, or my personal dislike of this particular door-keeper?" When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house. (1)

I have observed that there are also doors between certain of the rooms. It would seem that between the various Reformed churches it is this way. I have moved from the Calvinistic Baptist room, to the Reformed Covenantal Paedobaptist room, by means of the partition. (2)

After being baptized in a Southern Baptist Church at the age of 10, my name was on the rosters of several Baptist churches through my college and seminary years. (Let's hope my name is not still on their rolls.) From my undergraduate days, I was confronted with the issue. Initially, I studied the question in preparation for an interview to be a Reformed University Ministries intern. I still recall vividly that interchange. While teachable at that point, I was not persuaded of infant baptism, though by no means dogmatically set against it. The examining committee gave the "thumbs down," but said to call them back if my view changed on infant baptism. Actually, seminary study and many discussions with paedobaptists persuaded me against this view for a time.

The first church in which I served as a pastor actually had a membership of both baptists and paedobaptists. So in the early 1990's I had written a study guide to help people understand both positions and to articulate how our congregation worked out the practical details. (3) We practiced believer baptism by immersion, yet we did not require our members to be re-baptized (anabaptism). In this we followed the heart of John Bunyan's argument in his book, "Differences About Water Baptism, No Bar to Communion."

In those few years, I continued to study the baptism question. I fortified my arguments against infant baptism on two substantial points: we have an explicit biblical basis for believer baptism and none for infant baptism; and the membership of the new covenant is exclusively of regenerate people. The second of these reasons became for me the most foundational. In my discussions with paedobaptists, I found that they would appeal to the inclusion of children in the covenant, pre-eminently in the Abrahamic covenant. They would follow the familiar road from circumcision in the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 17 to relationship of circumcision and baptism in Colossians 2:11-12 to infant baptism in the Reformed tradition. Covenant members should receive the sign of the covenant. Christians' children are in the covenant. So they are to receive the covenant sign. A compelling argument, except. . .

The response that kept me from being persuaded by the argument from circumcision was what I will call the "new covenant argument." Who is in the new covenant? Aside from the fact that there is no explicit case of an infant baptism in the Bible, I thought the nature of the new covenant is different from the older covenant administrations precisely at the point of separating the two baptism positions. The old covenant was broken because not all those taking part in the covenant by physical birth were truly the people of God by spiritual birth. The new covenant promises are not like the old covenant precisely at covenant membership. The important change is that the new covenant is a relationship between God and His regenerate people. So, we should not automatically include the children of the regenerate people (without indications of conversion) in the covenant. In other words, yes, covenant members are to receive the covenant sign--but all new covenant members are regenerate. We should not presume that all the infant children of Christians are regenerate. Thus, our baptism practice should follow our theology of the covenant.

This argument was unfamiliar to many paedobaptists. In my experience, most paedobaptists had not been challenged on the nature of new covenant membership. In recent years, this new covenant argument has become an increasingly important part of the baptist case, especially as it has been stated by Calvinistic baptists.

My reflection and study on the issue took a decisive turn when I began to see that the new covenant has apostasy warnings (Hebrews 10:28-30). (4) If these warnings are to be taken seriously, then it must be admitted that the new covenant has stipulations for judgment. If these are not mere hypothetical stipulations for judgment, then some new covenant members will be "judged" (in the language of Hebrews 10:30). This became a central challenge to my baptist view, supported by the new covenant argument. Such clear statements about the new covenant could not be reconciled with my view that every new covenant member was regenerate. Being fully committed to the doctrine of perseverance of the saints, I believed on biblical grounds that regenerate believers cannot lose their salvation (John 10: 27-29; Rom. 8:30). I concluded that unregenerate members of the visible church can be covenant breakers in the new covenant. This meant that there was continuity in the way membership in the covenant was administered. The signs of the covenant are for members of the visible church. Since this is so, even the youngest members, infants, can be included in the visible church and receive the sign of inclusion. This was the critical theological point for me.

After working through this question, I began to see that the basic structure of the baptist polemic against paedobaptism is that since we have (1) an explicit basis for "believers' baptism"; (2) there is no explicit warrant (an example or command) for "infant baptism,"; and (3) the new covenant is made with exclusively regenerate individuals (and believers' little children cannot be assumed to be regenerate)--Therefore, the baptistic conclusion is -- the children of believers are not to receive the sign of the new covenant until they confess their faith (and thus give evidence of their new covenant membership).

After due consideration of this once persuasive argument to me, I came to observe the structure of the baptistic argument. The baptist assumes (1) that the cases of adult converts being baptized are sufficient to deal with the question of the children of believers. But is this true? Are not the children of the faithful throughout Scripture recognized differently than pagan adults? (2) Though the baptist lacks explicit warrant to put the infants of believers out of the covenant (there is no command or example which demands their exclusion), (3) their exclusion is inferred from what they take to be the nature of the new covenant. Often baptists deny to paedobaptists the right to make inference leading to infant baptism. In fact, the central theological objection baptists raise -- Christians' children are not covenant members -- must be inferred from their view of the new covenant.

The succinct answer to this central line of objection is (1) to recognize that a million cases of adult converts professing their faith prior to baptism prove nothing, of themselves, regarding the infants of believers (the question at hand). Paedobaptists heartily concur with the practice of adult profession prior to baptism as is evident in every Reformed creed! (5) Most baptist polemics just hammer away at the examples of adults, as though this settles the case--ironically, the childless eunuch (Acts 8:36ff.) with his crystal-clear case of prior belief becomes the paradigm for settling the question of children's baptism. But, in fact, we do not have anything like a million cases.

Adult Conversion Baptisms Household Baptisms

3000 (men) at Pentecost (no household present) Cornelius and householdSamaritans: ("both men and women")Simon the Sorcerer

Lydia and householdEthiopian Eunuch (no household) Philippian Jailer and householdPaul (no household) Corinthians: Crispus (and household inferred)

Stephanas and household

Disciples of John (12 men) (no household present)

In summary of the actual baptism cases, we find the following: The new covenant promise came in it's fulfillment "to you and your children" (Acts 2:39) at Pentecost. Only men are said to have been baptized, some 3000 of them. In Samaria "men and women alike" (Acts 8:12) were baptized, including Simon (the apostate Sorcerer). The godly Ethiopian eunuch (who, as a eunuch) had no familial household) was baptized (Acts 8:38). Paul (who had no household) was baptized (Acts 9:18; cf 1 Cor. 7:7-8). Cornelius' household was baptized (10:48, 11:14). Lydia's household was baptized (Acts 16:15). The Philippian Jailer's household was baptized (Acts 16:33). Many Corinthians were baptized, including Crispus, Stephanas' household, and Gaius (Acts 18:8, 1 Cor. 1:14, 16). The disciples of John (adult men) were baptized (Acts 19:5). The explicit cases of baptism, when fully considered, are not evidence of the baptist view.

(2) Explicit warrant on the baptism of believers' children is lacking in both directions. There is no case of an "infant baptism" and neither is there a case of the "believers' baptism" of a Christian's child. This question must be settled by the proper application of biblical teaching. It cannot be settled with a direct appeal to an explicit text.

(3) The paedobaptist, not the anti-paedobaptist, possesses explicit warrant for the inclusion of children in the new covenant (Dt. 30:6, Jer. 31:36-37), in the church (Eph. 1:1/6:1-4, Col. 1:2/3:20, 1Cor. 7:14), and in the kingdom (Matt. 19:14, Mar. 10:14, Lk. 18:16). Moreover, the covenantal infant baptism view can argue from truly necessary inferences (6)--drawing upon both the continuity of the covenant promise (God to your children after you) and covenant people, as well as the examples of baptism (Cornelius' household, Lydia's household, the Jailer's household, Crispus' household, and Stephanus' household). This is a synopsis of the Biblical evidence which is convincing to me.

For Christians to progress in this discussion we need an honest heart, first of all. We need a mind willing to submit to all the Lord's will as revealed in His Word. As means to our study, we need substantial discussions on the key passages, theological reflection, and historical data which address central questions in this area of study. This volume aims to provide such a discussion by well-qualified pastors and scholars.

It will be clear to the discerning reader that not all the contributors are perfectly unified on related questions, such as how to best nurture Christian children, evangelism and baptized children, the efficacy of baptism, the Lord's Supper and baptized children, and so forth. You will note that there are several Reformed and paedobaptist denominations represented. These differences are a matter of ongoing study and practice. Yet, paedobaptism serves as a kind of wing in the house of faith which leads to several rooms. And it is in those rooms that many of these questions are being discussed.

Finally, my hope is stated no better than in the words of George Offor, editor of John Bunyan's works: "May the time soon arrive when water shall not quench love, but when all the churches militant shall form one army, with one object,--that of extending the Redeemer's kingdom." (7)

1. Preface to Mere Christianity (Macmillan/Barbour & Co.: Westwood, NJ, 1952).

2. Paedobaptist is the common term for those who believe that infant children of Christians should be baptized.

3. This was entitled, A Handbook on Baptism: Essays and Resources.

4. This was crucially revealed to me in a discussion with Douglas Wilson. In that context the baptism/covenant epiphany happened.

5. The Larger Catechism 166, for example says, "Unto whom is baptism to be administered? A. Baptism is not to be administered to any that are out of the visible church, and so strangers from the covenant of promise, till they profess their faith in Christ, and obedience to him, but infants descended from parents, either both or but one of them professing faith in Christ, and obedience to him, are, in that respect, within the covenant, and to be baptized."

6. A necessary inference is a logically valid argument from true premises, such as: 1. the children of believers are covenant members; 2. covenant members are to receive the entrance sign of the covenant; therefore (this follows necessarily from the premises) the children of believers are to receive the entrance sign of the covenant.

7. The Works of John Bunyan, Vol. II, p. 593. Differences About Water Baptism, No Bar to Communion in The Works of John Bunyan, Vol. II (Banner of Truth: Carlisle, PA, 1991), p.641.


The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism

Gregg Strawbridge, Editor

Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D.All Saints' Presbyterian Church, Lancaster, PA, PastorContents

About the Contributors

Introduction: Autobiography of a Paedobaptist Convert Gregg Strawbridge

A Pastoral Overview of Infant BaptismBryan Chapell

Matthew 28:18-20 and the Institution of BaptismDan Doriani

Unto You, and to Your ChildrenJoel R. Beeke and Ray B. Lanning

The Oikos FormulaJonathan M. Watt

Baptism and Circumcision as Signs and SealsMark E. Ross

The Mode of BaptismJoseph Pipa

The Newness of the New CovenantJeffrey D. Niell

Infant Baptism in the New CovenantRichard Pratt

Covenant TransitionRandy Booth

Covenant Theology and BaptismCornelis P. Venema

Infant Baptism in the Reformed ConfessionsLyle D. Bierma

Infant Baptism in History: An Unfinished Tragi-ComedyPeter J. Leithart

The Polemics of Anabaptism: Antipaedobaptism from the Reformation Period OnwardGregg Strawbridge

Baptism and Children: Their Place in the Old and New TestamentsDouglas Wilson

In Jesus' Name, AmenR.C. Sproul, Jr.

About the Contributors

Gregg Strawbridge (Ph.D., University of Southern Mississippi) is the pastor of All Saints' Presbyterian Church (CRE), Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He is the director of, an online audio library, and has held adjunct professor appointments at Columbia International University, William Carey College, and the University of Southern Mississippi. He is the author of several articles, booklets, and reviews, including Classical and Christian Education and Infant Baptism: Does the Bible Teach It?.

