Saturday, 12 December 2009

sacraments - symbolic eating or actual participation?

I mentioned in a previous post my dissatisfaction with the common evangelical/baptistic interpretation of the efficacy of the sacraments with a particular focus on baptism. My argument was that the language of 'symbolism' and 'teaching tools' were too bland to do full justice to the biblical data on water, bread and wine.

I thought I'd offer some rather random thoughts on the Lord's Supper:

Firstly, how should we interpret the language of "participation" 1 Corinthians 10:16? ("The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?" ESV) It is quite interesting to look further down 1 Corinthians 10 to verse 18, "Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar?" (ESV) The NT practise of eating bread and wine is analogous to the Israelis eating at the altar in that it too is a "participation". Fee notes that Paul is "referring to the meals prescribed in Deut. 14:22-27." (p470) The Jews actually ate portions of the sacrificed food. Yet Fee goes on to make the claim that, since "there is not the remotest hint in Judaism that the sacrificial food represented God in some way" (p470) we can safely discount any sacramental reading of this text. Now I'm not fit to lace Fee's exegetical boots, but surely he's missing the woods for the trees? Could not this Old Covenant eating of the sacrifice be a shadow or type of New Covenant believers actually eating of the bloody NT sacrifice? Far from militating against a sacramental reading, perhaps verse 18 actually strengthens such a reading?

Secondly, isn't it weird that in 1 Corinthians, the only place where Paul talks about the Lord's Supper, the great Apostle makes no qualifying statements regarding the efficacy of the Eucharist? Here's his big chance to say, "Hey you guys and gals, culturally influenced by superstition and mindless paganism; don't read too much into the bread and wine - they're merely symbols." On the contrary, Paul tells them that through the sacraments they "participate" in the body and blood of Christ. "Ah but" interjects Mr Baptist Pastor, "But nothing" answers Paul. In fact, Paul goes further to say that if you eat the Supper without "discerning the body of Christ", you eat and drink judgement on yourself (11:29, 30). As Oor Wullie would say, "Help ma boab!"

Thirdly, while this may or may not appeal to evangelicals, a sacramental reading is the majority report in church history. The Augsburg Confession gives an example of an exposition of John 15 by Cyril of Alexandria (376-444):
Nevertheless, we do not deny that we are joined spiritually to Christ by true faith and sincere love. But that we have no mode of connection with Him, according to the flesh, this indeed we entirely deny. And this, we say, is altogether foreign to the divine Scriptures. For who has doubted that Christ is in this manner a vine, and we the branches, deriving thence life for ourselves? Hear Paul saying 1 Cor. 10:17; Rom. 12:5; Gal. 3:28: We are all one body in Christ; although we are many, we are, nevertheless, one in Him; for we are, all partakers of that one bread. Does he perhaps think that the virtue of the mystical benediction is unknown to us? Since this is in us, does it not also, by the communication of Christ's flesh, cause Christ to dwell in us bodily? And a little after: Whence we must consider that Christ is in us not only according to the habit, which we call love, but also by natural participation, etc.
Fourth, as John Thomson noted in the comments to the first post on this subject, isn't it peculiar that those churches with a supposedly "lower" view of the sacraments (e.g. Brethren - weekly) tend to celebrate the Lord's Supper more frequently than those with the "higher" view (e.g. Presbyterians, Lutherans - monthly)? Why so?

These are just some rambling thoughts. Although I am obviously leaning towards a sacramental view of the supper, I consider my view on this one a work in progress.

38 comments:

Carter said...

Hi Nick, been working on this myself. Given the language Paul uses in this passage, a simplistic memorial view does seem a bit forced. I come from an evangeli-baptist realm Bible church, where we celebrate the Supper once a month, with a presumably low yet muddy view on the sacrament. Here's a good resource I cam across which does deal with Fee's commentary somewhat: http://www.theologian.org.uk/doctrine/calvinonthelordssupper.html

Cheers!

Nick Mackison said...

Carter, I appreciate the link and thanks for stopping by!

Carter said...

No problem, I hope it is helpful! I have been making the move to a more consistently Reformed position myself, so I have appreciated your recent posts on sacraments (paedo-baptism has been my major "stumbling block", as it were). The difficulty I am finding here is in striking the balance between something beyond symbolism, but short of Lutheran/RC. Especially when we talk of, "participation in the blood..." etc. Any thoughts?

John Thomson said...

Nicky/Carter a couple of points.

1 Is discerning the Lord's body a reference to the physical body of Christ? I am not at all sure it is. Surely he is speaking in the context of discerning the mystical nature of the church as the body of Christ. Is it not a reference rather like ch10.

!0:17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.

