Monday, November 21, 2005

Relativism Revisited

It seems I am being accused of having made a logical fallacy in my last post. The fallacy of Post Hoc, the fallacy of using the fact that one event preceded another as sufficient evidence for causality. It apparently won me the ‘Whatever’ award of the week, for which I am very proud. It also generated a few laughs at my expense.

While I will grant that I did not connect all the dots in the last post, I do not think I have committed the fallacy in question. Even if the post was a bit sketchy, it does not necessarily follow that I am wrong. If I mistakenly assumed that my readers have an exhaustive familiarity with the Mercersburg Theology or the Federal Vision theology and its arguments, I apologize. Allow me now to connect the dots for everyone now.

Philip Schaff admits that the great and most important work of theological development is Christian union, the reuniting of all the churches, including the Roman Catholic, under one banner. Christian union is the ultimate endpoint of Schaff’s line of thinking by his own admission in his book, What is Church History? John Nevin makes clear his positions on church creeds and confessional distinctions in his book, The Anti-Christ by saying:

In admitting moreover the necessity of confessional distinctions, we do not allow them to be good and desirable in their own nature. They are relatively good only, as serving to open the way to a higher form of catholicity than that which they leave behind; whilst in themselves absolutely considered, they contradict and violate the true idea of the Church, and are to be bewailed on this account as an evil of the most serious magnitude

Nevin does not want anything to do with distinctions, especially confessional distinctions. They are inherently evil in his view. The people should rise above such distinctions. They have no importance except to weight us down. Hopefully my readers can begin to see here the seeds of theological relativism. It is no surprise to find the generation after Schaff and Nevin attempting to merge with any church that will have them. They were rejected by the Presbyterians prior to their successful uniting with the Evangelical Lutheran denomination. The merger with the Evangelical Lutherans allowed the Lutheran creeds to stand alongside the Heidelberg Catechism in the new denomination, the Evangelical Reformed. The new denomination’s constitution stated, "Wherever these doctrinal standards differ, minister, members, and congregations, in accordance with the liberty of conscious inherent in the Gospel, are allowed to adhere to the interpretation of one of these confessions." By this the new church allowed even individual members within the same congregation to have different opinions on the use of images, the efficacy of sacraments, and other doctrines. Rev. Peter Grossmann said it well, "When one body claims to hold equally to three conflicting confessions, we can be sure that there will either be disunity if doctrine is taken seriously, or even worse there will be the conclusion that doctrine is unimportant." The Mercersburg Theology led to the latter. Schaff’s drive for organic union and Nevin’s disrespect for confessions allowed men to say, when theologies differ, just decide for yourself. To strengthen my case, E&R publications credited the theology of Philip Schaff for this merger. That really ought to be enough to dismiss the Post Hoc fallacy charge.

Do the Federal Vision men exhibit the same signs as the Mercersburg men? Yes, I believe they do. Busy attacking me as foolish, no one bothered to deal with my example of the Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches (Doug Wilson’s denomination). After allowing member churches to adhere to almost any Reformed Confession, including Baptist confessions, they state the following in their constitution:

G. Controversies within a local congregation regarding matters arising from differences between our various confessions will not be adjudicated beyond the local church level. All churches agree to work cheerfully and carefully in their study of doctrinal differences, and to strive for like-mindedness with one another

Thus differences in the Westminster and the London Baptist confessions over baptism are unimportant and should be left alone. Differences regarding the Sabbath between the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster should also be ignored. You get the picture. This is similar thinking to the E&R in the early 1900’s. When Confessions differ, just decide for yourself. The denomination does not think it matters.

But there is more! Andrew Sandlin claims:

We CRs have a broadness of our own, but it is the broadness of the orthodox Christian tradition itself. We are committed to what Thomas Oden terms “classical Christianity,” the early ecumenical orthodoxy of the undivided church as set forth principally in the Apostles, Nicene, Chalcedonian, and Athanasian Creeds.

