Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Reformed Catholicity of Second London Baptist Confession: 'Of Christ the Mediator'

The authors of the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, 1689 (LBC) were keen to identify themselves with mainstream Puritan theological orthodoxy. That is why their confession of faith was not a freshly minted expression of their beliefs, but a revision of the Independent's Savoy Declaration of Faith, 1658 (SDF), which was in turn an amended version of the Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith, 1644 (WCF). See this Tabular Comparison of the three confessions. In this post I want to reflect on Chapter 8 of the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, 'Of Christ the Mediator', with a nod to the parallel statements in Westminster and Savoy. 

The Westminster Confession was an expression of Reformed Catholicity. The Independents and Baptists followed suit. Careful readers of the three documents will discern traces of earlier creedal formulae. Westminster's doctrine of the Trinity (Chapter 2, compare SDF & LBC) is that of the Nicene Creed; one God in three persons, with each person of the same divine essence. Its doctrine of Christ is that of the Definition of Chalcedon; the incarnate Son is one person with two natures, divine and human (Chapter 8, compare SDF & LBC). The soterological emphasis of the Presbyterian confession and its successors was positively Augustinian, with an emphasis on predestination, the total depravity of humanity in sin and salvation by grace alone. 

So far, so Catholic. But Reformed, not Roman Catholic. All three confessions make it clear that Jesus Christ is the 'only Mediator between God and man' 8:2. This rules out Roman Catholic claims of other mediators such as the pope, the saints, the priesthood, or Mary. The 1689 adds two more paragraphs to further underline the point, drawing on John Calvin's delineation of Christ in his offices of prophet, priest and king, 8:8-9: "This office of mediator between God and man is proper only to Christ, who is the prophet, priest, and king of the church of God; and may not be either in whole, or any part thereof, transferred from him to any other. (1 Timothy 2:5), 8:8" See also 8:9, which explains why sinners are in need of Christ in his threefold mediatorial offices. 

The Savoy and 1689 set Christ's person and work in the context of the Covenant of Redemption between the Father and the Son in eternity, 8:1 (compare). This doctrine was in an early stage of its development at the time of the Westminster Assembly, hence its omission from WCF. One feature of the LBC is the addition of biblical wording to its chapter on Christ the Mediator, which gives the confession more of a salvation-historical perspective. Especially paragraph 8:2 (compare). 

The confessions make it clear that it was "The Son of God, the second person in the Holy Trinity, being very and eternal God" who took upon himself man's nature, "being conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary" (8:2). The incarnation did not involve the Son becoming any less divine. Rather, "two whole, perfect, and distinct natures were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion; which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only mediator between God and man." This language closely reflects that of the Definition of Chalcedon. 

Section 8:7 of the three confessions is a statement on the 'communion of attributes' in the incarnate Son. This does not mean a transfer of properties from one nature to the other in the person of Jesus. His divine nature did not shrink to be enclosed in time and space when Christ took human nature. His human nature did not expand to transcend time and space when Christ was glorified. Any such constructions would fall foul of Chalcedonian orthodoxy. In Reformed theology the 'communion of attributes' is a hermenutical tool that helps readers of Scripture understand how the Bible can speak of the 'Lord of glory' being crucified (1 Corinthians 2:8), or how the risen Jesus is said to 'fill all in all' (Ephesians 1:32). The divine nature of Christ was not crucified. Nether did the human body of Jesus become omnipresent at his ascension. The confessions explain, "Christ, in the work of mediation, acteth according to both natures, by each nature doing that which is proper to itself; yet by reason of the unity of the person, that which is proper to one nature is sometimes in Scripture, attributed to the person denominated by the other nature." (8:7). This insight equips us to read Scripture's witness to Christ's person and work with appropriate theological awareness. 

Together with Westminster and Savoy the 1689 tells us why God became man in Jesus, "This office the Lord Jesus did most willingly undertake, which that he might discharge he was made under the law, and did perfectly fulfill it, and underwent the punishment due to us, which we should have borne and suffered, being made sin and a curse for us" (8:4, see also 8:5). Christ's death atoned for the sins of the people of God both prior to and since his redeeming work was accomplished (8:6). Having died for the people the Father had given him, "on the third day he arose from the dead with the same body in which he suffered, with which he also ascended into heaven, and there sitteth at the right hand of his Father making intercession, and shall return to judge men and angels at the end of the world." (8:4). 