Bryan Chapell (Ph.D., Southern Illinois University) of is President and Professor of Practical Theology of Covenant Theological Seminary (PCA). He began teaching at Covenant Seminary in 1984 after ten years in pastoral ministry. He is the author of Christ-Centered Preaching, Standing Your Ground, In the Grip of Grace, Using Illustrations to Preach with Power, Each for the Other, The Wonder of It All and many articles.Daniel M. Doriani (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is Professor of New Testament and Dean of Faculty of Covenant Theological Seminary (PCA). He serves as Theologian in Residence at Kirk of the Hills Presbyterian Church in St. Louis. His publications include Putting the Truth to Work: The Theory and Practice of Biblical Application, Life of a God-Made Man, Getting the Message: A Plan for Interpreting and Applying the Bible, David the Anointed, and a number of articles.

Joel R. Beeke (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is President and Professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, pastor of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and editor of Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth. He has written numerous books, most recently Truth that Frees: A Workbook on Reformed Doctrine for Young Adults, A Reader's Guide to Reformed Literature, Puritan Evangelism, and The Quest for Full Assurance: The Legacy of Calvin and His Successors.

Ray B. Lanning (M.Div., Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church of Grand Rapids. He has also done graduate work at Calvin Theological Seminary and has written a variety of articles for various periodicals, including coauthoring several other chapters with Dr. Beeke. Ordained to the ministry in 1977, he has served Presbyterian and Reformed churches in various parts of North America.Mark Ross (Ph.D., University of Liverpool) is the Associate Pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, South Carolina (ARP). He serves as an adjunct professor at Columbia Biblical Seminary.

Joseph A. Pipa, Jr. (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is President and Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He author of many articles and several books, Root & Branch, William Perkins and the Development of Puritan Preaching, The Lord's Day, as well as a contributor to Whatever Happened to the Reformation?, Onward Christian Soldiers, Did God Create in Six Days?, Written for our Instruction: The Sufficiency of Scripture for All of Life, and Sanctification: Growing in Grace.

Jeffrey D. Niell (M.A., Fuller Theological Seminary) is the pastor of Emmanuel Covenant Church (CRE), a presbyterian church in Phoenix, Arizona. He has co-authored The Same Sex Controversy.

Jonathan M. Watt (Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh) served for eighteen years as pastor of Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America congregations, in New Kensington, PA, Cambridge, MA and Beaver Falls, PA. He is currently Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Geneva College (Beaver Falls, PA) and Adjunct Professor of Biblical and Historical Studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Pittsburgh, PA). He is the author of one book and various papers and articles in the area of biblical sociolinguistics.Lyle D. Bierma (Ph.D., Duke University) is Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan (CRC). He also serves as editor of the Calvin Theological Journal. His most recent publications are German Calvinism in the Confessional Age: The Covenant Theology of Caspar Olevianus and The Doctrine of the Sacraments in the Heidelberg Catechism. He is an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church in North America.

Cornelis P. Venema (Ph.D., Princeton Theological Seminary) is President and Professor of Doctrinal Studies, Mid-America Reformed Seminary, Dyer, Indiana. He serves as a co-editor of the Mid-America Journal of Theology and as an associate pastor of the First Christian Reformed Church of South Holland, Illinois. He is the author of But for the Grace of God: An Exposition of the Canons of Dort, What We Believe: An Exposition of the Apostle's Creed, The Promise of the Future, and has forthcoming a study of Heinrich Bullinger's doctrine of predestination.

Richard Pratt (Th.D., Harvard University) chairs the Old Testament Department at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, Florida. He is the author several books, including Pray with Your Eyes Open, Designed for Dignity, He Gave Us Stories, and his recent commentary, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Dr. Pratt is also a contributor to the Literary Guide to the Bible and the author of numerous journal articles.Robert R. Booth is pastor of Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Nacogdoches, Texas and serves on the faculty of the Dabney Theological Study Center in Monroe, LA. He is the director of Covenant Media Foundation, co-founder of Veritas Classical Christian School in Texarkana, AR, and is the founding board chairman of Regents Academy in Nacogdoches, TX. He is the author of several published articles and the book: Children of the Promise: The Biblical Case for Infant Baptism.

Peter J. Leithart (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, and teaches theology and literature at New St. Andrews College, Moscow, Idaho. He writes a regular column on worship for Credenda/Agenda, has published several books on theology and literature, and his doctoral dissertation, The Priesthood of the Plebs: The Baptismal Transformation of Antique Order, is forthcoming from Wipf & Stock Publishers.

Douglas Wilson (M.A., University of Idaho) is the pastor of Christ Church, Moscow Idaho (CRE), editor of Credenda Agenda, and a teach a New St. Andrews College. He is the author of numerous books and publications, including Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning, Persuasions, Reforming Marriage, To a Thousand Generations, and Future Men.

R. C. Sproul Jr. (D. Min., Whitefield Theological Seminary) is associate pastor of teaching at Saint Peter Presbyterian Church in Bristol, Tennessee (Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Assembly), the director of the Highlands Study Center in Meadowview, Virginia, and the editor of Tabletalk magazine. He is the author of several books including Almighty Over All, Tearing Down Strongholds, and Eternity in Our Hearts.

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Pietistic Vs. Biblical Sanctification

How many of us try to clean ourselves up before approaching the Lord's Table, as if there were some degree or level of purity that we could reach that would make us acceptable to God? The command to love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself should be sufficient to make you recognize your utter inability to do so. In all likelihood, the thinking that we have to make ourselves right and acceptable before God before he will accept us probably derives its origin from the influential but flawed theology of Pietism. For what man could ever clean himself up enough to make himself acceptable to God? And if he could clean himself up to that degree, then what further need would he have of a Savior or the nourishment of the Lord's Supper? He would be self-sufficient. The whole point of both the gospel and the Lord's Supper for Christians is to continually recognize our own spiritual bankruptcy and dependency on the grace and promises of Christ.

In his letter to the Galatians Paul asks Christians who were in danger of thinking they could add to Christ's work or make themselves acceptable by some other way, "Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?" (Gal 3:3). No, this is folly, because what God still wants from us as Christians is a broken Spirit, one which still recognizes its own moral and spiritual inability and complete need of God's grace to move on. One that says, "have mercy on me, I am insufficient for the task.". Anyone who thinks, therefore, that they can approach the Lord's table with a pure undefiled heart are really missing the point of the gospel.

This erroneous concept of post-Christian self-sufficiency, I believe, comes from the mentality that we were saved at some point of time in the past, when we prayed or confessed our faith, but now since we are already a Christian it is our job to keep ourselves 100% pure. If not 100%, what will God accept? 99%? We don't even approach that. We start by grace but think the Christian life is maintained by self-effort and that Christ blesses us in accord with how well we are doing. We believe we got into the kingdom without works but now think that to maintain good standing before God we must personally maintain our justification before God. Now we must scale the mountain of the Christian life by making ourselves good enough for God.

We think this way because the covenant of works is etched on our conscience since creation. It is unnatural to think that someone else has accomplished our standing before God and it still offends our pride, even as Christians. But I believe the Scriptures affirm that the more we grow in grace, the more we despair of ourselves and recognize our need for Jesus Christ. At the time of salvation the Holy Spirit made us lose all self-confidence so we might trust in Christ alone. So I would argue that the first principle of our growth in grace is likewise, to dispair of all hope in self and, as Paul said, to have "no confidence in the flesh".

Our sanctification is a fruit of the Spirit as we lose ourselves in the wonder of Christ and His work for us. We can never separate the spiritual benefit of sanctification from Christ Himself, the Benefactor. So true Christianity is not a religion about focusing on our own spirituality but rather a focus on our union with Christ, apart from whom, the Scriptures declare, we can do nothing. The degree that we focus on our own spirituality and spiritual ability to please God is the degree that we exhaust ourselves by trying to draw from our own natural resources.

The obsession we have with inner piety is evident in many of our approaches to the Lord's Table. This, believe it or not, is actually counter-productive to the Christian life for it focuses on us rather than what Christ has accomplished for us. The Gospel as represented in the elements of the Lord's Table is about God remembering not to treat us as our sins deserve because of Christ. It is God's covenant promise toward us ... but we approach it as if it were Law rather than gospel, for we spend most of it reflecting on how good we have been, rather than the goodness and all-sufficiency of Christ toward us. But that is what the bread and wine point to. The Table should be a celebration and a time of awe and thankfulness for what Christ has done for us in reconciling us to God, not a glum time to navel gaze and obsess on our own perfectionism. This would be to misapprehend its very purpose.

This constant self-focus in our worship is probably one of the main reasons for a lack of interest in frequent communion. Thinking that our morality is what God is after, we resist the idea of coming to Him often in this way. The feast becomes something about us rather than God's promises to us in Christ. Pietism, therefore, actually militates against the gospel for Christians by making us, perhaps unconsciously, believe that as Christians our performance is what we bring before God, to make us acceptable at the Eucharist. But the preached gospel and the visible gospel (the Table) are both given, not because we are equal to the task but given to remind us that God's favor is on us because of Christ and that in nourishing ourselves on Christ and the word, we might have strength, trust and delight in Christ to do what He commands. Christ is risen for us. It is about what God has done, not what we do. How is it that we so quickly forget the gospel as Christians?

Grace is not something we can muster up ourselves. We approach the Lord's Table because we need grace. If we were not dependent and needy then we would not need the gospel or the elements of the Lord's Supper. Only Christ can give us such grace -- this is what Christ wants us to recognize and a recognition of our own spiritual bankruptcy and His all-sufficiency is how we actually grow in grace. The gospel is about the promises of God, and our pietism does nothing to change His promise one way or another. We exhibit true piety only out of the overflow of the new life that is in us, not out of some hope that God will find us pleasing in ourselves. No, God is already fully pleased with us in Christ. There is nothing we can add to what Christ has done. The gospel in the elements is a seal of God's promise to us and we should therefore rejoice and rest in it.

The reason He instituted the gospel and the Lord's Supper for us is precisely because grace depends on Him. Our failure to recognize this is one of the greatest reasons, I believe, for a weak church. Pietism is actually counter-productive toward sanctification when it tells us that we must be perfect to approach the Table. Rather, it is the Spirit who works through the gospel and the sacraments that cries out to God through us ...only He brings us into communion with Christ, not our piety. The Gospel and the sacraments are God's seal to his unswerving promise toward us. The covenant is ratified as we listen and partake. While we must approach the table ourselves, the stress of its purpose is ALWAYS on the faithfulness of God toward us.

As Christians, God indeed gives us demands to obey His law, but He works through us via the gospel to sanctify us that we might love His Law. If one reads the Sermon on the Mount we recognize that the law's demands on all of us are more difficult than imagined, not less than the Old Testament. But as a result, many think that we begin in the Spirit and are perfected by the flesh, as if the Law could give us the power to sanctify ourselves. Our sanctification, rather, is no more grounded on our ability than justification. The law commands us to live a certain way, but does not give us the power to do it. The fault is not with the law but with us. But thanks be to God, this obedience that is required of us by the Law has already been rendered by Christ. Because of what Christ has accomplished, the Spirit now works in us the life that the Law was unable to accomplish.

