Saturday, June 03, 2006

Answers to Armstrong's Ponderings

I have to comment on this post by John Armstrong. It involves a list of questions he ponders as a Reformed Christian, and I believe he deserves some answers, or at least some reply questions.

Q1. Why do modern conservative Reformed Christians seem to have historical amnesia when it comes to events that transpired in church history from the death of John on the Isle of Patmos, late in the first century, until the completion of the Canon several centuries later?

A. I do not believe most modern Reformed Christians ignore the first centuries of the church. Just check the back of any Trinity Hymnal, an OPC production, and you will find the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. Both of which were written in the time period he describes. More importantly what is Rev. Armstrong implying in the question? Was the Canon of Scripture not completed after the last apostle died? Was it not completed the minute the last book of the Bible was written? What is the point is saying that there is a gap between the apostles and the formation of the Bible? It would appear that Rev. Armstrong believes the church created the Bible, and that is troubling.

Q2. Why do modern conservative Reformed Christians virtually ignore the Church Fathers as well as the catholic creeds of the Christian church?

A. I fail to see how this is different than the first question, and it is just not true.

Q3. Why do modern conservative Reformed Christians ignore the fact that John Calvin was especially influenced by the Church Fathers? For that matter why do these same conservative Reformed Christians virtually ignore other Reformed writers who relied very heavily upon the classical catholic tradition such as Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley?

A. Obviously someone has an ax to grind by repeating the same thought in three questions. Would it not be faster just to come out and describe an example of how conservative Reformed Christians ignore the early church? Without examples it is really just the fallacy of ‘hasty generalization’ not to mention completely baseless.

Q4. Why do conservative Reformed Christians treat only certain confessional traditions, such as the Westminster Confession or its cousin the London Baptist Confession, as if only these confessions and catechisms were the proper confessional grounds for the Reformed faith and thus for contemporary understanding of the Bible and classical Christian thought, if they even care about classical thought? These important creedal standards of the 17th century are not the only standards for orthodoxy, for all time and all cultures, and few have ever treated them in this manner. Therefore, why do ordinary Christians hardly ever hear this from the many of the conservative Reformed spokesmen? (There are few if any conservative Reformed spokeswomen, which is another question for another time.)

A. Let us just leave aside the disturbing comment about women for today. Coming from a denomination that uses neither the Westminster nor the London Baptist Confession, I would argue that to make this question fit, Rev. Armstrong needs to replace the word “Reformed” with “Presbyterian”. There are many conservative Reformed denominations that use the Three Forms for example. More importantly note how Rev. Armstrong thinks that orthodoxy changes over time. He makes sure to include the idea that the WCF is not a standard “for all time”. If you do not think the WCF is orthodox, fine. Come out and defend your point. But arguing that it was orthodox, and now is not because of the advancement of contemporary thought is Hegelian, denying the truth can be known, and dangerous to say the least.

Q5. Why do conservative Reformed Christians demand a kind of purity from other modern Reformed writers that allows so many of them to never actually engage the culture and do the hard work of the Kingdom in the 21st century? Why do they attack all expressions of emerging culture and church life when in fact their tradition emerged in a specific time in history too?

A. While this is again purposefully vague, one gets the idea that this might be about opposition to the Emergent Church. However, the implication of his words seems to say that ‘purity’ presumably of doctrine forbids engaging the culture. From that opinion, I dissent.

Q6. Why do conservative Reformed Christians identify so strongly, and often so stridently, with other non-Reformed Christians in certain area of gospel controversy, especially in advocating very narrow definitions of the gospel in an attempt to impress lay people and inadequately taught pastors that they alone are standing for the truth in this dark day? This has been done over the last ten years with the issuance of various joint statements and widely promoted conferences, as if these faithful spokesmen alone have the courage to defend the gospel and the correct understanding of what actually constitutes the gospel.

A. I have to admit that I am lost on this one. Rev. Armstrong obviously has specifics in mind but refuses to name them. This puts him squarely in the tradition of Gilbert Tennent. But since I have no idea what he really means, and I do not attend many, if any, conferences I will just take a pass.

Q7. Why do conservative Reformed Christians generally treat Roman Catholics (and Orthodox Christians if they bother to respond to them at all) as non-Christians, especially in their public pronouncements? Do these same Reformed Christians, at least on the Presbyterian side of the aisle, ever admit that their own traditions have always accepted Catholic/Orthodox baptism as valid Christian baptism? I also wonder if these conservatives, who stand should-to-shoulder with other non-Reformed fundamentalists in a type of reductionism that results from their narrow gospel definitions (as noted as in question six above), really ever make these facts plain to their non-Reformed (Baptist and dispensational) allies, who I suppose would be aghast if they understood this?

A. This I believe is a valid question. One that was discussed recently by many ministers in my denomination. But, I do not think that accepting the validity of Baptism means that we are accepting the validity of the Roman/Popish/Eastern church. Baptism in the end is the work, not of the minister, but of the Holy Spirit. It does not depend on the holiness of the man, but on the promises of God. And just to show I do not ignore history, Augustine made this argument against the Donatists many centuries ago, and it is the basis of the Reformed position. As for making it clear to Baptist allies that we accept the baptisms of Romanists, I hope we do. Because if there is one thing we need to have discussions with Baptists about it is baptism.