So in our eating are we 'partaking' of the mystical body of Christ.

2. Despite Nicky's claim, language does need to be discerned. We must ask if a speaker or writer is speaking literally or metaphorically. 'As I have washed your feet so you ought to wash one another's feet' is not, nor should it be, taken literally.

When Jesus passed round bread and wine and said this is my body and blood yet was sitting among them the apostles were not intended to take it in any sense literally.

When Jesus says in John 6 that those who follow him must eat of his flesh and drink his blood he was not speaking in any sense literally but simply that they must feed by faith on him. This every Baptist/Brethren does when he takes the LS. He does what the meal asks, he by faith'remembers Christ, proclaims his death, and anticipates his coming.

He didn't say, 'don't read too much into this' for they were not in danger of doing so. They saw the meal for what it was, a fellowship meal. 'Participation' involves the idea of fellowship together in a meal that expresses our union with Christ. By faith we have, and daily do, 'eat his flesh and drink his blood'. The fellowship meal, like the passover, brings these events to mind. It is a 'physical word' that if understood by faith is a 'means of grace' just as any other 'gospel word' if understood by faith is a means of grace.

I ask again, beyond this, what kind of 'grace' is being referred to?

John Thomson said...

Nicky/Carter a couple of points.

1 Is discerning the Lord's body a reference to the physical body of Christ? I am not at all sure it is. Surely he is speaking in the context of discerning the mystical nature of the church as the body of Christ. Is it not a reference rather like ch10.

!0:17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.

So in our eating are we 'partaking' of the mystical body of Christ.

2. Despite Nicky's claim, language does need to be discerned. We must ask if a speaker or writer is speaking literally or metaphorically. 'As I have washed your feet so you ought to wash one another's feet' is not, nor should it be, taken literally.

When Jesus passed round bread and wine and said this is my body and blood yet was sitting among them the apostles were not intended to take it in any sense literally.

When Jesus says in John 6 that those who follow him must eat of his flesh and drink his blood he was not speaking in any sense literally but simply that they must feed by faith on him. This every Baptist/Brethren does when he takes the LS. He does what the meal asks, he by faith'remembers Christ, proclaims his death, and anticipates his coming.

He didn't say, 'don't read too much into this' for they were not in danger of doing so. They saw the meal for what it was, a fellowship meal. 'Participation' involves the idea of fellowship together in a meal that expresses our union with Christ. By faith we have, and daily do, 'eat his flesh and drink his blood'. The fellowship meal, like the passover, brings these events to mind. It is a 'physical word' that if understood by faith is a 'means of grace' just as any other 'gospel word' if understood by faith is a means of grace.

I ask again, beyond this, what kind of 'grace' is being referred to?

Donald Ferguson said...

Hi all and John

Just one question to chuck into the mix. Faith is our response to Grace - the movement is from God to us. The Word of God is a means of Grace - it is living and active as it is infused with the life of God. If the LS and baptism are also means of grace then our faith is no more than a reponse to Gods Grace reaching us through them.

Does this mean that as the Bible is more than words the LS is more than bread and wine?

One reply will do!

John Thomson said...

Inso far as the LS is a 'physical word' it has the same effect as a 'gospel word'. Indeed it is a 'gospel word'. But although powerful, the word comes as both a word of life (if received by faith) or a word of death (if abused and not discerned). That is the context, to my mind, of 'for this cause many are sick...etc'. They came together to eat the communal meal that symbolised their union with each other in Christ yet some who were rich ate brought lots foer themselves and the poor had little; they were not discerning the nature of the mystical body of Christ and so the 'physical word' was being abused, they were not receiving it with faith.

The living word does not always come with gracious force - the Thessalonians were commended because the word came - not in word only...

John said...

The Oxford scholar, Darwell Stone says: “Throughout the writings of the Fathers there is unbroken agreement that the consecrated bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ, and that the Eucharist is a sacrifice.”

J.N.D. Kelly says of the apostolic fathers: "Eucharistic teaching, it should be understood at the outset, was in general unquestioningly realist, i.e., the consecrated bread and wine were taken to be, and were treated and designated as, the Savior’s body and blood".

In speaking of quotes that do mention the symbolism, J.N.D. Kelly writes: “It must not be supposed, of course, that this ‘symbolical’ language implied that the bread and wine were regarded as mere pointers to, or tokens of, absent realities. Rather were they accepted as signs of realities which were somehow actually present through apprehended by faith alone."

Nick Mackison said...

John, in what sense do we 'feed on' Christ by faith? Again, in John 6, Jesus doesn't at all qualify the force of his statement, even when disciples desert him because of this hard teaching.

