Friday, 28 November 2008

Barack Obama and the incarnation

I've just written an article on the incarnation which will come out in the next edition of the Australian

 Presbyterian. One angle I'd thought of was looking at the election of Barack Obama and the incarnation. What's the conne

ction? Well the material didn't make the cut for AP, so here it is, slightly amended.

Barack Obama's election has triggered an outpouring of hopeful enthusiasm, some of which is almost messianic in its raptures. The response from conservative Christians seems to have been as much to this millennial fervour as

 to Obama himself. Lots of them have been saying “pray that he can keep his head with all this nonsense going on”. (There was a similar dynamic with the election of the Rudd government a year ago, though because we are usually more reserved about our politics it hasn’t been as exaggerated as in the US.)

The election is a significant historical event. Obama’s racial background, his age, hi

s political leanings, his background in community development, the use of the internet and the financial support of million

s of individuals all seem to make the 2008 election notable. The progress of his presidency will be fascinating. There is an important incarnational perspective on it.

The incarnation shows us the depth of our problem. Our world is not simply disorganised or uneducated. There is a wound which centres in the human heart, and runs through the whole created order and can only be restored by God’s healing. The evangelical sceptics of the Obama-hype have a point, a new president, no matter what his calibre, can not change that. Every declaration that we have entered into a brand new era of hope inevitably founders on the rocks of human sin.

However the incarnation is also God’s great affirmation of the world he has made, include people and our societies and even our political institutions. Our world can only be healed by God, but it will be healed. When the evangelical critics paint any hope in politics or enthusiasm for a political program  as wrong headed, they are in danger of losing sight of the incarnation. God says we matter and our life in his world matters.

There are elements of Obama’s platform with which most evangelicals would disagree. Still, we shouldn’t be surprised that people hope for good government and for change for the better. The incarnation says that is worth working for, it also says that we won’t find the change we really need in any politician.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

World Philosophy Day

I bet you did not know that it is World Philosophy Day. Once you've settled down your raucous laughter perhaps we can be  serious for a moment and at least admit there are worse reasons for a "day". (How about World Telecommunications Day, or World Television Day? "Here's a good idea - let's all make phone calls or watch TV today, because we don't do enough of that!") As a rather amateur philosophy teacher who is really a theologian I am glad that a discipline with such an impressive heritage is being recognised. The Western world could only benefit from greater emphasis on the life of the mind.

Though too much can be claimed for philosophy. Koïchior Matsuura Director General of UNESCO connects the human rights tradition to philosophy, saying about the Day " Of eminent philosophical importance, the 1948 Declaration implicitly evokes the universality of human beings and their rights. It also provides an opportunity to revisit today some of the key concepts that underpin our modernity: human dignity, freedom and universality". That all sounds very Kantian, and did give some of the language in which human rights have been couched. However I think it is widely acknowledged that the Kantian account does not provide resources which really sustain a moral life. Much of the content of the human rights documents draw from the Christian tradition not from Kant.

One way to celebrate the day would be a rousing rendition of the Philosopher's Song by Monty Python (excuse the language), and note that this comes from the Philosophy school of University of Wooloomooloo in Sydney (it doesn't actually exist).

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Some more on Psalms

A student made an interesting comment yesterday. I'd asked him to read Richard Pratt's book Pray with your eyes open. When he reported back he said he'd liked it and one strength was that it used the Psalm's a lot. He said something like "Usually its he Pentecostals who are into the Psalms, not the Reformed". (I checked that I could quote him here!)

Wow! Talk about giving up our heritage.  The movement that used to be the Psalms-singer, or in the Anglican mode the Psalms-chanters, nows looks like the group that isn't into the Psalms.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Scripture in church - the Directory

Thinking about the Bible in worship sent me back to the Directory of Public Worship (Westminster Assembly, 1645) to re-read its instructions.

Fascinating stuff.

First of all since it is part of public worship the reading is to be done by the pastor or teacher or by someone training for ministry. I don’t think that public reading should be restricted to that office, but I wonder if we send the message that it dosen’t matter than much when our ministers never read.

All the books of the Bible are to be read in the common language from the best translation and to be read clearly so everyone can hear and understand.

