Monday, October 27, 2014

Latitudinarianism and Baptism

In 1966, the OPC came to the conclusion that it would leave it up to individual sessions to decide whether or not to admit to membership those who refused to submit their children for baptism (out of baptist scruples).  There was a majority report submitted to the assembly which opposed this, and a minority report by one person which promoted it.  The OPC General Assembly sided with the minority report.  (The reports can be read here.)

I recently encountered an article (which can be found here) in the OPC magazine Ordained Servant, written in 2011 by an OPC ruling elder (Bryan D. Holstrom), arguing that the OPC took a wrong turn in 1966 and that it should not allow members of the OPC to get away with not submitting children for baptism.  His argument is pretty straightforward:

With this understanding of the place of baptism in the church as a backdrop, it is easy to see why our Confession and Catechisms assert the doctrine of infant baptism without apology or equivocation. This makes it all the more puzzling why it is that, when the discussion shifts to the importance of baptism within God's economy, and the sanctions which accompany its neglect, the Reformed Christian so often turns tail and runs in the face of Baptist opposition. But isn't that precisely what we do when we accept the position taken at the 1966 GA? If we accept the argument that baptism is less important than circumcision, and thus optional on the basis of private scruples, have we not cast doubt upon our whole case for infant baptism in the first place? Since none of us would seriously suggest that circumcision was merely an optional rite of entry into the Old Testament church, on what basis do we make such a distinction with respect to baptism? Both rites come to us via direct command of God, and the account of God's nearly taking Moses' life in Exodus 4 because of his failure to circumcise his own son should serve as an urgent warning against our neglecting baptism.

Holstrom points out the teaching of the Westminster Confession on this subject and then makes some pointed observations and asks some pointed questions:

It would be superfluous to add much in the way of commentary to the passages listed above, since they largely speak for themselves. Collectively, they speak to the duty of having children baptized, and of baptism as being the only route to membership in the visible church. The language used does not admit of any discretion in the matter under consideration. Infants "are to be baptized." The failure to do so is a "great sin," since it constitutes a violation of the second commandment in the case of both the parents and elders who allow for its neglect. . . .

At the end of the day, only one conclusion seems plausible in the face of the evidence: we do not take seriously the Confession's statement that the neglect of baptism is a great sin. As a denomination, we have effectively taken an exception to the Confession's teaching at this point. No other explanation of our position makes any sense. The language of the Confession is too explicit and straightforward here to allow for any other possibility.

So that begs the obvious question: What is such language still doing in our doctrinal standards four decades later? Either we embrace and adhere to that section of the WCF or we do not. But we cannot have it both ways. If we are to be consistent, we must either reverse our 1966 decision or formally amend our doctrinal standards to eliminate the offending language. I pray that we choose the former course over the latter, but integrity demands that we do something to resolve the tension. Such inherently inconsistent thinking may be the norm in our modern secular society, but it has no place in the church of Christ. If we are not willing to uphold our confessional standards at this point, we should be honest about it and make our break with tradition official.

The author has pinpointed with regard to the doctrine of baptism a problem that is widespread in many Reformed communities today (and is not limited to the doctrine of baptism)--the problem of latitudinarianism.  Latitudinarianism is the idea that the church may dispense with command and discipline when it comes to certain clear teachings of Scripture deemed "less fundamental" than other teachings.  But this is surely a mistake, for Christ has commanded his church to teach all nations "to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:20--emphasis added).

See here for a more complete argument against latitudinarianism.

UPDATE 11/28/14:  Great comments by John Anderson (from his book Alexander and Rufus, or A Series of Dialogues on Church Communion in Two Parts, published in 1820, p. 24) which speak well to this issue:

You say, that a christian cannot surrender the least tittle of truth which he believes to be the testimony of his God; or do any act which implies such a surrender.  And, is it not as unlawful for a particular church, in her ecclesiastical capacity, to surrender any part of that which she hath received, and which she professes as a truth of God's word?  Surely, it is no less unlawful.  But a church may be justly said to surrender any such part of her profession, when she does not hold it fast.  And, it is evident, that she does not hold it fast, when she admits the avowed opposers of it to her sacramental communion: for, in doing so, she in effect tells them and the world, that she does not account their opposition to that article any moral evil, nor the holding of it any duty.  She does not require her members to hold it; and, therefore, she must be considered as dropping or surrendering it.  For an article, which a church does not require her members to hold, may, indeed, be the private persuasion of individuals, but is no longer any part of her public profession.

That is exactly what Bryan Holstrom is arguing in the article above.

I might add here what a correspondent of mine told me in the context of baptists and the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland:  "In London, quite a number of baptists who were refused membership re-thought their position and became ardent paedobaptists."  Interesting!  Perhaps standing up for the truth rather than compromising it out of a false sense of "charity" actually does more good in the long run, in addition to being simply the right thing to do.

UPDATE 12/16/14:  Here is another set of comments from the OPC website discussing the OPC and baptist members.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Denominations - What's the Problem?

Below is an article by Catherine Dickie, a member of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland.  It originally appeared on the "Our Confession" website, a site devoted to dialogue between Scottish Presbyterian churches.  Catherine runs a blog called ninetysix and ten.

Faced with the astonishing proliferation of presbyterian denominations in Scotland, some people may be tempted to stop trying to find a rationale for divisions and new start-ups altogether, and instead focus on the spiritual unity which believers share regardless of denomination. Since we’re all believers, can’t we just make allowances for each other’s tastes and preferences? I don’t really understand why this latest split had to happen, but isn’t there room for all of us?

Clearly, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the spiritual unity which all believers share in Christ. Although it’s ‘spiritual’ and ‘invisible’ and ‘mystical’, we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking it’s so abstruse and ethereal as to be unreal or worthless. When the Holy Spirit unites a soul to Christ in their effectual calling, that soul is united to the whole body of other believers also united to Christ. In Christ each individual believer finds his or her ultimate identity, and so do all believers collectively. Belonging to one denomination rather than another can do nothing whatsoever to weaken or impinge on this union or this identity.

But at the same time we need to guard against disparaging the external, visible, concrete expression of this spiritual union. The mystical oneness which believers share in Christ by definition should (according to Scripture) be expressed in visible form: it should be reflected by the oneness of the visible body under Christ the mystical head. If I’m spiritually united to my neighbour along the road, how come we attend a different place of worship on the Lord’s Day? sit with different groups of people at the Lord’s Table? contribute to a completely different Sustentation Fund? why isn’t our spiritual oneness better reflected in concrete, practical oneness?