Here Sandlin argues that Christianity can differ on many points as long as it does not differ on the points covered in the early creeds. In this perspective, justification by faith alone is one of those doctrines that one does not have to believe. Works, faith, whatever, just as long as one understands Christ is one person in two natures. It should not be hard to see this progression toward theological relativism.

What about Nevin’s view of the creeds and confessions? Does anyone believe that the creeds are barriers to catholicity that need to be overcome? Why yes! One quote from Rev. Rich Lusk should be enough:

Nevertheless, the Catechism can serve as a barrier to Reformed catholicity. The Shorter Catechism essentially reduces the biblical story to a set of propositions. It treats theology in a highly analytic way, as a matter of defining terms (e.g., "What is justification?", "What is sanctification?”, etc.).

For Rev. Lusk, defining words like justification and sanctification gets in the way of ecumenism and catholicity. John Nevin would be proud.

Mercersburg adherents and Federal Vision supporters both find themselves on the same slippery slope. They view confessions as barriers to catholicity and Christian union, they believe creeds with differing theologies can be held equally, and they affirm that doctrine develops and changes. One hundred years ago, this led to relativism in Mercersburg defenders, and I believe the foundation has been laid for a repeat with the Federal Vision. Aside from the name-calling, no one has yet to step up and offer a counter argument.

So remember, the next time you hear someone defend their theological viewpoint by asserting that differing theologies of salvation (or the sacraments or whatever) are allowable because they come from different parts of the same Reformed tradition, be assured that that is a step towards relativism.


Anonymous said...

Man, two weeks in a row. You're on a roll, dude.

The problem with confessions, as your quote from Nevin makes abundantly clear, is not that they err, but that they are necessary in the first place. Creeds and confessions come into being in light of doctrinal controversies. Even the primordial symbol, "Jesus is Lord" is formulated in the negative "Caesar is not Lord." Ideally, anyone with half a brain and one eye open would know this, but sin has impaired us.

The second problem with creeds, again as Nevin makes clear, is when they harden into once-for-all statements. A species of this error is present in the KJV-only folks ("Good enough for Paul," etc.) This fails to reckon with the reality that statements of faith are historically conditioned. This is not to say that they are false; simply that they are limited by available light and linguistic possibilities. Ideally, as we move closer to Christ and closer to the fullness of the mind of Christ, new confessions become possible. Unless you are willing to consign John 17:21 to an eschatologial, rather than an historical, goal you must admit to this. Either that or you must regard Westminster as a perfect confession, irreformable in any respect.

The fact that you so badly misread the very things that you quote is ample evidence that you are an untrustworthy judge of that which you speak.

Dale Courtney said...

You wrote: "differences in the Westminster and the London Baptist confessions over baptism are unimportant and should be left alone. Differences regarding the Sabbath between the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster should also be ignored. You get the picture."

But that's not what it says. It doesn't say that the differences are insignificant. They do not say that they should be ignored. They do not say that they are not to be discussed.

Rather, they are not going to break fellowship by having Baptists in their membership; and they are not going to discipline a member who has (or has not) had their children baptized -- one reason many Baptists refuse to join my past PCA churches.

So while I disagree with Baptist theology, I'd rather have them in fellowship with me than have them going elsewhere. After all, many of us were once credo's who became convinced by sitting under Reformed preaching.


Mr. Baggins said...

So this is my question for those who appreciate Nevin: If we are going to let go of doctrinal differences in the sense that we are going to have one super-denomination, then where is there room for those who disagree with the whole system (assuming an inaugurated (and therefore not consummated) eschatology)? Are those people going to be accepted into your denomination whether they like it or not? Is that not a doctrinal difference to disagree with the whole system? Where is there room in your system for these people?

This is precisely where the Mercersburg theology resembles post-modernism. Post-modernists (in my rather extensive experience) can accept any theology except those who are anti-post-modern. So, in attempting to include everyone, they wind up including no one who is exclusive, thus resulting in a new kind of exclusivity. It is a self-contradictory system. There is a broad church unity already existent. We agree to worship apart from Baptists, because of our consciences. In glory, those differences will be erased. However, they are here, for good or ill, right now.

