29 June 2007

orthodox readings of augustine 2

It's been a busy week, especially having been away for the first half of it, and now attempting to catch up on a variety of tasks. Still, allow me to return to my summary of the conference on Orthodox readings of Augustine. At some later point, I'll something about the Barth conference.

Symposium II

A second symposium of two talks rounded out the day on Friday, 15 June. In the first talk John Behr spoke on Augustine and the Legacy of Nicaea and Lewis Ayres on Sempiterne Spiritus Donum: Augustine's Pneumatology and the Metaphyics of Spirit.

Unfortunately, I ended up missing the bulk of Behr's lecture in a failed search for email access in order to re-send a document I needed to get to its destination before the end of day.

From what I gather, the thesis of Behr's talk was that Augustine introduced a new way of speaking of God as Trinity into theological discourse. He admitted that distinction between Augustine and the Cappadocians is sometimes overplayed. Nonetheless, against the Cappadocians and more creedal affirmation of "the God and Father" of Jesus Christ, who is "the Son of God," Behr suggested Augustine was more willing to speak of "the Triune God" and "God the Son." Having only heard the beginning and end of the talk, I can't really fill in the details of the argument.

Lewis Ayres's talk, though focused upon Augustine's doctrine of the Holy Spirit, attempted to demonstrate that when Augustine speaks of God's being, it is always in terms of the three Persons and not simply as the divine essence alone. Ayers walked us through a number of different texts from De Trinitate, Civitas Dei, and Homilies on John, showing how Augustine conceives of the Persons of the Trinity, in particular the place of the Spirit in the life of God.

Plenaries III and IV

On Saturday, 16 June, I was not awake for the early talks, so don't have much to report. David Bentley Hart spoke on The Hidden and the Manifest: Augustine’s "De Trinitate". He'd lost his full paper through some kind of computer file mishap and was speaking from notes. The gist of his talk was to try to close the gap between Augustine and the Cappadocians and undermining some of the typical sorts of oppositions that are posited between eastern and western theology.

David Tracey followed Hart, speaking on Augustine and Contemporary Theology: The Void, the Open, the Good, God, connecting Augustine's thought up with Nietzsche, Heidegger and Levinas.

Symposium III

During the third symposium session Carol Harrison spoke on Blue in Green: Augustine’s Reading of Orthodoxy, Joe Leinhard, SJ, on Augustine of Hippo and the Cappodocian Fathers, and David Bradshaw on Augustine the Metaphysician.

Harrison's presentation concerned less Augustine and Orthodoxy and more Augustine and orthodox, that is, right opinion or belief, which emerges typically in the context of conflict, with a clear definition of what is be believed, against heresy. Much of what Augustine writes defends the true faith against errors, especially Donatists, Manichees, and Pelagians.

Harrison suggested, however, that within orthodoxy there is a "darker side" of ambiguity, fluidity, flexibility, potential for change, etc. She compared orthodoxy to tectonic plates with distinct, describable features, but with slow motion and change over time beneath the surface, which from time to time result in visible shifts. Augustine's work illustrates this perspective.

Augustine’s first defense of orthodoxy is Scripture, according to Harrison. But Augustine points out that Scripture needs analogy and metaphor, and is accessible only to the tentative search of the humble, not to the proud. There remain shifting depths under the textual surface. Interpreters, on Augustine's view, improvise from text in keeping with love of God and love of neighbors to arrive at new shifting and diverse meanings which are, nonetheless, orthodox.

The second authority for Augustine in establishing orthodoxy is the church transmitting tradition through teaching and sacraments. Truth and grace, however, are not possessed but given and accessed by participation. For instance, Augustine cite Cyprian as orthodox, even though he may have advocated re-baptism of heretics, because he didn’t break with the church and participation in its sacramental life.

Orthodoxy for Augustine, therefore, is something we receive when God is present and it is mediated to us, in and with others. We are relational beings, social.

Augustine, on Harrison's reading, was very aware of the temporal situatedness of human culture and relationships and the conventionality of language. Right faith must be re-thought and re-spoken in order to not become arcane or unintelligible.

Augustine’s thought is eschatological in direction, aimed at love of God and one another in God as our ultimate end. But faith rests in temporal, corporeal, situated signs and words that mediate divine truth.

Returning to the tectonics metaphor, Harrison turned to the question of how Augustine responded when the plates crashed and slid and the underlying movement came to the surface. Is "the new thing" something that, for Augustine, threatens our fixed and accepted way of speaking or is it something we ought to have anticipated.

On the topic of original sin, for instance, Augustine's interaction with the Pelagians brought to surface movements already in place in Tertullian, Cyprian, Ambrosiaster, and so forth, and already receiving liturgical form in the practice of infant baptism.

Harrison concluded with noting how Augustine's orthodoxy supposed that we are limited and finite, but also fallen. So orthodoxy requires grace and receptivity through faith, hope, and love.

In his talk on Augustine of Hippo and the Cappodocian Fathers Joe Leinhard began by noting that Augustine doesn’t interact with Nyssa, but only Basil and Nanzianzen.

Leinhard suggested there are three basic ways in which one can attempt to discern lines of influence from the Cappodocians to the Augustine: impressionistic, consensus, citations.

Impressionistic approaches pick up upon resonances between Augustine and other Fathers and then posit dependence.

The Cappadocian “solution” to the problem of the Trinity - one ousia, three hupostases - never shows up in quite those terms in the actual Cappadocians, but it does show up in Augustine's De Trinitate. So that may suggest some point of contact, Leinhard urged.

In a similar way, Gregory Nanzianzus says, regarding the procession on the Holy Spirit, that he doesn’t understand it. Augustine similarly says, “that much I know, but how to distinguish between generation and process I do not know and cannot understand it.”

A consensus approach picks up on how many times Augustine mentions earlier Fathers, even apart from specific quotations. From this perspective, Leinhard noted, Augustine mentions Basil and Gregory Nanzianzus each about 18-20 times, though he never mentions Gregory of Nyssa. Yet, it is clear that Augustine knew two of them and held them in high esteem.

A textual citation approach looks at quotations with named authors. But the results here, Leinhard suggested, may seem disappointing because Augustine doesn’t quote what are now thought of as the “great works” of Basil and Gregory Nanzianzus. Yet what we think of as the “great works” only have that status since the 19th century and did not necessarily reflect the assessment of earlier generations.

In Augustne, there are only two extensive citations of Basil and only one with correct author attribution. With regard to original sin, Augustine quotes Basil from a sermon on fasting. This, by the way, shows Augustine can translate Greek. Basil speaks of fasting before the fall and suggests that we must fast because Adam and Eve didn’t. Augustine also quotes Basil’s Homily 13 on baptism, but attributes it mistakenly to Chrysostom. The quote concerns not delaying baptism and draws a parallel with circumcision.

Augustine quotes Gregory Nanzianzus more often than Basil, doing so from a Latin translation of his homilies. Augustine's most extensive quotation of Gregory Nanzianzus is from his apology for his flight. The quote suggests that the effects of sin remain after baptism, in th struggle between old and new man. Augustine also quotes Gregory on venerating the nativity of Christ, which frees us from our earthly nativity under sin. Elsewhere, Augustine quotes Gregory's oration on Pentecost to bolster his argument on predestination and perseverance and quotes that work again on original sin.

Thus, one can conclude that not only did Augustine know the writings of at least two the Cappadocians and hold them in high regard, he was happy to draw upon them to support his own position on a number of topics.

In his talk on Augustine the Metaphysician, David Bradshaw began by noting differences between Augustine’s response to Greek philosophy and the response of the Greek Fathers, noting that both make use of Plotinian neo-Platonism, but in different ways. The talk was tightly argued and at a high level of detail, making it difficult to summarize.

Bradshaw began with a review of Aristotle's prime mover in comparison and contrast with Plato's form of the good, tracing how the thinking of both these figures is carried forward through middle Platonism and into neo-Platonism.

Bradshaw contrasted his understanding of Augustine, against the backdrop of neo-Platonism, with his understaning of the Greek theologians. According to Bradshaw, for Greek Fathers there are energies that manifest God, based in the biblical notion of divine glory and working. But God, in his essence, possesses no form and lies beyond any naming.

God as known to himself as essence is, therefore, to be distinguished from God as manifest in his energies. The distinction between essence and energies, Bradshaw suggested, is not a fixed boundary, but an ever receding horizon, so that the more we know God the more we know that there is more unknown. Moreover, the triune character of God is the locus of the energies.

In Bradshaw's view, Augustine, by contrast and unlike Plotinus, rejects any hierarchical relation between the One and Being, Unity, and Truth, thereby rejecting
apophaticism. The result is an absolute divine simplicity in which God is identical with his perfections. This in itself is not problematics, but it becomes problematic, Bradshaw urged, when the divine names are taken to designate God's essence rather than, as for the East, his energies.

Also, since for Augustine God “is” in such a way that his existence is identical with his essence, this would have to apply to God’s will as much as any other aspect of God. As Bradshaw sees it, this makes it difficult to imagine how it is possible that God might have willed something other than what he does (thus threatening the contingency of creation). Moreover, it makes it difficult to see any real interaction between God and creatures. The basic problem, Bradshaw asserted, is the identification of divine being with unity.

After Bradshaw's talk, David Hart in particular took issue with Bradshaw's arguments and assessment of the eastern Fathers. While Bradshaw's paper was tightly argued and grounded in some interesting connections between Augustine and later forms of Platonism, his presentation was arguably the most contentious of the conference.

The conference, all in all, was excellent and I really look forward to reading these papers more closely in published form.


Cynthia, Mike, and I all had paper proposals accepted for Villanova's Patristics, Medieval, and Renaissance conference this autumn. Very cool. And it will be great to finally get to meet Cynthia whose blog I enjoy and from which I learn so much.

Now, of course, I have to actually write the paper that fulfills the proposal.

25 June 2007

at princeton seminary

I spent today at the conference on Barth and evangelicals at Princeton Seminary.

Two talks (D.G. Hart and G. Harinck) attempted to place Van Til's critique of Barth into historical context, particularly with regard to neo-evangelicalism, the identities of Westminster Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and Dutch neo-Calvinism.

The other two main talks (M. Horton and G. Hunsinger) dealt with the topics of Barth on christology, election, and Trinity. Hunsinger seems to give Barth a much more classical reading than McCormack, who chaired the session.

There's more of the Barth conference on Tuesday and Wednesday and I'll report back in more detail later, though I still haven't finished posting about the Augustine conference.

23 June 2007

summer in philly

I love summers in Philadelphia. Over the past decade the amount of summer free outdoor events and venues has multiplied.

This past Wednesday we went to a concert in Pastorius Park in Chestnut Hill, though we missed the free Philadelphia Orchestra concert in Clark Park the next day.

And this weekend we're torn between the Manayunk Arts Festival, the West Oak Lane Jazz and Arts Festival, tall ships down at Penn's Landing, and the Penn's Landing Irish Festival. We ended up spending the afternoon today in Manayunk.

