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.

The Impossibility of The “Possibility” Entailed by John Davenant’s Hypothetical Universalism (R.I.P.)

The following quote is taken from a review of the book John Davenant’s Hypothetical Universalism: A Defense of Catholic and Reformed Orthodoxy. By Michael J. Lynch.

The reviewer attributes the quote to the author of the book.

Broadly considered, we understand early modern hypothetical universalism to teach (1) that Christ died for all human beings in order to merit by his death the possibility of the redemption of all human beings on condition of their faith and repentance. All human beings, on account of the death of Christ, are redeemable or savable—that is, able to have their sins remitted according to divine justice. Further, (2) early modern hypothetical universalism affirmed that God, by means of the death of Christ, purchased, merited, or impetrated all the to-be-applied saving graces for the elect, and for the elect alone. Christ died for the apostle Peter in a way he did not die for Judas.

Page 15, emphasis mine

Hypothetical universalism (HU) implies that,

p1: Christ’s death secured the possibility of salvation for all human beings

and 

p2: Christ’s death secured the surety of salvation for the elect alone.

An entailment of HU is that it is truly possible for the non-elect to be saved.

A few words about possibility: 

In a colloquial sense we might say, “It is possible that Parker will accept an offer to come for lunch.” In such instances we don’t know whether Parker will accept such an offer, for in our finitude we don’t know the actual outcome of any such offer. Therefore, only in a non-technical sense might we say that it is possible that Parker accepts an offer for lunch.

Similarly, we might say, “It is possible that Warby will receive Christ and be saved.” In an informal sense, we would deem it possible that Warby becomes a believer because from our finite perspective, there is nothing we know that necessarily precludes Warby’s salvation. For all we know, Warby would savingly believe if offered Christ in the gospel. Surely, there are possible worlds God can bring into existence or “actualize” (called feasible worlds) in which Warby freely believes and is saved.

The question and requisite tools for answering:

The question before us is whether the doctrine of election precludes the possibility of salvation for the non-elect. If it does, then HU is false doctrine given the doctrine of election.

Before proceeding, it might be good to begin with some initial spadework regarding (a) logical and metaphysical possibility, (b) feasible and infeasible world semantics, and (c) the relevant implications of divine foreknowledge.

The logic of possibility:

In logic, possibility entails the absence of contradiction. In the realm of what is often called strict or narrow sense logic, logical possibility (as opposed to metaphysical possibility) is concerned more with words and symbols than definitions. So, for instance, it is a narrowly logical possibility that,

p3: God does not exhaustively know the future.

Whereas it is logically impossible that,

p4: God in his divine nature does not know the future while simultaneously (and in the same way) knowing the future in his divine nature.

The reason p3 is logically possible in this esoteric sense is because without an orthodox definition of God informing us about God, there is nothing in the formulation of the words that denote logical contradiction.

Whereas even without an orthodox definition of God, p4 entails an inferable logical contradiction because it violates the law of non-contradiction by asserting in contradictory form that God both knows the future and does not know the future. Unlike with p3, p4 takes a form of x and ~x being true…

Now, of course, we know that God is exhaustively omniscient. We, also, know that it is impossible that God not know the future. Although it may be said in an esoterically logical sense that God does not know the future; we know that God would not be God if he did not know the future! In other words, it would be impossible in a more meaningful sense for God not to know the future. The impossibility in view is a metaphysical consideration that takes into account God as God.

So, it is a broadly logical impossibility that God is not omniscient. We say “broadly” because something additional is now informing our understanding of p3, namely a property of God. With that additional meaning in place, we may properly maintain that it is a metaphysical impossibility that God does not know the future. Furthermore, this is abstractly demonstrable when we consider that there is no feasible world in which God does not know the future. And because no infeasible world can be actualized, there is no relevant possibility of God not knowing the future. (These two concepts are correlative: (a) the impossibility of God not knowing the future and (b) the infeasibility of an actualized world that would include such a feature as (a). In other words, the impossibility of a less than omniscient God and an infeasible world that contemplates such a being entail reciprocal implications.)

What does this have to do with HU?

There are feasible worlds in which Adam does not fall and Judas does not deny the Lord for thirty pieces of silver. In any such world, God would believe that Adam would resist temptation and Judas would not sell out the Lord for thirty pieces of silver. Conversely, there is no feasible world in which God believes something about Adam or Judas that does not come to pass. The feature of such infeasible worlds that makes them such is the entailment of the metaphysical impossibility of God having a false belief.

Recall again, our HU entailments:

p1: Christ’s death secured the possibility of salvation for all human beings

and 

p2: Christ’s death secured the surety of salvation for the elect alone.

Those two propositions do not rule out actual universalism (i.e., worlds in which all will be saved). Nor do they rule out universal reprobation (i.e., worlds in which all are damned). To avoid actual universalism and while we’re at it, universal reprobation, we may add something like p*, which does not undermine the intent of HU for those who affirm divine exhaustive omniscience.

p*: If God is exhaustively omniscient and all human beings are not elect in this actual world (PWa), yet some are, then God believes that at least one particular human being will not be saved.

HU is false:

Given p* and p2, p1 is false because it is impossible that all end up saved when all are not believed by God to be elect. Additionally, if p1 is false, then HU is false since p1 is essential to HU.

Why is p1 false?

Again, p1: Christ’s death secured the possibility of salvation for all human beings.

We need to ask, are there any feasible worlds (PWa, PWb, PWc…. PWn) about which God can have a false belief? (Of course such worlds are logically possible in a narrow sense, but are they metaphysically possible, or meaningfully possible?) Can God actualize a world about which God believes something false? If not, then such worlds are broadly illogical and metaphysically impossible. Therefore, statistically speaking, assume the set of infinite feasible worlds of which God believes that within each world one or more human beings are not elect. In zero of those worlds would the alleged “possibility” of salvation for a non-elect person ever obtain!

Now then, what is the probability of an outcome that would have zero occurrences given an infinite number of trials? Well, zero, of course.* Yet if there is zero probability of a non-elect person becoming saved in the set of all feasible worlds, then how is it meaningfully “possible” for any such person to become saved? (The Molinist claim that such a person could be saved though never would be saved is refuted here.)

If the salvation of the non-elect is not metaphysically possible in a statistical sense, then HU’s most essential feature (p1) is false, making the theory of HU false. Directly stated, it is not possible that a non-elect person believes and becomes saved any more than it is possible that a non-elect person becomes elect. HU fails the coherence test.

Furthermore, if God believes in the possibility of the salvation of the non-elect while simultaneously believing it is impossible that a non-elect person would ever be saved in n trials, then how does God avoid believing that salvation is possible and not possible in the same way, which is not just metaphysically impossible for God but also would require God to be logically incoherent? Yet if God does not believe in the true possibility of the salvation of the non-elect, then there is no true possibility of their salvation in the first place given God believes all truth.

*Events that are impossible have zero probability of occurrence, which should not be confused with zero probability events that are not necessarily impossible occurrences. Impossibility is sufficient for zero probability but the reverse is not necessarily true. Consider a dart board with an infinite number of points with the precise circumference of the point of a dart. The probability of a thrown dart piercing a particular point on the board is 1 over infinity. However, the dart will hit some particular point on the dart board. So, it is possible an event occurs that has zero probability of occurring. This is not the case with impossible events, although they too have zero probability of occurring.

Internet of Encyclopedia of Philosophy gets Middle Knowledge Wrong

From here:

Middle knowledge is so named because it comes between natural and free knowledge in God’s deliberations regarding the creative process. According to the theory, middle knowledge is like natural knowledge in that it is prevolitional, or prior to God’s choice to create. This, of course, also means that the content of middle knowledge is true independent of God’s will and therefore, He has no control over it. Yet, it is not the same as natural knowledge because, like free knowledge, its content is contingent. The doctrine of middle knowledge proposes that God has knowledge of metaphysically necessary states of affairs via natural knowledge, of what He intends to do via free knowledge, and in addition, of what free creatures would do if they were instantiated (via middle knowledge). Thus, the content of middle knowledge is made up of truths which refer to what would be the case if various states of affairs were to obtain.

IEP (bold emphasis mine)

Given the theory of middle knowledge, the content of what is known by middle knowledge is not contingent.

The author conflates (i) the contingency of the actualization of a possible world that includes a particular object of middle knowledge, (a counterfactual of creaturely freedom), with (ii) the necessity of the abstract propositional content of a counterfactual that contemplates what would be the case if (a) a particular moral agent were to be instantiated and (b) “various states of affairs were to obtain.” If middle knowledge is true, the wouldness of the abstract propositional counterfactual pertains to what is necessarily true regardless of whether the agent in the context of the relevant states of affairs physically obtains through actualization or not. (Not so with Christian compatibilism.)

In other words, if p is true:

p = If person S were in state of affairs C, S would freely A

then, p is true whether S and C obtain through actualization or not. The alleged contingency of S’s free choice cannot falsify the necessity of p, if p is an object of middle knowledge.

Infeasible worlds can include God’s knowledge of contingent truths that are outside God’s free determination and also not a reflection of God’s being. They are worlds that are “narrowly logical” while metaphysically impossible to actualize. Infeasible worlds are a product of semantic sophistry, an invention often used to park might-counterfactuals that are not would-counterfactuals. (They’re also sometimes unwittingly implied when trying to defend untenable doctrines like the peccability of Christ and hypothetical universalism. They’re irrelevant worlds that are not broadly logical.)

But for our purposes, given Molinism, if A would be freely chosen by S given C in one feasible (actualizable) world, that counterfactual would be the case in all feasible worlds. Yet that would make the counterfactual a necessary truth (on middle knowledge terms), though its actualization would be contingently true. Although within Molinism S “might” (and therefore “might not”) choose A given state of affairs C, if S would choose A in C, then the knowability of the would-counterfactual must entail the necessary truth bearing proposition of the counterfactual, one that would be true in abstract propositional form in all actualizable worlds. After all, if that were not the case, then knowing state of affairs C (and the workings of S) would not provide the grounding God needs in order to know the counterfactual that, A would be freely chosen by S under circumstance C. More can and has been said. So, nuff said.

John Davenant, Another Enticement For The “Reformed” (in name only)

“If it be denied that Christ died for some persons, it will immediately follow, that such could not be saved, even if they should believe.”

I can understand Arminians saying such a thing but when those who profess to be Reformed say things like that, more than bad theology is at play. (And by the way, why do latent Arminians insist upon being considered Reformed?)

At the risk of addressing the obvious, such a sentiment assumes what must be proven, that those for whom Christ did not die can believe. From a Reformed perspective, how does this not deny irresistible grace and inseparable operations of the Trinity?*

“if nothing else is judged possible to be done, except those things which God hath decreed to be done, it would follow that the Divine power is not infinite.”.

John Davenant, Dissertation on the Death of Christ, n.d., 439


God having already decreed that the boulder would fall from the cliff entails that God could not prevent the boulder from falling from the cliff. The “could not” is due not to a lack of divine power but a want of divine will. Because God cannot deny himself (or act contrary to how he has determined he will act), God’s inability to act upon the boulder either directly, or through secondary causes, is ascribable not to finite power in the Godhead but the outworking of God’s internal consistency, from decree to providence.

That God’s omnipotence and decree are not mutually exclusive entailments implies that the latter does not diminish the former, though it will certainly curtail and redirect its decretive unleashing in ordinary providence. Davenant and his recent followers not only miss this. Is there any indication they’ve even considered it?

“The death of Christ is applicable to any man living, because the condition of faith and repentance is possible to any living person, the secret decree of predestination or preterition in no wise hindering or confining this power either on the part of God, or on the part of men. They act, therefore, with little consideration who endeavour, by the decrees of secret election and preterition, to overthrow the universality of the death of Christ, which pertains to any persons whatsoever according to the tenor of the evangelical covenant.”

Davenant, Loc. Cit.

In other words, for Davenant, it is possible for those not elected unto salvation to be saved. Indeed, it is possible for those not chosen in Christ to be baptized into the work of the cross.

Pelagian connotations aside as they relate to faith and repentance, if Davenant is correct, then it is possible that God’s decree not come to pass. It is possible that more are saved than predestined unto salvation. It is possible that God can be wrong! Or does God not believe his decree will come to pass?

