Thursday, May 31, 2007

"Whole-souled faith in Jesus"

I've reflected quite a bit on what I mean by this and particularly how I would distinguish between my own conception of "Jesus in my soul" and "my own urges and desires" or "indigestion." In part, posting my lengthy essay on "The Nature of True Religion" was an answer. But perhaps the best answer to this could come from Jonathan Edwards himself:
True grace is no dull, inactive, ineffectual principle; it is a powerful thing; there is an exceeding energy in it. And the reason is, that God is in it; it is a divine principle, a participation of the divine nature, and a communication of divine life, of the life of a risen Savior, who exerts himself in the hearts of the saints "after the power of an endless life." They that have true grace in them, "they live"; but not by their own life; "but Christ lives in them." His Holy Spirit becomes in them a living principle and spring of divine life, the energy and power of which is in Scripture compared to fire...True piety is nothing remainingly only in the head, or consisting in any speculative knowledge or opinions, or outward morality or forms of religion; it reaches the heart, is chiefly seated there, and burns there. There is a holy ardor in everything that belongs to true grace. True faith is an ardent thing, and so is true repentance; there is a holy power and ardor in true spiritual comfort and joy; yea even in true Christian humility, submission, and meekness. The reason is that divine love or charity is the sum of all true grace, which is a holy flame enkindled in the soul (Jonathan Edwards, "True Excellency of a Minister of the Gospel," in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 25: Sermons and Discourses, 1743-1758 [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006], 91).
That is what I mean. Of course, I agree that we must look to Christ as he is held forth in Word and Sacrament. But if this look is merely intellectual, if it does not affect my heart and move my will, if this look is simply or merely formal or ritual, then it is not a look that transforms. What I long for is a "looking at Jesus" that reaches my heart, burns there for his glory, and transforms the way I look at everything else. And that is what I mean by "whole-souled faith in Jesus"--it is a true faith which transforms everything.

Reformed Catholicism v. Reformed Catholicity, no. 4

Over the past week, I've continued to think about the exchange with this heading. I am especially mindful of one commenter's note that we shouldn't lose sight of Darryl Hart's comments in the exchange, in which Hart questioned whether Presbyterians and Pentecostals have much in common. As he well put it:
I'm left wondering how we keep the essentials of the Reformed faith and engage Pentecostals and Methodists in theology, mission and fellowship. The Reformed doctrine of sanctification is not very Wesley friendly and I would imagine it would carry much weight in discussing theology and mission with Pentecostals and Methodists -- as in being a non-starter. Or have I missed something?
This is, of course, the key question that confessional Presbyterians have asked for a long time. It reminds me of the questions that Cornelius Van Til raised in the 1950s as the OPC debated whether to join the International Council of Christian Churches. To Van Til's line of thinking, because Arminians believed a defective gospel, it was essentially no gospel at all; as a result, there was no common ground over which to cooperate missionally (see, for this, my essay, "J. Gresham Machen, Ned B. Stonehouse, and the Quandary of Reformed Ecumenicity," WTJ 62 [2000]: 197-222).

While Van Til's position has the value of logical consistency, perhaps, it doesn't do a whole lot for either ecumencity or charity. I guess I'd want to say that in the end, the most important thing is not that one's identity is "Reformed," but that one's identity is shaped by Jesus Christ. If someone puts their whole-hearted faith in Jesus, regardless of whether they are Lutheran, Pentecostal, or Presbyterian, that person is united to him and receives all the benefits of salvation: she is declared right with God, adopted into his family, set apart and made holy in God’s sight, and glorified. And where my native catholicity kicks in is by recognizing that this is most important--those who name Jesus are my brothers and sisters (otherwise, what ground do Darryl and I have to fellowship ecclesiastically with Independent Baptists in our own families?). I can affirm, wish, and even strategize that these churches might grow for God's glory.

However, in extending charity (through catholicity) to these brothers and sisters, I do so out of my own identity as a Presbyterian. I do believe that the "Reformed faith is grand" (as Machen said on his death bed); I've committed my ministry to teach these doctrines and preach these truths; I'm here training Presbyterian ministers for Presbyterian churches. So, by no means do I want to say that the Reformed faith is unimportant in these conversations--in fact, it is the most biblical approach to the Christian faith out there.

And yet, by living out of a sense of Reformed Catholicity, I have a better chance of sharing the best of "our" biblical, theological, and historical insights with others; as well as meaningfully listening and being encouraged by the genuine faith of others. Our greatest hope is not merely in deconstructing evangelicalism, but in affirming the basic evangelical impulse that animates all true believers: the great necessity for men and women, boys and girls to know the life-giving, world-changing reality of faith in Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Three Most Important Books I've Read

I thought about different ways to title this post, but in the end, since these are books that profoundly affected my walk with Christ, they really are the three most important books I've read (aside from the Bible itself). In some ways, it is a little surprising to come down to only three; after all, there have been long stretches of my life that I've read a book a week--to narrow it down to these three demonstrates (at least to me) their real value and impact.

1. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression
It wasn't the first or second time reading Lloyd-Jones' Spiritual Depression that made an impact on me. I think it was the fourth or fifth time, but I remember it well. I was sitting in the archives at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, supposedly doing work but instead reading this book. I had continued to wrestle for over two years over a failure in ministry, where I had given myself to a congregation and they didn't apparently love me back. I had, in turn, concluded that God didn't really love me.

But then I read Lloyd-Jones' sermon on Luke 8, where he said, "Whatever your circumstances at this moment, bring all you know to be true of your relationship to bear upon it. Then you will know full well that he will never allow anything to happen to you that is harmful. 'All things work together for good to them that love God.' Not a hair of your head shall be harmed, he loves you with an everlasting love. I do not suggest that you will be able to understand everything that is happening. You may not have a full explanation of it; but you will know for certain that God is not unconcerned. That is impossible. The One who has done the greatest thing of all for you, must be concerned about you in everything, and though the clouds are thick and you cannot see his face, you know he is there" (p. 145).

As I sat up there in my office, looking at the window at the Josephus Bowl on the campus of Southern Seminary, I started crying--could it be true? Was God really concerned about me back there when my heart was breaking? Does he really love me with an everlasting love? It was the first time I could remember feeling loved by God. It is a memory that I doubt I'll ever forget.

2. Bryan Chapell, Holiness By Grace.
If you think that GA give-aways don't work for people, this is my story. I got this as a giveaway from Covenant Seminary at the 2003 General Assembly in Charlotte. I read it over the summer and was completely blown away. The whole approach to the Christian life with which I was reared centered on my performance--the notion went that we were justified by faith alone but are sanctified by human effort. As a result, my relationship with God was as only as good as my own efforts--I had no sense that his love came first and that he loved me anyways and always.

This book changed all that for me--it was like dynamite. I started teaching it to my Bible studies and developed my own study guide for the book. I so desperately wanted my church people to know that the law could not save--not at the beginning of faith nor in the middle nor at the end. It is "all of grace" from beginning to end.

3. John Piper, When I Don't Desire God.
Okay, now to explain this, I need to go back a little bit. Remember that I've admitted that I'm the kid who didn't see "Top Gun" or "Titnatic" when they came out; there is a bit of contrarian-ness that keeps me from following the crowd. Sometimes that is a good thing; but sometimes not so good.

Not so good, when it kept me from reading John Piper. I ran into so many guys, especially when I worked at Southern Seminary, who were such "devotees" that I felt like they missed the point--if Piper was right, these guys should be boasting and satisfied in Christ, not in Piper. However, the testimony of a friend who talked about how God had used Piper's books and sermons in his life convinced me to read something. Even more, it was my friend's joy in walking with Christ--that is what got my attention. Because all too often my walk with the Lord has been a struggle (as I've noted before)--and yet, here was a brother who delighted in God.

And so, I saw this book in the bookstore and I thought, "Yeah, that is too often how I've been--I've not desired God." God used this book to create in my heart such a thirst and desire for walking and delighting in himself; it has led to waking up earlier than I've ever done before (as my students who had me at 8am can relate, I'm not a morning person) so that I can spend time in his Word and prayer, delighting in his presence. I've been memorizing scripture (I've been using the Fighter Verse packet that Desiring God Ministries sells). As my wife as said, "Your sanctification is good for me." Not only good for her, but good for me as well--for the first time that I can recall, I've been genuinely satisfied in who God is for me.

Friday, May 25, 2007

For suffering Cardinals fans...

...both some hatred and hope (note particularly the batting averages for Eckstein and Pujols since May 13). If only we could keep playing the Pirates.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Nature of True Religion, no. 6

[note: this is the last of the installments; if you want the full citation version, please refer to the printed version referenced in part one.]

Part one
Part two
Part three
Part four
Part five

The New Resultant Actions of the Soul

Edwards did not simply base Christian assurance upon internal evidence, not even internal evidence as strong as the new sense. Rather, he coupled the new sense inseparably with new action. In Affections’ first positive sign, in the midst of the introduction of the new sense, he pointed to his greater design: “if grace be, in the sense above described, an entirely new kind of principle; then the exercises of it are also entirely a new kind of exercises.”