The minister decides how mauch to read each time, but usually there should be a chapter of the Old Testament and a chapter of the New, or more if that is to short or it is is easier to follow if a longer portion is read!

The books should be read through in canonical order and chapter by chapter, but books like the Psalms shuld be read more often.

The minister might give an exposition along with the reading. Now don’t think that is the sermon, no there would be an expostion (or maybe two) and a sermon later in the service. But the minister is advised to complete the whole reading first, not commenting along the way and to be careful about how long this takes so as not to limit time for preaching or to make the whole servie “tedious”.

Literate people were to be exhorted to own a Bible and read it privately, while others should be encouraged to learn to read.

The demise of scripture in church

I am reading R. Scott Clark’s provocative new book Recovering the Reformed Confession. It is a great read, argued crisply with some fascinating historical studies along the way. If you know Scott and his Heidelblog you won’t be surprised to know that he pulls no punches (in one chapter he argues the revivalist tradition including Edwards, Lloyd-Jones, Packer and Iain Murray has subverted Reformed theology and piety!) I’ll comment on the book in the next few weeks. Now I want to take up one issue that reading it crystallised for me.

Lots of Evangelical churches in Australia with a reformed tradition (I’m thinking of Presbyterian, Anglican and some independent churches) have changed their patterns of worship
  or  liturgy in the last generation. (Most of them  would not use the words worship nor liturgy but they are better than circumlocutions such a “what we do when we meet as a church”). That is no great news, though those of us who have grown up through the changes may not see how great they’ve been.Lots of those changes ‘had’ to happen, because older patterns reflected a culture of formality that has gone. However I’ve had a nagging sense that some valuable things are lost in the shift (and I’ve bemoaned the loss in class!)

In “Recovering the Reformed Confession” Clark argues for exclusive psalmody, which is something I grew up with. I am not going to join him in that (and I’ll explain why some time). I do agree that we have neglected the song book that God gave the church. As I thought about that again I had my moment of clarity. It dawned on me that this is part of a wider pattern in the change in worship. We have managed to remove almost all the points at which the church used to hear Scripture!

Think about a traditional Presbyterian service that you’ll find in the The Book of Common Order (Presbyterian Church of Australia, 1956). It would open with a call to worship, usually drawn from scripture. There would be a prayer of approach, often taken from Scripture. A pray of praise (which would have more or less scripture depending on the minister) and a prayer of confession which would often appeal directly to a promise such as 1John 1:9. Then there would be an Old Testament and New Testament reading and a sermon, the Lord’s prayer and a benediction and doxology often taken from Scripture. Even in the hymn singing churches there was often a pattern of having at least one psalm. In more recent years responsive readings were also used. If the Lord’s Supper was celebrated then the narrative of institution would be recounted twice and there might be a further Bible reading and reflection. There were plenty of things that could be done badly in all this, and the prayers and sermon could be drivel while the people had little heart for worship. But even in the worst case it was a form which gave the opportunity for extensive reading of Scripture. We could do the same analysis of the shift from a Prayer Book Service in the Anglican Church.

What happens in lots of churches today? The call is a welcome which runs along the lines of “a funny thing happened to me on the way to church …”. The prayers are brief and while perhaps (and only perhaps) more heartfelt than in more traditional services do not have any more substantial reflection on Scripture. In a family service there will be a kid’s talk, which is often an object lesson on a general theological or moral point including the words “the Bible says”, but with nothing read and certainly not a passage explained. The Lord’s prayer is not heard and there is probably only one (often short) reading. The service (meeting) finishes with the now traditional benediction, “please stay for coffee”.

I know that is a caricature and that it is not as bad as all that in all churches. Is your church very different though? (For my local friends, this is not a complaint about Springwood-Winmalee PC . We have some of these problems sometimes but often do better than I’ve described here).

The last generation has seen an encouraging resurgence of textual-expository preaching and an enthusiasm for small group Bible study. But we’ve lost something as well! We fret that people don’t read their Bible’s, but we don’t read them much when we get together, so people are simply following the example of church!