Next week Laurel's mother will come to visit for a couple of week, which will coincide with all the week long Welcome America! festivities.

If any of you are planning to be in Philly over the summer, let us know. We'd love to show off our city and direct you toward some of our great cultural resources.

22 June 2007

orthodox readings of augustine 1

I couldn't possibly summarize all the papers presented at the Augustine conference last week, but I'll attempt to hit some of the highlights. Besides, within a couple years, the entire proceedings should come out as a book, co-published by Eerdmans and St. Vladimir's.

I had a great time at the conference and in New York and really enjoyed not only hearing great speakers, but also getting to meet a number of guys I had only seen around online previously. They're a terrific bunch and I enjoyed their fellowship.

I'll also add, that despite their profound lack of hospitality in the area of internet access (inexcusable in this electronic era, I think), Fordham University is a beautiful campus, the conference was well organized, the food for catered receptions proved delicious, and the participating faculty all seemed both brilliant and generous, as well as committed to dialogue across historic divides within the Christian church.

Before diving into the conference presentations, perhaps a bit of context would be helpful. The topic of the conference was Eastern Orthodox readings of Augustine. Now, why is that so intriguing? There are several reasons.

First, the place of Augustine among the Fathers seems ambivalent from the standpoint of Eastern Orthodoxy. Certainly Augustine is regarded in the East as a saint and holy man, an important theologian and father of the church. Indeed, among Russian Orthodox exiles in France in the 1920s and 30s, Augustine was an object of friendly and appreciative study and high regard.

Yet, the larger trend among many more recent Orthodox theologians (especially post-WWII) is to see Augustine as typical of the perceived problems with western theology and, indeed, more often than not, the ultimate source of those problems. Vladimir Lossky and Christos Yannaras have both attributed to Augustine's influence the perceived western declension from the faith of the Fathers.

Second, as many are probably aware, one of the historic sticking points between the eastern and western church is the filioque - the clause added to the Nicene Creed in the Latin church affirming that the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son.

Setting aside canonical issues concerning whether the addition was procedurally proper, the Christian East has long questioned the theology behind the filioque. Since the East often sees Augustine's De Trinitate as the culprit behind the western development (not without some justification), the East often regards Augustine with the same suspicion as it does the filioque itself.

Third, there is a general perception on the part of some Orthodox theologians that the West begins with the essence of the one God, regarded as absolutely simple, and then attempts to incorporate the distinction of the Persons into the account of God's one essence, thereby reducing the Persons to mere relations. Augustine's trinitarian theology is taken as paradigmatic of such an approach. These theologians see the East, on the other hand, as beginning with the Persons and understanding God's one essence only in light of the trinity of Persons.

Fourth, alongside this difference in trinitarian emphasis, the western focus upon the one God and his simple essence is sometimes seen as excluding the eastern focus upon and distinction between essence and energies within the Godhead. This is particularly true with regard to contemporary theologians who are sometimes called "neo-palamist" (after Gregory Palamas, the 14th century Greek theologian who explicated and defended the essence/energies distinction against critics of the holy hesychasts of Mt. Athos). Many see the so-called neo-palamists as reading the Fathers and the West through the critical lens of Palamas' theology. On such readings, Augustine usually does not fare well.

Part of what is at stake in the essence/energies distinction is the soteriological and eschatological focus of the Christian East in the doctrine of theosis - human participation in the divine so that humanity, by grace in Christ, continues to become as much like God as is possible for creatures. The West does not exclude theosis (or "deification") and Augustine speaks often of "life together in God" as the highest human good.

Nonetheless, the East suspects that the western failure to distinguish between essence and energies leaves little room for such actual participation in the divine, forcing a choice between, on one hand, pantheistically collapsing creatures into the essence of God and, on the other hand, leaving creatures outside of God's own life, in the realm of mere created grace. The East often sees Augustine as exacerbating this difficulty.

While there are certainly issues of substantive difference between East and West, neither tradition is monolithic and some Orthodox theologians have questioned the direction taken by some so-called "neo-palamists." I also suspect that the way in which some of the recent divergences have developed is fueled, in part, by the need for Orthodox living in the West to shore up their own sense of identity - without at all trying to simply reduce theological differences to sociology.

In light of these differences between East and West - and the sometimes open hostility of eastern authors towards the West and, especially, Augustine - one can see why conference on Orthodox readings of Augustine could prove interesting and constructive.

Orthodoxy in America Lecture

The conference began Thursday evening, 14 June, with the annual Orthodoxy in America lecture as part of a program bestowing an honorary doctorate upon Archbishop Demetrios, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America. Andrew Louth of Durham University presented the lecture “Heart in Pilgrimage”: St Augustine’s Reading of the Psalms, focusing upon Augustine's homiletics, both in general and by walking us through Augustine's sermon on Psalm 101 (LXX 100).

A focus upon Augustine's homiletics provides a different perspective on his theological thought, in contrast with approaches that typically focus either upon his major theological works (Confessions, Civitas Dei, De Trinitate) or his polemical works (against the Donatists and Pelagians). In his sermons, we hear the voice of Augustine the pastor and the exegete, with a profound concern for the spiritual condition of his flock, for finding Christ in the Scriptures, and for justice for the poor and vulnerable.

Plenary I

Friday, 15 June, began with Brian Daley, SJ speaking on Making a Human Will Divine: Augustine and Maximus on Christ and Human Salvation. I had been hoping for a more systematic comparison of Augustine's and Maximus the Confessor's respective theological anthropologies and soteriologies. The talk was, nonetheless, an illuminating assessment of the possible influence of Augustine upon Maximus.

There is no direct evidence of any influence or even that Maximus had any contact with Augustine's writings - though they treat similar topics and seem to have sympathies in some areas. Still, it seems to me that apart from more direct evidence, such similarities are likely better explained by common roots in Scripture, liturgy, and the earlier Fathers.

Moreover, as Daley pointed out, the two great figures lived in different worlds. Augustine, who died in AD 430, was a product of late Roman Africa and possessed impressive academic credentials relative to that context. His biography is relatively well-known, so I won't review it here.

With Greek/Syriac origins, Maximus lived from AD 580 to 662. He was well-educated in more philosophical or scholastic vein in keeping with Athens and Alexandria, and served in Byzantine Empire briefly under emperor Heraclius. In 613, however, he became monk and migrated to safety in west to North Africa in the wake of Persian incursions (c. 626), living in Carthage, Sicily, and elsewhere. Maximus with sympathetic with Chalcedonian Christology and the philosophy of the Aristotelian schools and figures such as Leontius of Byzantium.

As debate began to heat up over monenergism and monotheletism, that is, the view that Jesus Christ possessed only a divine energy and will, and not a fully human will. Maximus saw monothelitism as incipiently Apollinarian. Maximus debated monotheletism in a dialogue with Pyrrhus, who had succeeded him as Abbot of Chrysopolos, and Maximus won the day.

Maximus was present in Rome when Martin I called the bishops together at the Lateran Basilica 649 to condemn monothelitism. A number of scholars believe the official acts of the synod were written by Maximus, a position that Daley seemed to endorse.

So, given Maximus' biography and theology, what can one say about Augustine’s possible influence? After all, Maximus spent a large part of his adult life in areas of the Mediterranean in which Augustine had lived and in which his influence remained.

Daley pointed out that Augustine’s Christology historically falls between Nicaea and Nestorius and that he only just begins to use the language of person, substance, nature after 412. Nonetheless, Augustine affirms the full humanity of Christ, including a human mind and will that freely obeys the divine.

Daley cited a variety of evidence from Augustine's writings that affirm the humanity of Jesus as having its own full integrity and, as such, functions as the source of our healing and salvation. Thus Jesus Christ, in his graciously incarnate and transformed humanity is, for us, the grace of God.

Where Augustine speaks of grace, Maximus speaks more in terms of deification. Nonetheless, Daley cited a variety of evidence of analogies between Maximus' and Augustine's thought on the humanity of Jesus, grace, and salvation.

Daley wondered, then, whether Maximus’ Chalcedonian ways of speaking were at all influenced by Augustine’s pre-Chalcedonian formulations about grace and the person of Christ. But if Maximus was familiar with Augustine, why does he never refer to him by name as he does in the case of the Cappodocians, Leontius, and others? Was this perhaps due to Maximus' Greek audience?

But, if that is so, then why would Maximus not cite Augusinte in the Latin Acts of the Lateran Synod (assuming his authorship)? Actually the Acts do quote Augustine's Epistle 140, which may serve as some evidence of Maximus' familiarity with Augustine, if Maximus had a hand in these Acts.

Daley wrapped up his talk by noting a 7th century family seal of a North African military leader, the reverse side of which depicts Augustine, indicating an ongoing awareness of and devotion to Augustine in North Africa. The interesting fact here, however, is that this military leader took Maximus as his father confessor, suggesting again that Maximus could hardly be unaware of Augustine and his thought.

Plenary II

Daley's talk was followed by Jean-Luc Marion's presentation on St Augustine and the Divine Names. For those familiar with Marion's thought, he covered familiar ground.

Marion reviewed a lot of textual evidence in Augustine, from Confessions and elsewhere, showing how Augustine view the divine names. So, for instance, Augustine addressed God in Confessions 1.4.4:
Most high, most excellent, most potent, most omnipotent; most merciful and most just; most secret and most truly present; most beautiful and most strong; stable, yet not supported; unchangeable, yet changing all things; never new, never old; making all things new, yet bringing old age upon the proud, and they know it not; always working, ever at rest; gathering, yet needing nothing; sustaining, pervading, and protecting; creating, nourishing, and developing; seeking, and yet possessing all things. You love, but without passion; are jealous, yet free from care; repent without remorse; are angry, yet remain serene. You change your ways, leaving your plans unchanged; you recover what you have never really lost. You are never in need but still you rejoice at your gains...
Marion suggested that Augustine's language about God is both apophatic and cataphatic, and yet neither, moving beyond such distinctions in a kind of new language game. To paraphrase Augustine: We do not know what we say when we say something about God, so we speak language of praise.

Marion recognizes that Augustine links God and Being, quoting Scripture, in particular the name given to Moses – “I am who I am” (Ex 4:14), which Augustine sees as God's most proper name. Yet this is often interpreted so that, according to Augustine is “being itself” (ipsum esse). As Augustine says elsewhere, God is “is” (deus est est).

Marion challenged such readings of Augustine nothing that rather than ipsum esse, Augustine most often uses the phrase “id ipsum” with reference to God – "that itself," which is God, whatever that is. Very often, however, translations translate this as “being itself” rather than using alternative (and, in Marion's view, more accurate) language (e.g. “thing itself”).

I have to say that I had difficulty following the rest of Marion's talk. The combination of French accent, long quotations in Latin, and my own grogginess, I missed a great deal and look forward to a print version.

The gist of Marion's remarks, however, was that for Augustine God lies beyond the opposition of apophasis and cataphasis, having a name above every other name. In this respect, he argued, Augustine has deep affinities with Pseudo-Dionysius, for whom also, beyond apophasis/cataphasis, remains doxology. God, then, is not some “thing” about which we must deny or affirm predicates (though we cannot help but do so). Rather God is ultimately a person to whom we speak and aim our praise.

