Friday, June 24, 2011

N.T. Wright and Deathbed Counsel: Exposing a Fable

Recently a friend of mine retold a story he had heard in a lecture (precise date unknown) by Don Carson in which Carson alleged that when Dr. Wright was asked what he would say to a person on their deathbed, Wright said that he didn't know or would have to think about it. The implication, of course, is that Wright has no gospel left to preach to a dying person. That account struck me initially as highly implausible. If you know anything about Wright it's that he's rarely at a loss for words. Wright might say some wrong things occasionally, but he always has something to say!


As an admirer of Dr. Wright, I fired off an email to him asking about the origin of this story. Wright responded almost immediately and assured me that though he couldn't remember the exchange it was obvious that he would not have given such an equivocal answer, since as a long-time pastor he has plenty of experience of speaking with people near the point of death and has never had any hesitation in talking to them about the love of God revealed in Jesus and encouraging them to put their whole trust in that saving gift. He said that he had confronted Don Carson, some years ago, about telling and retelling such a slanted and slanderous tale, and that so far as he knows Carson no longer does so.


I'm posting this on my blog to help put this fable to rest. If you want to critique Wright or any scholar, do so in light of their published works and not anecdotes which may or may not be true

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Gospel Coalition (1)

I really enjoyed my recent trip to Chicago to attend The Gospel Coalition. The Gospel Coalition (hereafter, TGC), so far as I can tell, is an attempt to rally the troops in the movement called the New Calvinism or the Young, Restless, and Reformed and to offer guidance, to encourage and to warn. This movement, which arises out of American evangelicalism, prizes biblical, Christ-centered preaching that is simultaneously culturally relevant. It offers an alternative to young, predominantly white church leaders who may find themselves attracted to the emergent church movement --- another young, predominantly white initiative, but one intent on "doing church" in explicitly PoMo fashion. The obvious conservatism of TGC is neither stodgy nor traditional. The music at the conference was lively and contemporary, and the speakers, often wearing blue jeans, laced their presentations with appropriate humor. The underlying commitment to Reformed soteriology for these individuals does not preclude, for example, a preference for contemporary worship or a neo-Pentecostal embrace of the so-called charismatic gifts

What most impresses me about the TGC conference are its founders, Don Carson and Tim Keller. The other speakers at the plenary sessions were mediocre, especially in comparison to Carson and Keller. I found James McDonald to be genuine, but his props were entirely unnecessary -- it wasn't a gathering of children. Both McDonald and Alistair Begg, who preached on Ruth, were handed wonderful opportunities to preach Christ from their Old Testament texts, but in both instances the references to Christ seemed somewhat detached from their expositions, as an afterthought of sorts. Matt Chandler and Albert Mohler were sound, humorous, and entertaining, but not particularly profound or insightful. Mark Driscoll's workshop had the semblance of an angry rant, and this was particularly disappointing to me since I found Driscoll to be quite insightful at the last conference.

Part of this mild letdown can be explained by my upbringing. I've been extraordinarily blessed to be nurtured in my youth by faithful, redemptive-historical, Christocentric preaching. The important figures in my own church history, Klaas Schilder and Benne Holwerda, were pioneers in developing a homiletic for narrative texts that was explicitly Christocentric and non-moralistic. By the age of twenty, long before I went to seminary, I had read Sidney's Greidanus's Sola Scriptura. So what the New Calvinism is cutting its teeth on  has been my staple for decades.

And yet the conference was an immense blessing for me, and for several reasons: (a) the rousing music and faithful songs of the Gettys; (b) Tim Keller's brilliant lectures, (c) David Powlison's talk about the pastor's counselling ministry, (d) conversing with David later about the use of Scripture in counselling, (e) Don Carson's exciting talk about Melchizedek, (f) chilling with family and friends.

Next time, I'll return to Tim Keller. He is the reason I attended TGC conference, and he is the reason I will return.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Vonk on Genesis 1 (4)

God gets the credit

The person who recorded Gen.1:1–6 for his contemporaries was writing truth. To whom do all things owe their origin—the things that we see and the things that we do not (yet) see, those referred to in one way in this age and in another way in that way—to whom else do they owe their origin than to the Lord, our God, the creator of heaven and earth?

