The Denominational Church

After the passing of the FV/NPP report at the recent PCA GA, Jim Cassidy counsels proponents of the FV:

Is there not, brothers, safety in a multitude of counselors? I’ve read some of the responses already by FVers. And quite frankly, I am surprised. They are disappointed, but there is no sign among them that perhaps they might be wrong. Brothers, the vast majority of the Reformed church in America has said that the FV is out of accord with the Westminster Standards. Does that not at least give you some pause? I mean, if my brothers spoke so loudly and in such unison to me about my views on a given issue, I would be trembling. Maybe I am weak in my nerves, but when the corporate body of Christ speaks with such unison, I am humbled. Yes, assemblies and counsels may err, but this is the Visible Church speaking here! Aren’t we to have a high regard for the Visible Church? Is she not our nursing mother to feed and nourish us spiritually? Has she not spoken a word of admonition to you? Do you not honor her? Do you not heed the voice of your spiritual mother?

The problem with all of this is that the PCA and OPC are not — and I know that some of you might find this hard to believe! — the ‘corporate body of Christ’ speaking in ‘unison’. I am not sure that it is appropriate to accord ecclesial status to such bodies, even on the local level. The same can be said of any denominational organization or local denominational church.

One of the problems that we have to face is that, in the age of denominations, we cannot simply take the ecclesiologies of previous generations and apply them directly to the local denominational congregations that we attend. The problem of denominations is not, as some suggest, something that originated primarily in the Reformation. There were divisions in the larger Church before the Reformation. However, there was not a proliferation of denominational churches on the local level. Even after the Reformation in a number of places this remained largely the case. Anglican, Lutheran and Reformed churches were not originally denominational churches in the quite the same way that Baptist, Methodist and other such churches were.

That situation has long since changed. However, it is important that we appreciate the type of ecclesiastical situation within which people like Calvin formed their ecclesiologies. The Reformed Church of Geneva was not quite the same sort of entity as a local PCA congregation. Its ecclesial status was far less questionable, as it was far closer to the biblical model of a local church. Our world, in which everyone chooses to belong to some denomination or other (where everyone is, technically speaking, a ‘heretic’), is far removed from the sort of world that the early Reformers thought within. Consequently, we must give serious attention to the disanalogy that exists between their situation and our own when reading their ecclesiologies.

The Church that we now belong to has changed radically since the age of the Reformation and we need to think theologically about the situation that now faces us. In particular, we need to question the ecclesial status of confessional churches. This is something that has been argued by a number of people, from the Orthodox John Zizioulas to the Presbyterian John Frame. The Church — whether local or universal — is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. The same cannot be said of the local denominational congregation. There are countless denominations, so it is utterly inappropriate to speak of them as ‘one’. As John Frame observes:

The church is holy, not in that all Christians and congregations are morally perfect, but in that God has set his church apart from all other institutions in a special relationship to him. But Scripture gives us no reason to believe that God has placed any human denomination in such a special category, except insofar as it is part of the church as a whole. Among those denominations which are truly parts of the body of Christ, none is in this sense any more holy than the others.

The local denominational church is certainly not ‘catholic’. Even in addition to their exclusion of those of other denominations, local denominational congregations often have an attendance that is weighted strongly in favour of people from particular class, ethnic, linguistic and educational backgrounds. Different denominations tend to attract different kinds of people. For instance, you are often more likely to find the local evangelist attending a non-Reformed evangelical congregation. The local expository preacher and exegete is less likely to be within the charismatic congregation down the road.

The local Church that you belong to is not the local denominational congregation that you attend, important though that congregation is. Biblically speaking, the local Church that you belong to is defined more by geographical than denominational or confessional lines. The local denominational congregation that you attend might be more closely analogous to a Gentile Christian group in Antioch in the first century. Such a group is part of the local Church, but it is not the local Church. The local Church includes Jews and Greeks, male and female, slave and free. In our situations, the local Church will probably include Catholics and Protestants, Presbyterians and Baptists, Methodists and Pentecostals.

In light of this, we should beware of giving too much loyalty to denominations. The work of God in our areas far exceeds the work that He is doing through our particular denomination. We need to become more concerned about the progress of this larger work than we are about the progress of the cause of our denominations. We need to become more committed to the larger cause of God in our area than we are to preserving our particular denomination’s identity. We may be a Puritan of the Puritans — concerning the confessions, a Westministerian — but be called to count this identity as loss, so that we might better serve the Church of God in our locality. The fact that we often value such denominational and theological identities more than we value the local Church that God has placed us in is a tragedy.

In the situation of disunity that we find ourselves in, the task of working towards unity between denominations is a difficult one. Unity must always be in the truth. For this reason unity with ungodly groups is very dangerous and sectarian, tending away from the unity that God calls us to strive for. However, this doesn’t mean that we can write off unfaithful denominations altogether. Roman Catholics, for instance, are still Christians, just as the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel were still the people of God (and treated as such by the prophets), despite their many idolatries. We should still work towards unity in such cases, even though full institutional unity is impossible as long as things remain as they are.

There are a number of important practical steps that we can take in the direction of unity. One of the things that saddens me is witnessing the manner in which many Reformed people will condemn those who do not hold to precise formulations of doctrines such as the imputation of the active obedience of Christ or the covenant of works. Such doctrines are not the gospel and are not of primary importance. They are ways in which many of our forefathers sought to protect the truth of the gospel, but they are not themselves the gospel. To make such doctrines essential to the gospel is a deeply sectarian move. Those who make such theological moves often see themselves to be protecting the purity of the Church, when they are actually isolating themselves from the rest of the Church.

The Gospel itself is not as complicated as our various ways of articulating its logic are. The Gospel itself is remarkably simple: the declaration that Jesus is Lord and that God raised Him from the dead. It is this that is central. The central truths of the Christian faith are well summarized in the Nicene Creed. If these central truths are comparable to a language like English, the varying articulations of the Gospel that one encounters among the different denominations are like regional dialects. While there are better and worse ways of articulating the Gospel and some ways of articulating the Gospel that are at risk of becoming a different ‘language’ altogether, we must beware of so identifying our ‘dialect’ with the ‘language’ that we exclude some other ‘dialects’ altogether.

Our theological dialect is merely one expression of the Christian faith (even supposing that it is a better expression than others). Such a degree of dissociation between these two things is important. We must remember that our dialect is not a language in its own right and that we need to ensure that we do not make ourselves incomprehensible to others who share that language with us. Many theologians do not engage with many beyond the small circles of their own theological traditions. Consequently, their regional dialect is very much in evidence. Should a visitor from a different theological land happen upon their writings, they would find it very hard to understand them.

In many of the current theological debates we face problems of dialects vs. the language. For instance, ‘baptismal regeneration’ is well-established language in the Christian tradition. Many Reformed Christians and evangelicals fiercely resist using such language to speak of their theological positions. I believe that in such instances we should go out of our way to try to find appropriate ways to use the common language. The fact that such language has become problematic in our theological dialects is probably a good sign that we need to bring our dialects back into greater conformity with the language of the rest of the Church, lest we become sectarian and incomprehensible to other Christians.

They are few things more frustrating than trying to speak to someone with a very strange dialect, with a very peculiar vocabulary and grammar, who blames you for not being able to understand him. Theological traditions that develop such peculiar vocabularies should do their best to keep them in check. There is nothing wrong with a theological dialect having some words that are peculiar to its vocabulary, provided that these words do not stand in the way of communication with others. Also, if at all possible, we should try to speak in ways that make us more comprehensible to people from other theological backgrounds. Most theological traditions are guilty of confusing others by their specialized vocabularies to some extent or other.

We should particularly beware of accusing people of not speaking the ‘language’, simply because they do not speak our dialect. Our dialect is not the standard of orthodoxy, even though it might be a better way of articulating the faith than others. Someone may resist including such expressions as ‘covenant of works’ and ‘imputation of active obedience’ in their theological vocabulary and still be perfectly orthodox.

Seeking union in the local Church despite the existence of denominations is not easy. There are different levels of unity that we can achieve in different situations. In my experience, it is when we seek to express our deepest convictions in our common language, and downplay our particular dialect’s peculiarities of expression, that we are most likely to begin to find true unity. There are situations where sin and error pose obstacles to unity, but there are numerous other situations where a far greater degree of unity could be enjoyed, if we only had the vision and determination to strive towards it.

What are some concrete ways in which we can work towards a greater degree of unitry between denominations. Here are a few brief suggestions:

1. Recognize the discipline of other congregations in your locality.
2. Recognize the ordination of people from other denominations and don’t force them to jump through too many hoops to serve within your denomination.
3. Recognize the baptisms of people from other denominations, including the infant ones.
4. Admit people from other denominations to the Table.
5. Read widely, beyond your own theological tradition. Seek to learn from other theological traditions and encourage crossfertilization of ideas.
6. Become friends with people from other denominations in your area.
7. Pray for the various churches in your locality and ask them to pray for you.
8. Seek to co-ordinate evangelistic efforts with other churches.
9. Try to get involved in other group projects with other congregations in your locality. Doug Wilson helpfully suggests that we rediscover the idea of ‘parish’. If we really started to think and act in terms of the concept of parish we would soon find ourselves enjoying more fellowship with other Christians in our communities.