The ideas of the world about piety have seeped into the church and it teaches us that that the purpose of Christianity is simply to make us better people. But I would argue that Chrisitianity is not about us but about Christ and what He has accomplished. This breaks our pride for it breaks our autonomy and discounts the very possibility of human contribution. Christ has accomplished what the law in us never gave us the power to do. Apart from this Christocentric understanding, the law can only lead us to either hopelessness or self-righteous pride. Let us then remember the gospel way of Christ and feed on Him alone for our sustenance. The error of Pietism is that it is not Christocentric enough.

May the Holy Spirit be pleased to unite us continually to Christ that we may abide in Him and bear much fruit to His glory.

-J.W. Hendryx


Interesting take on Germans & Texas-symbolizing-Freedom/USA (with a Communist/East German Trabant car in it). I find the symbolism fascinating.

A good description (from youTube comments):

"This video is about flight to freedom, and Texas and the GI's are a
metaphor for freedom. That's where everything about Texas starts and
ends, the video is all in Germany, and the US Army were stationed there
during the cold war. The video features two families in the late 80's.
One from East (Communist ) Germany, packing up the Trabant and leaving
for the West and for freedom, enjoying their first Coke and burger ever.
The other one, BMW and spoiled, in West Germany."


Machen's Warrior Children

By a professor of mine, (who even knows my name!) the brilliant and esteemed John Frame. Very fair sum of the fault-lines amidst conservative reformed types today.

Machen’s Warrior Children

John M. Frame

Prof. of Systematic Theology and Philosophy

Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, Florida

[“Machen's Warrior Children,” in Sung Wook Chung, ed., Alister E. McGrath and Evangelical Theology ( Grand Rapids : Baker, 2003).]

From 1923 to the present, the movement begun by J. Gresham Machen and Westminster Theological Seminary has supplied the theological leadership for the conservative evangelical Reformed Christians in the United States. Under that leadership, conservative Calvinists made a strong stand against liberal theology. But having lost that theological battle in the Presbyterian Church, U. S. A., they turned inward to battle among themselves about issues less important—in some cases, far less important—than liberalism. This essay describes 21 of these issues, with some subdivisions, and offers some brief analysis and evaluations. It concludes by raising some questions for the Reformed community to consider: Was it right to devote so much of the church’s time and effort to these theological battles? Did the disputants follow biblical standards for resolution of these issues? Was the quality of thought in these polemics worthy of the Reformed tradition of scholarship? Should the Reformed community be willing to become more inclusive, to tolerate greater theological differences than many of the polemicists have wanted?

J. Gresham Machen, a lifelong bachelor, left no biological children but many spiritual ones. The story of American conservative evangelical Reformed theology [1] in the twentieth century is largely the story of those children.

Machen (1881-1937) took degrees at Johns Hopkins University and Princeton Theological Seminary, then studied for a time in Germany. He returned to teach New Testament at Princeton Seminary. His faith and theological stability had been somewhat shaken by his experience with liberal German Bible critics and theologians, particularly Wilhelm Herrmann. But in time he became a vigorous and cogent defender of the confessional Presbyterianism taught at Princeton by such stalwarts as Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, and Geerhardus Vos. In The Virgin Birth of Christ [2] and The Origin of Paul’s Religion, [3] he attacked (mostly German) critics of Scripture, arguing the historical authenticity of the New Testament. In 1923, he published Christianity and Liberalism, [4] an attack on the liberal or modernist theology espoused by those critics and by many in American churches. This book argued, not only that liberalism was wrong, but that it was a different religion from Christianity. According to Machen, Christianity and liberalism were antithetically opposed in their concepts of doctrine, God and man, the Bible, Christ, salvation, and the church. The liberals taught that doctrine is secondary to experience, that God is father to all apart from redemption, that the Bible is a book of mere human testimonies, that Christ is merely a moral example, that salvation is to be found by following that example, and that the church should accept this liberal gospel as orthodox.

Princeton Seminary was under the authority of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, U. S. A. (henceforth PCUSA). In 1928, that body determined to reorganize the seminary to make it represent a broad range of opinion in the church, including the liberalism against which Machen had written. In response, Machen left the seminary, together with colleagues Robert D. Wilson and Oswald T. Allis. These scholars founded Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and added to its faculty such younger men as R. B. Kuiper, Ned B. Stonehouse, Allan A. MacRae, Paul Woolley, Cornelius Van Til, and John Murray. Machen intended that Westminster would continue the confessional Presbyterian tradition of what would then be called “Old” Princeton.

In 1936, Machen left the PCUSA after the denomination suspended him from the ministry for his involvement in the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. Machen and others had created that Board to send out missionaries that could be trusted to preach the biblical gospel without any compromise with liberalism. Rather than accepting his suspension, Machen founded a new denomination, known first as the Presbyterian Church of America, later renamed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (henceforth, OPC).

Machen’s movement represented numerically only a small proportion of Reformed believers in the US. Many conservative Reformed people remained in the PCUSA. Many belonged to older, smaller denominations, such as the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) and Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP) that descended from the Scottish Covenanters. There is also a major wing of American Calvinism with Dutch roots. The Reformed Church in America (RCA) goes back to the founding of New Amsterdam (later New York) in 1626. The Christian Reformed Church (CRC) originated in a split from the RCA in 1822 and retained a more conservative stance than that body through much of the period since that time. In the last forty years, however, it has been troubled by debates over biblical inerrancy, women’s ordination, and homosexuality, leading many of its more conservative members to leave and form other denominations such as the Orthodox Christian Reformed Church (OCRC) and the United Reformed Church (URC). These Scottish and Dutch groups, together with the conservatives in the PCUSA, respected what Machen and Westminster were doing, though they also supported their own denominational seminaries.

A small Reformed denomination of German background, the Reformed Church in the U. S. (RCUS) used Westminster for many years as the main institution for training its pastoral candidates.

There are also in the US a number of people with Reformed convictions in Congregational, Independent, and Anglican churches (both the large Protestant Episcopal Church and smaller bodies like the Reformed Episcopal Church). Many Baptists also embrace Reformed soteriology, with, of course, differing levels of appreciation for traditional Reformed views of covenant and church government. Some students from these traditions attended Westminster, and the seminary had some influence within these communities.

In 1973 there was a split in the Presbyterian Church U. S. (PCUS), the southern counterpart of the PCUSA from which Machen departed, essentially for the same reason as the Machen split: opposition to liberal theology. Many of those who left the PCUS formed the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). [5]

Machen’s movement did not represent all of these elements of Reformed Christianity, but it had a major influence on all of them. Indeed it can be argued that it provided their theological leadership. Machen himself made an effort to bring together American, Scottish, and Dutch traditions at Westminster. The original faculty included R. B. Kuiper, Ned Stonehouse, and Cornelius Van Til, all of whom were raised in the CRC. Another major influence on the seminary was biblical theologian Geerhardus Vos, another Dutchman from the CRC who taught at Princeton and remained there after 1929, though he had strong sympathies with Westminster. The Scots were also represented on the early faculty by systematic theologian John Murray, who maintained his British citizenship, though he taught in America until his retirement in 1967. Murray held to some of the distinctives (such as the exclusive use of Psalm versions in worship) of the groups in America influenced by Scottish covenanters, such as the RPCNA, though he himself was a minister in the OPC.

There was also theological diversity in Machen’s movement, which I believe he cultivated intentionally. Allan A. Macrae of the Westminster faculty was premillennial, later serving as an editor of the New Scofield Reference Bible (1967) a major work of dispensational theology. Paul Woolley was also premillennial, but without dispensationalist sympathies. Machen himself was postmillennial, which was the majority position on the Old Princeton faculty. The rest of the Westminster faculty was amillennial, so far as I can tell, though John Murray leaned in a postmillennial direction in later years. Other premillennialists served with Machen on the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. The premillennialists served as a link between Machen’s confessional Presbyterianism and the broader currents of American evangelicalism.

This diversity, both ethnic and doctrinal, brought many influences to bear on Westminster and the OPC. It also helped Westminster to have significant influence upon many Reformed bodies and upon American evangelicalism generally. Old Princeton had already been regarded by many evangelicals as their theological leader. Even many non-Calvinists looked to the writings of Princeton professors B. B. Warfield, Robert Dick Wilson, and Machen himself, for scholarly defenses of biblical authority and inerrancy. Lewis Sperry Chafer, president of Dallas Theological Seminary, corresponded with Machen urging closer ties between the two seminaries (a desire that Machen did not reciprocate). Westminster also had a major influence upon the conservative wing of the CRC (and later the OCRC and URC), upon the Reformed Episcopal Church, among the Scottish bodies like the RPCNA, upon the PCA, and upon individuals and churches of Reformed Baptist persuasion.

Westminster graduates taught at seminaries such as Covenant, Gordon-Conwell, Trinity, Biblical, Mid-America, and Reformed Episcopal. When Fuller Theological Seminary was organized in 1947 it used at first a curriculum very much like that of Westminster, and several Westminster graduates served on the early faculty. Reformed Theological Seminary, founded in Jackson Mississippi in 1966, now with three campuses and numerous extension centers, readily acknowledges a large debt to Westminster, in curriculum, theological emphasis, and faculty.

Westminster faculty and graduates have continued to provide leadership to the Reformed theological world. I believe it can be said that although Machen’s Westminster was not a large seminary it was one of the most important influences, perhaps the most important institutional influence, upon conservative Reformed theology in the twentieth century.

Machen died of pneumonia in 1937, disappointed that his new denomination was already showing signs of division. Machen’s children were theological battlers, and, when the battle against liberalism in the PCUSA appeared to be over, they found other theological battles to fight. Up to the present time, these and other battles have continued within the movement, and, in my judgment, that is the story of conservative evangelical Reformed theology in twentieth-century America. In the rest of this essay I will discuss that theological warfare, distinguishing 21 areas of debate.
1. Eschatology

The first theological battle in Machen’s new denomination concerned the order of events in the last days, particularly the nature of the millennium, the thousand year period mentioned in Rev. 20:4-6. Classic premillennialists, following some of the early Church Fathers, teach that the return of Christ will precede a thousand years of peace in which Christ would reign upon the earth. Dispensational premillennialists hold that Christ’s return will be in two stages: (1) secretly to rapture his saints, leaving all others behind, and (2) publicly, after seven years of tribulation, to institute his visible millennial reign. They also teach that during the millennium God will literally fulfill his promises to Israel, promises not given to Gentile believers. Amillennialists believe that the thousand years of Revelation 20 is a figurative number, indicating the whole period between Jesus’ Resurrection and his Return, in which Christ rules from heaven and brings people to know peace with God through the preaching of the Gospel.

In December, 1935, John Murray began in The Presbyterian Guardian, then the organ of the Machen movement, a series of articles called “The Reformed Faith and Modern Substitutes.” These articles attacked dispensational premillennialism, as well as modernism and Arminianism, as heresy. They offended a number of people in the Machen movement who either (1) sympathized with dispensational theology, (2) were unable to regard it as heresy, or (3) who thought the debate about dispensationalism could lead to an attack upon non-dispensational premillennialists. This issue, together with the next to be mentioned, led to a split within the Machen movement, producing after Machen’s death yet another new seminary (Faith Theological Seminary) and another new denomination (the Bible Presbyterian Church, BPC), which revised the Westminster Confession of Faith to make it premillennial.