In what other way could the author of Genesis 1 make clear to his hearers and readers that the credit for creating everything they saw was due exclusively to the one true God, than by addressing them in their language and by making use of their notions and conceptions? For that reason he gave the name raqia’ to that which we still perceive today as a vault—a Hebrew word which was associated at that time with notions which we no longer share, even though the separation of waters above and waters below is still highly significant for us today.

In this way we understand the intention of the author of these verses perfectly well, just as we can understand his intention for all of Genesis 1 in a similar way. This is especially true if we take note of the conclusion and the sequel of this chapter, for then we can discern the underlying plan. From the very beginning the intention of Genesis 1 has been lead the Israelites in a subtle way to praise the One who had let himself be called Yahweh by them ever since Horeb. As they heard or read this chapter, they were to come to the conclusion that the honour and glory of all that exists belonged to the God of Israel.

The entire story is constructed in such a way that the Israelites could not help but break out at the end in a song of praise to Yahweh, who had spoken to his people on Mount Horeb and identified himself there as the Creator of heaven and earth, and even of the fearsome sea. With a mighty hand and sovereign ease he had made them himself, and afterward took a rest which nothing or no one could prevent, and which he now gave, indeed commanded, to his Israel in a day of undisturbed rest and relaxation.

Vonk on Genesis 1 (3)

Already harmonized

It has pleased God our Father to tell us something about the origin of the great realities which we see with our eyes and which cause us to magnify his name. He was not under obligation to anyone to do this. Nor was there any mortal to whom he could explain these things as to an equal. But he was pleased to do this because he wanted to be honoured by us as the only and almighty God (Rev.4:11). This is a lesson of Genesis 1 that no one may call into question.

Perhaps he also wanted to guard Israel against the foolish notion that things arose as the result of a struggle of fearsome primordial monsters, or against the mistaken conception that those things together constituted a second god, which had existed next to him from all eternity. Therefore God let us know something about the origin of all things, namely that they all owe their existence to his creative hand. It was his prerogative to make use of whatever language and time he pleased, and of whatever nation.

Naturally these things were of considerable influence on the manner of presentation. The Lord did not express himself about these things in the concepts of the 20th century. He would not have been understood if he had. The Scriptures sometimes speak of the earth as though it had four corners and rested on pillars (Job 9:6; Jet. 49:36; Rev.7:1 and 20:8), and sometimes as though the land floated on water (Ps.24:1).

Is it possible for us, who have now learned to speak in completely different ways, to dismiss these passages as untrue, or must we in some way or other seek to bring them into harmony with the exact results of science? Surely that is completely unnecessary; they already are in harmony. There is no question of conflict here. Each passage is simply speaking with its own purpose and above all in the language of its hearers and readers.

How would the prophets, the poets and the singers of Israel have been understood by themselves and by their contemporaries if they had spoken the language of our days? It is understandable that we do not have controversies about those pillars and foundations; it would be simply too silly.

But can we then say that we do have the right, on the basis of contemporary knowledge concerning the structure and history of the universe and the earth, to criticize what we are told in Genesis 1, and that we must then exert every possible effort to try to reconcile the one with the other? Let me give just one example.

In Gen.1:6-8 we are told that God made the firmament. In the Hebrew the word that is used is raqia’. We must not give this word the same meaning as our words “atmosphere” or “stratosphere” because these are modern concepts. If Old Testament scholar Brongers is right, the Israelites conceived of this as a vault, made either of cloth or flattened metal, having doors and windows in it, and water above it.

Now some people today will immediately say that such a vault does not exist at all, and that therefore it cannot have been created by God either. We would not be able to deny this. But does this mean that we have declared Gen.1:6-8 to be untrue? Or must we now exert ourselves to rescue this part of Scripture from the hands of the critics by reading our concept “atmosphere” into the Hebrew word in question? Both responses are illegitimate.

Vonk on Genesis 1 (2)

Much writing and controversy

These difficulties which seemed to many to be occasioned by the reading of Genesis 1 have given rise to an extensive literature and much controversy. Some decided, on the basis of supposed inaccuracies in this one chapter, to reject the rest of Scripture as well and to abandon their faith altogether, whereas others looked for a solution in harmonizing the Bible and science.

The most obvious way of doing this was to equate the days of Genesis I with epochs, possibly epochs of immense length, which could easily accommodate the results of astronomical and geological research. Perhaps there have also been those who thought to themselves: those days of Genesis I were just ordinary 24-hour days and those geologists and other scientist types are selling me a bill of goods. But, of course, to hide one’s head in the sand is not a satisfactory solution, not to mention the hard-line which this implies against fellow-believers who are also serious about their faith.