I don’t want a return to formalism or even formalities, but we need to work on how to infuse worship with Scripture. There’s the challenge.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

New Book on Preaching

I was privileged recently to attend the book launch of Preach or Perish: Reaching the Hearts and Minds of the World Today . The book is edited by an old friend, Donald Howard (‘retired’ Anglican minister from Sydney), with substantial contributions of his own included. Contributors include such luminaries as J.I Packer, Donald Robinson, and Sir Marcus Loane, who launched the book. I put ‘retired’ in quotes as as Dudley Foord has a chapter on ‘Returement: Junction or Terminus?’. Another contribution which caught my eye is on ‘The Public Reading of the Living Word (Can we be Guilty of Murder?)’, a topic dear to my heart. The chapters are all short and (while this is not the place for a review) look to be to the point and build up an approach to pastoral ministry which has preaching God’s word at its core. The book is not aimed only at preachers, however, for it seeks to encourage an approach to hearing and responding to preaching as well. This looks to be a welcome addition to the resources available in this area and may turn out to fill a gap that is not otherwise supplied. I have for many years been recommending Donald Howard’s book on the Family and his one on Grief as the best things on offer in those categories.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Paul Barnett, honorary doctorate

Congratulations to Paul Barnett, one of our part-time lecturers (we share him with School of Christian Studies, Moore College, and Regent College, Vancouver). Paul is to be awarded an honorary Doctor of Theology degree by the Australian College of Theology. The doctorate recognises Paul’s contribution to the Anglican Church of Australia and his substantial academic and scholarly work.  Paul has (among other things) been a lecturer at Moore College, the founder of the School of Christian Studies at Robert Menzies College at Macquarie University and the Bishop of North Sydney. He has written many scholarly and popular works and is currently working on a three part series ‘After Jesus’ on the first Christian century.
The degree will be conferred at the School of Christian Studies graduation ceremony on Monday March 2, 2009 at Trinity Chapel, Robert Menzies College.

Monday, 3 November 2008

New directions in Pooh Studies

The directions aren't so new, but are still important for all Biblical scholars to engage with! An important  advance in literary studies drawing on source and form criticism. One of our graduates sent me the link and I thought I should share it. It is probably time for a reader response paper and a feminist reading of the same texts (at least). I'd love to see them.

Friday, 31 October 2008

New Inscription Proves ...

You thought I had disappeared from the planet didn't you? Just thought I’d extract myself for a few minutes from the Kings commentary I’m immersed in writing to comment on this one.

Archaeologist Yossi Garfinkel claims to have discovered (well actually one of his volunteers) the oldest Hebrew inscription found so far on a piece of broken pottery unearthed at Hirbet Qeiyafa in the Judean foothills. While the text is impossible to read from the photo I’ve seen, and probably won't be published for months or years, I can confidently state that it provides irrefutable proof
1) that it is definitely Hebrew written by an Israelite, proving their literacy at around 1000 BC;
2) that the Hebrews were illiterate and it must be by a Canaanite or Philistine;
3) that we can read and translate the text with confidence;
4) that the text is too faded to do more than pick out a few letters;
5) that it is from the time of King David and proves the whole of the biblical account of the conquest, settlement and early monarchy;
6) that it could not possibly be from the time of David because no such king ever existed and the conquest and settlement are later inventions.

And that is only what the experts will say. As for what popular Christian apologists, Zionists, anti-Zionists and others will make of it, well that’s beyond me.

The commentary is going well, thanks for asking. I’m looking forward to the ETS and SBL conferences in a couple of weeks.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Blogging the Confession 9 - God's Decrees

We come to one of the controversial sections of the confession: its theology of God’s decrees, and I know that you’ve all been on tenterhooks waiting to see what I’ll say about it. I know this because daily, even hourly, I have been bombarded by emails pleading with me to post on chapter 3 of the confession. There must have been … well let me open the mailbox and count them … actually there has been (as Bluebottle used to say in the Goons “not a sausage”!). Still I’ll press on.

Here I’ll look at the basic claim of decreetal theology and the objections to it. In the next post (or two) I’ll look at the details of the confession’s exposition.

Chapter 3 opens with an assertion of decreetal theology, “God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeable ordain whatsoever comes to pass”. This is a controlling theme of the confession which  goes on to focus on salvation and according to sections 5 and 6 that is particularly determined by God’s decree. John Murray says that “perhaps no chapter has been more distasteful to those out of sympathy with the system of doctrine set forth in the Confession than the third “ (The theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith” Scripture and Confession  P&R, 1973, 132).

