Questions for the CanRC (3)

Scott's third question:

3. Over the last 20 years or so, at least two theologians in the CanRCs have publicly endorsed the theology of Norman Shepherd. Over the last several years, many NAPARC denominations and at least three Reformed seminaries have publicly repudiated Shepherd’s covenant theology and doctrine of justification. How widely influential is the theology of Norman Shepherd in the CanRCs?

The preface to this question strikes me as careless and disingenuous. I suspect Scott has in mind the late Jelle Faber (1924-2004) and Cornelis Van Dam, both of whom admired things Shepherd stood for and neither of whom "endorsed" his theology. In his editorials in Clarion in the early 1980s, Faber commended Shepherd for, inter alia, his rejection of (a) a meritorious covenant of works and (b) the notion that the covenant of works was republished at Sinai. I seem to recall Faber quibbling about some things in Shepherd's writings, such as the phrase "the state of justification" which Faber found too static.

Cornelis Van Dam wrote a blurb on the back of Shepherd's new book on justification recommending it for its exegetical clarity. I doubt whether either Faber or Van Dam read every statement Shepherd published and whether either man would endorse every jot and tittle in his theology. I'm not prepared to do that for Calvin, Ursinus, Olevianus or, for that matter, Witsius, Voetius, Ames, Van Mastricht, Cocceius, Polanus and Wollebius. Now, if "endorse" simply means "publicly defend on some points" then Faber and Van Dam are guilty, as are Cornelius Van Til, Richard Gaffin, John Frame, Ralph Gore, Bill DeJong (unworthy to be in such a list) and a whole host of others.

As far as the apparent widespread repudiation of Shepherd's covenant theology is concerned, some qualification is necessary. The denominations and institutions (or at least individuals in some institutions) envisioned by Scott have all made critical statements about Shepherd's theology without necessarily "repudiating" it all. For what it's worth, I and some others in the Can Ref churches are disappointed with this; we think that Shepherd, as a Reformed father, deserves far better treatment. Moreover, we find that many of the critiques of Shepherd have a distinctively Presbyterian or Westminsterian bent. The Westminster Standards are fine expressions of Reformed theology, though many of us would be unwilling to subscribe to them, especially if strict subscriptionism is envisioned.

I happen to agree with Shepherd's rejection of a meritorious covenant of works and the notion that this covenant was republished at Sinai. I happen to agree with him that the faith which justifies is an active and living faith, and that "alone" in "justification by faith alone" is adverbial and not adjectival. Though I am unable to provide a head count, I think you will find many ministers in the Can Ref who share my assessment.

On the other hand, I suspect that Can Ref leaders read and enjoy Shepherd the way that they read and enjoy any scholar. When it comes to theologians and intellectuals, most of my Can Ref colleagues do not operate with nice and naughty lists the way that Scott does. Canadian Reformed pastors generally read very widely and with discernment and appreciate the insights of men and women with whom they sometimes disagree. Among intellectuals I enjoy reading I would list N.T. Wright and Stanley Hauerwas and among the deceased, Karl Barth, Richard John Neuhaus and Stanley Grenz. On the other hand I would oppose the ordination of any one of these men were they to apply for such in the Canadian Reformed churches.

Lastly, I suspect many Can Ref leaders wonder why the institutions and churches envisioned by Scott felt the need to publish critiques of Shepherd when Shepherd was/is not one of them. The chances of getting a Can Ref synod to adopt a statement on Shepherd are slim. Shepherd is not a member in a Can Ref church or any sister church.

The same applies to writers in the so-called Federal Vision movement. You will find some of us ranting and raving about James B. Jordan while others enjoy reading John Barach or Peter Leithart or Jeff Meyers. None of us would issue blanket endorsements of these men. We cherry pick with the federal vision writers the way we do with any writer. Many of us recognize that the impulses of the Federal Vision writers are the same as they were for Schilder, Holwerda et al, but I've written enough about that already.

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