Carter, have you read Calvin on the Lord's Supper? He might strike the balance you're looking for, i.e. during communion the Holy Spirit takes us to heaven and we feed spiritually on Christ's physical body and blood. It is a very mysterious understanding of the LS. I'm trying to decide between Calvin and Luther on this one.

PS I particularly like Donald's point that the word of God has a life of it's own.

John Thomson said...

We 'feed on Christ' when we allow our mind and heart to 'remember him'. As we 'masticate' on all the truth of Christ's life, death and resurrection and glory and 'digest' these truths in our inner being we feed on Christ; we 'ruminate' by 'remembering'.

Let 'remembering' have its intended force.

Carter said...

Nick,
Not yet, but I intend to. I've read about Calvin's position, and it does seem to be a good middle ground.

John,
I'm actually comfortable with your position. But I'm still trying to work out the details. The main point of LS is, of course, 11:26. But that fact that Paul states that they are both eating blood AND bread in 10:16, and further, says that those are specifically being profaned in 11:27, makes it hard for me to qualify those statements myself. In what way are we profaning the body and blood in our unworthy manner?

Ultimately, one of my concerns is that in the LS being simply a memorial, it is also somewhat dispensable. Sure, Christ ordered it, but if it doesn't really do anything, then we can surely limit it in practice...

Thanks for the dialog :)

John Thomson said...

In Corinthians the LS was being profaned by the way the Corinthians were treating each other - they were making divisions in the body of Christ by the rich acting without consideration to the poor. It was a denial of the unity in the mystical body of Christ that the LS symbolises/signifies.

When we meet to eat the LS and in our lives act deliberately in ways that deny the truths of the LS we in turn profane it.

Carter, it does 'do something; it teaches us and so feeds and sustains us in the life of faith.

John Thomson said...

Nicky

Jesus tells us what it means in John 6 to 'feed on him'.

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst."

To 'feed on him'
is to 'come to him' and 'believe on him'.

Other verses in the same immediate context connect words, the Spirit and belief in the life-giving grace of 'feeding on Christ as the bread of life.

63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.)

Alexander said...

If it's only remembering, why do we need communion? Ok, it can be used to focus our minds but, really, if all it is is remembering we don't actually need it. Surely we should be meditating on Christ's sacrifice all the time.

Plus, the way Paul talks about it is not how one would talk about a mere commemoration. Going to church is, at the end of the day, a commemoration and celebration of Christ. Why single communion out?

No, the only way communion can have the effect Paul says it does- for good and ill- is if something actually happens.

A question: why are memorialists so intent on denying anything happens in communion? I understand the need to avoid the heresy of transubsantiation, but the Reformed view does that. It maintains Christ's (human) body in Heaven and only believers can commune with it, by the work of the Holy Spirit. With that sorted, why are you so intent on denying that the Holy Spirit does something miraculous here? The Holy Spirit pierces our stone hearts and gives us hearts of flesh; he takes us from a state of death to one of life. He can accomplish anything.

John said...

Erm, is the such thing as a "Reformed view" here? The reformers were after all, at each other's throats on this issue.

John Thomson said...

Alexander

Yes we should be feeding on Christ all the time that is what John 6 insists on. Just as we should be living a dead and raised life all the time, but that doesn't prevent the Lord from giving us the LS and baptism as a focus for these things. We have the LS because we need regular communal reminder (it is Jesus who says, 'remember me', not memorialists).

Indeed we ought to read and meditate, but we require preaching. We ought to pray continually but we need prayer meetings...

I keep waiting to hear what the 'something' above applying the 'physical word' by faith to our hearts is that the Spirit does and some texts to back it up but I seem to wait in vain!!!!

Alexander Smith said...

Exactly, we do need the Word, because the Word preached both transforms in grace and condemns under judgement those who hear it. The sacraments are physical manifestations of the Word, given to aid Christians in their life of faith. They, too, seal Christ in the covenant people and transform in grace or harden under judgement all who partake of them.

Christ is present through the preaching of the Word by the Spirit: we respond in faith and are united to Him. So He is not present in the Bible itself (locally), but the Spirit, through the Word, brings union with Christ. The same with the sacraments.

As to verses, you've been given them repeatedly. It's up to you to justify your double-think interpretation of words such as participation and particularly I Cor. 11:27-30 where we are clearly taught we bring judgement upon ourselves if we transgress against the Spirit. We do more than merely profane the Supper: we are judged, we can be inflicted with disease and even death Paul tells us. How can this happen in a mere commemoration?