This is all the more important to remember when we identify ourselves as presbyterian. The terrible reality about splits in presbyterian churches is that each of the groups involved in a split is by definition accusing the other of not really being a church at all. This is the appalling implication that attaches to any church split, whatever mitigating factors one side might be able to cite in terms of the justice of their cause or the godliness of their people.

That’s because, within the presbyterian system, kirk sessions are meant to work side by side, answering to presbyteries which work side by side, answering to synods which work side by side, and so on.

But after a split, my congregation is supervised by a kirk session which competes with yours instead of cooperating – my local presbytery stands in opposition to yours – my synod can freely ignore yours – the decisions and declarations of your general assembly have no bearing on the courts and believers under mine.

Even as I recognise the reality of the Christian professions made in your congregation and value your minister’s preaching gifts and appreciate the witness that you make for the truth, at the very same time your church courts and mine are antagonistic to each other – they each refuse to recognise the other’s authority and jurisdiction.

This is entirely incompatible with the Scriptural way of how the Church should be run. And this is why we cannot duck out of acknowledging that the current situation in Scotland, with our multiplicity of competing denominations, is unsustainable. The Church was never meant to be like this, and we cannot hope for the Cause to flourish if we turn a blind eye to the wrongness of the situation, or paper over the cracks by using informal ways of exploiting the spiritual unity at the expense of sorting out the concrete disunity. This place just isn’t big enough for all of us.

For more, see here.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Empty Words

Modern US society, and western society in general, seems to put a lot of stock in what are taken to be great principles and ideals but which are really only empty words.  Here are a few of them:


We say we are in favor of "tolerance."  But what in the world does that mean?  Nobody can be for or against "tolerance" in general, unless they literally oppose nothing at all (or everything altogether).  Everyone in reality tolerates whatever they believe to be tolerable and doesn't tolerate whatever they believe to be intolerable.  Are we, in the US, a "tolerant" society?  Well, not completely, because we have these things called "laws."  Try going into your neighbor's house and taking his TV set without his permission and experience for yourself the limits of tolerance.  Like all societies, the US tolerates what it thinks is tolerable and doesn't tolerate what it thinks is intolerable.  It decides on what goes into each list based on the beliefs and values (read: worldview) that form the foundation of law.  The Islamic Republic of Iran does exactly the same thing:  It tolerates the tolerable and refuses toleration to the intolerable, as that is defined by its particular brand of Shia Islam which generates many of the beliefs and values that form the basis of its laws.


So are you in favor of "equality"?  We seem to base all sorts of laws on the claim that they support "equality," but what does "equality" really mean?  It means that things are alike.  So are you in favor of the idea that things are alike?  If you are like me, you will answer, "Well, some things are like other things, and other things aren't like other things."  Are we in favor of treating things equally?  Yes, when they are equal.  No, when they are not.  At best, the "principle" of "equality" could be formulated as, "We should treat like things alike."  Well, yeah . . . but it's not exactly a terribly helpful principle, is it?  Who advocates treating like things as unlike or unlike things as like?  What about same-sex marriage?  Should we treat same-sex couples equally to opposite-sex couples?  Sure, to the extent that they are actually alike.  But not to the extent that they're different.  Well, are they relevantly different enough to grant the title of "marriage" to the one and not to the other?  It depends on your beliefs and values (read: worldview).  From an Agnostic point of view, perhaps they are sufficiently relevantly similar.  From a Christian point of view, they are definitely not.


America is founded on "freedom."  What is "freedom"?  I guess it means not stopping people from doing what they want to do.  Are you in favor of "freedom"?  My answer is:  Well, sometimes, and not other times.  Do we in the US believe in "freedom" and Iran doesn't?  Neither of us grants absolute freedom--which would be the same as having no laws.  Neither of us has no freedom--which would be to have laws restricting literally everything (good luck with that).  Both of us grant freedom in some things and not in other things.  Both of us allow freedom where we think there is no reason to restrain it, and both of us limit freedom where we think it needs to be limited, based on the beliefs and values (read: worldview) that we hold.  Peter Westen wrote a famous essay ("The Empty Idea of Equality") on this here, but you have to have a subscription to read it.  You can read the summary abstract though.


In the US, we like to say that we are in favor of things being legal "so long as they do no harm."  Do we think this sets us apart?  Who would say otherwise?  What country says, "We think X should be illegal, even though there is no problem with it and it doesn't matter at all."?  Or, "We think that X should be legal, even though it leads to all kinds of bad things we all should greatly fear and try to prevent."?  Every society works to prevent "harmful things," and no society works to prevent "harmless things."  Every society decides what goes into each category on the basis of its particular beliefs and values (read: worldview), and it is because these beliefs and values are different that they end up with different lists.  So should we only prevent things if they are harmful?  Well, yes, of course, but that doesn't say very much of any practical importance.  Steven D. Smith has an excellent article on this here.


We should allow people "liberty of conscience," right?  That is, we should allow them to follow the dictates of their own conscience.  James Willson articulated this idea well (though he was articulating it to criticize it) in his Essay on Tolerance:

Every man has an inalienable and indefeasible right to think, believe, and act, according to the dictates of his own conscience. And to call this in question is tyrannical, and to attempt to prevent it is persecution.

So what does this mean, exactly?  I suppose "conscience" in this idea refers to "whatever a person thinks is right."  So we should allow, in civil law, a person to do whatever he thinks is right?  OK, well, the followers of Al Qaeda will, I'm sure, be happy to explain that they pursue the act of blowing up random Americans and other westerners out of a sense of conscientious duty.  They believe it is the right thing to do.  So . . . we should let them?  We should not hinder them by means of law enforcement?

"Oh no, no, no!" respond the defenders of liberty of conscience.  "We do not mean that anything a person wants to do on the grounds of professed conscientious conviction should be allowed, but only things that are not so bad and harmful that they justify restricting them."  OK, so now our principle is amended to this:  "Everyone should be allowed to do whatever he thinks is right, unless what he wants to do is so bad or harmful that it justifies not letting him do it."  Well, this sounds a bit more reasonable, but it also now sounds completely empty and tautological.  Who would argue with the idea that we should let people do what they want unless their actions are bad enough to warrant stopping them?  This is a completely useless practical principle until we define clearly what is so bad and harmful and what is not, and people's lists in this area will differ depending on their differing beliefs and values (read: worldview).