Possibility with zero probability of occurring:

Simply try to imagine a possible world in which Esau is not elect but enters into everlasting life contrary to God’s will of decree. In other words, is there a possible world in which some are redeemed yet the elect are less in number than they? If not, then so much for this already rejected view of the atonement that posits incoherence by implicitly denying exhaustive omniscience, penal substitution, and the inseparable operations of the Trinity.** That’s what Davenant “possibility” gets you. (Enter now the sophistry of Molinism with its might-counterfactuals and possible-feasible worlds distinction.)

Confessional?

Regarding confessional status, any extra-confessional teaching that leads to 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(s) of doctrine.

A “consensus” document does not preclude certain doctrines from having won the day. So, for instance, any view of free will that by necessary implication entails that God is contingently infallible must be rejected as non-confessional. So it is with all forms of hypothetical universalism that lead to intra-confessional doctrinal incoherence.

I find it a stretch to call a doctrine “within the Reformed tradition” merely because a delegate held to it. When a confession is not already internally contradictory, let’s not allow it to be! For a doctrine to be considered confessional it must be explicitly taught or necessary implied by the confession and cannot introduce contradictions to other confessional doctrines. Again, we may not introduce teachings that are not inferable or would undermine other confessional doctrines, even though our confession is a consensus document of sorts. After all, what does it mean for a teaching to be “within the bounds of a Reformed confession” if it entails an implicit denial of another doctrine of the same confession? Roman Catholics are often constrained to speak that way (vis-à-vis Trent and Vatican ii) but why should the Reformed make such concessions? Can a doctrine be incoherent and Reformed? How about contra-confessional? We’re discussing what it is for a doctrine to be confessional or Reformed. That should be an objective consideration, unlike whether one wants subjectively to label someone else as Reformed. Is John MaCArthur “Reformed”? He’s certainly not confessional!

Clichés that obfuscate:

It’s inescapable, the atonement is a matter of divine intent, which is equivocally obscure within Davenant’s hypothetical universalism.

Little clichés like Christ’s death is “sufficient for all, efficient for the elect” have no place in rigorous systematic theology. A sufficient condition entails a state of affairs that if met ensures another state of affairs. In that sense, the cliché implies actual universalism. Sufficient and efficient become functionally indistinguishable and the cliché, tautological. Yet if “sufficient for all” is intended to convey that Christ’s death would save you if you believe, then redemption becomes necessary for saving faith, which isn’t very interesting. That one cannot have saving faith without the work of the cross, although true, doesn’t advance the discussion. Accordingly, we are back to election and irresistible grace, which are anything but sufficient for all! The historia salutis and ordo salutis must coincide.

In closing:

It would be helpful if those with positions of influence (I’m only referring to them), who claim to be Reformed while showing sympathy to Davenant’s view of possibility, would acquire a contemporary philosophical taxonomy and better grasp of modal concepts. If these historical types who promote not just aberrant but incoherent views would improve upon their equivocal notions, and gain a bit more philosophical understanding, consistency and theological trajectory, they might develop some semblance of appreciation for their modal claims; they might begin to see that they neatly align with Molinism and not confessional Calvinism given (at best) a Davenant underdeveloped version of the “logical-possible chasm” of Molinism.

Upon the Reformed (in name only) becoming better informed on necessity, possibility, metaphysical contingency, compatibilism etc., and thereby becoming self-consciously (or at least more consistently) Molinists, non-libertarian Calvinists might then refer these historical types (who too often show insufficient interest in understanding theological compatibilism) to the preponderance of refutations of the most sophisticated form(s) of Arminianism, if not also to some of the better Molinism arguments out there. Until then, we weep and pray, perhaps most of all for the relatively few Reformed institutions that are towing the line, as well as for those institutions that are not equipping the capable while simultaneously enabling the philosophically disinterested to gain a seat at the Reformed table.***

Footnotes that might surprise:

* A similar informal fallacy is committed here by perhaps the most notable popularizer of Davenant’s Hypothetical Universalism: 

“The logic goes something like this: ‘The gospel offer, which ministers are called to proclaim, must indiscriminately include this proposition: God is, according to his divine justice and on account of the person and work of Jesus Christ, able to forgive any person of their sins.’ For this proposition to be true, it then must be the case that God in Christ made a remedy for every person such that God is able to fulfill the antecedent condition proclaimed in the gospel—viz., God is able to forgive the sins of any person. In order to claim that God in Christ made a remedy sufficient for every person, we must affirm that God intended that Christ make a remedy for every person.” (Confessional Orthodoxy and Hypothetical Universalism: Another Look at the Westminster Confession of Faith, pp. 134-5).

This is another example of assuming what needs to be proven. Consider the author’s proposition:

“God is, according to his divine justice and on account of the person and work of Jesus Christ, able to forgive any person of their sins.”

If the doctrine of limited atonement is true, then it is false that God is “able to forgive *any* person of their sins.” Accordingly, the author has begged the question and traded in ambiguity by not recognizing that God’s “ability” to forgive any particular person is predicated upon full satisfaction having been made for any particular person who would be forgiven. Consequently, the proposition doesn’t establish a doctrine of unlimited atonement. Rather, it assumes it!
** Of course no Davenant disciple will acknowledge her denial of orthodox Theology Proper. But I suppose that’s due to a failure to recognize the implications of one’s own position.

Regarding exhaustive omniscience, penal substitution and inseparable operations of the Trinity in light of the alleged possibility:

If God had known non elect persons would convert, they would have been elect. They were not elect (yet would convert), therefore, God did not know they would convert (though they would). 

If Christ dies for some whose sins will be paid for in hell, then Christ’s sacrifice is not vicariously propitiatory for at least some. 

If the Spirit converts (or aids in converting) contrary to the Father’s choosing, it is unreasonable that the Father acts with the Spirit in conversion. In fact, the Covenant of Redemption is undermined. 

(Molinist might-counterfactuals can’t save this.)
*** I won’t name seminaries or professors but Modern Reformation, Reformation 21 and Greystone Institute are examples of giving credence to Davenant’s hypothetical universalism and consequently a seat at the Reformed table. Why is that not deemed outrageous by NAPARC churches and Reformed seminaries? (Shortly after publishing article, Greystone Institute removed linked article by Mark Garcia that looked favorably upon the incoherence of Davenant’s hypothetical universalism.)


Moreover, many seasoned pastors in the Reformed tradition will say things like “God knows the future because he transcends time and the future is all before him.” That’s a direct denial of the determinative nature of divine decree and an implicit affirmation of God being eternally informed by the self-existing wills of uninstantiated essences. Why that is not deemed as outrageous is telling.

Even a relatively recent commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith looks favorably upon Middle Knowledge, which is another example of giving non-confessional views a seat at the Reformed table.

Accordingly, it’s not surprising that rarely have I read a theological exam of a seminarian seeking licensure or ordination (and rarely have I had a discussion on theological compatibilism with such a person) that demonstrates a minimally thoughtful rejection of libertarian freedom or an understanding of combatibilist freedom and the determinative nature of the Divine Decree. After all, it’s rare for students to be acquainted with, let alone internalize, concepts they haven’t yet been exposed to.

John Frame had similar experiences: “I don’t know how many times I have asked candidates for licensure and ordination whether we are free from God’s decree, and they have replied ‘No, because we are fallen.’ That is to confuse libertarianism (freedom from God’s decree, ability to act without cause) with freedom from sin. In the former case, the fall is entirely irrelevant. Neither before nor after the fall did Adam have freedom in the libertarian sense. But freedom from sin is something different. Adam had that before the fall, but lost it as a result of the fall.”

Calvinist Paul Manata has noted, “One often finds misunderstandings disseminated by laymen on the Internet. This should not be surprising, for a cursory look at what Reformed teachers have said on the subject gives evidence of at least a surface tension among Reformed thinkers.”

I appreciate my article might come across as contentious to some. My concern that constrains me to write as I have is that I desire not to eclipse the problem I hope to further unearth, which extends beyond this particular stripe of hypothetical universalism. The doctrinal infidelity in “confessional” churches is, I believe, at an all time low. That Reformed folk are entertaining hypothetical universalism is just an indicator of a much larger problem. For more on that, read on.

The Failure of Classical Apologetics in the Context of Biblical Contextual Reality (A Case For Presuppositional Apologetics)

At the heart of Christian apologetic methodology is the consideration of ultimate authority. How the authority of Scripture should shape the Christian’s defense of the faith is a matter of bringing every thought captive to obey Christ, (even as the Christian gives an answer for the hope that is in him, with meekness and fear.) How consistently the believer sanctifies the Lord God in his heart will influence his apologetic methodology. (2 Cor. 10:5; 1 Peter 3:15-16)

Classical Apologetics (CA) seeks to establish Theism from nature and unaided reason. If a theistic universe with design, causality and / or morality can be established, then there is a basis for considering evidence for the true and living God who has intervened in history in the Christ event, and in particular through the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. For the classical apologist, a two-step approach is advisable. First, establish theism in general; then, try to prove the resurrection through historical evidence. After all, until one becomes persuaded of the possibility of a Designer, an Unmoved Mover, a Moral Law Giver, or a conception of a “Supremely Perfect” being, he won’t likely be as open to evidence for the resurrection. In other words, before one begins marshaling evidence for God having raised Jesus from the dead, it is advantageous to establish first that there is a god who could possibly have raised Jesus from the dead.

Classical Apologetics denies a biblical contextual reality:

Apologetics ought to be done in the context of the unbeliever’s condition and all other relevant divine revelation. Because the unbeliever’s condition cannot be reliably inferred by the unbeliever’s false claims about himself, the apologist should seek to be informed by the authority of God’s word alone. Apologetic methodology surely must not betray Scripture and if possible, should be inferred from Scripture.

With respect to biblical contextual reality, General Revelation reveals much about God, yet little about man’s spiritual covenantal condition. For instance, apart from a confrontational encounter with Scripture, unregenerate man knows God is all powerful, omniscient, and omnipresent (as well as other perfections). Yet we know those bits of truth about man’s condition from Scripture alone. Scripture reveals to us that all men know not merely a notion of God but the one true and living God, which is why it can be said that all are without excuse. Indeed, man suppresses the truth in unrighteousness, but it is the truth he suppress (and not some false conception of God). In moral and epistemic rebellion, natural man willfully turns the truth he knows into a lie. Without exception, that is man’s response to what he knows by nature as he lives in God’s ordered universe, experiencing God’s goodness and daily provision. Accordingly, any consideration of the viability of a Natural Theology apologetic should be placed in the context of man’s willful suppression of the truth he knows. (Romans 1:18ff)

There is knowledge of God that is properly basic. It is apprehended directly (as opposed to discursively), yet not in a vacuum but always through the mediation of created things in the context of providence. Without reasoning from more fundamental or basic beliefs, the unbeliever apprehends God in conscience through the things that are made. Man’s knowledge of God is mediated through the external world, but it is apprehended immediately by God’s image bearers apart from argumentation or even modest reflection. Therefore, the apostle Paul may say that all men have knowledge of the truth. Not all men can follow the elaborate arguments of another’s Natural Theology, let alone formulate their own theistic proofs, but all men directly apprehend God’s General Revelation of himself. A god who must be proved is not the God of Scripture.

Moral considerations regarding Natural Theology as it relates to Classical Apologetics (CA).

To try to prove God exists in order to get someone to believe God exists is a fool’s errand. It is to go along with the charade of the unbeliever who has said in his heart there is no God. Engaging the folly of unbelief in this way is to become like the fool (as opposed to properly answering the fool). In short, by not applying this one foundational biblical truth that all men know God and are, therefore, without excuse, the employment of CA implies several distinct yet related untruths. (Psalm 14:1; Proverbs 26:4-5)

Before reading on, it’s important to internalize that it is only the unbelieving fool who denies God’s existence. The fool’s profession is a deception. The alleged seeker, inquisitive agnostic, and committed atheist all know God. Accordingly, the Bible instructs us not try to prove what is known but rather expose what is denied! That is an entailment of doing apologetics in a biblical contextual reality.

Seven betrayals of CA:

1. Implicit in the employment of CA is that God has not plainly revealed himself in creation and conscience. After all, why use CA to prove God’s existence unless some do not know through General Revelation that God exists? Accordingly, CA implicitly denies God’s revelation and man’s knowledge of God.

The following betrayals flow from the first:

2. CA implies that unbelief is an intellectual matter, not an ethical one. The unbeliever needs better arguments in order to become intellectually persuaded of what is already known yet suppressed. CA emphasis is on proof and persuasion, and not the biblical mandate to gently expose one’s willful, sinful rebellion that can manifest itself in a denial of God’s existence. CA focuses on a false need for intellectual enlightenment and not a true need for moral repentance.