As to there being a Reformed view of the Supper: the Reformed confessions, which constitute the expression of Reformed theology, hold to the spiritual presence view of the Supper. Just as being Reformed requires one to practice infant baptism, which is put forward in the Reformed confessions; so a Reformed understanding of the Sacraments requires a "sign and seal" or "something happens" understanding.

We don't turn to Luther, Zwingli or even Calvin for our understanding of Reformed theology but to the confessions of the Reformed churches.

John Thomson said...

Alexander

'Christ is present through the preaching of the Word by the Spirit: we respond in faith and are united to Him. So He is not present in the Bible itself (locally), but the Spirit, through the Word, brings union with Christ. The same with the sacraments.'

I'm not sure I am saying any different from this. I have said that I see the LS as a 'physical word' that functions like the 'written word' in precisely the way you express.

The only point I would add is that by 'eating' the supper we are confessing we belong to Christ and all that this covenant meal signifies thus the meal is not for unbelievers but believers. We eat unworthily when we eat the meal as those who confess allegiance to its fellowship, yet act in contraction to the union it represents and furthers.

If, however, you think that the bare eating is in some way inherently a means of grace without the eating being accompanied by a 'discerning' then I find that much more of a problem.

Alexander Smith said...

The eating without faith and without the presence of the Holy Spirit means nothing. However, I would say, if my understanding is correct- and I do not claim to be a "sacrament warrior"- that the Spirit is always present in the Supper and so those who eat in faith are nourished and receive grace and those who eat in unbelief are judged and condemned.

As a sign and seal of the covenant the Supper is for God's covenant people, some of whom are not of the elect. So some will eat in faith and some will eat in unbelief.

Of course it is also a memorial of Christ's sacrifice for us on the Cross once for all and we remember this. But the memorialist position effectively turns the Supper into a sacrament of works: it all becomes about our striving to remember this sacrifice "enough", in a "proper" way. It becomes about our subjective experience. Rather, in the Supper we are united with Christ: fact; we feed on his flesh and drink of his blood, in a spiritual yet real sense: fact; the Holy Spirit does all this: fact.

We don't need to strive, to break down in tears, to fall prostrate on the floor (not that am saying these are common features in memorialist congregations: I'm being a tad hyperbolic). Basically, we don't need to work ourselves up so as to experience communion "properly". By partaking in the Supper we receive Christ, this is the reality and we just need to recognise this. Meditate on it. And if that brings us to tears that's fine.

Just as our union with Christ in the Spirit through faith is a fact: we are no longer sinners, therefore we should not sin; in the Supper we experience a reality independent of our own subjective experience.

By discerning do you mean understanding of what we're doing? If so I would certainly agree we should be aware of what we're doing. I'm not a proponent of paedocommunion. We eat in faith and this means a sufficient intellectual understanding of what that faith entails- which, of course, is the only way one can actually have saving faith.

If one eats in faith they feed on Christ and receive grace from God through the sacrament.

(Sorry if I've been a tad repetitive.)

John said...

"The Reformed confessions, which constitute the expression of Reformed theology, hold to the spiritual presence view of the Supper."

The Lutherans would disagree with their doctrine of the Lord's body being "in, on or under" the elements, according to the Augsburg confession.

"Just as being Reformed requires one to practice infant baptism, which is put forward in the Reformed confessions"

The Reformed Baptists would disagree.

"So a Reformed understanding of the Sacraments requires a "sign and seal" or "something happens" understanding."

Zwingli would disagree. Perhaps you should say "my favourite Reformers' position' or something.

Alexander Smith said...

1)The fact that Lutherans disagree with one of the key statements of Lutheranism doesn't mean that Lutheranism has two understandings of the Lord's Supper; it means there are Lutherans who don't agree with the Lutheran understanding of the Lord's Supper.

2)Reformed Baptist is a contradiction in terms. One cannot be Reformed and be Baptistic. One can espouse the Doctrines of Grace and be Baptistic (though I believe even that is, ultimately, logically unsound); one can believe in predestination and be Baptistic. Fine.

A couple of points should be noted:

i) The Five Points of Calvinism are not the be all and end all of Calvinism, let alone of Reformed theology and they were not drawn up in a vacuum, but within a wider Reformed theological understanding, by baby-baptising Reformed ministers. There were no Baptists at the Synod of Dort because Baptists weren't allowed to join Reformed chuches. (Further, Calvin himself is not the be all and end all of Reformed theology.)

ii) The early Baptists didn't feel the need to call themselves Reformed, they called themselves Particular or Strict. There were Independents, Presbyterians and some Episcopalians at the Westminster Assembly; no Baptists. They drew up their own confession in 1644. This is why the Westminster Confession rejects an exclusive believer's baptism and baptism by immersion, espousing instead infant baptism as well, by sprinkling.