As we start to relativize our denominational backgrounds and seek to actively work towards a future in which denominations feature less prominently, we should beware of a number of things. We need to be careful not to use a critique of denominations as a way to devalue Church discipline. We live in a situation where there are many rival courts that people can appeal to. In such a situation Church discipline can seem meaningless. I don’t think that it is, even though no single court has the final word. Seeking unity between congregations in recognizing and respecting each other’s judgments is important here.

I am firmly convinced that one of the reasons why the Church is often so impotent in our societies is our disunity. The disunity of the Church hinders our prayers. We do not pray with one voice and set ourselves up as rivals to each other. The Church’s authority to bind and to loose is thus hindered. Seeking unity in prayer with other denominations is very important if we are to enjoy the authority that Christ has given to His Church.

I do not doubt that the day will come when Christ will reunite the Church. God is in control of history and He has broken up His Church so that He might reunite it in a more glorious form. At the moment we live with denominations, but we look beyond these to the day when there will no longer be Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholics, but one glorious united body of Christ. The present denominational stage, despite its problems, is, I believe, a necessary part of the growing process, like teething is for children. It is part of the way in which God is working towards a far better form of unity than we can currently imagine. For this reason we must not be impatient and force unity where it should not yet exist. Rather, we should work in hope, enjoying unity where it can be found, but looking beyond all present structures and organizations to Christ’s great purpose and promise for His Church.

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62 Responses to The Denominational Church

  1. Michael says:

    I think you are right to question Cassidy’s denominational understanding of the Body of Christ. As I read his post, I thought, “The FV would give pause if they narrowed the Body of Christ to only the PCA.” But FV proponents seem to see value in the views of other traditions in a way that their opponents do not.

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  3. The Scylding says:

    You also include baptists?? (LOL) In all seriousness however, excellent post, Al! The words of mr Cassidy does seem to reflect the 20 000 popes criticism the RC’s like to throw at protestants, unfortunately. Even at the time of the reformation, debate was more prevalent than in the current setting, it seems!

    I think it is because of the fact that especially in the reformed and/or baptist world, people tie their salvation to their grasp of doctrine – thus threatening the latter is threatening the former!

  4. Al says:

    Michael,

    You are quite right. One of the interesting features of this current situation is that the FV writers are, for the most part, considerably more catholic than their opponents, who place huge weight on certain Reformed formulations of the gospel and pay little attention to the broader tradition of the Church. Claiming to be the voice of the Church, they generally ignore the voice of the wider body of Christ, which strongly attests to the orthodoxy of speaking of such things as baptismal regeneration.

    In some respects this comes down to questions of ecclesiology. I hold a very low ‘denominationology’, because I hold a high ecclesiology. Their lower regard for the wider Church is worked out in a very high denominationology.

  5. kb says:

    I appreciate your thoughts, I can’t say I read the whole way down, it was quite long. But one thing that struck me was your call to not be so strict about denominational lines. While I see this as a big positive I also wonder about some things. Christ has instituted his Church on earth and has given her certain guidelines for her government and order. So why would a Presbyterian want to go to the friendly Baptist church down the street when they would view it as neglecting the biblical order of the church (elder run vs. congregationalists)? Or vice versa. Isn’t the visible church only so good as it reflects the Church Triumphant? Anyway, that was my thought.

  6. Warren Dodson says:

    The Associate Rector at our church is from Kenya. He describes how during the revival in his part of Kenya, the various denominations would meet on Sunday mornings as usually. But on Sunday afternoon, Anglicans, Baptists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, and even Roman Catholics would all gather for worship. I am sure it is “messy,” but it is a glimpse of what the church could be.

  7. GLW Johnson says:

    So, the gospel is simply what NT Wright says it is? It is not atonement centered(especially in the sense of being penal substitution) and it is certaintly not focused on justification the way the Reformers and the Reformed confessions have framed it. No thank you, I prefer the gospel as articulated and defended by the Reformers and the Reformed confessions-you can have the other one, which is really no gospel at all.

  8. Anonymous says:

    The crucified and risen Jesus is Lord of the Universe and God makes the world right in him. That’s plenty of Gospel for me.

    Al: This is a life changing post for the iMonk. Thank you. And I thank God FOR you.

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  11. Al says:

    KB,
    I don’t believe that my position regarding denominational boundaries means that denominational differences are unimportant. I don’t believe that any denomination has the fullness of what God wants for His Church. However, there are some places where it is better for us to be than others.

    The distinctions between Presbyterians and Baptists are not unimportant, but if someone leaves your congregation to attend a local Baptist one, they have not left the local Church. Their commitment to the Church is not the same thing as their commitment to your denomination. My concern is that we put denominational boundaries in perspective, not that we deny their significance altogether.

    Warren,
    Thanks for sharing that. Such accounts are very encouraging. I often wonder whether increased persecution in former Christendom and the witness of churches in the Third World will prove to be some of the most powerful catalysts for change in the way that we view our denominations.

    GLW Johnson,
    I am sorry that you read my post in such a way. This isn’t about what N.T. Wright says, but is about what the Scriptures say. The Gospel that is given to us in the Scriptures is summarized in various places (and spelled out at length in the Gospels themselves) and is a lot simpler than the ways in which we seek to articulate its underlying logic.

    The Gospel, at its heart, is a potted story, culminating in the resurrection and the universal Lordship of Christ. It is this that we preach and confess (Acts 10:34-43; Romans 1:1-5; 10:8-13; 1 Corinthians 15:1ff).

    The atonement is an important part of this story. Penal substitution is an important biblical perspective on the atonement, but by no means the only one (or even, arguably, the most important one). Nor is this gospel focused on the mechanics of justification. We are not saved by believing in the doctrine of justification as laid out by the Reformed confessions (although I believe that the doctrine as articulated by the confessions is generally quite biblical), but by believing that Jesus is Lord and that God raised Him from the dead. This is what the Scriptures repeatedly teach when the Gospel is summarized and this is why I am so concerned when I see people adding to the Gospel, seeking to make the narrow way narrower still.

  12. Oloryn says:

    I think it is because of the fact that especially in the reformed and/or baptist world, people tie their salvation to their grasp of doctrine – thus threatening the latter is threatening the former!

    Indeed. Or, as I’ve put it before, there are Baptists (and I go to a Baptist church, so I’m not just Baptist-bashing) who, though having a theology that says “Once Saved, always saved”, have a practice that says “By grace you are saved through getting %100 on a theology exam”.

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  14. For instance, ‘baptismal regeneration’ is well-established language in the Christian tradition. Many Reformed Christians and evangelicals fiercely resist using such language to speak of their theological positions. I believe that in such instances we should go out of our way to try to find appropriate ways to use the common language.

    If we were to try to do that, would there be a danger of being accused of confessing something we do not believe? Is that a risk we have to be prepared to take?

  15. Andy Packer says:

    Great post! I have read it several times now, and I have even emailed it to myself.

    It put together a lot of things I have been thinking about. Thanks!

    I would love to see you expand and build upon this in future posts.

  16. Julana says:

    This is a good post. I originally was following along out of a sort of secondary interest. I grew up Mennonite, married someone from a Reformed/Christian Reformed background, and we now attend a Vineyard Church. Why? Because we have a son with a significant disabilty, and it is where he is most able to engage.

    So the post went to primary level of interst when you wrote:
    “The Gospel itself is not as complicated as our various ways of articulating its logic are. The Gospel itself is remarkably simple: the declaration that Jesus is Lord and that God raised Him from the dead.”

    This is what becomes important when you are dealing with people with cognitive disabilities.

  17. Al says:

    Philip,
    Yes, there is a danger. We also need to be sensitive to the genuine worries that people have and go to lengths to address their valid concerns. The fears that people have in this area are not irrational. However, I think that we should also be prepared to take a measure of a risk here. The language of baptismal regeneration is well-established in the tradition and is also, far more importantly, scriptural (e.g. Titus 3:5). We need to help people move to a point in which they can employ such language biblically.

    Andy,
    Thanks! Seeing the response to this post I think that I might put together some other material on the subject to write a couple of follow-up posts.

    Julana,
    Thank you for your comment. You are quite right: the simplicity of the Gospel is a wonderful source of comfort when we seek to communicate the reality of God’s love to people with cognitive disabilities, or to young children.