3. CA implies that all men are not culpable for denying that God has plainly made himself known. After all, the alleged need of the unbeliever is to be enlightened to something he doesn’t already know, which undermines the need to avoid wrath due to rebellion against God who is known a priori.

4. Since CA implies man is not culpable, CA implies God’s injustice, for God would be unjust to punish those who aren’t culpable due to their innate inability to construct theological proofs on their own.

5. By trying to overcome the unbeliever’s alleged agnosticism or atheism with sophisticated proof(s) that presuppose man can actually seek God, CA denies that no one seeks after God. Accordingly, CA implies that an alleged seeker is not in ethical rebellion while he masquerades as intellectually pursuing an honest answer to the question of God’s existence. (Roman 3:11)

6. CA implies that God is not a necessary precondition for the very possibility of the masquerade of seeking God (and denying God). In other words, CA grants the requisite tools of investigation (common notions) are implicitly neutral ground and not strictly common ground that can only be justified if it is first true that God exists.

7. If common ground is neutral ground, then CA implies that there are brute facts that can be interpreted without worldview bias. In other words, CA grants that the facts of nature can exegete themselves without any reference to God as sovereign interpreter.

In sum, CA relates to an endeavor that aims to prove a false god who has not effectively revealed himself to at least some invincibly ignorant creatures. Again, a god who must be proved is not the God of Scripture.

Aside from denying the biblical contextual reality in which apologetics should be conducted, theistic proofs as they’ve been traditionally formulated have been, I believe, an embarrassment to the church. For instance, how does the cosmological argument disprove a first cause of simultaneous multiplicity, or the teleological argument rule out multiple designers? In other words, how do such arguments avoid a fallacy of quantification, or avoid a natural theology of the gods? How do we deduce from natural experience of natural causes a single supernatural first cause? Why must a logical first cause or the supposed designer of the universe still exist?

Yet even if these shortcomings (and the ones I’ve not mentioned for brevity sake) were adequately overcome, CA would still entail (a) implicit denial of natural man’s sinful suppression of his knowledge of God along with (b) impugnment of God’s righteous judgement against man’s moral rebellion.

CA follows Eve’s modus operandi

Unbelievers require a “neutral” investigation into the claims of Christianity. Unbelievers employ autonomous reasoning (i.e., reasoning from a mindset that does not acknowledge God’s epistemic Lordship over the possibility of human reason itself), without which unbelievers cannot judge whether the Bible should be deemed reliable for its claims let alone authoritative over all of life. For the unbeliever, apart from judging the Bible from a throne of autonomy, the Bible and all it claims cannot be assessed as true. The problem with such a philosophical and religious posture, which admittedly touches upon a concept that is difficult for both unbelievers and many believers to grasp, is that if the Bible must first be validated by the unbeliever as authoritative, then it cannot be intrinsically authoritative. Yet if the Bible is authoritative by virtue of its divine origin, then no such human validation is permissible (or even possible when one is in submission to God’s word!).*

While the unbeliever remains a judge of God’s word – the unbeliever remains his own self-proclaimed authority; God’s word is positively rejected as long as the unbeliever seeks to determine its origin. With hat in hand, God remains in the dock awaiting the unbeliever’s favor.

What is built into the unbeliever’s make-up is something from which the unbeliever cannot extricate himself. That is, there is an ethically driven intellectual bias, a deep-seated antithesis that rejects the authority of God’s voice in Scripture (and in nature). If God’s word is authoritative, then it may not be judged. It must be obeyed for what it truly is, God’s word. But like Eve who placed God’s word on the same level of Satan’s and then rose above both to judge what is true, so is the posture of the unbeliever. He sits in the place of God, presiding over the authority of Scripture. CA not only caters to the unbeliever’s quest for autonomy, the classical apologist shares in the mission! He has become like the fool, which is the very thing the Proverb warns against.

The unbeliever presupposes at the outset of his pursuit of God that the requisite tools of rational investigation (e.g. logic, inference, memory etc.) and the context in which they function (e.g. reality and providence) are not God dependent. In other words, the unbeliever’s bias is that any mind-world correspondence is perfectly intelligible apart from any reference point other than the finite human mind itself. Little if no consideration is given to the question of why the subject and object of knowledge should correspond, or how there can be a fruitful connection between the knower and the mind-independent external world that can be known. By the nature of the case, the unbeliever imagines that if God exists, he must be discovered through autonomous reason that is capable of functioning apart from God. In doing so, the unbeliever not only rejects a God who must make reason possible – he is not even seeking such a God at all! The unbeliever is seeking a god who does not make knowledge possible and has not plainly revealed himself in creation, providence and grace. The unbeliever is seeking an idol of his own making and CA aids in the pursuit.

Hope is on the way: 

There is an apologetic that is true to biblical contextual reality, but it looks quite different from CA. It’s my experience that an appreciation for the sheer profundity of a distinctly presuppositional approach to apologetics directly corresponds to a diminishing view of CA. Until the Christian apologist recognizes the biblical infidelity of an apologetic methodology that wrongly diagnoses man as needing cleverly devised proofs to satisfy “neutral” yet “honest” intellectual-pursuit of God’s existence, it is not likely he will see the biblical faithfulness of an apologetic approach that works within the biblical confines God’s revelation. Far from partisan apologetics, this is a matter of Christian obedience. The extent of the fall as it relates to what mankind lost when our first parents plunged humanity into a state of total depravity must be seen through non-Thomistic, Calvinistic lenses if we hope to apprehend a biblically informed apologetic. (Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 3:3-18; 1 Corinthians 2:14)

But before getting into a distinctly presuppositional approach to apologetics, first a few words about Evidentialism, which is the short-relief closer for the ace of CA. (It is October, after all! ⚾️) Translation, Evidentialism completes CA.

Evidentialism:

Induction, the basis for all scientific inference, presupposes the uniformity of nature, which is to say it operates under the expectation that the future will be like past. From a Christian perspective, it is ordinary providence that explains how the scientific method is possible. Therefore, to argue for the miracle of the resurrection according to natural evidence and human experience is “foolish” (Proverbs 26:4). Resurrection is a phenomenon that contemplates an exchange of ordinary providence for the miraculous, which pertains to God working without, above, or against ordinary providence (WCF 5.3).

The resurrection of Christ from the dead is contra-uniform. It does not comport with human experience. Our experience is that people die and are not raised three days later. Also, we have all met plenty of liars and those deceived into embracing false beliefs (even dying for false beliefs!) but nobody living has ever observed a single resurrection of the body. Given the uniformity of nature coupled with personal experience without remainder, a more probable explanation for the empty tomb is a hoax put on by liars rather than a miracle put on by God. (The same reasoning applies even more to the virgin birth I would think.) To ask the unbeliever to seek a supernatural explanation for events that can comport with natural explanations is to not recognize that nobody is presuppositionally neutral.

We do not come to know the Savior lives by examining evidence according to alleged neutral posture, for the facts do not demand the conclusion that Christ has risen. So, at the very least, Christians should not argue from evidence to resurrection lest we deceive by implying that we know Christ lives because of evidence upon which our belief does not fundamentally rest.

When well-meaning Christians remove the extraordinary claim of the resurrection from its revealed soteriological context, the resurrection is anything but credible. Yet, the resurrection is perfectly sensible within the context of things we know by nature and are awakened to by the Holy Spirit working in conjunction with Scripture. Namely, God’s wrath abides upon all men and God is merciful and loving. In the context of man’s plight and God’s character, the preaching of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ can be apprehended as not just credible, but the very wisdom of God. Our full persuasion of the resurrection unto knowledge of the truth is gospel centric. The good news of John 3:16 is intelligible only in the context of the bad news of verses like Romans 1:18-20 and Romans 3:10-20. The former presupposes the latter.

A place for evidence:

Evidence indeed corroborates the resurrection and is useful for the believer within a Christian context of divine love, satisfaction, propitiation, expiation, and reconciliation. Notwithstanding, evidence in the context of man’s natural experience and unaided reason will always and without fail rule out the Christian interpretation of the resurrection evidence. Indeed, it should! There is no presuppositional neutrality by which to interpret the evidence.

For instance, we read in Scripture that a man named Saul who once opposed both Christ and his church became the chief apologist for the Christian faith. The way in which one will interpret the transformation of Saul to Paul will be consistent with one’s pre-commitment(s), which are worldview dependent. Christians take the fanaticism of the apostle as corroborating what they already believe to be true about the resurrection, whereas naturalists will find an explanation for the apostle’s transformation and empty tomb outside the Christian resurrection interpretation. (Even if a naturalist were to subscribe to the resurrection, he’d hold out for the eventuality of a natural explanation as long as he remains a naturalist!) Similarly, the way in which one interprets Joseph Smith’s claims will be according to one’s pre-commitment(s). If one has a pre-commitment to a closed canon, then the claims of Smith’s Mormonism will be deemed false without further evaluation.

Of course, the tomb is empty, for Christ has risen. Of course, the apostle Paul preached the resurrection of Christ with all his heart, soul and strength, for Christ has risen. Of course, the Mormon religion is a cult, for Jesus is the eternal Son of God and the canon is closed. Do we come to know these things by evaluating supposed brute-particulars in an alleged neutral fashion, or are our beliefs already marshaled according to our pre-commitment to God’s special revelation of his love for otherwise condemned sinners? Do the “facts” speak for themselves or has God’s word already exegeted the facts for us in the context of law and gospel?

The only way one ever will savingly embrace Christ’s resurrection is if the Holy Spirit gives increase to the work of the cross as explicated in the context of God’s loving solution to man’s dire dilemma. 

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and wisdom of God.

1Corinthians 1:22-24

The combined error of CA plus Evidentialism (0 + 0 = 0):

Whereas CA errs by denying the biblical contextual reality of God’s revelation and man’s innate knowledge of God, Evidentialism errs by trying to prove a miracle through a process of natural inferences drawn from historical facts. By denying man knows God and that the resurrection is only reasonable in the context of Scripture’s testimony of man’s condition and God’s love for sinners, CA combined with Evidentialism argues for general theism and a mere chance that Christ rose from the grave. Yet even if there is a God and Jesus did rise from the dead, what would be the significance? Well, any significance would have to come from God’s word, which the classical apologist unfortunately establishes as less authoritative than autonomous reasoning.

Apologetics walled in by biblical precepts:

Our apologetic is two-step. We answer the fool according to his espoused presuppositions and in another sense, not according to his espoused presuppositions. For argument’s sake we begin with the presuppositions of unbelief and proceed to expose the stripe of unbelief that is before us according to its arbitrariness and inconsistency. Then, for argument’s sake, we ask the unbeliever to assume the Christian worldview, to see whether it makes sense of human experience. Indeed, we argue for the God of Scripture from the impossibility of the contrary! Equally important, we are to do so in gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15), and never contentiously to win an argument.

The fool must be answered according to his folly of professed unbelief in God’s existence, lest the apologist aids him in appearing wise in his own conceit (Psalm 14:1; Proverbs 26:5). The goal in answering the fool this way is not so that he might believe God exists, for he already knows God exists. The goal is that by showing the foolishness of unbelief the unbeliever will be (a) undressed before the world as the fool he truly is and (b) given no occasion to be wise in his own eyes (2 Corinthians 10:4-5). No credibility may be given to the unbeliever’s agnostic claims and vain presuppositions lest we join him in his foolishness (Proverbs 26:4). Not only must the unbeliever’s foolishness be exposed on its own terms (according to the presuppositions of unbelief); the unbeliever is also not to be answered according to his folly. He is to be answered according to biblical presuppositions. Accordingly, we need an apologetic that shows intelligible experience is impossible without God as revealed in Scripture. This is not a foolish effort to try to prove God exists to those who already know God exists, but to expose unbelief in a way that affords no rational rejoinder. The “proof” is indirect, not direct. It’s force is in rendering every utterance of the unbeliever inconsistent with and contradictory to axioms of unbelief yet intelligible only if the God of Scripture exists. In other words, we demonstrate that any necessary precondition for rejecting God presupposes God.