But it was in the twelfth positive sign that Edwards developed the new action in its fullness and depth. “Gracious and holy affections have their exercise and fruit in Christian practice. I mean, they have that influence and power upon him who is the subject of ’em, that they cause that practice, which is universally conformed to, and directed by Christian rules should be the practice and business of his life,” he observed. Edwards then related the previous eleven signs of gracious affections to this last. Most importantly, he argued that

the power of godliness is exerted in the first place within the soul, in the sensible, lively exercise of gracious affections there. Yet the principal evidence of this power of godliness, is in those exercises of holy affections that are practical, and in their being practical; in conquering the will, and conquering the lusts and corruptions of men, and carrying men on in the way of holiness, through all temptation, difficulty and opposition.
Therefore, the individual had his first assurance from an internal working of the Spirit, preserving Cotton’s argument. But the principal, the most important, the “chief” evidence was the consistent practice of godliness, preserving Shepard’s argument. Christian practice assured both the individual and the community about the person’s gracious state. Regeneration had “a direct relation to practice; for ’tis the very end of it, with a view to which the whole work is wrought.” Every gracious experience had its end in practice. This connection between profession and practice, experience and evidence, was one that Edwards called “constant and dissoluble.” In true saints, “their good profession and their good fruit, do constantly accompany one another: the fruit they bring forth in life, evermore answers the pleasant sound of their profession.” He was careful not to collapse the “root” of faith and the “fruit” of faith, but rather maintained the distinction. If there was a holy action, it indicated that there was a holy root that produced it.

In this way, Edwards supported Shepard’s contention that one evidenced justification by sanctification. If there truly was fruit, there must be some life principle producing that fruit. He called Christian practice, the “sign of signs,” in that “it is the great evidence, which confirms and crowns all other signs of godliness. There is no one grace of the Spirit of God, but that Christian practice is the most proper evidence of the truth of it.” Practice evidenced saving faith, repentance, saving knowledge of Christ, thankfulness, and holy joy. He, however, also reminded his readers that “no external manifestations and outward appearances whatsoever, that are visible to the world, are infallible evidences of grace.” No one could see another person’s heart; evidences could not be an infallible rule in judging someone else’s profession.

Edwards also supported a theme that Shepard took up in The Parable of the Ten Virgins, the necessity of Christian practice as an evidence of justification. It was no accident that he quoted Shepard over seventy times in the footnotes of Affections. Edwards used Shepard with a two-fold aim: first, he used Shepard’s cultural authority to ward off Chauncy’s charge of antinomianism. However, he also used Shepard to attack the true antinomians of his own day. A careful analysis of the way he quoted Shepard would demonstrate that the incantation of Shepard occurred with greatest frequency when he was attacking his antinomian opponents.


In Affections, Edwards synthesized the two American Puritan positions, forged during the Antinomian Controversy, reconciling the Spiritual Brethren and Intellectual Fathers in his own creative position. With Cotton and the Spiritual Brethren, Edwards held the primacy of the new sense of the heart. This new principle that the Spirit infused into the regenerate’s heart was properly the first internal evidence or assurance in which the soul gained an ideal apprehension of Christ. The soul gazed upon the excellencies of Christ, which consisted in his holiness; in doing so, the soul gained a genuine understanding of spiritual truth and a new spiritual conviction concerning the reality of divine things. This conviction, born of an ideal apprehension of the divine, produced a new sense of innate corruption. Hence, the gracious soul was not proud, but rather experienced further evangelical humiliation that in turn produced the character of Christ, especially the meekness and gentleness of the Savior. There was beautiful symmetry and proportion in the character regulated by the new sense. Christians loved Christ and hated sin in perfect proportion, in excellency; yet, they were not satisfied with their current state, but continued on with a changed nature, desiring to be more like Christ.

Picking up the emphases of Shepard and the Intellectual Fathers, Edwards affirmed that holy practice was the chief evidence of one’s regenerate state. New practice evidenced that one had the new sense of the heart. Just as the fruit of tree indicated there was life in the tree, so holy practice demonstrated there was the holy root of the new sense in the individual. Edwards was careful not to collapse the distinction between the new sense and Christian practice. Yet the bond between them was “constant and indissoluble”; it was not possible to divorce practice and profession, experience and evidence.

Therefore, though Edwards may have used some Lockean terminology, such as the “new simple idea,” his starting point was not Lockean, but rather Puritan. Understanding Affections requires an appreciation of its American Puritan context and the theological battles of the earlier Antinomian Controversy.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Modern-day Martin Luther?

I think this guy takes his pancakes a little too seriously....

[HT: Jim Roach]

The Nature of True Religion, no. 5

Part one
Part two
Part three
Part four

Religious Affections: A New Synthesis of Cotton and Shepard

This American Puritan context shaped Edwards’ moves in Affections. What Edwards developed in Affections was a new synthesis, one which united the emphases of Cotton’s sense of union with Christ and Shepard’s Christian practice as ways to assurance. Edwards wedded the two emphases together—his argument in Affections was that the new spiritual sense infused by the Holy Spirit infallibly produces Christian practice. As unnatural as it would be to divorce body and soul, so, in Edwards’ development, would it be unnatural to divorce the new sense, the “divine and supernatural light,” from new practice.

Affections was originally a sermon series, preached to Edwards’ Northampton congregation during the winter of 1742-43. Hence, he was not responding directly to Chauncy in the sermons on Affections (although it seems clear that he did respond to the Boston minister in the published version). Rather, he was dealing with spiritual pride and apathy within his own congregation, trying to defeat both Northampton antinomians and Arminians with one blow.

He gave a hint of his congregations’ difficulities in a letter to Thomas Gillespie of Scotland. Gillespie, in a previous letter, had expressed shock at Edwards’ dismissal from his Northampton congregation. Edwards’ reply, written 1 July 1751, explained to his far-away correspondent that his dismissal was tied to two major spiritual problems within the congregation. First, he charged his Northampton congregation with spiritual pride: “The people...are become more extensively famous in the world, as a people that have excelled in gifts and grace, and had God extraordinarily among them: which has insensibly engendered and nourished spiritual pride, that grand inlet of the Devil into the hearts of men, and avenue of all manner of mischief among a professing people. Spiritual pride is a monstrous thing.”

In fact, he blamed the spiritual pride of the people on his Faithful Narrative which described the awakening of 1734-35: “There is this inconvenience attends the publishing of narratives of a work of God among a people: such is the corruption that is in the hearts of men, and even of good men, that there is great danger of their making it an occasion of spiritual pride.” And so, when he spent the entirety of the sixth positive sign in Affections on the proposition that “gracious affections are attended with evangelical humiliation,” it is probable that he was pointedly rebuking his people’s spiritual hubris.

The second spiritual issue was the congregation’s misunderstanding of the workings of salvation. Edwards claimed that “another thing that evidently has contributed to our calamities is, that the people had got so established in certain wrong notions and ways in religion, which I found them in and never could beat them out of.”

In particular, he cited two areas where the people had a wrong understanding. First, the congregation had as “their method to lay almost all the stress of their hopes on the particular steps and method of their first work, i.e. the first work of the Spirit of God on their hearts in their convictions and conversion, and to look by little at the abiding sense and temper of their hearts, and the course of their exercises, and fruits of grace, for evidences of their good estates.” Some people thought that unless their “preparation” and “closing” with Christ went according to steps that served as the pattern for generations, they were not truly regenerated. The second area of misunderstanding was their inability “to distinguish between impressions on the imagination, and truly spiritual experiences.” When he came to Northampton in 1727, he found the people ready “to declare and publish their own experience; and oftentimes to do it in a light manner, without any air of solemnity.”

Hence, throughout Affections, he dealt repeatedly with impressions, immediate revelation, and like experiences, trying to assist his people to distinguish between their own day-dreams and genuine spiritual experience. And so, in Affections, Edwards responded to issues within his own congregation, issues that demanded a pastoral response from the pulpit. In response to the spiritual pride and confusion of his people, he developed the thesis that “true religion, in great part, consists in holy affections” could be traced along two thought lines: first, holy affections arose from a new spiritual sense in the heart; second, the new sense produced holy actions.

The New Sense of the Heart

Many interpreters of Edwards considered his development of the new sense of the heart to be the height of his creative powers. Though the idea of the “new sense” had precedence in earlier Puritan theology, he took the idea in new directions, demonstrating that the Holy Spirit caused the individual to feel, perceive, and think in different ways than previously possible. He believed that “in those gracious exercises and affections which are wrought in the minds of the saints, through the saving influences of the Spirit of God, there is a new inward perception or sensation of their minds, entirely different in its nature and kind, from anything that ever their minds were the subjects of before they were sanctified.” He called this new sense “a new principle” that produced “an entirely new kind of exercises.” While he stressed that “this new spiritual sense, and the new dispositions that attend it, are no new faculties, but are new principles of nature,” yet the new sense was infused into the individual so that it became “a natural habit or foundation for action.”

This new principle became the basis for other internal changes to develop. The new principle enabled the saint to love God in a disinterested manner. There was a change in the person so that she could “apprehend a beauty, glory, and supreme good, in God's nature, as it is in itself.” Edwards insisted that the new spiritual sense would provide “the first foundation of a true love to God” that was found in “the supreme loveliness of his nature.” Saints would “first see that God is lovely, and that Christ is excellent and glorious, and their hearts are first captivated with this view.” Afterwards, they would understand that God loved them and had shown them great favor in the Gospel. He developed this further by summarizing the supreme character of God in the word “excellency”: “A love to divine things for the beauty and sweetness of their moral excellency, is the first beginning and spring of all holy affections.”

