Don’t Look Now But Your “Reformed” Theology Might Not Be Confessional

In recent years the debates of the Reformation period have taken priority over the theology of the debates. Somehow possessing vast acquaintance with multiple sides of doctrinal disputes has in some circles become more academically impressive and pastorally relevant than possessing an intimate working-understanding of which doctrines are theologically Reformed and defensible. Consequently, there has not just been a blurring of Reformed confessional boundaries but, also, some churches and presbyteries have intentionally erased their doctrinal walls of protection. None of this is surprising once we consider that the formal teaching of systematic theology has at many institutions been relegated to historians rather than theologians. This phenomenon has opened the door to subjective and more novel takes on settled matters of theological intricacy. Stated differences and exceptions to confessional standards are not taken seriously. Pastors and ruling elders needn’t be acquainted with their confessions, let alone be theologians, as long as their views can be accompanied by a fragile appeal to confessional standards being a “consensus document” along with citing a scattered few seventeenth century theologians who held to sometimes esoteric views that did not win the confessional day. One can now earn an honorary degree of “Reformed orthodoxy” merely by possessing an air of historical understanding without actually subscribing to much of what was once upheld as Reformed theology.

A way back?

If we are to recapture objective confessional theology, we must stop confusing Reformed theology with Reformed theologians. The former is an objective consideration whereas the latter is a subjective matter of degree. A pastor can be more or less Reformed, but a doctrine either is or is not Reformed. Conflating the two leads to recasting “Reformed” theology in terms of a multitude of broadly based theologians rather than the particular Reformed confessions that were providentially produced by and through them.

From hereafter I’ll be referring to the Westminster standards as representative of confessional Reformed theology in the context of churches that on paper subscribe to it.

In ascertaining whether a particular doctrine is Reformed or not, we mustn’t fall prey to misleading slogans that deflect and obfuscate rather than define and defend. It is irrelevant that “good men have been on both sides of the issue” or that the doctrine under consideration is “not a test of orthodoxy.” It doesn’t even matter whether the doctrine in view is correct! When determining whether a particular doctrine is Reformed or not, the only question of relevance is whether the doctrine is contained in or necessitated by the confession of faith.

Reformed theology is just that, the theology of a Reformed confession. A doctrine is Reformed if it agrees with or is implied by confessional theology. Whether one’s professed theology is Reformed must be measured against an objective standard. Otherwise, what are we even talking about? Moreover, an acceptable doctrine might not be defined or implied by the confession. We may call such doctrine extra-confessional, but not all extra-confessional doctrines are un-confessional. Amillenialism and Postmillenialism are extra-confessional because the confession doesn’t take a position (implied or otherwise) on the triumph of the gospel in the world; whereas premillennialism is not only extra-confessional, it is also un-confessional because of the general resurrection and single judgement (WLC 87, 88). So, just because William Twisse was historical premillennial doesn’t mean he or his eschatology is Reformed in this regard. Similarly, the baptismal regeneration doctrine of Cornelius Burgess, which contemplates an infusion of grace for the elect at the font, is not Reformed because it’s not confessional.

It should be apparent, if we were to allow the unfiltered theology of the Westminster Divines to define Reformed Theology for us, our confession would not be a fair representation of Reformed theology! Our confession could become contra-Reformed depending upon the particular theologian to which one might appeal for doctrinal precedent. Consequently, true Reformed theology cannot be defined by particular Divines but instead must be elucidated by the doctrinal standards they produced.

Fence posts:

A “consensus” document does not preclude certain doctrines from having won the day. Certain Divines championed what is now settled un-confessional doctrine.

Regarding confessional status, any (a) direct contradiction of the confession or (b) extra-confessional teaching that leads to intra-confessional doctrinal contradiction may be confidently rejected for being un-confessional even if not explicitly refuted by the church’s standards (regardless if a delegate to the assembly held the view in question). Otherwise, we unnecessarily introduce incoherence and confusion into our system of doctrine. Also, any doctrine that is theologically derivable from other confessional doctrines must be considered no less confessional than the doctrines from which they come. Otherwise, we would not be able to refute on confessional grounds doctrinal claims that oppose the necessary implications of our own theology!

Let’s put some meat on the bones by making the abstract practical:

Any view of free will (e.g. libertarian freedom) that by implication entails that God is merely contingently infallible, not exhaustively omniscient, or undermines God’s independence and aseity, must be rejected as un-confessional. Conversely, if compatibilist type freedom is the only type of freedom that comports with confessional theology proper and the theological determinism of the divine decree (WCF 3.2), then such a doctrine of free will is Reformed and none other.

Even though the Divines didn’t have the advantage of the philosophical refinements of the past three hundred years, their system of doctrine requires the compatibility of free will, moral accountability and God’s determination of all things (including the free choices of men). Consequently, adherence to the Westminster standards in toto entails a rejection of libertarian Calvinism and, therefore, requires an affirmation of something else. (Richard Muller and Oliver Crisp are simply mistaken.)