Symposium I

The first symposium session included two talks, both textually focused, one by Elizabeth Fisher on Planoudes’ “De Trinitate,” the Art of Translation, and the Beholder’s Share and one by Reinhard Flogaus on Inspiration - Exploitation - Distortion: The Use of Augustine in the Hesychast Controversy.

Fisher's talk was a close examination of the translation of Augustine's De Trinitate into Greek, looking at the identity of Planoudes the translator, his theological competence, how the translation was received by both Greeks and Latins, and the subsequent effects of the translation. Much of her talk focussed up "the beholder's share," that's to say, the assumptions and background that a viewer brings to an artwork, in this case the art being a work of translation.

Flogaus' presentation zeroed in on Gregory Palamas’ dependence upon Planoudes’ translation of Augustine’s De Trinitate. Within Palamas' 150 Chapters (especially chapters 27–38, 125, 132), Palamas seems influenced by Augustine in fairly direct ways and Palamas’ “Economy of Salvation” is dependent upon Augustine’s De Trinitate books 4, 13, and 15.

While Flogaus pointed out a couple of direct quotations where Augustine is named in Palamas' writings, most often the quotations of Augustine by Palamas are unattributed, though they come directly from Planoudes' Greek translation. In one case, for instance, Palamas introduced a quotation from Augustine with, “Since one of the wise and apostolic men said…,” not naming Augustine, but referring to him with deference.

One of the questions raised (though not really answered) by Palamas' use of Augustine, is whether the debate between Barlaam and Palamas can be so easily portrayed as one between Greek personalism and Latin essentialism or eastern apophaticism and Augustinian simplicity. Barlaam himself refers to Augustine once and Akidynos four times, while Palamas refers to Augustine repeatedly. The question, then, is what this suggests about the character of the difference between Palamas and his opponents?

I'll post more later on some of the other talks.

21 June 2007

everything you ever wanted to know...

...but didn't learn in seminary.

I was talking to a seminary student yesterday who asked me a question along the following lines, "Knowing what the curriculum is like at the seminary and what sorts of holes and gaps might exist in it, what would you recommend as required reading to fill in those holes and gaps?"

That's a really good question. No single educational institution can do everything or be equally strong in all areas. So the question of supplementary reading naturally arises. I'm not sure I'm entirely qualified to answer it fully, but I'll give some of my suggestions and ask if you might have any to add.

It seems to me that most Reformed seminaries are very solid in at least two areas: biblical studies and dogmatics. And that's terrific.

The most important areas of competence a Reformed seminarian can cultivate theologically are to be well-grounded in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments and to have a good working understanding of the basic contours of standard Reformed theology as that shows up in a variety of classic texts: Calvin, Turretin, Hodge, Bavinck, Berkhof, Berkouwer, Barth, as well as the Reformed confessional documents.

But that's a starting point - not a complete and well-rounded theological education.

It seems to me that there are at least several areas in which Reformed seminaries, on the balance, are probably weakest: moral theology, ecclesiology, worship, sacraments, missional theology, and ecumenical theology. There are, of course, exceptions to these generalizations (e.g., Calvin and Erskine seminaries are both fairly strong on worship).

Allow me to provide an admittedly idiosyncratic list of suggested books to read in each of these categories, attempting to limit myself to four or five texts in each category with some bent towards Reformed authors. There may also be some significant overlap in each category, for instance, there's probably no reason to read Guroian, Hauerwas, and Hays.

Moral Theology

    Paul D.L. Avis, The Church in the Theology of the Reformers (WJKP 1981)

    Tod E. Bolsinger, It Takes a Church to Raise a Christian: How the Community of God Transforms Lives (Brazos 2004)

    Henri de Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man (Ignatius 1988)

    Geddes MacGregor, Corpus Christi: The Nature of the Church According to the Reformed Tradition (Westminster 1958)

    Lesslie Newbigin, Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of the Church (SCM 1957)

    H.J. Wotherspoon and J.M. Kirkpatrick A Manual of Church Doctrine according to the Church of Scotland, revised and enlarged by T.F. Torrance and R.S. Wright (Oxford 1965)

    John Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (St Vladimir’s 1985)

    Mark Earey, Liturgical Worship - A Fresh Look: What It Is, Why It Matters (Church House 2002)

    Marlea Gilbert, Christopher Grundy, Eric T. Myers, and Stephanie Perdew, The Work of the People: What We Do in Worship and Why (The Alban Institute

    Todd Johnson, editor, The Conviction of Things Not Seen: Worship and Ministry in the 21st Century (Brazos 2002)

    William D. Maxwell, A History of Worship in the Church of Scotland (Oxford 1955)

    Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship: Reformed According the Scriptures (WJKP 2002)

    Richard Paquier, Dynamics of Worship: Foundations and Uses of Liturgy (Fortress 1967)

    George W. Sprott, The Worship and Offices of the Church of Scotland [available at Google books] (Blackwood 1882)


    Donald M. Baillie, The Theology of the Sacraments (Scribners 1957)

    Alexander Schmemmann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy (St. Vladimir's 1997).

    Leonard Vander Zee, Christ, Baptism and the Lord's Supper: Recovering the Sacraments for Evangelical Worship (IVP 2004)


    Robert Bruce, The Mystery of the Lord's Supper (Christian Focus 2005)

    Horton Davies, Bread of Life and Cup of Joy: Newer Ecumenical Perspectives on the Eucharist (Eerdmans 1993)

    Keith Mathison, Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin's Doctrine of the Lord's Supper (P&R 2002)

    Max Thurian, The Eucharistic Memorial, two volumes (John Knox 1960)

    Geoffrey Wainwright, Eucharist and Eschatology (Oxford 1982)

Missional Theology

Ecumenical Theology
    Carl E. Braaten, Mother Church: Ecclesiology and Ecumenism (Fortress 1998)

    John M. Frame, Evangelical Reunion: Denominations and the One Body of Christ (Baker 1991)

    Lesslie Newbigin, The Reunion of the Church: A Defence of the South India Scheme (SCM 1948)

I should hasten to add that I expect seminaries already assign some of the standard classic texts in the relevant areas (Aquinas is, for instance, axiomatic for Christian ethics) as well as more recent texts (such as John Murray's Principles of Conduct or Edmund Clowney's The Church). My suggested texts are meant to be supplemental, for those who want to dig deeper.

So, that being said, any surprising inclusions? Glaring ommissions? Suggested additions?

20 June 2007

barth & evangelicalism

Next week, 24-27 June, Princeton Seminary's Center for Barth Studies is hosting a conference entitled "Karl Barth and American Evangelicals: Friends or Foes?" The line up of speakers and topics look great and the conference is, not unexpectedly, sold out.

I'll be attending, though commuting daily. Is anyone from the Philly area driving up or taking the train? I'm looking for a ride or, short of that, at least some company on the train.

philly's troubled youth

According to the Philly Metro paper the city Report Card 2007 (conducted by Philadelphia Safe and Sound) brings bad tidings.

The Report Card outlines some of the following statistics:
Each day 2.8 young people between the ages of 7 and 24 suffered gunshot wounds in Philadelphia in 2006.

154 young people between the ages of 18 and 24 were murdered last year, a 23% rise since 2005.

There was a 27% increase in the number of juveniles arrested on firearms charges between 2005 and 2006.

47% of children are overweight or at risk of becoming overweight.

11.3 babies out of every 1,000 in Philadelphia died while still in infancy in 2005.

An estimated 25,000 children were without health insurance in 2006.

Only 57.4% of current ninth graders are expected to graduate high school in four years.
More statistics are available in the article or in the full 2007 Report Card.

Philadelphia has undergone tremendous change for the better in so many ways in the past decade. But it's not clear that this change is affecting all populations equally and, for those most vulnerable at the margins, though there are improvements in some areas, in other areas thing seem to have gotten worse.

I remember attending an event in the Mayor's Reception Room at City Hall a number of years ago, late in Ed Rendell's second term. Buzz Bissinger was reading from his wonderful tale of Philadelphia, A Prayer for the City.

After the reading, a teary-eyed Mayor Rendell spoke movingly of his time in office and compared this great city to an emergency room patient suffering with both a gunshot wound and an aggressive cancer. The Mayor suggested that the gunshot wound had been sewn up and the bleeding staunched, with the patient recovering nicely - but in the end, the cancer could still prove deadly. As Mayor, Rendell confessed that he thought he'd done well with the wound, but that he'd been a failure with the cancer.

A renewed downtown, a growing population in the city center, new businesses and new housing, a vibrant night life, a lively arts scene, and a functioning convention center had all worked to bind up the wound. But the cancer of poverty, violence, a collapsing educational system, blight, and so forth remains.

Bissinger's book suggests that there is hope for the cancer, but it is a hope grounded in religious faith, fervent prayer, and active local church communities - and Mayor Rendell agreed.

So, with the release of the 2007 Report Card, the cancer faces us again. I'm sure there are a variety of policy decisions that can support healing and renewal. I look forward to seeing what sort of policy will come from the creativity and intelligence of Michael Nutter, who will likely be our next mayor.

Yet, I also think Bissinger's insight is essentially correct. Urban cancer is not unlike the demon-possessed boy at the foot of Mt. Tabor - an affliction only remedied by fasting and prayer. May God continue to raise up faithful churches in the city to pray and to serve.

15 June 2007

at fordham

I'm at a conference at Fordham University on Augustine, typing this on a very clumsy open-access internet kiosk in the student center. The conference is great, the speakers top-notch. And I've enjoyed getting to meet some fellow bloggers and connecting with some friends.

The inability to log onto the university's wireless network, however, is intolerable. They could at least have temporary guest accounts for attendees if they aren't going to have open access. I guess I'm spoiled by the readily available wireless in Philly.

I'll be back home sometime Sunday and will report more.

13 June 2007

brief comment

Several folks have asked me to move a comment I made below up to the level of a post.

Before doing so, I wanted to say how encouraging it is, watching our General Assembly, to hear about all the good work that God is doing through churches, institutions, and individuals in the PCA. There are many signs of health and life in the denomination - from RUF to church plants to foreign missions - and I am, in so many ways, grateful to have been raised within a tradition of such faithful witness to the truths of the Gospel and the heritage of the Reformation.

It's also obvious how much effort has been put into the smooth operation of the Assembly.

On other matters, as you may know, the General Assembly of the PCA approved the recommendations attached to the report about which I expressed serious concerns below.

The commissioners at GA didn't share my concerns or they didn't think that such concerns, even if legitimate, outweighed what they saw as the importance or strengths of the report, or perhaps they weren't all aware of the kinds of concerns I raised. So be it.

But I would also suggest that we shouldn't overblow the significance of the vote, whatever side of the issues we might find ourselves.

The GA merely commended the report as useful and endorsed the nine declarations as expressing the teaching of our Standards. The intent of those declarations is pretty clear and should, I think, seem innocuous for anyone ordained in the PCA, even if one might quibble with the wording of several of them.