Reformed theology is more than five points, which were only drawn up in response to another group's opposition to particular points of understanding.

I don't know why many Baptists today insist on calling themselves Reformed. Maybe they like the caché that has been attached to certain Reformed doctrines of late. If you believe the Doctrines of Grace then that's fine, but that doesn't make you Reformed. It makes you Predestinarian. Reformed theology cannot be reduced to predestination: it has a theology, piety and practice. It has a particular understanding of the church, of Christ's work, of sanctification, of God's relationship with Man (covenant theology), of salvation, of the sacraments, which includes the baptising of infants. Infant baptism, whilst not a sufficient condition of being Reformed, is a necessary one.

If modern ministers in Reformed denominations have become embarassed by infant baptism because they want to fit in with their cool and trendy baptist and charismatic friends down the road and attend all the cool and trendy conferences that's their choice and it's a shame, but they don't get to redefine Reformed theology. (I, on the other hand, am quite happy attending the cool and trendy conferences and concerts whilst also believing infants should be baptised.)

I'd also say that it's no coincidence that most Baptists today are Arminian.

3) Just because Zwingli didn't believe the sacraments have an efficacious element doesn't mean that Reformed theology has various understandings of the sacraments. Again, Reformed theology is not defined by "what the Reformers, all the Reformers, believed" but by "what the Reformed churches believed and espoused in their various confessions".

If a Presbyterian says that he thinks the Lord's Supper is just a memorial, that doesn't mean Presbyterianism can also include memorialism. It means there are Presbyterians who don't hold to the Reformed understanding of the Lord's Supper.

John said...

" it means there are Lutherans who don't agree with the Lutheran understanding of the Lord's Supper."

????

I was paraphrasing the Book of Concord, which I take to be a Lutheran document. I don't know what Lutherans don't agree with Lutheranism, but they are not germane to my point.

"One cannot be Reformed and be Baptistic."

What is the reasoning for that claim?

"but they don't get to redefine Reformed theology."

Well, if you look up "radical reformation", you'll find reference to baptists. I take it that if you were involved in the reformation, you've got some claim on the term. And I don't know how a movement claiming the motto "Semper Reformanda" can hope to freeze dry a particular view as the reformed view.

"Again, Reformed theology is not defined by "what the Reformers, all the Reformers, believed" but by "what the Reformed churches believed and espoused in their various confessions"."

Well, Zwingly drew up a confession, which I take it was what the reformed church in his jurisdiction was espousing.

Alexander Smith said...

1)You said there were Lutherans who would disagree with the traditional Lutheran understanding of communion. My point was that may be, but that doesn't change the traditional Lutheran understanding.

2)The reasoning for the claim that Baptists can't be Reformed followed that claim, which you conveniently skipped over.

3) Indeed, there were Baptists around at the time. So what? I see you ignored my point that Baptists didn't call themselves Reformed and weren't present at key assemblies.

4)There is a difference between the historical event called the Reformation, and Reformed theology which developed out of it. Luther pretty much kick-started the whole thing, yet Lutheranism is not Reformed theology; the followers of Luther are not considered Reformed. So just because there were various major Reformation theologians, doesn't mean all their ideas or those who follow them are considered part of Reformed theology or Reformed churches. Protesant, yes; Reformed, no.

Out of Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, Reformed theology is most associated with Calvin. It is his distinctives which are espoused; his form of church governance which is prominent and it is his views of the Sacraments which are adhered to.

Ok, Zwingli drew up a confession, which his church followed. So what? Lutherans drew up confessions, but Lutherans are not Reformed! The theology of the Reformed churches is found in the confessions of the Reformed churches. Zwingli's church may have been a "reformed" church in the sense it was a church born out of the Reformation, but that is not the same as the capital R Reformed churches which also developed out of the Reformation. I don't know why you can't grasp this distinction.

Take the American Constitution. There were lots of people who were responsible for the framing of that document, and the subsequent amendments. They all had diverse views on many key issues. The only thing that matters, however, is what was written down in that document. We do not understand the US Constitution by reading the writings of George Washington; we understand it by reading the document itself, reading the debates that took place whilst it was being compiled and at how it was understood at the time it was ratified.

The Reformed confessions are specific documents, which do not include every confession/catechism written during/after the Reformation. The Reformed confessions espouse infant baptism and spritual sacraments.

5)If a denomination wished to "update" its views it could commission an assembly to draw up a new confession. But i) that would only change the understanding of those denominations which signed up to that confession and ii) why bother? There is no new theology. Nothing which is being promoted today hasn't been argued before. Or perhaps you are privvy to some new direct revelation?