I'm sure I could think of some other words to talk about as well, but that will do for now.  So why do we so often make use of empty words like these to ground our personal and social/political ideals?  I think one major reason is that we think (consciously or not) that it allows us to be able to shirk the hard work of having to actually provide good, sufficient reasons for our ideas and make substantial refutations of opposing ideas.  For example, surely it is rhetorically easier, and no doubt more politically effective as well (at least in our current social climate), to advocate for same-sex marriage on the grounds that "We are in favor of equality!" than to actually have to explain in detail why same-sex marriage is a good or at least a tolerable thing and to respond substantially to those who oppose it.  Related to this, we like to think of ourselves as a neutral society that doesn't take sides on disputable beliefs and values (read: worldview disputes), and actually digging into the real root causes of disagreement would blow that illusion right out of the water very quickly.  (For more on this point, see here.)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The First Book of Discipline of the Church of Scotland and Membership at a Distance

Are those who do not live locally in the area of an established church, with a full session and ministers, necessarily outside the visible church of Christ, so that they have no right to be considered members of the church?

The historic Reformed answer is no, they are not.  This is evident from the First Book of Discipline of the Church of Scotland, approved in 1650 by the Church of Scotland as a book of church order.  John Knox was one of the primary authors of the document.  When the church in Scotland was first declared reformed by the civil law, there were too few qualified reformed ministers to minister to all areas of Scotland.  Consequently, there were many people who were without a fully functioning, established church in their area.  There was no established local session to fully administer the sacraments, preach the gospel, and engage in ecclesiastical discipline.  So what did the Church of Scotland do about this situation?  Among other things, they appointed readers in the churches, and they appointed what they called "superintendents."  Here are some relevant passages from the First Book of Discipline:

For Readers
To the kirks where no ministers can be had presently, must be appointed the most apt men that distinctly can read the common prayers[2] and the scriptures, to exercise both themselves and the kirk, till they grow to greater perfection; and in process of time he that is but a reader may attain to the further degree, and by consent of the kirk and discreet ministers, may be permitted to minister the sacraments; but not before that he is able somewhat to persuade by wholesome doctrine, besides his reading, and is admitted to the ministry, as before is said. Some we know that of long time have professed Christ Jesus, whose honest conversation deserved praise of all godly men, and whose knowledge also might greatly help the simple, and yet they only content themselves with reading. These must be animated, and by gentle admonition encouraged, by some exhortation to comfort their brethren, and so they may be admitted to administration of the sacraments. But such readers as neither have had exercise, nor continuance in Christ’s true religion, must abstain from ministration of the sacraments till they give declaration and witnessing of their honesty and further knowledge.[3]

Of the Superintendents

Because we have appointed a larger stipend to those that shall be superintendents than to the rest of the ministers, we have thought good to signify unto your honours such reasons as moved us to make difference betwixt preachers at this time; as also how many superintendents we think necessary, with their bounds, office, [the manner of their] election, and causes that may deserve deposition from that charge.

We consider that if the ministers whom God has endued with his [singular] graces amongst us should be appointed to several and certain places, there to make their continual residence, that then the greatest part of this realm should be destitute of all doctrine; which should not only be occasion of great murmur, but also should be dangerous to the salvation of many. And therefore we have thought it a thing most expedient for this time that, from the whole number of godly and learned [men], now presently in this realm, be selected twelve or ten (for in so many provinces have we divided the whole), to whom charge and commandment shall be given to plant and erect churches, to set order and appoint ministers (as the former order prescribes) to the countries that shall be appointed to their care where none are now. And by these means [your] love and common care over all the inhabitants of this realm (to whom ye are equal debtors) shall evidently appear; as also the simple and ignorant (who perchance have never heard Christ Jesus truly preached) shall come to some knowledge by the which many that now are dead in superstition and ignorance shall attain to some feeling of godliness, by the which they may be provoked to search and seek further knowledge of God, and his true religion and worshipping. Where, by the contrary, if they shall be neglected, they shall not only grudge, but also they shall seek the means whereby they may continue in their blindness, or return to their accustomed idolatry. And therefore we desire nothing more earnestly, than that Christ Jesus be universally once preached throughout this realm; which shall not suddenly be unless that, by you, men are appointed and compelled faithfully to travail in such provinces as to them shall be assigned.

The Names of the Places of Residence, and Several Dioceses of the Superintendents
  1. Imprimis, the superintendent of Orkney: whose diocese shall be to the Isles of Orkney, Shetland, Caithness, and Strathnaver. His residence to be in the town of Kirkwall.
  2. The superintendent of Ross: whose diocese shall comprehend Ross, Sutherland, Moray, with the North Isles of the Skye, and the Lewis, with their adjacents. His residence to be in [the] Canonry of Ross.
  3. The superintendent of Argyll: whose diocese shall comprehend Argyll, [Kintyre,] Lorne, the South Isles, Arran [and] Bute, with their adjacents, with Lochaber. His residence to be in [Argyll].
  4. The superintendent of Aberdeen: whose diocese is betwixt Dee and Spey, containing the sheriffdom of Aberdeen and Banff. His residence to be in Old Aberdeen.
  5. The superintendent of Brechin: whose diocese shall be the whole sheriffdoms of Mearns and Angus, and the Brae of Mar to Dee. His residence to be in Brechin.
  6. The superintendent of Saint Andrews: whose diocese shall comprehend the whole sheriffdom of Fife and Fotheringham, to Stirling; and the whole sheriffdom of Perth. His resi dence to be in Saint Andrews.
  7. The superintendent of Edinburgh: whose diocese shall comprehend the whole sheriffdoms of Lothian, and Stirling on the south side of the Water of Forth; and thereto is added, by consent of the whole church, Merse, Lauderdale, and Wedale. His residence to be in [Edinburgh].
  8. The superintendent of Jedburgh: whose diocese shall comprehend Teviotdale, Tweeddale, Liddesdale, with the Forest of Ettrick. His residence to be [in Jedburgh].
  9. The superintendent of Glasgow: whose diocese shall comprehend Clydesdale, Renfrew, Menteith, Lennox, Kyle, and Cunningham. His residence to be in Glasgow.
  10. The superintendent of Dumfries: whose diocese shall comprehend Galloway, Carrick, Nithsdale, Annandale, with the rest of the dales in the West. His residence to be in Dumfries.
These men must not be suffered to live as your idle bishops have done heretofore; neither must they remain where gladly they would. But they must be preachers themselves, and such as may make no long residence in any one place, till there are churches planted and provided of ministers, or at the least of readers.