So where does that leave things? Now matters are in the hands of each presbytery to examine individual presbyters and ordinands as to their views and, more locally, in the hands of church sessions.

I still think the report is deeply flawed and potentially detrimental to the ongoing life of the PCA. I sincerely hope it doesn't prove a harmful tool in over-zealous hands. And, of course, I am disappointed in the vote.

Nevertheless, I pray that God grants wisdom, patience, and collegiality to our presbyteries and other bodies as they seek to learn from the report and discern how best to apply it. I also see this as a great opportunity for continuing to learn from one another and to further unpack the riches and gifts of our Reformed tradition.

So, with all that in mind, let's move forward and continue to take up our place in God's mission to our world.

12 June 2007

prayer for general assembly

From the Scottish Book of Common Order:
Almighty God,
your Son promised his disciples
that he would be with them always.
Hear the prayer we offer for your servants
now met in General Assembly.
May your Holy Spirit rest on them:
a spirit of wisdom and understanding,
a spirit of counsel and power,
a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.
Grant them vision and courage;
unite them in love and peace;
teach them to be trustworthy stewards
of your truth.
And so guide them in all their doings
that your kingdom may be advanced,
your people confirmed in their most holy faith,
and your unfailing love
declared to all the world;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

11 June 2007

richard rorty

American neo-pragmatist philosopher, Richard Rorty, died Friday in Palo Alto, California at the age of 75.

Rorty's earliest major work of note was his book The Linguistic Turn (1967), building upon the 20th century turn towards language in analytic philosophy. Nevertheless, Rorty soon moved beyond the analytic tradition in philosophy, turning his attention to both pragmatism and continental thought.

Rorty's critique of the western philosophical project of modernity was detailed in his important work, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979). In this book he took to task the modernist turn towards epistemology, which he defined primarily in terms of a representationalist theory of mind in which the mind is a seen as a passive "mirror of nature," reflecting the external world outside of the mind.

In the place of the modern project, Rorty's later writings offered his own take on the pragmatist tradition of Dewey and James, though with generous infusions of Hegel, Davidson, Heidegger, and Darwin.

Rorty attempted to work out the implications of his perspective for issues of rationality, objectivity, ethics, and liberal democracy, moving beyond philosophy towards literature and the motif of "conversation."

A full obituary is available at the New York Times.

10 June 2007


I was wondering if anyone from the Philly area was planning to head up to the Orthodox Readings of Augustine conference in the Bronx, 14-16 June?

I think I may take the train up on Thursday, but I'm not sure how I'll be returning - train on Saturday night or Sunday morning, unless someone is driving, which would be ideal since the trains are less frequent on weekends.

Let me know if you're headed up and want some company on the drive, either there or back again.

an intriguing angle

Over at his blog, Jordan Mark Siverd provides a memorandum upon the PCA report from his perspective as an attorney and with current studies in canon law.

I link it because it is interesting to me to see how differently a legal mind approaches a document of this sort.

09 June 2007

PCA report on NPP/FV: conclusions

This will be my final post on the topic of the PCA report on the NPP/FV. I am glad to be done with this and would be happy to never address the topic again.

Allow me to begin by summing up what I have been saying in this series of posts. I regret the length and detail of what I've already written. Unfortunately, it was necessary in order to substantiate my points.

On the positive side, I began by noting that it is certainly the privilege - and indeed the duty - of our church courts to "to resolve questions of doctrine and discipline seriously and reasonably proposed, and in general to maintain truth and righteousness, condemning erroneous opinions and practices which tend to the injury of the peace, purity, or progress of the Church" (BCO 11-4).

The PCA report on the "New Perspective on Paul" and the so-called "Federal Vision," at the request of our General Assembly, attempts to assist GA in exercising this oversight.

I noted what strike me as several positive ways in which the committee's report carries forward this task:
[1] The report focuses upon what seem to me to be the central issues and it gives evidence of having learned from prior reports and discussion.

[2] The report gives sustained attention to our PCA doctrinal Standards as the proper guidelines for determining matters of confessional subscription.

[3] The report provides nine "Declarations" that seek to mark out practical boundaries on the relevant matters.

[4] Taken on their own terms, I find myself in whole-hearted doctrinal agreement with what I understand those nine "Declarations" to state.
Nevertheless, the report also presents to me several areas of significant concern:
[1] The report shows inadequate generosity at times in presenting others’ views, casting the NPP and FV in a worse light than is warranted by the textual evidence cited in the report.

[2] The report uses isolated statements as lenses through which to portray wider perspectives, thereby tending to distort them, particularly concerning Wright on justification and FV views on sacramental efficacy.

[3] The report cites statements that have been either retracted or significantly qualified by their authors, in particular statements by Wilkins on baptism and Lusk on imputation.

[4] The report reads our confessional documents in ways that either seem to misconstrue or unnecessarily restrict their meaning and original intent, particularly on topics such as merit, covenant conditions and requirements, imputation of active obedience, and wider and narrower uses of terminology.

[5] The report narrows the manner in which the Standards function in defining doctrinal boundaries, especially in relation to Scripture, undermining good faith subscription in practice and overshadowing the ultimate authority of Scripture.
I find each of these weaknesses in the report to be separately troubling and, taken together, exceedingly problematic.

In my previous posts, I attempted to substantiate each of these concerns at some length and in some detail. My prior remarks, however, should not be taken as comprehensive, but as selective and representative.

There are many more areas in which we could further examine the report - how the report handles Wright on the corporate dimension of salvation, the way the report underplays how FV views qualify the notion of "covenant" as relation, what the report says about paedo-communion, the way in which the report considers "undifferentiated grace" and conflates the perspective of phenomenology and initial experience with the perspective of ontology and diachronic experience, how the report seemingly misreads the Standards on visible "covenant" memberhsip - to name a few.

I do not make these claims or provide this evidence because I agree with Wright or the NPP or FV proponents in every detail.

There are areas in which I find each of these viewpoints or authors to be confusing or with which I simply disagree (e.g., Wright's insistence that "justification" is not "entrance language," paedo-communion, some formulations of final justification, some initial FV affirmations about baptismal efficacy, some historical claims about the shape of 17th century scholasticism, and so forth). I've never denied such disagreements and, when opportunity arose, I have engaged profitably with a number of individuals concerning what they've said and written.

I do worry very much, however, about the effects that adopting the report's recommendations might have for the PCA. I've outlined those worries already (see the sections on "Effects" in my prior posts), so will not repeat myself here.

Whatever we think of the NPP or FV, we should consider carefully if this report and its recommendations are the response to which we wish to commit ourselves. Given the shortcomings of the report, is this how we want to go on record in correcting what some perceive to be significant errors? Is this the witness we wish to bear to those outside our tradition who are watching or to the Christian journalists who are being sent to our GA?

Sometimes in our desire to speak truth and to protect the church against perceived error, we can overreach, to the detriment of Christ's church and to the embarrassment of those around us, if not ourselves.

Jonathan Edwards, in Charity and Its Fruits, agrees that making careful judgments and correcting error is important, but it must be undertaken with the utmost care. Sometimes "there is plain and clear evidence" that certain individuals "are justly chargeable" with error or other wrongdoing, and in such cases we cannot help but judge.

Nevertheless, even then Edwards cautions that we must take great care lest we find ourselves "judging evil of others when evidence does not oblige to it, or in thinking ill of them when the case very well allows of thinking well of them." Edwards warns against situations of judging others in which "those things that seem to be in their favor are overlooked, and only those that are against them are regarded," or "when the latter are magnified, and too great stress laid on them."

A further danger, Edwards observes, is when we take delight in censuring others, since this distorts the process of discernment and right judgment. He writes,
But very often judgment is passed against others, in such a manner as shows that the individual is well pleased in passing it. He is so forward in judging evil, and judges on such slight evidence, and carries his judgment to such extremes, as shows that his inclination is in it, and that he loves to think the worst of others.
If we truly regard others with Christian charity, Edwards insists, we "will be very cautious in" judging them. Those who judge with such charitable care "will go no further in it than evidence obliges them, and will think the best that the nature of the case will admit, and will put the best possible construction on the words and actions of others." May we be the people Edwards describes.

Moreover, with regard to those who are the object of the report's critique, we should remember that sometimes we all say things with the enthusiasm of discovery that tends to lead us to overstate and exaggerate.

Those of you who have come to Reformed convictions from outside of our tradition may have experienced this yourselves - you came to a fresh understanding of the doctrines of grace, but that gave rise to expressions bordering on hyper-Calvinism or virtual denials of common grace or the free offer of the Gospel. For some, in their enthusiasm, the beauty of the "system" can begin to eclipse of the beauty of the Savior to whose abundant and wonderful grace the system is supposed to point.

Pastors, theologians, and even academics are not immune from similar bursts of enthusiasm. I know I myself have fallen prey more than once.

Could it be the case that in the flush of initial discovery, Wright perhaps overplayed the corporate dimensions of justification or that Wilkins exaggerated the character of the grace held forth to all within the visible church?

Even so, do we judge others by the worst of what they say or will we be gracious enough look for openness to correction on their part, a willingness to learn, and a readiness to revise and qualify? Will we believe it when we see it? Or will we insist on holding other's most confused and least considered moments against them?

What kind of denomination will we prove to be? Is this report the best we can do?

As Jonathan Edwards notes elsewhere (in his 1746 work Religious Affections), "Truly gracious affections differ from those that are false and delusive in that they naturally beget and promote such a spirit of love, meekness, quietness, forgiveness, and mercy, as appeared in Christ."

08 June 2007

PCA report on NPP/FV: some concerns 6

I now come to my final assertion concerning the PCA report on the NPP/FV. In some respects it is a distinct point, but it also, in many respects, sums up my other four assertions:

[5] The report narrows the manner in which the Standards function in defining doctrinal boundaries, especially in relation to Scripture.

I think some of what substantiates this assertion is evident from my previous post. Thus, here I will suggest two other dimensions of my concerns.


The report accurately notes that, according to the BCO, our doctrinal Standards, along with the BCO itself, "are accepted by the Presbyterian Church in America as standard expositions of the teachings of Scripture" (BCO 29-1). Yet the report goes on to assert that the denominational "Constitution does recognize the Standards as our 'standard expositions of the teachings of Scripture'" (2202:39-41).

Perhaps this is nitpicking, but the report’s interpretation of BCO 29-1 seems to me to exceed what the BCO intends, implying that we should look to the Standards as the standard exposition of Scripture in our tradition.

As I read BCO 29-1, the point is, first of all, qualified by BCO Preface III where the Standards are given Constitutional status "as adopted by the Church" (emphasis mine). That is to say, "good faith subscription," as noted elsewhere in the BCO, would have to qualify the sense in which the Standards provide a standard exposition of Scripture.

Second, taken in context, BCO 29-1 regards limiting judicial process to things that are clear from Scripture and exposited by our Standards as such. It is not a general abstract principle about how we exposit Scripture.

Thus, the report seems overly narrow in the way it presents the Standards as a "standard exposition of Scripture."


