Thursday, October 29, 2009

Return to Rome by Francis J. Beckwith - A Protestant response: part 2

In part 1 of this review series I introduced the book and suggested that two substantive doctrinal issues led Beckwith to question his Evangelical Protestant faith and consider reconciling with the Roman Catholic Church: the doctrine of Scripture and justification by faith alone. In part 1 I homed in on what Beckwith had to say on sola scriptura. I was glad to see that the author read the post and thought it "fair minded" (see here), although he disagrees with my conclusions (see his response). Now I would like to look at the reasons Beckwith gives for his change of mind on justification by faith alone. In the final part of the series I will reflect on whether its is meaningful, given his rejection of key Evangelical teachings for Beckwith to designate himself an 'Evangelical Catholic'.

Justification by faith alone

Beckwith does not intend to present a full apologia for the Roman Catholic view of justification in these pages. He simply wants to let his readers in on the processes of his own thinking as he moved from a Protestant to Roman Catholic position. He came to the conclusion that the Roman Catholic view has greater explanatory power in relation to the biblical material than the Evangelical Protestant teaching. This is a strong charge given the Evangelical insistence on basing doctrine on sound biblical exegesis. But what of his arguments? In the space of a blog post I can't respond to every point he makes. For the sake of brevity I especially want to zoom in on what he has to say between the relationship between justification and sanctification in Roman Catholic and Protestant thought.

As far as I can see "sanctification" not clearly defined, but the assumption seems to be that in the biblical texts he quotes, "sanctification" means spiritual transformation or the life of good works that is included in justification. (He cites, 1 Corinthians 6:11, 2 Thessalonians 2:13, Titus 3:5-8 etc - see p. 103-106) There are two problems with this construction. The first is that Beckwith fails to distinguish between positional or definitive sanctification and progressive sanctification. In the texts cited, positional sanctification is invariably in view. As Reformed Theologian John Murray pointed out, "it is a fact too frequently overlooked that in the New Testament the most characteristic terms that refer to sanctification are used not of a process, but of a once-for-all definitive act (see here)." In the texts cited justification is placed alongside definitive sanctification because on union with Christ the believer is at one and the same time declared righteous and set apart to God as holy. In the texts listed above Paul is not conflating justification and the life of sanctified good works. The key idea is position or status not process, hence the aorist tense of the verbs in question. But even here, justification and definitive sanctification remain distinct aspects of salvation, otherwise why would Paul bother to distinguish between them?

Second, Beckwith suggests that in understanding justification forensically, Protestants have difficulty with the Bible's teaching on transformative sanctification. But this is not the case. We hold with Calvin that in Christ the believer receives the "double benefit" of forensic justification and transformative sanctification (Romans 5 & 6). If Roman Catholics including Beckwith said that salvation has both forensic and transformative aspects, I would agree. The wider category of salvation includes both justification and the grace-enabled life of good works. But justification is the forensic aspect of salvation and it should not be merged with regeneration or transformative sanctification. Paul insists again and again that the believer is justified by faith apart from the works of the law (Galatians 2:16, 3:10-14) and sets faith against works in the context of justification (Romans 4:5).
It is wrong of Beckwith to suggest that Evangelical Protestants have a problem integrating the Bible's teaching on the need to work out salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12-13). Maybe the sectors of Evangelicalism in which Beckwith moved did not have an especially great emphasis on progressive sanctification, but the Reformed tradition has always been keen to stress the importance of the life of godliness and the value of good works - see Westminster Confession of Faith XVI. The voluminous Puritan writings on practical piety are enough to silence Beckwith's charge. (See Volumes 6 & 7 of the Works of John Owen, or take a look at J. I. Packer's Among God's Giants for a contemporary appreciation of the Puritan and Reformed teaching on holiness). Contrary to what Beckwith would have us believe (p. 113), there is even even room in Reformed theology for the deification of the believer, when understood in the light of Scripture. Here is John Calvin,

"Peter declares that the purpose for which believers are called is, that they may be “partakers of the divine nature,” (2 Pet. 1:4). How so? Because “he shall come to be glorified in his saints and to be admired in all them that believe,” (2 Thess. 1:10). If our Lord will share his glory, power, and righteousness, with the elect, nay, will give himself to be enjoyed by them; and what is better still, will, in a manner, become one with them, let us remember that every kind of happiness is herein included. But when we have made great progress in thus meditating, let us understand that if the conceptions of our minds be contrasted with the sublimity of the mystery, we are still halting at the very entrance". (The Institutes of the Christian Religion III:XXV:10)

The trouble is that Roman Catholic theology has the tendency to synthesize the different aspects of salvation so that hardly any distinction is made between regeneration, justification and transformative sanctification. The quote from the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church on pages 107-108 bears this out (paras 1989-1982 here). It is as if all the different features of salvation have been placed in a Vatican blender and reduced to an undifferentiated soteriological gloop. For Beckwith as a Roman Catholic, "justification includes sanctification" (p. 103 - his own emphasis). More than that, Beckwith agrees with the Catholic teaching that in justification God makes us "inwardly just" (p. 110), making justification virtually equivalent to transformative sanctification. But in Holy Scripture these terms do not all mean the same thing. Regeneration or being born again (John 3:3) is the initial act of saving transformation. Transformative sanctification is the ongoing process of spiritual renewal. Justification is the forensic declaration that the believing sinner is right with God on the basis of Christ's finished work. These key theological words are not interchangeable. Substitute "sanctifies" for "justifies" in Romans 8:33-34 and the force of Paul's argument is blunted. Justification is the opposite of condemnation. It does not refer to the ongoing process of the believer being conformed to the image of Christ, although that too is an integral feature of salvation (Romans 8:29). Distinguishing between justification and sanctification is not as Beckwith suggests another instance of "bifurcation" in Protestant thought. It is simply a matter of being sensitive to clear biblical distinctions in order to preserve the integrity of the different aspects of salvation. A salvation I stress that is not received in disparate bits and pieces, but complete and entire on the believer's union with Christ.