Q8. Why do conservative Reformed Christians rail so harshly, and react so emotionally, against liturgy in worship (a huge list could be constructed to make this point) on the one hand, while on the other they hate pop-cultural, happy-clappy, contemporary evangelical worship services with a passion? Do they realize that what they have created, in many cases, is a modern lecture hall with hymns and a collection? Do they realize that this is much more like a Plymouth Brethren gathering than a truly Reformed service, with all its variations and rich use of older liturgical tradition?

A. We rail against both because driving into a ditch on either side of the road is a bad idea. For clarification, liturgy itself is not bad, but I suspect that Rev. Armstrong mean a high altar-based liturgy. Conservative Reformed Christians usually argue for a Pulpit based liturgy. John Nevin, a proponent of altar based liturgy said it best, “They are two different theological systems.” Nevin was not confused by the railing. The altar based system and the pulpit based system are not the same liturgical tradition. If Rev. Armstrong does not mean to argue for Nevin’s system, then I suppose his attack is so narrow that I do not know much of the lecture hall environment he describes.

Q9. Why do conservative Reformed Christians often promote a high ecclesiology (in theory) while in practice they act much more like Southern Baptists who add presbyteries and general assemblies on to a modern form of culture religion? In practice these sorts of Reformed groups govern themselves, and do theology, less and less like historically Reformed bodies. Think populism and democractic idealism, not historic Reformed confessionalism, and you get my point.

A. I think the best answer there is sin. We tend toward populism rather than confessionalism naturally, and it is a constant battle. It is good to be reminded of our need for grace even in our ecclesiology.

Q10. Why do conservative Reformed Christians promote certain aspects of Puritanism, often without really understanding Puritanism in the way a real scholar like J. I. Packer does, while at the same time they despise the real Puritan approach to the Holy Spirit and to a practical experiential religion centered in the heart? And why do these same people hate almost every type of ascetical or mystical theology while whole segments of the Reformed movement have loved these parts of the Christian tradition deeply? (This is precisely why some conservative Reformed spokesmen despise Jonathan Edwards, which I discovered first-hand, to my profound surprise, about ten years ago.)

A. I am not a Puritan expert since I am not really in the Puritan tradition in the RCUS. I would be interested, however, in which parts of the Reformed traditions loved asceticism and mysticism. I am not sure why I am required to enjoy Jonathon Edwards either. He has his good points, and he has some bad points.

Rev. Armstrong challenges men to come out and abandon their narrow confessionalism. He adds his wishes that churches would live in the 21st century rather than the 17th. Yet, here is where I would challenge Rev. Armstrong. I wish he would have an open debate about Theological and Historical Development. Why is it that orthodoxy of the 17th century is now the unorthodoxy of the 21st? I believe the historical development theories of Hegel, Schaff, and Nevin are philosophically, theologically, and historically absurd. As a matrix for viewing history, the bible, and the church it fails completely. Yet it is historical development is the underpinning of the Federal Vision, Reformed Catholicism, and Rev. Armstrong’s entire post. However, I, like Rev. Armstrong, will not hold my breath.


Anonymous said...

Pastor Lee, I’m new to your forum, I read Armstrong's Ponderings. I'm a bit of a searcher myself and I'm currently reading up on the differing Christian theologies Calvinism, Armenianism etc. Please correct me if I’m wrong but contrary to your statement, wasn’t the Canon of Scripture, the New Testament as we know it today, decided during the ecumenical counsels of the early Church? The first complete listing was given by St. Athanasius in his Paschal Letter in A.D. 367, and it was during the third Council of Carthage A.D. 397 where the final list of the canonical books of both the Old and New Testaments was decided. The council also held that these books should be read in the church as Divine Scripture to the exclusion of all others. This Council was widely accepted as authoritative in the West. So really it was the early Church that created (your term) the New Testament.

Bill Arnold said...

I have to side with the comment above. There is no indication, from within the pages of the Bible, of which books should be part of the canon and which shouldn't. The list was determined by a council. I'm not saying that there was anything wrong or sinister about this. I'm merely pointing out that you're wrong.

Lee said...

Anonymous and Bill,

The traditional Protestant understanding of the canon of Scripture is the church 'received' the books of the New Testament rather than deciding or declaring which books were in and which were out. I believe the Latin word used in the Council mentioned is 'received.' The Roman view is the church decided the books, thus, giving the church authority equal or above the Bible.

I also believe their is ample evidence to suggest that the Bible was closed and recognized to be so long before Athanasius. You have Clement of Alexander saying the Bible was closed by the end of the 2nd century, and he said the books were all written by the end of the first. Clement of Rome, A.D 90, quotes from almost every NT book, and specifically calls Paul inspired by the Holy Spirit. There was actually only about 3 books that people seriously disputed. I Clement being the one argued for the most, but it was left out because Clement acknowledges himself to be less than the apostles. I do believe a fair reading of history shows us that those Early Church Fathers knew which books to quote from when they are quoting the NT. The vast agreement among some 3 centuries of Fathers prior to Carthage or Athanasius cannot be shrugged off as a coincidence. The books written by the apostles were immediately accepted as Holy Scripture.