Friday, December 18, 2020

Confessional Christianity, an antidote to evangelical biblicism


In his review of Canon, Covenant and Christology: Rethinking Jesus and the Scriptures of Israel by Matthew Barrett, Robert Strivens stated, "as evangelicals, we must cease to be mere biblicists and become faithful exponents of Scripture deeply rooted in a well-rounded dogmatic theology." I very much agree and think this is one of the pressing issues of our time. 

I'm sure that a naive biblicism that is uniformed by the theological heritage of the church is one of the reasons why evangelicals have got themselves into such a mess with the doctrine of God. Some advocates of the eternal submission of the Son make will a property of the persons of the Trinity, rather than the divine being. But hang on a minute. If will is a property of persons, rather than being, and the incarnate Son has two wills, is he therefore two persons, divine and human? According to classic Christology, the incarnate Son is one person with two natures, with a will appropriate to each nature, divine and human.

One of the reasons to subscribe to an elaborate confession of faith such as the Second London Baptist Confession is that our forebears were self-consciously Reformed Catholics. Their confessions bear the imprint of the great creedal heritage of the church. Subscribe to them and you subscribe to Nicaea and Chalcedon and identify with an Augustinian account of salvation by sovereign grace. 

But they didn't stop there. They were Reformed Catholics, who sought to reform church doctrine and life in the light of our supreme authority, which is the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures. Hence the Particular Baptists set out their own distinctive views on the covenants, the church and baptism, while holding to the Catholic creeds and the solas of the Reformation. 

Many contemporary evangelical doctrinal statements adopt a minimalist approach that fails sufficiently to root the church in the Great Tradition of theological orthodoxy. Neither do they set out why Independent Evangelical or Baptist churches operate as they do in the light of clear biblical principles. 

The older confessions provide us with a dogmatic framework in which the key teachings of Scripture are set out in a coherent and systematic way. They are an aid to interpreting the Bible in the light of theological reflection of the church over many centuries. Familiarity with the historic creeds and confessions of faith  can help save us from many a doctrinal blunder. 

That is not to say that the confessions are to be regarded as infallible, or unimprovable. The Westminster Confession was revised by the Independents in their Savoy Declaration and again by Particular Baptists in the Second London Baptist Confession. But we should think long and hard before adopting an interpretation of Scripture that is out of synch with the confession of faith we have pledged to uphold. 

That is especially the case when it comes to what they have to say on doctrines of first importance, like the doctrine of God and of Christ the Mediator. According to the 1689 God's will is a property of his being (Chapter 2:1), not the three persons (Chapter 2:3), see here. With that in mind, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not distinguished in terms of one person submitting their will to that of another, but "by several peculiar, relative properties, and personal relations". 

In other words that "the Father is of none neither begotten nor proceeding, the Son is Eternally begotten of the Father, the holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son". There is an order in the Trinity, but no hierarchy of will. How could that be when will is a property of the divine being, which is wholly shared by the three persons? 

Making will a property of persons plays havoc with the doctrine of Christ. As pointed out earlier, we confess that the Lord Jesus has two wills. The incarnate Son is not two persons, however. That would be Nestorianism. The confession rightly affirms that the incarnate Son is a divine person with a human nature, Chapter 8:2

Prominent Evangelicals in the US and UK have strayed from this historic teaching, holding that the Son eternally submitted his will to that of the Father. They have often done so using naively biblicist arguments in which the relationship of the incarnate Son to the Father in the economy of redemption is read back univocally into the ontological Trinity. It is enough to say that the missions of the Trinity reflect the eternal relations, without positing a plurality of wills in God. 

A more rigorous confessionalism would have helped prevent the theological confusion that is apparent in evangelical circles. Elders (pastors among them) and deacons should be expected to subscribe to a confession like the 1689. A more basic doctrinal statement such as the FIEC Doctrinal Basis may be required of church members, but the officers should ensure that church teaching and life is in line with a more wide-ranging and detailed confession of faith.

The biggest divide in evangelicalism is not between those who adopt traditional or progressive worship styles, or lockdown defiers and lockdown compliers; it is between confessional Reformed Catholics and doctrinal minimalists. We see further when we stand on the shoulders of giants. Time-honoured terms such as 'person', 'relations', 'being' and 'will' have meanings that were carefully defined in response to doctrinal error. Heretics could also quote the Bible. A simplistic biblicism was not sufficient to combat heresy. The teaching of Scripture needed to be explained and defended using non-biblical terminology. Hence the precise and exact language found in the creeds and confessions of old. 

When we step off the shoulders of the theological giants we become short sighted. Those who ignore or redefine key theological terms cannot always see the consequences of their doctrinal missteps. Making will a property of the persons rather than the divine being makes for a subordinationist Trinity and an incoherent Christology. This is just one example of why we should strive to become "faithful exponents of Scripture who are rooted in a well-rounded dogmatic theology." Let us 'hold fast our confession, faithful to the end'. 

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