I really wonder at the level of rhetoric of the first anonymous person's response. It is entirely un-Christian.

Anonymous said...

First, the goal of visible unity is poorly characterized as a "super-denomination." Such a descriptor really betrays a lack of familiarity with the question. V

Visible unity has a great deal more to do with intercommunion ("eucharistic hospitality"), mutual recognition of orders, the explicit retraction of mutual anathemas, and an improved doctrinal language to describe the faith that is everywhere, always, believed by all Christians. No one is really attempting to dissolve individual traditions or their organizational infrastructures, just orient them toward the other. The hope is for a Trinitarian ecclesiology that accounts for differences and unity.

When you speak of "those who disagree with the whole system," I'm not exactly sure who you have in mind. If it is something close to the intramural differences between Calvinists and Arminians, ect., see the paragraph above. If it is something more fundamental, wouldn't we be talking about Christians and non-Christians? Catholicity is not the same thing as a universalist soteriology.

You throw around the term "postmodern" in what seems to be a perjorative sense; perhaps making it equivalent to a radical relativism. While certainly this is present in some persons who embrace the term, the two are certainly not the same thing. Indeed, there is no real agreement on what "postmodernism" is and a great deal more specificity is required when dropping the term into conversation. Are you referencing Lyotard, Foucault, Derrida, Fish, Baudrillard, or someone else? Or do you just have an ill-defined, catch-all boogeyman named "postmodernism" in mind?

Given the manner in which you have used the sources you do quote, let's say I'm not optimistic of the answer.

Finally, your characterization of the previous poster as "un-christian" was pretty disingenuous given the manner in which you characterize your opponents' views. One doesn't need to use curse words to smear people by misassociation.

Anonymous said...

It seems that "anonymous" in comment #4 has demonstrated Mr. Baggins point. It appears that only Mr. Anonymous may determine who or what is un-christian. Mr. Anonymous will receive as a Christian anyone who says "I say I am a Christian therefore I am a Christian.", but he reserves the right to reject anyone who maintains there is more to Christianity than saying "I am a Christian", and claiming his works are good.

I think Lee has it right in the first place. The reason is that truth is not an abstract concept. Truth is grounded in the nature of God. Why can't God lie? God can't lie because whatever God says becomes true be virtue of the fact that God says it.

Any fellowship that is not grounded in agreement in the truth of Jesus Christ is nothing more than a delusion. They have gone astray and turned everyone to his own way. All the subtlety in the world doesn't change that.

Andrew McIntyre said...

One of the reasons I do not allow anonymous posts on my blog is because I think people ought to have the courage to identify themselves. This is especially true if they are going to hurl rude, sweeping insults. One should be able to face one's accuser, even if in a merely virtual sense.

I see a lot of fear and vitriolic argumentation from the FVs. To me, it renders their position all the more suspect.


Anonymous said...

RE: "Mr. Anonymous will receive as a Christian anyone who says "I say I am a Christian therefore I am a Christian.", but he reserves the right to reject anyone who maintains there is more to Christianity than saying "I am a Christian", and claiming his works are good."

Man, where to begin with this?

First, where in the one quote attributable to me could you possibly establish a reliable characterization of my views? Have the conversation or don't, but this kind of smear based on nothing more than a couple of sentences makes you look like a partisan hack.

Second, your attribution presumes that I accept the Puritan gamble (i.e. "collapse the invisible church into the visible"). Quite the opposite is true. Puritanism, and the "profession of faith" ecclesiology that attends it is a theologically bankrupt project. It failed in New England and leads directly to either Finney's revivalism or Unitarianism. The boundary markers you are looking for are the same Niceno-Constanopolitan boundaries that have always been there. That is what my comments above intended. Not that you bothered to consider this before bloviating.