So it is with John Davenant’s hypothetical universalism, which leads to intra-confessional doctrinal incoherence. If the salvation of the non-elect is not metaphysically possible, then hypothetical universalism’s most distinguishing feature (i.e., the possibility of the salvation of “vessels of wrath”) is false. After all, if it were truly possible that the non-elect might be saved, then God who believes all truth would believe contrary truths: (a) Smith might believe and (b) Smith won’t believe. Consequently, Davenant’s view of the atonement undermines a confessional understanding of God, and on that basis alone is un-confessional and must be rejected as being outside the Reformed tradition.

In sum:

In addition to rejecting doctrine that would deny Reformed doctrine as plainly stated in the Confession, we must embrace other doctrines as no less Reformed than the Reformed teachings from which they derive. Things can get a bit more uncomfortable here, but that is what it is to do theology! Being Reformed entails a bit more than sipping peaty scotch from Islay while stroking our chins as we discuss the minutes and papers of the Westminster Assembly.

A few other Reformed doctrines that are no less confessional yet are derived by good and necessary inference:

By systemizing Reformed doctrine, we can infer other Reformed doctrines that the church does not always recognize as Reformed yet should.

With the recent enthusiasm over Thomas Aquinas and non-Reformed scholarship, attention has been directed away from Reformed doctrine and consequently away from necessary theological implications of that doctrine. The consequence has been that certain Reformed doctrines have been eclipsed either through ignorance, weakness, or our own deliberate fault.

For instance, it is plain vanilla Reformed doctrine to “disapprove of all false worship and, according to each one’s place and calling, removing it, along with all monuments of idolatry.” (WLC 108) It is also Reformed doctrine to consider the Roman Catholic mass a form of false worship and idolatrous. (WCF 25:5-6) Given that Reformed doctrine teaches that we are to pray that God’s kingdom come and that his precepts be done (WLC 191-192), it is derivable Reformed doctrine that Christians should desire the lawful removal of the centerpiece of Roman Catholic experience, the mass. But instead, rather than regarding the superstitious nature of transubstantiation as repugnant (Article 28 of 39), the unskilled in the Reformed tradition celebrate Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the chief apologist for the idolatry of the hocus pocus of the mass. It’s madness.

In the spirit of confessional fidelity, we may take no prisoners. When we combine the relatively well known confessional teaching about working on the sabbath with its counterpart teaching from WLC 99 pertaining to our moral duty toward those who do, we may validly deduce as Reformed theology that restaurants may not be patronized on Sundays. This is not a matter of subjective sabbath application that’s up for grabs, at least not by Reformed standards. It’s a good and necessary consequence of settled Reformed theology. Going to restaurants on Sunday entails sin by Reformed standards. One may reject that teaching, but let’s not pretend that to do so is not to reject a deducible tenet of Reformed confessional theology.

Given a Reformed understanding of marriage, divorce, covenant and vows, it’s easily derivable that divorce among professing believers for “abandonment” is to be accompanied by ecclesiastical censure.

By not “fencing the Table” the Reformed doctrine of the visible church is implicitly denied. (WCF 25:2,3; 26:2)

By intimating that children of professing believers join the church upon profession of faith is to deny the Reformed meaning of baptism and the doctrine of the visible church. (WCF 25:2; 28:1)

By not disciplining delinquent church members who depart and don’t in due time join another evangelical church, the doctrine of the visible church is violated. Also, the solemnity of lawful oaths and vows are compromised. (WCF 22:3,5; 25:2)

By condoning movies, books or nativities with images of Jesus, the Reformed teaching on the Second Commandment is denied. (WLC 109)

We could go on and on, but the point should be apparent. Pastors and elders are breaking their vows to uphold and defend their Confession. We’ve drifted.

The church and its darlings afford additional confusion:

A renowned Reformed theologian and popularizer-extraordinaire of Reformed theology denied certain Reformed doctrines such as the impeccability of Christ and the Christian sabbath. His view of the former unwittingly and unashamedly denied confessional Christology either by abstracting the human nature from the divine person or attributing personhood to the human nature. Either way, his doctrine of Christ had heretical underpinnings. (Who cared?) Whereas his view of the Christian sabbath entailed more explicit confessional denials. It’s relevant because it is widely believed by massive amounts of Christians and non-Christians alike that anything produced by his thriving ministry must be Reformed.

Conference speakers on Reformed theology often include pastors and leaders who are un-confessional in their convictions on the charismatic gifts, the sacraments and the return of Christ. The upshot is that those three doctrinal aberrations alone, if not of serious concern enough, entail further confessional conflict as they impinge upon the canon of Scripture; Christian liberty of conscience; the visible church; loving discipline of covenant children who fall away from the faith; the number of eschatological judgements; kingdom consummation; Israel and the church, and more. One of those speakers was for years wrong on the doctrines of justification and the eternal sonship of Christ, and to this day has not recanted of adding works to justifying faith! The relevance is, Reformed theology has consequently yet erroneously taken on broad meaning due to the church’s darlings.