As Beckwith acknowledges (p. 108ff), one of the main Protestant objections to Roman Catholic teaching on justification is that the inclusion of good works in justification effectively undermines the believer's assurance of salvation. How can the Christian ever be sure that he has done enough good works to merit acceptance by God? Beckwith tries to meet this objection by suggesting that even in Protestant teaching, "good works are a necessary condition for true justification." (See p. 109). It is true that good works validate the believer's claim to be truly justified because the faith that alone justifies does not remain alone. As Paul says, "faith works by love" (Galatians 5:6). It is here that the teaching of James comes into its own (James 2:17). But good works do not constitute a condition for justification. The sinner is justified by faith in Christ's finished work alone. That is the primary basis of the believer's assurance, Romans 5:1. But Beckwith makes a salient point when he says that, "The Protestant can repeat the sinners prayer and answer the altar call until the cows come home. But if she shows no evidence of 'good works', her eternal fate remains in serious doubt (p. 110)." There is certainly more to genuine saving faith than saying the "sinners prayer". Such an approach betrays the fact that the wider Evangelical world has a superficial understanding of conversion. The more biblical teaching of Reformed theology insists that salvation in Christ includes forensic justification and the new life of good works. The one is never present without the other. But good works are not needed to supplement the work of Christ in order to help merit salvation. We are saved by grace alone. That is why we reject Catholic practices such as penance, the confessional and prayers for the dead.

In conclusion I suggest that the little word alone stands at the heart of the difference between Evangelical Protestantism and the Roman Catholic Church. The Reformed Churches hold that on the basis of Scripture alone that we are saved by faith alone in Christ alone through grace alone to the glory of God alone. That is what the Reformers understood so well in their controversy with the Roman Catholic Church. If Beckwith felt he could no longer hold to the solas of the Reformation then he did the right thing in retuning to Rome.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Return to Rome by Francis J. Beckwith - A Protestant response: part 1

Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic,
by Francis J. Beckwith, Brazos Press, 2009, 144pp
In 2007 Francis Beckwith, President of the Evangelical Theological Society caused something of a stir when he resigned from office on the grounds that he had returned to the Roman Catholic Church. I say returned to the Roman Catholic Church because Beckwith was raised a Catholic and did not become an Evangelical Christian until his late teens. His disillusionment with post Vatican II Catholicism made him search for spiritual fulfilment among Evangelical Protestants. With touching honesty Beckwith tells the story of his reenchantment with the Roman Catholic Church into which he was baptised and confirmed as a child. Surprisingly, amongst other influences he cites Carl Trueman, Professor of Historical Theology and Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary as a catalyst for his return to Rome (p. 83). He quotes Trueman's review of Is the Reformation Over? - here.
To get to the nub of things, it seems that two substantive doctrinal issues led Beckwith to question his Evangelical Protestant faith and consider reconciling with the Roman Catholic Church. The first was the doctrine of Scripture. The second was justification by faith alone. In this post I will discuss the what Beckwith has to say on sola scriptura.

Sola scriptura
Increasingly Beckwith struggled with the Protestant teaching of sola scriptura, finding the Catholic teaching where God reveals himself through Holy Scripture and the traditions of the Church more appealing. Of course, if Church teaching is a source of continuing revelation alongside Scripture, then it doesn't matter that certain Catholic dogmas can't be found in the Bible. On that basis the primacy of the Pope, purgatory, the Marian doctrines and so on may be accepted simply as the authoritative dogmas of the Church. The fact that they have no evident biblical foundation is besides the point. The Church has infallibly pronounced that these dogmas must be accepted by the faithful and that's that. However, it might be objected that Beckwith has not properly understood what the Reformers meant by sola scriptura. He seems to have had a rather biblicist understanding of the doctrine that excludes the role of the church as reader and teacher of Holy Scripture. By sola scriptura, the Reformers did not mean to separate the Bible from the Church. Rather they insisted that the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture is the supreme authority in the Church. The Church has ministerial authority to interpret and bear witness to the message of the Bible, but the Church and her traditions remain under the critical authority of God's written Word. The Church may restate the teaching of Scripture using other than biblical language in order to make its message plain, but she cannot add to God's self-revelation in Holy Scripture. Confusion on this point leads Beckwith to charge the Evangelical Theological Society with inconsistency in its doctrinal basis, which reads,

"The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs.
God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory." (See here).

