Monday, October 17, 2005

Solid Rock or Shifting Sand

Jeff Meyers tries to answer the question I have been dying to know about the Federal Vision. How can one advocate changing the standards (especially the Westminster) to fit the new insights of Biblical Theology, and then still claim early Reformed writings back up your point of view? Either it is a new insight, or it is not? Which is it? Sadly, Rev. Meyers fails to give an adequate answer. He tries to tell us that it is both new and not new, which ducks the question. Then he states,

Some of the terminology and phraseology is new. I'd admit that. But again, this should be no problem. That's one of the great things about "system" confessional subscription. We don't bind ourselves to a particular forms of words, just to the overall content. So we have freedom to reformulate biblical truth for the context in which we're called to minister.

This is a telling answer. What Rev. Meyers is arguing is that the system is what is important, not the content. This is how one argues for changing the Standards, but can still claim to be a part of that ‘system’ or tradition. Rev. Meyers would have us believe that the system remains unaltered even if all the words in the system are changed. Thus, one can change the meaning of ‘elect’ or ‘justification’ or the meaning of baptism and the supper, perhaps even the meaning of the Regulative Principle of Worship, and the system will remain the same.

Now, I think where Rev. Meyers and I will disagree is on the affect of reformulating biblical truth. Rev. Meyers thinks it does not affect the system of doctrine, and I believe it does, at least the way it is being done now by the Federal Vision proponents. It is one thing to speak confessional truths in a language and manner that is understandable by your audience, it is another to speak in a manner that is understandable to your audience, but contradicts the confession. The first, I believe, is ministering biblical truth in a particular context, and the second is reformulating biblical truth for the context.

Meyers goes on in his blog to accuse those who oppose the Federal Vision of “cultural imperialism.” He is saying that those who want to remain faithful to the Standards are stuck in a by gone cultural, and refuse to see how one must reformulate the message to fit the modern culture. Rev. Meyers wants to change the message to fit with the changing times, not only for the needs of the audience, but also for the advances in Biblical Theology. After all, changing the message does not affect the system for Rev. Myers. Thus, again, Philip Schaff’s Principle of Protestantism rears its ugly head. The dialectical movement of doctrine throughout history is what Myers is ascribing to in his post. One cannot hold to the doctrine of the Reformation because the Reformation was a previous stage of development, and it would be ridiculous to cling to that which history has past by. The system is more important. And the system for Rev. Myers is not what the Westminster or the Three Forms teach, not any more. Rev. Myers holds to a system that contains internal change in a movement toward a fianl synthesis.

The debate over the Federal Vision is not just about justification or the sacraments, as Rev. Meyers rightly points out. It is also a debate about whether or not the truth is knowable, whether or not it is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Is the doctrine of the church a solid rock upon which to build, rock that can be written down in Confessions and trusted forever, or is it shifting sands that blow and move around with the times.


Mr. Baggins said...

Amen. FV people think in Hegelian terms often (though not always). Those who do have to do so, since they are so obviously out of accord with the confession.

Anonymous said...

"Thus, one can change the meaning of ‘elect’ or ‘justification’ or the meaning of baptism and the supper, perhaps even the meaning of the Regulative Principle of Worship, and the system will remain the same. "

What Meyers were you reading? He said you can change the words you use and still mean the same thing. You have completely inverted his argument.

Lee said...

Mr. Anonymous,

I am reading Jeff Meyers, and I disagree that I have inverted his argument. He himself states several things that are now different in the PCA community namely, “weekly communion, younger child communion, a higher view of baptism than was has been popular in past decades, a more communal/social approach to life in the church, and more.” These clearly are new applications from the new exegetical insights. I do admit that Rev. Meyers wants to argue (and in some places does) that the new exegetical insights do not lead to new theology. Yet, he points out the clearly new practices. He then continues on to say about Peter Leithart, “His work on the biblical meaning of "priests" ought to transform the way that Reformed theology has traditionally defined priesthood in her confessions and catechisms. If we really embrace the full meaning of the adjective "Reformed," especially the modus operandi of semper reformanda, then Peter's new insights into the biblical text ought to be a good thing and goad us on to continuing to reform our theological formulations according to the infallible Word of God.” Here Meyers is saying that Leithart has redefined the meaning of ‘priest’ and it ought to change us. This is not a merely intellectual exercise, but one that changes the creeds and our way of living. So I do not believe that I have inverted his argument at all.

Anonymous said...

Unbelievable. There is nothing in the WCF against weekly communion. No age is established for first communion. The view of baptism Meyers proposes is amply found in the Westminster Standards. The communal/social approach to life in the church is obviously more in tune with Westminsters material on there being ordinarily no salvation outside of the visible Church. None of this is anything but a point that we are moving away from Thornwellianism. So what? He never spoke for the entirety of the Reformed heritge?