We do not wish to suggest that we are above all such debates among Christians about the interpretation of Genesis 1, but the question has occurred to us from time to time whether we are really dealing here with genuine difficulties resulting from a real clash between Scripture and science, and whether, consequently, the search for solutions is not superfluous. Is this a proper use of the Genesis creation story? Or is it possible that we can properly apply the following analogy, which we once heard someone use in a discussion of these matters?

Imagine a great industrialist, someone like Henry Ford, sitting in his old age surrounded by some of his grandchildren, who are 10 or 12 years old. They ask him how it came about that Grandpa created the large company which made him so famous. How will he answer his grandchildren in a way which will give them some insight into how he laid the foundations of his mighty enterprise?

He will tell a story, a story adapted to children. The story will be geared to children, not to adults. Making use of their limited conceptual possibilities he tells in sequence the story of some of the main components of his business, things that the children have some experience of at the present time. But now suppose that those same children go on to study economics and related disciplines, and then, armed with this academic training, begin to do research in Grandpa’s enormous business archives. Some of them, on the basis of certain items in Grandpa’s immense archives, will feel compelled to come to conclusions that are somewhat different from what they remember of the story they heard as a child and will question the truth of that story. Others will try by all sorts of solutions to vindicate Grandpa’s truthfulness.

Is it really necessary to do either of these things? Was that really the point of the earlier children’s story, to be subjected at some time in the future to the criticism of economic science?

Vonk on Genesis 1 (1)

Cornelis Vonk (1904-93) was a pastor in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands who initiated a multi-volume commentary on both the Bible and the Reformed confessions entitled De Voorzeide Leer (The Aforesaid  Doctrine). What follows is taken from Volume 1a (pp.98-102) which deals with introductory matters and Genesis-Exodus. It usefully illustrates how Dutch Reformed pastors and theologians commonly approached questions of science and Scripture without resorting either to liberalism or fundamentalism. The following translation is courtesy of Dr. Al Wolters, one of my beloved professors from Redeemer University College, and was first published in Calvinist Contact (January 18, 1991: pp 12-13).

* * *


The author of Genesis may have expected his readers to have little difficulty in understanding him, but subsequent readers of the first page of the Bible have had difficulties aplenty. This was already the case in a time and in a country that were not even so very far removed from the time and the country of the apostles.

The author and first readers of Genesis 1 were undoubtedly people of ordinary intelligence and therefore must have realized that the light which they enjoyed every day really came from the sun, which was not created until the fourth day; yet they had no problem with the fact that the creation of light is already mentioned on the first day.

Similarly, Christ and his apostles never issued any warnings against the first page of “Moses and the Prophets” because it contained something that didn’t quite fit. Nevertheless, as early as the Syriac church fathers there were those who had difficulty with Genesis 1 because they could not understand how there could have been evening and morning before there was a sun that rose and set. Consequently, they devised a number of different solutions to the problem.

However, in subsequent ages the problems have become more acute as a result of reflections on the age of the universe, especially that of the earth. As astronomers investigated the universe with its immense masses and volumes, distances, temperatures, numbers, its concentration here and its emptiness there, they became acquainted with such awesome dimensions, both of space and time, that their greatest astronomical yardstick, the so-called cosmic year (the time it takes for the sun to circle the centre of gravity of our galaxy) was hardly sufficient to measure these dimensions. As for geologists, especially the paleontologists among them, who did research on the earliest time of the earth’s existence, they could come to no other conclusions than that the length of time which had elapsed between the first life on earth and the arrival of the human race must have been by far greater than just a few days.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Contemplative Imperative: Are there healthy alternatives to smoking?

It was a pleasure of mine not so long ago to attend a Paidea event where (aspiring) scholars were invited to reflect on the promises and perils of Neo-Calvinism, the revival of Calvinism initiated by Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck that was characterized by an acknowledgement of Christ's lordship over all of life and a corollary orientation to worldview thinking. Not only was I treated to stirring lectures by the likes of Craig Bartholomew, Michael Goheen, and Calvin Seerveld, I was blessed to dialogue with a variety of individuals with the interesting and engaging personalities you would expect to find at such a gathering. In a conversation with Rob Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson, I shared my theory on why smoking is so attractive to academics.