Charge must be given to them that they remain in no one place above twenty or thirty days in their visitation, till they have passed through their whole bounds. They must thrice every week, at the least, preach; and when they return to their principal town and residence, they must be likewise exercised in preaching and in edification of the church there. And yet they must not be suffered to continue there so long, as they may seem to neglect their other churches; but after that they have remained in their chief town three or four mouths at most, they shall be compelled (unless by sickness only they are retained), to re-enter in visitation, in which they shall not only preach, but also examine the life, diligence, and behaviour of the ministers; as also the order of their churches, [and] the manners of the people. They must further consider how the poor are provided; how the youth are instructed. They must admonish where admonition needs; dress such things as by good counsel they are able to appease;[9] and, finally, they must note such crimes as are heinous, that, by the censure of the church, the same may be corrected.

If the superintendent is found negligent in any of these chief points of his office, and especially if he is noted negligent in preaching of the word, and in visitation of his churches, or if he is convicted of any of those crimes which in the common ministers are damned, he must be deposed, without respect of his person or office.

Where there was no minister to preach the gospel, readers could be appointed to read the Scriptures.  Some ministers were appointed as superintendents.  These superintendents were appointed to particular areas, and they would visit periodically the local communities within their areas.  The members of the church in these areas were often without a fully functioning session for probably the majority of the year.  This was not an ideal situation.  The ideal is to have a fully functioning local session.  But being in this situation did not put these people outside of the visible church.

For more, see articles under the label "Membership at a Distance."

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

New Pamphlet from the OPC

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church has just published a new pamphlet designed to introduce people to the gospel and to the OPC.  In the pamphlet, there is a brief discussion of the fact that the OPC is a "Presbyterian" church and particularly the fact that, as a Presbyterian church, the OPC is "connectional":

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church is also a Presbyterian church.  In its essence, this means that we are confessional and connectional. . . .

We are connectional.  We also express our connectional character by our intentional structure.  Congregations in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church are led by their elders, who serve on the local (session), regional (presbytery) and national (general assembly) levels.  At every stage, our church government provides accountability and connects each congregation to the worldwide mission of the church.  Together, we seek to establish the worship of God and take the gospel to all people everywhere.

The question left unanswered here is how does the OPC understand its relationship to other denominations in light of its presbyterianism?  The implication of this collegial and catholic view of the unity of the church is that denominational separation involves a mutual charge of schism and a mutual rejection of each others' de jure legitimacy and authority.  Thus, the OPC, in remaining separate from other denominations such as the PCA or the FPCS, is charging these other denominations with schism and rejecting their objective legality.  The OPC, therefore, ought to make this position more clear and explicit.  If it doesn't want to affirm this, then it needs to unite immediately with other denominations whose legality it accepts in order to honor the catholicity and collegiality of the visible church.  If it doesn't want to do either of these things, then it needs to stop pretending to be a Presbyterian church.

Since the OPC has clearly affirmed that it holds to Presbyterianism (and has written some great stuff on this point, such as this document), I will assume until I have clear reason to do otherwise that it understands (at least on paper) its relationship with other denominations in a presbyterian manner, even while calling it to do better at expressing its position clearly and consistently.

For more, see here, here, and here.

How to Tell If Your Church Accepts the Legitimacy of Another Church

. . . at least if your church is a Presbyterian church.

In the presbyterian system of church government, ecclesiastical authority is collegial.  Elders do not function alone, but as parts of larger bodies of elders.  Individual elders function as parts of sessions, in submission to each other.  Sessions function under larger bodies of elders called presbyteries which have authority over the sessions and elders that make them up.  Presbyteries are subject to the authority of larger binding synods made up of elders from the various presbyteries, and these synods can be provincial, national, ecumenical, etc.  As American Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge summed it up, "The Presbyterian doctrine on this subject is, that the Church is one in such a sense that a smaller part is subject to a larger, and the larger to the whole."

In light of this, here is a question you can ask to find out if your church (assuming it is presbyterian) accepts the objective legitimacy and authority of another church:  If the other church called on your church to join them in a common council to discuss and try to resolve differences in doctrine and practice, and this council would be binding on both churches, would your church accept the call?  If the answer to this question is yes, then your church recognizes the legitimacy and authority of the other church.  If the answer is no, then your church does not recognize the legitimacy of the other church.  Since church power is inherently collegial, a refusal to submit to the authority of the other church by joining with them in a mutually-binding council amounts to a declaration that that church does not possess ecclesiastical authority.

To give a concrete example, take the OPC and the FPCS.  If the FPCS called the OPC to join them in a mutually-binding council to discuss and resolve doctrinal and practical differences, would the OPC accept the call?  The answer is no, they would not, because they would not want to grant the FPCS power over the doctrine and practice of the OPC.  Since the OPC professes a presbyterian view of church government, this means that the OPC does not recognize the objective legitimacy and authority of the FPCS.  The FPCS, likewise, would not accept a call from the OPC to join in a mutually-binding council, so the FPCS does not accept the authority of the OPC either.

For more, see here and here.

UPDATE 2/17/15:  Some may try to escape the force of the above reasoning by suggesting that their denomination (D-1) is indeed in mutual submission to another denomination (D-2) because D-1 is perfectly willing theoretically to join with D-2 in a mutually-binding council, even though D-1 refuses to recognize any way in which such a council could legitimately be called, and so there no practical possibility for such a council ever to happen.  So, theoretically (although I do not believe this claim is actually made), the OPC might claim to be in mutual submission to the FPCS because it is perfectly willing to join with the FPCS in a mutually-binding council--although no such council could ever actually happen because the OPC refuses to recognize any acceptable way to call it.  In this way, theoretically, denominations that want to think of themselves as consistently presbyterian but which don't want to acknowledge that they reject the authority of other denominations might try to evade the presbyterian logic.