Beckwith objects that the ETS statement on the Trinity uses words such as "person" and "essence". As he points out this is not the language of the Bible, but of the creedal heritage of the Church. Tacitly, he suggests ETC has recognised that the Church as well as the Bible is a source of revelation about God - the Catholic position. But this is not the case. Evangelical Protestants hold that biblical truth sometimes needs to be stated in extrabiblical language in order to preserve the meaning of Scripture in the face of heretical misunderstandings. That is exactly what happened at Nicaea. When the Church acts in this way she is not supplementing biblical revelation, but preserving the integrity of what has been revealed, 'erecting a fence around the mystery' as Augustine put it. In this vein Beckwith has also misunderstood what the Westminster Confession says about deduction from Scripture. He quotes WCF I:VI
"The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men."
Beckwith suggests that in speaking of deduction, the WCF views theology almost as "branch of mathematics". He alleges the Puritans who drew up the confession used Scripture as a repository of truths from which principles could be logically deduced, sidelining the confessional heritage of the Church (p. 80). But this is not the case. The Westminster Confession deliberately incorporates the insights of earlier creedal documents. For all its Puritan distinctives, at heart the confession a work of Catholic theology. Its statement on the Trinity (Chapter II) bears all the hallmarks of Nicean orthodoxy. Its chapter on Christ the Mediator (VIII) freely uses the language of the Definition of Chalcedon. Its doctrine of sin and salvation is positively Augustinian (chapters IX-XVIII).
By not limiting the whole counsel of God to what is expressly set down in Scripture, the Puritan divines were distancing themselves from heretics such as the biblicist Socianians who insisted that biblical truth must be expressed in purely in biblical language. The Church's doctrine of the Trinity in terms of God being a union of three persons in the one divine essence may not be found in Scripture in just such words. But the doctrine of the Trinity may be properly deduced from Scripture as part and parcel of the whole counsel of God. Deduction here is not a case of autonomous human logic, but an exercise in holy reason as the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit seeks to faithfully articulate and defend God's self-revelation in Scripture.
Evangelical Protestants in the Reformed tradition certainly do not understand sola scriptura to mean that the interpretation of one believer is just as good as another or that the Bible should be read individualistically apart from the the creedal heritage of the Church. The Church has ministerial authority to expound the word through the teaching and preaching of her pastors. But the Church has no magisterial authority to add to Scripture or to rule infallibly on its interpretation. We do not need the Roman Catholic Magisterium to tell us how to read the Bible. But that does not mean that sola scriptura a recipe for theological anarchy. The Bible is God's clear and present Word to the Church. Its basic message concerning salvation in Christ is clear for all to see, while opinions may differ over the meaning of some difficult texts. However, differences of biblical interpretation are not the sole preserve of Evangelical Protestantism. The Church Fathers did not always agree. Is Beckwith suggesting that the Magisterium has succeeded in eliminating all disagreement on matters of biblical interpretation among contemporary Roman Catholic scholars? It would be hard to substantiate such a claim.
Beckwith's issues with sola scriptura are misplaced. His concerns have more to do with a narrow Fundamentalist biblicism than the historic Reformed teaching on the relationship between Scripture and the Church. In this book Beckwith complains that Evangelicals have often misunderstood the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. That may well be true and we must work harder to try and understand what each other is saying. But from his critique of sola scriptura, it seems that the former President of the Evangelical Theological Society did not have an accurate grasp of the view of the Bible he thought he was rejecting when he returned to Rome. That is regrettable and maybe it is an indication of the need for the wider Evangelical world to engage in further theological reflection on the doctrine of Scripture that goes beyond "the battle for the Bible". While biblical inerrancy is to be defended a la the ETS basis of faith, there is more to a rounded doctrine of Scripture than fighting for that particular truth. In my view Words of Life by Timothy Ward is a step in the right direction - see review here.

Monday, October 26, 2009

PTS Preachers Conference

Left to right: Dafydd Morris, Alun McNabb, Roland Burrows & Geariod Marley
It seems a while ago now, but on Saturday 17th October I attended the Prootestant Truth Society Preachers Conference at Old Hill. It was the first conference of its kind and attendence was encouraging. Here's a brief report:
Preaching and the 1859 Revival
Dafydd Morris
Dafydd, PTS rep for Wales drew attention to the impact of Finney-inspired "new measures" on the 1859 revival in Wales. American preacher C. G. Finney introduced practices such as the "altar call" and the "anxious seat" to try and pressurise people into deciding for Christ. The numbers of "decisions for Christ" were widely publicised in a rather triumphalistic way. Rather than thinking of revival in terms of a sovereign work of the Spirit, Finney argued that revivals could be obtained any time if certain conditions were fulfilled. Calvinistic preacher Asahel Nettleton protested against these "new measures", but nevertheless they were widely accepted in the Evangelical world. A biblical understanding of revival transmuted into revivalism, where the work of man was emphasised at the expense of the work of God.
The 1859 revival in Wales was not immune from Finneyite measures. Humprey Jones, a Welsh Methodist preacher who spent time in America introduced practices such as publicising the numbers of "decisions for Christ" when he returned to his homeland, hoping to spark off a fresh revival. But while the Finneyite strand in the 1859 revival is to be regretted, there is no doubt that it was a true work of grace. Sleepy churches were challenged as preachers rebuked those who were "at eaze in Zion". The "lukewarm" were urged to repent and seek the Lord. Powerful applicatory preaching was the order of the day and by this means the Holy Spirit awakened the churches. Dafydd Morgan was much used in the revival. A sudden enduement with power transformed him into a mighty preacher of the gospel. It was said that he went to bed one night like a lamb and arose the next morning like a lion. Revival preachers like Morgan were dependent upon the Spirit to enable them to preach Christ with power and effectiveness.
Preaching during the revival was grippingly Christ-centred, with a strong focus on the atoning blood of the Saviour. Sinners were convicted of their sin and brought to know the joy of forgiveness as they believed in Christ. Large numbers of lasting converts were added to the churches. The face of society was changed as a result of renewed Christian influence. Perhaps the reason why Christian people aren't so interested in revival today is that we don't know what we are missing.
Called to preach: Getting Going
Geariod Marley
I. A preacher must be a converted and called man
We cannot truly preach Christ unless Christ is in our hearts. The call to preach involves an inward conviction and recognition of gifting by the church.
II. Set out with settled convictions on preaching
The Reformation moved the pulpit to the central place in church buildings to emphasise the importance of preaching. We too should insist that preaching is central to the life of the church.
III. Christ is the main theme in all preaching
As the Puritans said, we must preach 'One Christ by Christ to the praise of Christ'. We should preach Christ evangelistically to the lost that they might be saved. We must preach him boldly from all the Scriptures. Heralding Christ and the demands of godliness may incur opposition from church members who do not want their sins exposed. But we must press on.
IV. Faithful and effective preaching and personal piety
1 Timothy 4:16. Preachers mus be men of prayer and men of the word. We should try and read the whole Bible once a year and feed on the preaching of the word ourselves.
Called to preach: Keeping going
Alun McNabb
The veteran minister, now 74 years of age, shared with us some of the things that had enabled him to keep going for 50 years as a preacher. He warned against putting the wrong type of men into the ministry, 'square pegs in round holes'. We need to be sure that we are truly called to the pastorate. Better for a church to have no minister at all than an ungifted one. What we need as Christians is the same as what is needed for ministry- a close walk with the Lord. Adopting an anecdotal style, Alun listed some of the things that had kept him going. A good wife. Good health. Private prayer. The church Prayer Meeting. Good books like Pilgrim's Progress. Godly people who did unusual things for the Lord like the church member who came to church without wearing shoes because she had given them away to a poor women on the way to the service. Other ministers. Keeping unity in the elders' meeting. Conversions. Converts becoming pastors. The study of other people's preaching. We way not be the most gifted of preachers, but we must all strive to be the best preachers that we can be. The Holy Spirit, Luke 11:13. Calvin's advice that 'excellence of gift produces carelessness and sloth'. We need to work at preaching - content, communication and delivery. Preaching is not a running commentary. A sermon must have one main point and be digestible and interesting. Imitate Jesus the great storyteller.
Conference Sermon
Roland Burrows
Taking his text as Joshua 6 and Hebrews 11:30, Roland urged us to face the challenges of the day. By faith we must work, wait and win. Like Joshua we need to take God at his word and see what he is able to do.
In all, this was an encouraging conference and as a preacher I found it challenging and helpful. It was good to renew fellowship with old friends and also to meet people who seem to have heard of me from the blog. Several times I was asked, "Are you the Exiled Preacher?" It is hoped that a similar event will be arranged for October next year. Details to be announced.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Sing to the Trinity