Given the antithesis between God and man and a desire to honor biblical contextual reality, we turn to Presuppositionalism and transcendental arguments for the existence of God (TAG):

Transcendental arguments (TAs) are deductive arguments in that if the premises are true and the form is valid, then the conclusion must be necessarily true. Furthermore, TAs pertain to preconditions for the possibility of the existence of some basic or common experience. That is, TAs put forth necessary precondition(s) without which a generally accepted experience is unintelligible. Finally, another distinguishing feature of TAs is that preconditions for such basic or common experiences are not learned by experience. The preconditions pertain to what can be known only apart from experience.

In analytic form a transcendental argument may look as follows, [where P is a common experience and Q is a necessary precondition for P, which can be appealed to on an a priori basis (and not according to a posteriori inference)].

Prove Q exists by way of modus tollens:

1. ~Q (Assume the opposite of what we are trying to prove: Assume Q does not exist.)
2. If ~Q –> ~P (If Q does not exist, then P does not exist since Q is a precondition for P)
3. ~~P (It is false that P does not exist – i.e. P does exist.) (Contradiction)
4. ~~Q (It is false that Q does not exist.) (Modus Tollens 2, 3 and 4)
5. Q (Q exists.) (Law of negation)

In other words, for P to exist, Q must also exist since Q is a necessary precondition for P. Since P exists, then so must Q.

Applying construct to God’s existence:

1. God does not exist
2. If God does not exist, then causality does not exist since God is a precondition for causality
3. It is false that causality does not exist – i.e., causality does exist (Contradiction)
4. It is false that God does not exist. (Modus Tollens 2, 3 and 4)
5. God exists. (Law of negation)

The analytic form of the argument is common and is most often used for non-transcendental arguments. Because TAs are concerned with preconditions for intelligible experience and how reality is, TAs have a unique quality about them both in what is purported as a shared experience among humans as well as the profundity of the transcendental itself. They’re not so trivial as to pertain to arguments such as, if the Eagles did not win Super Bowl LII on Sunday February 4, 2018, there would not have been 700,000 Eagle Fans celebrating an Eagles Super Bowl LII win on Thursday, February 8, 2018 on Broad Street in Philadelphia. There were 700,000 fans celebrating… victory… Therefore, the Eagles won Super Bowl LII.

Although celebration of victory presupposes victory, the Eagles Superbowl experience is not universally shared. Moreover, the argument would rely upon appeals to inferences gained by experience, such as we know from observation that sports fans typically celebrate victories, not losses, and we can witness victory celebrations following victories. Therefore, the form of an argument alone does not make a transcendental argument. Aside from being deductive arguments dealing with preconditions for shared and typically uncontroversial experiences, TAs also incorporate a (transcendental) premise that can be known only a priori. (The Eagles argument fails to be a TA on two out of three counts.)

Similarly, a necessary precondition for death is life but life is not a transcendental relative to death. Death presupposes life is an a posteriori consideration. One’s knowledge that death presupposes life can be appealed to according to empirical observation.

A brief comment about traditional theistic proofs in the context of TAG:

Aside from the fallacious formulations of the traditional arguments for God’s existence (as they have been traditionally formulated), they are not transcendental-oriented. They don’t aim to demonstrate that God is transcendentally necessary for the possibility of, for instance, causality or design. That God is a transcendent first cause does not imply that God is a necessary precondition for the intelligibility of causation. We also might want to address that the unbeliever’s implicit claim on the intelligibility of causation does not comport with his worldview presuppositions (e.g. all that exists is chance acting upon matter over time). Because the unbeliever will not acknowledge a common creator and sustainer of men and things, he works on borrowed capital when operating as if the rational thoughts of the human mind should have any correspondence to the way in which the mind-independent world rationally behaves.

TAG from causality:

Causality presupposes God says more than causality is a sufficient condition for God and that God is a necessary condition for causality. Causality presupposes God implies that God makes causality possible. Since the possibility of causality exists, then so must God. (To argue either way, for or against God, even presupposes God!)

TAG under delivers?:

Some Christians and all professing Atheists will say that TAG does not achieve its goal because not every worldview can be refuted by a single argument. Such a claim demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the scope of transcendental arguments in general and TAG in particular. To deny the success of any particular TAG that is properly formulated is to reject logic and / or biblical truths. It’s also an indicator that one might be confusing proof with persuasion.

The transcendental premise:

As I’ve constructed this particular transcendental argument, the second premise bears all the weight. So, what about the controversial claim that God is a necessary precondition for causality? We can ultimately defend our knowledge of the premise by appealing to the absolute authority of Scripture. Of course, the unbeliever rejects that authority; nonetheless that the unbeliever is dysfunctional in this way does not mean that an appeal to Scripture is fallacious to justify one’s knowledge of the premise. It is critical at this juncture for the Christian to distinguish for the unbeliever (a) the source of his justification for his knowledge that God makes causality possible, which comes from the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination through the self-authenticating Scriptures, from (b) the proof that God makes causality possible. How we know x is not the argument for x.

Given the unbeliever’s suppression of the truth of Scripture, the presuppositional apologist defends the transcendental premise by performing internal critiques of opposing worldviews, showing that (a) they cannot account for causality etc., while also showing (b) Christianity not only can but, also, that to argue against Christianity presupposes conditions for rationality that are only possible within a Christian revelatory worldview. It would be a mistake, however, to think that such one by one refutations imply that the conclusion of TAG (God exists) and the justification for the transcendental premise rests upon inductive inference. By repeatedly refuting opposing philosophical ideologies the Christian apologist merely acknowledges that the unbeliever refuses to bend the knee to the self-attesting word of God. Since unbelievers will not accept the truth claims of the Bible, the only thing the Christian can do before God and onlookers is refute unworthy and hypothetical competitors, but that hardly implies that a formulation of any given TAG is an inductive argument, or that the transcendental premise within such an argument is inferred only after having successfully refuted a statistically sufficient number of opposing worldviews.

What’s a girl to do?:

It has been said that although TAG is a powerful apologetic it under delivers because of the inductive aspect of defending step-2, the transcendental premise. Accordingly, it’s been offered that we can inductively infer that God probably exists. Because of this perceived limitation, some Christian logicians and philosophers have said that TAG only proves a high probability of God’s existence. That a Christians logician would say this is mildly astonishing given that any Christian should affirm the truth of step-2, and any Christian logician recognizes the proof as not just valid but sound. When Christian philosophers offer a similar observation that TAG cannot get beyond the limitations of inductive inference, I have to wonder why it hasn’t occurred to them that God makes inductive inference and probability possible. What makes inductive inference possible is not a conceptual scheme that contemplates the possibility of God’s existence, but rather God’s ontological existence. We don’t infer the probability of God’s existence from induction if God stands behind induction and probability!

God or ~God:

Lastly, we don’t have to refute an “infinite number“ of “explanations” for the intelligibility of causality. Either God is necessary for the intelligibility of causality or not. Those are the only two possibilities given a refutation of the common feature of a non-revelational epistemology. It’s not a matter of God vs Naturalism, Idealism, Atheism, Platonism or any number of X-isms. It’s not a matter of a, b, c…. It’s a matter of a or ~a. God or ~God reduces to ~autonomy or autonomy, where autonomy always reduces to philosophical skepticism. As Greg Bahnsen used to quip, the proof of God’s existence is that without him one couldn’t prove anything! Either God exists or there is no possibility of knowledge and we are consigned to philosophical skepticism. Yet to argue for skepticism (as some have) presupposes non-skepticism, truth and God. Similarly, the assertion that p “it is possible that an undiscovered fact or worldview may be the necessary precondition for intelligible experience” presupposes the intelligibility of actual possibility, which further presupposes God’s existence.

Revelation and demonstrable refutations:

The believer cannot get out from under the fact that he has an infallible word on the subject. Nor should he be embarrassed by the Bible, as if we may not disclose how we know what we know. There can be no meaning if autonomous presuppositions are true; we know that through Scripture, though we demonstrate it by arguing for the internal inconsistencies of any proffered worldview, even showing that their contradictions presuppose God!

We don’t dodge the would-be competitors to God as the unifying source of otherwise brute particulars, the solution to the One And The Many. Bring them on and let’s see if they can make sense of reality, knowledge and ethical absolutes. Let’s compare worldviews to see who can make sense of men and things. As variations of the one non-Christian worldview are refuted one by one, let’s not mistake those refutations as the basis for our knowledge of God’s existence. Rather, let’s recognize those refutations for what they are – a display of what we already know apart from those refutations, that only God (and not autonomous reasoning) can make sense of God’s world.

Exposing the unbeliever’s belief in God according to a biblical contextual reality versus trying to prove god to unbelievers posing as seekers, agnostics and atheists.

In closing, a biblical approach to apologetics does not entail proving God exists in a manner that confers legitimacy upon agnosticism, atheism, sincere seekers etc., let alone does it approve of fastening a dreamy possibility of the resurrection to a vague concept of God or multiple first Causes or Designers that might not still exist. Nor does our apologetic entail a naïveté that is consistent with furnishing a series of uninterpreted particulars that demand an evidentialist verdict of resurrection. Those sorts of apologetic approaches have been shown to betray many biblical truths while fallaciously demanding a verdict that exceeds the scope of the premises. Whereas we have a more sure word of prophecy. (2 Peter 1:19)

No, a biblical approach to apologetics does not try to prove what rebels already know, but rather by reasoning transcendentally our aim is to expose what rebels defiantly deny. By the grace of God, the presuppositional apologist will expose the folly of unbelief by powerfully demonstrating in reductio ad absurdum fashion that even the mere possibility of rejecting God’s existence presupposes God’s existence! A biblical approach to apologetics affords no place for rational rejoinder, unlike medieval Roman Catholic and Arminian approaches to defending the faith, which engage on supposed neutral ground as opposed to common ground that belongs to the Lord.

Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?

1 Corinthians 1:20
* Doxastic voluntarism versus God subduing the heart: 

It is not as though in conversion the unbeliever chooses to believe God’s word and then by way of reason decides for himself to submit to what he himself has decided to be authoritative. Rather, in biblical conversion God subdues the sinner’s will, causing him to believe and to receive God’s word aright, as intrinsically authoritative. (Then from a recreated posture of belief and submission, the believer can choose to submit to the authority of what Scripture has to say.) Since we don’t choose to accept truth, the converted sinner doesn’t choose to believe and receive God’s word as being authoritative. Instead, by the grace of God the sinner’s rejection of the voice of God is overcome whereby he finally receives it for what it really is, the authoritative Word of God.
As noted above, the unbeliever cannot free himself from his bondage and rebellious stance against God and his word. He is not neutral toward God. He is at enmity with his Maker. And although the apologist needn’t necessarily inform the unbeliever of this rebellion, it is nonetheless something of which the apologist should be aware lest his apologetic methodology suffers.
If God is the being that Scripture claims, then man’s knowledge must correspond to God’s knowledge if there is to be any human knowledge at all. Not only must man’s knowledge correspond with God’s knowledge, Scripture also informs that God makes human knowledge possible. Human knowledge obtains when God enables us to think his thoughts after him on a creaturely level.
Yet when the believer engages the unbeliever on the question of God’s existence, the unbeliever cannot rid himself of his moral rejection of God as a necessary precondition for the very possibility of knowledge. In his professed desire to be objective in his pursuit of the possibility (or actual existence) of some greater truth, he prejudicially dismisses God as the one who makes intellectual pursuit possible! Because of the fall, the unbeliever is anything but neutral in his approach to the question of God’s existence.

 

 

Professor Pushback, Perkins and R2K

A few hours ago I received the following message through my blog from a 2 Kingdom proponent in response to an article of mine that recently appeared on The Aquila Report. After discussing the matter on the phone with this brother, I’ve decided to address a few things.

Your account of “R2K” seems like a caricature. Who defends the “R2K” view you describe?

Anyone who knows the 16th & 17th centuries knows that general equity = natural law (e.g., Wollebius & Perkins) and that is intended to be applied to civil issues such as kidnapping.

Ecclesiastically it applies to the church but that doesn’t exhaust it’s use.

My response will be limited to the professor’s use of William Perkins along with a corroborating footnote pertaining to Johannes Wollebius.

Here we can find a relevant quote from William Perkins, with an excerpt of that quote immediately below. (Bold and italicized emphases mine throughout article.)

Judicials of common equity are such as are made according to the law or instinct of nature common to all men and these in respect of their substance bind the consciences not only of the Jews but also of the Gentiles for they were not given to the Jews as they were Jews, that is, a people received into the covenant above all other nations, brought from Egypt to the Land of Canaan, of whom the Messiah according to the flesh was to come; but they were given to them as they were mortal men subject to the order and laws of nature as other nations are. Again, judicial laws so far as they have in them the general or common equity of the law of nature are moral and therefore binding in conscience as the moral law.