Part of what is noticeably absent from the report is any sustained attention to Scripture (2232:30 - 2233:5 is the rare exception, though it is very brief).

Of course, the report is correct that the primary question at hand is whether particular views conflict with the fundamentals of the system of doctrine in our Standards. So, close attention to the Standards is warranted.

Nevertheless, the Standards themselves teach the following:
The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture. (WCF 1.10)
Part of what this paragraph asserts is that, when there are "controversies of religion," the "supreme judge" of those controversies is not what some past Reformed figure has said ("opinions of ancient writers") or even what our confessional Standards say ("doctrines of men"), but what the Holy Spirit says as he speaks in Scripture.

This does not discount the witness of subordinate judges (such as our Standards), but requires that we never allow those Standards to come to replace or eclipse the authority of Scripture itself. This is a matter of the relative weight and emphasis we grant Scripture in relation to our Standards and how we handle the Standards in relation to Scripture's ultimate authority.

In this respect, it seems to me that the report moves in a troubling direction. While the report rightly analyzes the teaching of the Standards, the report strikes me as granting relatively too great weight and emphasis to the Standards taken in themselves - rather than as a subordinate guide to Scriptural exegesis - even while the report admits "that the biblical usage of some of these [confessional] words may have varying nuances in different contexts" (2203:6-7).

This is where "good faith subscription" is really put to the test: as we hold onto the fundamentals of our theological system, will we allow Scripture to norm and reform our thinking and ways of speaking on matters of theological detail? Will we allow Scripture come to new and fresh expression as we encounter new situations and contexts, new opportunities for ministry and mission? Or will the language and terminology of our Standards remain the final word?

Again, in this respect, to my mind the report moves in a troubling direction.

Effects: If the report's recommendations are adopted by the PCA, I am concerned that adoption may have unintended effects for how we use our Standards and how they relate to Scripture. The report could too easily edge us away in practice from the good faith subscription that we profess and subtly alter the relative weight we grant our Standards under the Word of God.

PCA report on NPP/FV: some concerns 5

Now we arrive at my fourth assertion concerning the PCA report on the NPP/FV:

[4] The report reads our confessional documents in ways that either misconstrue or unnecessarily restrict their meaning and original intent.

First, we can consider several places in which the report appears to me to misconstrue the contents of our Standards.


Analysis: The report seemingly asserts that "merit" in our Standards "relates to the just fulfillment of the conditions of the covenant of works," citing WLC 55, 174 (2207:26-27). The cited catechism questions, however, do not speak of the "covenant of works," but only of the merits of Christ, with reference to his obedience and sacrifice.

We need to distinguish in this context, I think, between [a] the merits of Christ and [b] the possibility that Adam might have merited eschatological life under the covenant of works. The former does not necessarily depend upon the latter, particularly in light of the infinite worth of Christ’s sacrificial obedience as a divine Person who entered into a world broken by our sin and demerit.

With regard to Adamic obedience under the covenant of works, as far as I can see the Standards never speak in terms of "merit" and, indeed, imply that such merit would have been impossible.

WCF 16.5 states that "our best works cannot merit...eternal life at the hand of God." This is not only because we cannot "satisfy [God] for the debt of our former sins" and because any good works that are "wrought by us" as fallen creatures remain "defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God's judgment."

It is also impossible for us to merit eternal life because there is an "infinite distance that is between us and God," because God, as the all-sufficient Creator, cannot "profit" from any obedience we render to him, and because as creatures "when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants."

These reasons would have applied to Adam before fall and seem congruent with the WCF’s teaching elsewhere that all of God’s covenants with humanity essentially involve what WCF 7.1 calls a "voluntary condescension" on God’s part.

As such, the "disproportion" between our works and their reward – eternal, eschatological life – is one that was present as part of even God’s covenant with Adam in which Adam could not have merited a reward. As WCF 7.1 says, our first parents could not "have any fruition of [God] as their blessedness and reward" except by that condescension of God.

Moreover, the original ability to do good works proceeds from gifts of the Spirit, by whom the pre-lapsarian Adam himself was "endued with knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness...in...communion with God" and was only thereby able to obey God (WCF 4.2).

Thus, it would seem that the Standards actually weigh against the report’s proposition that "merit" in our Standards "relates to the just fulfillment of the conditions of the covenant of works." The Standards never explicitly use the term "merit" in that way and, due in part to the English semantics of "merit," the vast bulk of 17th century British Reformed theologians rejected its application to Adam before the fall.

It is the case, of course, that humanity can "merit" punishment by our disobedience and failure to live up to calling as creatures in the image of God. Thus, by Adam's sin, we experience a state of "demerit" before God's holiness.

These observations, however, do not in anyway undermine our ability to speak of Christ’s own merits since, in the case of the theanthropic Person, Jesus Christ, we are no longer contemplating the context of "infinite distance" between us and God.

Nor does this mean that the Standards exclude all possibility of speaking of "merit" with regard to Adam’s required obedience under the covenant of works. Doing so, however, would require defining that notion of "merit" in a way that is not univocal with the sort of "merit" that the Standards seem to exclude from even the pre-lapsarian situation. We may speak here, perhaps, of Meredith Kline’s "covenantal merit" or Turretin's "pactional merit," which he admits is "merit" only improperly speaking.

This is not problematic in itself, but it is problematic in the context of a report that chastises others for defining theological terms in extra-confessional ways that are different from how those same terms are used in the Standards.

Conditions & Requirements

Analysis: The report states that the Confession "carefully distinguishes conditions from requirements and reminds us that even the faith of the elect is the gift of God," citing WCF 11.1 and WLC 32 (2207:18-20; emphasis mine). The report makes this statement to support the confessional distinction between "the instrumentality of faith in relation to justification in the covenant of grace" and "the conditions of the covenant of works" (2207:17-18).

This latter distinction is certainly present within our Standards, which do distinguish between perfect and perpetual obedience (required under the covenant of works) and faith in Christ as Savior (required under the covenant of grace). But this latter distinction is not secured by a prior distinction between "conditions" and "requirements."

Faith, after all, is presented in the Standards as both a condition and a requirement. WLC 32 (which the report cites, oddly, to my mind) states that "The grace of God is manifested in the second covenant, in that he freely provideth and offereth to sinners a mediator, and life and salvation by him; and requiring faith as the condition to interest them in him." Any sharp distinction between "requirements" and "conditions" appears to collapse here.

Moreover, while the covenant of works has the "condition" of "personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience" (WCF 7.2; WLC 20) that condition is also presented by our Standards as a "requirement" (WCF 2.2; WLC 91).

Thus, while "faith" and "obedience" operate as conditions and requirements in different ways, relative to the pre- and post-lapsarian covenantal administrations, that difference does not seem to be secured in our Standards by a distinction between "conditions" and "requirements." The NPP/FV report, however, appears to read such a distinction into our Standards.

WLC 166

Analysis: At one juncture, the report cites WLC 166: "infants descending from parents, either both, or but one of them, professing faith in Christ, and obedience to him, are in that respect within the covenant, and to be baptized" (2211:15-16).

In context, however, the report appears to be using this citation against FV proponents, such as Douglas Wilson, who contend that baptism marks out God’s objective covenant people. The report responds that when we bring covenant objectivity (secured through baptism) together with a relationship to Christ, it "produces significant confusion" about "the nature of children who are 'in this respect' within the covenant of grace" (2211:15-16).

Yet, the relevant phrase here – "in that respect within the covenant" – seems to have reference in our Standards to unbaptized children and thus does not directly bear upon Wilson’s point, which involves baptized children.

Since baptism "solemnly admits" them into the visible church and is a sign and seal of the covenant of grace (WCF 28.1), our Standards seem to suggest that the relation of these children to the visible administration of covenant of grace shifts in baptism, from something connected with their parents to their own personal reception of the covenant sign and seal.

This may be nitpicking, but, if I am reading the report and the Standards correctly at this point, it does give evidence of a general sloppiness on matters of detail, even about our own Standards, or at the very least, a tendency to read the Standards in ways that are prejudiced against what the report critiques.

Decree and Covenant

Analysis: The report states that the "1646 chapter title 'God’s Eternal Decree' emphasizes the unitary and comprehensive nature of God’s divine plan" (2212:27-28). I assume the point here is that the term "decree" is in the singular. The report is correct in noting this, I think.

Nevertheless, this seems to run counter to the report’s insistence that the "Westminster Standards set forth a bi-covenantal structure of federal theology" (2206:11; emphasis mine), even though the chapter on the covenants is entitled, "Of God’s Covenant with Man" and in which the first section addresses the notion of covenant in general.

If the singular "decree" points to the unitary nature of God’s plan, why does the singular "covenant" not point to the unitary nature of God’s covenant dealings with humanity? And why, moreover, does the report fault FV writers for speaking of the "the covenant" in the singular when our Standards do the same (2213:17)?

While the Standards certainly see the distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant grace as a central organizing motif, that bi-covenantal structure co-exists with a fundamental unity in how God approaches us by way of covenant. The theology of the Standards, therefore, is not straightforwardly "bi-covenantal." Much less is it "mono-covenantal."

Rather, with the wider Reformed tradition, the Standards presuppose both continuity and discontinuity within God's covenantal dealings with humanity. The report does not seem to reflect this complexity.

It seems instead to read the Standards in a way that is most prejudicial towards FV authors and their attention to covenant continuities. Moreover, the report appears to do so even when its mode of reasoning about one part of the Standards (concerning "decree" in the singular) seems to run counter to its implicit reasoning in another part (concerning "covenant" in the singular).

Imputation of Active Obedience

Analysis: According to the report, justification requires that "Christ’s 'perfect obedience' (his 'active obedience' to the demands of the law)" and "his 'full satisfaction' of God’s justice (his 'passive obedience' in which his suffered on the cross for sinners) are both imputed to sinners" (2215:12-15; emphasis mine). The report even goes so far as to suggest that any denial of imputation of active obedience is "truly problematic" and indeed "contradict[s] the position of the Westminster Standards and strike[s] at the vitals of the system of doctrine contained there" (2225:7-11).

While I myself gladly affirm the imputation of Christ's active obedience in our justification, the report's position here seems historically questionable since it is unclear to me whether the Standards were ever intended to require such an affirmation.

The Westminster Assembly discussed the matter of imputation of active obedience and seemingly chose to word the Standards in such a way so as not to absolutely require it (even if the Standards admittedly prefer it). Terminology such as "perfect obedience and full satisfaction" (WLC 70) can, after all, be read pleonastically, so that Christ's death was the obedience required of him for our justification and, at the same time, served to make full satisfaction of God's justice.

The historical question arises from a study of the context of the Westminster Confession, the minutes of the Assembly that produced it, and a comparison with both the Irish Articles and the Savoy Declaration. Such a study suggests that absolutely requiring an affirmation of both active and passive obedience was specifically excluded from the Confession's teaching on justification in light of the views of those few divines who rejected the imputation of active obedience.