Christian worship should be explicitly trinitarian. Through the Son we have access to the Father by the Spirit. Note the way Paul includes all three persons of the Trinity as he blesses God in Ephesians 1:3-14. When choosing hymns for worship on the Lord's Day, I always try and select at least one hymn that makes reference to all three persons of the godhead; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The 2004 edition of Christian Hymns has 18 hymns (no's 40-58) in the section entitled 'Triune God', but many hymns outside of that section are trinitarian in character, for example: 130, 138, 150, 370, 394 and 483.
We also use the much maligned Praise! hymnbook. I have to admit that the editors were rather clumsy in the way they modernised some of the older hymns, but there are some lovely trinitarian hymns in the book, both old and new. Numbers 151-165 are gathered under the heading, 'The eternal Trinity', but several hymns beyond that section are also wonderfully trinitarian, for instance: 169, 176, 177, 273, 538, 543, 629, 624 and 795.
Singing trinitarian hymns will help our people see that the doctrine of the Trinity is not an abstract theological conundrum. That we have been brought into communion with the triune God should be the heartbeat of experiential Christianity. Our God has revealed himself to be Father, Son and Holy Spirit, so sing to the Trinity!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Heroes by Iain H. Murray

Heroes, by Iain H. Murray, Banner of Truth Trust, 2009, 303pp
Here Iain Murray pays homage to some of his spiritual heroes and seeks to draw lessons from their lives. He offers an unashamedly exemplarist style of biography that is at odds with the more critical writing of some contemporary Evangelical scholars. He takes exception to Harry S. Stout's work, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism, charging him with sharing the naturalistic presuppositions of unbelieving historians. For Murray the purpose of Christian biography is not to do a hatchet job on the subject, mercilessly exposing their faults and failings. He knows very well that saints are also sinners and uncritical adulation of great preachers must be avoided. But we still have much to learn from the example of those who have gone before us.
In the opening chapter, the writer returns to the the subject of one of his full length biographies, considering Jonathan Edwards, The Man and the Legacy. Drawing on scholarly work that was not available to him when he wrote the biography, Murray offers a compact and compelling account of Edwards' life. He commends Edwards to his readers as a theologian of revival and Christian experience. Edwards' ministry is an abiding witness to the fact that Calvinistic orthodoxy is not enough on its own. We need the presence and power of the Holy Spirit to make the preaching of sovereign grace effective in advancing the gospel of salvation.
In George Whitefield and Christian Unity, Murray highlights the 18th century evangelist's catholicity of spirit. Whitefield held fast to his theological and ecclesiastical distinctives as a Calvinistic Anglican clergyman. But he had a deep love and regard for all true believers. We have a lot to learn from Whitefield on the importance of keeping the main thing the main thing. A winsome catholicity of spirit will do more good than angry bigotry in commending the doctrines of grace to a wider Evangelical world.
Chapters are devoted to the famous John Newton and the not so well known (outside of Wales) Thomas Charles. Murray gives skillful pen portraits of both men. Lessons from the life and ministry of the two preachers are helpfully applied.
The story is told of Two Men and an Island, the two men being William Hepburn Hewitson and Robert Reid Kalley, and the island being Madeira. God mightily used the sacrificial labours of these two missionary pioneers. Many Madeiran people were converted in the face of intense persecution from the Roman Catholic infuenced authorities.
Controversially, Murray includes a chapter on Charles and Mary Colcok Jones. Charles was an evangelist to slaves in the the American "Old South". The problem is that he was also the owner of a large plantation manned by slave labour. Jones undoubtedly had a deep concern for enslaved people and did all he could to reach them with the gospel. His efforts were blessed and many blacks were converted under his ministry. But his work was compromised by the fact that he was a slave owner preaching to slaves. He believed that slavery should be gradually phased out and distanced himself from the more impatient emancipationists in the North. While we cannot doubt Jones' genuine love for slaves, his ownership of enslaved black people makes him a badly conflicted hero.
Finally, Murray gives a stirring account of Spurgeon as an Evangelist. Such were the exceptional gifts possessed by the preacher, we might think that we have little to learn from his example. But Spurgeon was a model evangelist. He was a man of prayer who depended upon the Holy Spirit as he proclaimed the gospel of salvation in the great Metropolitan Tabernacle. We may not be as eminently gifted as the Victorian pastor, but as M'Cheyne reminds us, "It is not great gifts that God is pleased to bless, but great likeness to Jesus." Spurgeon calls us to be men of God if we would be used by God.
I was a little unwell when I read this book. It was a real tonic and encouragement to me as well as being very challenging. In an age of jaundiced cynicism we could do with some heroes. Murray has succeeded in bringing to life some of the great heroes of the Christian Church, "whose faith follow considering the outcome of their conduct. Jesus Christ is the same yesteday, today and for ever." (Hebrews 13:7 & 8).

Monday, October 19, 2009

Jacob Arminius (1560-1609)

Arminius and his Arminianism

In what must be one of the great ironies of church history, Jacob Arminius shares an anniversary year with John Calvin. The Genevan Reformer was born 500 years ago on 10th July 1509. Arminius, who did so much to question Calvin’s theology of sovereign grace died 400 years ago today, on 19th October 1609. Like Calvin, he is one of the few figures in Christian history to have lent his name to an “ism”. His teachings, popularly labelled Arminianism have spread far and wide and influenced many. Even evangelicals have not been immune to his views. During the Evangelical Revival in the 18th century, George Whitefield famously fell out with John Wesley over the latter’s Arminianism. In this article we will look at the man behind the “ism” and consider how Jacob Arminius became an “Arminian”. Most importantly we need to ask whether Arminianism stands up to the test of Scripture.