George Hendry voices the objections of many. He argues that the term and concept of a decree rob the confession of the “exultant joy” of passages such as Ephesians 1:3-14 and Romans 8:29-30 and instead these sections “breathe an air of dread and doom”. He argues that the term and concept ‘decree’ are not found in the NT nor used in the OT with the absolute sense of the WCF. Further he argues that the idea of reprobation rests entirely on Rom 9:19-23 when Paul in fact hopes that “all Israel shall be saved” (Romans 11:26). He says that the Biblical presentation is that  “God is actively pursuing a goal which he has set before him rather than mechanically carrying out a decision which he took once long ago”. He accuses the confession of a deficiency in relating time and eternity so that the Confession views eternity as simply infinite time and God’s will and decree is located in “pre-temporal eternity” (G.S. Hendry The Westminster Confession for Today   SCM, 1960, 54).

We can deal with these objections in reverse order. The WCF stresses God’s transcendence and may not match that with his immanence, and that may suggest that there are better ways of conceptualising the relation of time and eternity, however the framers of the confession almost certainly used an Augustinian “timeless” view of eternity in which eternity is the absence of time and change. 17th century Reformed theology was only too aware of the distinction between God’s archetypal knowledge and our ectypal knowledge. Here it adopts the Biblical language of “before” but we should not assume they were ignorant of the metaphysical ‘problems’ that language entailed.

On this issues Bavinck comments that “God's decree should not be exclusively described . . . as a straight line to indicate a relation merely of before and after, cause and effect, means and goal; but it should also be viewed as a system the several elements of which are coordinately related to one another. . . . As in an organism all the members are dependent upon one another and in a reciprocal manner determine one another, so also the universe is God's work of art, the several parts of which are organically related. (Bavinck H.The Doctrine of God   Banner of Truth, 1977 – I have not checked the page references in the new edition).

Hendry’s claim that the Confession makes God’s work ‘mechanical’ is an over-reaction to the language. God’s transcendence is stressed but look at Chapter 5 sections 3 and 5 on providence to see the language of God’s involvement. Of course if you want the language of Open Theism in which God is working out a plan without knowing the future then you won’t find it in the Confession.

Rom 9:19-23 may not teach ultimate reprobation but it is too simplistic to exclude questions of ‘eternal individual salvation’ from consideration in Rom 9-11. Paul’s grief over Israel is about people and individuals not simply a group identity. I’ll say a bit more about reprobation in later posts.

Decreetal theology is one way of conceptualising and expressing God’s sovereign rule. It is usually admitted that  “the divine decrees … are not described in the abstract in Scripture, but are placed before us in their historical realisation” (Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 100). Bavinck has an extensive and impressive treatment of the Biblical material which lies behind the concept of ‘decrees’ (Bavinck H.The Doctrine of God   Banner of Truth, 1977, 339-44). He shows that this approach rightly affirms God’s prior purpose for his creation and for his creatures which will be achieved. It places God’s election of his people and his restoration of creation through Christ at the centre of all history.

There is a mystery about God’s sovereign working, but we do not help ourselves to think about that topic by seeking to delimit a certain set of events over which God does not have full control and so full knowledge from ‘before’ time.  Any conceptual framework which abstracts from the Biblical presentation runs the risk of distorting the biblical emphasis, in this case the danger is to put too great an emphasis on the decrees, over against their outworking in God’s mysterious sovereignty in the life of creation. However that is not a reason to abandon the framework unless a better one can actually be proposed.

There may be some change in mood between the Biblical material and the Confession, though mood is a rather difficult matter to judge. In any case the confession is a statement of confessional theology not pastoral theology and so does not aim to capture the mood of the Biblical texts.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Blogging the Confession 8 - Triune God

The doctrine of the Trinity is probably the most significant and distinctive Christian doctrine (the only other nomination would be Christology, but the two are so closely related). When the Westminster Assembly came to address the Trinity it had nothing new to say. The Reformation had affirmed the doctrine of ecumenical councils. (John Calvin does seem to have had a subtly different way of approaching the doctrine focussing on the persons in unity rather than God’s essence – that is reflected in the Confession).