Those of us who spend a good deal of the day buried in books need periodically to stand up or wander around and contemplate what we've been reading if only to determine specifically how it has relevance for the project with which we are busy. Any academic will concede the usefulness of such an exercise, and Rob and Alissa were no different. The problem is that the moment of contemplation has an awkward feel to it; one simply stands and stares, as if in a trance, and that looks funny, seems wrong, induces guilt, etc. We could be helped if there were something to do, or better, to enjoy, in this moment. Puffing on a cigarette fills the need perfectly: it takes the awkwardness out of the moment, and there's no longer a need for embarrassment if someone approaches and sees you in your trance-like contemplation. After all, you're doing something.

The problem, however, is that though smoking stimulates brain activity shortterm, it tends to do nasty things to other important organs without which proper human functioning is difficult. We need alternatives. Chewing gum won't do; it still looks silly. What would really help is a harmless cigarette which is non-addictive, nicotine free, etc. Is there anybody out there who can help us?

Friday, March 18, 2011

New Look and Outlook

In the coming days I'm going to resurrect this blog with a slightly new look and a definite new outlook. I was preoccupied in the past with theological debates, and though I'm still strongly convicted about the things I wrote, I'm disillusioned about the possibility of sincere, meaningful theological dialogue within the confessionally Reformed camp. In the future, therefore, this blog will be dedicated to more profitable ventures.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Personal Assessment of 2010 URCNA Synod (2)

A question which deserves consideration is, why is the URCNA so insistent on repudiating Federal Vision? Are there churches divided over this issue? Are there men in the URCNA teaching what are perceived to be the dangers of Federal Vision? Is Federal Vision making inroads into the URCNA? Is this an issue URCNA churches are unable of their own to resolve? Why was a synodical pronouncement so necessary?

The fact that the URCNA made these pronouncements apart from any evidence anywhere of alleged false teaching in the church is curious. When may synod make doctrinal pronouncements or give pastoral advice about doctrinal issues? The answer, it seems, is: when it feels like it.

Not exactly a great precedent. What's next?

What was accomplished by approving the recommendations of the FV Report?

1. The names and reputations of godly pastors were dragged through the mud. This is what I find especially objectionable. My URCNA friends tell me that the FV Report was not adopted, but only received; the recommendations are adopted. True enough, but the contents of the report will now be published and distributed, even though they are full of fallacies and distortions.

The names of John Barach, Steve Wilkins, Douglas Wilson, Peter Leithart and others are all mentioned in the report. Variations of their teachings, according to the report, must be repudiated. Do these men have the opportunity to defend themselves? Can they explain their statements? Have they retracted anything? There's no way to know without talking to them. Talking to FV personalities, however, ruins the fun; they sound so orthodox when they explain themselves.

Do I sound sarcastic? The men mentioned above are my friends. I know them well, some better than others. They are people with sensitive hearts and souls. They are godly husbands and fathers, with loving wives and children. They are Reformed pastors in the church of Christ whose hearts beat for the gospel They are co-laborers in the kingdom of Christ. Was it too much to speak to them?

John Barach was a fellow seminarian of many pastors in the URCNA, a student of several professors. Everyone loved John at seminary. He was the seminary's bright light. John's going to go places, we all said. Was it too much to talk to him?

The Arminians at the Synod of Dort were initially seated as delegates. They were given opportunity to defend themselves. True, say my correspondents, but the FV leaders are not ministers in the URCNA. True, I say, but then why are you badmouthing them? It's easy to condemn someone when he's not in the room.

2. A message is sent to the Can Ref that their constant warnings about adopting extra-confessional pronouncements are worthless. This point cannot be minimized. The URCNA was warned about the nine points. The nine points were re-affirmed and more points were added.

What about the Reformed confessions is unsatisfactory? Is the teaching on justification really that unclear? Is the teaching on the sacraments really that obscure? If the recommendations basically say exactly what the confessions do, why are they necessary? If they say something beyond than the confessions, why isn't that extra-confessional binding?

3. Those who have made careers out of badmouthing FV personalities and distorting their teachings can feel good about themselves and continue in their ways.

I realize that there are many who participated in this synodical decision who are not culpable. They are godly men who sincerely want the gospel to be preserved in its integrity. They fear that the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone is being jeopardized. I'm with them, in some sense. But I'm not with those who've read through the Joint FV Statement and know exactly what FV folk truly affirm and deny and persist in condemning.