Early life

Jacob Arminius was born in Oudewater, southern Holland in 1560. His father died when he was an infant, but wealthy friends of the family provided for Jacob’s education. He studied at the Universities of Marburg and Leiden before being sent to Geneva, where he sat at the feet of Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in the city. Arminius was a diligent scholar and his work impressed his teachers, including Beza.

But student life is not for ever and in 1588 Arminius was invited to return to Holland as one of the pastors of the Reformed Church in Amsterdam. In 1590 he married Elizabeth Reael, daughter of an Amsterdam Magistrate with whom he was to have nine children. The doctrinal basis of the Dutch Reformed Church was the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession, both solidly Calvinistic documents. In 1603, Arminius was appointed Professor of Divinity in his old almer mater, the University of Leiden. But it soon became evident that his theology was not in accordance with Reformed orthodoxy. His ideas on predestination proved especially controversial. Arminius rooted election in God’s foreknowledge of which sinners would believe in Christ.

The origin of his ideas

It used to be thought that Arminius’ problems with the Reformed doctrine of predestination began when he was asked to refute the unorthodox views of Dirck Coonhert, an opponent of Calvinistic theology. But this account has been challenged by more recent scholarship (See God, Creation and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius, Richard A. Muller, Baker, 1991). To understand Arminius properly we need to set him in his proper historical context.

In the early 17th century orthodox Reformed theologians began to draw heavily on the resources of medieval scholastic theology. They looked to the writings of Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus and others as they sought to develop a more systematic approach to theology. Scholasticism offered a sophisticated theological method that came with its own ready made technical arguments and special terms. All this was very handy for discussing the finer points of Reformed theology. Arminius would have received a thorough grounding in the scholastics during his student years.

In looking back to scholasticism, the orthodox Reformed were following in the footsteps of John Calvin himself. Calvin rejected the wilder speculative excesses of the scholastic theologians. But he used their arguments and terminology when it suited his purpose. Like Calvin, later Reformation leaders found Aquinas especially helpful. He emphasised the sovereignty of divine grace in salvation, harking back to the teachings of Augustine of Hippo. The orthodox Reformed were not only familiar with the older scholastic tradition, they also engaged with the leading Roman Catholic theologians of the day. Some in the Roman Catholic Church were beginning to question the Augustinian thread in Aquinas’ teaching. Amongst the critics was Luis de Molina, an early Jesuit theologian. Molina tried to reconcile the sovereignty of God with human freedom. He posited a theory of “middle knowledge”, where God’s knowledge of future events is dependent on the free actions of human beings.

The influence of Molina can be traced in Arminius’ thinking on the relationship between God and humanity. He too spoke in terms of “middle knowledge”. The Leiden professor taught that God has placed limits upon himself so that human beings may act with freedom. This obviously poses a problem for the Reformed doctrine of predestination, which insists that God has sovreignly willed whatever comes to pass. Election is not based on God foreseeing which human beings would freely choose to be saved. Rather, God has graciously elected some sinners to life and salvation in Christ in accordance with the good pleasure of his will.


Alarm bells soon began to ring when Arminius’ ideas on predestination were made public through his teaching at Leiden. Some insisted that he should be called to justify his views in a specially convened synod. Arminius refused, arguing that his teaching was in accordance with the Reformed Confessions. He may have sincerely believed this to be the case, as have several of his followers, but he was mistaken. The Belgic Confession states,

Article 16: The Doctrine of Election

"We believe that-- all Adam's descendants having thus fallen into perdition and ruin by the sin of the first man-- God showed himself to be as he is: merciful and just. He is merciful in withdrawing and saving from this perdition those whom he, in his eternal and unchangeable counsel, has elected and chosen in Jesus Christ our Lord by his pure goodness, without any consideration of their works. He is just in leaving the others in their ruin and fall into which they plunged themselves."

Arminius’ position is quite different.

"God decreed to save and damn certain particular persons. This decree has its foundation in the foreknowledge of God, by which he knew from all eternity those individuals who would, through his preceding grace, believe, and, through his subsequent grace would persevere, according to the administration of those means which are suitable and proper for conversion and faith; and, by which foreknowledge, he likewise knew those who would not believe and persevere." (Works Of Jacob Arminius, Volume 1 - here).

Note that Arminius ascribes election to the grace of God. This grace is sufficient to save whoever will believe, but it does not effect salvation in those whom God has chosen. Election is simply a matter of God foreknowing who would avail themselves of the offer of redemption. This teaching subtly undermines the Reformation insistence that salvation is by grace alone. If by virtue of universal grace all sinners theoretically have the ability to choose to be saved, then why do not all sinners in fact choose to be saved? In the end it must come down to an element of human choice. Some choose to avail themselves of salvation in Christ, but others do not. For all that is said about this choice being grace-enabled, this is not an effective grace that actually saves, but merely a grace that facilitates the sinner’s choice to believe. Arminianism is a form of Semi-Pelagianism, which teaches that man must co-operate with God’s grace in order to be saved.

This questions the New Testament’s verdict that the unbeliever is dead in trespasses and sins and is therefore unable to choose to be reconciled to God. According to the Bible grace is both sufficient and effective, 2 Timothy 1:8-10. When Scripture speaks of the foreknowledge of God it does not mean that God simply looked into the future to see who would choose to be saved. Consider what Paul says in Romans 8:29-30. By “foreknew” Paul means something like “fore-loved”. God loved certain sinners and predestined them to be conformed to the image of his Son. He takes the initiative throughout the processes of salvation. God calls, justifies, and glorifies his chosen people. This does not mean that he forces salvation upon unwilling human beings. Rather, the Father sets us free to believe in Christ and be saved by the power of the Holy Spirit.