William Perkins

It’s to misread Perkins to infer that in the civil realm it is just the law of nature that is binding upon all men. Instead, we should take Perkins to mean that it is the law of nature that makes the judicial laws of Israel suitably binding upon all men. To miss that point is to miss Perkins’ point. The law of nature establishes the foundation upon which civil laws can and should be applied to all nations.

Perkins distinguishes particular judicial laws that were peculiar to Israel’s commonwealth that don’t have this same quality of nature, which further punctuates his point that morally rooted judicial laws are universally applicable. Example: the brother should raise up seed to his brother. (Johannes Wollebius holds a similar view that distinguishes judicial laws that are grounded in natural law from those that are not.*)

The judicial laws in view were not themselves natural laws, for the judicial laws were both made and given to men under Moses “according to” what was already instinctive to them. Moreover, these judicial laws were given to the Jews not by virtue of their unique covenant standing before God but in their common created capacity of being “mortal men subject to the order and laws of nature as other nations.” So, the judicial laws are neither to be seen as fundamentally moral nor particular to a covenant nation but rather as having expansive moral import based upon something even more fundamentally primitive in nature, which makes way for their trans-nation application.

R2K wrongly takes the fundamental moral basis upon which judicial laws can be found universally applicable and turns that natural law foundation into the only feature that carries through to the nations. In doing so, R2K denies Perkins’ position, which couldn’t be clearer. It is the judicial laws themselves that have universal judicial application and not merely the instinctive properties of natural law contained within them: “Again, judicial laws… are moral and therefore binding.” Perkins also informs us of the reason why the judicial laws can be universally and morally binding, which is because “they have in them the general or common equity of the law of nature.”

WCF 19.4:

Apropos, for civil magistrates to govern according to the general equity of Israel’s judicial laws (WCF 19.4) is to govern strictly according to those civil laws that were rooted in the common equity of the moral law and not according to the judicial laws that pertained to the land promise or other non-moral aspects of Israel’s society. Yet R2Kers (like the referenced professor) offer an alternative paradigm of governance, which would limit civil magistrates to govern strictly according to natural law yet not according to Israel’s judicial laws that are rooted in natural law. Aside from departing from the nuance of Perkins and Wollebius on the binding moral relevance of Israel’s civil code, one need only consider the historically global results and degeneracy of such governance in order to appreciate the ineffectiveness of natural law in the civil realm. But that shouldn’t be surprising since natural law was never intended to be a model for wielding the sword! The civil laws were given for a reason, and in the minds of men like Perkins et alia the intrinsically moral civil laws are forever binding upon conscience because of their divinely inspired relation to natural law:

“judicial laws so far as they have in them the general or common equity of the law of nature are moral and therefore binding in conscience as the moral law.”

William Perkins

Perkins couldn’t be clearer that judicial laws grounded in nature are binding upon conscience. In the minds of Perkins, Wollebius and those who followed in their footsteps, the OT judicial laws that stemmed from common equity were so inexorably tied together that in the Reformed tradition to apply the common equity of natural law was in fact to implement the civil code! Westminster 1647 corroborates with the expectation that civil magistrates ought to punish according to the natural law immorality of blasphemy etc., which is a moral consideration rooted in, yet extending beyond, the law of nature with respect to a revealed civil sanction. (WCF 23.3)

When we come to the American Revision of the standards, we may not whimsically alter the original import of general equity, which according to historical precedent was inexorably tied both in significance and substance to the civil code (as opposed to intending a nebulous and uninstructive law of nature with respect to civil governance). In sum, the church historian is wrong even on his appeal to his own historical sources.

Moreover, the American revision of the Westminster standards supports even the upholding of the first table of the law.

The duties required in the Second Commandment are… also the disapproving, detesting, opposing, all false worship; and, according to each one’s place and calling, removing it, and all monuments of idolatry.

Westminster Larger Catechism #108

R2K as non-confessional with no suitable alternative:

As a mental exercise one might simply consider – even if civil magistrates needn’t consult OT civil laws in the formation of contemporary civil laws, would the more moderate (and, therefore, less consistent) R2ers argue that civil magistrates oughtn’t ever consult OT civil laws that relate to the moral law? If not, then when does it become advisable to do so, when all else fails?

Plain and simple, to be a creedal R2Ker one must self-project either as (a) antinomian in their laissez-faire R2K consistency (e.g. D. G. Hart, Lee Irons and Michael Horton) or else (b) happily inconsistent and arbitrary (e.g. R. Scott Clark). One must either condone – even support! – same sex civil unions or else arbitrarily object to them contrary to their R2K profession of Reformed orthodoxy. Indeed, Natural Law condemns such acts as sinful but not as criminal. The latter assessment is either a matter of Special Revelation or autonomous reasoning. R2K opts for the latter, unaided reason.

From their respective ivory towers, R2K ethicists offer absolutely zero practical alternative to Westminster civil ethics. None! For although natural law calls for eternal damnation for the least of all transgressions, it is mute with respect to temporal punishment for even the greatest of all transgressions. If R2ers would for a moment make practical application with their armchair ideology (perhaps put even a morsel of meat on the bones), they might begin to see how arbitrary, inconsistent, fraught with error and just plain useless their abstract kingdom theory really is.

Wrapping up:

For Perkins, the “substance” of these judicial laws that were given to the Jews binds not just “Jews but also Gentiles…” Contrary to the R2K consensus, these judicial laws are universally binding not because their foundational equity is to be equated with, and reduced to, natural law without remainder, but because these judicial laws expand and complete what is contained in natural law! Indeed, within the judicial law is a foundational general law of nature, but it is the judicial law itself that Perkins claims now binds all men: It is the “judicial laws so far as they have in them… the law of nature…” that are binding upon conscience. In other words, the judicial laws that are trans-binding are those judicial laws that are grounded in a natural law that is common to all men. What mustn’t be missed either with Perkins’ or my redundancy(!) is that judicial laws are morally trans-binding whenever they are founded upon the moral law revealed in nature!

For the more confessionally Reformed, judicial laws are fittingly applicable to all nations precisely because of the instinctive features within them that would be common to all men. For the Westminster Divines, to implement the moral law in the civil realm was to apply OT civil law. What we may not do is project the natural law foundation for judicial laws as being the only feature of the law that remains universally binding in the civil realm, at least not if we want to maintain a Westminster civil ethic. Apropos, bestiality is instinctively and fundamentally immoral. So is same sex marriage. Notwithstanding, what apparently is not intuitive is whether such “private” and “victimless” transgressions should be deemed criminal and, therefore, punishable under the law (hence the spectrum of views within R2K on these practices as well as other deviant ones).

One final word:

Two Kingdom theology has been widely refuted for many years. The most devastating critiques I’ve read are written by RTS professor James Anderson. Dr. Anderson’s critique and follow-up critique are uniquely useful because they demonstrate with analytical rigor how David Van Drunen’s Two Kingdom paradigm, which I believe is representative of at least Escondido if not the rest, is logically incoherent. Dr. Anderson’s two critiques are stated with precise premises and progression of thought that is open to evaluation. Any takers?

Although possible, it does seem doubtful that R2K proponents will consider the riches of Westminster’s civil ethic until they come to grips with the bankruptcy of their owned treasured system. Moreover, on the whole I’ve not found R2K proponents to be rigorous systematic theologians or particularly analytical in their theological approach but rather largely historian types. This may have presented a hindrance for them to critically engage with opposing positions, form counter arguments, and defend their position against internal critiques. Among R2Kers there seems to be a greater tendency to assert rather than argue, which I’ve not found to be a formula for fruitful discussion. I remain doubtful it will become one anytime soon. Even here, note the assertion in the title: “Belgic Confession Art. 25—The Mosaic Ceremonial And Judicial Laws Have Been Fulfilled In Christ.” Now what does Article 25 have to do with judicial laws? The title is simply misleading.

*Johannes Wollebius, draws a similar distinction. “In those matters on which it is in harmony with the moral law and with ordinary justice, it is binding upon us.” Exceptions would apply to “those matters which were peculiar to that law and were prescribed for the promised land or the situation of the Jewish state, it has not more force for us than the laws of foreign commonwealths.” The only question is whether kidnapping, homosexuality, or even blasphemy are acts related to the promised land or peculiar to the Jewish state, or are these matters of morality, which would entail judicial penalties biding upon all nations.

Westminster Civil Ethics vs R2K Natural Law on Kidnapping

Christians and non-Christians alike have grieved this past week while also trying to process ethical questions regarding longtime convicted kidnapper Cleotha Abston who is being charged with abducting and murdering Eliza Fletcher.

Many ethical questions are at hand and convictions run passionately deep regarding how those questions might best be answered through a Reformed Christian world and life view. As strange as this might sound to many, some Reformed Christians have little regard for “worldview type” answers to ethical questions that intrude upon the sphere of civil government. Among the leading critics of a confessionally Reformed view of civil government are those who subscribe to what is called “Reformed 2 Kingdom” (R2K).

R2K is a position that posits that Christians are citizens of the spiritual kingdom of God along with inhabiting the earthly kingdom of this world, which includes as fellow members all people without distinction. R2K has been opposed by those who would define it not as a species of a distinctly Reformed 2 Kingdom model but instead an offspring of a Radical 2 Kingdom paradigm because of a non-Reformed balance between Scripture and Natural Law. Although R2K rightly appreciates that there is a law of nature that is revealed to all humans in conscience without distinction, the R2K movement is increasingly radicalized by denying Scripture its rightful place of influence in the civil kingdom, which too falls under the governing domain of God. Consider one leading proponent of R2K:

Scripture is the sacred text given to God’s covenant people whom he has redeemed from sin. . . . Given its character, therefore, Scripture is not given as a common moral standard that provides ethical imperatives to all people regardless of their religious standing.

David Van Drunen

With their Natural Law paradigm, R2K proponents deny that Abston ought to have been executed according to Exodus 21:16 for his first kidnapping. In theory, R2Kers could advocate for capital punishment for kidnapping, just as long as they don’t justify the penalty on the authoritative word of God!

The task at hand:

Questions before all nations include…

  • Which sins ought to be considered crimes?
  • What should be the punishment for criminal acts?
  • How might we best justify our answers?

Civil magistrates are governing authorities established by God for the punishing of wrongdoers. In light of this awesome God ordained responsibility, Natural Law proponents tell us that the Scriptures are neither necessary nor permitted to inform civil magistrates on the details of how to govern society in a manner pleasing to God. (Noodle that one around in your head for a moment.)

For the R2K crowd, God requires civil magistrates to govern society according to the “Book of Nature” alone. It would be displeasing to God for Christians to desire and pray that the general equity of OT civil law be implemented today because capital punishment finds its NT fulfillment in excommunication. (More on that later.)

Because there are no theocracies today, we’re told that civil magistrates may not glean from Old Testament law which sins should be deemed crimes. Nor may civil magistrates seek to determine suitable punishment for criminal acts by searching the Scriptures. Natural Law is exclusively sufficient for the task.

Natural Law and fallen autonomous reasoning:

Natural Law informs us that the least of all sins deserves God’s wrath. Yet R2K proponents also maintain that civil magistrates should not punish some sins at all and all remaining sins should not be punished equally severely. Accordingly, God’s preceptive will is for civil magistrates to determine by the light of fallen nature alone whether bestiality, homosexual acts and abortion (just to name a few sins) are to be considered purely sins, criminal acts too, or simply amoral. (Even if nature were to inform us that these sins should also be illegal, how successful and unified have the nations been over time on deriving a “Natural Theology” of sin, crime and penology to that effect?)

First principles:

Natural Law began with creation and was operative during the time of Moses through today. Natural Law could not have contradicted Israel’s civil sanctions lest God could deny himself. Furthermore, neighboring nations would not have violated the “Book of Nature” by executing kidnappers according to the God of Israel’s wisdom during the Mosaic era. Accordingly, there’s no reason to believe that Natural Law in any way forbids putting a kidnapper to death today, (lest the cross of Christ has altered Natural Law). Therefore, why think that non-theocratic nations today ought not govern in a way that would have been more exemplary for non-theocratic nations during the Mosaic era? Should we believe that God would be angrier with non-theocratic nations today if they turned to Scripture to try to determine which sins should be considered crimes? Would God be angrier with non-theocratic nations if they were to execute kidnappers according to Special Revelation rather than justifying the loosing of kidnappers after limited incarceration based upon Natural Law inference?