This moral excellency, within the argument of Affections, was holiness: “Holiness comprehends all the true moral excellency of intelligent beings; there is no other true virtue, but real holiness.” All internal moral virtues were comprehended in the idea of holiness. Edwards believed that “this kind of beauty is the quality that is the immediate object of this spiritual sense: this is the sweetness that is the proper object of this spiritual sense. The Scripture often represents the beauty and sweetness of holiness as the grand object of a spiritual taste and spiritual appetite.” By virtue of the new sense of the heart, the believer saw that God was holy and loved God because of the beauty of divine holiness.

The new spiritual sense resulted in a new understanding. Edwards reminded his readers that “holy affections are not heat without light; but evermore arise from some information of the understanding, some spiritual instruction that the mind receives, some light or actual knowledge. The child of God is graciously affected, because he sees and understands something more of divine things than he did before.”

First, spiritual understanding produced a new appreciation for divine holiness. He argued that this new spiritual understanding “consists in a sense of the heart, of the supreme beauty and sweetness of the holiness or moral perfection of divine things, together with all that discerning and knowledge of things of religion, that depends upon, and flows from such a sense. Spiritual understanding consists primarily in a sense of heart of that spiritual beauty.”

Second, spiritual understanding “opens a new world to its view” as the Christian understood the doctrines of God’s Word in a way never before contemplated. Third, spiritual understanding produced spiritual conviction concerning the reality and certainty of divine things. Because there was a new principle operative within believers that enabled them to apprehend the beauty of God’s holiness, saints would in turn have a real conviction regarding unseen realities.

As a result, spiritual understanding produced evangelical humility in the believer. This humility “is from a sense of the transcendent beauty of divine things in their moral qualities” and from “a discovery of the beauty of God's holiness and moral perfection.” A sense of God’s perfections rebuked all spiritual pride that one could take in spiritual discoveries or experiences; the rule that Edwards set forth was that “we must take our measure from that height to which the rule of our duty extends: the whole of the distance we are at from that height is sin.” The standard was divine perfection; Christians, recognizing that perfect standard, understood the greatness of their remaining corruption, humbling their overweening pride. This movement from spiritual pride, which marked the unregenerate, to humility demonstrated an essential change of nature. The change occurred because “all spiritual discoveries are transforming; and not only make an alteration of the present exercise, sensation and frame of the soul; but such power and efficacy have they, that they make an alteration in the very nature of the soul.”

For Edwards, this was an important observation because nature was abiding. With a change in nature, though the Christian may fall into sin, yet he hated sin; and by the transforming power of the Spirit, he would conquer sin. This change in nature was the transformation of the individual from the character of the devil to the character of his new master, Christ. As a result, the individual’s character “will be attended with the lamblike, dovelike spirit and temper of Jesus Christ; or in other words, [he] naturally beget and promote such a spirit of love, meekness, quietness, forgiveness and mercy, as appeared in Christ.” The soul took on the tenderness and meekness of Christ as its very character.

Moreover, the character of the saint was balanced; it had “beautiful symmetry and proportion.” And so, not only was there a hope of heaven, but there was also a fear of displeasing the King of heaven. Not only was there joy found in Christ, but there was also sorrow over the sin that offended him. There was love for Christ and for his excellencies, coupled with a hatred of sin. This interworking of opposing affections caused the saint to pursue Christlikeness. The saint would never be satisfied with current spiritual attainments, but rather would press on to be more like Christ.

There were, then, parallels between the new sense and Cotton’s discussion of the spiritual light that the Holy Spirit gave, causing the regenerate to see the free promise via union with Christ. Just as Cotton was concerned with gaining Christ, for Christ’s own sake and not for any benefit found in Christ, so with Edwards there was a major concern for a disinterested love for Christ, a love for Christ on his own terms. Even more, there was a parallel between Edwards and the “party” that Cotton represented in America: the Spiritual Brothers. For example, Puritan Richard Sibbes had observed that “there is a sweet relish in all divine truths, and suitable to the sweetness in them, there is a spiritual taste, which the Spirit of God puts into the soul of his children.” One can find echoes of this emphasis upon the infusion of a new spiritual taste in Cotton, John Owen, and John Davenport as well. Therefore, in developing the new sense of the heart, Edwards was developing an essentially Puritan theme, one which used the language of sensation long before John Locke.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Reformed Catholicism v. Reformed Catholicity, no. 3

This has really been an engaging issue; I'm so glad that several excellent conversation partners have surfaced to talk about this, especially those who are committed to working out of an explicitly Reformed identity. One of those conversation partners is Greg Thompson, senior pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Va., who thoughtfully responded to the previous post. To help us all track along, I'm going to reproduce his comments and then respond.

I especially like your question about the Pentecostals of the global south. For (while this question doesn't disprove the Reformed Catholic instinct) it certainly does show the complexity of the central question we're all wrestling with. And that question, if I read you rightly, is: How can one be biblically ecumenical and yet still have legitimate and necessary boundaries?

If I'm following you, your answer to this question is largely historical: the boundaries are set by the Scriptural habits, conceptual categories, and ecclesial practices inherent in our own historical tradition, and ecumenism comes in maintaining those boundaries while at the same time living charitably and even, as Schaeffer says, co-belligerently, with other traditions. You seem, in other words, to advocate a winsome and charitable way of being what Presbyterians have always been--Presbyterian. To the extent that I have it right this is compelling in that it takes both the facts of history and the law of charity seriously.

I sometimes wonder if another way to address this question would be to think not just in terms of historical development but also in terms of eschatological trajectory. That is, to understand our identity--and the boundaries essential to identity formation--not just in terms of what we were or even are, but also in terms of what we will be when the new world comes. The glimpses of this in the books of Psalms, Isaiah, Acts, and Revelation, and Paul's insistence on the determinative power of the future for how we think of ourselves in the present make me wonder if this eschatological starting point might not be a more fruitful approach than--or at least a supplement to--the historical approach you have suggested.

If this is so, given the breadth of the eschatological church (i.e. that it's not all Presbyterian), this raises some questions for me about the "historical approach ". These questions began to bother me as I considered your use of the term Reformed Catholicity (a term which I very much like, by the way). Reformed Catholicity, as you define it, seems to make "reformed" an identity category and "catholicity" an ethical category. That is, the key thing is to be reformed--whatever that might mean in our time, as you say--and from our reformed identities, to interact charitably with those in other traditions. Now, I much prefer this to what we currently have in our church. Given the history of American Presbyterianism, it is a very lovely vision. But I resist it theoretically for three reasons:

First, it seems to me to lack an appropriate eschatological horizon. This approach seems to me to risk cherishing identity boundaries that the eschaton will, in some sense, relativize.

Secondly, it seems to me to actually underplay the demands of charity. Catholicity, as you describe it, allows us to be what we are, to cherish what we are, and act from what we are in kindness toward others. That seems good to me. But what is lacking is the fact living charitably toward another often requires us to change what we are. The premise of sanctification is that the self is fully revisable in light of the law of love. (Incidentally, this does not involve a logical fallacy as you suggested--the "un-Presbyterian Presbyterian." It simply requires that one have an eschatological--and not merely historical--understanding of one's identity). But your version of charitable catholicity seems to make room for too much sameness. I resist this because charity is more disruptive than this.

Thirdly, "catholicity" becomes a bit anemic. Rather than the identity marker that Nevin longed for, it becomes either a winsome disposition of the heart or teamwork across fixed ecclesial boundaries. But catholicity is neither mere kindness nor mere co-belligerence. It is not merely a winsome disposition. It is the hunger for communion. The question is not how can we, being distinct, encourage one another. The question is how we can BE ONE. And further, how we can reflect that one-ness in concrete ways to the world around us.

...Let me sum up: I understand that there is an already-not yet component to all of ecclesial life. And there are necessary reasons--though many (not all) of them tragic in my view--for the boundaries we live within. So, I'm not arguing for a utopian sameness that ignores the deep trenches of history. Truly. There is a lot in those trenches that will find its way into the new world.I'm simply trying to argue against an essentially preservationist view of reformed identity and an essentially dispositional view of catholicity. Mere preservationism lacks a necessary eschatological imagination. And merely dispositional catholicity lacks both the self-sacrifice and the concrete union that love requires.

This is just a great, great post. And I'm so grateful that Greg cherishes friendship enough to share his thoughts with me and the rest of us. Here is some headway toward a response:

1. I think the conversation we are having (historical v. eschatological) feels very similar to categories that Nevin himself used (actual v. ideal). As I understand Nevin, the point he was making with these terms was that the "ideal" church (the eschatological church) was always a reality beyond us--what we have is the actual, that contains the reality of the ideal and yet has not fully fleshed it out. Utilizing the organic, developmental categories of his day, the actual church is always developing, in the process of becoming, moving toward the ideal, but never reaching it in this side of the eschaton.

That being said, I wonder if perhaps Greg might be underplaying the "not yet" and perhaps I am underplaying the "already." That is to say, I read Greg as saying, "Sean, you are not paying attention to the already-present unity of the body of Christ found in our common union in him. As a result, you are too content remaining within structures that divide that body and are too willing to be satisfied with partnerships and common worship services and good feelings." And I think that is probably fair.