After long resisting an open discussion of his views, Arminius finally agreed to a conference at The Hague where his teaching could be properly examined. But he fell ill and died on 19th October 1609. His Arminianism did not die with him. In 1610 a group of Dutch divines sympathetic to Arminius’ theology issued the Remonstrant Articles, which may be summarised,

1. Predestination is conditional on God foreknowing who would believe.
2. Christ died for all, although only believers will be saved.
3. Human beings are sinners and cannot believe apart from the grace of God.
4. Saving grace may be resisted.
5. The doctrine of the final perseverance of the saints needs to be investigated further.

Many have found Arminius’ theology appealing. After all it is flattering to think that we can make at least some small contribution to our salvation. The anti-Puritan Archbishop Laud and his followers held to Arminian doctrine. John Wesley had his Arminian leanings. Huge sectors of evangelicalism are in fact Arminian. That is what lies behind the crusade-type evangelism, where sinners are urged to “decide for Christ". Arminianism is a distortion of the gospel. It has had a baleful effect upon the theology and mission of the church. Jacob Arminius was a learned and able theologian, yet we must reject his teaching because it robs the triune God of his glory in salvation. In a future post I hope to say something about the Synod of Dort, which was called in 1618 to give the definitive Reformed response to the Remonstrants’ Arminian views - see here.
* An edited version of this article was published in October's Evangelical Times.

Friday, October 16, 2009

2009 Westminster Conference

Calvin, Geneva & Revival

The Programme of the 2009 Puritan Conference:

Tuesday, 8th December, 2009
10.30 am - John Calvin’s agenda: Issues in the separation from Rome
Garry Williams
1.15 pm - Calvin as commentator and theologian
Don Carson
3.40 pm - 1859 - A Year of Grace
Stephen Clarke

Wednesday, 9th December, 2009
10.30 am - Elizabeth and Calvin
Robert Oliver
1.15 pm - Darwin Before and After
Ken Brownell
3.40 pm - The Moravians and Missionary passion
Bruce Jenkins

See website for more info and brochure.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Listen up! Radio discussions on Aquinas, Christology and Heresy

Wireless theology drifts into cyberspace:

Melvin Bragg chairs a fascinating discussion on Thomas Aquinas on BBC Radio 4's In Our Time.

Justin Brierley hosts a conversation with New Testament scholars James Crossley and Richard Bauckham on Jesus and the God of Israel. They debate Bauckham's 'Christology of divine identity' on the Premier Christian Radio show, Unbelievable?

John Pantry, also of Premier Christan Radio interviews my friend Martin Downes on his breakfast show. They talk about his excellent new book, Risking the Truth and MD fields calls from listeners. You can download a recording here.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life by Herman J. Selderhuis

John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life,
by Herman J. Selderhuis, IVP, 2009, 287pp
With this year being the 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth it's a good time for a fresh appraisal of his life. The secondary literature on Calvin is prolific, but Selderhuis bases this account mainly on his reading of the Reformer's copious correspondence. He claims that the way to get under the Calvin's skin is through his letters. Has Selderhuis succeeded in his aim, does he give his readers a glimpse into Calvin's interior life? He certainly has a good try.

The Calvin who emerges through these pages is neither a flawless Reformation hero or a vindictive heretic burning fiend. Those looking for hagiography or hatchet job will not find what they are looking for here. Selderhuis paints a richly detailed portrait of Calvin as a fully paid up member of the human race. We are introduced to Calvin the student, refugee, preacher, friend, husband and leader of the Reformed cause. Calvin was a sinner saved by grace, no more and no less. He was capable of showing kindness to those in need. He was a good friend and patient in afflictions. He enjoyed a good wine and knew what it was to laugh as well as grieve. He was unswervingly loyal to the truth as he understood it. But Selderhuis does not flinch from revealing some of the less savoury aspects of Calvin’s character. He could be bad tempered and petty. He showed monumental misjudgement in the Servetus affair.

The book follows the narrative flow of Calvin’s story taking us from his childhood to his monumental labours in Geneva. His life is described against the backdrop of the tumultuous years of the Reformation period. Selderhuis carefully pieces together Calvin’s early days, showing how his humanist education impacted on his work as a Reformer. His love of brevity and clarity of expression can be traced back to the formative influence of the humanist school. Renaissance ideals drove him back to the sources of Scripture in the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament.

Selderhuis gives us some fascinating insights into Calvin's personality. The Reformer is often accused of being a control freak, the “Caesar of Geneva”, who always had to have his own way. But as it is pointed out, a key aspect of Calvin's character was that of almost unquestioning submission to father figures. It was at the behest of his father that he gave up studying for priesthood to pursue a law degree. Calvin meekly complied with this change of direction in his studies. Likewise it took another rather insistent father figure in the shape of Guillaume Farel to persuade Calvin to abandon a life of scholarly seclusion in order to help lead the Reformation in Geneva. When it turned out that the Genevans did not want a Reformation of the kind envisaged by Calvin, they swiftly booted out of the city. When the good people of Geneva decided that they couldn't live without "that Frenchman" as they called him, they invited Calvin to return. He was somewhat reluctant to leave Strasbourg, where he was happily engaged in pastoring a congregation of French exiles. The prospect of returning to the place that had earlier caused him such grief was none too inviting. But when Martin Bucer decided that Calvin should go back to Geneva, he submitted to his fatherly advice as if it were the will of God.

Doing God’s will, even when God’s plans clashed with his own was a determining factor in Calvin’s life. Armed with the certainty that he was where the Lord wanted him to be, Calvin was willing to endure all things for the sake of the gospel. He threw himself unstintingly into the work at Geneva. He preached not only on Sundays, but also frequently in the week. He delivered lectures to students and corresponded with other Reformation leaders. On top of all that he took time to offer practical assistance to needy people. He barely had a spare moment to himself. Calvin carried on with his work in the face of ill health. A chapter on Calvin the 'Patient' details his various ailments and infirmities. 2 Corinthians 12:9 comes to mind.
Despite what some have suggested, Calvin didn't always get his own way in Geneva. Even during his second period of his ministry in the city he faced numerous problems. They didn't even award him citizenship until 1559. His attempts at reforming the City and its Church were often frustrated. He wanted a self-governing Church that was free from state interference. This was a long time in coming. But at last the City authorities granted the Church the right to exercise discipline over its members and ban impenitent sinners from the Lord's Table. As Calvin had argued for many years, the power of Church discipline should reside in the Church, not with the Magistrate. The Reformer was prepared to suffer hardship and opposition in the service of his heavenly Father. As the book’s subtitle suggests, he saw himself as a pilgrim whose life in this veil of tears was a preparation for the glory that is to come.