But this evasion won't work, because to acknowledge something in theory while completely rejecting it in practice amounts to the same as rejecting it in theory (except that it adds hypocrisy to the mix).  What would we think of a church which claimed to be presbyterian but which recognized no way to have presbytery or higher synodical meetings, making it impossible ever to have them?  This would be presbyterianism on paper but not in reality.  Such a church would rightly be regarded as in actuality a congregationalist church.  Or what would we think of a church that claimed to reject icons in its creed but which actually tolerated them without any concern at all and refused to hear any discipline case against their use?  We would say, rightly, that such a church is not really opposed to icons.  It must be recognized that a church's practice will not always perfectly match its profession (just as it is with each of our individual lives as well), and there must be some toleration for flaws in practice, but there is also a limit to such toleration.  A church which completely and fully in practice rejects what it claims to affirm in theory is just playing games and its profession should not be taken seriously.

And that is why this evasion does not work.  If D-1 wants its claim that it is in mutual submission with D-2 to be believable, it must make reasonable efforts to practice such mutual submission.  At least this must translate into recognizing some possible, practicable way in which a mutually-binding council could be called and actually allowing such a thing to occur if it is called.  So if the OPC wishes to claim (and I do not say that it does) that it recognizes the presbyterial authority of the FPCS, it must show that it is willing to submit to the FPCS's authority by acknowledging (and following through with if called upon to do so) some practical way in which a mutually-binding council between these denominations could be called.  Without such a tangible expression of submission, a profession of such submission would be nothing more than mere pretense.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Scottish Presbyterians on How to Think of a Schismatic Church

James Walker, in his highly regarded work The Theology and Theologians of Scotland (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1872), discusses the doctrine of the visible church held by the Scottish Presbyterian theologians during the period when the Westminster Standards were written.  In this quotation (pp. 103-104), he points out that the Presbyterian theologians of those days understood the historic concept of schism--that it is something different from heresy and involves even otherwise orthodox churches or Christians who separate without cause from the rest of the catholic visible church.  Walker also articulates a de facto / de jure distinction as a part of the Scottish theology of the period.  A schismatic church might still be considered a church in terms of being, while yet, because it is schismatic, it does not constitute a church formally or de jure.  This is very similar to Calvin's comments regarding the church of Rome in his Institutes.  Here's Walker:

In regard to the former point, the point in hand, it seems to me quite clear that a very high doctrine of the Catholic visible Church was the doctrine of these old days.  Schism was a great reality.  The question was not merely whether a certain community of professing Christians was orthodox and pure, but whether it belonged to Christ's visible empire.  The Donatists held the fundamentals, yet they were to be abandoned for the Catholic Church.  It is not clear to me what, according to this view, was the exact position of a schismatical Church.  If it had the main truths, it was still a Church,--a Church, I think they would have said, in concreto and materially, and salvation work might go on there; but formally and in abstracto, it could not be recognized as a Church, or communion held with it as such.  A Church regarded as schismatic could only hold its ground on the principle that severance was necessary, because communion was no longer possible or lawful on Catholic communion ground. . . . The doctrine I have briefly explained was the doctrine eminently of the Confession period,--the doctrine of our Presbyterianism in the day of its power and its glory.

For more, see here and here.

Monday, October 6, 2014

James Durham on the Absolute Duty of Church Unity

One of the most famous Presbyterian books on church unity and schism is James Durham's Concerning Scandal.  Durham was a Scottish Presbyterian minister of the seventeenth century.  Here is a quotation from the book ([Dallas: Naphtali Press, 2014] 257-258):

1. The first general ground, which we take for granted, is this: that by way of precept there is an absolute necessity of uniting laid upon the church, so that it falls not under debate ‘Whether a church should continue divided or united in the Theses?’ more than it falls under debate whether there should be preaching, praying, keeping of the Sabbath, or any other commanded duty; seeing that union is both commanded as a duty, and commended, as eminently tending to the edification of the church, and therefore is so frequently joined with edification. Nor is it to be asked by a church, what is to be done for the church’s good in a divided way, thereby supposing a dispensation, as it were, to be given to division, and a forbearing of the use of means for the attaining thereof; or rather supposing a stating or fixing of division, and yet notwithstanding thereof, thinking to carry on edification. It is true, where union cannot be attained among orthodox ministers, that agree in all main things (for of such only we speak), ministers are to make the best use of the opportunities they have, and during that to seek the edification of the church. Yet, that men should by agreement state a division in the church, or dispense therewith and prefer the continuing of division, as fitter for edification than union, we suppose is altogether unwarrantable.

(1) Because that is not the Lord’s ordinance, and therefore cannot be gone about in faith, nor in it can the blessing be expected, which the Lord commands to those that are in unity (Ps. 133). (2) Because Christ’s church is but one body, and this were deliberately to alter the nature thereof. And although those who deny this truth may admit of division, yea, they cannot have union, that is proper church union, which is union in government, sacraments, and other ordinances, because union or communion in these results from this principle. Yet it is impossible for those that maintain that principle of the unity of the catholic visible church, to own a divided way of administrating government or other ordinances, but it will infer either that one party has no interest in the church, or that one church may be many, and so, that the unity thereof in its visible state is to no purpose. This then we take for granted. And though possibly it is not in all cases attainable, because the fault may be upon one side, who possibly will not act unitedly with others, yet is this still to be endeavored, and every opportunity to be taken hold of for promoting of the same.

Durham points out clearly that unity is an absolute duty.  It is never warranted for the church to exist in a divided state.  This is always a sin.  So when two church bodies recognize each other as true parts of the church de jure, they are under an absolute moral obligation to exist in a united state.  If the OPC and the FPCS, for example, recognize each other as legitimate churches, they both have an absolute moral obligation to do all they can to be united to each other at once.  If one of them refuses to do so, it is committing the sin of schism by dividing the church of Christ.

If two denominations remain divided from each other, according to Durham, "it will infer either that one party has no interest in the church, or that one church may be many, and so, that the unity thereof in its visible state is to no purpose."  That is, it will infer either that the two denominations don't recognize each other as being legitimate parts of the catholic church, or that the denominations have rejected the universal catholicity of the visible church (and thereby denied a fundamental principle of presbyterian church government for a form of independency).

For more, see here, here, and here.