On the other hand, I probably respond by saying, "Greg, I love what you are saying, but my goodness--I would love to have my Presbyterian church work together with the Evangelical Free church in our town and plant a church. That would be a major step forward. We don't even have that; shoot, we hardly work together with the EPC churches in our town. Further, I worry that your passionate desire for visible union can only lead to churches that stress 'historical unity' (namely Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Eastern Orthodoxy)."

2. I don't think that a stress upon Presbyterian identity need be merely preservationist. I've been working with a model of "Christ and culture" that seeks to move beyond Niebuhr's taxonomy to a sixth possibility, "Christ incarnate in culture." That is, as the Gospel and the church is incarnate into particular cultural systems, it will necessarily take on different forms and shapes as it interstices with various economic, racial, gender, educational, and political realities. I would expect that the basic doctrinal and polity contours of Presbyterianism will show up wherever the Gospel is fleshed out (which you'd expect believing that it is biblical); still, these will look different in Sudan as different from Japan as different from Brazil as different from the American South.

3. Further, I think Presbyterianism has within itself the resources necessary to express both the visible unity and particularity of the church. If it is biblical, I would expect this to be the case. It just so happens that belonging to a "grassroots" denomination, our version of Presbyterianism overstresses the particularity of the church (i.e., discrete congregations) over the visible unity.

It is odd thing, really, because if historian Jack Maddex is right, in the initial revision of the Revised Book of Discipline that the southern Presbyterian church started working on at the outset of the Civil War, James Henley Thornwell was actually advocated a strong, centralized General Assembly that would be able to enforce visible unity. That is "Thornwellian" polity was actually different from actually got the name. It is interesting to think what southern Presbyterianism would have looked like if Thornwell had survived the war.

All one needs to do is look at national Reformed churches like the Church of Scotland to see both the benefits (and liabilities) that visible unity can bring. On the one hand, the dynamic of John 17 is played out in a powerful way in a particular context--Christ's command that the church's unity image for the unity of the Triune God is brought to powerful realization. On the other hand, the unwieldy "Constantinian" approach to church-state (which seems necessary in order to have this sort of "visible oneness") has wrought disasters within the church itself. Still, the point here is that Presbyterianism can provide the eschatological unity in the present--again, because it represents a biblical doctrinal and polity stance.

4. What that does all this mean for the larger conversation about "catholicity"? Well, I don't necessarily think it means what the Baptist theologian, E. Y. Mullins, suggested in his Axioms of Religion--namely, everyone is a Baptist in the end (or a Roman Catholic or a Presbyterian or an Anglican or a whatever). Rather, all believers are "Christians"--that is the fundamental identity. By virtue of Spirit-wrought faith, they will one day realize by sight what we confess by faith now--that we believe in "one holy catholic and apostolic church" (we believe this even when our eyes cannot capture it now). And we live in the reality of this confession as we can--so far, so good theologically.

The problem comes--and this is where my own bent comes as a historian--in that we cannot escape history. Or context. Or space and time and location. Which means that we must be situated in a particular history in order to know what kind of Christian we are--what our beliefs are, why those beliefs and not others, what our practices are, why those practices and not others, and what are the stories that make all this make sense. It is not possible to be a "mere" Christian--there are groups that have tried that again and again. Nor is it possible to be a "catholic" Christian--again, that has been tried and history demonstrates that even this attempt leads to boundary-markers.

And so, it strikes me that the best possible solution--in this actual, in this history, in this cultural-systemic moment--is to identify consciously with a particular set of beliefs, practices, and stories--whether Presbyterian or Pentecostal or Lutheran.

This is not merely a "lovely vision," but what is actually true about us as selves (see Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity [Cambridge: Harvard, 1989]). Speaking broadly about humanness, in order to converse meaningfully with others, we must be rooted in a sense of self that allows us to engage the other; otherwise, we are schizophrenic or bipolar, double-minded and unable to differentiate appropriately.

In a similar fashion, we must be rooted in a particular religious tradition and identity; otherwise, we are unrooted, shifting, uncertain, and ultimately unstable. And it is out of this particular religious tradition and identity that we are able to dialogue with others and demonstrate a genuine catholicity that prevents either Utopian sameness, undue self-hatred or religious insecurity, or a return to Rome. Rather, this particularity, oddly enough, grants an opportunity to participate meaningfully with others in the "one holy catholic and apostolic" church.

The Mark of the Christian

[Note: this Sunday, I am preaching on John 13:31-35 ("While Jesus is Away"). To prepare, I read Francis Schaeffer's little book, The Mark of the Christian. I found this section particularly arresting and pertient. I don't think we (or I) do this well.]

Second, in proportion to the gravity of what is wrong between true Christians, it is important consciously to exhibit an observable love to the world. Not all differences among Christians are equally serious. There are some that are very minor. Others are overwhelmingly important.

The more serious the wrongness is, the more important it is to exhibit the holiness of God, to speak out concerning what is wrong. At the same time, the more serious the differences become, the more important it becomes that we look to the Holy Spirit to enable us to show love to the true Christians with whom we must differ.

If it is only a minor difference, showing love does not take much conscious consideration. But where the difference becomes really important, it becomes proportionately more important to speak for God’s holiness. And it becomes increasingly important in that place to show the world that we still love each other.

Humanly we function in exactly the opposite direction: in the less important differences we show more love toward true Christians; but as the difference gets into more important areas, we tend to show less love. The reverse must be the case: as the differences among true Christians get greater, we must consciously love and show a love which has some manifestation the world may see.

So let us consider this: is my difference with my brother in Christ crucially important? If so, it is doubly important that I spend time upon my knees asking the Holy Spirit, asking Christ, to do His work through me and my group, that I and we might show love even in this larger difference that we have come to with a brother in Christ or with another group of true Christians.

[You can find the entire book in an electronic version here.]

The Nature of True Religion, no. 4

Part one
Part two
Part three

Thomas Shepard: Emphasis Upon Conditional and Gradual Growth

Thomas Shepard was the leader of the majority party throughout the Antinomian Controversy. Shepard first wrote to John Cotton, querying him regarding his views and warning him that he “may meet in time with some such members (though I know none nor judge any) as may doe your people and ministry hurt, before you know it.” Shepard’s church in Cambridge hosted the 1637 elections, synod, and trial of Anne Hutchinson.

Further, at the beginning of the Controversy, Shepard began a sermon series entitled The Parable of the Ten Virgins, in which he repeatedly interacted with the claims of the Antinomians. These sermons evinced a tension within Shepard himself, as Janice Knight noted: “Shepard is the most complex of the preachers in this group—a man whose experiences bound him to both the Intellectual Fathers and to the Spiritual Brethren, and whose temperament remained divided throughout his lifetime.” Shepard was “quite literally embodied in nearly equal measure the competing affections marking the two fellowships.” As a result, Shepard “serves as an important reminder that the issue of difference does not involve binary oppositions, even though the act of description sometimes presses in that direction.”

During the controversy, Shepard resolved his tension in favor of order and against Cotton. While Cotton’s emphasis was upon the end, Christ and his benefits, Shepard’s emphasis was upon the means to that end, Christian practice. Whereas Cotton wooed the sinner and the hypocrite by reminding of Christ’s love, Shepard persuaded the hypocrite by showing the deceitfulness of the heart. Cotton believed assurance came when the light of God’s Spirit caused the saint to see her soul’s union with Christ; Shepard held that assurance was a gradual and arduous process, gained through the consistent application of the means of grace and the regular inspection of the soul.

Shepard’s aim in his sermon series on the ten virgins was to enable his audience to discover whether or not they were “wise virgins” or “foolish,” whether they were saved or lost. Two themes were apparent in Parable: first, assurance developed gradually; second, assurance was gained through the use of means and consistent Christian practice. Against the antinomians’ suggestion that assurance came through the immediate revelation of the Spirit, he labored to prove that assurance was a gradual process. He believed that “the Spirit, when it comes, clears all doubts, not fully, but gradually.” The Spirit provided assurance, but it came slowly, as the saint labored to be cleansed of sin. “The Lord reveals not all of himself at once; the day dawns before the sun riseth, and there is a further manifestation of the Lord in this life to his people, not for, but when they, indeed, maintain such works before him,” he argued. “Sin does and will grieve God’s Spirit, that he will only accuse, not speak peace to you, till all is mended.” Gradual growth in assurance meant that sin had to be rooted out. Shepard’s searching sermons spent much time exposing the conscience’s hiding places as a means of promoting assurance.

Not only was assurance a gradual process, but it also came through the diligent use of means. In a key statement, Shepard argued that “it is true the Spirit only can do it; but yet the same Spirit that seals the elect, the same Spirit commands the elect not to sit idle and dream of the Spirit, but to use all diligence to make it sure; and you shall never have it (unless you lay hold on a fancy for it) on those terms. Though there is an immediate witness of the Spirit of the love of Christ, yet it doth most usually and firstly witness by means.” This was in stark contrast to Cotton’s emphasis upon the Spirit’s illumination of the believer’s union with Christ as the basis of assurance for the believer.