On this matter, see Chad Van Dixhoorn, "Reforming the Reformation: Theological Debate at the Westminster Assembly 1643-1652" (Cambridge PhD thesis 2004) 328-29. He writes:
Those divines who did not hold to the doctrine of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ could be satisfied with the statement if they believed that it was a consensual construction, not teaching their position, but not excluding it either... However, the divines who held to the doctrine of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, who thought that the Confession and catechisms were consensual but wanted to exclude the theology of their opponents, were bound to be dissatisfied...
Along the same lines, John Owen (who himself held to the imputation of active obedience in justification) confirms that there were a range of tolerated views within 17th century English Reformed divinity.

In his 1667 treatise on justification, Owen writes "as to the way and manner of the declaration of this doctrine among Protestants themselves, there ever was some variety and difference in expressions," and goes on to list those items "of real difference among persons who agree in the substance of the doctrine." One difference he notes concerns "the righteousness of Christ that is said to be imputed unto us." Owen explains, "some would have this to be only his suffering of death, and the satisfaction which he made for sin thereby [passive obedience], and others include therein the obedience of his life also [active obedience]" (emphasis mine).

I myself do see justification as involving God pronouncing over us the same verdict that he pronounced over Christ's entire life of faithful obedience, culminating in the cross. In justification, therefore, God reckons us as having fulfilled the fully human life of obedience that Christ lived in our stead. Moreover, I readily admit that "active obedience" has an indispensable role in justification for the bulk of Reformed dogmatics.

Nevertheless, requiring this doctrine of ministers bound by the Westminster Standards is, quite arguably, extra-confessional.

Moreover, even if denial of imputation of active obedience were contrary to the Standards, depending upon the character of that denial, it is not obvious that such a denial would constitute a rejection of the fundamentals of the system of doctrine found in the Standards.

The report, then, seems to overreach on this matter and probably misconstrues the requirements of Standards.

Restrictive Meaning

Analysis: In addition to apparently misconstruing the Standards in a variety of ways, the report also seems to unnecessarily restrict the meaning and intent of the Standards.

The report admits that "It is certainly possible to say more than our Confession does about biblical truth, but this should not necessitate a denial of the vitals of our faith" (2203:11-12; emphasis mine). And this seems correct – it is possible to take a "both/and" approach with regard to matters that go beyond our confessional formulations, such as a doctrine of common grace, the use of hymnody, infra- vs. supra-lapsarianism, and so on.

Nonetheless, the report itself tends to operate in terms of an "either/or" approach that deploys our Standards in a limiting manner, arguing that the NPP and FV present views that are "incompatible with the views of the Westminster Standards" (2212:22-23; emphasis mine), rather than complementary. Yet it is not always clear whether the report adequately substantiates its case for incompatibility.

In particular, the report asserts that "by receiving and adopting the Westminster Standards as containing the system of doctrine taught in Scripture, we are saying that the terms used in the Confession faithfully represent what is taught in Scripture" (2212:36-38; emphasis mine).

As the report actually uses this criterion, however, it seems to disallow the possibility that, while the terms used in our Standards may teach and communicate the same doctrinal content that Scripture teaches, they may do so without using precisely the same terms that Scripture uses. That's to say, there is often a distinction between the semantic ranges of a particular term as it is used in Scripture and as it is used in a specialized way within dogmatic theology, even if connections and analogies exist between the two levels of usage.

The report seems unable to permit this possibility without seeing it generate a conflict between Scripture (or theological accounts of Scriptural teaching) and our confessional Standards.

For instance, the report rightly quotes the Confession’s teaching that "Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only" (WCF 3.6).

The report, however, seems to take this statement to exclude the possibility that there might be other senses in which we can speak of even the non-elect as "redeemed" or "sanctified" or "adopted," etc. – senses that are not univocal with the way in which the Standards define and use these terms with regard to those who are elect to salvation. Yet, interpreting the Standards to exclude such a possibility appears historically untenable.

Many of the Westminster divines held, for instance, that Christ’s "redemption" had both broader and narrower aspects. Edmund Calamy (1600-1666) stated on the floor of the Assembly,
Christ by his death did pay a price for all, with absolute intention for the elect, with conditional intention for the reprobate in case they do believe; that all men should be salvabiles non obstante lapsu Adami...; that Jesus Christ did not only die sufficiently for all, but God did intend, in giving of Christ, and Christ in giving himself did intend, to put all men in a state of salvation in case they do believe.
Thus, according to Calamy, there is a sense which we can speak of "redeemed" persons more widely than simply those who are predestined to salvation, a kind of "conditional redemption" rooted in the infinite sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work.

Calamy was not alone in this view among the divines. Lazarus Seaman (d. 1675), Richard Vines (1599-1656), Stephen Marshall (1594-1655), John Arrowsmith (1602-1659), Robert Harris (1580-1658), Joseph Caryl (1602-1673), Jeremiah Burroughs (1601-1646), and William Strong (d. 1654), among others, shared this view. One should also note that this is not Amyraldianism, which holds that the covenant of grace is made with all persons indiscriminately and that all persons are granted actual sufficient (though not efficient) grace.

Calamy’s views are simply the moderate Calvinism that characterized much of English divinity in the 17th century. And such Calvinism can speak of "redemption" in a manner broad enough to encompass even the non-elect, though not in the same sense as it applies specially and strictly to the elect alone.

Likewise, the "English Annotations" on Scripture provide various helpful comments upon Scriptural usage of dogmatic terms. One should recall that the so-called "English Annotations" were authorized by the same Parliament that called the Westminster Assembly together. The "Annotations," building on the work of earlier Continental divines, were prepared by a group of eight theologians, six of whom were members of the Westminster Assembly and another, John Downame, the editor, who was appointed to grant imprimatur and to license London preachers. As Richard Muller has argued, the "Annotations" provide an indispensable context for the exegetical trajectories behind the Westminster Standards.

It is instructive, therefore, that the "English Annotations" comment the following upon Hebrews 10:29 and its designation of apostates as those who had once been "sanctified" by the blood of the covenant:
sanctified] By which their sins were pardoned, in regard of that meritorious sufficient satisfaction purchased by it.
That is to say, there is a sense in which even non-elect apostates can be said to have been "sanctified," and even "pardoned," but only with respect to the infinite sufficiency of Christ’s blood for their sanctification and pardon, not the actual application of that satisfaction unto salvation. The "Annotations" speak similarly of "redemption" and "adoption" in other passages that use the terms broadly (e.g., when Peter speaks of those who "deny the Lord who bought them").

We could multiply examples of these sorts with regard to terms that 17th century Reformed divinity applied broadly, even to those who are not elect to salvation, understanding those broader senses as not univocal with our stricter Confessional usage and qualifying those broader senses with adjectives such as "sacramentally," "conditionally," "externally," "in the judgment of charity," and so forth. And this is not even considering other uses, such as the the common Reformed notion of "federal sanctity" (or "covenant holiness") that is distinct from the confessional notion of "sanctification."

Thus, it seems that the report's restrictive handling of terms and their meanings with regard to FV authors - seeming to exclude broader or analogical uses - runs counter to the theology and practice of the divines who wrote our Standards and who developed Reformed dogmatics in terms of it.

Effects: The report appears to me to misconstrue the Standards at several points and, in other places, to unnecessarily restrict the meaning of specific confessional terminology. But then the report seems to turn these misconstruals and restrictions into tests of fidelity to our Standards.

Moreover, the report seems to fall into these misconstruals and restrictive interpretations when it would most bolster its case against other views with which it differs. Yet the question here is not one of mere agreement or disagreement with particular viewpoints, but whether or not those views are out of accord with the fundamentals of the system of doctrine embodied in our Standards.

In these ways, the report seems to move beyond a broad, systematic reading of our Standards. In its place a particular, seemingly idiosyncratic, understanding of the Standards can begin to displace the Standards themselves, filling in details where the Standards are silent or pouring content into terms and phrases that were meant to be left ambiguous or flexible and about which there has been ongoing dispute and disagreement.

From my perspective, for the PCA to endorse such readings of the Standards, as they seem evidenced by the report, would be to move the denomination in a direction of unhealthy doctrinal strictness that can too easily cultivate a culture of censoriousness.

07 June 2007

PCA report on NPP/FV: some concerns 4

I've already attempted to substantiate my first two assertions. I will now turn to the third:

[3] The report cites statements that have been either retracted or significantly qualified by their authors.

This is most clear with regard to the views of Wilkins and Lusk, though to my mind there are numerous more subtle ways in which the report evidences this. I will cite two examples and attempt to keep these observations brief.

Wilkins & AAPC

Analysis: As already noted, the report repeatedly states that FV proponents "assign saving benefits ascribed to all members of the visible church, elect and non-elect covenant members alike" or "that all the benefits of the covenant of grace accrue to all who are baptized" or the like (2213:20-21; 2208:6-7).

It seems that these statements primarily rest upon the 2002 "Summary Statement" published by Auburn Avenue PCA, which stated, "By baptism one is joined to Christ’s body, united to Him covenantally, and given all the blessings and benefits of His work" (emphasis mine). Wilkins had made a similar statement in his 2002 AAPC conference talk and in his contribution to 2003 The Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros and Cons book.

And such a statement is indeed problematic, if it is taken to mean that all persons, simply in virtue of being baptized, actually receive and enter into saving union with Christ and, moreover, all do so in the same way. I did, however, suggest in my previous post that there are ways of understanding Wilkins and the 2002 AAPC "Summary Statement" that, while perhaps confusing, are not so problematic.

Even so, the important point here is that the original 2002 statement was, after further consideration and discussion, withdrawn by Wilkins and AAPC. In its place, the revised "Summary Statement" states, "By baptism, one enters into covenantal union with Christ and is offered all his benefits...Baptism in itself does not, however, guarantee final salvation. What is offered in baptism may not be received because of unbelief" (emphasis mine).

Given the retraction and revision of the original statement, it seems that the report is misleading with regard to what actual issues remain at stake in the FV discussion.

Lusk on Imputation

Analysis: The report, at several points, implies that FV proponents see imputation (or distinguishing any aspects of redemption) as "redundant."

The report states that the Standards "view union with Christ as the umbrella category under which the individual aspects of Christ’s redemption fit. And yet, union with Christ does not make justification or the other benefits redundant" (2214:33-35). Later the report states, "the truly problematic claims of the Federal Vision proponents come when some suggest...that imputation is 'redundant' because it is subsumed in 'union with Christ'" (2225:7-9).

These statements appear to derive from Rich Lusk when he states "my in-Christ-ness makes imputation redundant. I do not need the moral content of his life of righteousness transferred to me; what I need is a share in the forensic verdict passed over him at the resurrection" (2222:32-34, cited from Lusk's "The Biblical Plan of Salvation" in The Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros and Cons).

Before citing Lusk's retraction, it is worth noting that even in this statement, "redundant" can be understood in two ways. It can mean something like "pleonastic," that is, saying the same thing twice in different ways. Or it can mean something like "exessive" or "superfluous" that is, saying in itself more than is necessary or required.