Lastly, it is common practice to reduce Reformed theology to the “five points”. Obviously, that’s poor procedure. However, it is equally hazardous to think that TULIP does not put forth Reformed doctrine. Does TULIP sufficiently define Reformed thought? Of course not. But is it no longer necessary to subscribe to the soteriological doctrines of TULIP to be considered a Reformed theologian? A growing number are beginning to doubt the Reformed relevance of T and L, and I believe the trail of confusion can be traced back to a few church historians.

In closing:

Needless to say, Reformed doctrine is intertwined, therefore, to deny one doctrine is to deny others. Notwithstanding, the main takeaway is that what traditionally defined the boundaries of Reformed orthodoxy has been exchanged for the individualistic theology of our favorite conference speaker, Twitter theologian or some historical theological figure who in God’s good providence failed to persuade his peers on failed doctrine. Such a mindset has led to Reformed doctrinal skepticism through unworkable inclusiveness. Consequently, the theology of our confession has become un-confessional depending on which Divine, darling or conference speaker defines “Reformed” for any given individual. We can do better. Indeed, we must do better(!), but pastors must begin leading their elders and congregations to a biblical theology that is not just “Reformed” but truly Reformed, which means confessional. May God be pleased to raise up leaders for a true modern reformation. Enough is enough.

End of original articles as it appeared on The Aquila Report.

——————

Since the time of originally publishing the article, I’ve been asked about “Reformed Baptist” theology, and the alleged marginalization of other Reformed confessions.

The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith:

Although the Baptist Confession in large part tracks with the historical theology of the Reformed confessions in general (and the Westminster confession in particular), it nonetheless departs from Reformed doctrinal tradition (and catholic doctrine), most notably over the doctrines of the church and infant baptism.

If Reformed theology is to have a chance of internal consistency, then either the Westminster standards or the confession of 1689 must be representative of Reformed theology on those two points of theology.

The Westminster standards calls the Baptist practice of withholding baptism (and by implication the denial of infants their covenantal standing in the visible church) great sin. Consequently, if Reformed doctrine extends so far as to entail contrary positions, then persons and confessions cannot be Reformed without contradiction.

This isn’t at all like amillennialism vs. postmillenialism, which are extra-confessional considerations that aren’t un-confessional. Rather, given the explicitly stated doctrinal differences over baptism and ecclesiastical covenantal standing, at least one confession must be false and both cannot be Reformed.

If infant baptism is wrong, then Reformed baptism is wrong and the Reformed didn’t reform enough. The common assertion from Baptists is that the Reformed did not reform enough; yet that presupposes infant baptism is both wrong and Reformed! After all, wasn’t there a Reformed view of baptism prior to 1689? Well, what was it? That’s why one group is called Reformed and the other is called Reformed Baptist. “Reformed Paedo-Baptist” is simply redundant.

Other Reformed documents:

Regarding other Reformed doctrinal statements such as those that comprise the Three Forms of Unity (3FU), the same principle of reasoning applies. If there are contrary doctrines between 3FU and the Westminster standards, at least one set of documents must be false and both cannot be Reformed if being Reformed entails the possibility of no contradictions.

For ease of discussion and given the expansive nature of the Westminster standards, I noted toward the outset:

From hereafter I’ll be referring to the Westminster standards as representative of confessional Reformed theology in the context of churches that on paper subscribe to it.

That’s hardly a novel concept, as we see it utilized by James Anderson an Paul Manata in their interaction with Oliver Crisp and Richard Muller: “Taking the Westminster Confession of Faith as representative of the Reformed tradition…”

But what’s amusing is that a few in cyber land have taken umbrage with my alleged exaltation of the Westminster standards over Dutch confessions. Yet the rants of these couple of individuals were self-refuting if they believe that (a) there is no contradiction between the various sets of doctrine and (b) the Westminster standards are not missing any essential doctrine* of Reformed theology or adding anything contrary to the tradition. (*Is there a doctrine that is missing from the Westminster standards that precludes it from being an adequate representation of Reformed theology?)

To disagree with (a) leads us back to: “If there are contrary doctrines between 3FU and the Westminster standards, at least one set of documents must be false and both cannot be Reformed if being Reformed entails the possibility of no contradictions.”

Yet if they disagree with (b), then it’s curious why after multiple requests no attempt was made to show that the Westminster standards were lacking in any essential doctrine of Reformed theology or adding un-Reformed doctrine.

Perhaps the interlocutors realized at least on some psychological level that to have posited (a) or (b) would undermine either the consistency of the Reformed tradition or the adequacy of the Westminster standards as representing the tradition they claim as their own.

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