Debate over eschatology has continued since that time among conservative American Calvinists. In 1957, Loraine Boettner’s The Millennium [6] appeared, renewing discussion of the postmillennial position, which had been relatively unpopular in Reformed circles since the days of Old Princeton. Postmillennialists today usually agree with amillennialists that the thousand years of Rev. 20 designates the age between the Resurrection and the Return of Jesus. But they emphasize that during this period, or toward the end of it, the Gospel will triumph, not only in bringing individuals to salvation, but also in dominating culture. In the 1960s and 70s, postmillennialism became the dominant view of the Christian Reconstruction movement, led by R. J. Rushdoony, Gary North, and Greg L. Bahnsen. The Reconstructionists argued that amillennialism and premillennialism, since they were pessimistic about the possibility of Christian cultural dominance, bore significant responsibility for the modern decline of Christian influence in society. [7]

Postmillennialists tend to hold preterist interpretations of many biblical texts dealing with the “last days” such as Jesus’ Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24, Mark 13, Luke 21) and the Book of Revelation. [8] Preterism holds that many (or, in an extreme form of preterism, all) of the events predicted in these passages have already taken place, in the “coming” of God to judge Israel, resulting in the destruction of the temple in 70 A. D. Recently, preterists (some affiliated with the Christian Reconstruction Movement, some not) have become very active, forming organizations, holding conferences, producing literature. [9] The extreme form of preterism, sometimes called “full” preterism, denies that Scripture promises a coming of Christ that is future to us.

In my judgment and that of many others, extreme preterism is unorthodox. But partisans of the other eschatological views have exaggerated the importance of adopting one such position over another. It is not evident that Scripture is precise enough in this area to decisively establish one of these as the truth, let alone as a test of orthodoxy. And, contrary to the Reconstructionist postmillennialists, I think that eschatological positions have had very little to do with the cultural pessimism or optimism of their proponents. Many of the most politically active Christians in the US have been premillennialists (Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson) or amillennialists (James Skillen, the Association for Public Justice), contrary to the postmillennialist claim that these positions foster cultural irrelevance and impotence. For many Christians, biblical admonitions to seek justice in society are sufficient reason to become culturally and politically active, and these are far more weighty than the supposed implications of any eschatological view.

By the 1970s, for the most part “eschatological liberty” prevailed in most American Reformed denominations. Even the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPES), an offshoot of the BPC, which maintained the premillennial revisions to the Westminster Confession, came to hold that all three major positions could be tolerated in the church. But this developing consensus was not sufficient to erase the effects of the breach of 1937, which is still reflected in the denominational alignments.
2. Christian Liberty

The other main issue that divided the OPC in 1937 was the issue of whether Christians should totally abstain from alcoholic beverages. Machen held that Scripture permitted moderate use of alcohol. Others in the Machen movement, however, held that the use of alcohol had produced so many evils in the modern world (such as destruction of individual lives, destruction of families, auto injuries and deaths) that conscientious Christians had no option but total abstinence. The moderationist position was the majority view of the Reformed tradition, abstinence the majority view of broader American evangelicalism, which had supported the prohibitionist amendment to the US Constitution. To the moderationists, the abstainers violated the principle of sola Scriptura, elevating a cultural prejudice to the status of doctrine. To the abstainers, the advocates of moderation were refusing to apply broader Scriptural principles to a major social evil.

My impression is that the moderationists have pretty much won the day, although even now many American Reformed churches (usually in deference to recovering alcoholics) use unfermented grape juice in the Lord’s Supper. One rarely hears the arguments for abstinence any more in Reformed circles, though the discussion continues in other forms of American evangelicalism.
3. The Incomprehensibility of God

From around 1944 to 1948, the OPC was troubled by a controversy between followers of Cornelius Van Til, Westminster’s Professor of Apologetics, and those of Gordon H. Clark, Professor of Philosophy at Wheaton College, later at Butler University and Covenant College. The Presbytery of Philadelphia of the OPC ordained Clark to the ministry in 1944, but followers of Van Til complained against his ordination. Several issues entered this controversy, the main one described as the issue of the “incomprehensibility of God.” Both sides agreed, of course, that God was incomprehensible to human beings. But they disagreed on the relation of God’s thoughts to man’s thoughts. [10] To Van Til, when God thinks “this is a rose,” the “contents” of his thought are “qualitatively different” from the contents of any human mind thinking “this is a rose.” To Clark, the contents of God’s thought and a human being’s in this case are identical: both God and man are having the same thought. Van Til was trying to guard the creator-creature distinction by saying that just as God radically differs from man, so the contents of God’s mind radically differ from the contents of man’s mind. Clark was trying to avoid skepticism: for if God’s thought is true, and human thought necessarily differs from it in every respect, then human thought cannot be true.

The debate was vigorous and voluminous. The key terms “contents” and “qualitative difference” were never very well defined, and the two parties regularly talked past one another. I think that in this discussion personal issues impeded conceptual clarity. And we must ask, to what degree of precision may theologians seek to define the incomprehensibility of God without violating that very incomprehensibility?

As I see it, however, Van Til, though he sometimes expressed his view in confusing language, did not deny what was most important to Clark, namely that God and man can believe the same proposition and thus can agree as to what is objectively true. Similarly, Clark expressed, in his discussion of the “mode” of God’s knowledge, what was important to Van Til, namely the radical difference between the nature and workings the divine mind and the human.

The result of the controversy was that the General Assembly of the OPC did not revoke Clark’s ordination, but Clark himself and many of his disciples left the denomination later over issues related to the controversy. Another battle, another split. [11]
4. Apologetics

Clark and Van Til battled over epistemology and therefore also over how people come to know God. Both men were “presuppositionalists” in that they believed that God’s revelation was ultimately authoritative for all human knowledge, rather than being subject to the higher authority of factual evidence. Becoming a Christian involves accepting God’s Word as the supreme criterion of truth, that is, as one’s ultimate presupposition. So the Word of God validates factual evidence, not the other way around.

Clark held that Christian theism, like other world-views, was like an axiomatic system in mathematics: presupposing certain “axioms” but validated by the criteria of logical consistency and adequacy for its tasks. The axiom of Christianity is the truth of the Bible, but the apologist can persuade inquirers that the Bible is logically consistent and is adequate to its redemptive task. Van Til resisted Clark’s view of logic as a test of revelation, holding that logic itself, like factual evidence, is validated by Scripture rather than Scripture by logic. [12] To Van Til, Clark was a rationalist. To Clark, Van Til was an irrationalist.

Others in Reformed circles rejected presuppositionalism altogether for more traditional apologetic approaches. Dr. James Oliver Buswell, one of the premillennial group who broke with Westminster and the OPC, questioned Van Til from a largely empiricist perspective, [13] and several writers from the Christian Reformed church questioned whether Van Til’s approach was genuinely Reformed. [14] The “Classical Apologetics” of John Gerstner, R. C. Sproul, and Arthur Lindsley rejects Van Til in favor of an approach based on natural theology and historical evidences, presupposing certain “basic assumptions” including “the law of noncontradiction,” “the law of causality,” and “the basic reliability of sense perception.” [15] The debate continues into the present, with additional alternatives being offered and new voices being heard. [16]

One of those voices is that of philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who describes his position as “Reformed Epistemology.” [17] This position says that people are rationally justified in believing in God without evidence or argument, though such rational beliefs are open to refutation by evidence and argument. In Plantinga’s view, we come to know God when our faculties of knowledge, working rightly and placed in the proper environment, come naturally to form a belief in him. This position, I think, is largely right, but it seeks to answer different questions from those of Van Til, Clark, Gerstner, and others. Therefore it isn’t really an alternative to these other views, though many consider it to be that. To borrow a distinction of William Lane Craig, Reformed epistemology is more concerned with how we can know the truth, whereas presuppositionalism and evidentialism are more concerned with how we can show it.

The discussion has, I think, been a useful one, leading the church to ask important questions (rarely asked in past centuries) about how Reformed theology bears upon epistemology and apologetics. But, as with the debates over eschatology, Christian liberty, and incomprehensibility, the discussion has been far too shrill. It has led to the formation of factions in Reformed community, each assured that it has the truth about apologetics and that the other factions have denied crucial aspects of Reformed theology. Van Til himself questioned the Reformed commitment of those who disagreed with his apologetic approach, and his opponents spoke equally strongly against him.

One may argue that the theology of Calvin and the Reformed confessions has apologetic implications. But the confessions do not deal specifically with apologetics or epistemology, so these should be regarded as open questions in the Reformed churches. Further, it seems to me that this is a subject on which more thinking needs to be done, before we attain a position worthy to be a test of Reformed orthodoxy.
5. Philosophy

Until about 1960, Van Til was associated fairly closely with the Dutch philosophical school of thought known as the “philosophy of the idea of law.” The most famous member of this school was Herman Dooyeweerd, [18] but many others followed more or less the same approach, including D. Th. Vollenhoven, S. U. Zuidema, K. Popma, J. P. A. Mekkes, H. Evan Runner, H. Van Riessen. Around 1960, however, it became evident that Dooyeweerd disagreed with some aspects of Van Til’s apologetic system and, more broadly, with the whole idea of making philosophy subject to the “conceptual contents” of Scripture. Van Til, therefore, began to distance himself from the movement.

In the late 1960s, some younger members of this philosophical school, including James Olthuis, Hendrik Hart, and Calvin Seerveld, founded in Toronto the Institute for Christian Studies. [19] The ICS group published, not only technical, but popular articles on philosophical, political, social, and theological issues. Conferences were held in many locations. As with other movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a radicalism about the presentations that inspired great zeal. The young audiences got the message that traditional Reformed theology was “scholastic,” “dualistic,” and thus not worthy of the Reformers. The only path to true reform, they thought, was to make theology, ethics, politics, and all other spheres of life subject to a Christian philosophy, namely that of Dooyeweerd and his disciples. So the Reformed community went to war again, fighting battles in churches, seminaries, and Christian schools over these issues.