As Machen said, the confessions were the historical apex of the church's understanding of Biblical theology. It's not that there was new revelation, but that it took that long for the church to work out its understanding of what the Bible taught.

So it's not that this view of the Sacraments is "frozen" it's that that's what the Bible teaches and therefore there is no need to change that understanding.

John Thomson said...

Alexander, I enjoy your comments and insights and if truth be told ocassionally sparring with you. However, a comment in your last response is what troubles me with institutionalised Reformed belief. You write,

'As Machen said, the confessions were the historical apex of the church's understanding of Biblical theology. It's not that there was new revelation, but that it took that long for the church to work out its understanding of what the Bible taught.

So it's not that this view of the Sacraments is "frozen" it's that that's what the Bible teaches and therefore there is no need to change that understanding.'

This I find very concerning. It effectively raises Reformed confessions to the level of Scripture, indeed like Catholicism, beyond Scripture, for Scripture must be interpreted through the prism of the confession.

The confessions it would appear cannot be wrong, or inadequate.

I am sure many avowedly Reformed writers agree with you for I find in many (many I get much prrofit from) an inability to step even a little outside of confessional stances.

This, I suggest, is a weakness and not a strength. It denies the right of the Holy Spirit to throw light on Scripture contrary to the confessions. Illumination of truth is indeed 'frozen' in man-made confessions. Breathtakingly arrogant.

Alexander Smith said...

I understand your concern and certainly would not wish to give the impression that I hold confessions as an authority on a par with Scripture because I don't. However, one can hold Scripture as the only authority and also say that in the confessions we find an accurate summary of what the Bible teaches. After all, there is no principal difference between a minister standing up on a Sunday and saying that Christ died for our sins, and a confession making the same point.

The point of a confession is to summarise and systematise our understanding of the Bible and, thus, maintain some sort of doctrinal purity within our denominations.

As I said, churches are free to follow all of them, all parts of them, or to amend them. They can create whole new ones. The question I ask is: is there really a need to? Is there any new theological point or understanding being espoused today which wasn't espoused in the early church, mediaeval period, at the Reformation, and subsequently rejected or adopted?

I know there are people who like to think they're saying something new, or rediscovering something which had been suppressed or forgotten since the early church- like the New Perspective folk. But they're wrong. It's all been heard and argued over before.

To truly hold the Bible as the one true authority is to recognise there is no new revelation: not now, not ever in this world. And so when we talk about Spiritual illumination we're talking, as you know, about what the Bible says. So, is there really another possible interpretation of the Sacraments? We have the memorial view, the full sacramental view and the third way. So, we just choose the one we believe.

Certainly, churches which follow one understanding could change their understanding, but that wouldn't mean Reformed theology changed because Reformed theology is objective. It's an actual thing which has a specific meaning.

Any doctrine is, by its nature, a form of petrification. We should avoid the tendency of double-think which says it's fine to hold certain doctrines as unchangeable, but when we start to write these down in the form of a confession suddenly we're denying the Holy Spirit.

I'd also say that the focus of this discussion has become what is Reformed theology. To find that out we turn to the confessions, which are the expresion of Reformed theology. Now I'm not saying if you disagree with the Reformed confessions in any part then you're questioning the Bible or not a Christian. But I would say I believe the Reformed confessions are an accurate summary of what the Bible teaches. And if you want to know what Reformed theology is then it's to the confessions you turn.

John said...

Would you say that the Reformed confessions speak the truth more clearly than scripture does? That seems to be what you're saying.

Alexander Smith said...

The Bible is the Revelation of God; confessions bring together the various doctinal teachings of the Bible in a systematic way.

I assume you wouldn't deny that the Bible teaches doctrine, but not in a systematic way. Some books of the Bible are systematic in nature, such as Romans. But the overall approach of the Bible is one of Revelation throughout redemptive history; it's not written like a theology textbook.

So, for instance, the Bible teaches the doctrine of justification. But it teaches it in various places, rather than in one isolated passage. What a confession does is look at all the Bible says on this doctrine and brings it together in a concise statement of the larger Biblical picture. And then places that doctrine in context to other doctrines.

Confessions are just summaries of key Biblical teachings.

Your use of the word clearly is sneaky. What is preaching if not taking what the Bible says and making it clearer for the congregation to understand? We don't just read a passage and leave it at that: we preach on that passage. The Bible can be hard to understand and it addresses the same topics throughout. It's helpful if we have a means of bringing those various statements together.

Furthermore, I assume you would also agree that much theology has been developed based on Biblical passages, but are not found explicitly in those passages. The Trinity is the perfect example: the Bible does not teach explicitly the doctrine of the Trinity, yet from what the Bible says it's been possible to develop this doctrine. It took men with great insight and illumination by the Spirit to discern and develop a lot of our doctrines. Clearly not everthing is equally clear. But once documents are drawn up, everyone can read them and see how the various teachings of the Bible come together.