While this isn’t strictly a theological biography, Selderhuis discusses Calvin’s theology with sensitivity and care. Misunderstandings are cleared up and prejudices challenged, enabling the reader to get a handle on key aspects of the Reformer’s thought, such as predestination and the Lord's Supper.
Selderhuis writes with clarity, verve and wry humour. Those who know Calvin mainly from his Bible commentaries and the Institutes will be introduced to the man behind the books. He was a rounded yet flawed human being, a sinner saved by grace alone. The writer has a fund of sympathy for his subject, but rightly he does not bend over backwards to exonerate Calvin when he feels that he was in the wrong. If the biographer does succeeded in getting his readers under the Reformer's skin, he promises to let us out again. You'll have to find out for yourself whether that promise holds good.
Calvin’s rich legacy is of lasting benefit to the people of God. We could do with his God-centred theological vision, dogged determination to serve the his Master, and tireless zeal for the Reformation of the Church. We have cause to be grateful to the Lord for “that Frenchman”. Through this compelling account of his life, he challenges us to follow him on the pilgrim road to glory.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Day off

We had a nice day off on Saturday. Where we live isn't too far from Bath and I always enjoy popping into the city. We usually park the car in Victoria Park and walk into town from there. It was a joy to walk through the park, with the grass strewn with crunchy autumn leaves on a bright autumn day. The city centre was as busy and bustling as ever. We grabbed some Cornish pasties and ate in the shadow of the magnificent Abbey. Bath is such a random place. I love it. Roman Baths, posh spas, big shops and classical colonnades are intermingled with buskers, beggars and fire juggling street performers. As we were eating lunch a troupe of bizarrely dressed traveling actors passed by, advertising their next performance.
One of the reasons we headed for Bath was to catch the new Pixar release, UP. The film was a real treat with some great laugh out loud moments, beautifully realised in stunning 3D. Unusually for a family movie, the main character is an old codger called Carl whose wife has died and whose house is surrounded by a noisy building development. He escapes being consigned to an old folks home by tying helium-filled balloons to his home and taking off into the bright blue sky. He heads for Paradise Falls in South America, the place he and his wife, Ellie had longed to explore when they were childhood sweethearts. His adventure is enlivened by an accidental stowaway in the shape of Russel, an eight-year old Wilderness Explorer. As well as being great fun, the film is a poignant meditation on love, loss, ageing and mortality. It's central message is that love is the greatest adventure.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

On workaholic pastors

Not many members of Reformed churches would quietly boast if their pastor was an alcoholic or a drug addict, but it seems that people have a sneaking admiration for workaholic ministers. They say, 'Oh, our pastor is a workaholic. He never stops!' As if that was a good thing. It is easy for pastors to become workaholics. We don't have a human boss who tells us when to start and finish the working day. That could induce laziness as no one is keeping an eye on us, but I don't think that's a problem for most Reformed pastors. The work itself is never ending. Sermons need preparing, people need visiting, meetings need chairing, activities need organising, study, writing articles, admin, blah, blah blah. It is a great work (apart from admin) and we should throw ourselves into the ministry of the word. In terms of study and preparation we get to spend lots of time doing things that other Christians have to squeeze around their busy working lives. But pastors shouldn't become workaholics. It's not a good or admirable thing when that happens.
Workaholic pastors are a bad example to their people. If a minister is a husband and father, then he like all Christian men in that position will need to spend quality time with his family. Even Jonathan Edwards made sure that he spent time chilling out with his large family each evening. Take a day off. We can't often have Sundays off, but the Sabbath principle that man needs a day of rest still applies. 'The Sabbath was made for man'. Get in the car and go somewhere. If you lounge around at home on your day off the phone will ring and you'll get sucked into work. Get organised so that your sermons are prepped etc and take some time out with the wife and kids. Churches should be sensitive to this matter and try and leave their pastor in peace on his designated day off.
Workaholic pastors are acting as if their acceptance with God were dependent upon their frantic efforts. That is a contradiction of justification by faith alone. God accepts us on the basis of what Christ has done for us rather than on the basis of what we have done for him. We need to find the time and space to bask in the loving acceptance of the Father, rest in the finished work of the Son and delight in the witness of the Spirit of adoption. If our ministry does not flow out of communion with the triune God of all grace, then what's the point?
Workaholic ministers are guilty of a form of activism - the tacit belief that God's work is almost entirely dependent on our gargantuan labours. Perhaps we need to do less stuff and spend more time in prayer. After all our primary calling is to give ourselves to 'prayer and the ministry of the word' (Acts 6:4) - in that order. Business does not necessarily amount to fruitfulness.
Workaholic pastors make themselves inaccessible to their flocks as they seem to be far too busy to bother with problems of one kind or another. This may stop spiritual hypochondriacs from pestering their minister unnecessarily, but our people should know that we are available to them when they need our help and counsel.
Workaholic ministers need to remember that, 'All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy - and if he's a pastor, a dull preacher.' Maintain interests outside of pastoral work. Keep up with what's going on in the world. Enjoy sport. Listen to music. Watch a bit of TV. Catch the occasional film. Read a novel. People sometimes seem affronted that pastors have time to do anything else bar work. I'm often asked how on earth I find the time to blog.
Fellow pastor, don't be a workaholic. Don't be addicted to your work. The only permissible addiction for Christians is an addiction to Christ, Philippians 3:8. 'One thing is needful'!

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel by Boice & Ryken

The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel
by James Montgomery Boice & Philip Graham Ryken, Crossway, 2009, 240pp
The basic thesis of this book is that Evangelicalism needs a good dose of Calvinism. Evangelicalism has been at its best in those periods when it has been in the grip of Calvinistic theology. That is because Calvinistic theology is the theology of the Holy Scripture. Contemporary Evangelicalism has largely abandoned the doctrines of grace and is the worse for it. Despite apparent numerical success, the movement seems to be imploding and is often characterised by theological confusion, worldliness and lack of effectiveness in reaching the masses for Christ.