The ICS leaned toward socialist politics and liberal views on many social and theological issues, but other followers of Dooyeweerd took more conservative positions. My impression is that by the late 1970s the battles in churches and institutions had petered out, though views on these matters continue to be exchanged in academic contexts.
6. Sabbath

Differences over the Sabbath began very early in the history of the Reformed community. Calvin held that in the New Covenant there was no special day divinely mandated for worship and rest. The Puritans and Scots, however, believed that the New Testament “Lord’s Day” (Rev. 1:10) is identical with the Old Testament Sabbath except that it is observed on the first day of the week rather than the seventh. [20] Calvin’s view is reflected in the Heidelberg Catechism, the Puritan view in the Westminster Standards. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the OPC disciplined two ministers who held essentially Calvin’s view of the Sabbath. These cases raised the question of whether Calvin himself would have been sufficiently orthodox to minister in that denomination and the more serious question of whether even the main historic divisions of the Reformed community are capable of ecclesiastical fellowship.
7. Charismatic Gifts

Most Reformed believers hold that the New Testament gifts of tongues and prophecy ceased at the end of the apostolic age. The view that these gifts continue in the church has been thought to conflict with the Reformed view of sola Scriptura, particularly the statement in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1.1) about “those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.” Nevertheless, some have argued that although Scripture is our sufficient standard of faith and life, God continues occasionally to reveal himself in other ways. John Calvin says Paul applies the term prophet in Eph. 4:11 “not to all those who were interpreters of God’s will, but to those who excelled in a particular revelation. This class either does not exist today or is less commonly seen [emphasis mine].” These prophets were “instrumental in revealing mysteries and predicting future events” that “now and again [the Lord] revives them as the need of the time demands.” [21] Later in the same discussion, he says that God even raised up apostles (probably Calvin refers to Luther) in Calvin’s time, for extraordinary purposes. Samuel Rutherford, a member of the Westminster Assembly, reports supernatural predictions of the future among the Reformers. [22] Vern Poythress also cites reports of such extraordinary prophecies from John Flavel, various Scottish covenanters, Peter Marshall, Cotton Mather, and others. [23] Poythress argues that even given the cessation of the apostolic gifts it is still possible to recognize extraordinary works of the Spirit today that are significantly analogous to the apostolic gifts. [24]

Nevertheless, two OPC pastors have been disciplined for thinking it possible that the Spirit might do such things today, and many more in various Reformed denominations have been denied ordination on such grounds. A frequent argument is that the Reformed churches must “bear witness against the modern charismatic movement.” It appears, however, that in taking this position the Reformed churches are also bearing witness against a part of their own history.
8. Theonomy

The publication in 1973 of Rousas J. Rushdoony’s Institutes of Biblical Law [25] and in 1977 of Greg L. Bahnsen’s Theonomy in Christian Ethics [26] created still another controversy. These books revived a position often held in Reformed history (but never unanimously) that present-day civil states should be governed by the Law of Moses. Specifically, the theonomists argued, the penalties for crimes in Old Covenant Israel should be applied to the same crimes today. So, now as then, adultery, homosexuality, and blasphemy should be capital crimes. The theonomists were very militant in promoting their positions, and those in opposition were equally militant, if not more so. Churches and presbyteries were divided over this issue.

Opponents argued that God’s relationship to Old Testament Israel was unique and that the specific laws given to Israel were not intended to rule all other nations. A moderate position [27] is that we must look at each of the laws God gave to Moses, to determine the function of each in redemptive history and civil society, and thus to determine the precise relevance of each statute for our society.

The theonomists, also called Christian reconstructionists, sometimes seemed to be offering a political program for immediate implementation. Opponents were rather horrified at the idea that someone could take over the government and immediately institute death penalties for any number of actions that had until that time been treated lightly in society. As the discussion proceeded, however, it became evident that the theonomic thesis was actually somewhat more moderate, because (1) in their view, the Old Testament laws could not, and should not, be implemented in modern society until, through preaching of the gospel, those societies were dominated by regenerate people who loved God’s law. Since most reconstructionists were postmillennial, they believed that one day Christianity would dominate human culture, but that that might not happen until many centuries into the future. And (2) they believed in a very limited state government, incapable of instituting anything like a reign of terror. In their view, the dominant government in society should be that of the family and the self-government of regenerate individuals.

My sense is that this controversy, like earlier ones, has wound down somewhat, though it continues to be much discussed in classrooms of Christian colleges and seminaries. More moderate positions, like that of Poythress referenced earlier, seem to be winning the day.
9. Covenant and Justification

John Murray taught that the essence of covenant is God’s gracious redemptive promise. [28] A younger colleague, Old Testament Professor Meredith G. Kline, argued in his article “Law Covenant” [29] that the essence of covenant is law, not grace, though in the New Covenant Christ bears the penalties of the law as a substitute for his people, thus fulfilling the law covenant by grace. Thus our relationship with God is based strictly on merit: either our own merits, which lead only to condemnation, or the merits of Christ imputed to us and received by faith, which bring us forgiveness and eternal life.

In the 1970s, Norman Shepherd, one of Murray’s successors in Westminster’s systematic theology department, championed Murray’s view of covenant. Shepherd emphasized especially that in the covenant God’s grace and human responsibility are inseparable, as by God’s Spirit we are united to Christ. In his view, our relationship to God is not based on merit: indeed, “the very idea of merit is foreign to the way in which God our Father relates to his children.” [30] Rather, God “promises forgiveness of sins and eternal life, not as something to be earned, but as a gift to be received by a living and active faith.” [31]

Since saving faith is living and active (James 2:17), Shepherd emphasized that works are a “necessary” evidence of justification by faith. The word “necessary” led to much controversy at Westminster Seminary from 1974 to 1982, and the reverberations from that controversy continue today. Shepherd’s opponents said that he was making works necessary to salvation, compromising the heart of the Reformation, the doctrine of justification by faith alone apart from works. His defenders argued, however, that although works do not in any sense save us, any faith without works is a dead faith, a non-saving faith. Faith doesn’t save because of the good works associated with it, but only because it embraces Christ alone as savior. But neither is saving faith ever without good works. To profess Christ with no interest in serving him is “easy believism” or “cheap grace.” [32]

A number of bodies (Westminster’s faculty, its board, Philadelphia Presbytery of the OPC) studied Shepherd’s position and did not officially pronounce him unorthodox. But the controversy would not quit, and in 1982 Shepherd was asked to resign his position for the good of the seminary community. In my view, that decision was an injustice.

Though Shepherd left Westminster for pastoral positions in the CRC, the controversy continues to this day. The web site has published several articles accusing followers of Shepherd of denying the gospel. Westminster’s California campus is now dominated by those (including Meredith Kline, W. Robert Godfrey, Michael S. Horton, and R. Scott Clark) who think that Shepherd’s position is a serious error. [33] But some faculty members at Westminster in Philadelphia, which dismissed Shepherd in 1982, still endorse the main thrust of Shepherd’s position.
10. Law and Gospel

A number of Reformed writers in the 1990s have been attracted to a rather sharp dichotomy between law and gospel, a view historically more typical of Lutheran than of Reformed theology. On this view, the law consists exclusively of commands, threats, and terrors, the gospel exclusively of promises and comforts. There are no comforts in the law, no commands in the gospel. Those who maintain this view say that without a sharp distinction between law and gospel, the law is softened, and the gospel is no longer good news. [34] Such a distinction between law and gospel, they believe, is implied by the doctrine of justification by God’s grace through faith alone. These writers think that the views of Norman Shepherd mentioned earlier confuse law and gospel. The publication Modern Reformation has consistently maintained this position, and it is the dominant view of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and Westminster Theological Seminary in California.

Opponents of this position in the Reformed community argue that the Bible itself does not take pains to separate law and gospel, though it does teach justification by grace through faith alone. The classic biblical statement of the law, the ten commandments, begins by proclaiming God’s gracious deliverance of Israel from Egypt and tells Israel to keep the law out of gratefulness for that deliverance (Ex. 20:1-17). Among the commandments themselves are promises of blessing (verses 6 and 12). God is gracious through his law (Psm. 119:29). Similarly, the “gospel” in Scripture is the good news that God reigns; thus it includes the authority of God’s law (Isa. 52:7). It includes the command to repent and believe (Mark 1:14-15), and the belief it commands is a living faith, one that does good works (James 2:14-26). [35]

Those holding to the sharp distinction between law and gospel have been known to accuse their opponents of denying the gospel itself. [36] As with the other issues discussed here, this discussion has created a partisan division in the Reformed community.
11. Counseling

Jay E. Adams joined the Westminster (Philadelphia) faculty in the late 1960s, and in 1970 he published Competent to Counsel, [37] setting forth his theory of “nouthetic” (later often called “biblical”) counseling. Adams was skeptical of secular psychology, believing that Scripture alone was sufficient for pastors to deal with the problems of counselees. He questioned whether there was any such thing as “mental illness,” arguing that illnesses were either of the body (the sphere of medicine) or of the soul (the sphere of pastoral care). The biblical counseling movement grew rapidly. Now there are a number of churches, counseling centers, and seminaries that maintain this viewpoint. Adams’ movement seeks to bring the Bible to bear on counseling as Van Til brought the Bible to bear on apologetics and philosophy.

But like the other movements we have discussed, Adams’ has provoked opposition. His opponents (sometimes called “integrationists” or “Christian” [38] counselors) say that his counseling is not sufficiently responsive to the data of general revelation. His defenders argue that other forms of counseling substitute worldly wisdom for the teachings of Scripture. Differences also exist concerning the nature of science: is psychology a religiously neutral discipline, or does it operate on religiously significant presuppositions (note the Van Tillian term), antithetical to biblical teaching? The two schools also commonly differ as to the institutional status of counselors: Nouthetic counselors argue that counseling is part of the pastoral ministry of the church. Integrationists often maintain that counselors should be state-licensed professionals outside of ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

I do sense some movement on both sides, especially in the last ten years or so: Integrationists seem to be more and more impressed with insights from Scripture relevant to the problems of people, and nouthetics seem to recognize more and more the importance of general revelation. [39] Adams has always admitted the importance of medical care for physical problems. But the science of the last thirty years has found more and more links between the body and the mind, such as in the treatment of schizophrenia. But for all this rapprochement, the mutual suspicion and partisan divisions have been formed, and they do not seem to be going away.
12. The Days of Creation

As in the broader evangelical world, the interpretation of Genesis 1 has been controversial in Reformed circles. Nevertheless, there has been relative peace and tolerance over this issue until recently. A number of Old Princeton professors, including Charles and A. A. Hodge, B. B. Warfield, J. Gresham Machen, and Oswald T. Allis, held that the days of creation were not literally twenty-four hours long. Edward J. Young, who taught Old Testament at Westminster for many years, held that the days referred to long ages of time. [40] In 1957, Meredith G. Kline published an article, “Because it Had Not Rained,” [41] arguing not only that the days were non-literal, but that the narrative does not even teach a temporal sequence of events. Following N. H. Ridderbos, [42] Kline argued that the list of days is a literary framework that has no implications for the length of time or the sequence of events. So in the Reformed community, some have held to literal days, others to age-long days, and others to symbolic days. These positions coexisted fairly comfortably in Reformed churches until around 1980.

But since then many have taken up the cause of twenty-four-hour-day creation, [43] and their disciples have followed the twentieth-century Reformed pattern of being militant about their views. Many Christian Reconstructionists have embraced a literal position, joined by many strict subscriptionists (see later discussion) who base their argument on what the writers of the Westminster Confession are likely to have believed. Some presbyteries in the OPC and the RCUS have denied ordination to candidates who reject the literal view of Genesis 1.

Should one’s view of the length of the creation days be a test of orthodoxy? I think not. The exegetical questions are difficult, and I don’t believe that any other doctrinal questions hinge on them. A non-literal interpretation does not entail, for example, that Adam was anything but a real person, or that human beings evolved from animals.
13. Worship

The “worship wars” of evangelicalism have also divided the Reformed community. Debate has centered on two specific issues:

(1) The Regulative Principle: This phrase denotes the way God regulates the worship of the church. Reformed theology has claimed to maintain a stronger view of sola Scriptura, the sufficiency of Scripture, for worship, than the Lutheran and Anglican traditions. That is the view that all elements of worship must be “prescribed” in Scripture. [44] Not everything done in worship has the status of “element.” The Westminster Confession of Faith says,

…there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God… common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed. [45]

But what, precisely, is an element, and what is a circumstance? Is the use of musical instruments an element, or a circumstance? And what about the specific words of sermons, prayers, and hymns? These are neither prescribed in Scripture, nor are they “common to human actions and societies.” Reformed theologians have taken various positions on these issues.