However the doctrine of the Trinity did seem to be under pressure in the 1640’s in London. The movement was called “Socinianism” after Faustus Socinus (1539-1604) a radical theologian Italian who ended up in Poland. He subjected Christian theological tradition to a rational  and biblicistic critique rejecting the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the imputation of sin or righteousness, original sin, predestination, real or spiritual presence in Lord’s Supper. This was summarised in the Racovinian Cathechism (1605). This stream of thought was present in 17th C. England though it is hard to trace the relationship with

Socinus.  Certainly accusations of and warnings about Socinianism were  common in 17th C theological rhetoric. For a  well-informed positive assessment of Socinianism see here. His picture is right.

 So the Assembly made sure that it affirmed that there are three persons in the one God and each is fully God. It differentiates persons by internal relations following the Western tradition: the Son is begotten and the Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son. It is a succinct statement of classical orthodoxy, using the classic language  ‘persons’ and substance (i.e.  substantia.)

 John Murray commented on this section that “its brevity is striking and its simplicity is matched only by its brevity. Both surprise and gratification are evoked by the restraint in defining the distinguishing properties of the persons of the Godhead … Later generations lie under a great debt to Westminster for the studied reserve which saved the Confession from being burdened with such speculative notions as commended themselves to theologians … but to which the Scripture did not lend support.”  (“The theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith” Scripture and Confession  P&R, 1973, 132).

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Get to know the classics

It is great to announce a new series happening at PTC next year. It is not exactly a lecture series, so let's just call it a series of 'evenings'.  Get to Know the Classics will be a chance to get know some of these classic works written over the centuries which are part of our Christians heritage.  We have lined up a great group of presenters and each month we will have an interesting introduction to a classic piece of Christian literature and conversation about it.

This should be a refresher for theological graduates, a good summary for students and a great introduction for thoughtful Christians. So If you live in Sydney plan to come along and let people in you church know about it as well.

Get to know the classics  will be on once a month at 7:30 on a Monday evening starting in February.  Why not arrange to have dinner with a few interested people from church each month and then come and join us.

The books and presenters are listed below. You can get an announcement to email or print from the PTC website.

2nd  February   Athanasius,  On  the  Incarnation  of  the  Word – Peter Barnes

2nd  March  Augustine,  Confessions – John McClean

6th April  Anselm,  Cur  Deus  Homo – Murray Smith

2nd May  Luther,  Bondage  of  the  Will – Mark Glanville

1st June  Samuel  Rutherford,  Lex  Rex – Steve Chavura

6th July  Blaise  Pascal,  Pensees – Peter Moore

3rd August Jonathan  Edwards,  History  of  the  Work  of Redemption – Stuart Piggin

7th September Charles  Spurgeon,  Autobiography - Stuart Johnson

10th October Bonhoeffer,  Letters  and  Papers  from  Prison – Mark Mitchell

2nd November  C. S. Lewis,  Mere  Christianity – David Thurston

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Discendi Studio - a conference for theological scholarship

It's a strange day when PTC hosts a conference with a Latin title, but we think it makes sense! Discendi studio means 'zeal to learn' and it comes from a couplet at the end of the “Dedication to the Reader” in 1559 Edition of Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion (see more details below).

In April the three colleges of the PCA are going to hold a conference in which we share our work in scholarship in the varying theological fields. It should be a good chance to hear  what staff and students are thinking about and researching as well as a time to build some bridges between Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. The conference will be at PTC in Sydney April 7-9, 2009. If it is successful there may be further conferences in the other cities.

There will be lots of Calvin conferences next year with the 500th anniversary of his birth, but this one will be a bit different, because it won't so much be about Calvin as it will be trying to continue his heritage of scholarship devoted to God and ruled by his word.