Out of the OPC, Into the FPCS

Well, we (that is, myself and my family) have left membership in the OPC and are now adherent members of the FPCS.

The latter was very easy, because the FPCS follows traditional Scottish Presbyterian ways of thinking about membership.  They do not engage in any kind of public ritual to receive members into the visible church besides baptism and a general profession of faith.  Since we have all been baptized and those of us old enough to do so profess biblical Christianity, we are considered members of the visible church.  Because we have acknowledged the oversight of the FPCS and have professed submission to them (and have developed a particular relationship with the FPCS church in Santa Fe, Texas), we qualify as adherents of the FPCS (that is, we are members but have not yet been granted communicant status--that's the next step).  You can read about the traditional Scottish Presbyterian way of thinking about membership, baptism, and communion here.

Our removal from the OPC was not so easy.  Our OPC session decided that becoming a part of a church that has no local congregation (the nearest is in Texas) is equivalent to leaving the visible church altogether, and so, in asking to have our names removed from OPC membership due to our identifying with the FPCS, they consider us to have engaged in "cutting [ourselves] off from the visible church and relinquishing all rights to be considered Christians" (their words).  We regard this position as extremely odd, because in a Reformed and Presbyterian view of the church church membership is regarded as a catholic affair.  That is, when you join the church you are joining the whole catholic church, and simply having particular circumstances which cause you to exist distantly from a local congregation does not per se cause you to be outside the visible church.  (See, for example, Scottish Presbyterian minister Samuel Hudson's discussion of these matters here and here.)  Of course, in most circumstances being near larger bodies of the church and particularly the elders of the church is ideal, for obvious reasons, but this does not imply that there cannot be legitimate circumstances which might involve a more distant relationship--such as necessary and unavoidable circumstances (like being unable at present to move to Texas) or even possibly certain legitimate callings (such as perhaps missionary work) which might warrant living at a greater distance.  What is required, of course, is that fellowship with the church be maintained in some way and submission to the elders be retained, but the essence of these do not always require immediate locality.  Ideally, in most circumstances, it is best for a single parish to live together in the same neighborhood, and yet, especially in this day and age, other factors sometimes make this either impossible or problematic all things considered.  But this day and age also affords opportunity for easier contact even at a distance.  In our case, we are able to visit Santa Fe hopefully with some regularity, receive visits, listen to sermons, engage in email and phone conversations, receive the sacraments on occasional visits, etc.  And informal fellowship can also be maintained with other local Christians and churches which, though lacking de jure legality, manifest the de facto presence of the Body of Christ (we are now attending New Song Presbyterian, for reasons stated in the next paragraph).

The OPC session has also decided that our speaking to others about presbyterian church government, the implications of denominational division, and which churches possess de jure authority (a sample of such speaking can be found here and in larger form here) constitutes a slanderous charge of sin against the OPC, and thus has forbidden us (unless we should forbear to speak to any others about these things) from continuing to attend the OPC church in Salt Lake.  We find this reaction to be overly extreme.  Certainly, some of our positions are critical of the OPC, and we do deny it to possess objective legality, but at the same time we also recognize it as a part of the de facto visible church and thus of the Body of Christ.  We do not presume to judge the motives of anyone in the OPC with regard to the OPC's continuing to exist separately from the FPCS, though we believe this continued separation to be wrong.  We believe that informal Christians fellowship can and should be maintained as opportunity arises.  We feel that a less extreme response to us was called for, given that the Reformed world is in a greatly divided state and many groups of Reformed people are at odds on some things with other groups.  For example, the RPCNA maintains exclusive psalmody--the position that it is wrong to sing anything other than psalms in public worship.  The OPC, on the other hand, allows the singing of hymns.  Thus, both sides accuse the other of sin (which is just a word that means "doing something wrong"), and yet they are able to maintain friendly informal fellowship (but not ecclesiastical unity).  Even within the OPC, there are prominent persons (such as G. I. Williamson) who maintain the exclusive psalmody position, and yet are able to maintain not only informal fellowship but even membership within the OPC.  Many people in the OPC are also able to be on friendly terms with baptists, who affirm that it is wrong to baptize infants, and vice versa.  We believe the OPC is wrong in some areas, including in remaining separate from the FPCS, and we believe that it lacks objective legality because of its continued separation, and yet we also maintain that it is a part of the visible Body of Christ where, so far as we can tell with a judgment of charity, salvation is being attained, spiritual gifts are building up the body, gifts of leadership are being used by God in his providence, etc.  In short, the people and the work of God go on there, despite its being "schismatic" (that is, unjustly out of communion with the rest of the church and thus lacking such objective legality as would warrant its being joined with in the normal fashion).  We thus feel that nuance towards us would be more appropriate considering our nuanced attitude towards the OPC and the ability of others to get along despite what I would consider equally serious disagreements (for example, it is no light thing to neglect to give the covenant sign to one's children as baptists do, or to apply that sign without biblical warrant as baptists believe paedobaptists do).  We do not wish to be boisterous or obnoxious in holding our views or speaking to others about them, but simply to have the freedom to discuss them peacefully as opportunity arises (which will almost certainly be very rare within a local congregation--most of my efforts go to writing these blog posts and other forms of broader publication).  Surely, then, we are no greater threat to the OPC, even from their point of view, than baptists and other exclusive psalmodists.  And, of course, from the point of view of the truth, we are no threat at all, for our position is biblical and Presbyterian.

So there is an oddity in our current situation. One church says we are no longer members of the visible church, and another says we are, and both ignore the position of the other.  This is, of course, precisely the situation that my discussions of presbyterian church government are trying to call attention to.  If the OPC and the FPCS recognize each others' legitimacy and authority in a presbyterian system, the way forward should be clear:  The OPC session ought to pursue upholding their position through the courts of the church that the OPC and the FPCS both acknowledge as binding.  But, of course, there are no such courts, because there really isn't any presbyterian unity between the denominations.  Instead, the OPC and the FPCS just ignore each other, as if they don't attribute legitimacy and authority to each other.

So who is right?  Are we members of the visible church or not?  Fortunately, our position is that it is the FPCS which has the right to make that judgment, because they have a valid right to separate existence and thus to de jure legitimacy and authority, while the OPC does not.