At the very least, if Natural Law has not changed over time and God’s two forms of revelation are complementary and never antithetical, then why should we accept the claim that God would not have the nations adhere to the general equity of Old Testament civil law, which is fundamentally the moral law applied to the civil realm?

Various reasons have been given why we are not to govern society according to OT equity. 

“In other words, the Old Covenant, Mosaic death sanctions typify and anticipate the eschatological manifestation of God’s righteous judgment against his enemies.”

Lane Tipton

Much can be said. First off, the death penalty preceded Moses. Did the death penalty that preceded Moses typify and anticipate the same eschatological manifestation? Secondly, what about the non-capital offenses that were not sanctioned by death? For instance, I can possibly see how OT civil restitution might typify eschatological judgment in a Roman Catholic sense, but how in a Reformed sense in which there’s no doctrine of purgatory that can identify as the anticipatory eschatological manifestation of OT restitution?

Finally, since the death penalty preceded Moses and was instituted for violations against God’s image bearers, why should we suppose there is no lasting and intrinsic temporal value for such civil sanctions? Why, in other words, should laws that would be so useful for governing any OT society be considered secondary to typology, or so devalued by the cross of Christ that they lose timeless societal value? After all, if every transgression or disobedience received just retribution, then mustn’t civil sanctions still serve a functional societal purpose simply by virtue of all nations requiring governance before and under God? In a word, is biblical typology all that antithetical to biblical penology?

“The civil codes have lost their context now that salvation is in Christ, in a spiritual kingdom, and not in Israel, a temporal nation.”

Rick Phillips

Aside from a false disjunction that would implicitly presuppose that Israel’s civil code and spiritual kingdom are somehow mutually exclusive concepts – the Reformed tradition has always maintained that salvation was always spiritual; hence not all Israel was Israel. Secondly, why should we believe that God’s wisdom and righteous judgment loses practical applicability upon King Jesus’ commissioning the church to disciple the nations under the whole counsel of God? How does the cross make foolish and passé the wisdom and general equity of civil laws that were intrinsic to a nation that would seek God’s wisdom in civil justice? Is the Son of God no less King over the nations than Lord over the church?

“I’ll say it again, since Paul spent so much time addressing the differences between Jews and Gentiles, and also said that Gentile were not bound by Israelite norms, then his instruction in Rom 13 is hardly a reaffirmation of OT civil laws.”

Darryl Hart

We cannot logically deduce that which is not deducible. Nor is it wise to require God to provide answers in the exact places we might hope to find them. That is to come dangerously close to putting God to the test.

Scripture is replete with examples of Jesus not providing answers in the context in which people often sought them. Accordingly, citing Romans 13 in an effort to refute Westminster civil ethics through the employment of a fallacious argument from silence is on par with concluding that (a) Jesus was not a teacher sent from God; (b) Jesus was not good and, therefore, not God; (c) Jesus intended to establish Israel as a political power but failed with the passing of John. (Mark 10:17-18; Acts 1:6,7; John 21:20-22)*

The Westminster Confession describes them as “sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require” (XIX. 4).” In other words, these laws were for regulating the nation of Israel, which was then but no longer is the particular people of God. While there is an undisputed wisdom contained in this civil law it can not be made applicable to any nation today, since there are no biblically sanctioned theocracies now.

Rick Phillips

How can “undisputed wisdom… not be made applicable…”? Wisdom not relevant? Something seems intuitively doubtful about such claims. Are the Proverbs no longer applicable because there are no theocracies today? What about the Ten Commandments? Aren’t civil laws the application of moral laws in the civil sphere, after all?

Plain and simple, the Confession does not teach that the civil law “can not be made applicable to any nation today…” Rather, it teaches the very opposite! It teaches that nations are obliged to implement the judicial law as the general equity of it may require.

R2K types misread Westminster Confession 19.4 by saying that the preservation of the general equity of the OT civil code now applies solely to church discipline.

“They are transformed into the judicious application of church discipline.”

Rick Phillips

By this miscalculation, when the Divines advocated for the preservation of the general equity of Israel’s civil law, they weren’t allowing for anything like maintaining an equity of civil justice. Nor were they establishing biblical principles of accommodation by affording freedom to rearrange and substitute non-essential aspects of the law such as stoning for hangings (or today, lethal injection and DNA for the principle of two or three witnesses). Rather, we’re asked to believe that the Divines were actually teaching the preserving of the general equity of capital punishment by applying the death penalty to ecclesiastical excommunication!

Clearly, the prima facie rendering of 19.4 and the associated proof-texts don’t support such a fanciful interpretation. (Genesis 49:10; 1 Peter 2:13-14) These verses have nothing to do with church discipline but rather everything to do with civil magistrates.

The OT reference pertains to the scepter not departing from Judah along with the future obedient allegiance of the peoples. Whereas the NT reference pertains to a secular punishing of evil doers, not ecclesiastical censure of professing believers!

The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and to him shall the gathering of the people be. Genesis 49:10
Submit yourself to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake; whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evil doers, and for the praise of them that to well. 1 Peter 2:13-14

The way in which modern day R2Kers interpret the preserving of the general equity of the law cashes out not as preserving the general equity of the law but an utter obliteration of it.

Not to belabor the point but given this pervasive perversion of 19.4, probably more should be said:

There was excommunication under the older economy, a “cutting off” as it were (an exile of sorts), which was not accompanied by OT execution. Yet in God’s wisdom both were operative, presumably with distinct purposes. Accordingly, it seems a bit dubious that excommunication is equitable to execution. Moreover, it is simply fallacious to argue for a repeal of directives that pertain to the state from directives that pertain to the church. Yet we are asked to believe that OT capital punishment for wrongdoers is equitable to and swallowed up by excommunication. What then is the general equity for capital punishment for those already outside the church and, therefore, cannot be excommunicated, non-ecclesiastical warning? Moreover, what is the general equity of OT civil sanctions for the Christian who warrants a lesser penalty than death, ecclesiastical admonishment?

It’s not just arbitrary, it’s simply silly to think with the expiration of Israel’s theocracy that the Divines actually thought the wisdom of the civil law was no longer to resemble the original penal sanctions in their general equity, while also maintaining that the civil law is perpetually binding in its general equity! The linguistic gymnastics is astounding.

Let’s not force the Divines into contradiction. Excommunication and capital punishment aren’t close sisters. They’re not even distant cousins. To see how distantly disanalogous they are, one need only consider that repentance lifts the penalty of excommunication, which was not the case for capital crimes under the older economy.

Consider the following R2K attempt to reduce Westminster civil ethics to absurdity:

“The public high school teacher may be able to teach algebra but because she doesn’t know where the truths of math come from, she doesn’t really understand math. Or the elected official may understand that human life should be protected and vote for harsher penalties for manslaughter but unless he understands that human beings are created in the image of God, his vote is inauthentic.”

Darryl Hart

Actually, Algebra teachers do know without discursive reasoning that truth in general and the intelligibility of algebraic truth in particular presupposes God. (Developing this apologetic insight, especially as it relates to the moral pressure of not thinking false thoughts, extends beyond the scope of this article.) Moreover, Algebra teachers are also held accountable for suppressing God in the classroom by not taking every thought captive to obey Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:5b)

But aside from the implicit and rampant Thomism of the day that misunderstands the epistemological underpinnings, limitations and implications of natural law and natural theology, it’s hardly controversial, nor terribly relevant, that one can possess warrant for belief x while not being able to offer it. After all, even if one can know something apart from being able to offer warrant for her true-belief (epistemological externalism), why is the ability to offer internalist epistemic justification somehow superfluous, let alone forbidden?! Are beliefs that are not self-consciously justified always as defensible as those that are self-consciously justified? Is the ability to justify civil laws from special revelation morally and functionally irrelevant? Why should we accept that self-conscious epistemological justification that comes from (propositional) special revelation lends no force to the justification of penal sanctions, or that such revelation is implicitly forbidden by God to be invoked in “earthly kingdom” discourse?

Regarding manslaughter and murder, a significant reason why man is to be held responsible by civil magistrates to honor and protect human life is because man is uniquely created in God’s image. (Genesis 9:6) Yet defiantly, R2Kers have dismissed this OT revelatory justification for “harsher penalties” as an irrelevant divine tidbit that is implicitly forbidden to be invoked in the earthly kingdom. Although all men everywhere know in conscience something of the dignity of human life, natural law doesn’t reveal that humans are God’s image bearers. Accordingly, why shouldn’t unbelievers be instructed in the Scriptures according to a fundamental reason why capital punishment is required by God? In other words, apart from invoking Scripture’s teaching on the dignity and relevance of the imago Dei as it relates to capital punishment, what is the natural theological basis for execution? Was Natural Law sufficient for Moses? What’s easier to interpret, discuss and debate, the propositions of Special Revelation or General Revelation, (Systematic Theology or Natural Theology)?

Here’s the crux:

R2K reasoning leaps from the premise that (a) people know things they aren’t prepared to justify to the grand implication that (b) offering a robust justification for beliefs is of little use if only we can muddle through without having to give one! In other words, R2Kers confound (c) the common grace ability of societies to “function” (no matter how badly) according to a subjective standard of “good enough” with (d) the ethical question of whether there is a moral imperative to apply the objective standard of Scripture to society whenever possible. (In passing, we might consider how well societies are doing with the R2K ethicist’s hope that “the elected official may understand that human life should be protected…”)

One more for the road. Now fasten your seatbelts!

“Nero did not violate God’s law if he executed Christians who obeyed God rather than man. If Paul continued to preach after the emperor said he may not, then Nero was doing what God ordained government to do. Christians don’t get a pass from civil law just because they follow a higher law…If a law is unjust or if we must obey God rather than men, then we suffer the consequences of disobedience. That’s what the apostles did. They didn’t form political action committees to overturn Roman laws. Paul doesn’t mention justice. He doesn’t mention God’s law. He doesn’t qualify the magistrate’s authority. They are God’s ministers – period. So you disobey God’s word. You refuse to do what Paul says. Submit to the unjust emperor.I am saying that I follow what Paul said in Rom 13. God wants his people to submit to those in authority, those whom he has established. If I break the civil law, I should be punished. God gave us authorities to uphold the law and maintain order We and peace. It’s disorderly and unpeaceful if you think you can pick and choose which laws to obey because you have Jesus in your heart.”

Darryl Hart

No, you are not losing your mind!

Apparently Christians may not protest unjust laws that persecute Christians because our kingdom is not of this world. Is campaigning for a particular political candidate who embraces Christian values permissible? Or, is that too close to mentioning justice while forming an unservile political action committee? Does this professor ever try to vote a candidate out of office, or is that to disobey political status quo that is established by God? Oh, and Nero cannot break God’s law because he gets to submit to himself?! The logical trajectory of a position can often be its best refutation, as in this case.

Common misguided arrows about Westminster Civil Ethic:

  • Westminster civil ethics are not eschatologically dependent. Which is to say, a doom and gloom amillennialist can hold to a Westminster civil ethic because the question turns not on how things might end up but on how things ought to be.
  • Contrariwise, a postmillennialist can believe that we are to be governed by solely natural law in the civil realm.
  • Westminster civil ethics are not inexorably tied to cultural transformation. Which is to say, one can believe that such civil laws will never possibly be legislated until the church first believes that they should. And even then, there’s always the eschatological question of future Christian influence in society.
  • To argue against Westminster civil ethics because Federal Visionists hold to it is about as reasonable as arguing against Trinitarianism because because Federal Visionists hold to it. Yet that’s how certain well known “historians” argue.
  • That Muslims might want to see the world oppressively governed by the Koran is irrelevant to whether God’s people should desire that the general equity of God’s civil laws be legislated lawfully and not by force.
  • Capital punishment is not contrary to the Great Commission, for anyone on death row should be pleaded with to turn from their sins and receive Christ as he is offered in the gospel.
  • That some Christians find the prospect of certain civil sanctions repulsive for today raises the question of whether these same Christians would have delighted in such laws had they lived under Moses. It seems to me that Christians who mock the notion of such laws for today have shown themselves incapable of contemplating the intrinsic wisdom and goodness of such laws prior to the cross. Their disdain is trans-testament.