One distinctive feature of the 1689 is the emphasis it lays on the believer's triple union with Christ the Mediator. Together with Westminster and Savoy the 1689 confesses that Jesus was united to his people before the foundation of the world. The Father "did from all eternity give a people to be his [the Son's] seed and to be by him in time redeemed, called, justified, sanctified, and glorified." (8:1). The Lord was further united with his people "when he took upon himself man's nature" (8:2). It was because he shared their nature that the Son was able redeem his people by the sacrifice of himself, satisfying the justice of God on their behalf (8:5). Then the 1689 makes explicit reference to the believer's union with Christ in relation to the application of redemption, "To all those for whom Christ hath obtained eternal redemption, he doth certainly and effectually apply and communicate the same, making intercession for them; uniting them to himself by his Spirit" [emphasis added]. Westminster and Savoy speak of Christ "effectually persuading them by his Spirit to believe and obey" at this point (compare 8:8). 

Giving careful attention to the Second London Baptist Confession's chapter 'On Christ the Mediator' will enable us to proclaim the wonder of God incarnate with biblical accuracy in the light of the creedal heritage of the Catholic Church. The Reformed aspect of Reformed Catholicty gives added clarity to the work the incarnate Son carried out on behalf of his people. He who was one with God as second person of the Trinity became one with us as man to redeem us by his own blood. Christ unites his people to himself by his Spirit that we may enjoy the rich benefits of his saving work.

'O come, let us adore him. Christ the Lord'. 

Monday, December 09, 2019

Christmas songs

Whether we like them or not, Christmas songs are pretty much inescapable at this time of year. The top three seasonal songs in the UK are 1. Fairytale Of New York, 2. All I Want For Christmas Is You and 3. I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday. According to Google, anyway. You might have other ideas for your festive favourites. I think it’s fair to say that the songs listed are of the secular variety. They have little to do with birth of Jesus Christ. If that’s what you’re after,  Classic FM’s annual poll to discover the nation’s favourite carol reveals all: 1. O Holy Night, 2. Silent Night and 3. In The Bleak Midwinter. Again, your preferences may differ. In my opinion Hark! The Herald Angels Sing was robbed in not making it into the top three.

The very first Christmas song wasn’t by Bing Crosby, or even Cliff Richards. It had a more heavenly origin. According to the account of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Luke, the angel of the Lord had been sent to tell some shepherds that the long-awaited Saviour of the World had been born. This was his message: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.” Suddenly, a heavenly host of angels appeared in the night sky. We hear them sing,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”

Shepherds in the ancient world were the last ones on whom God’s favour rested. At least that’s what people thought. Shepherds had a reputation for dishonesty and their work kept them away from worship in the temple at Jerusalem. Yet the angles sing of God’s undeserved favour towards sinners, his grace. That’s what the message of Christmas is all about; God’s grace towards human beings revealed in the birth of Jesus Christ. We can have peace with God because Jesus was born into our world, lived a perfect human life and died for our sins upon the Cross.  That is good news for you and me.

In a recent book, The Madness of Crowds, Douglas Murray issues a warning to a society that is breaking loose from its Christian moorings. Without Christianity there is no Christ, and without Christ there is no forgiveness. “We have created a world in which forgiveness has become almost impossible”, writes Murray. Witness the angry arguments on social media and personal rifts in real life. Convinced of our own righteousness we are quick to pounce, but slow to pardon.

That is why we need to listen afresh to the very first Christmas song, a song that speaks of grace, forgiveness and peace through Jesus Christ. All to the glory of God.

Hark! the herald angels sing,
"Glory to the new-born King!
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled."

See our website for info on Carol Services at Providence Baptist Church, Dilton Marsh, Westbury and Ebenezer Baptist Church, West Lavington.

* Written for local publications, Trinity Magazine, News & Views and White Horse News.