What Lusk seems to be saying is that, through our union with the resurrected Christ by faith, God reckons to us the verdict he declared over Jesus' life of faithfulness unto death. Thus believers are, in effect, forensically reckoned as having Jesus' life in their account. Therefore, any additional imputation - in particular, some additional transfer of Jesus' moral achievements, occurring outside of or in abstraction from union with Christ - would be giving us the same thing in another way.

I suspect, therefore, that Lusk meant "redundant" in the former sense, but the report seems to interpret him in the latter sense. I whole-heartedly agree we cannot jettison imputation as an unnecessary or superfluous concept in our doctrine of justification without running afoul of the Standards.

Whatever the case, the point is moot since Lusk has withdrawn this statement (which was peculiar to him at any rate).

In his first "Reply" (pdf) to the OPC report, Lusk writes:
I freely admit that the sentence from my colloquium essay, "My in-Christ-ness makes imputation redundant," is open to misunderstanding. Indeed, I gladly withdraw that statement, and let the rest of the argument stand on its own... Again, in retrospect, I am happy to withdraw the offending sentence about the "redundancy" of imputation. My argument does not depend on that particular way of stating the matter, and perhaps overstates it. I wish now I had been even more explicit that it was specifically imputation-as-extrinsic-transfer...that I was critiquing. (22-21)
Earlier in the same reply, Lusk clarifies his position:
I have nowhere suggested that union with Christ solves every problem or swallows up every other doctrine. Indeed, when I concluded the section of the essay of mine that the [OPC] Report is quoting from, I cheerfully admitted that we may continue using imputation language if we desire, provided we understand imputation as a feature of union with Christ, rather than a piece of our salvation having a discrete structure of its own. So I am not opposed to imputation as a theological category as such. (2)
Given Lusk's retraction and revision of his original statement and his futher clarification, it seems that the PCA report is misleading with regard to what the actual issues are in this discussion.

Effects: The report seems to place both of these retracted statements in the background of its "Declarations."

Declaration 6 states, "The view that water baptism effects a 'covenantal union' with Christ through which each baptized person receives the saving benefits of Christ’s mediation...is contrary to the Westminster Standards" (2235:27-31). And Declaration 5 states, "The view that 'union with Christ' renders imputation redundant because it subsumes all of Christ’s benefits (including justification) under this doctrinal heading is contrary to the Westminster Standards" (2235:23-25).

The "Declarations" appear to imply, therefore, that there are individuals within the Reformed tradition who are actively promoting the idea that baptism brings each and every baptized person into a saving relationship with Christ, even apart from faith, and that imputation is a superfluous concept in light of union with Christ, thereby draining justification of its forensic content.

But, as we have noted, on the most charitable reading, even the statements that serve as background to these "Declarations" are not making such claims. Furthermore, these statements have been explicitly retracted, given the misunderstanding they have fostered.

For the PCA to receive this report would perpetuate the attribution of (arguably misconstrued) statements to authors who have retracted them. While the report's "Declarations" are theologically acceptable to my understanding, their adoption would compound this kind of misinformation.

Moreover, the report and its "Declarations," if accepted, would give the impression that we, as a denomination, do not believe and trust the testimony of these authors when they withdraw their previous statements. This is not how we embody a love that "believes all things" and "rejoices in the truth." Thus, it would seem to run counter to our Standards' teaching on the ninth commandment.

I am concerned, then, that this report could contribute to the further decline of the PCA's theological and spiritual ethos.

06 June 2007

PCA report on NPP/FV: some concerns 3

In my previous post on the PCA report on NPP/FV, I tried to substantiate my general observation that the report evidences inadequate generosity in presenting the views of others. In this post, I will move on to one specific way in which the report does this:

[2] The report isolates particular statements and uses them as lenses through which to portray wider perspectives, thereby distorting them.

Fair interpretation of texts requires not only attention to specifics, but also to the overall shape of what texts say, their emphases, and their flow of argumentation. One way views can end up distorted is when one particular statement becomes isolated from larger considerations and comes to function as a lens to interpret other statements and overall perspectives.

There are several places where I think the report seems to fall into this kind of interpretive stance.

N.T. Wright

Analysis: Among those identified with the NPP, the report gives most of its attention to N.T. Wright, explaining and criticizing his prolific writings in relation to several issues of soteriology.

Since Wright is not a Presbyterian and does not subscribe to our Standards, one would not expect Wright's views to operate within the terminology and categories of the Reformed tradition. Assessing his views, therefore, requires imaginatively inhabiting his thought and, from within that, developing an understanding of its relationship to Reformed dogmatics and our Standards.

I would contend that the report fails to do justice to Wright's work in this regard. It requires significant effort to set aside one's own theological and terminological baggage in order to hear what someone else is saying who uses words in a different way. To my mind, the report does not evidence having sufficiently engaged in that labor with regard to Wright.

One area in which this seems most apparent to me is with regard to the doctrine of imputation. As Reformed believers we rightly wish to value and safeguard the precious truth that we stand before God's judgment, not in a righteousness of our own making, but clothed only in the righteousness of Christ, received only by faith, a righteousness that results from his obedience unto death.

I have no wish to dispute this crucial truth of the Christian faith.

What I wish to suggest is that the report mistakenly supposes that Wright's exegesis of Paul excludes any notion of an "imputed righteousness" by which sinners are justified, by which we are accepted and accounted as righteous in God's sight (2219:13 - 2220:9). The report states
Wright denies any understanding of "transfer" language in the NT, which also means a denial of imputed righteousness. This is a position that contradicts our Standards and strikes at the system of doctrine contained in them. (2224:36-38; emphasis mine)
I would urge, however, that matters are not quite as straightforward as the report states.

There are several issues here since a "denial of imputed righteousness" is ambiguous and could have several distinct meanings.

First, a "denial of imputed righteousness" could mean a rejection of a particular construal of either what is meant by "imputed" (e.g., seeing it as primarily a bookkeeping metaphor) or what is meant by "righteousness" (e.g., seeing it primarily in terms of meritorious law-keeping or moral accomplishment) or both. But rejecting these construals does not entail a rejection of the view that believers have legal title to Christ's righteousness in other senses.

Second, it could mean that the specific New Testament texts typically seen as teaching imputed righteousness (e.g., those that use the terms "impute" or speak of the "righteousness of God") are not in fact speaking of such an imputed righteousness. But this does not preclude us from deriving a doctrine of imputed righteousness from the New Testament by other exegetical routes.

Third, it could mean that Wright does indeed deny any sort of imputed righteousness altogether. But, even if that were the case (and I'm not convinced it is), this would not mean that Wright's wider exegetical proposals, even if accepted, necessarily require us to come to the same conclusion. That's to say, it seems to me that one could be deeply sympathetic with Wright's overall treatment of justification and yet come to a different conclusion on imputed righteousness.

Having set out these distinctions, I shall argue that Wright's "denial of imputed righteousness" falls under the first and second sense of what that might mean. Therefore, there is nothing in Wright's views that entails a denial of imputed righteousness understood in a different way from the sense he rejects and upon a somewhat different exegetical grounds.

But let's examine the way in which the report arrives at its apparently more sweeping conclusion: that Wright rejects imputation altogether.

It seems to me that the report goes astray when it takes Wright's arguments against particular understandings of dikaiosune theou and logizomai and uses them as lenses through which to view his theology more generally. In doing so, it misunderstands the precise target of Wright's criticisms of "imputation" and, I think, mistakenly concludes that Wright would reject "any understanding" of "transfer language" in the New Testament.

Let's consider the details here.

Paul uses the phrase "righteousness of God" (dikaiosune theou) on several occasions in Romans and elsewhere. In much traditional exegesis this is taken to refer primarily to a righteousness that God has and which he gives over to human beings for their justification (by infusion in the case of Roman Catholic understandings and by imputation in the case of Protestant understandings).

Building upon earlier exegesis (including Reformed figures such as Ridderbos and Cranfield, as well as Lutherans such as Kasemann), Wright suggests that "righteousness of God" needs to be read against the Old Testament use of the phrase and similar phrases. In that context, according to Wright, it means something more like "God's righteous character as creator and redeemer, particularly as manifest in his faithfulness to his covenant promises."

So, for Wright the argument in Romans has to do in part with the question of how it is that God can be righteous given that he has promised salvation through Israel, but Israel is an unfit and faithless vessel for this promised salvation. How will God come through on his promises of salvation in the face of human sin? How will God vindicate himself as just and righteous, particularly given that divine justice would seem to have to punish sin rather than pardon it as promised?

Paul's answer, as Wright reads him, is that the "righteousness of God" is manifest in the person and work of Jesus as the Messiah, by which God's promises to Israel for the salvation of humanity are indeed kept, but sin is also dealt with definitively.

The difficulty with all of this for traditional readings, however, is that one of the customary proof texts for "imputation of God's (or Christ's) righteousness" is taken away.

When the report cites Wright as rejecting the view that "the righteousness of God" is imputed to sinners, it refers to Wright's lexical conclusion about the meaning of dikaiosune theou and not a general theological stance against the notion of imputed righteousness per se (2219:13-29). The report's argument appears to overreach here by using Wright's lexical comments as a lens through which to consider his theology of justification.

It's worth noting at this point, that Wright's understanding of dikaiosune theou here is not without some precedent in either the Reformation or wider catholic tradition. Ambrose, for instance, took the "righteousness" here to be "the mercy of God pardoning and forgiving sins...For it is the righteousness of God because he bestows what has been promised." Bucer argues along similar lines, while nonetheless holding to imputation.

The question, then, is whether the doctrine of imputation requires a particular interpretation of dikaiosune theou or whether one can provide a biblical case for imputed righteousness apart from this "proof text." It seems to me that the biblical doctrine of imputation does not rest upon so slim an exegetical basis, so that one's interpretation of dikaiosune theou need not count against a commitment to the doctrine of imputed righteousness.

A further issue is how Wright interprets logizomai.

Wright seems to suggest that none of the passages that actually use the word "impute" (logizomai) really talk about an imputed righteousness, in the sense of some kind of transfer of Christ's righteousness from his account to ours. The word does mean to "account" or "regard" or "reckon," but in context Wright suggests that it is, for instance, Abraham's faith that God sees and that faith which he reckons to Abraham as righteousness. If there's an imputation of Christ's righteousness here, it's not directly on the surface of the text (2220:1-9).

So part of the difficulty is that the biblical use of "impute" doesn't match up exactly with how "impute" is used in our systematic theology. D.A. Carson agrees, by the way, in a essay where he interacts with Wright's view, where Carson sees "imputation" (in the traditional systematic theological sense) as a theological implication of the New Testament text - a way of expressing and filling out the forensic character of justification in dogmatic language - rather than something that is directly taught by Scripture using the term in its lexical meaning (see "The Vindication of Imputation: On Fields of Discourse and Semantic Fields" in Justification: What's at Stake in the Current Debates, edited by Husbands and Treier, IVP 2004).

So what does Wright actually believe about justification? Allow me to set this out in some detail, because many of Wright's own summaries often end up, I think, being too succinct and thus liable to confusion.