Instead, Shepard declaimed that the Spirit generally granted assurance to the soul by the use of means. Therefore, he placed a strong emphasis attendance at preaching services, prayer, scripture reading, and most importantly, the sacraments. If the saint did not, he was characterized as slothful and as a potential hypocrite. “The gospel yields the fairest colors for a man’s sloth, and the strongest props for that. Hence you see them walking in this garden; for the last sin God conquers in a man is his sloth,” he preached. “The gospel shows all fullness in Christ, and that he must do all; a slothful, false heart, therefore, closeth with Christ as the end, but neglects him in the means.” The Gospel provided the promise of freedom from sin’s power and guilt; yet the slothful soul used that promise to excuse itself from the demands of the Law.

Those who were not diligent in the use of means, those who were slothful and used the Gospel to excuse sin, Shepard denominated “evangelical hypocrites.” Evangelical hypocrites were those who did not “rest in the law, or in a covenant of works”; rather, “they had escaped those entanglements.” Now these hypocrites “pleade their interest in, and their communion, and fellowship, and love-knot with Christ”; yet, in truth, “these are your carnal gospelers, that cry down their own righteousness, and cry up Christ, and see nothing in themselves, as there is good cause so to think, and look for all from Christ.” These, who were not diligent in Christian practice, would be “found false” at that time “when the Lord comes to search” because they were simply “denying [their] own righteousness, to establish [their] sin.” These hypocrites were “advancing Christ to advance their lust.” In order for the saint to be approved by himself and the larger community, he had to use the means of grace diligently; for looking to one’s practice was the way to gain assurance.

Shepard claimed that the use of means applied the conditional promises to the soul in order to gain assurance of one’s spiritual standing. Unlike Cotton, whose testamental view of the covenant held that the soul was passive in the reception of salvation and that the reception of assurance was based on Christ’s absolute promises, Shepard argued for the efficacy of conditional promises to evidence the absolute ones; the individual’s spiritual actions evidenced the spiritual root from which those actions sprung. In refuting the claim that Christians should take no assurance from conditional promises, he proclaimed, “For those that have to do with them [conditional promises] as their inheritance not to apply and make use of them for their comfort, it is to trample under foot Christ’s blood, that has purchased them for that end, and it is to raze out in our practice the greatest part almost of the covenant of grace.”

He believed that the witness of the Spirit meant that the Spirit evidenced a work that it was already present in the soul of the individual through practice. If the individual “looks to no work, nor no condition promises, nor to find the condition in you, (which yet Christ must and doth work,) Lord, what abundance of sweet peace do you lose!” It was “plain hypocrisy” not to “bring works to the light.” Like Cotton, Shepard collapsed the distinction between conditional and absolute promises; however, whereas Cotton collapsed all promises into the category of absolute, Shepard collapsed all promises into the category of the conditional.

In Shepard’s Parable, then, we find two key ideas. First, Shepard developed the idea that assurance developed gradually. Indeed, it must come gradually for it was dependent upon the second idea: that assurance resulted from the application of the means of grace in consistent Christian practice. The individual who cried down the use of means was an evangelical hypocrite, seeking to remain in sloth in order to cover up his true problem, an inordinate love for sin. Therefore, the basis for assurance must be Christian practice that the Spirit used to give the soul the assurance of peace with God.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Nature of True Religion, no. 3

Part one
Part two

John Cotton: Union with Christ and the Spirit’s Divine Light

John Cotton, the teaching elder in Boston’s First Church, was the sole theological mind (until John Davenport’s arrival in New England) to whom the Antinomians claimed allegiance. However, he was not antinomian himself; rather, his theological viewpoints were misunderstood and misrepresented by both friends and enemies so that they became caricatured. His theological statements on the issue of the believer’s assurance of salvation revealed that he was Christocentric; his emphasis was on union with Christ as the first basis of assurance. Next, he emphasized a testamental view of the federal theology, placing great emphasis upon the “absolute” promises, almost to the denigrating of “conditional” promises. Finally, he did have a place for Christian practice in assurance of faith; however, works were assigned a confirmatory, or secondary, role in the assurance of a believer.

At the height of the Antinomian Controversy, in response to the “Elder’s Reply,” a short response to his answers of sixteen doctrinal questions posed by the New England clergy, Cotton issued a lengthy rebuttal, now called “Mr. Cotton’s Rejoynder.” One historian called his tract “the most important exposition of Cotton’s theology at the time of the Controversy.” In it, he developed union with Christ as the first basis of assurance by stating that all the promises of justification and sanctification are made directly to Christ; saints participate in these promises only as they are united to Christ: “Indeed all the promises are made first and imediately to Christ, and by right of our union with him they come to be communicated to us in a way of faith and Sanctification.”

For Cotton, this was the difference between the Mosaic Law (which he identified with the Covenant of Works) and the Gospel (which he called the Covenant of Grace). In the Law, “the promise is made to the Condition or qualification of the creature.” If there was perfect obedience to the Law, satisfying the divine demand, then the individual could claim the promise of God. However, in the Gospel, “the promise is made to Christ, so that give me Christ and I claime my right to the promise and to all the comforts and blessings thereof.” Therefore, the promises of the Gospel were truly gracious “because all the promises are given to Christ, and all the conditions fulfilled in Christ, and the revealing of both is by the revealing of Christ given of grace freely to the Soul.” Gospel promises form the first and primary basis of the individual’s assurance of salvation. Since these promises belonged to Christ first and to the believer as she was in union with Christ, he taught that the believer should attempt to discern whether or not she was actually united to Christ. If there was union with Christ, then the conditional promises, such as faith or obedience, belonged automatically to that individual by virtue of union.

The entire discussion of conditional promises pointed to a second facet of Cotton’s understanding of the nature of true religion. That related to the entire milieu of covenant, or federal, theology. While some historians, led by Perry Miller, have presented a Puritan New England that was univocal in its development of covenant theology, recent studies have suggested a multivocal, or at least a bivocal, aspect to the theological discussion. The lines were generally drawn between those who emphasized the conditional promises of the covenant (the Intellectual Fathers) and those who clung to the absolute promises (the Spiritual Brothers).

Cotton stood in the theological tradition that emphasized the absolute promises of the covenant. He viewed salvation in terms of a testamental bequest, in which Christ as testator died, securing the benefits of God for his passive benefactors. Because salvation is “a free gift and confirmed by the death of the giver, it is more properly called a testament, not a covenant." Since salvation (or in the terms of the debate, justification) was a free gift, granted by the one who died to secure it, the receiver was completely passive upon reception. “Before regeneration we are not active at all,” he claimed, “no, nor in proxima potentia passive, to receive help from God to do it. But after Regeneration Acti agimus.”

For Cotton, the covenantal promises were absolute, ones only God in Christ can fulfill. God made these absolute promises to Christ, just as he made conditional promises in the New Covenant to Christ. Since all these promises were made to Christ, then it was incumbent on Christ to fulfill them; and because Christ did in fact fulfill these promises, only by virtue of union with him could the believer partake of them. He believed that union with Christ was required in order for human beings to gain salvific blessings. Not even assurance of the blessings of Christ’s grace could be “challenged” from God, except on the basis of union with Christ. Therefore, it was incumbent upon Christians ascertain that they are in fact united with Christ and then “plead [that] assured union” with Christ. Unless one had this prior, this first, assurance of union, no other evidence or sign, whether it be sanctification, works, or prayers, would be able to satisfy the anxious mind.

Although Cotton claimed that union with Christ was the basis of true religion, he left room for Christian practice, albeit in a secondary role. In answering the elders’ claim that he held “that we can see neither Sanctification nor faith no nor Justification, before the witness of the Spirit; but all at once by it,” he summarized his position on the role of Christian practice in the evidencing of salvation:

When the Spirit of God doth shed abroad his light into the Soul and giveth him a clear sight of his estate in a free promise of grace in Christ, such an one clearly discerneth both his Justification and his Sanctification the one of them giving good evidence to the other, the blood to the water and the water to the blood and the Spirit to them both, 1 John 5.6, 8. And thus in evidencing his Justification by his Sanctification he doth not build his justification upon his Sanctification nor hereby go in a Covenant of Works nor go aside to it.
Cotton related Chrsitian practice to justification in two ways. First, he argued that the Spirit’s regenerating action occurred before practice, using the striking image of divine light. The Spirit opened “the eyes of the understanding” so that the individual apprehended “the mysteries of Gods kingdome” through a new understanding of “the Scriptures, and works of God in us.” Cotton held that “only by Spiritual light and by Spiritual understanding and by comparing Spirituall things with Spirituall things” could the believer understand the spiritual truth contained in the Gospel. The light that the Spirit gave to the soul was called “a gracious sight of him Christ] wrought by the Spirit of Grace” which caused the soul “to mourn after Christ or for him.” This gracious sight was given as the Spirit breathed into the Word of God giving it “Divine force” and making it “a divine testimony.” In this manner, “the same word that calleth them to Christ, giveth them in a renewed measure his Spirit of faith, by which they do come to Christ, and do drink in the satisfaction of their Souls in the full Assurance of his grace and righteousness freely given to them of God.” Thus, the condition to right appropriation of works’ evidence was fulfilled in the “divine and supernatural light” of the Spirit.

