Wednesday, 31 December 2008

System Addicts

In Always Reforming there are two essays that touch on the idea of theology or doctrine as system. Kevin Vanhoozer contributes a whopping 58 pages ‘On the Very Idea of a Theological System: An Essay in Aid of Triangulating Scripture, Church and World’. I decided the chapter was too long to blog about. And I rarely understand much of what Vanhoozer writes anyway.

Stephen Williams with some ‘Observations on the Future of System’ is a little more accessible. Williams is professor of systematic theology at Union Theological College, Belfast. I once got a tour of the UTC building that included time on the roof to enjoy a view of Belfast. Alas I had no protest flag or banner.

Williams uses the open theism debate as a means to reflecting on system. He begins with some observations on two works by Charles Simeon, and offers the following theses:

1. Context is important for the coherence of our convictions. Religious or theological convictions do not necessarily sit easily when used in, for example, discussions of analytic philosophy.

2. Biblical theology is less about the mutual relation of doctrines, and more about their relation to life. Systematics should follow this example. The discussion includes the following line: “Obedient response to the word of God is not contingent on systematic explication.” I liked that.

3. There may be a ‘wider system’ but it must be shaped by biblical literature and the economy of salvation. That is basically to say that ongoing exegesis must keep the question of system open.

4. There is a difference between doctrinal rules and doctrinal moves. Rules should not be broken. As in a game of chess moves may or may not be good. Williams suggests that we should trade in rules rather than moves.

Williams concludes his essay with a brief survey of Berkouwer’s theological method, using Divine Election as an example.

Restless and Reforming verdict: More accessible than Vanhoozer but still hard going. We get the feeling that Williams thinks theology has its own logic and reasoning. It was interesting to be reminded of Simeon’s belief that the system of Scripture transcends both classic Calvinistic and Arminian systems.

Friday, 19 December 2008


In a previous post I reviewed Derek Thomas's contribution to the book Always Reforming. He wrote a chapter on the doctrine of the church, and included a few comments on the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW). He has written more fully about the RPW in another place, but the few comments I read were enough to worry me just a little.

RPW is defined by Thomas as follows: nothing must be required as essential in public worship except that which is commanded by the Word of God. Thomas seems to think this is opposed to what he calls the Lutheran/Episcopalian worship principle: anything is acceptable as long as it is not explicitly forbidden. Already there is a sense of false dichotomy here.

But my concern grows. One thing to write that worship must be counter-cultural, conscious of not bowing to the prevailing ways of the world. But another thing entirely to claim that it would be "relatively easy to present a case for what some would regard as high-brow culture..."

The choice is between applying biblical principles in context, or following a tradition. I'm not sure you can really do both at the same time, in the same place. Too often I reckon RPW becomes following a tradition rather than biblical principles in cultural context.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Two Sides One Coin?

One of my ongoing theological concerns is the tension between dogmatics and biblical studies. It strikes me that some of the discussions and debates within Reformed evangelical circles come down to this: Which area takes priority? What is the relationship between the two? Can we work so that both are practised within confessional boundaries? If possible would this be a good thing anyway?

There are several chapters in Always Reforming about the nature of theology. Richard Gamble writes on ‘The Relationship between Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology’.

Gamble begins with definition, and states that theology is “the appropriation by the regenerated mind of that supernatural/natural information by which God has made himself the object of human knowledge.” The Scriptures of the Bible provide the information. God’s revelation of himself is progressive and redemptive. It is progressive in the sense that earlier parts of the Bible’s story inform later parts. It is redemptive in the sense that some events within the story are given heightened importance. Not all the facts of the story possess redemptive power.

Gamble refers to Vos in his definition of biblical theology. It is the study of the form and content of supernatural revelation in its historical unfolding. What then is systematic theology? Gamble cites several Reformed theologians who suggest the need for a new structure to systematic theology. Some even suggest the term should be discontinued. Following John Murray and Richard Gaffin, Gamble proceeds to argue that biblical theology should be normative. Systematic theology should be modelled according to the insights of biblical study and exegesis. Gamble concludes his essay with some objections to biblical theology as the normative discipline, and then discusses how culture influences exegesis and theological method. He maintains that the strengths of biblical theology should inform developments within “systematic” theology.

Restless and Reforming verdict: This is all fair enough though examples of how the classic dogmatic categories should be adjusted are conspicuously absent. Those who admire the likes of Vos, Murray and Gaffin should ponder more how biblical theology informs or shapes their take on the Reformed confessions. Apart from the American revisions on church state relations, why have there been so few substantial and constructive changes?

Time Management for idiots

Over at Sovereign Grace Blog, R.C Sproul has an excellent post on time management. When you're as undisciplined as I am, advice like this is pure gold.