Some continue to defend the traditional Puritan-Scottish approach which leads to the exclusive use Psalm-versions as worship songs (without musical instruments), [46] or some variant of that approach, with less drastic consequences. [47] Others hold that the “prescriptions” of Scripture are fairly general, leaving a broader range of freedom than the tradition has recognized. [48] Those holding the latter view argue that although God’s prescriptions for the sacrificial ritual of the tabernacle and temple are very detailed and specific, the Bible prescribes nothing specific about the synagogue worship, and little about the worship of the New Testament church.

(2) Worship Style: Some in the Reformed community advocate a very simple style of worship, focused on preaching, emulating the Puritans. Others have advocated a more elaborate ceremony, adapting the liturgies of Geneva and other Reformation churches. Still others have introduced elements associated with contemporary evangelicalism: three or four songs in a row, use of guitars, synthesizers and drums, use of contemporary worship songs, attempts to be sensitive to unchurched visitors. The first two groups have characterized the third as non-Reformed; advocates of contemporaneity accuse the traditionalists of ignoring the Pauline imperative that worship should be edifying (and therefore understandable) to the congregation, even to non-Christian visitors (1 Cor. 14; note especially verses 22-25). [49]
14. Roles of Women

As with other traditions, the Reformed community has been much concerned with the roles of women in family, church, and workplace. The ordination of women to church office has been particularly controversial. As I mentioned earlier, many conservatives left the CRC in the 1990s because that denomination opened all the offices of the church to women. Most of those I defined earlier as “conservative” reject the ordination of women. But one group, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), which left the PCUSA over its liberal theology, has women elders in some churches, though unlike the PCUSA the EPC does not require congregations to have women officers.

Even those denominations that reject women’s ordination have not escaped controversy. One large congregation recently left the PCA because of controversy over their use of women in worship. A woman stood behind a pulpit and used Scripture in a way that some described as “preaching.” So the controversy in the PCA has come down to the question of whether some biblical restrictions pertain to women that do not pertain to unordained men. That question turns largely on the interpretation of 1 Cor. 14:33-35 and 1 Tim. 2:11-15. Some argue that these passages exclude women only from the teaching and ruling offices of the church. Others say that in addition to this, women should either be entirely silent during meetings of the church, or at least should not be permitted to teach God’s Word to a group that includes men. [50]

There has also been controversy over recent attempts to translate the Bible into “gender-neutral” language, avoiding such things as generic masculine pronouns and the generic “man.” [51] In 1997 there was an agreement between a group of evangelical leaders and the International Bible Society, together with Zondervan publishers, that the IBS would not proceed on a plan to revise the New International Version in a gender-neutral direction. But in 2001 IBS and Zondervan announced that they had not abided by this agreement, but were completing work on a translation called “Today’s New International Version” (TNIV) that follows a gender-neutral policy. This decision caused a great stir among evangelicals generally, the Reformed among them. [52]

Proponents of gender-neutral translations say that gendered generics are no longer understandable to contemporary readers of English. Opponents say that (1) these generics are understandable, though politically offensive to some, and that (2) replacing them inevitably depersonalizes the biblical message, replacing masculine generics with plurals and abstract terms.

15. Preaching and Redemptive History

Though Geerhardus Vos, Professor of Biblical Theology, stayed at Princeton after Westminster was founded, many Westminster faculty members admired him and were highly influenced by his teaching. Vos taught that Scripture was not a book of doctrinal propositions or ethical maxims, but a history of redemption, narrating the mighty acts of God from creation to consummation.

In 1961, Edmund P. Clowney, Professor of Practical Theology at Westminster, published Preaching and Biblical Theology [53] in which, following some Dutch writers of the 1930s and ‘40s, he argued that the main purpose of preaching is to set forth that redemptive-historical narrative. Negatively, Clowney argued that sermons should not present biblical characters as moral examples (called “exemplarism” and “moralism” in the Dutch discussion), but rather should present the role of each character in the historical drama that leads to Christ. Thus preaching should always be centered on Christ and the Gospel. This position was carried to an extreme by others who, unlike Clowney, argued that a preacher should never “apply” the Scriptures to moral issues. [54]

Still others are not convinced by this argument. Though grateful for Clowney’s drawing our attention to the redemptive-historical drama of Scripture and the centrality of Christ, some have noted that (1) Scripture contains not only narrative, but also laws, proverbs, songs, letters, and apocalyptic, all of which have distinct purposes that preachers should bring out. (2) The intention of biblical writers in describing biblical characters is in part, indeed, to present them as positive or negative examples for human behavior (as Rom. 4:1-25, 1 Cor. 10:1-13, Heb. 11, Jas. 2:21-26, 5:17-18, 2 Pet. 2:4-10, Jude 8-13). (3) Scripture explicitly tells us to imitate Jesus (John 13:34-35) and Paul (1 Cor. 11:1, 2 Tim. 3:10-11), indeed to imitate God the Father (Matt. 5:44-48, 1 Pet. 1:15-16). And Paul tells Timothy also to be an example (1 Tim. 4:12). Imitation is an important means to the believer’s sanctification. (4) The whole purpose of Scripture is application: to our belief (John 20:31) and our good works (2 Tim. 3:16-17). (5) Redemptive-historical preachers have sometimes been criticized for interpreting texts arbirtrarily to maintain an artificial Christ-centeredness. [55]

16. Subscription

The long-standing Reformed debate over the nature of subscription to confessions continued through the twentieth century. Reformed churches are traditionally confessional, requiring all officers (in some communions, all members) to pledge agreement with historic Reformed confessions, such as the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, the Belgic Confession, etc. The controversy over liberal theology convinced many conservatives that the confessions should be taken more seriously. Some warned, however, that there are dangers in a form of subscription that is too strict: If subscription means that one may never teach anything contrary to the confession, then, for all practical purposes the confessions are unamendable and are placed on the same level of authority as Scripture. Reformed theology embraces sola Scriptura and therefore must allow practical means by which the Bible can lead us to revise the confessions if need be.

Theologians have advocated different views of subscription, some more strict than others. [56] In my judgment, this debate has focused too much on history, not enough on theology. It has stressed too much the attempt to define the historic view of American Presbyterianism, too little the theological question of what kind of subscription is desirable: both to maintain orthodoxy in the church and to maintain the supremacy of Scripture above all secondary standards.

17. Church Unity

Among the Reformers, Calvin was most concerned with the unity of the church, specifically with the visible unity of the Protestant movement. Resisting the tendency of Protestants to divide into Calvinist and Lutheran camps, Calvin subscribed to a revised version of the Lutheran Augsburg Confession. More recently, however, some Reformed thinkers have subscribed to the notion of “pluriformity,” the view that denominations are, on the whole, a good thing. On this view, denominations are God’s way of dealing with diversity in temperaments, gifts, and doctrines. They maintain peace in the body of Christ in the way that good fences make good neighbors.

Other Reformed theologians, however, have rejected pluriformity, believing that God never ordained denominational division and that he intends for differences among believers to be worked out within the church, not over good fences. [57] That position became more influential in the late twentieth century. Reformed denominations have formed organizations, such as the Reformed Ecumenical Synod, the International and American Councils of Christian Churches, the World Reformed Fellowship, and the National Association of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches. They have sought “fraternal” or “sister church” relationships with other bodies. Some denominations have discussed union with others.

In 1982, the RPES “joined” the PCA and was “received” by them. [58] But the PCA turned down the application of the OPC to be received into the larger denomination. Four years later, the OPC, lacking the necessary two-thirds vote in the General Assembly, rejected a renewed invitation to union with the PCA. Pro-union and anti-union parties engaged in much ecclesiastical warfare during this period.

It seems to me that although Reformed churches are committed in theory to seeking union, there is a notable tendency for them to shy away from any actual union, and indeed to create new divisions unnecessarily. Reformed churches tend to glory in their distinctives: their history, their ethnic origins, the theological battles of the past that have made them different from others.

Further, when groups of people leave a denomination over some issue, they tend to form new denominations, rather than to join denominations that already exist. So those who left the CRC over the issue of women’s ordination did not, for the most part, join other Reformed or Presbyterian denominations, but formed new bodies. In my judgment, these new denominations were unjustified and therefore add to the divisions in the body of Christ.

In the 1990s, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (ACE) brought together Christians from various confessional traditions: Lutheran, Reformed, Baptist, Anglican, and others. Their emphasis was on the Reformation solas: by Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. The Alliance showed promise of bringing Christians together. However, to some extent it has itself become divisive, for it has become a party in evangelicalism advocating certain distinctives: a sharp distinction between law and gospel, a “two kingdoms” view of Christ and culture, a history-centered approach to theology, strict subscription, and traditional worship.

18. Tradition in Theology

More should be said, therefore, about the role of tradition in the work of theology. Reformed theology has embraced sola Scriptura, a principle which Luther and Calvin used to carry out a radical critique of the ideas and practices of the church of their time. But these Reformers did respect their predecessors, making much use especially of the Church Fathers and Augustine. They accepted the teachings of the early creeds, and they purified worship in a thoughtful, cautious way, critical of the violent change advocated by others.

For thirty years or so there has been a movement in American evangelicalism to recover the past, to remedy the “rootlessness” that many have felt in evangelical churches. In the 1950s and ‘60s, the intellectual leaders of evangelicalism were for the most part biblical scholars, apologists, and systematic theologians. But at the end of the twentieth century, church historians, and theologians who do their work in dialogue with ancient and recent history, have become more prominent. Reformed theology has participated in this development, so that many of its most prominent figures, such as David Wells, Donald Bloesch, Mark Noll, George Marsden, Darryl Hart, Richard Muller, and Michael Horton, do theology in a historical mode. Many of these also advocate strict subscription and traditional worship, and they seek to renew an emphasis on Reformation distinctives: hence the discussions of covenant, justification, law, and gospel, noted earlier. The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals has supported this emphasis.

Though this emphasis has done some good by revitalizing interest in the Reformed heritage, some have found deficiencies in the theology emerging from this movement. The main issue is sola Scriptura. The Reformed tradition consists, not in merely repeating previous Reformed traditions, but, as with Calvin, in using the Scriptures to criticize tradition. The history-oriented theologians tend to be uncritical of traditions and critical of the contemporary church. But their arguments are often based on their preferences rather than biblical principle and therefore fail to persuade. The Reformed community, in my judgment, needs to return to an explicitly exegetical model of theology, following the example of John Murray. [59] The exegetical approach is also (perhaps paradoxically) the most contemporary approach, for it applies Scripture directly to our lives today. This question is, of course, one of emphasis. We should never ignore our past. But my view is that the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of a historical emphasis.

19. Sonship

C. John Miller taught practical theology at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia and planted the New Life Church (originally OPC, later PCA). He emphasized the importance of evangelistic, outward-facing ministry in the church and founded World Harvest Mission. [60] He also began a ministry called Sonship, which through conferences and tapes presents a distinctive view of the Christian life: not only justification, but sanctification too is by faith. The way to victory over sin, according to Miller, is not by the law, but by the gospel: looking to Jesus as the one who has born the full guilt of our sins, “preaching the gospel to yourself.” That involves a life of repentance, but also the recognition that Christ has set us free from sin to be his sons and daughters. Some have criticized the Sonship teaching as failing to understand the positive uses of the law in the believer’s spiritual growth. [61]

Sonship has become a major renewal movement in conservative Presbyterian circles, especially the PCA. Those who have taken the Sonship course often emerge with a far more vital relationship with Christ. Nevertheless, advocates and opponents of Sonship have fought the typical Reformed battles. As with many of the movements and ideas discussed in this paper, I tend to agree with what Sonship affirms (the benefit of preaching the Gospel to ourselves) but not with what it denies (that reflecting on God’s law and striving to obey are somehow harmful to our sanctification).