Closing Remarks:

There will always be additional theological, philosophical and confessional arguments that can be levied against the proffered position. I do hope, however, that I have addressed at least minimally the more common ones.

Full circle, how might one go about justifying whether a convicted kidnapper who violates the imago Dei should be punished? Secondly, what is the “natural theology” consensus for the penal sanction, assuming there should even be a penalty?

As I’ve argued on the subject of the Christian Sabbath, if one wants to deny Westminster’s civil ethic, then by all means do so yet without claiming the imprimatur of the Westminster Divines.

In closing, let’s hear from some opponents to Westminster civil ethics who at least acknowledged the Divines’ civil ethic.

“At the same time it must be said that Chalcedon is not without roots in respectable ecclesiastical tradition. It is in fact a revival of certain teachings contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith — at least in the Confession’s original formulations…Ecclesiastical courts operating under the Westminster Confession of Faith are going to have their problems, therefore, if they should be of a mind to bring the Chalcedon aberration under their judicial scrutiny. (Kline in Westminster Theological Journal 41:1 [Fall, 1978]: 173)

Meredith Kline

The view is not really new; it is just new in our time. It was the usual view through the Middle Ages, was not thrown over by the Reformers and was espoused by the Scottish Covenanters who asked the Long Parliament to make Presbyterianism the religion of the three realms — England, Scotland and Ireland.” (In Presbuterion: Covenant Seminary Review, 5:1 [Spring, 1979]: 1)

Laird Harris

“Essentially, Bahnsen accepts the doctrinal orthodoxy of the original text [of the Confession]. Whether or not this is in conflict with the intention of the American Presbyterian emendation of the Confession, it is certainly in keeping with the traditional Scottish Reformed understanding of it.” (In Will S. Barker and W. Robert Godfrey, Theonomy: An Informed Critique[Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 323-324]).

Sinclair Ferguson

“The words of Chapter XIX, iv can be understood to include the view that the Mosaic penalties may be applied by the Christian magistrate (if “general equity” so dictates). We have already noted that such views were widespread among the Divines in relation to specific crimes. But this is simply to recognize that there may be common ground in practice between the Confession’s teaching and theonomy.” (Ferguson, 346-347)

Sinclair Ferguson
*Footnote for the hazardous appeal to Romans 13 to argue R2K from silence: 

Mark 10:17-18: When a rich young ruler called Jesus good, he neither affirmed nor denied that he possessed that quality of person but instead said nobody is good but God. Depending upon one’s pre-commitment it might be inferred that Jesus was not good and, therefore, not God; yet the text neither affirms nor denies either conclusion.

Acts 1:6, 7: When the apostles asked Jesus whether he was at that time going to restore the kingdom to Israel, he neither affirmed nor denied such an intention but instead said that it was not for them to know the times or epochs that the Father has fixed by his own authority. Dispensationalists, given their pre-commitment to a restored national Israel, infer from the answer a confirmation of their theology, that the kingdom will be restored. Notwithstanding, no logical conclusion can be deduced from the text with respect to the restoration Israel’s kingdom.

John 21:20-22: When Peter asked Jesus whether John would be alive at the time of Jesus’ return Jesus told him that if he wanted John to remain until such time it was no business of Peter’s. Jesus then put to Peter his task, which was to follow Jesus. Jesus’ answer did not logically imply that John would remain or not, let alone whether Jesus would even return one day! The answer even caused a rumor among the brethren that John would not die (John 21:23). John in this very epistle (same verse: 23) remarked on the unjustified inference that caused the rumor: “Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but only, ‘If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?’”

Links to quotes by David Van Drunen , Lane Tipton, Rick Phillips and Darryl Hart

https://www.amazon.com/Biblical-Case-Natural-Law/dp/B000UIKAXO

https://www.kerux.com/doc/1501a1.asp

https://www.tenth.org/resource-library/articles/which-old-testament-laws-must-i-obey/

https://greenbaggins.wordpress.com/2011/01/26/new-warrior-children-thread/

https://oldlife.org/tag/ted-williams/

https://oldlife.org/2017/01/04/is-donald-trump-mainstreaming-apostasy/#comment-151575

Dining Out on The Lord’s Day

My father grew up in the borough of Brooklyn, in a neighborhood just north of “Bed-Stuy” called Williamsburg. Those familiar with the district know that in the early 1900s with the completion of the bridge that bears the neighborhood’s name, Hasidic Jews from the “Lower east Side” began populating the community along with other immigrants like my Italian grandparents and great grandmother. Eventually, Williamsburg became the most populated neighborhood in the United States.

As a boy, my father could earn a penny on Saturdays from any number of Hasidic Jews for turning on a light in an apartment or hallway. (To put things in perspective, when my father was eight years old the Williamsburg Houses initially tenanted for just under two dollars per week for a single room. A busy Saturday of flipping switches could earn a day’s rent!)

Without getting into possible Jewish rationale for such a seemingly pedantic Shabbat restriction – whether it be tied to kindling a flame, creating something new, or just mere tradition – it’s not hard to discern a legalistic and hypocritical Jewish mindset. 

First, let’s dispel a common sentiment. Legalism is not tied to obedience, lest Jesus was legalistic. No, legalism pertains to trying to earn that which can only be received by grace. Legalism also pertains to finding loopholes in order to “obey” or not “disobey” by way of technicality. It is the second kind of legalism that I have in mind.

The Williamsburg Jews got the electricity turned on without themselves flipping the switch. And how did they do that? Well, they paid someone else to break their law for them. So, technically speaking, they didn’t break the letter of the law; they got someone else to break their law for them, hence the legalism.

Their hypocrisy is due to believing they were more obedient than my father because they would never do what he had done for money. Their money!

The point is not that certain Hasidic Jews believed wrongly they may not turn on electricity on the last day of the week. In other words, whether their law was according to God’s word misses the point. The point is these Jews were all too willing to violate their own personal moral convictions by paying someone else to do what they believed was forbidden by God. I trust that’s obvious,

Now let’s play with some analogies:

I may not pray to false gods, but I may pay someone else to pray to false gods for me. As long as I don’t commit idolatry, I have not broken the moral law.

I may not murder, but I may pay someone else to murder for me. As long as I don’t pull the trigger, I have not broken the moral law.

I may not steal, but I may pay someone else to steal for me. As long as my accountant falsifies the tax forms, I have not broken the moral law.

I may not lie or deceive, but I may pay someone else to lie and deceive for me. As long as I don’t intentionally speak false words, I have not broken the moral law.

The legalistic hypocrisy is glaring. Obviously, we see the absurdity.

Now for a blind spot to something no less obvious:

Most elders in the Reformed tradition take exception to the Reformed view of Christian Sabbath recreation as taught in the Westminster standards. As unfortunate as that is, many among that number go even further by supporting going to restaurants and ordering out food on Sundays, which pertains not merely to the question of rest vs. recreation but to unlawful work on the Lord’s Day. Ironically, most elders would say they affirm the Confession’s Christian Sabbath position with respect to work; yet their views on transacting business with restaurants on the Lord’s Day end up contradicting their own theology and professed scruples.

One more absurd analogy to drive the point home:

It’s neither necessary nor merciful for you to wait on me this Lord’s Day, but as long as you’re willing to do so, I’m happy to be the direct occasion for your sin, just as long as I am well fed. Although you should not wait on me (and be assured I’d never serve tables on a Sunday), let me contribute to your temptation by tipping you. That’s on you, Server. I’m not sinning, though you really should have been at church this morning rather than getting ready for work in order to serve me lunch.
Now please tell the chef to hurry up with my Veal Cacciatore. I’ve got to get a nap in before heading back for evening service. And, hey, where’s my Chianti!

Do we see that absurdity as clearly as all the others? Or is it a tenable biblical position that on Sundays, other than performing works of necessity and mercy, I may not work but may instead pay someone else to serve me? In other words, as long as I am not the line chef, the server, the bartender or the delivery person who works Sundays, I have not broken the moral law. Now, how’s that not legalistic-hypocrisy?

Bobbin’ N Weavin’:

This is usually where people begin to raise objections like, what’s the difference between cooking for yourself or family, and a restaurant doing it for you? There are simple answers that relate to binary considerations pertaining to commerce and what entails “work” but such principles will fail to persuade Pharisaical types that strain to find loopholes to justify old habits, acts of convenience and mere preference. A staunch pre-commitment to seeking one’s own pleasures on Sundays is not easily overcome, though with God all things are possible.

Some things just need to be said sometimes:

  • Is it not incongruous, while praying over a meal at a restaurant, to give thanks to God for those who break His commandment so that we might be fed? That would give fresh meaning to, please bless the loving hands who prepared this meal.
  • To cloak or defend sin by claiming liberty of conscience is not Christian but antinomian.
  • There’s a vast difference between exercising liberty of conscience and operating according to an uninformed or seared conscience.
  • To be faithful in upholding the Confession that reflects biblical precepts is not legalism; nor is it to try to steal another Christian’s joy.
  • It is not to have scruples against working on Sundays (other than out of necessity and mercy), if we are willing to allow others to work for us on the Lord’s Day.
  • Going to restaurants and ordering out food on Sundays is not analogous to hiring someone who might end up choosing to use honest pay for improper use. Rather, it’s a matter of directly paying someone to do something forbidden in God’s word so that we might receive some perceived benefit or immediate gratification.
  • Regarding the claim that on Sundays unbelievers may work for Christians because they are not obligated to keep the Christian sabbath, which is a creation ordinance, then do consider:
    • WLC #99: That which is forbidden or commanded to ourselves, we are bound, according to our places, to endeavor that it may be avoided or performed by others, according to the duty of their places.
    • Exodus XX.10: but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you.
  • Regarding the claim that the principle of Isaiah 58:13-14 pertains only to resisting commerce, should we thereby presume that the blessing to our offspring might be received if we would only turn in faith from the pleasures of commerce toward the pleasures of recreation instead? In other words, does God’s moral law protect us from work on the Sabbath in order that we might indulge ourselves in recreation and entertainment after Sunday worship? Is that what it means to call the Sabbath a delight? (Isaiah 58:13-14)

Surely it’s a good and necessary inference from Scripture that believers are not to be the proximate cause or direct occasion for someone to violate a creation ordinance in this way. Accordingly, exploiting restaurant workers is not a matter of subjective sabbath application that’s up for grabs but a matter of objective obedience that must be grasped.

But aside from biblical and confessional arguments, another plea is in order. A plea for integrity:

Dear NAPARC Elders,

Don’t keep the Sabbath if you think you needn’t; just don’t flaunt it, let alone teach contrary to the standards that your fellow elders have sworn before God to uphold. For isn’t it divisive to undermine even a portion of the system of doctrine contained in the standards, let alone defend it with an appeal to liberty of conscience? Stated differences and exceptions, even of a majority, may not bind the consciences, nor silence the voices, of those who subscribe to the doctrine of their church and denomination. Accordingly, is it not to sow discord and disrupt the peace and unity of the church to lead others contrary to the church’s confession and in opposition to what others have vowed to uphold?

Therefore, as a fellow elder, I plead with you to repent, not from stated differences or exceptions, but from teaching, flaunting or leading contrary to the standards of your church and denomination; for in promoting strange doctrine you hinder those charged before God to teach peaceably what you deny in faith and practice. If you feel bound by conscience to teach contrary to your own confession of faith, then please seek to get the standards changed through the courts of the church, or else leave your NAPARC church rather than cause division in her ranks.

Links to rejoinders and a word about seeds of apostasy:

For those who have been misled by shepherds who have falsely promulgated that unbelievers may work on Sundays while correctly maintaining that believers may not, I offer this critique of Lee Irons’ denial of the Westminster Confession of Faith’s position on the Christian Sabbath.

For those who have been misled by fallacious appeals to historical church figures and engage in revisionism on this issue, I offer this critique of RC. Sproul’s denial of the Westminster Confession of Faith’s position on the Christian Sabbath.

For those who think there are various Reformed views on the sabbath, I offer this.

For those who think that Reformed doctrine can be defined by particular Reformed theologians, I offer this.

Regarding seeds of apostasy and congregant responsibility, I offer this exhortation.

Here is a Sunday school class on Regulative Principal of Worship and Sabbath Day.

Again, a staunch pre-commitment to seeking one’s own pleasures on Sundays is not easily overcome, though with God all things are possible.

Divorce, censure, and session responsibility

We synthesize particular biblical principles in order to compose theology that is biblical, practical and compassionate.