Thursday, 4 December 2008

The Books of The Bible

Over this year I've been doing daily(!) readings from a Bible that is utterly unique in format. Utilizing the TNIV text, 'The Books of The Bible' summarises its differences to the common current format in the preface:

  • chapter and verse numbers have been removed from the text;
  • the books are presented according to the internal divisions that we believe
    their authors have indicated;
  • a single-column setting is used to present the text more clearly and
    naturally, and to avoid disrupting the intended line breaks in poetic
  • footnotes, section headings, and other supplementary materials have been
    removed from the pages of the sacred text;
  • individual books that later tradition divided into two or more books are
    made whole again; and
  • the books have been placed in an order that we hope will help readers
    understand them better (TBoTB pp iv)

The preface goes on to justify these changes by asserting that, "the chapters and verses that the Bible has been divided into aren't the work of the original authors. The present system of chapter divisions was devised in 1205, and our present verse divisions were added in the 1550s. Chapters and verses have imposed a foreign structure and made it more difficult to read the Bible with understanding." (TBoTB pp v)

A result of the dubious convenience provided by chapters and verses is that they encourage the Bible to be read as "a giant reference book" (TBoTB ppv). It's hard to argue against such a charge. Proof-texting, precious thought-ery, Christless readings of the text and other biblicist lunacy has to be down to, in some measure, the man-made divisions of our text.

Anyway, my wife Sharon and I have loved the new format for a variety of reasons. Sharon said she's never read so much of the Bible in her life. The text feels new and exciting. Gone is the legalistic desire to put the Bible down after reading a chapter or two. Gone is the internal legalistic pressure to read the Bible every day. (The reading plans make it possible to miss days, even weeks of Bible reading and pick up again from where you left off - making it an ideal purchase for justified sinners!) Gone is the stop-start nature of Bible readings like that of the McCheyne reading plan (a good plan, but it seems that just as you are getting into a book, you're whisked off elsewhere). Gone is the urge to mine the Bible for precious thoughts. In place of that you are focused on the argument of an entire book.

You can download a variety of reading plans from The Books of The Bible website. The reading plans work by page numbers and not by chapters. When you download your free plan, the sheet has boxes for you to tick as a reminder as to where you left off. As I've said already, this makes it an excellent plan for the undisciplined who begin reading plans in January with great gusto and crumble by mid February when they get to Leviticus.

Personally, I've only gotten about half-way through the Bible this year. The difference is, I'm still engaged with the text, still excited and motivated by Scripture and not planning to start again at Genesis this January.

American readers wishing to purchase The Books of The Bible can follow this link from the homepage. For British readers, Wesely Owen have it available on pre-order.

Take up and read!

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Church Rules Okay

Derek Thomas contributes a chapter on ‘The Doctrine of the Church in the Twenty First Century’ in Always Reforming: Explorations in systematic theology. The aim of the essay collection is to assess different areas within systematic theology with a view to semper reformanda. Where is development, clarification and progress possible? Is it necessary to restate doctrines? Or encourage further theological reflection? Can this take place within a confessional orthodox framework?

An introduction surveying the current postmodern mix of doctrinal approaches to church gives way to a discussion of the marks of the church. Unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity all prove difficult for Thomas to appropriate given that they come from the fourth, not the twenty first, century. By definition, a Protestant can only affirm the unity of the invisible church at best. But that hardly helps when leading lights (e.g. John Murray) question the legitimacy of defining an invisible church over against the visible one. Following Calvin, Thomas wants to defend church as Mother, and the extra ecclesiam nulla salus formula.

Thomas is on apparently easier ground with two other marks of the church: preaching and sacraments. He also makes the helpful suggestion that suffering should be considered too. But without developing this the essay moves on to the mix within Reformed churches on issues like the nature of the Lord’s Supper, the place of children at the Supper, the number and nature of church offices, the use of Matthew 16:13-19, the continuation or otherwise of spiritual gifts, and the question of women’s ordination to office. This survey leaves the reader bewildered at how any of these areas can form true marks of the church. The RPW is then defined and defended, a section that on its own deserves a blogpost in response.

Eight(!) prerequisites for future Reformed ecclesiology are suggested in a conclusion. We must return to the Bible. We must embrace Reformed theology at its best while re-evaluating the discoveries of biblical theology. We must hold to fundamental doctrines before embracing ecumenicity. We must be committed to historic formulations of (confessional) Christianity. We must foster biblical spirituality. We must reconsider the role and significance of the (two) sacraments. We must find a way to express the church’s unity in Jesus Christ. We must assert the corporate nature of the Christian life.

