08 June 2007

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.