Wright believes that justification, in the context of the Old Testament, referred to God's eschatological judgment (see, for instance, his brief "The Shape of Justification"). In this judgment, all persons would be brought before the divine law-court and judged - either condemning them to eternal death or finding them to be "in the right" before the court, rendering a verdict of "not guilty."

According to Wright, this justifying verdict was promised to God's people throughout the Old Testament as part of the covenant he made with them. Moreover, God promised (particularly in the prophets) that this verdict would take the form of vindicating restoration: the enemies of God and of his people (ultimately sin and death) would be judged and destroyed, and God's people would be restored and raised to everlasting life, constituting them, thereby, as his one true, righteous covenant people, redeemed and forgiven.

Thus, in the broadest terms, for Wright justification is both forensic and covenantal. It is forensic in that it is a vindicating verdict of "righteous" before the divine court. It is covenantal in that it is the fulfillment of God's covenant promises to Israel and, through Israel, the whole world. It is also covenantal in that God's verdict is spoken over those who, in that verdict, are constituted as his righteous covenant people.

The difficulty with the Old Testament picture, Wright suggests, is that it is unclear how God could possibly come through on his promises. Israel was unfaithful and deserved the same judgment as her enemies. Even the seemingly faithful remnant of Israel was plagued by unfaithfulness. And, besides, God's promise had always been that his salvation would go out into all the world and among all nations, through the vessel of Israel. But now the vessel proved unfit.

This is where Jesus fits into the plan of God, as Wright understands it.

Where Israel was unfaithful, Wright notes that Jesus remained faithful, taking up the identity and vocation of Israel for the sake of the whole world, living out the truly human identity and vocation as Son of God incarnate. Jesus' vocation led to the cross as the place where God deals with and condemns sin and death once and for all, thereby, enabling God to come through on his covenant promise even in the face of human unfaithfulness. In raising Jesus from death, God's pronounces his verdict over Jesus' faithful life and death, granting him the eschatological justification that had been promised.

Again, justification here is, for Wright, both forensic and covenantal. In raising Jesus from the dead, God declares him to be in the right - to be righteous - before the divine court and, moreover, that sin and death have been dealt with through the cross. This verdict is, at the same time, God's fulfillment of his covenant promises and the declaration that Jesus, as Messiah, is the true eschatological covenant people of God.

But the office of Messiah is, as Wright repeatedly insists, a legally representative office of king, so that what is true of the king is true of his people. All who put their faith in Jesus as the Messiah - and in what God has accomplished through him - are incorporated in the Messiah's people. Thus, what is true of the Messiah (legally and otherwise), is true of them.

Wright sums it up this way:
the basis of justification is God’s covenant-faithful action in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus both as Israel’s Messiah and as the incarnation of the one true God. Since what is true of the Messiah is true of his people, all those who are "in the Messiah" by baptism and faith have his death and resurrection reckoned to them so that when God looks at them he sees Calvary and Easter ("Answers" March 2004)
That is to say, the condemnation of sin that Jesus experienced on the cross and the verdict pronounced over Jesus in his resurrection are reckoned to all who, through faith, are united to Jesus as Messiah and Son of God. Our sin is dealt with in him and his resurrection status as "righteous" (a result of his life of faithfulness unto death) is accounted to us.

Wright, therefore, does not reject the idea of "God's reckoning Christ' righteousness to us" but re-configures it.

Thus, while there's a sense in which Wright "rejects imputation" (in terms of the meaning of dikaiosune theou and logizomai in the New Testament), there is another sense in which Wright's views are quite open to more imputational understandings, in terms of theological exposition and filling out of the biblical picture.

Wright might also reject the notion of a "transfer" of Jesus' life of faithfulness unto death (i.e., his righteousness) to our account as the basis for God's separate verdict over us. But that rejection involves Jesus' righteousness only insofar it is abstracted from God's verdict over Jesus in the resurrection and the reckoning of that verdict to all who are in Christ by faith.

By focusing in upon Wright's lexical analysis of Pauline terminology and by latching onto Wright's qualms concerning "transfer" language, the report seems to obscure the positive content of Wright's account of justification that, as far as I can see, accomplishes the very same thing as traditional understandings of imputation.

I apologize for taking up so much space expositing what I understand of Wright's views. But there is so much confusion afoot over these matters that I thought they deserved more extensive attention.

Even if I am mistaken about the details of Wright's own views, I hope I have demonstrated that such an interpretation of Wright is not implausible and, moreover, that an account of justification that is deeply sympathetic with Wright's emphases is not in any way hostile towards a robust affirmation of imputation.

Effects: In connection with Wright on justification, the report concludes, "This is a position that contradicts our Standards and strikes at the system of doctrine contained in them" (2224:37-38).

I hope I have given some reason for thinking this judgment is exaggerated and largely rests upon a misreading of Wright through a particular interpretive lens. At the very least, my analysis indicates that there are ways of reading Wright that do not so clearly contradict our Standards or strike at their system of doctrine.

By not acknowledging these ways of interpreting Wright, the report intimates that any sympathetic regard for Wright's views on justification entails a conflict with our Standards. My concern is that, if its recommendations are adopted, the report could be too easily used against those who have sympathies towards Wright, even where their own views are fully in accord with the fundamentals of the system of doctrine in our Standards.

Federal Vision

Analysis: The report reads FV proponents through a particular lens in a way not dissimilar from the way it reads Wright.

In this case, the lens is the contention that FV proponents believe that "water baptism serves as the means of uniting each participant to Jesus; those baptized receive all the benefits of Christ's mediation except final perseverance" (2234:41-43). This contention comes up repeatedly and pointedly in the report (2213:19-21; 2223:1-9; 2223:16-22; 2225:15-16; 2231:6-8; 2232:4-6).

But what exactly are FV proponents saying? Are they actually contending that each and every baptized person truly receives the all benefits of Christ's mediation short of perseverance? That everyone who is baptized is justified, even apart from personal faith?

I think the prima facie absurdity of such a claim should be taken into account before attributing it to any author. What theologian, in all of church history, has ever claimed such a thing? Even the medieval Roman Catholic scholastics recognized that a person, through unbelief, could place an "obstacle" to the grace of baptism. Thus Peter Lombard quotes Jerome and Augustine:
Anyone who approaches falsely or without true faith does not receive the thing of the sacrament. Whence Jerome (on Ezekiel 16): "Those who are washed as Gentile heretics are not washed unto salvation. In the church also, any who do not receive baptism in full faith receive water, but not the Spirit." Augustine also says (on Psalm 83), "All the Jews communed in the sacrament, but not all communed in the grace that is the virtue of the sacrament; and likewise now all the baptized commune in baptism, but not all in the virtue of baptism, that is, in grace itself."
Thus, it seems to me simply implausible that, whatever some FV proponents may have written, that they intend to claim what the report attributes to them. Nonetheless, this claim becomes the lens by which the report interprets FV authors more broadly.

Thus, when FV authors speak of the effects of baptism (that it saves, washes away sin, unites us to Christ, etc.), the report seems to understand them to speak of the effects of baptism for every recipient, head-for-head, rather than the effects for those who receive Christ in baptism with a living and true faith.

To say that, in baptism, we receive the benefits of Christ is not controversial in Reformed theology if we speak of those who receive baptism in faith. Thus, Charles Hodge writes:
How then is it true that baptism washes away sin, unites us to Christ, and secures salvation? The answer again is, that this is true of baptism in the same sense that it is true of the word. God is pleased to connect the benefits of redemption with the believing reception of the truth. And he is pleased to connect these same benefits with the believing reception of baptism. That is, as the Spirit works with and by the truth, so he works with and by baptism, in communicating the blessings of the covenant of grace. Therefore, as we are said to be saved by the word, with equal propriety we are said to be saved by baptism. (Commentary on Ephesians)
He adds further on, "the benefits of redemption, the remission of sin, the gift of the Spirit, and the merits of the Redeemer, are not conveyed to the soul once for all. They are reconveyed and reappropriated on every new act of faith, and on every new believing reception of the sacraments."

As far as I can see closest the report comes to providing a quotation that substantiates its interpretive lens is a single quotation from Steve Wilkins, "Because being in covenant with God means being in Christ, those who are in covenant have all spiritual blessings in the heavenly places" (2231:8-9; quoted from Wilkins, "Covenant, Baptism, and Salvation," in The Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros and Cons).

But even this quotation is not clear and, given the prima facie implausibility of interpreting it in the manner in which the report does, I would be inclined to seek another way of understanding what Wilkins is trying to say. Certainly, one might accuse Wilkins of confusion or unclarity here, but charity would demand trying to find more clear expressions in light of which to interpret the more confusing ones (or to seek out later clarifications or retractions, though that point will have to wait until my next post).

I suspect that Wilkins intends to say that the one and same Christ is personally present by his Spirit to all who are baptized and equally offered to all within the covenant, so that those who are baptized and remain in unbelief can truly be said to have rejected grace and forsaken Christ. In this, he is following Calvin's understanding of the sacraments.

Calvin insists that "the efficacy of the sacraments does not depend upon the worthiness of men, and that nothing is taken away from the promises of God, or falls to the ground, through the wickedness of men" (Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:27). And so, he says, "Christ's body is presented to the wicked no less than to the good" so that unbelief does nothing to "impair to alter anything as to the nature of the sacrament." In the Institutes Calvin similarly says that "the flesh and blood of Christ are no less truly given to the unworthy than to God's elect believers" but that unbelievers reject the proffered gift (4.17.33).

It seems then that report takes the isolated and unclear statement of one author and deploys it in a way that casts a number of FV figures in an unsympathetic light.

Effects: In connection with these sorts of interpretations of FV authors, the report concludes, "the claim of some FV proponents that all those who are baptized with water are savingly 'united to Christ' flatly contradicts the Westminster Standards" (2225:15-16).

But I have suggested that this may be putting the worst construction upon a couple of isolated statements and then using them to develop a larger perspective on what FV proponents say. In doing this, the report seems to suggest that all sorts of strong sacramental language pushes in the same direction, even when saying essentially the same as the quotation from Hodge above.

Thus, the report troubles me. If accepted, the report could be taken to suggest that more Calvinian views of the sacraments stand in tension with the teaching of our Standards and render such views potentially problematic.


I've argued that report interprets both Wright and FV proponents through the lens of particular statements in ways that tend to distort the wider contours of their views. But I have also suggested ways of understanding these statements that may not prove so problematic. And these are only several examples among others.

If the PCA embraces this report it will commend these sorts of distorting interpretive stances as proper ways of handling others' writings. Moreover, such distortions can easily become received interpretations and perpetuate themselves, breeding a climate of mistrust towards those who may interpret matters in ways congenial to our Standards.

Again, while I have no problem in principle with what the report's nine declarations seem to say, I worry that approving these declarations will, in effect, sanction the seemingly faulty reasoning in the report that stands behind them.

In these ways, then, in connection with my second assertion, I am concerned that the report, if accepted, could be detrimental to the health and culture of the PCA.