Second, Cotton believed that works provided evidence to assure the soul. However, it was only in the context of this new spiritual sight that sanctification could be discerned correctly. For within this context, the believer understood that she did not perform these works in her own strength and power, and in this manner evidenced salvation. Rather, the Spirit “himself [who] setteth faith awork and stirreth it up to look forth to Christ and to wait on him, who being waited on, quickeneth by his Spirit all our gifts in his name to bring forth fruits of righteousnes unto God.” The indwelling spirit of Christ was “the root of this tree”; by the “power of the Spirit” the tree bore fruit in active holiness. When the elders accused Cotton of denigrating works of sanctification, such as prayer, he replied, “My meaning therefore was not to beat men off the use of holy duties or from seeking the face of God and sight of Justification by Christ in the use of them, it being part of that way wherein himself hath appointed us to seek him in Christ.”

Cotton saw two potential dangers that could spring from the use of works in assurance of faith, dangers he sought to safeguard against by emphasizing the Spirit’s prior work. The first danger was that works had no promised blessing; rather, promised blessings belonged solely to Christ and to believers by virtue of union with Christ. The second danger was the abuse of works as an evidence of salvation. Cotton feared that the believer could become complacent in her Christian practice. He observed that “such an use of them [works] whereby I either seek to attaine right of the promised blessing by doing the duty which the promise calleth for, or else do satisfie myself in the comforts and enlargements I find in the duties” was not simply an use, but an abuse of sanctifying works. Christian practice should be done in a disinterested manner, not out of desired benefit, but rather for the glory of Christ.

He was also concerned that works might become the sole evidence for salvation. In responding to the elders, he claimed that “if a man neither give nor can give any other ground (as having indeed no other ground to give) of his justification but only the evidence of his Sanctification...their [sic] faith is not builded nor grounded at all upon the righteousness of Christ nor upon the free promise of grace wherein that righteousness is applied to us, but only upon their works.” To Cotton, practice must match up with a profession of spiritual life in the soul. Practice alone was a relation that was “either counterfeit or very suspicious” and much more likely “to be legal than Evangelical.”

It appears that there were several connections between Cotton and Edwards’ later development in Affections. Although Edwards does not quote from Cotton at all, ideas held by Cotton are represented in Affections, through the mediation of theologians such as Richard Sibbes and John Calvin. There was a parallel between Cotton's “light” and Edwards’ “new sense” (which Edwards represented elsewhere as a “divine and supernatural light immediately imparted to the soul by God”). There was also a parallel in the linking of divine light and practice. However, Cotton’s connection with Edwards was overshadowed by the fact that his opponent, Shepard, was quoted extensively by the Northampton divine while he was not quoted at all.

The Nature of True Religion, no. 2

Part one

The American Puritan Context: The Antinomian Controversy

In order to understand the American Puritan context for Edwards' Affections, it is imperative to gain a complete and full understanding of the historical and theological issues in play during the Antinomian Controversy. The word antinomian literally meant “against law” and the position described the exaltation of internal and subjective elements of Christianity, particularly the inner “witness of the Spirit,” over external elements, such as obedience to the moral law.

This position first appeared in the American colonies around the time of Anne Hutchinson’s immigration in May 1634. By November 1634, her husband, William Hutchinson, was elected deputy from Boston to the Massachusetts General Court. Anne occupied herself in visiting neighbors, particularly during times of childbirth. Soon she began to hold meetings in her home for the purpose of discussing the previous Sunday’s sermon. In her opinion, many ministers preached a “legal” religion, because they argued for a necessary connection between sanctification and justification, between a believer’s works and salvation.

As a result of these deviant opinions, some area ministers wondered if John Cotton, teacher at Boston’s First Church, had anything to do with the spreading “heresy.” On 25 October 1636 the ministers of the Massachusetts Bay met with Cotton, Hutchinson, and her brother-in-law, John Wheelwright. John Winthrop reported that

Mr. Cotton was present and gave satisfaction to them, so as he agreed with them in the point of sanctification, and so did Mr. Wheelwright; so as they all did hold that sanctification did help to evidence justification. The same he had delivered plainly in public, divers times; but for the indwelling of the person of the Holy Ghost, he held that still, as some others of the ministers did, but no union with person of the Holy Ghost, (as Mrs. Hutchinson and others did,) so as to amount to a personal union.
The New England clergy believed that the situation was under control; on the key point of sanctification evidencing justification, Cotton was in agreement with them. However, the Hutchinsonians were not quieted; in December, 1636 another meeting was held with the ministers of New England. At this meeting, Cotton received a list of sixteen questions to answer in writing to the satisfaction of the ministers. His answers engered several exchanges, as the keepers f orthodoxy sought to pin him down theologically.

On 17 January 1637 John Wheelwright preached the fast-day sermon. Wheelwright, described by a contemporary as “a man of bold and stiff conceit of his own worth and light,” preached what this observer deemed “a seditious sermon.” Warning his hearers of the dangers of falling into a “covenant of works” by linking evidences of salvation too closely to salvation itself, Wheelwright’s sermon created a firestorm. He was called before the court, “and his sermon being produced, he justified it, and confessed he did mean all that walk in such a way...After much debate, the court adjudged him guilty of sedition, and also of contempt, for that the court had appointed the fast as a means of reconciliation of differences, etc., and he purposely set himself to kindle and increase them.” Though Wheelwright was convicted of sedition, the court deferred his sentencing in order to allow him to repent. He did not and was banished from the colony.

After a riotous election time, during which Henry Vane, a Hutchinson supporter, was voted out of the governor’s office and replaced by John Winthrop, all of New England gathered at the end of August, 1637, for a general synod, the first in New England’s brief history. The New England elders listed eighty-two errors of the Antinomian faction, but only five points stood in the way of a full agreement between Cotton and the other ministers. After a series of negotiations, the number was reduced to three; Cotton then agreed on those three points and a reconciliation was effected.

However, there was no reconciliation available for Anne Hutchinson and her followers. In November 1637, Anne Hutchinson was placed on trial for countenancing those who were seditious and rebellious against the authorities. During the trial she appeared to hold her own, until she claimed that she had immediate revelations from God’s Spirit. This became the charge against the Hutchinsonians; Winthrop said as much: “We have been hearkening about the trial of this thing and now the mercy of God by a providence hath answered our desires and made her lay open herself and the ground of all these disturbances to be by revelations...The groundwork of her revelations is the immediate revelation of the spirit and not by the ministry of the word.” Hutchinson and her followers were banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and left to help establish Rhode Island.

From this historical survey of the Antinomian Controversy, it appears that one key figure was John Cotton. This Antinomian teaching developed in his church and he was charged with maintaining these teachings “too obscurely.” At the trial of Anne Hutchinson, it seemed at times that Cotton was on trial rather than Hutchinson; though he agreed with his clergy brothers in principle, forced to go through a public purgatory.

The other representative theological mind in the debate was Thomas Shepard, minister at Cambridge. In June 1636, Shepard began preaching a series of sermons, eventually published as The Parable of the Ten Virgins. The preface reported that those messages sought to combat the “leaven of Antinomian and Familistical opinions [which were] stirring in the country,” which were being “spread elsewhere by the new lights of these times.” Not only did Shepard preach against Cotton and the Hutchinsonians, but he also engaged in correspondence with Cotton, seeking to understand his views. As a result, investigation of Cotton and Shepard’s thought on the nature of true religion is vital to understand the later development of Edwards.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Nature of True Religion, no. 1

[note: This was an essay that I presented in several venues before finally publishing a version of it in All for Jesus: A Celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Covenant Theological Seminary, ed. Robert Peterson and Sean Michael Lucas (Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus, 2006), 117-36.]


Charles Chauncy, the stout Old Light polemicist, responding to the apology for the Great Awakening set forth by Jonathan Edwards, opened his Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England with a thirty page historical preface, referring to the “antinomians, familists and libertines, who infected these churches, above a hundred years ago.” Why did Chauncy review an event that occurred a hundred years ago? Aside from the fact that Chauncy attempted to implement the effective debate technique of “guilt by association,” the charge he raised, that “the like spirit and errors, prevailing now as they did then,” provided a clue to the larger American Puritan context in which the battle over the Great Awakening’s meaning took place.

This battle for the Great Awakening’s meaning, the determination whether or not it was a “work of God,” focused on two questions. The first question was, “Are you ‘saved’?” This was the question of the “third person” view, how one person perceived another’s spiritual state. Around this question revolved the propriety of simply asking this question, particularly of ministers, decrying those who did not have an “experimental Christ.” The second question was, “Am I ‘saved’?” This was the question of the “first-person,” of introspection. It focused the individual upon her own salvation, the assurance of her own faith. How these two questions were answered and the evidence used to support the answers determined whether one stood with the Old Lights or the New.

Even more, Chauncy’s reference pointed up the fact that New England divines had debated questions related to salvation and assurance for over a hundred years. With their emphasis on “experimental” religion, the Puritans were well-known for their writings in the area of casuistry, or cases of conscience, where they sought to discern pastorally whether one had experience salvation. It was fitting that the last great representative of the Puritan mind, Jonathan Edwards, struggled to determine for himself and for other New Lights what true religion was, and how it could be found in oneself and in others. The crown jewel of Edwards’ thought on this issue was his book Religious Affections (1746).