For more on the theological issues, see here.  I have also written a book on these matters (the theological matters, not the personal situational matters) which I am working to get published at this time.  If you have any questions about that, let me know.  (The book is now published and can be found here.)

UPDATE 11/3/14:  See here for an update on how things are going at New Song PCA.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Jonathan Edwards on the True Foundation of the Praiseworthiness or Blameworthiness of Actions and Dispositions

One of the common objections to the biblical and Augustinian doctrine of predestination and efficacious grace often raised by critics is that, by placing the explanation for why a choice occurs in the prior dispositions of the agent, the causes that precede this disposition, and ultimately the eternal plan of God, the Augustinian doctrine robs the choice of any true voluntary-ness and thus of any true basis for praise or blame.  In this section from Jonathan Edwards's great classic, The Freedom of the Will, which I've always admired, Edwards responds to this objection by pointing out that the good or bad of a certain disposition or action lies not in what caused it to exist but in its own intrinsic nature.  In short, if an Arminians says, "But how can I be blamed for my actions, when I was not the ultimate cause of them but they are rooted in a larger nexus of causes and effects that are part of God's eternal plan?", the proper response is, "If your actions are your own flowing from your own disposition, you are to blame for them solely on that account, regardless of how you came to have such a disposition.  You are blameworthy for your actions because they flow from your own thoughts and desires and because those thoughts and desires are evil, and they remain evil no matter how they came to exist, just as an apple tree is an apple tree because it has the characteristics of an apple tree, whether it was produced in the usual way, by divine power creating it immediately in an adult state, or any other way imaginable."

In general, I highly recommend Edwards's book.  It is the absolute definitive argument on the subject of free will and predestination, and completely clinches the case for the Augustinian view both biblically and philosophically.  And for those who enjoy a clear and powerful display of excellent philosophical reasoning, the book is a delight to read. 

The text here comes from the plain text version of the book found at the website of the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.


Section I.

The Essence Of The Virtue and Vice Of Dispositions Of the Heart and Acts of the Will, Lies Not In Their Cause, But Their Nature.

One main foundation of the reasons, which are brought to establish the fore-mentioned notions of liberty, virtue, vice, &c. is a supposition, that the virtuousness of the dispositions, or acts of the will, consists not in the nature of these dispositions or acts, but wholly in the origin or cause of them: so that if the disposition of the mind, or acts of the will, be never so good, yet if the cause of the disposition or act be not our virtue, there is nothing virtuous or praiseworthy in it; and, on the contrary, if the will, in its inclination or acts, be never so bad, yet unless it arises from something that is our vice or fault, there is nothing vicious or blameworthy in it. Hence their grand objection and pretended demonstration, or self-evidence, against any virtue and commendableness, or vice and blameworthiness, of those habits or acts of the Will, which are not from some virtuous or vicious determination of the will itself.

Now, if this matter be well considered, it will appear to be altogether a mistake, yea, a gross absurdity; and that it is most certain, that if there be any such things as a virtuous or vicious disposition, or volition of mind, the virtuousness or viciousness of them consists not in the origin or cause of these things, but in the nature of them.

If the essence of virtuousness or commendableness, and of viciousness or fault, does not lie in the nature of the dispositions or acts of mind, which are said to be our virtue or our fault, but in their cause, then it is certain it lies no where at all. Thus, for instance, if the vice of a vicious act of will lies not in the nature of the act, but the cause; so that its being of a bad nature will not make it at all our fault, unless it arises from some faulty determination of ours, as its cause, or something in us that is our fault; then, for the same reason, neither can the viciousness of that cause lie in the nature of the thing itself, but in its cause: that evil determination of ours is not our fault, merely because it is of a bad nature, unless it arises from some cause in us that is our fault. And when we are come to this higher cause, still the reason of the thing holds good; though this cause be of a bad nature, yet we are not at all to blame on that account, unless it arises from something faulty in us. Nor yet can blameworthiness lie in the nature of this cause but in the cause of that. And thus we must drive faultiness back from step to step, from a lower cause to a higher, in infinitum; and that is thoroughly to banish it from the world, and to allow it no possibility of existence any where in the universality of things. On these principles, vice, or moral evil cannot exist in any thing that is an effect; because fault does not consist in the nature of things, but in their cause; as well as because effects are necessary, being unavoidably connected with their cause: therefore the cause only is to blame. And so it follows, that faultiness can lie only in that cause, which is a cause only, and no effect of anything. Nor yet can it lie in this; for then it must lie in the nature of the thing itself; not in its being from any determination of ours, nor anything faulty in us, which is the cause, nor indeed from any cause at all; for, by the supposition, it is no effect, and has no cause. And thus he that will maintain it is not the nature of habits or acts of will that makes them virtuous or faulty, but the cause, must immediately run himself out of his own assertion; and, in maintaining it, will insensibly contradict and deny it.

This is certain, that if effects are vicious and faulty, not from their nature, or from any thing inherent in them, but because they are from a bad cause, it must be on account of the badness of the cause: a bad effect in the will must be bad, because the cause is bad, or of an evil nature, or has badness as a quality inherent in it: and a good effect in the will must be good, by reason of the goodness of the cause, or its being of a good kind and nature. And if this be what is meant, the very supposition of fault and praise lying not in the nature of the thing, but the cause, contradicts itself, and does at least resolve the essence of virtue and vice into the nature of things, and supposes it originally to consist in that.-- And if a caviler has a mind to run from the absurdity, by saying, "No, the fault of the thing, which is the cause, lies not in this, that the cause itself is of an evil nature, but that the cause is evil in that sense, that it is from another bad cause," -- still the absurdity will follow him; for if so, then the cause before charged is at once acquitted, and all the blame must be laid to the higher cause, and must consist in that's being evil, or of an evil nature. So now we are come again to lay the blame of the thing blameworthy, to the nature of the thing, and not to the cause. And if any is so foolish as to go higher still, and ascend from step to step, till he is come to that which is the first cause concerned in the whole affair, and will say, all the blame lies in that; then, at last, he must be forced to own, that the faultiness of the thing which he supposes alone blameworthy, lies wholly in the nature of the thing, and not in the original or cause of it; for the supposition is, that it has no original, it is determined by no act of ours, is caused by nothing faulty in us, being absolutely without any cause. And so the race is at an end, but the evader is taken in his flight!