Personal Assessment of the 2010 URCNA Synod

I've been asked by several friends to comment on the recent URCNA synod. I suspect the reason for this is two-fold: (a) I served as a URCNA minister for 12 years, attended all the synods, participated in several advisory committees and federational committees and even functioned for a time as the federation's stated clerk, in which capacity I assembled the Agenda for, and recorded the minutes of, Synod 2004 in Calgary; (b) I was quite critical on this blog of the FV Report drafted by the committee appointed by Synod 2007.

In what follows I will present an assessment of the recent URCNA synod, though it will be prefaced by a lengthly autobiographical account which hopefully will shed light on how I've reached my assessment. What follows is borderline "stream of consciousness" and I apologize at the outset for grammatical and spelling blunders. I don't have the time to edit!!

I am presently happy to be a minister in the Canadian Reformed Churches, though I cherish my friendships with URCNA colleages and have fond memories of serving two wonderful congregations, in Grande Prairie, AB and Kansas City, MO. In both locales I was surrounded by loving people and wise and considerate elders who shaped me more than they will ever realize. Leaving congregations is painful, and some of that pain is still with me. I am indebted the URCNA, particularly for the lessons in ministry I learned.

I was baptized as an infant in the Canadian Reformed church I now pastor. I was catechized in the Canadian Reformed churches and schooled by Canadian Reformed teachers. Some would say, "You can take a man out of the Canadian Reformed churches, but you can't take the Canadian Reformed churches out of a man." Though I tended be critical of my ecclesiastical context in my youth (and continue to harbor some critique), I remained loyal to essence of what I was taught by my pastors and teachers because I've increasingly recognized their biblical rootedness.

When I was a student at Redeemer University College I was taught by, among others, Dr. Theodore Plantinga. In my early years as student at Redeemer he was busy translating Rudolf Van Reest's book, which was later published under the title, "Schilder's Struggle for the Unity of the Church." Dr. Plantinga gave me pre-publication drafts of the chapters he had completed, assuming I'd be interested. The fact is, I wasn't, but as I read these chapters I became interested. I still chuckle about Van Reest's depiction of Schilder: his fondness for Schilder was sometimes excessive, as in "No one could smoke a cigar quite like Schilder." All of this prompted in me a desire to learn more about Schilder and the theological tradition I had inherited.

In the spring of 1992 I studied in the Netherlands through the then Netherlandic SPICE program under the auspices of Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa. I acquired a basic reading knowledge of Dutch and began to read materials by Benne Holwerda and Cornelis Trimp, both of whom I regard as brilliant intellects and creative thinkers in the Reformed tradition. While in Holland, I visited the Theological University in Kampen (Broederweg), had tea with Dr. Jochem Douma and Drs. Ohmann (sp?) and listened to some lectures in church history by a Dr. Vanderpol (I think).

Towards the end of my time at Redeemer I became very intrigued by Kuyper and the neo-Calvinism of Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven. Dr. Al Wolters must shoulder the burden of this -- his lectures on the subject are among the most memorable I've ever heard. I applied and was accepted into a Master's program at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto. I applied and was accepted simultaneously at Mid-America Reformed Seminary (then in Orange City, IA) since I had friends who had gone there who said it was quite fun: classes in the morning, golf in the afternoon, movies at night, as one friend put it. Over lunch at my summer job (managing a small garden center outside of Toronto) I decided to abandon my plans to study at the ICS and go the MARS instead.

Mid-America was fantastic in those days. I loved every minute of my seminary training. Rev. Vanderhart taught Hebrew as an enthusiast; Dr. Venema taught theology carefully and winsomely, sometimes with an open Hebrew or Greek Bible in front of him; Dr. Kloosterman taught everything with his characteristic charisma. Rev. Zorn was an ardent VanTilian who lectured from his wide experience, though my recollection is that every lecture ended with a digression into the thinking of the philosopher Kant. When I think of Zorn's lectures I immediately imagine a chart with the noumenal and the phenomenlogical.

I felt very much at home at Mid-America in those days. There was a lot of fondness for Klaas Schilder and the so-called "Liberated tradition." This was reflected in Dr. Venema's lectures. Dr. Venema sided with Schilder in just about every debate, though he was always and properly concerned about extremes. Back in those days, he didn't care much for the term "covenant of works," defended the objectivity of the covenant, was critical of the concept of the "invisible church" (preferring the language of "unsurveyable") and didn't say much about a law-gospel dichotomy, etc. Moreover, whenever the name Norman Shepherd was mentioned, it was in the context of appreciation. That was then.