So unless you're saying that our understanding is limited only to the words as we read them on the page, and that we can't bring together various statements to develop our understanding; and that we can't take implicit statements and form explicit doctrine, then I don't see your problem. If you are saying that, then I don't see how you can believe many of the things you do.

So, I think if one wants a clear, concise statement of the doctrine of Election, for example, one can turn to the Westminster Confession Chapter 3 and read a summary of the Biblical teaching on this topic. This clearly isn't a substitute for reading the Bible, but then that's not the purpose of the confession.

Why is this a problematic approach?

John said...

"The Trinity is the perfect example: the Bible does not teach explicitly the doctrine of the Trinity, yet from what the Bible says it's been possible to develop this doctrine. It took men with great insight and illumination by the Spirit to discern and develop a lot of our doctrines."

And also there are men who come up with different doctrines, presumably because they have flawed insight or defective or non-genuine illumination.

So then the question is, what does the average man do, who doesn't claim great insight or illumination. Which men does he follow who do claim great insight?

And how does proposing the importance and apparent necessity of looking to such men with great insight needed to develop doctrines fit in with sola scriptura? Sounds like you don't have a functioning rule of faith without proposing this category of specially illumined men.

Alexander Smith said...

Well for a start, as the Bible says, God calls some as pastors, as teachers, as elders, as evangelists. God calls, from within His church, certain people who have the gift of preaching and teaching God's Word. Not everyone is of equal mental ability; not everyone can understand the complexities of doctrine.

As to whose authority is reliable: the confessions were agreed by assemblies and adopted by denominations at their assemblies. It was a "democratic" process. Doctrines were tested against Scripture. No-one is bound to a confession which their conscience tells them is wrong: the history of Protestantism is testament to that.

The Biblical canon, after all, came about by the church coming together and, through the guidance of the Spirit, bringing together those books which are inspired and rejecting those books which aren't. If you question the principle of assemblies accurately bringing together doctrinal statements you question the Biblical canon itself.

As to sola scriptura, your arguments are akin to what happened in the Southern Baptist Convention. The conservatives spent years fighting for the doctrine of inerrancy to be adopted, that they never got around to applying inerrant Scripture to their churches.

Sola scriptura means we get our doctrine from nowhere but the Bible. That's what confessions do: they summarise Biblical doctrine.

Over the years heresies have been proposed and rejected. And those which don't go away fester in small splinter groups. The church has actually been pretty successful at maintaining an orthodoxy throughout history.

John said...

"The Biblical canon, after all, came about by the church coming together and, through the guidance of the Spirit, bringing together those books which are inspired and rejecting those books which aren't. If you question the principle of assemblies accurately bringing together doctrinal statements you question the Biblical canon itself."

Yeah, but when this happened there was THE church, not enumerable churches.

But this is the question I am supposed to ask you. Do you accept the 7 ecumenical councils, and if not won't you be questioning the biblical canon itself?

Alexander Smith said...

I don't have to accept the seven councils if they affirmed theology which is contrary to Scripture. My argument has never been: "The Heildelberg Catechism says x, ergo x is true." Rather, my point was: "The Heildelberg Catechism says x; the HC is a Reformed confession; ergo, x is part of Reformed theology." This doesn't mean every article of every confession needs to be followed. Most, if not all, Reformed denominations have amended their adopted confessions to some degree. Reformed understanding has developed over the years. What has not happened, however, has been a fullscale repudiation of the fundamental theology of the confessions.

So, whilst most denominations have amended the chapter on the Civil Magistrate in the Westminster Confession, the underlying theology of the Confession has been maintained. Furthermore, one can still say that the Classical Reformed understanding of church and state can be found, for example, in the Westminster Confession chapter on the Civil Magistrate.

I have also argued that the confessions represent an accurate summary of Biblical theology. I don't think amending certain articles which deal with church and state alters this position. The confessions are systematic. They make propositions and also reach conclusions. We also have to remember that the confessions have been interpreted by specific denominations.

Overall, and to a very great extent, the confessions are a good summary of Biblical theology. It may sound like I'm qualifying my earlier arguments, maybe I am. But then, as I've said, I never argued that we read Scripture through confessions. Confessions, made by man, are fallible. I don't deny this.

It also doesn't change the fact that Reformed theology is confessional and this refers to specific, historical confessions. So I'll accept that Reformed churches have amended their understanding of their own confessions, but then that's hardly a crime. There has never been a rethinking of Reformed understanding of the sacraments, even if many Reformed ministers/churches today don't have the understanding of the sacraments found in the confessions.