    Also, as someone persuaded of the biblical character of the practice of paedobaptism, I see that practice as something that speaks of the fact that God takes the initiative and grasps us as His own in love, before our understanding can ever reach out and grasp Him. The possibility of being claimed by God in love is not always contingent on our ability to grasp Him with our understanding (just as the mother communicates her love to her infant child before the child ever has an intellectual understanding of what a mother is and of her precise relationship to him). Rather, God graciously deals with each one according to their capacity. He does not expect an adult’s faith of the child, nor does He expect a mature theological awareness of those of His children who, in this present creation, lack the capacity.

  18. bedell says:

    Very well put Alastair. Kudos!

  19. GLW Johnson says:

    Al
    You and I both know that your take on the Gospel comes directly from the good bishop of Durham, so let us dispense with this notion that you arrived at this understanding of the Gospel by simply approaching the texts of Scripture with an ‘open’ mind and some sort of ‘objective neutrality’.That does not happen.Moises Silva, one of my professors of NT at WTS correctly observed,”Whether we mean to or not,and whether we like it or not,all of us read the text as interpretedby our theological presuppositions’ (EXPLORATIONS IN EXEGETICAL METHOD,Baker,1996,p.209).You read the text with enormous assistance from NT Wright and, not surprisely, you end up parroting his particular theological assumptions on the nature of the Gospel( even on the hazy understanding of the atonement-didn’t the Bishop give a glowing endorsement to Steven Chalk’s perfectly dreadful book on the subject? And didn’t Wright recently take vigorious exception to the book,’Pieced For Our Transgressions’ that defended the central role of penal substition in understanding the atonement?). The point is that we ought to be concerned with is whether or not we realize (1) that we have theological presuppositions, and (2) are they the right ones?

  20. Al says:

    GLW Johnson,
    Of course I read the Scriptures with presuppositions; I never suggested otherwise. The important thing to recognize is that text is not merely putty in the hands of our presuppositions, but has the ability to challenge and upset the presuppositions that we bring to it, if we are only prepared to be attentive to it. I believe that the Scriptures amply demonstrate that my understanding of the term ‘Gospel’ is essentially correct. This is not something that I started off believing, nor is it something that I picked up from NTW. Rather, I came to this persuasion through my own reading of the Scriptures.

    Your comment is shot through with glaring logical fallacies and errors of fact. I don’t want to waste time addressing each one. I would be interested to know whether you have actually read Steve Chalke’s book at all, or whether you are simply judging the book on the basis of some people’s response to a rather uncharitable construction of a few quotes from it. I would also be interested to know whether you ever took the effort to read Wright’s recent article on the atonement in which he (a) argues strongly for penal substitution; and (b) clarified the whole Steve Chalke situation? He criticizes Pierced for Our Transgressions as a particular formulation of the doctrine of penal substitution, whilst affirming the doctrine itself.

    I could respond to all that you say on this subject by saying that you are simply parroting the arcane theological assumptions of seventeenth century Reformed theologians. I am well aware that their assumptions may powerfully shape your reading of Scripture, but I don’t believe that this justifies me in dismissing your position and failing to address the Scriptural issues that you raise. Unlike you, I am actually putting forward a biblical argument for my position.

    If you want to, you may continue to dismiss my position because it is shared by Wright. On the other hand, you might actually rise to the challenge and prove to me that a good biblical argument can be put forward for what you claim is the position of the Reformers and the Reformed confessions. Can Westminster still cut it on the battlefield of Scripture, or has it lost the ability to face its challengers? Will the Reformed merely take refuge in the tower of their tradition, or will they come out to meet the armies of exegetes who have challenged the tradition’s claim to the text of Scripture?

    The following is a brief argument. I invite you to respond in defence of what you see as the Reformed position. Let’s see if the Reformed position can stand up for itself where it really matters.

    In the gospels the term ‘gospel’ is used to refer to the message of the coming kingdom. Such a usage is consistent with uses of the language in the LXX (where it is used to refer to the news of victories, or of Messianic restoration and glory) and elsewhere in ancient literature (where, for instance, it refers to the birth of Augustus and the new world order that that event brought in). This meaning becomes refined as it becomes clear that the kingdom comes in the person of Jesus Christ, through His death, resurrection and ascension as Lord of all. ‘Gospel’ is the narrative of the arrival of the Kingdom of God in history, whether in extended or potted form.

    The claim ‘Jesus is Lord’ is a claim that sums up the truth that the Kingdom of God has come in Jesus Christ. Whilst it clearly can be fleshed out more, this is the heart of the gospel.

    There are a number of summaries of the gospel in the Scriptures, ranging from brief statements (e.g. Romans 1:1-5), to more lengthy summaries (e.g. Acts 10:36-43), to full length narratives of the Gospels themselves. Sometimes the gospel message focuses on the Lordship of Christ as a message of final judgment (e.g. Romans 2:16), on other occasions on Christ as the risen Davidic Messiah (e.g. 2 Timothy 2:8), on other occasions the death of Christ is central (e.g. 1 Corinthians 1:17-18). The gospel is for Paul, clearly the gospel ‘of Christ’, even if this is less accented in the Synoptic Gospels.

    From the various biblical usages we can see that the gospel message includes a number of regularly recurring elements. F.F. Bruce writes as follows:

    The basic elements in the message were these: 1. the prophecies have been fulfilled and the new age inaugurated by the coming of Christ; 2. he was born into the family of David; 3. he died according to the Scriptures, to deliver his people from this evil age; 4. he was buried, and raised again the third day, according to the Scriptures; 5. he is exalted at God’s right hand as Son of God, Lord of living and dead; 6. he will come again, to judge the world and consummate his saving work.

    I find this summary helpful. Speaking in terms of ‘deliverance from this evil age’ helps to clarify what is meant by the gospel declaration of the ‘forgiveness of sins’. The ‘forgiveness of sins’ is an eschatological and national blessing (cf. Jeremiah 31:34), without ceasing to be deeply personal. Bruce’s definition is also potentially weakened by failing to mention the Jew-Gentile dimension of the gospel message.

    This definition of the gospel is more or less what we find in the ecumenical creeds. When a Roman Catholic believes what the Nicene Creed says, he is believing the gospel, even if nothing is said about imputed righteousness. Such doctrines, important though they are, are not central to what the Scriptures refer to as the ‘gospel’.

    I invite you to present an argument against this reading of the term. All I can say is that the uses of the language of the ‘gospel’ in Scriptures often cannot bear the sense that Reformed people have been accustomed to put on it. The gospel message above is a message of the Lordship of Christ, which demands obedience (cf. 1 Peter 4:17; Luke 3:18). If the gospel is the message that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, or the message that Christ is Lord and Judge of all, it is a message that calls for obedience. It seems to me that Reformed uses of the term, for all of their valid theological concerns, have allowed the term to diverge in meaning from that of the Scriptures. The gospel has become closer to a declaration about the ordo salutis than a proclamation of the coming of the Kingdom of God in history in and through Jesus the Messiah.

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  22. Steven W says:

    Al,

    Excellent post. I just returned from the Orthodox Readings of Augustine Conference (where I met some mutual e-friends) and was struck by the desire on the parts of John Behr and Jen-Luc Marion to return to the language (interpretive community if you will) of the New Testament. I also picked up The Primacy of Peter where this sort of ecclesiology is argued for.

    As a Reformed Protestant, this approach strikes me as great news.

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  24. GLW Johnson says:

    Al
    With all due respect, you are not ‘Reformed’ and neither is NT Wright. The difference between the two of you is that he openly admits that he is not attempting to be confessionally Reformed- and it is the Reformed confessions that define the meaning of the term ‘Reformed’ in the same way that the Council of Trent continues to define the substance and the boundaries of what it means to be Roman Catholic. I freely admit to the purjorative label you have used to describe my position-I very much reflect the type of Reformed theology that was defined by the 17th cent.Reformed confessions. I see nothing wrong with that since, in the same way, it is 16th Roman Catholic documents that continue define the official position of Rome. Unless you have fallen prey to what C.S.Lewis called ‘chronological snobbery’ this is nothing to be ashamed of.

  25. Alex says:

    GLW Johnson,

    I don’t think the reformers themselves would have appreciated ever being called Reformed. The whole point is that we are to be always reform-ing as a constant action, not reform-ed in the past tense, by looking back at the scriptures. So I say accuse Alastair all you want of not being Reformed, but never say that he’s not carrying on the best traditions and practices of the faith as Luther and Calvin would have done it by looking back to the Scripture for the substance of the argument rather than creating a divisive argument about who gets to be and the Reformed club and who doesn’t.

    If you really cared to understand Al, or NTW for that matter, you would read enough to see that both believe that we are saved by faith through grace but that this flows from the fact that Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead. Both are true and neither denies that.

  26. Al says:

    GLW Johnson,
    I really don’t care that much if I am Reformed or not. I will more than readily admit that I have many problems with the Reformed confessions and could not honestly subscribe to many of them.

    I want to talk about Scripture, not Reformed tradition. Strangely enough, as someone who professes to be an heir of the Reformers, you don’t seem to be that excited about having such a conversation.