I was the first individual to go through the ordination process of the newly formed federation, then called, "The Uniting Reformed Churches in North America." I accepted a call from the Orthodox Reformed Church in Edmonton to help plant a church in Grande Prairie. Those were fabulous days, and I was happy to have Rev. Bill Pols mentor me. In my first year of ministry I wrote a monograph on the covenant which some found helpful. It was translated into a couple of languages, and eventually found its way into the hands of Scott Clark. Scott didn't care for it. It didn't help that in my preface I indicated that my understanding of the covenant was shaped largely by people like Klaas Schilder, Jelle Faber, Cornelius Vander Waal and Norman Shepherd.

One of the things I argued in that monograph was that Genesis 15:6 (quoted in Romans 4) does not refer to the imputation of Christ's righteousness. This is what Shepherd also taught, and Clark wasn't happy. Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. To me, it was an unacceptable exegetical stretch to call this theological shorthand for "the imputation of Christ's righteousness." We must not impose our theological categories on the text of Scripture. To me, the text was simply saying that God reckoned Abraham as righteous through (and only through) his faith. This reading finds an elaborate defense in Dr. Gert Kwakkel's monograph, "De Gerechtigheid van Abram." Since Scott stumbled upon this paper, he hasn't thought too highly of me (which means, he has never thought too highly of me!!).

During my Grande Prairie days I was also introduced to the writings of James B. Jordan and they have revolutionized my thinking. I know of no one who knows the Bible better than Jim Jordan. My friend John Barach and I used to quip that Jim was either ON TO something or he was ON something, because some of his ideas sound outlandish initially. Jim was shaped by a lot of the same thinkers as I was (i.e., the Dutch redemptive-historical interpreters), and so his ideas resonated with me.

During my GP days I also stumbled upon the writings of N.T. Wright, and I read his column in "Bible Review" faithfully. Wright's book, "Jesus and the Victory of God" has radically altered my understanding of the New Testament. I didn't care too much for his book, "What Saint Paul Really Said" though I've found his later books on Paul much more palatable, if not helpful.

During these years a strong friendship was forged between John Barach, Tim Gallant and me --- someone apparently referred to us as Mid-America's Canadian triumvirate. We graduated in different years, but shared interests and a connection to Grande Prairie, AB. John and Tim are extraordinarily bright individuals. John's memory is photographic and Tim is brilliantly creative. There was once talk of some seminary in Mexico hiring John to teach. When it was pointed out that John didn't know Spanish, Bill Pols quipped, "That's no problem. He'll learn it on the plane on the way down."

John had become very enamored with the "Liberated" tradition in his second year at seminary. I remember him stumbling into class (he was not a morning person) saying, "I've experienced a major paradigm shift." Dr. Kloosterman taught John Dutch and soon enough John was throwing around words like "verbond" and "verkiezing." Since then John has read numerous Dutch books in the Liberated tradition and even translated a couple of them.

Things began to change at Mid-America about three years after I graduated. If I had to pinpoint a watershed moment, it would be the publication of Cornel Venema's article defending the covenant of works. This article was published around the time that Tim Gallant had written a paper in seminary quite critical of the covenant of works. Venema defended the concept of merit in the covenant of works, but since he recognized that merit is not merit strictly speaking, he put the word in quotation marks. You will note Venema's influence in the recent synodical recommendations re: FV. Merit appears as "merit." To me, he conceded the debate in so doing. We can call Adam's obedience meritorious, but it's not really meritorious. I'm fine with that.

John and I were blogging back then about N.T. Wright and Venema wasn't thrilled. On a visit to the seminary, I was called into his principal's office where I was "rebuked" for my generally positive appraisal of Wright. Moreover, Tim came out in favor of paedocommunion. Since then, Venema has devoted much of his career, it seems, to refuting N.T. Wright and paedocommunion. The subtext could be: I hope no more students turn out like Bill, John or Tim. And we generally agree!!