20. Christian Hedonism

John Piper’s writings [62] have made a large impact on Reformed and other evangelical believers in the late twentieth century, and their influence continues unabated. Building on some ideas of Jonathan Edwards, Piper argues that the Christian life is essentially an enjoyment of God, for God is glorified when his people enjoy him. The Christian life gets out of kilter when we find ourselves enjoying other things in the place of God. Piper’s work has generated a renewal movement similar to that of Sonship, though with a somewhat different message. Piper has been criticized for failing to recognize the theme of the Heidelberg Catechism, that our obedience to God is motivated by gratitude for what he has done for us.

21. Multi-Perspectivalism

Emerging from these battles, it has occurred to some of us that perhaps at least some of these conflicts have resulted from misunderstandings. Some of the disagreements may not be straightforward differences over truth vs. falsity, but to some extent have resulted from people looking at biblical content from different angles or perspectives. The story of the blind men and the elephant is relevant here: one describes the elephant as shaped like a tree trunk, another like a great boulder, another like a thick cable, because one focuses on the leg, the second on the torso, and the third on the trunk. Were they able to see, they would understand that there is truth in all three descriptions, that no description captures the whole animal, and that there is no cause for disagreement.

So I suspect, for example, that the disagreement over the incomprehensibility of God is a difference between some who focus on the continuity between God’s thoughts and ours and others who focus on the discontinuity. I see no reason why we cannot affirm both, if we can escape our movement loyalties and read Scripture afresh. On the issue of confessional subscription, I think it possible to establish a form of subscription that will guard the church against heresy, while at the same time allowing Scripture to function as the church’s primary standard, so that the church can, if necessary, revise the confessions according to the Word of God. On the issue of the dynamics of the Christian life, I’m inclined to think that Scripture teaches a number of factors in sanctification: not only reviewing the Gospel (Miller) and scrutinizing our pleasures (Piper), but also asking God’s grace to give us thankful hearts (the Heidelberg Catechism), seeking godly models to imitate (as discussed earlier), and reviewing the law to see how our Father wants us to behave (not only theonomy, but the traditional Reformed “third use of the law”).

Not every theological difference, of course, is a difference of perspective. Sometimes one must simply choose between one view that is true and another that is false. For example, either women should be ordained to church office, or they should not be. There is no middle ground on this specific issue, and the difference is not merely a difference of perspective. Even here, however, perspectival differences enter into nature of the disagreement. Advocates of women’s ordination tend to view the biblical data largely from the perspective of Gal. 3:28: “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Opponents tend to focus on 1 Cor. 14:33-35 and 1 Tim. 2:11-15. I doubt that unity will be restored on this issue until each group takes the perspective of the other group more seriously.

The main point of multiperspectivalism is that only God is omniscient, seeing reality simultaneously from all possible perspectives. Because of our finitude, we need to look at things first from one perspective, then another. The more different perspectives we can incorporate into our formulations, the more likely those formulations will be biblically accurate.

Several of us have expounded this approach to theology in various places. [63] But alas, multi-perspectivalism itself has become a focus of controversy in Reformed circles. [64] The usual criticism is that multi-perspectivalism is relativist, but multi-perspectivalists deny that criticism emphatically. On our view, there is one objective truth: the truth as God has made it. We can know much of that truth with certainty, based on God’s revelation. But there are some matters, even in theology, about which many of us are uncertain. And especially in those cases it is important for us to cross-check our ideas by looking at the data from different perspectives.


1. I have enumerated 21 areas of conflict occurring in American conservative Reformed circles from 1936 to the present. [65] Under some of those headings I have mentioned subdivisions, subcontroversies. Most of these controversies have led to divisions in churches and denominations, harsh words exchanged between Christians. People have been told that they are not Reformed, even that they have denied the Gospel. Since Jesus presents love as what distinguishes his disciples from the world (John 13:34-35), this bitter fighting is anomalous in a Christian fellowship. Reformed believers need to ask what has driven these battles. To what extent has this controversy been the fruit of the Spirit, and to what extent has it been a work of the flesh?

2. The Machen movement was born in the controversy over liberal theology. I have no doubt that Machen and his colleagues were right to reject this theology and to fight it. But it is arguable that once the Machenites found themselves in a “true Presbyterian church” they were unable to moderate their martial impulses. Being in a church without liberals to fight, they turned on one another.

3. One slogan of the Machen movement was “truth before friendship.” We should laud their intention to act according to principle without compromise. But the biblical balance is “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). We must not speak the truth without thinking of the effect of our formulations on our fellow Christians, even our opponents. That balance was not characteristic of the Machen movement. [66]

4. Reformed people need to do much more thinking about what constitutes a test of orthodoxy. Is it really plausible to say that, say, Gordon Clark’s view of incomprehensibility was unorthodox, when neither Clark’s nor Van Til’s positions are clearly set forth in the Reformed confessions? But again and again through the history described above, writers have read one another out of the Reformed movement (and even out of Christianity) on such dubious bases. The assumption seems to be that any difference of opinion amounts to a test of fellowship, that any truth I possess gives me the right to disrupt the peace of the church until everybody comes to agree with me. But surely there are some disagreements that are not tests of orthodoxy, some differences that should be tolerated within the church. Examples include the disagreements over days and the eating of meat described by Paul in Rom. 14, and the disagreements about idol food which he discusses in 1 Cor. 8-10. In those passages, there is no suggestion that people holding the wrong view should be put out of the church. Rather, Paul condemns the party spirit and calls the disagreeing parties to live together as Christian brothers and sisters. In my judgment, the Machen movement thought little about the difference between tolerable and intolerable disagreements in the church.

5. Scripture often condemns a “contentious” spirit (Prov. 13:10, 18:6, 26:21, Hab. 1:3, 1 Cor. 1:11, 11:16, Tit. 3:9) and commends “gentleness” (2 Cor. 10:1, Gal. 5:22, 1 Thess. 2:7, 2 Tim. 2:24, Tit. 3:2, Jas. 3:17). The Reformed community should give much more attention to these biblical themes.

6. With many, though not all, of the issues described above it is possible to see the positions as complementary rather than as contradictory. I believe that is true of the Van Til/Clark controversy, the counseling controversy, the Sonship controversy and some others. As I said earlier, I find these positions more persuasive in what they affirm than in what they deny.

7. With other issues, there are genuine contradictions between the positions of the parties. But even in those cases, I think that often these parties are trying to express complementary biblical truths. Theonomy, for example, emphasizes the continuity between Old and New Testaments, anti-theonomy the discontinuity. A more adequate account will seek to do justice to both.

8. Overall, the quality of thought displayed in these polemics has not been a credit to the Reformed tradition. Writers have gone to great lengths to read their opponents’ words and motivations in the worst possible sense (often worse than possible) and to present their own ideas as virtually perfect: rightly motivated and leaving no room for doubt. Such presentations are scarcely credible to anybody who looks at the debates with minimal objectivity.

9. The various anniversary celebrations and official histories in the different Reformed denominational bodies have been largely self-congratulatory. [67] In Reformed circles, we often say that there is no perfect church, that churches as well as individuals are guilty of sin and liable to error. But Reformed writers and teachers seem to find it almost impossible to specify particular sins, even weaknesses, in their own traditions or denominations, particularly in their own partisan groups. A spirit of genuine self-criticism (prelude to a spirit of repentance) is an urgent need.

10. Nevertheless it is important to remember that there are some theological issues that really are matters of life and death for the church. In the PCUSA as of the time of this writing, there are controversies over whether church officers should be expected to observe biblical standards of sexual fidelity and chastity, over the ordination of homosexuals, and over whether Jesus is the only Lord and Savior. The outrageous fact that such issues can actually be debated within the church places other controversies into perspective. The Confessing Church Movement within the PCUSA is fighting a courageous battle, and they deserve the prayers and encouragement of all Reformed believers.

11. My assignment was to write on Reformed theology. But I should note that the remedy for the divisions above is not merely better theological formulations. The almost exclusive focus on doctrinal issues in many Reformed circles is itself part of the problem. As Tim Keller advises, Reformed Christianity needs a vision that encompasses not only doctrinal statements, but also our piety, evangelistic outreach, and missions of mercy. [68]

An Unrealistic Dream

1. That Reformed thinkers continue to have bright, fresh ideas, but that they present these ideas with humility and treat with grace and patience those who are not immediately convinced.

2. That Reformed thinkers with bright ideas discourage the rapid formation of parties to contend for those ideas.

3. That those initially opposed to those bright ideas allow some time for gentle, thoughtful discussion before declaring the bright ideas to be heresy.

4. That these opponents also discourage the rapid formation of partisan groups.

5. That those contending for various doctrinal positions accept the burden of proof, willing to bear the difficulty of serious biblical exegesis.

6. That we try much harder to guard our tongues (Jas. 3:1-12), saving the strongest language of condemnation (e.g., “denying the gospel”) for those who have been declared heretics by the judicial processes of the church.

7. That Reformed churches, ministries, and institutions be open to a wider range of opinions than they are now—within limits, of course.

8. That we honor one another as much for character and witness as we do for agreement with our theological positions.

9. That occasionally we smile and jest about our relatively minor differences, while praying, worshiping, and working together in the love of Christ. [69]

[1] I apologize for the large number of adjectives in this phrase, but it does state concisely the range of theology I will seek to analyze in this paper. “Conservative” and “evangelical,” of course, are terms variously defined. Here I will restrict my attention to those types of Reformed theology that credibly subscribe to historic Reformed confessions such as the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity. The theology of Karl Barth, though often described as conservative, evangelical, and Reformed, does not fit this restriction, because of Barth’s view of Scripture, his denial of God’s eternal decree, and his refusal to identify the events of salvation directly with events of calendar time, among other things.

[2] New York: Harper, 1930.

[3] Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1925, 1947.

[4] Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1923.

[5] These names and initials can be confusing of course. The denomination founded by Machen was originally called the Presbyterian Church of America, which differs from the PCA only by a preposition. In the present-day PCA, my own denomination, we try to remind people that as the church is in the world but not of it, the PCA is in America, but not of it. Not that Machen would have had any other vision for his own denomination!

[6] Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed.

[7] See Gary North, Dominion and Common Grace (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1987), Millennialism and Social Theory (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1990), Rousas J. Rushdoony, God’s Plan for Victory: The Meaning of Postmillennialism (Fairfax, VA: Thoburn Press, 1977).

[8] See, for example, David Chilton, Days of Vengeance (Ft. Worth: Dominion Press, 1987), a commentary on the Book of Revelation.

[9] See, for example,

[10] In my judgment, therefore, “incomprehensibility” is a misleading term to describe the issue of the debate.

[11] For a more thorough description and analysis of the controversy, with bibliography, see John M. Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishers, 1995), 97-113.