Many historians, led by Perry Miller, misread Religious Affections by forcing it into the context of the eighteenth century empricism of John Locke and Isaac Newton and by claiming that the Affections represented Edwards’ contribution to the psychology of religion and to the modern American “mind.” However, I would suggest that Locke and Newton are the wrong intellectual context for Affections. To interpret Affections solely in terms of Lockean empiricism is to interpret Edwards’ argument wrongly. The proper intellectual context for Affections was not Lockean, but Puritan, specifically American Puritanism. Therefore, I argue that Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections must be interpreted in its American Puritan context.

In order to recognize the proper context for Affections, we must return to Charles Chauncy and his historical preface. Chauncy tried to connect Edwards with the Antinomians who captured the attention of the Massachusetts Bay Colony from 1636 to 1638. This specific historical context held incredible sway in New England; from that point on, by the very mention of “antinomianism,” one minister could blacklist another, sullying his reputation with the extremism associated with Anne Hutchinson.

Moreover, Chauncy’s reference also revivifed the theological fisures first brought to light by the Antinomian Controversy. As historian Janice Knight demonstrated, the Antinomian Controversy was a fissure in the Puritan coalition at the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This coalition was made up of the “Intellectual Fathers” on one side; their party included John Winthrop, Thomas Shepard, Peter Bulkeley, and Thomas Hooker. The Intellectual Fathers stood, according to Knight, in the line of William Ames; they, in particular, “insisted on the usefulness of Christian works as an evidence of salvation.” In the Antinomian Controversy, their champion was Shepard, who from his Newtown (later renamed Cambridge) parish preached a series of sermons over four years entitled The Parable of the Ten Virgins, in which he sought to refute the claims of the opposition.

That opposing party, whom Knight dubbed “Spiritual Brothers,” were in the intellectual line of Richard Sibbes and John Preston (and they would claim, John Calvin) and included John Cotton, John Wheelwright, and Henry Vane. This party “presented a vibrant alternative within the mainstream of Puritan religious culture”; and in the Antinomian Controversy, the Spiritual Brothers, led by Cotton, believed that “the transformation of the soul was neither incremental nor dependent on exercises of spiritual discipline. In this piety there are no steps to the altar.”

The coalition that had been maintained between the Spiritual Brothers and the Intellectual Fathers was shattered with the arrival of Anne Hutchinson. The crisis which resulted shook New England to its very core. The tradition that became the dominant theological position, both in Boston and in the history that followed, emphasized the primacy of sanctification in assurance. However, significantly, though Cotton agreed to keep the peace, he did not change his position; he maintained that assurance must come first without any evidence of sanctification, leading Shepard to fume, “Mr. Cotton repents not, but is hid only...He doth stiffly hold the revelation of our good estate still, without any sight of word or work.”

Further, the political aspects of the theological debate—both in 1636 and 1742—should not be missed. As historian Louise Breen recently argued, the Antinomian Controversy of 1636 was about politics and economics as much as theology. The Antinomian party, coalescing around the leadership of Henry Vane, challenged the standing political authority of John Winthrop and other “original” Massachuesetts Bay founders. Importantly, ministers, such as John Wheelwright, were not charged with heresy alone; they were also charged with sedition, a political charge that struck at the disordering nature of this theological division. The party headed by Winthrop and Thomas Shephard was the party of order as well as orthodoxy.

The situation had changed little by 1742; the danger of disorder in the British colonies brought by the New Lights threatened the disintergration of British culture in the new land. Added to this threat of internal disorder was the threat of the French and Native Americans on the western edge of the Atlantic seaboard, a threat that will be realized in the Seven Years War. By making reference to the Antinomian Controversy and attempting to side the New Lights with the earlier antinomians, Chauncy tried to claim the position of Shepard and Winthrop and to pose as the restorer of order and good sense.

Edwards would not choose between Cotton and Shepard, the Spiritual Brothers and Intellectual Fathers. Rather, in Affections, Edwards held the two Puritan positions in tension, the new sense of the heart and the holy walk of the life. Even though quotations from Shepard account for over half of all the footnotes in Affections, there is clearly a Sibbes-Cotton influence, particularly in the development of Edwards’ new spiritual sense. Though not to be argued in this essay, it could be suggested that after Edwards’ death, the synthesis that he developed fragmented. In response to the Separate Congregationalists, the New Divinity men, Joseph Bellamy, Samuel Hopkins, and Jonathan Edwards, Jr., emphasized the evidentialist stream in the Edwardsean synthesis; their appropriation of Edwards’ dissertation The Nature of True Virtue contributed to his disciples’ sometimes rationalistic neonomianism. In response to the Old Calvinists and the Unitarians, the Revivalists (made up of Separate Congregationalists and Baptists primarily) emphasized the experiential stream in the Edwardsian synthesis; this stream tended to be subjective and somewhat antinomian. Sadly, the synthesis, which Edwards’ struggled to develop, collapsed in the short years after his death.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Reformed Catholicism v. Reformed Catholicity, no. 2

I wanted to engage a little more intentionally with one of the comments to the first post. So that others might track along, I'll reproduce it here:

But the gospel calls us to repentance. That was the "hark!" of Luther's first of his 95 theses, which itself was but a reading of Christ's own call: "Repent." (Matt. 4:17) Certainly, there must be a corporate dimension to this, and our own Presbyterian tradition has given it expression in the phrase semper reformanda. As such, it is quintessentially Presbyterian to "look[] to forge something other than Presbyterianism" if that is what a searching out of ourselves in the light of Scripture leads us to do. I think the main thrust of what you are saying is that we shouldn't become something else or borrow from others just for the sake of it (and I agree -- at least to the same extent that we shouldn't stay the same just for the sake of it), but you don't seem to give much credit to the possibility that those who call themselves Reformed Catholics are seeking to appropriate things from other traditions because a very Presbyterian sola-scriptura study of such things has led them to conclude that those things are biblical and that we are missing out on something without them in our lives.

The things I have come to envy in other traditions are NOT the things they have "invented," but the ways in which they have preserved -- in their doctrines, laws, and liturgies -- biblical religion. I believe Presbyterianism has done this well, and that the biblical, "catholic" faith finds beautiful expression in Presbyterianism. As a college student, I was blown away by how the Presbyterian faith helped me understand myself in light of Scripture, and I'm not sure that I would be here typing this comment if it weren't for the Presbyterians that ministered Jesus's love to me then.

But "Presbyterianism" didn't fall from the sky in 15- or 16-whatever. It was a reformation of the Western Christian tradition. And it is therefore patently un-Presbyterian to deny the Presbyterian-ness of pre-Presbyterian Christianity. For example, is St. Giles Cathedral not Presbyterian because it was built long before John Knox ascended the pulpit there and is named after a medieval recluse who healed a deer? That doesn't mean that everything that happened before the Reformation should be embraced as good (such a sentiment would very much be un-Presbyterian), but the entire history of pre-Reformation Western Christianity is *our* history, warts and all, and the genius of Presbyterianism is not our ability to pretend like that history didn't happen but our own way of sifting it and appropriating it for today. Anglicans, Lutherans, and Roman Catholics also have appropriated it according to their own principles (albeit, in ways that are sometimes so far from Scripture as to be unrecognizable as biblical). No wonder then that those who are trying to reflect on what being Presbyterian means as a matter of historical moment should find it helpful to consider these "high church" traditions rather than Brother Bob's traveling salvation show or other low-church novelties. Yes, high-church churches have their own novelties, but at least they often serve as a window into the past that we as Presbyterians share with them rather than just a purposeful repudiation of the past for the sake of repudiating it.

My point is that I think your understanding of what Reformed Catholicism is all about fails to give sufficient credit to the good faith of those asking questions about what the heck Presbyterianism *is* (well before we move on to how it should even change) and fails to give sufficient weight to the motivating concerns of the questions they are asking, concerns that I think nevertheless resonate in your own longing for place and identity as expressed in this post. So don't ditch Reformed Catholicism quite so eagerly. I think it's more worthwhile than either of us could imagine -- as is Reformed Catholicity.

This is a great comment. I think the writer raises a number of excellent and thoughtful points, with which I'd love to engage.

1. The writer points out that the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition is one that stresses semper reformanda ("always reforming"); as a result, it is quintessentially Presbyterian to look for something other than Presbyterianism. While I'm sympathetic to this point, I wonder whether it claims too much--for if this is the case, then to be most faithful to Presbyterianism, we would not be Presbyterian; and that strikes me as an illogical claim. Even more, it strikes me the writer is putting something at the center of Presbyterianism and so takes it upon himself to define what Presbyterianism is--Presbyterians stand for "always reforming." Instead of the markers I might suggest (sovereignty of God, sola gratia and sola fide in relation to justification and sanctification, covenant and Kingdom, nature of the church and its sacraments, representative polity under Christ the King), the writer puts this point of perpetual reformation at the center.

And so, the question could rightly be asked, is this the case? Is perpetual reformation the center of what it means to be Presbyterian? Even more, does this perpetual reformation led us back to ritual practices or religious beliefs that were rejected by the Reformers themselves? That is, does perpetual reformation mean that we forake the communion of the saints across time by seeing something as biblical that the Reformers rejected themselves?

These are important questions--I would tend to argue that in fact "always reforming" becomes a rubric under which a whole raft of beliefs and practices can be imported into a religious tradition. Still, it is worthwhile to raise whether this motto is truly at the center and whether we should tailor our religious practices accordingly.