It is agreeable to the natural notions of mankind, that moral evil, with its desert of dislike and abhorrence, and all its other ill-deservings, consists in a certain deformity in the nature of certain dispositions of the heart and acts of the will; and not in the deformity of something else, diverse from the very thing itself; which deserves abhorrence, supposed to be the cause of it;--- which would be absurd, because that would be to suppose a thing that is innocent and not evil, is truly evil and faulty, because another thing is evil. It implies a contradiction; for it would be to suppose, the very thing which is morally evil and blameworthy, is innocent and not blameworthy; but that something else, which is its cause, is only to blame. To say, that vice does not consist in the thing which is vicious, but in its cause, is the same as to say, that vice does not consist in vice, but in that which produces it.

It is true a cause may be to blame for being the cause of vice: it may be wickedness in the cause that it produces wickedness. But it would imply a contradiction, to suppose that these two are the same individual wickedness. The wicked act of the cause in producing wickedness, is one wickedness; and the wickedness produced, if there be any produced, is another. And therefore the wickedness of the latter does not lie in the former, but is distinct from it; and the wickedness of both lies in the evil nature of the things which are wicked.

The thing which makes sin hateful, is that by which it deserves punishment; which is but the expression of hatred. And that which renders virtue lovely, is the same with that on the account of which it is fit to receive praise and reward; which are but the expressions of esteem and love. But that which makes vice hateful, is its hateful nature; and that which renders virtue lovely, is its amiable nature. It is a certain beauty or deformity that are inherent in that good or evil will, which is the soul of virtue and vice (and not in the occasion of it), which is their worthiness of esteem or disesteem, praise, or dispraise, according to the common sense of mankind. If the cause or occasion of the rise of a hateful disposition or act of will, be also hateful, suppose another antecedent evil will; that is entirely another sin, and, deserves punishment by itself, under a distinct consideration. There is worthiness of dispraise in the nature of an evil volition, and not wholly in some foregoing act, which is its cause; otherwise the evil volition, which is the effect, is no moral evil, any more than sickness, or some other natural calamity, which arises from a cause morally evil.

Thus, for instance, ingratitude is hateful and worthy of dispraise, according to common sense; not because something as bad, or worse than ingratitude, was the cause that produced it; but because it is hateful in itself, inherent deformity. So, the love of virtue is amiable and worthy of praise, not merely because something else went before this love of virtue in our minds, which caused it to take place there; -- for instance, our own choice; we choose to love virtue, and, by some method or other, wrought ourselves into the love of it; -- but because of the amiableness and condescendency of such a disposition and inclination of heart. If that was the case, that we did choose to love virtue, and so produced that love in ourselves, this choice itself could be no otherwise amiable or praiseworthy, than as love to virtue, or some other amiable inclination, was exercised and implied in it. If that choice was amiable at all, it must be so on account of some amiable quality in the nature of the choice. If we chose to love virtue, not in love to virtue, or any thing that was good and exercised no sort of good disposition to the choice, the choice itself was not virtuous nor worthy of any praise, according to common sense, because the choice was not of a good nature.

It may not be improper here to take notice of something said by an author, that has lately made a mighty noise in America. "A necessary holiness (says he) is no holiness. Adam could not be originally created in righteousness and true holiness, because he must choose to be righteous, before he could be righteous. And therefore he must exist, he must be created; yea, he must exercise thought and reflection, before he was righteous." There is much more to the same effect in that place, and also in pp. 437, 438, 439, 440. If these things are so, it will certainly follow, that the first choosing to be righteous is no righteous choice; there is no righteousness or holiness in it, because no choosing to be righteous goes before it. For he plainly speaks of choosing to be righteous, as what must go before righteousness; and that which follows the choice, being the effect of the choice, cannot be righteousness or holiness; for an effect is a thing necessary, and cannot prevent the influence or efficacy of its cause; and therefore is unavoidably dependent upon the cause; and he says a necessary holiness is no holiness. So that neither can a choice of righteousness be righteousness or holiness, nor can any thing that is consequent on that choice, and the effect of it, be righteousness or holiness; nor can any thing that is without choice, be righteousness or holiness. So that by this scheme, all righteousness and holiness is at once shut out of the world, and no door left open by which it can ever possibly enter into the world.

I suppose the way that men came to entertain this absurd inconsistent notion, with respect to internal inclinations and volitions themselves (or notions that imply it,) viz. that the essence of their moral good or evil lies not in their nature, but their cause, was, that it is indeed a very plain dictate of common sense, that it is so with respect to all outward actions and sensible motions of the body; that the moral good or evil of them does not lie at all in the motions themselves, which, taken by themselves, are nothing of a moral nature; and the essence of all the moral good or evil that concerns them, lies in those internal dispositions and volitions which are the cause of them. Now, being always used to determine this, without hesitation or dispute, concerning external actions, which are the things that, in the common use of language, are signified by such phrases as men's actions, or their doings; hence, when they came to speak of volitions, and internal exercises of their inclinations, under the same denomination of their actions, or what they do, they unwarily determined the case must also be the same with these as with external actions; not considering the vast difference in the nature of the case.

If any shall still object and say, why is it not necessary that the cause should be considered, in order to determine whether any thing be worthy of blame or praise is it agreeable to reason and common sense, that a man is to be praised or blamed for that which he is not the cause or author of, and has no hand in?

I answer: Such phrases as being the cause, being the author, having a hand, and the like, are ambiguous. They are most vulgarly understood for being the designing voluntary cause, or cause by antecedent choice; and it is most certain, that men are not, in this sense, the causes or authors of the first act of their wills, in any case, as certain as any thing is or ever can be; for nothing can be more certain than that a thing is not before it is, nor a thing of the same kind before the first thing of that kind, and so no choice before the first choice.-- As the phrase, being the author, may be understood, not of being the producer by an antecedent act of will, but as a person maybe said to be the author of the act of will itself, by his being the immediate agent, or the being that is acting, or in exercise in that act; if the phrase of being the author is used to signify this, then doubtless common sense requires men's being the authors of their own acts of will, in order to their being esteemed worthy of praise or dispraise, on account of them. And common sense teaches, that they must be the authors of external actions, in the former sense, namely, their being the causes of them by an act of will or choice, in order to their being justly blamed or praised: but it teaches no such thing with respect to the acts of the will themselves. But this may appear more manifest by the things which will be observed in the following section.