Thirdly, I'm not interested in the job of declaring who is and is not Christian (which, according to Puritanism, requires evidence of "election," not "faith"). Take the job if you want, but you will do no better at finding the "something more to Christianity" that you are looking for.

Lee said...

Anonymous #1,
Thanks, I enjoy being a roll, and two weeks is better than normal. However, I believe that you have assumed what is in debate with regards to your second point. You have presented Nevin’s arguments well, but the question is about whether or not the passing years makes more “available light”. If time passing does equal the gaining of wisdom, and opening up the bible more for saints to understand more, then Nevin may indeed be right. Yet, if the bible is sufficiently clear in any age, then Nevin is wrong, and creeds then are useful.

Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Perhaps my wording could have been better. Yet, for now, I will still stand by the comment that the theological differences are insignificant for the member churches of the CREC. Assume for a moment a CREC member church that holds to the Belgic Confession. The Belgic clearly teaches that the marks of a true church are pure preaching of the word, correct administration of the sacraments, and practicing discipline. It also teaches that the correct administration of the sacraments includes infant baptism. How does that church take seriously the Belgic and remain in organic union with churches who do not baptize their infants? Do they believe that portion of the Belgic to be significant enough to act upon? I think it is a legitimate question to ask how those churches reconcile the two.

I am enjoying the debate. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

When you write of the Scriptures being sufficiently clear in any age, you seem to be confusing revelation with theology. While theology is an original deposit and sufficiently "perspicacious" to direct someone with ordinary means to faith, the same cannot be said of theology - even the theology embodied in the creeds.

Theology is a confessional act done in response to revelation. Because it remains a human production (more or less guided by the Spirit depending on which theology), it is invariably conditioned by the language, historical circumstances, limits of expression, and degree of insight possessed by the Christian community.

Worship, prayer, and preaching are the primary theological acts of the Church - this would include the Creed as uttered in the Liturgy and even the Heidelberg Catechism which was designed for liturgical use. Systematic theological works are a kind of second order reflection on Scripture as the Church interacts with (and hopefully shaped by) it.

One of the pressing issues of the mid to late nineteenth century was the historical conditioning of theology. It was an issue on both sides of the Atlantic. A volume you might wish to consult is by Chadwick "From Bossuet to Newman." Another helpful volume would be that of Lindbeck "The Nature of Doctrine."

This is pretty standard stuff - even in conservative Reformed circles. I'm surprised you didn't encounter it in seminary.

Anonymous said...


That sentence should read: "While Scripture is an original deposit and sufficiently 'perspicacious'...

Lee said...


You make a good point. Theological Development is standard stuff even in Conservative circles. I did encounter it at seminary, even at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. However, I still think it is wrong. Just because Pusey and Schaff and countless more German philosophers all fell prey to Hegelianism applied to theology does not mean that it is right. Theological development was also opposed by many on both sides of the Atlantic in the 19th century, they simply did not win out in the major denominations.

I do agree that theology is the work of man, but I disagree that a Christian community in the 21st century has more insight or light than a Christian community in the 2nd century. Since we both agree that revelation itself is clear, and never changing, the question must now be asked, where is this new light or insight coming from as history progresses? Let us just use the New Perspectives on Paul as our example. These men reformulate biblical doctrines in light of the ‘new insights’ on Paul provided by 1st Century Jewish literature. This aids them in their reading and understanding of the unchanging revelation of God. But why is it that now in the 21st century we have this new insight when the 1st and 2nd century Christians came to opposite conclusions when they read the same documents, and held discussions with those 1st Century Jews that lived next door? Are we sure that these new insights are right? Are they right because they are new? I see no evidence for the Hegel/Schaff/Pusey paradigm of theological development in history. I fear that theological development has become so excepted that it is no longer questioned. I also think that this is the reason that this discussions happen every so often since the 19th century. No one has ever dealt sufficiently with the historical and theological development theory. It always leads back to the same place, and it always will until someone finally throws this theory out.