  27. GLW Johnson says:

    Al
    I hear this quite often from folks in the FV. They very much want to be ‘Reformed’ but want to be free to define the word as they see fit. Would a Roman Catholic be free to define the Catholic faith in the same way?-’You know I’ve been reading NY Wright and he says both the Reformers and their Catholic opponents both went astray on justification, so I no longer submit to the canons of Trent, in fact there are some other Catholic dogmas I can accept either-but that doesn’t mean I am not a loyal Roman Catholic”.

  28. Anonymous says:

    Alistair, first of all thank you for your posts which are usually very thought provoking and stimulating. I find no fault in your definition of the term ‘gospel’ except to say that I think that you will find most reformed theologians would say pretty much the same (rather than disagreeing with you as you seem to imply) and indeed flesh it out somewhat.

    It seems to me that the differences may not be so much in relation to a biblical definition of the gospel but rather in relation to what you call the ordo salutis (or ‘order of salvation’for those who like me are not up on their Latin).

    I say this because in your response to GWL you mention that for reformed thinkers the gospel has become “closer to a declaration about the ordo salutis than a proclamation of the coming of the Kingdom of God.” Yet just a few lines above this statement you also say- “If the gospel is the message that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, or the message that Christ is Lord and Judge of all, it is a message that calls for obedience.” Is obedience not intrinsically tied to the ordo salutis? And is this not where the real differences lie rather than in a biblical definition of the gospel? By preaching the ordo salutis are not reformed preachers actually preaching the kingdom of God and more specifically how one might enter the kingdom? Is this not where the real debate lies? Is this not the whole point of the debate around baptismal regeneration? which may be attested in tradition but I think you are on thin ice to say that it is clearly taught in Titus 3:5. This passage is not referring to baptism but rather regeration, that is, the washing or renewing of the individual by the extraordinary work of the Holy Spirit.

    Extract from John Gill’s commentary on Titus 3:5- (QUOTE) by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; by the former is meant, not the ordinance of water baptism; for that is never expressed by washing, nor is it the cause or means of regeneration; the cause being the Spirit of God, and the means the word of God: and besides, persons ought to be regenerated before they are baptized; and they may be baptized, and yet not regenerated, as Simon Magus; nor is it a saving ordinance, or a point of salvation; nor can it be opposed to works of righteousness, as this washing is; for that itself is a work of righteousness; see Mat_3:15 and if persons were saved by that, they would be saved by a work of righteousness, contrary to the text itself: but regenerating grace is meant, or a being born of water, and of the Spirit; that is, of the grace of the Spirit, comparable to water for its purity and cleansing virtue: hence such who are regenerated and sanctified, are said to be washed and cleansed, having their hearts purified by faith, and their consciences purged from sin by the blood of Christ: by the latter… (UNQUOTE).

    Incidentally, even 17thC Gill describes the gospel in terms of preaching the kingdom;-)

    Getting back to my original point, all of this is simply to raise the question of the relationship between our definition of the gospel and our ordo salutis.
    Anyway, thanks again.

  29. Al says:

    Anonymous,
    Thanks for your comment. I am aware of a number of Reformed theologians who understand many of the biblical occurrences of the word ‘gospel’ in much the same way as I do. I purposefully avoided following this line of argument as I wanted a debate about Scripture, rather than about the Reformed tradition. The debate about the Reformed tradition can wait for another occasion.

    I also avoided that line of argument as, despite significant common ground on occasions, the Reformed usage of the term ‘gospel’, particularly when dealing with the term as it functions within Pauline theology, tends to regard the gospel chiefly in light of questions of individual salvation and ends up muting the redemptive historical background.

    I am persuaded that the salvation of the individual takes place within the Kingdom of God which is established in the fullness of time in and through the work and person of Christ. The individual is saved as they are drawn into the larger movement that has occurred in redemptive history in Christ’s death and resurrection (I flesh out the relationship between personal salvation and redemptive history a bit more in the comments on this post). This is not quite the same thing as coming into a personal relationship with God. OT believers were converted and came into a relationship with God, but they did not know the fulfilment of the gospel in their time. I think that in a number of Reformed treatments (and certainly in much popular usage) the ‘gospel’ becomes primarily concerned with the movement that takes place in the conversion of the individual, rather than primarily referring to a change that has taken place in the middle of history.

    The gospel certainly involves the salvation of individuals. However, it is far more than just a message about how individuals can be saved (although certainly not any less). My fear is that many Reformed thinkers have so focused on the questions of individual salvation that the larger (and biblically more prominent) background picture has been somewhat obscured. They don’t deny it, but they end up losing sight of it on occasions.

    You raise the issue of baptismal regeneration. I think that this is a good example of a place where the obscuring of the larger picture can lead to confusion. Reformed theologians have tended to use the word ‘regeneration’ to refer to the event of conversion and divine renewal of the heart within the ordo salutis. Taking the word in such a sense, ‘baptismal regeneration’ is clearly unbiblical. However, I strongly believe that, in the biblical usage of the term, ‘regeneration’ does not in fact mean ‘conversion’, but refers to the movement in redemptive history that took place through the death and resurrection of Christ. Once this has been appreciated it can be seen that not everyone with personal faith has undergone regeneration; regeneration is not the same thing as the gift of a believing heart. I have explored this issue in more depth here and here. If you are interested I could also e-mail you a more lengthy paper that I have written on the subject of the theology of new birth in the Johannine literature (40bicycles at gmail dot com).

    John Gill’s reading of Titus 3:5 is definitely a minority report. Most commentators interpret this as a reference to water Baptism (the Greek is also occasionally read ‘laver of regeneration’). Gill’s arguments against this interpretation are primarily theological and, I believe, can be answered without too much difficulty. He presumes a meaning of the term ‘regeneration’ that I do not share and so his criticism of baptismal regeneration doesn’t generally address the position that I am advancing.

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  33. Bryan Cross says:

    Al,

    You look to a future reuniting of the Church into one institution. And you apparently also believe that no present institution is the original institution founded by Christ. This leads to a trilemma. If Christ did not found an institution, then why do you seek one? But if Christ did found an institution, then either the gates of hell prevailed against it (contrary to Christ’s promise), or one of the present institutions is the original institution founded by Christ.

    - Bryan

  34. Al says:

    Bryan,
    I do not believe that the deepest unity of the people of God is institutional or governmental. However, I do believe that Christ founded the Church as something with institutional and governmental dimensions to it.

    Just as the split of the kingdom of Israel did not entirely destroy the unity of the north and the south, so the denominational disunity of the Church does not mean that unity has altogether been lost. However, institutional unity belongs to the bene esse and I believe that God has taken away such unity for a time in order that He might later restore it in greater measure.

    The present institutional disunity of the Church is intended and has been brought about by God Himself. It is not a result of Satan’s prevailing against the Church, but is part of a teething process that God is bringing His people through.

    As in the case of the split of the kingdom of Israel, neither party could claim to be the single institution that God founded. God had founded the Davidic dynasty, but He had also founded the people of the northern kingdom. A reunification of the nation would not merely involve Israelites joining the one true institution of Judah, or vice versa. The same is true of the Church.

  35. Anonymous says:

    Alistair, thank you for taking the time to respond, I do appreciate it. Forgive me for pressing the issue a little further. I realise that your main article is about denominational elitism and the dangers of that, and indeed I agree with much of what you say. However, I believe we gain no new ground by simply lumping all denominations together under the lowest common denominator (this is and always has been the underlying principle of ecumenism and in your post I get the feeling you do this by referring back to the Nicene creed as a common expression of the gospel, forgive me if I have read you wrongly). Also, and please do not take this as a personal attack, but on the one hand- you rightly say that in the best tradition of the reformers we ought to be constantly reforming where necessary or at least to be open to being reformed by further clarification of biblical truth; on the other hand- you seem to refer us back to pre-reformation documents as a basis for gospel unity. All Reformed theologians that I have read hold to the earlier Christian creeds, and in as far as they express the gospel they are in agreement with Roman Catholics and Orthodox. The problem is not in this area, but rather in what the reformers saw as a need for further clarification of what the gospel entails (is this not following in the tradition of the church that creeds were developed in response to heresy and/or misrepresentations of the gospel? Unless of course you agree with the Orthodox that since the great schism no new creeds may be developed because they have not been formulated by the whole church as they see it).