Under the gospel of Christ there exist two permissible reasons for divorce: adultery and willful desertion. (Matt.19:8,9; 1 Cor. 7:15)

Elders often have to judge whether certain acts of the flesh constitute adultery. Elders also have to decide whether certain patterns of life constitute willful desertion. This entry is concerned with the latter provision for dissolving the marriage contract, along with proper ecclesiastical oversight regarding the willful desertion provision.

Whenever a believer is loosed from the marriage bonds due to an unbeliever’s willful desertion, the believer is free to remarry even though the guilty party is beyond the pale of ecclesiastical censure by already being an unbeliever. (1 Corinthians 7:15)

In cases where both parties are regarded as believers, the only provision for divorce and remarriage is adultery. Mathew 5:32 enforces the point by teaching that if one divorces his wife for any reason other than fornication, the husband in such cases causes his wife to commit adultery. Furthermore, even the innocent woman’s future husband commits adultery by marrying her. In other words, under such circumstances not only is the husband culpable for his wife’s sin of adultery; the innocent spouse is not permitted to remarry, lest she commits adultery along with her future husband. Notwithstanding, there is good and affable news for the innocent spouse, if only sessions would do their job.

One may not divorce or remarry under the willful desertion clause as long as both parties are to be regarded as Christians by the church. Yet, if a professing Christian willfully deserts his spouse without cause in the face of Matthew 18 confrontation – then the deserting spouse should be declared an unbeliever. In such cases, the grounds for divorce would not be unbelief but rather willful desertion accompanied by ecclesiastical censure and unbelief. (1 Cor. 7:15). In other words, a believer may not divorce his spouse solely for the sin of unbelief since Scripture requires a believer to dwell with his unbelieving spouse as long as she desires to remain married. (1 Cor. 7:12-13). Nor may a believer divorce and remarry if deserted by a believer (i.e., one in good standing in the church). Rather, (aside from cases of adultery), a believer may only divorce and remarry if deserted by an unbeliever. The theological takeaway is that both conditions of (a) willful desertion and (b) status of unbeliever must be met for there to be biblical divorce and remarriage under the desertion clause.

Pervasive problem in the church:

It has become increasingly prevalent in the Reformed church today to condone divorce between professing Christians for emotional abandonment, in particularly verbal abuse. (This article does not address biblical fenceposts for such thinking. It recognizes there is biblical latitude and seeks to synthesize biblical principles in order to provide a coherent theological paradigm from which sessions might operate.)

When it is deemed by the courts of the church that a pattern of spousal abuse is tantamount to willful desertion, the guilty party should be censured to the utmost degree yielding a status of unbeliever. Only at which point may a professing believer be loosed from the marriage because now an unbeliever has departed. (Please internalize that point before reading further.)

Unfortunately, that is not what we always see, even within churches that practice discipline. Instead, we too often find an unbiblical accommodation for the offended party (assume the wife hereafter) who has suffered under emotional turmoil, which ironically can turn into a situation in which she deserts her husband without cause. (More on that later.)

We also observe instances in which the wife is not granted the ecclesiastical backing of the church that would rightly vindicate her and pave the way for a biblical release from the bonds of marriage.

In other words, one of two unbiblical accounts too often occurs. Either the suffering wife is granted at least tacit approval for divorce, yet without it having been deemed that her husband sinned enough to be excommunicated. Or else, approval for divorce is granted without her guilty husband having been excommunicated. In the first instance the abused wife is denied both the testing and privilege of sanctifying suffering; whereas under the second scenario the innocent wife is denied the peace the church was to have aided her in obtaining by ministering and declaring in Christ’s name that her unbelieving husband had willfully deserted her, and she is now loosed from the marriage.

No husband is to be considered having willfully deserted his wife to the degree in which his spouse may be loosed until there is such “willful desertion as can in no way be remedied by the Church, or civil magistrate” (WCF 24.6) In other words, whether willful desertion comes in the form of emotional or physical abandonment, a valid certificate of divorce presupposes the dissuasion of ecclesiastical and civil authorities has come to naught. Consequently, willful desertion that is sufficient for biblical divorce presupposes that one has already been officially declared outside the church, for how is it possible that one within the church – a Christian(!), can be beyond remedy?

In summary, it stands to reason that if the husband may not be constituted an unbeliever, then he has not yet willfully deserted his wife – in which case the wife has no biblical grounds for divorce. Yet if the wife has biblical grounds for divorce, then her unbelieving spouse has deserted her.

Excursus:

It is conceivable that if a spouse commits adultery and later repents, it can be biblically consistent for the innocent party to “sue out” divorce without an accompanying pronouncement of unbelief upon the spouse. The reason being, adultery is sufficient to file for biblical divorce, and repentance is sufficient to regain one’s standing in the church. Accordingly, one can truly repent prior to being excommunicated; yet notwithstanding the transgression allows the innocent party to sue out divorce “as if the offending party was dead”. (WCF 24.5)

A solution to no-fault divorce:

In cases alleging desertion, Sessions frequently condone divorces without sussing out the guilty party and sanctioning accordingly. Elders often excuse their neglect for reasons such as: (a) too few elders, (b) not knowing the circumstances of marriages in turmoil, and (c) “discipline won’t do any good”. Such excuses obviously have no place in the church, though they are commonly held among elders.

Admittedly, in desertion cases it is more convenient for sessions to vacate responsibility than adjudicate. Notwithstanding, sessions must function as courts of Jesus Christ. Sessions don’t have the luxury to close a blind eye to divorce in the church. Such dereliction of duty must stop. By heeding the call to exercise the keys of the kingdom, some professing believers will be excommunicated for not striving longer with their spouses; whereas others will be vindicated and loosed from their marriages as spouses are censured for willful desertion without cause.

Having to pronounce discipline forces sessions to abandon a de facto policy of no-fault divorce. Instead of abdicating its responsibility, sessions are to extend pastoral care. Here are a few things sessions are to do: (a) not leave divorce cases to the private judgment of individuals; (b) determine whether abused spouses have biblical grounds for a divorce; (c) excommunicate those judged guilty of emotional abuse tantamount to willful desertion; and (d) not tacitly approve divorce for those who have been abused to some extent short of that which warrants excommunication of a spouse; and (e) discipline wounded spouses who continue headstrong into divorce without biblical cause and against session approval.

A case study of Bill’s abuse of Sally:

There is an instance of unbiblical accommodation in prematurely approving Sally’s divorce without having adjudicated her case. Such accommodation can ironically end in Sally’s desertion of Bill.

When a session neglects its pastoral duty by not issuing warnings against willful desertion to women like Sally when Bill is not censurable, such women either are denied (a) the gift of sharing in Christ’s sufferings through perseverance, or else (b) seeing the manifestation of their own unbelief in the abandonment of the marriage in the face of ecclesiastical warnings not to pursue divorce. In other words, if Bill does not deserve to be censured for willful desertion, then Sally must be shepherded to a volitional crossroad of either (a) taking up her cross or (b) faithlessness.

In the final analyses, the Westminster standards teach that the only non-adultery grounds for Sally to divorce Bill entails that Bill is beyond remedy, which is not to be regarded as true as long as Bill is called a brother, believed to be indwelled by the Holy Spirit, receiving the word of God if not also the sacraments. If Bill is a church member in good standing and receiving the means of grace, then he is not “beyond remedy”, which means that Bill may not be regarded has having willfully deserted Sally. Consequently, Sally has no biblical grounds for divorce. Yet if Sally divorces under such circumstances, then it is she who has abandoned her husband. But if Sally truly has grounds for divorce, then Bill must be censured for willful desertion both for Sally’s vindication and the glory of God.

A charge to elders and sessions:

The only question now is whether ordained servants will be faithful to their ordination vows and challenge head-on those who willfully desert their spouse or pursue unbiblical divorce. Marriages are at stake and children are needlessly being torn from parents in the aftermath of divorce due to pastoral neglect. Let’s not allow our Calvinism cause us to deny that many marriages would not have ended in unbiblical divorce if elders had lovingly, yet methodically, explained the principles of marriage, divorce and church discipline to married couples on the brink of divorce.

Indeed, God-appoints difficult providences for all who are in union with Christ, but we must expect God’s grace to be sufficient for all his people to keep the marriage vow of “for better or for worse” unless one of two exception clauses can be met (adultery or willful desertion). Elders are to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. They are to love their flock according to understanding, which means they are to encourage the sheep under their care in the life of the cross to which we all are appointed. Elders must come along suffering spouses – labor with them indeed, yet censure those who willfully desert their spouses or pursue unbiblical divorce with a high-hand.

Let’s pray together for Christian marriages and that ordained servants might be faithful to their vows.

The Philosophical and Moral Impotency of Natural Law in Refuting Homosexuality

Although all men know by nature that homosexuality is sin, it’s only through Scripture that one can adequately defend the claim. (Natural theology types are free to try sometime.)

Since most people are autonomous in their thinking, it’s understandable why most cannot justify with any consistency and without avoiding arbitrariness, the claim that homosexuality is morally wrong.

IMG_4125.JPG

Although many straight people still find homosexuality unnatural – unnatural does not imply moral deviance. Even the claim that something is unnatural presupposes a network of beliefs about reality, truth, and ethical standards that cannot adequately be justified apart from Scripture. Whether homosexuality is sin is indeed a worldview question.

Sure, in general revelation there is natural law that pronounces guilt for sin upon all mankind, including guilt for homosexuality. Notwithstanding, natural law can grow increasingly dim in the minds of the ungodly. Yet even when natural law was shining more brightly upon social conscience, it was never to be interpreted apart from special revelation. With the rejection of the Bible, mankind is left to grope in darkness but not in search for moral standards – rather for moral standards that are philosophically defensible in the context of a larger worldview context that should be consistent, coherent and explanatory. On the authority of God’s word, we know it cannot successfully be done, which has been corroborated and verified since the time of creation.

Accordingly, two unhappy alternatives:

Apart from viewing homosexuality through the lens of Scripture, one is left with two unhappy alternatives: (i) a bigoted rejection of homosexuality or else (ii) condoning what is known in conscience to be morally deviant. In other words, apart from Scripture one either can judge correctly yet for sinful reasons, or else violate conscience (and live in moral conflict) by condoning in the name of love, no less, that which is an abomination in God’s sight.

Regarding natural theology, the church needs to wake-up from its Thomistic slumbers and distinguish (i) the universal knowledge of sin through natural law from (ii) the sole basis by which we might adequately defend the possibility of such knowledge. The former pertains to knowledge that permeates all moral creatures regardless of one’s worldview; whereas the latter relates to an epistemological defense that is unique to the Christian worldview. Without God’s word as the foundation for the only worldview that can reconcile moral absolutes with life experience, in whose name might we dare judge any behavior as sinful?!

In order to avoid imposing personal preference upon others, one is left to condone a practice that is contrary to God’s word. In other words, the “open minded” (to everything but God’s word, that is), if they’re to remain free from such bigotry, are constrained to not object to deviant behavior, “for who are we to judge?” Without God’s word, through the illumination of the Spirit, confirming to us that which we indeed know by nature to be sin, our beliefs would be reduced to subjective doubt and philosophical skepticism. Indeed, apart from the propositional revelation contained in Scripture we cannot adequately justify the knowledge we have, at least in any robust philosophical sense, that there even is such a thing as natural law. If that is not true, then God has not made foolish the wisdom of this world. (Again, Natural theology types are free to try sometime.)

In closing:

An insurmountable natural theology conundrum is that apart from special revelation, we’re consigned to non-authoritative personal preference, even though the Spirit unambiguously and universally testifies that homosexuality is sin. Perhaps the biggest irony in all of this is that without God’s word, ultimate autonomous virtue leads to defending deviant behavior against conscience. That’s where the world lives today. It doesn’t have a good enough reason to condemn sinful practice without being bigoted, so the world defends what God condemns.

In sum, apart from Scripture one is left either to go along with ungodly behavior to avoid personal prejudicial preference, or else undergo the conflicting guilt that comes with arbitrarily disapproving of a practice that is known to be morally wrong. At the end of the day, the Christian’s righteous disapproval of ungodly behavior is not available to us apart from values informed by Scripture and no amount of natural law can get us out of that Thomistic, humanistic predicament. No amount or natural law can get us to a defensible natural theology of sin. We must distinguish knowledge from the justification of the possibility of knowledge.

Yet Christians can rejoice in at least this: God is not mocked; the fool is confounded once again.