Restless and Reforming verdict: We think all the big issues are mentioned in the essay. But we’re concerned at the lack of progress towards a clear statement defining the church, especially when worship war and sacramental strife is escalating within confessional Reformed churches.

Baptism Debate

The following is a link to an excellent baptism debate between Reformed Baptist James White and OPC pastor Bill Shishko. The debate is an excellent introduction for those unacquainted with the paedobaptist argument.

In my opinion, it's the best debate I've heard on the subject, with both men pulling no punches. In this instance, I reckon Shishko wins the day.

Now how about the ultimate smack down contest: Mike Horton versus Mark Dever? Can you imagine the well mannered carnage? Someone out there has to organise this one.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Recovering the Reformed Confession Part 4 - Just what the Professor ordered

Chapter 4 begins the second part of the book entitled “Recovering the Reformed Identity”. Clark’s contention in this chapter is that , “those in the Reformed confessional tradition...have..wrestled with the proper way to do theology after modernity. Some confessionalists carried on the classic approach to do theology after modernity. Some confessionalists carried on the classic approach to theology, but we have often seemed to forget gradually our own grammar, logic and rhetoric. Confessional Reformed theology, however, works with some basic beliefs about the nature of relations between God and his creation, beliefs that are derived from Scripture and shape theological method. Chief among these is the notion that God is the “beginning of being” (principium essendi) and, as such, the “beginning of knowing” (principium cognoscendi). A corollary to this doctrine is the notion that human knowledge of God is analogical.” (p123)

So then, basic to a Reformed recovery is recognising, along with Duns Scotus (c. 1265 – c. 1308), the fundamental distinction between God as he is “’in himself’ (in se) and as he is ‘toward us’ (erga nos)” (p138). Luther and Calvin also gave assent to the fundamental distinction between “God hidden (Deus absconditus) and God revealed (Deus revelatus).”(p139)
A corollary of this is the distinction between two kinds of theology. There is theology as God does it called archetypal theology, and there is theology as God reveals it to us called ectypal theology (p143). Yet, this “archetypal/ectypal distinction is not in God as he is in himself, but he condescends to make the distinction in order to speak to us and so that we can speak about him.”(p143) Finite human beings are not capable of infinite thought. So, as Calvin describes, Scripture is God condescending to speak to finite creatures in the way one speaks to a little child.
In pages 145-150, Clark gives historical reasons as to why confessionalists “forgot gradually our own grammar, logic and rhetoric.” I don’t have time to go into these reasons, but suffice to say, assumption has played a large part in the downgrade.

“Well,” says some detractor, “so what? Who gives a rat’s bottom about archetypal/ectypal theology? I just want to know and love Jesus.” The answer should go something like, “You either assume that human knowledge and God’s knowledge exists on some continuum, or that there is a distinction between the two. Human beings are little gods on a pilgrimage back to the divine beatific vision, or they are analogues thinking God’s thoughts after him. As Luther declared to the 1518 Heidelberg Disputation, you either embrace a theology of glory or a theology of the cross.”

How else are you going to deal with hard passages of Scripture? What about God ascribing body parts to himself in the Psalms? Either God has eyes, a nose, hands, etc, or he is accommodating his revelation to us in anthropomorphisms. How can God elect sinners while desiring that none should perish and that all should turn in repentance? Do we, in true QIRC fashion, explain one passage away in the light of the other, or do we confess that we are happy to live with the apparent tension, realising that our finite brains cannot cope with infinite truths. We know that they are true, but confess we don’t know how they are true in the light of the archetypal/ectypal distinction. Either we are, in true QIRE fashion, on a road back to a face to face meeting with God, or we will always require that he accommodates his knowledge to us, in the now by word and sacrament, and at the eschaton in the face of his dear son Jesus.

This chapter again brought home to me how the Reformed faith brings such a balanced approach to epistemology. Had the creator/creature distinction of Reformed theology been embraced by the church at large, perhaps our flocks would not be turning from the idolatrous certitude of fundamentalism to the epistemological uncertainty of Polanyi, Newbigin or McLaren. The archetypal/ectypal distinction should undergird an epistemological conviction that is both hermeneutically and exegetically satisfying.

Really Reformed?

Big thanks to Nick for inviting me to contribute to his blog. Nick remains the owner and editor, with the right to delete anything I post. But I'll enjoy contributing thoughts on church and doctrine.

You can probably find out a little about my background quite easily. So I wont attempt a brief personal history. Suffice to write that I am training to become a minister of word and sacrament in a mainstream (= liberal?) Presbyterian church in the UK.

My first substantial posts will give summaries of selected chapters from Always Reforming: Explorations in systematic theology. I've remarked on this book in a previous blog existence.