    This brings me back to the point I raised with you in my last post- that is, the issue is not so much a debate over the definition of the term gospel as such but rather how one enters into the kingdom of which it speaks. For the record, any reformed scholars that I have read state very clearly their (biblical) understanding of the gospel involves us becoming part of a much larger story, that is the whole story of redemption including the fulfilment of promises to Abraham (link with the past) and a future consequences when Paul states that everyone’s thought will be judged in accordance with his gospel (eg Rom2:16). This necessarily involves a discussion of the term regeneration of which I think, in the interests of brevity, we might take Titus 3:5 as a test case. By the way I agree with you that regeneration does not simply mean conversion. As I understand the biblical picture regeneration is the work of God whereas conversion, certainly in OT usage is the translation of the Hebrew word schub. This word is used approximately 1000 times and generally refers to the act of turning away, returning, converting, etc. In other words it refers more to the act of man. However, simply stating what regeneration is NOT is only part of the way to describing what it is.

    Regeneration- Titus 3:5 etc

    Referring to this verse you seem to take as the focus the word ‘washing’ whereas the natural focus is regeneration. Therefore rather than discussing the greek word for washing/bath the discussion really ought to be on regeneration. Anyway, the word for washing/bath here fits the context best when it is seen in the same sense that we might talk of taking a bath. We do not mean by this we do not mean that we are going to literally take the said vessel but rather we are referring to the act of washing. This is surely the context here. It does not say that we are regenerated by the washing but rather that we are saved by the ‘washing of regeneration’ i.e. the whole phrase making one point viz. that we are saved by an extraordinary work of the Holy Spirit. This takes me back to my original point viz. the issue not so much of a definition of ‘gospel’ but rather how one enters into the kingdom of which the gospel speaks. Again I repeat, this is then a discussion that necessarily involves our understanding (hopefully a biblical understanding) of regeneration.

    QUOTE
    The word regeneration is found only twice in the New Testament (Matt 19:28; Titus 3:5), but it has been appropriated as the general term designating the impartation of eternal life. Only one of the two instances in the New Testament is used in this sense (Titus 3:5), where reference is made to “the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost.” The Greek word paliggenesiva is properly translated ”new birth, reproduction, renewal, re-creation” (Thayer).

    It is applied not only to human beings but also to the renewed heaven and earth of the millennium (Matt 19:28). In relation to the nature of man, it includes the various expressions used for eternal life such as new life, new birth, spiritual resurrection, new creation, new mind, ”made alive,” sons of God, and translation into the kingdom. In simple language, regeneration consists in all that is represented by eternal life in a human being.
    UNQUOTE

    Notice the more wholistic approach here- i.e. it is not simply seen in relation to the salvation of individuals (something you correctly address) but is relevant to the whole of creation. However, the issue of individual salvation can not be passed over either since the church is made up of individuals who have entered into the kingdom relationship with God. Again I say, this means we need to ask the question of how one enters the kingdom.

    Since we are taking Titus 3:5 as a test case, then this leads quite naturally to a consideration of the relationship between regeneration and baptism. Allow me to introduce another quotation that says makes the point very clearly-

    QUOTE
    Is baptism necessary for salvation? Some have said that baptism is necessary for salvation. This is the position of Roman Catholics who say that the water in John 3:5 refers to baptism. “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” They also find support in Titus 3:5 (the washing of regeneration) and Ephesians 5:26 (Christ cleansed the church by the washing of the water by the word). Others say that Acts 2:38 and Mark 16:16 indicate that baptism is required for salvation. “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned” (Mk. 16:16).

    The following considerations indicate that baptism is not a requirement for salvation:

    1) The clear teaching of the New Testament is that salvation is by faith alone. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast” (Eph. 2:8–9). “‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ And they said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved’” (Acts 16:30–31). “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Rom. 3:28). If baptism is necessary for salvation, then all of these verses which only mention faith are misleading. The Philippian jailer in Acts 16 was not given the whole gospel.

    2) Even more serious, a human work is added to faith as a requirement for salvation. This contradicts all of the verses which say that salvation is by faith apart from works. It distorts the gospel so that there is a different kind of gospel. This is the precise point Paul makes in the book of Galatians. The Galatian opponents were saying that the ritual of circumcision (NOTE: Al- you might say rather it was ethnicity that was the problem rather than specifically circumcision but I do not think that changes the polemic here too much) was necessary for salvation (cf. Acts 15:1). Paul says that this is a different kind of gospel which is not really another gospel (Gal. 1:6). Those who rely on works are “under a curse” (Gal. 3:10).

    3) In 1 Corinthians 1:13–17 Paul says that he had baptized very few of the Corinthians in order that no one could say that he was making converts to himself. But he concludes by saying, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 1:17). Paul could never have said that if baptism was an essential part of the gospel necessary for salvation.

    4) The dying thief (Luke 23:43) was promised paradise in the presence of the Lord. But he never had the opportunity to be baptized.

    5) John 3:5, Titus 3:5; and Ephesians 5:26 are not pertinent because they are not talking about baptism at all. Titus and Ephesians are talking about the spiritual cleansing from sin. The background of John 3:5 is found in Ezekiel 36:25–27. “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” The water of John 3:5 is the spiritual washing by which we are cleansed from all filthiness.

    6) Acts 2:38 and Mark 16:16 mention baptism along with faith not because baptism was necessary for salvation, but because faith in Christ was immediately accompanied by baptism. It was a symbol of the reality which took place when a person believed. But salvation comes from the reality, not from the symbol. It is significant that in the Mark passage the negative statement is “he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.” It says “the one who has disbelieved.” It does not say “the one who has not been baptized.”
    UNQUOTE

    I conclude at this point then that in the New Testament baptism is seen as an initiatory rite by which all believers in obedience to Christ signified their identification with Him. It also signified the fact that they had been cleansed from sin. I trust that you will at least agree with me Alistair, even if you do note agree with the exegesis here set down, that this is not simply a traditional argument, nor a reformed argument but I trust a biblical one (in that it is founded on the consideration of biblical texts rather than simply any particular tradition). This indeed is surely the issue at the root of the denominational debate, i.e. the various and often times contradictory interpretations of the biblical text. It is not enough then to simply refer back to the early creeds, definition of the gospel as the lowest common denominator. It is, rather, necessary to ask the question how we enter that kingdom of which the gospel speaks.

  36. Al says:

    Anonymous,
    Thank you for your further comments. At present I have my brothers staying with me here in St. Andrews; I won’t have much free time to respond in the next few days. I have written three or four follow-up posts, which I will be posting over the next few days. They address a couple of the issues that you raise to a limited extent. This is just a brief note to assure you that your comment hasn’t gone unnoticed and that I will respond to it as soon as I am able.

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  38. Bryan Cross says:

    Al,

    I could not tell for sure from your reply, but it seems that you think that Jesus did not found an institution. Therefore, what is wrong with the present plurality of institutions? Why should we seek institutional unity if Christ Himself did not think it necessary to do so?

    - Bryan

  39. Al says:

    Bryan,
    I believe that Christ founded the Church to enjoy institutional unity, but I do not believe that institutional unity is so essential to the being of the Church that there is no Church where it is lacking.

  40. Troy Greene says:

    GLW Johnson,
    With all due respect for your desire to preserve the gospel, and not to ignore some of the other concerns listed above, it would be nice to see you defend your gospel from Scripture and give a substantive critic of what Al has explained from Scripture. It still hasn’t been answered.
    FWIW,
    Troy Greene

  41. Bryan Cross says:

    Al,

    If Christ did not found an institution, then why do you think He wants the Church to enjoy institutional unity? Why not rather advocate the elimination of all denominations, so as to return to the Church’s original non-institutional unity?

    - Bryan

  42. Al says:

    Bryan,
    That precise question will be addressed in a post that I have written, which I intend to post tomorrow. Check back here tomorrow evening and it should be up. You could read the first part of my follow-up posts now.

    I suspect that many of our differences come down to the fact that I think in terms of God preparing the way for a more glorious future unity that eclipses the original unity, whilst you focus on a return to an original unity. The original institutional unity is shattered in order that God might bring the pieces together into a more glorious and mature form of institutional unity in the future.

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  44. GLW Johnson says:

    Troy Green
    I don’t know what you consider to be ‘exegesis’, but what Al posted is not ‘exegesis’. Simply alluding to Biblical texts is not’exegesis’.This kind of thing can be done in away that simply summerizes a particular theme and as such is helpful, but it also can be employed in some very devious ways as well( as in the literature of the Jehovah Witnesses).What Al has done is very similiar to the approach taken by R.A.Torrey in his book,’What The Bible Teaches’-and the drawbacks are nicely pointed out by B.B. Warfield in his review .This can be found in Mark Noll’s ‘The Princeton Theology:1812-1921′(Baker,1983).My point was that Al is operating with a set of theological presuppositions, derived in large part from NT Wright( who I think is wrong about such critically important things as justification and imputation). Besides, it is a daunting task to do any kind of serious and technical exegesis on a blog. Adios.

  45. Al says:

    Anonymous,
    Thank you for your comments. I do not believe in a form of ecumenism that merely goes for the lowest common denominator. I have argued in the past for a principled ecumenism in which we do not remain silent about some of our less widely held theological convictions. However, in all of this we must be clear about that which is central and primary and that which is secondary. The importance of such documents as the Nicene creed is the fact that they articulate that which is primary and fundamental to the Christian faith, not that they are merely the lowest common denominator. My fear is that many in the Church today have caused all sorts of problems by treating secondary matters as if they were as important as the basic articles of the faith articulated in the creed.