As far as Leithart is concerned, until we have an actual discussion of Leithart's position and his argument from Scripture, you have no business using human tradition as a trump card.

Lee said...

I agree that weekly communion is not forbidden in the Westminster, I simply wanted to give his quote in full. However, while no official age is set in stone infant and young child communion is prohibited when one looks at Shorter Catechism 97 that states clearly the participant must examine themselves, repent, love, and obey. Similarly, Large Catechism 171 adds meditation, prayer, faith and a few other things to the list that no child can fulfill. As for baptism, surely you will admit that at least his position is in debate as to whether or not the Westminster teaches it. I believe you are making a jump that would anger many by saying that the communal/social aspect is in tune with the Westminster, and I would add that exactly what he means by that aspect needs to be clarified. And Meyers, not I, brought up Leithart, which I believe makes his point fair game. But, it is not necessary, and I will drop it at your request.

As for your point about the PCA (of which I am not a member mind you) moving away from Thornwellianism, I have a few comments for I believe you made an interesting comment. First, the Federal Vision controversy is in no way limited to the PCA or the Southern Presbyterian church, where Thornwell had such great influence. The OPC has similar divisions and the OPC is part of the Northern church where Thornwell had little to no influence. If the Federal Vision was simply a move away from Thornwellianism one would expect the OPC not to have the same problems, but it does. Second, I find it hard to classify the PCA as a Thornwellian church. It has not been since Joining and Receiving when the PCA abandoned many of Thornwell’s classic positions. It was no longer a bottom up church and became top heavy, it has independent church boards, which Thornwell abhorred. And it should have had an extremely healthy influx of non-Thornwellian positions on sacraments as it did on subscription and the commandments. Yet, the history of the PCA does not show such an upheaval on the sacraments, justification, worship, or social/church life until recently. This is odd especially since Covenant Seminary became the dominant seminary, and it is not from a Thornwellian background. Thus, I am forced to conclude that this is more than a simple move away from Thornwellianism.

Good comments, I look forward to more.

Kevin Bywater said...

Lee, you wrote, "What Rev. Meyers is arguing is that the system is what is important, not the content. This is how one argues for changing the Standards, but can still claim to be a part of that ‘system’ or tradition. Rev. Meyers would have us believe that the system remains unaltered even if all the words in the system are changed."

Frankly, I must agree with "anonymous," you have twisted Pastor Meyers's words...or at least you have misconstrued him (the very act you ascribe to him). You convert his words such that he is seen to deny "the content" of the confession, where you assume that "the content" and "the words" of the confession are limited and coterminus (not to mention assuming that "the system" and "the content" are coterminus). That people explain the confession with alternative terms indicates that your assumption is incorrect.

And to think that the content of the confession is unalterable is to suppose that the civil magistrate has powers beyond those biblically granted. If you don't know what I'm referring to, then please consider reading up on the history of the relevant sections in the confession and catechisms, as well as the discussions among American Presbyterians. This feature in itself reveals a localized quality to (at least some of) the Westminster Standards, as well as the PCA's acknowledgement of that quality.

Regards, Kevin James Bywater

James Frank SolĂ­s said...

Lee, I posted a comment at Meyer's blog which amounts to, I think, a reasonable request: a draft of the WCF as he thinks it should read after taking the FV positions into account. Thought you'd like to know.

Lee said...


Thanks for posting. I do know what you are referring to about the editing of the Westminster Standards, which only acknowledged the fact that everyone had always taken an exception to the Civil Magistrate section on account of the highly Irish nature of American Presbyterianism. I also believe that the editing of the Westminster is an improvement, as you seem to, in bringing them more in line with the Biblical teaching of the role of the government. However, I also believe that editing changed the system of the Westminster Confession. If one strictly subscribed to the Confession before and then after the editing, then he would be confessing something different each time. He would have changed his system with regards to the Civil Magistrate, the Church, and how they interact. I am not, and have not ever argued that Westminster Standards can never be changed, but if they are to be changed, they must be changed by editing, not be reformulating.

I believe the most recent post by Rev. Meyers clears up what I am disagreeing with. This is a quote from Rev. Jordan, which Rev. Meyers reposted on his site.

“Well, of course there is a “system” in the Standards, but the question is how detailed that system is. To say that there is a general system though many details in the Standards are not necessarily bound into that system, is quite different from saying that the Standards form a system that is tightly locked down in every detail.”

This is the disagreement I have. Meyer and Jordan claim that the system in the Westminster is broad, and changing some of the words or details does not affect the system, while others (myself included) claim that the system is bound up in every word. I will be posting on Rev. Jordan’s article soon, but for now the quote should be enough to show that I am not twisting Rev. Meyers when I say that he believes the system is not bound up in every detail or word of the Confession. Thus, for Rev. Meyers, to reformulate some details or words, does not affect the system.

Thanks for letting me know. I hope that he will do it.