But if at least part of the answer to the present malaise is a recovery of the doctrines of grace, then what are those vital doctrines? Boice and Ryken describe what they mean in terms of the “Five Points of Calvinism”, popularly summarised under the mnemonic TULIP, Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace and the Perseverance of the Saints. The authors quibble a little about the appropriateness of some of the traditional TULIP terminology and make a few adjustments in wording. For example, they rightly prefer ‘Particular Redemption’ to ‘Limited Atonement’. But all the same, the writers follow the familiar five-point schema in their exposition of the doctrines of grace. What they have to say is helpful and well argued, but I can’t help thinking that reducing Calvinism to the stereotypical five points is slightly reductionistic. The “five points of Calvinism” were never intended to be a handy summary of Reformed teaching as a whole. As the book says, they were simply the Reformed response to the Arminian five point Remonstrance at the Synod of Dort in 1618. Calvinistic teaching certainly includes a commitment to TULIP theology, but it is much bigger in scope than that. Greater breadth and creativity is needed in commending the riches of Reformed theology to the wider Evangelical world.

With the above thoughts in mind, last couple of chapters are probably the best in the book. In The True Calvinist, Boice and Ryken devote attention to a Calvinistic view of the Christian life. They show that when properly understood the doctrines of grace will lead to God-centred holy living. The Calvinist will seek to bring every area of human existence under the authority of the sovereign God of all grace. Just how this comprehensive vision of life plays out in practise is detailed in Calvinism at Work. The writers demonstrate that the Calvinistic vision of God’s sovereignty has a positive impact on the mission of the Church and has powerful implications for the relationship of the Christian to the wider culture.

The book is dual-authored because it was completed by Philip Graham Ryken, as James Montgomery Boice died in June 2000, leaving the work unfinished. Their joint-effort offers a convincing introductory argument that Evangelicalism needs Calvinistic theology and a gripping conclusion on the practical implications of Calvinism. But it is marred by a slightly stodgy and unimaginative middle section. Let's stop using TULIP as shorthand for the doctrines of grace in their totality.
* An edited version of this review will appear in a forthcoming edition of Protestant Truth.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

How should we then give?

The other Sunday one of the churches I serve had a Gift Day, so I preached on the theme of giving, taking 2 Corinthians 8:9 as my text. It made me think about giving and how we may give well as Christians.
People give for all sorts of good reasons. Some give out of pity. Paul could have written about the suffering and poverty in the Jerusalem church, explaining how some believers were having to go without life’s essentials for Jesus' sake. They were poorly clothed, ill fed, and had to live in sub-standard housing. People of my generation have Michael Beurk’s famous report on famine on Ethiopia etched on their memories. The outpouring of compassion provoked by that film led to the original Live Aid concerts. But Paul did not appeal to the Corinthians to give simply out of pity. Others may give because giving can be fun. Events like 'Children in Need' and 'Comic Relief' are all about making giving fun. Paul could have told the Corinthians to organise some exciting fundraising activities, 'Come on, get involved. Giving is a fun, feelgood thing to do'. But that was not Paul's approach. Altruism is another motive for giving - give simply because it is the right thing to do. If you are better off than others, then you have a duty to give, noblesse oblige and all that. Paul didn't try that one either.
It is possible to give for entirely the wrong reasons. We may give to impress others with our largess. Some give hoping to gain. Take the recent "cash for Peerages" scandal in the UK, where big donors to political parties were allegedly offered seats in the House of Lords as a reward for their giving. We can give manipulatively to make others obliged to us. 'You just remember where the money is coming from.' Paul obviously doesn't want the Corinthians to give for bad reasons. He wants them to be gospel givers. As Christians our chief motivation for giving is the good news of what Jesus has done for us. And what Jesus has done for us is encapsulated in 2 Corinthians 8:9.
How should we then give?
1) Gospel givers are sacrificial givers

At the heart of 2 Corinthians 8:9 is the idea of sacrifice.

2) Gospel givers are loving givers

Not “as cold as charity”, but an expression of love to enrich others, (1 Corinthians 13:3, 1 John 3:16-17).

3) Gospel givers give for the gospel’s sake

They want others to hear the gospel and will give to maintain gospel witness.

4) Gospel givers give more than money

Giving is not just about what we put in the offering box. We must give of ourselves, our time, energy and love in the Lord's service, Romans 12:1-2.
5) Gospel givers are thankful givers

God has given us so much more than we could ever hope to repay him. We give of our money time, our very lives saying, 2 Corinthians 9:15.
6) Gospel givers don't just think about giving, they do it
Give to the Barnabas Fund, 'hope and aid for the persecuted church'.

Monday, October 05, 2009

N. T. Wright at Helm's Deep

Paul Helm has concluded his four-part series on N. T. Wright and justification by faith alone. Check it out for an acute theological analysis of the differences between Wright's 'new perspective' stance and the classic Reformed position on the imputed righteousness of Christ.
1. Wright in General
2. Why Covenant Faithfulness is not Divine Righteousness (and cannot be).
3. Wright and Righteousness
4. Wright and the Reformation

"On the Reformed view, Christ’s imputed righteousness is ‘alien’, external, the righteousness of another, and even when imputed, it will always remain alien. God justifies the ungodly as ungodly. The widely-used illustration, that Christ’s righteousness is credited to my account, is misleading. (If I’m credited, mustn’t Christ be debited?) To repeat, in the imputation of righteousness, nothing moves. Imputation is not an electronic moral transfer. Righteousness is not transmitted, transfused, or relocated in any way. (Any more than if I receive free insurance cover I receive a transfusion of some mysterious substance called ‘insurance’.) The believer’s imputed righteousness remains inalienably Christ’s perfect righteousness. What is true is that by an act of the unspeakable mercy of God the believer is shielded by, or seen through, or covered by, the righteousness of another." (From Wright and the Reformation ).