    Reformed theology has never denied the creeds. However, there has been a tendency, and sometimes an explicit movement, to place the truths of the ecumenical creeds into a secondary position, simply because Christians generally agree on them. Many of the fundamental truths of the gospel are supposed to be issues upon which we differ with others in the wider Church. I suspect that, in many cases, such an attitude is part of a general tendency to characterize ourselves as the one party is the Church that upholds the gospel, while all other parties seriously compromise it. More and more of our doctrinal disagreements are treated as issues on which the gospel is at stake. Rather than simply disagreeing with others about the doctrine of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, we insist that the gospel is at stake.

    In their day the Reformers were dealing with serious compromises of the gospel. However, the doctrine of justification (as defended by the Reformers) is not a fundamental truth of the gospel, but rather a doctrine that protects the gospel from being compromised. Doctrinal clarification continues to take place in the Church today, but the fundamental truths of the gospel, those beliefs that we are saved in believing, were set down in the ecumenical creeds, long before the Reformation took place. The following are a few helpful quotes from Reformed writers on this matter.

    Charles Hodge:

    That Romanists as a society profess the true religion, meaning thereby the essential doctrines of the gospel, those doctrines which if truly believed will save the soul, is, as we think, plain. 1. Because they believe the Scriptures to be the word of God. 2. They direct that the Scriptures should be understood and received as they were understood by the Christian Fathers. 3. They receive the three general creeds of the church, the Apostle’s, the Nicene, and the Athanasian, or as these are summed up in the creed of Pius V. 4. They believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. In one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man. And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried. And the third day rose again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end. And they believe in one catholic apostolic church. They acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins, and look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

    If this creed were submitted to any intelligent Christian without his knowing whence it came, could he hesitate to say that it was the creed of a Christian church? Could he deny that these are the very terms in which for ages the general faith of Christendom has been expressed? Could he, without renouncing the Bible, say that the sincere belief of these doctrines would not secure eternal life? Can any man take it upon himself in the sight of God, to assert there is not truth enough in the above summary to save the soul? If not, then a society professing that creed professes the true religion in the sense stated above.

    Heidelberg Catechism:

    Q22: What, then, is necessary for a Christian to believe?
    A22: All that is promised us in the Gospel, which the articles of our catholic, undoubted Christian faith teach us in summary.

    Q23: What are these articles?
    A23: I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son, our Lord: who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried; He descended into hell; the third day He rose from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.

    I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

    Calvin’s Geneva Catechism:

    Master. — Then the foundation and beginning of confidence in God is to know him in Christ?
    Scholar. — Entirely so.
    Master. — I should now wish you to tell me in a few words, what the sum of this knowledge is?
    Scholar. — It is contained in the Confession of Faith, or rather Formula of Confession, which all Christians have in common. It is commonly called the Apostles’ Creed, because from the beginning of the Church it was ever received among all the pious, and because it either fell from the lips of the Apostles, or was faithfully gathered out of their writings.

    Perhaps Turretin puts the whole issue best when he writes:

    Although the church which was in the papacy before the Reformation did not have among the articles of its faith justification by faith alone, the rejection of all sensible sacrifices beside the sacrifice of Christ and the repudiation of the worship of images and of the invocation of the saints and other articles (concerning which there is controversy between us), it does not follow that believers did not have in the doctrine received for that time the necessary food for salvation. Such articles are not positive and affirming, containing things that are to be believed and done, in which therefore the essence of faith and religion consists, but negatively and excluding the errors which ought to be rejected, which do not pertain to the building up of faith. As no one would put down among nourishments the care of avoiding poisons which could produce death, so the positive articles work salvation properly, while the negative only remove those things which can interfere with salvation.

    Moving to your next point: you claim that Reformed scholars do hold that the gospel involves us becoming part of a larger story. That is true to some extent. However, the story that they think in terms of is generally rather weak. It often functions like wallpaper, providing a background to the more proiminent issues of individual salvation. My problem with this is that I believe that in Scripture it is the larger story that is prominent and individual salvation is subordinate to it. The larger story is the story in which Christ forms the Church as a new entity in history, not merely a story in which Christ makes salvation possible for individuals.

    You agree with me that ’regeneration’ does not mean ’conversion’, but I think that you do not necessarily believe this for the same reasons as I do. By ’conversion’ I was not really referring to man’s turning, but of God’s sovereign turning of the heart. My position is that ’regeneration’ is not the same thing as God’s changing of the heart. Regeneration is the eschatological new birth brought about in the resurrection, which we are brought to participate in. No one was born again until Christ became the firstborn from the dead. The posts in which I have explored this are here and here.

    The relationship that I see between Baptism and regeneration is probably best understood in terms of the relationship that I see between the Church and salvation. The evangelical (and often Reformed) tendency is to see the Church primarily as a group of saved individuals. I think that this is a misleading perspective. The Church is salvation. This sermon will help to clarify what I mean by this statement.

    The Church is the Temple of the Holy Spirit. It is the place where God’s presence is to be enjoyed. Baptism is not merely an entry into a Christian club, but is an event in which we are brought into God’s Temple, where we are given to participate in the Spirit that was given to the Church at Pentecost.

    The key issue has to do with the primary locus of God’s salvation. Most Reformed people that I encounter believe that the primary locus of God’s salvation is the individual heart. For this reason the ordo salutis is primary and their attention is primarily drawn to questions of individual salvation. Baptism bears witness in some way or other to the work that God does in the human heart, but Baptism itself does nothing more than bringing one into the visible Church.

    My position is that the primary locus of God’s salvation is the Church, the body of Christ. The Church isn’t merely a collection of individually saved people; it is the new Temple that God is forming. This is the key place where God’s salvation is taking place, where relationships between God and man, man and God and man and man are being restored. If we want to meet with God, we find Him in His Temple, in the communion of the saints. To be baptized is to be made part of God’s new people, the people to whom the Spirit has been given. Baptism sets us apart as priests in God’s Temple.

    Circumcision may not have changed the heart, but it gave people a new access to God and a new relationship with Him; the circumcised person was a member of God’s covenant people. The same is true of Baptism. Baptism is like adoption. In Baptism we are brought into the Church, which is the new family that God is forming. The Church is the place where the life of the Spirit — the life of the new age — is enjoyed. The Church is the living vine. As we live within the Church we are given to participate in the life of the Spirit, who was given to the Church at Pentecost, just as branches are given to participate in the life of the vine. Just as a branch on a living vine can be as good as dead, bearing no fruit, there are some within the Church who do not share in the life of the body of which they are members. They will eventually be cut off, if they do not change. They are like adopted children who refuse to take part in the life of the new family that they have been brought into. In this they destroy the entire purpose of their adoptions.

    Baptism regenerates, not by miraculously changing our hearts (there are many baptized people who still have unbelieving hearts), but by bringing us into the new life of the family of God, which is the Church. We are born again, with a new Father and a new identity. This life will only truly be enjoyed if we live it out by faith. It is quite possible to reject or misuse all that Baptism gives us. Just as the adoptive child can fail to live out his adoption and render his adoption next to worthless, so it is possible for the baptized person to fail to live out his Baptism.

    In response to the points of your lengthy quote:

    1) The clear teaching of the New Testament is that salvation is by faith alone. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast” (Eph. 2:8–9). “‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ And they said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved’” (Acts 16:30–31). “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Rom. 3:28). If baptism is necessary for salvation, then all of these verses which only mention faith are misleading. The Philippian jailer in Acts 16 was not given the whole gospel.

    Baptism is not opposed to faith. Salvation is by grace through faith, from start to finish. Baptism does not compete with faith in any way. Baptism is not so much something that we do, as it is something that is done to us. Baptism is God’s work; we are more or less passive in it. In Baptism God delivers us through the water into freedom. In Baptism God claims us as His own. In Baptism we are merely submitting by faith to God, who is doing the work. To ask whether salvation through Baptism undermines salvation through faith alone is like asking whether being brought through the Red Sea was something that the Israelites had to do to be saved from Egypt. It is a misleading question.

    2) Even more serious, a human work is added to faith as a requirement for salvation. This contradicts all of the verses which say that salvation is by faith apart from works. It distorts the gospel so that there is a different kind of gospel. This is the precise point Paul makes in the book of Galatians. The Galatian opponents were saying that the ritual of circumcision (NOTE: Al- you might say rather it was ethnicity that was the problem rather than specifically circumcision but I do not think that changes the polemic here too much) was necessary for salvation (cf. Acts 15:1). Paul says that this is a different kind of gospel which is not really another gospel (Gal. 1:6). Those who rely on works are “under a curse” (Gal. 3:10).