As to the example of the Biblical canon. One might argue why does one have to accept the canon we have if we can, apparently, pick and choose. Well, Luther didn't agree with the canon- he didn't think James should be in it. That position wasn't adopted. As I said, the church has been pretty successful at maintaining orthodoxy over the years.

John Thomson said...

Alexander

It is your last conclusion that I question. My problem with a confession of faith is not so much the notion of a confession but the misplaced confidence that can be placed in it.

It is not simply that the confession may be wrong and petrify truth, though that is important. It is more that it has not been the champion of orthodoxy you suggest. It has not kept Reformed churches from being invaded by liberalism. Even where orthodoxy has been maintained often it is little more than that - dead orthodoxy. It has certainly not succesfully sustained spiritual life.

If churches pay no heed to the witness and voice of Scripture a confession is likely to make little difference.

All that being said, I am not so much opposed to confessions as not convinced they are so terribly helpful.

Alexander Smith said...

Well then we are in agreement, substantially. I would disagree with you on your last point, however. Confessions are very handy in getting a quick summary of a particular doctrine. One should always turn to Scripture to see the context though.

It is important, however, to maintain that when we talk about Reformed theology we are talking about something specific, which includes specific fundamental doctrines. One of which is infant baptism, which is still a universal practice in Reformed churches.

John said...

Well hang on now. You started telling us that to question assemblies accurately assembling doctrine, then you question the canon itself.

How do you make that statement and not agree with the assemblies accepted by the whole church of the time?

You seemed to attempt to wiggle out of it by saying, oh well Luther questioned the canon and the world didn't collapse. But then you conclude approvingly that Luther failed, and thus "orthodoxy was maintined". But how do you know it was maintained except by assuming what you want to prove? Especially since you are willing to toss out the wisdom of the entire church when your interpretation of the bible differs? It looks all very inconsistent to me.

I mean, you can't even claim especial insight of the reformers, since you're willing to toss out their civil magistrate clauses if you don't agree (despite the fact they quote various verses in favour of them).

Alexander Smith said...

I didn't throw out the CM clauses: Reformed churches amended their understanding of their own confessions over time. A practice I have defended since the beginning of this discussion.

This whole thing is getting rather ridiculous. What I originally claimed was that Reformed theology is a specific thing: it is confessional and found in specific confessions. These confessions were drawn up by the Reformed churches. They have the right to alter them if they wish. Lutheran churches are not Reformed churches; Baptist churches are not Reformed churches.

Therefore, Baptists do not have the right to come in and say: well, one can be Reformed and be Baptistic, because I agree with the doctrines of grace. The doctrines of grace are not the be all and end all of Reformed theology, they are part of a much bigger picture. And they were drawn up by baby-baptising Reformed ministers. Also, to take the doctrines of grace to their logical conclusion excludes Baptistic theology and ecclesiology (such as they are), but that's a different matter.

The CM clauses may indeed be able to be argued from the Bible, but the church has altered its understanding and made accomodation with the culture they're living in. For good or ill on this issue.

I've always said that one should check everything they read with Scripture. If one doesn't agree with the understanding of the Reformed confessions on the sacraments one is free to follow a different view. I think a different view is wrong, based on my understanding of Scripture. But there is a Reformed understanding, found in the confessions.

You also argued they quenched the Holy Spirit. When the confessions were drawn up the three views of the sacraments possible- memorial, spiritual or sacramental- were around and had been argued over. There won't be another understanding. This is true of most theological controversies- if not all (I only say most because I'm certainly no authority). There are no new controversies that I've heard. Everything we're hearing today which claims to be new has been proposed before.

Confessions can be altered, as we've seen, so the Holy Spirit is not quenched. But as confessions were drawn up in assemblies, they are amended by assemblies. There is still an objective process to constructing and amending them.

John said...

So you're now only willing to defend some of the things you said, not all of them. Whatever.

I don't understand how churches can toss out the CM clauses, but they remain Reformed, but if they toss out the paedo-baptism clauses they cease to be Reformed. Sounds like special pleading to me, but whatever.

Alexander Smith said...

Which Reformed churches have tossed out infant baptism?

(And by the by, they haven't "tossed out" the CM clauses: they've amended them, to clarify their understanding of the role of the civil magistrate. Oh, and "whatever" isn't actually an argument.)

Alexander Smith said...

Which Reformed churches have tossed out infant baptism?

And they haven't "tossed out" the CM clauses, they've clarified their understanding of the role of the civil magistrate. (And, by the by, "whatever" isn't actually an argument.)