In the years that followed, Mid-America became more oriented, it seems, to the Westminster Standards. That's why I think the publication of Venema's article on the covenant of works is a watershed moment. The terminology of "covenant of works" is nowhere in the Three Forms of Unity, but Venema felt obliged to employ it, in part because of its appearance in the Westminster Standards. Mid-America professors, after all, are required to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith, in addition to the Three Forms of Unity. Today at Mid-America you will hear robust defenses of the visible/invisible church distinction, of the law/gospel dialectic and of a meritorious covenant of works (confirmed by recent students who have been kind to share their notes).

This move to a more robust Westminster perspective coincided with a distancing from Schilder and the Liberated tradition. One professor at Mid-America who had nothing but fondness for Schilder while I was a student alleged some five years ago that Schilder was a "latent Arminian." A new theological orientation was emerging at Mid-America, and one not so different from the orientation at Westminster Seminary in California.

Professors at Westminster Seminary in California are also required to subscribe to the Westminster Standards. That's perfectly understandable. WSCAL is a Presbyterian seminary, and it's reflected in the name. Moreover, it's no secret that Scott Clark (in particular) is not impressed by Klaas Schilder whose theology he routinely depicts as "idiosyncratic" at best.

Thus, the main two seminaries feeding the URCNA are confessionally committed to a theological foundation the URCNA is not --- namely, the Westminster theological tradition. The result is that the theology of the pastors in the URCNA looks and sounds increasingly very Westminsterish. This is going to make them very squeamish about emphases in the Canadian Reformed tradition and in the so-called "Federal Vision" school of thought.

At synod 2007 in Schererville there was a lot of opposition to the proposed merger with the Can Ref. The delegates talked often about "applying the brakes" to the whole process. In the adoption of the nine points, there was a clear, though implicit message, to the Can Ref -- namely, "we are not friends of Schilder around here."

Similarly, there was an implicit message to the Can Ref in the recent adoption of the anti-FV recommendations -- namely, "we know the Can Ref don't like extra-confessional declarations, but we're going to make them anyways."

People in the Can Ref churches should not see these decisions as benign. They are telling, and they are not encouraging.

What's being lost in the URCNA is the Afscheiding theological tradition and the commitment to historic Reformed polity. A new federation is emerging in which the theology will look increasingly Westminsterish and in which synods will have no qualms about making extra-confessional pronouncements. In both instances, the loser is the Three Forms of Unity. That's what's especially sad for me.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Imputation of Christ's Righteousness (2)

Several weeks ago I began a blog series on the imputation of Christ's righteousness and my busy schedule has prevented me from posting again. This week is really no different with an Ascension Day service Thursday evening, a wedding on Friday and morning worship on Sunday, so I'll do this quickly.

In the previous post I noted that there were divines at the Westminster Assembly who insisted that what is imputed in justification is Christ's passive righteousness. Though the majority of commissioners embraced a double imputation (active and passive righteousness), the Westminster Assembly did not want to exclude the minority position from their confessional stance.

The following information is derived from Hans Boersma's super informative Th.D. dissertation, A Hot Pepper Corn: Richard Baxter's Doctrine of Justification in Its Seventeenth-Century Context of Controversy. In my edition published by Boekencentrum in Zoetemeer, the relevant page numbers are 220-230.

In the continental Reformed tradition there are many who embraced what at the Westminster Assembly was a minority position. John Calvin believed that Christ obeyed the law for our sake, but he stopped short of stating that Christ's obedience to the law was imputed to us. It was Calvin's colleague and successor, Theodore Beza, who was the first to differentiate sharply between aspects of Christ's righteousness.

Many in the continental tradition rejected Beza's reformulation of the doctrine of justification as including the imputation of Christ's active obedience, including Zacharius Ursinus (1534-83), Caspar Olevianus (1536-87), David Pareus (1548-1622), Marcus Friedrich Wendelin (1584-1652), Jacob Alting (1618-76)and Johannes Piscator (1546-1625). At the synod of Dort, Sibrandus Lubbertus (1555-1625)and Johannes Bogerman (1576-1637) showed sympathy for this position, though Synod reaffirmed double imputation by amending the text of the Belgic Confession by adding the words "in our stead" to Article 22.

Boersma's claims are supported by Heinrich Heppe who in his Reformed Dogmatics states, "The older German-Reformed theologians (chiefly those of Heidelberg, Herborn, Anhalt like URSIN, PISCATOR, SCULTETUS) had of course taught with apparent agreement, that Christ gave the 'active obedience' purely for himself, in order to be able as the holy deliverer to offer the Father the only representative 'passive obedience'" (p.460).

More to follow . . .