    As pointed out above, Baptism is not essentially something that we do. Baptism is necessary for salvation in the same way as passing through the Red Sea was necessary for deliverance from Egypt. However, it was God who accomplished the salvation; the Israelites did nothing to deserve or merit it. They were just called to receive it by faith.

    The issue in Galatians is not ritualism (or even ethnicity, for that matter) at all. The problem with circumcision is the relationship that it brings one into with the old covenant order that was rendered obsolete by the death of Christ, not with the fact that circumcision is representative of some general wrong pattern of religion. Circumcision was a problem in Galatia because circumcision was the covenant sign of the old covenant and Galatian Christians were getting the old covenant sign and doing the old covenant works of the Torah, rather than trusting in the new covenant salvation brought about by Christ.

    3) In 1 Corinthians 1:13–17 Paul says that he had baptized very few of the Corinthians in order that no one could say that he was making converts to himself. But he concludes by saying, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 1:17). Paul could never have said that if baptism was an essential part of the gospel necessary for salvation.

    One isn’t saved by believing in Baptism, but believing in Jesus and His gospel. However, Jesus saves those who believe the gospel through Baptism. In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul reveals the high view that he had of Baptism. Paul’s broader argument is significant here. Paul is attacking sectarianism, not a high view of Baptism. In attacking partisan understandings of the Church he brings up the issue of Baptism. Paul stuck to preaching the gospel and did not generally baptize, because he didn’t want anyone to think that he baptized in his own name. To be baptized into someone’s name is to be brought into a far closer relationship with them than preaching by itself can achieve. Baptism into Christ brings us into a new relationship with Christ and makes us members of His people. This is why Paul is concerned to point out why he did not baptize.

    4) The dying thief (Luke 23:43) was promised paradise in the presence of the Lord. But he never had the opportunity to be baptized.

    The exception does not destroy the rule. No one that I know of claims that Baptism is absolutely necessary, in every conceivable situation, for salvation.

    Furthermore, it is important that we also recognize the eschatological character of salvation. One can be a believer, destined for salvation, without actually having been saved in most senses of the word. OT believers were largely in this position, looking forward to a coming salvation, but not having yet received it. Baptism isn’t absolutely necessary for final salvation. However, if we want to participate in the realization of God’s eschatological salvation in Christ in the present we must come into the Church. This is where God’s salvation is known. Our entry into the Church takes place in Baptism. The dying thief never truly knew salvation in this life as baptized Christians do. However, he was destined to salvation after death.

    5) John 3:5, Titus 3:5; and Ephesians 5:26 are not pertinent because they are not talking about baptism at all. Titus and Ephesians are talking about the spiritual cleansing from sin. The background of John 3:5 is found in Ezekiel 36:25–27. “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” The water of John 3:5 is the spiritual washing by which we are cleansed from all filthiness.

    I beg to differ, as would most commentators. These passages are certainly speaking of a spiritual washing, but this does not mean that the washings in question are not physical.

    6) Acts 2:38 and Mark 16:16 mention baptism along with faith not because baptism was necessary for salvation, but because faith in Christ was immediately accompanied by baptism. It was a symbol of the reality which took place when a person believed. But salvation comes from the reality, not from the symbol. It is significant that in the Mark passage the negative statement is “he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.” It says “the one who has disbelieved.” It does not say “the one who has not been baptized.”

    My answers to these objections should be clear from what I have written above. I disagree with the idea of Baptism that is put forward here. Baptism is not primarily intended to be a symbol of the reality of personal faith.

    I conclude at this point then that in the New Testament baptism is seen as an initiatory rite by which all believers in obedience to Christ signified their identification with Him. It also signified the fact that they had been cleansed from sin. I trust that you will at least agree with me Alistair, even if you do note agree with the exegesis here set down, that this is not simply a traditional argument, nor a reformed argument but I trust a biblical one (in that it is founded on the consideration of biblical texts rather than simply any particular tradition). This indeed is surely the issue at the root of the denominational debate, i.e. the various and often times contradictory interpretations of the biblical text. It is not enough then to simply refer back to the early creeds, definition of the gospel as the lowest common denominator. It is, rather, necessary to ask the question how we enter that kingdom of which the gospel speaks.

    I appreciate the fact that you have approached this as a biblical, rather than merely traditional argument. This is the sort of conversation that I find helpful. I don’t want to reduce the gospel to a mere lower common denominator and I don’t believe that this is what I am doing when I focus on the ecumenical creeds.

  46. GLW Johnson,

    I’m glad I know more confessional reformed types to prevent me from sliding into downright bigotry, because you are confirming every negative stereotype here. You’ve been asked to make an argument from scripture, and only reply with guilt-by-association and appeals to tradition. I get the distinct impression sometimes that the staunch heresy hunters on behalf of the WCF would be happier and more mellow people if, every now and then, they got to participate in an actual auto da fe.

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  48. GLW Johnson says:

    Wonders of Wonders
    Gosh, but you NT Wright fans can get down right nasty when someone differs with your boy.Any Tom, Dick ,and Harry and plaster texts here and there and claim that this is the ‘Biblical’ support for some particular position. Piling up Scripture texts one on top of another is fairly easy to do-intergrating them in a way that provides theological balance and consistancy is a bit more difficult. Reformed confessions, like the Westminster Standards are remakable in this regard.’Wonder’, Do you have a real name or did your folks come up with this moniker to make you stand out from your classmates?

  49. GLW Johnson,

    Ah, well – I dish it out and you respond in kind. I suppose it’s only fair.

    But no one here is suggesting one shouldn’t integrate scripture into an understanding that has consistency and theological balance. But if the system rests on a misunderstanding of what the scriptures themselves are trying to say, then the tradition must be reevaluated in the light of scripture. Alastair has made such a challenge, and why should he not? If he is wrong, surely he can be refuted with scripture, no?

    As for my real name, my own situation is such that I cannot divulge it on the web (though email me at wondersforoyarsa AT yahoo and I’d probably be happy to tell you). You may rightly suggest that I should not critique anyone who himself is divulging it. Fair enough.

  50. ryan says:

    GLW,

    Anonynimity is only an issue if someone is a troll; not in cases such as Wonders.Why you should be concerned about that I do not know, although I suspect that was just your weak attempt at a barb.

    It doesn’t appear you have read Al carefully on what he is doing with his allusions, as exegesis is a proper attribution of what he is trying to do, be the object a text or a theme. I suspect that words such as ‘exegesis’, ‘balance’ and ‘consistency’ have lost must specific meaning for you, and rather function as a way of saying ‘they agree with me’.

    Why don’t you interact with Al with a biblical argument (that is truly interact, and not just throw 17th century cherry bombs, and duck). I only worry for the sake of Al, should you attempt to, since it is tedious to interact pedantry–can exhibit anything else?–and I would be greatly surprised if you were insightful at any point. Surprise me.

  51. Al,

    These are some tremendous reflections–especially concerning the importance of viewing the local church along geographical rather than denominational lines. You have helped me apply the biblical portrayal of the church in a much clearer manner to our current situation, and for that I am deeply thankful. My only regret is that I’ve only just now come across this… but better late than never.

    I very much look forward to delving into your two lengthy subsequent posts!

    Thank you for you continued service to our Lord and His one, holy, catholic Church.

    Grace and Peace,

    Jonathan

  52. Anonymous says:

    Alastair, thank you again for your response. And thank you for the lengthy quotations although it seems to me they simply make a point that I thought we were already settled on viz. that the early creeds were and are accepted by those of a reformed persuasion.

    Your quotation from Hodge is interesting in that he takes the discussion a step further by insisting the church of Rome is part of the visible church. But this is only part of Hodge’s thinking, is somewhat of a smokescreen and, although I doubt you mean to do this, your lengthy quotation is somewhat misleading in that it gives the impression that Hodge found the church of Rome acceptable, which he clearly did not.