[12] For Clark’s position, see his A Christian View of Men and Things (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), and Religion, Reason and Revelation (Phila.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1961). For Van Til’s position, see my Cornelius Van Til, esp. 141-184.

[13] See Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Phila.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1955), 239-267.

[14] Ibid., 4-20, 267-302. This and the previous section were dropped from later editions of The Defense of the Faith. See also James Daane, A Theology of Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954), and Van Til, The Theology of James Daane (Phila.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1959).

[15] John Gerstner, R. C. Sproul, and Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 70-90. See also my review of this book, published as Appendix A of my Cornelius Van Til, 401-422, and also as Appendix A of my Apologetics to the Glory of God (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1994), 219-243.

[16] See, for example, Steven B. Cowan, ed., Five Views on Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000). Prof. Alister McGrath, whom we honor in this volume, has made some helpful contributions to this literature, such as Glimpsing the Face of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), Explaining Your Faith Without Losing Your Friends (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989) and Intellectuals Don't Need God and Other Modern Myths (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993). If I may say so, however, I think he is not at his best in the Appendix to the latter book that deals with Van Til.

[17] For the apologetic development of his ideas, see his Warranted Christian Belief (NY: Oxford Univ. Press, 2000). Kelly James Clark, a follower of Plantinga, has used this approach in Return to Reason (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990) and in Cowan, op. cit., 265-312.

[18] Dooyeweerd’s magnum opus is De Wijsbegeerte der Wetsidee, translated into English as A New Critique of Theoretical Thought (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1953), four volumes. A more popular presentation of his ideas is In the Twilight of Western Thought (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1958).

[19] Some writings from the early North American phase of the movement: Hendrik Hart, The Challenge of Our Age (Toronto: Association for the Advancement of Christian Scholarship, 1968), Hart, Understanding Our World: An Integral Ontology (Lanham, MD: Univ. Press of America, 1984), L. Kalsbeek, Coutours of a Christian Philosophy (Toronto: Wedge, 1975), Calvin Seerveld, A Christian Critique of Art and Literature (Toronto: Association for the Advancement of Christian Scholarship, 1968). For my critique, see Frame, The Amsterdam Philosophy: a Preliminary Critique (Phillipsburg, NJ: Harmony Press, 1972) and Cornelius Van Til, 371-386. For an attempt to apply Dooyeweerdian ideas to systematic theology, see Gordon J. Spykman, Reformational Theology: A New Paradigm for Doing Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992).

[20] For a discussion of these positions, see Richard B. Gaffin, Calvin and the Sabbath (Fearn, Ross-shire: Mentor, 1998). Still others hold that the New Covenant abrogates the Sabbath, but replaces it with the Lord’s Day, a first-day celebration of the Resurrection, but not a day of rest. See Donald A. Carson, ed., From Sabbath to Lord’s Day (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982).

[21] Calvin, Institutes, 4.3.4.

[22] Rutherford, A Survey of Spirituall Antichrist… (London: Andrew Crooke, 1948) 1.7, 42-44, cited by Poythress; see following note.

[23] Poythress, Modern Spiritual Gifts as Analogous to Apostolic Gifts: Affirming Extraordinary Works of the Spirit within Cessationist Theology (Glenside, PA: Westminster Campus Bookstore, n. d.). See also Greg Barrow, A Reformation Discussion of Extraordinary Predictive Prophecy Subsequent to the Closing of the Canon of Scripture (Edmonton, AL: Still Waters Revival Books, 1998). The latter author and publisher represent the Puritan Reformed Church, an extremely small and highly traditionalist denomination that regards most conservative Presbyterian groups (such as OPC, PCA, RPNA) as apostate because they do not subscribe to the Scottish Solemn League and Covenant. In this case, ironically, their very traditionalism leads them to a position considered in the OPC to be a concession to the modern charismatic movement.

[24] Poythress, Modern Spiritual Gifts.

[25] No place of publication listed; Craig Press. I reviewed this book in Westminster Theological Journal 38:2 (Winter, 1976), 195-217.

[26] No place of publication listed; Craig Press. A second, expanded edition, including responses to critics, was published in 1984.

[27] For a more balanced discussion of the relevance of Old Testament law to the Christian, see Vern Poythress, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses (Brentwood: Wohlgemuth and Hyatt, 1991).

[28] See his pamphlet, The Covenant of Grace (London: Tyndale Press, 1954). See also “Covenant Theology” in his Collected Writings (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1984), 4.216-240. In his lectures on systematic theology, he says that “covenant in Scripture denotes the oath-bound confirmation of promise,” Collected Writings 2.49.

[29] Westminster Theological Journal 27 (1964-65), 1-20. See also his Treaty of the Great King (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963), By Oath Consigned (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), and The Structure of Biblical Authority (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972).

[30] Norman Shepherd, The Call of Grace (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2000), 39.

[31] Ibid.

[32] This controversy somewhat parallels the controversy in broader evangelical circles over “Lordship salvation,” the debate over whether one can confess Jesus as savior without confessing him as Lord. Shepherd’s reasoning implies that one cannot.

[33] An error “of Galatian proportions,” according to one Westminster/California professor in correspondence.

[34] See, for example, Michael Scott Horton, “The Law and the Gospel,” at

[35] For more discussion, see my “Law and Gospel,” at, or

[36] My basis for this statement consists of email exchanges and personal conversations.

[37] No place of publication listed: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishers.

[38] As opposed to “biblical”!

[39] For a review of developments since Adams’ original work, describing recent rapprochement between the two schools and specifying the remaining differences, see David Powlison, “Questions at the Crossroads: The Care of Souls and Modern Psychotherapies,” in Mark McMinn and Timothy Phillips, eds., Care for the Soul: Exploring the Intersection of Psychology and Theology (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2001), 23-61. See also Powlison, “Crucial Issues in Contemporary Biblical Counseling,” Journal of Pastoral Practice, 11:3 (1988), 53-78.

[40] See Young, Studies in Genesis One (Phila.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1964).

[41] Westminster Theological Journal 20 (1957-58), 146-157. Later he amplified his views in “Space and Time in the Genesis Cosmogony,” in Perspectives on Science and the Christian Faith 48 (1996), 2-15.

[42] Ridderbos, Is There a Conflict Between Genesis 1 and Natural Science? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957).

[43] Some recent examples: Noel Weeks, The Sufficiency of Scripture (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1988), 95-118, Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 392-94), James B. Jordan, Creation in Six Days (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 1999).

[44] Westminster Confession of Faith, 21.1. Compare 1.6, 20.2. Lutherans and Anglicans argue that we may do anything in worship that Scripture does not forbid, keeping in mind the overall biblical purposes of worship.

[45] 1.6.

[46] For example, Michael Bushell, The Songs of Zion (Pittsburgh, PA: Crown and Covenant Publications, 1980).

[47] As in D. G. Hart and John Muether, With Reverence and Awe (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2002).

[48] See my Worship in Spirit and Truth (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1996) and “A Fresh Look at the Regulative Principle” in David G. Hagopian, ed., Always Reformed, forthcoming.

[49] The earlier-referenced book by Hart and Muether argues for traditional worship. My Contemporary Worship Music: a Biblical Defense (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1997) argues for a more contemporary approach.

[50] For these views and others, see Bonnidell and Robert Clouse, Women in Ministry: Four Views (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1989). The most helpful treatments of these issues in my view are James Hurley, Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981) and John Piper and Wayne Grudem, ed., Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1991).

[51] Some feminists have advocated that God himself be designated without gender or even as a female. Zondervan and IBS did not go this far.

[52] For different viewpoints on this question, see D. A. Carson, The Inclusive-Language Debate (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), Mark L. Strauss, Distorting Scripture? (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1998), and Vern Poythress and Wayne Grudem, The Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 2000. The last is most persuasive to me.

[53] Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961.

[54] For this more extreme position, see the publication Kerux.

[55] For a longer discussion of these points, see my “Ethics, Preaching, and Biblical Theology,” at

[56] The case for “full” subscription is made by Morton H. Smith in The Subscription Debate (Greenville, SC: Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, no date listed; published 1993 or later). A less conservative view is William S. Barker, “System Subscription,” Westminster Theological Journal 63 (2001), 1-14. Four elders participated in a debate on subscription before the PCA General Assembly of 2001, which was published in the denominational web magazine, PCA News, at

[57] See John Murray, Collected Writings 1.269-287 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1976), Edmund P. Clowney, The Church (Downers Grove: IVP, 1995), John Frame, Evangelical Reunion (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991, also available at

[58] The process of “joining and receiving” was a procedure designed to minimize pre-union negotiations, the idea being to work out differences after union rather than before. Arguably this is a more biblical procedure than the conventional negotiation, since Scripture tells Christians to work out their differences within the church rather than to shout at one another over denominational barriers. In practice, however, the RPES and PCA did engage in much negotiation and discussion before the union was approved.

[59] I have argued these points at greater length in “In Defense of Something Close to Biblicism,” Westminster Theological Journal 59 (1997), 269-318, with responses by Richard Muller and David Wells, reprinted as an Appendix to Contemporary Worship Music. See also my “Traditionalism” at and in Chalcedon Report 434 (Oct., 2001), 15-19, and 435 (Nov., 2001), 14-16.

[60] Among his writings are Repentance and Twentieth-Century Man (Phila.: Christian Literature Crusade, 1980), Outgrowing the Ingrown Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), Powerful Evangelism for the Powerless (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1997).

[61] For a positive exposition of Sonship, read Neil H. Williams, Theology of Sonship (Phila.: World Harvest Mission, 2002). For a critique, Jay E. Adams, Biblical Sonship (Woodruff, SC: Timeless Texts, 1999).

[62] See especially his Desiring God (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1996).

[63] See John Frame, Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1987), Perspectives on the Word of God (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1999), Vern S. Poythress, Symphonic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), Poythress, God-Centered Biblical Interpretation (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1999).

[64] Mark Karlberg, “On the Theological Correlation of Divine and Human Language: A Review Article,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 32:1 (March, 1989), 99-105, and his review of my Cornelius Van Til (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1995) in Mid-America Journal of Theology 9:2 (Fall, 1993), 297-308. I have replied to both Karlberg pieces in Appendices to my Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2002).

[65] Of course, between 1900 and 1936 the chief battle was over theological liberalism. There was also a major conflict in the CRC over the doctrine of common grace, leading to the formation of the Protestant Reformed Church. I cannot enter into that controversy here, but I have addressed it in my Cornelius Van Til (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1995), 215-230.

[66] Machen, like others in the Reformed tradition, emphasized the “primacy of the intellect.” See his What is Faith? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1925, reprinted 1962). As Ulrich Zwingli eliminated music from the worship service, turning it into a teaching meeting, Reformed leaders through history have tended to value intellectual rigor at the expense of people’s emotions. In my judgment, this intellectualism is a mistaken emphasis and needs to be overcome. See my Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1987), 319-346.

[67] See, for example, Darryl Hart and John Muether, Fighting the Good Fight (Phila: The Committee on Christian Education and the Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1995). Though there is much useful information and reflection in this book, there is far too little recognition of possible inadequacies within the tradition.

[68] See Keller, “The Vision of PPLN,” available at

[69] Thanks to Steve Hays, D. Clair Davis, David Powlison, John Muether, and Greg Welty, who read an earlier draft of this paper and made helpful suggestions. I take all responsibility for the final formulation.