2. The writer also observed that perhaps I wasn't crediting the good faith of those who are simply asking the question about what Presbyterianism is. But here the answer seems a little easier--Presbyterianism is a historical entity whose beliefs, practices, and stories can be investigated and measured. I hoped that I got at that in my On Being Presbyterian. Regardless of what one could say about that book, it seems fair to say that it represents what historically can be recognized as Presbyterianism.

And I would agree with the writer that Presbyterianism didn't simply drop from the sky (in fact, I make that point repeatedly in my church history classes). It does experience continuity with what went before. But it also experienced remarkable discontinuity as well, as historian Margo Todd (for example) makes strikingly clear. I think that perhaps our current "high church" interest overstresses continuity with the medieval church over historical discontuinity.

It seems, rather, that the question asked is what Presbyterianism ought to be for this generation. And that is a different question--and that is the one about which I am most worried. For I cherish Presbyterianism, not only as a historical entity but also as it is incarnate in particular situations today. And I worry that as we "add" things to Presbyterianism, borrowed from other traditions under the guise of "Reformed catholicism," we will end up with something that is different from Presbyterianism. It goes back to my question--how much "reform" can a tradition bear before it becomes a different (new) tradition?

3. The commentator, however, seemed to miss my larger point--namely, if we are going to be truly "catholic," then we better start paying attention to worldwide Pentecostalism. As Phillip Jenkins makes clear, global Christianity is overwhelming Pentecostal; and so, if we wanted to be "always Reforming," then perhaps we need to be reforming in the direction of this "new thing" God is doing.

I would assume that most who lean toward "Reformed Catholicism" would reprobate this claim, suggesting that Pentecostalism has too many errors for "Reformed" types to take seriously. But this, to me, seems like a double-standard on their part. How can we pay attention to the ritual practices of Lutheranism, Anglicanism, and Roman Catholicism and not pay attention to the Pentecostals, if we desire to be truly "catholic"? What would it look like if we were to incorporate "world Christianity" into our worship? Pentecostal practices? Would it produce something different from "Presbyterianism"? I think so--which raises the real questions going the other way--how much divergence can a tradition tolerate?

This is where my own notion of "Reformed Catholicity" works better, I think. By working out of our own our own religious identity (our beliefs, practices, and stories), it moves to engage others in charitable and humble conversation and cooperation when possible to live out the primary reality that we both share--we are both clothed with Jesus Christ by faith alone in him. It may be that we will learn some things about our own tradition through the engagement; it may be that we will contribute something to others. However, catholicity and catholicism represent two different stances; one speaks of engagement, the other of adoption. I think the our Reformed faith, grand as it is, requires the former, but not the latter.

Reprocessing bad process

The title of this post is one of my favorite sayings, drawn from the Intersect forum that we run here at the Seminary led by Bob Burns and Tim Habershon. Basically, the point of it is that when we engage in bad process, we need to go back and reprocess it--apologize, deal with it, and try to make it right.

As readers of this blog know, I have generally avoided comment on the current goings-on in the PCA under the heading, "Federal Vision." Part of that is because for the last year, I've been a member of the GA-appointed study committee studying those issues; I didn't believe it would be right for me to make public comment. Part of the reason is because I've been saddened by the tone of the public debate over the past three years--especially since I've come to the Seminary and learned from my wonderful colleagues how to agree and disagree in a winsome fashion.

But part of the reason is that I've contributed to the bitter tone of the debate. As is known now from this post, I wrote some things before I came to the Seminary, while I was still an assistant pastor in Louisville, Kentucky, that may have said a number of right things but was utterly wrong in tone and attitude. Shortly after I wrote the two reviews of Leithart and Wilson, I took my first blog down because I concluded that it was extremely unhelpful; I had hoped by doing so it was out of the public realm; and, concluding that blogging doesn't accomplish much, I didn't start blogging again for 18 months.

However, more than unhelpful, the way I said what I said was wrong--while I disagree with them in a number of respects, Peter Leithart and Doug Wilson are brothers in Christ; that was what the GA report said and that is what I believe. As brothers, they ought not be treated in a way that disrespects them as persons or pastors, even when I or others may disagree with their views. And so, I publicly apologize for the tone of those two reviews as well as the satirical poem that Mark Horne posted without attributing to me.

I hope by reprocessing my own bad process from 2004, we can move beyond personalities and, especially my own public failings. I still aspire to the things that I talk about on this blog: gracious and winsome dealing with others, even when we might disagree. May God grant us all grace to live by the Spirit and so know the love and joy and peace which the Spirit brings.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Reformed Catholicism v. Reformed Catholicity, no. 1

I have a confession to make: I like the Mercersburg theologians, too. That may sound strange coming from someone who spends his time thinking and writing about 19th and 20th century southern Presbyterians, but while I was at seminary, I spent a great deal of time reading John Williamson Nevin and Phillip Schaff. And the reason I did was because I was attracted to their vision of "reformed catholicism."

After all, I was raised in a church context that started Plymouth Brethren, moved to a Bible church, and then ended up Independent Baptist (and other variations from there). Particularly for the Brethren and for non-denominational Bible church types, there is an underlying desire for Christians to lay aside their "distinctiveness" in order to be "mere Christians" around the common table of the Lord. The problem was that by not having a creed, there was an unwritten creed of which folks inevitably ran afoul--dispensational premillennialism; separatism; legalism.

By the time I got to seminary, I longed for something that emphasized the larger unity of Christ's church on the one hand (in ways similar to my upbringing) while making explicit our creedal and confessional commitments. That was the major reason I found Nevin such invigorating reading--staunchly Reformed and yet desirous to explore the larger "catholic" reality of the church. Over time I was able to read Nevin both sympathetically and critically--sympathetic to his vision, critical of the intellectual and ecclesial means by which he tried to accomplish it. Especially important in this regard was paying attention to his context and not being tempted to divorce him from it.

And yet, I've never truly given up on the ideas on catholicity which he articulated. For example, one of my first full length essays in the WTJ was on "J. Gresham Machen, Ned B. Stonehouse, and the Quandary of Reformed Ecumencity": how do Reformed churches affirm their own doctrinal commitments on the one hand while working together with other Reformed and non-Reformed churches? While I wasn't fully satisfied with the answers that some gave (esp. Van Til), I felt the pressure--from my past and hopes for the future--to explore these issues. And even after I became Presbyterian, I never saw myself or acted in ways that were "sectarian."

I say all that to set forth my bona fides on this issue. Because at the end off the day, I worry that what I mean by "Reformed Catholicism" and what others may mean represent two different things.

What I mean probably would be better covered by the other label: Reformed Catholicity. That is, from the profound embrace and understanding of our own unique Presbyterian identity, we engage other Gospel-oriented traditions with charity and respect, hoping that we may be mutually encouraged (Romans 1:12) as a result of the exchange.

What I fear that others mean by this label: from the discomfort with and lack of understanding of our own unique Presbyterian identity, we adopt beliefs and practices from other Christian traditions (including, especially, Roman Catholicism) in ways that transform Presbyterianism into something that looks a whole lot like Anglicanism, Lutheranism, or Roman Catholicism.

I'll be quite candid--I don't want to mess with the boundaries what we have typically understood (and what I have tried to represent in On Being Presbyterian) as "plain ol' Presbyterianism." And in saying that, I recognize that this Presbyterian identity needs to be incarnated within our own, unique, contemporary cultural systems, which may cause our beliefs and practices to look different from the 17th or 19th centuries (in the same way that these beliefs and practices will look differently in Japan as opposed to the US). Still, if Reformed Catholicism means that we are drawing beliefs and practices from other, "higher church" traditions to meld with our own, then ultimately we are looking to forge something other than Presbyterianism.

Along that line, it is striking that those who promote "Reformed Catholicism" are only looking to the "high church" or mainline American Protestant traditions to demonstrate their catholicity. And yet, the fastest growing form of Christianity is actually Pentecostalism--for example, there are over 220 million Assemblies of God adherents worldwide. What does Reformed Catholicism look like in the face of global Pentecostalism? It doesn't appear that advocates are interested discussing that question.

And yet, I think the pose of "Reformed Catholicity" actually helps us to do so--because it starts with understanding, affirming, and embracing our own religious identity (our beliefs, practices, and stories). And then, from that starting place of self-understanding, it moves to engage others not to adapt and adopt the best of their tradition nor to paternalistically impart our greater "wisdom." Rather, I seek to keep the main thing the main thing--seeing the radical Gospel orientation and common faith in Jesus, I engage in charitable and humble conversation and cooperation when possible to live out the primary reality that we both share--we are both clothed with Jesus Christ by faith alone in him.

Thus, perhaps we would be better served to think more intentionally about what we mean by "catholicism" in the language we use. If we mean simply a reformed version of Roman Catholicism, we don't need to seek that because it already exists--it is called Anglicanism. But if we mean an affirmation of our common union in Jesus with others who do not share our Presbyterian and Reformed identity and of our desire to dialogue with them with charity and great respect, then perhaps we should think about "Reformed Catholicity" instead.

And it may be that it is in this way, out of our own sense of who we are as Presbyterians, that we are "catholics" after all.