    Whilst asserting the church of Rome as part of the visible church Hodge also asserts her apostasy. In the very document you quote from he goes on to say- QUOTE-“We argue from the acknowledged fact that God has always had, still has, and is to have a people in that church until its final destruction; just as he had in the midst of corrupt and apostate Israel. We admit that Rome has grievously apostatized from the faith, the order and the worship of the church; that she has introduced a multitude of false doctrines, a corrupt and superstitious and even idolatrous worship, and a most oppressive and cruel government; but since as a society she still retains the profession of saving doctrines, and as in point of fact, by those doctrines men are born unto God and nurtured for heaven, we dare not deny that she is still a part of the visible church.” UNQUOTE

    Elsewhere Hodge lays out very clearly his perceived differences between the church of Rome and the Protestant church (which we may assume he was endorsing). I doubt not that you have read this but for the sake of clarity his comparisons are found on pages 134-135 of vol.1 of his systematic theology. Perhaps it would be helpful here to quote simply from his introductory comments to the two positions-

    QUOTE- Romanists have transferred the whole Jewish theory to the Christian Church… Protestants on the other hand teach on this subject, in the exact accordance with the doctrine of Christ and his Apostles: (1) that the church as such or its essential nature is not an external organization. (2) All true believers in whom the Spirit of God dwells, are members of that church which is the body of Christ, no matter with what ecclesiastical organisation they may be connected…” UNQUOTE

    Again, as I have been pointing out throughout out interaction, Hodge also makes the point that one of the main areas of disagreement is on how one enters the kingdom of which the gospel speaks. On our entrance into the true church he states-

    QUOTE- “That the condition of membership in the true Church is not in union with any organized society (my note- i.e. contrary to the claims of the church of Rome) but faith in Jesus Christ.”… Almost all the points of difference between Protestants and Romanists depend on the decision of the question ‘what is the church?’ If their theory be correct; if the church is the external society of professing Christians, subject to apostle-bishops (i.e. bishops who are apostles), and to the Pope as Christ’s vicar on earth; then we are bound to submit to it; and then too beyond the pale of that communion there is no salvation. But if every true believer is, in virtue of his faith, a member of that church to which Christ promises guidance and salvation, then Romanism falls to the ground.” UNQUOTE

    So again I make my point that whilst the early creeds are a healthy basis of agreement yet they are not a sufficient basis for unity (whether we call them a lowest common denominator or ‘primary and fundamental’). They are certainly primary in that they came before the developed doctrines of the reformation period, and as fundamental they are, as I have stated, a basis for agreement but not necessarily unity. The idea of foundation necessarily implies further building in that further common ground needs to be found and dare I suggest it, but surely we can not ignore the issue that I have raised throughout- viz. the basis of entry into the kingdom of which the gospel speaks.

    In our discussion you have not stated clearly if you see regeneration as that which brings the individual into the church/temple/kingdom (I realise each of these terms has a distinct emphasis but I trust I have used them here in keeping with your use of them throughout our discussion) or if it is being first in the church and undergoing baptism that makes the individual regenerate.

    It is clear that we differ in our views of baptism so no further comment there except to challenge your link of circumcision with baptism (I know that we are not going to reach agreement on this one). You say- “Circumcision may not have changed the heart, but it gave people a new access to God and a new relationship with Him; the circumcised person was a member of God’s covenant people.” The circumcised person was indeed granted mambership of God’s covenant people, however the true Israelite was always one who was also circumcised in the heart, that is regenerated. This is the very difference Paul makes between the old covenant and the new- viz. that the basis of entrance into the covenant community was no longer by external observation of a rite but by the internalising of that rite, i.e. circumcision of the heart or regeneration. Baptism is never described in scripture as the seal of our covenant relationship but rather we are sealed by the promised Holy Spirit, by the circumcision made without hands, viz. the regenerating work of the HS (Col 2:11- I suggest that it is inconsitent to use this verse as a reference to baptism unless of course one believes in baptismal regeneration). This is part of the new and better covenant in Christ. This is all part and parcel of the issue originally raised between us, that is- the basis of entry into the kingdom of which the gospel speaks, and therefore our basis of unity as the true children of God.

    With all sincerity perhaps you are to a degree guilty of the accusation you lay at the feet of reformed theologians- viz. that they emphasise one aspect to the detriment of another? Or perhaps a little of what Hodge lays against the Romans viz. that they “transferred the whole Jewish theory to the Christian Church…” I’m not accusing you here Alastair, simply trying to understand you.

    Nevertheless, I have thoroughly enjoyed the interaction so most sincere thanks again Alastair.

  53. Al says:

    Anonymous,
    My purpose in quoting Hodge and others was not to prove that the RC church is really OK, but to demonstrate that my belief that the fundamental truths of the Christian faith are well summarized in the creed has support in the Reformed tradition. Whatever the differences Reformed Christians have with Roman Catholics, we should be able to recognize that the fundamental truths of the gospel, though obscured and corrupted, are nonetheless present in the Roman Catholic church.

    I do not believe that the RC church is acceptable, nor do I believe that it would be right to unite with such a church before deep and widespread changes have been made.

    I do not subscribe to a Roman Catholic doctrine of the Church (witness my discussion with Bryan in recent comment threads for proof of this), but I place more significance on the institution of the Church and rites such as Baptism than Hodge and many other Reformed theologians would. I believe that the essential unity of the Church is not that of an organization, but consists in such things as the gospel, the sacraments and the shared life of the Spirit.

    I believe that entry into the Church occurs in Baptism. The unity of the Church is not in the gospel abstracted from the sacraments. Baptism and the Eucharist serve to make us one body (1 Corinthians 10:16-17; 12:13). Part of the unity of the Church consists in our one Baptism (Ephesians 4:5), not in mere faith by itself. Faith and the preached Word are necessary, but not sufficient, marks for the Church. Membership in the Church is not apart from the sacraments. On this, Hodge’s statements are weak and fail to do justice to the biblical text. However, he is quite right to point out against the RCs that membership in the Church does not necessitate being under the papacy.

    It depends what we mean when we call the ecumenical creeds a ‘sufficient basis for unity’. There are a sufficient basis for unity in the sense of showing the ‘one faith’ of the Church. However, they are not a sufficient basis for unity in the sense that many churches that hold to these creeds also hold dangerous and unbiblical errors that make fellowship with them impossible.

    I believe that a person is regenerated and brought into the Church in Baptism. You allude to Romans 2:28-29, with reference to the connection between circumcision and regeneration. I think that you misread these verses, like most translations. The person being referred to in Romans 2:28-29 is not a believing ethnic Jew, but the believing Gentile of verses 26-27. I believe that an examination of the Greek and the surrounding context will demonstrate that this is the more likely reading. Paul’s argument is that the Gentile believer is a member of the new covenant people; even though he is not physically circumcised, he has the new covenant blessing of heart circumcision.

    The new covenant circumcision is clearly associated with Baptism in Colossians 2:11-12. The same logic appears in Romans 6:1ff, where Baptism is the event in which the old body of sin is stripped off. The removal of the old fleshly and sinful nature took place in Christ’s death and in our baptisms we are baptized into Christ’s death. The new life of the Spirit was given in Christ’s resurrection and poured out at Pentecost and is enjoyed within the Church. We are permitted to share in the Spirit in the Church through Baptism (1 Corinthians 12:13) and are clothed with Christ in Baptism (Galatians 3:27).

    The connection between Baptism and regeneration is quite clear in Scripture. Most commentators readily acknowledge it and those who don’t tend to provide little in the way of convincing exegetical argumentation to back up their case. Their arguments are primarily theological and founded upon an understanding of regeneration that differs significantly from that of Scripture. We are then given exegetical escape routes to help us avoid the apparent teaching of the text. This is my concern with many of the anti-baptismal regeneration arguments: they just don’t take the biblical text seriously enough. The fact that the language of the text is frequently not language that they themselves would use is quite significant. On other occasions they insist on ‘spiritualizing’ references to Baptism, presuming that water Baptism simply cannot be in view. I just don’t believe that this is a healthy way to be handling Scripture.

    I can, I believe, understand where you are coming from on this issue, though. A few years ago I was in much the same position. I was convinced that the doctrine of baptismal regeneration must be unbiblical and attacked it very strongly. However, I kept running up against the biblical text and began to recognize that I was beginning to treat the text in an unnatural fashion. I was so concerned to prove that the text wasn’t teaching baptismal regeneration, that I failed to really take the time to listen to what the text actually was saying. As I began to listen to the text in this way, I found that my (valid) concerns were addressed and that, even though I came to hold baptismal regeneration, I did not have to reject the evangelical convictions that I had feared that I would have to reject. I still hold to the crucial importance of personal faith, a faith that is not automatically bestowed by Baptism, but is the sovereign work of the Spirit of God. I do not believe that Baptism converts people willy-nilly or that every baptized person is destined for heaven.

    In my doctrine of the Church I am simply trying to think as a whole Bible Christian, and to take passages such as Ephesians 4 with the seriousness that they deserve. The OT may have a lot more to teach us about the Church than Hodge might have appreciated.

    Thanks once again for this continued interaction. I have appreciated your gracious tone and have enjoyed our dialogue. I hope that I have been able to clarify my position somewhat along the way.

    Blessings.

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  55. Kyle says:

    Good points, man. One thinks of the catholic maxims, “only the whole Church knows the whole Truth,” or “theology done in schism is heresy.” I think in a post-denomination, post-protestant, post-Christendom West, it’s become paramount to do theology “according to the whole,” and refrain from ranking contemporary denominational synods with the ancient ecumenical councils.

    What’s more, I’m not sure if anybody would argue that the NPP is faithful to the Westminster Confession; I think the better question for reception is whether it’s possible that insights from the NPP teach us a more faithful way of reading scripture than the Confession!

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