Anyone is welcome to attend the conference and to propose a paper for the plenary sessions or the interest sections. You don't have to be at one of the colleges or in the PCA. You can download the full details and registration from the download section of our website

The title comes from the couplet: Quos animus fuerat tenui excusare libello; Discendi studio magnum fecere volumen. Battles translates this as “ ’Tis those whose cause my former booklet pled, Whose zeal to learn has wrought this tome instead”. Calvin acknowledges that it has been the enthusiasm of his readers to learn from him that stimulated his writing, so that the Institutes grew to be a remarkable work of theology. We hope to continue the same zeal, stimulated by Calvin’s writings.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Preaching and Spiritual formation

Craig Larsen has a great article on the Christianity Today site about preaching.  He points out that a lot of literature on spiritual formation has little place for preaching, but that preaching is, in fact one of God's given "means of grace". (I don't think he uses the term but that is what he is talking about.) That is a good point, but what makes the article even better  is that he describes how good preaching (note the adjective) should be effective in spiritual formation. It is a great list. I think my favourite item is number 4. "As our church communities listen to good preaching, it brings us into the place of corporate — rather than just individual — obedience." Have a look at the list and tell us what you think.

I also like the final point he makes - that we should therefore teach people how to listen to sermons for the sake of spiritual formation.

The other area the article could lead us to think about is if we will preach differently if we see what we are doing as the key to the spiritual formation of the church.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

WCF Chapter 2.1-2 flow chart

Here are section 1&2 of the Chapter 2 of the WCF laid out to show their flow. Compare this with the 39 Articles and the Irish Articles which were the direct historical precursors of the WCF. Both simply say "There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness, the maker and preserver of all things, both visible and invisible". The WCF is so much fuller and deals with God's ongoing relation to the creation.

1 There is but one only living and true God,

            who is infinite in being and perfection,

            a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions,

            most holy,

            most free,

            most absolute,

            working all things

                        according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will,            

                                    for his own glory;

            most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering,

            abundant in goodness and truth,

            forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin;

            the rewarder of them that diligently seek him ;

            and withal most just and terrible in his judgements hating all sin ,

                         and who will by no means clear the guilty.


2   God hath all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of himself;

            and is alone in and unto himself all-sufficient,

                        not standing in need of any creatures which he hath made,

                        not deriving any glory from them,

                                    but only manifesting his own glory, in, by, unto and upon them:

            he is the alone fountain of all being,

                        of whom, through whom, and to whom, are all things;

            and hath most sovereign dominion over them,

                        to do by them, for them, or upon them, whatsoever he pleases.

            In his sight all things are open and manifest;

            his knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature,

                         so as nothing is to him contingent or uncertain.

            He is most holy in all his counsels, in all his works and all his commands.

            To him is due from angels and men, and every other creature,

                         whatsoever worship, service, or obedience, he is pleased to require of them.

Blogging the Confession 7 - God: absolute and transcendent

The WCF begins with Scripture, but the following chapter moves to focus on God. God is by far the most important theme of the confession. Have a look at how many of the following chapters start with a statement about what God has done, sometime expressed in terms of the work of Christ. Even when God is not mentioned directly at the start of a chapter it does not take much reflection to see that an view of his purposes shapes every chapter of the confession.

Aquinas spoke of theology treating all things "sub ratione Dei" (in relation to God). He taught that theology is a unified science because it “does not treat of God and creatures equally, but of God primarily, and of creatures only so far as they are referable to God as their beginning or end” (
ST  I.1.3. ad1). (The graphic is from a 15th C edition of Aquinas' Summa). The WCF seeks to do the same thing.
So it is no surprise that chapter 2, offers a very full and impressive doctrine of God, albeit stated tersely. It is a statement of the indisputable majesty and greatness of the only God.

The doctrine of the Trinity is left to section 3. If I was given the chance to rewrite the confession I’d probably put the Trinity at the beginning of the chapter and let it shape the rest. That might have avoided some of the ways people read the chapter. I’ll look at the Trinitarian doctrine in the next post.

The best way to get an idea of the Chapter, specially the first two sections, is to write it out in a flow diagram. I’ll put my version in a later blog.

 Section 1 begins by affirming the unity and transcendence of God (one only living and true God … most absolute). The Reformed tradition along with all orthodox theology has always made it clear that there is a great ontological distinction between God and creation. More than some traditions the Reformed were ready to focus on this and to spell it out in biblical terms.

 It then deals with God’s character as he deals with his creation (working all things … will by no means clear the guilty). He freely and personally enters into a relationship with all he creatures, and specially all his human creature. Chapter 7 will fill this out in terms of relations which come from creation and from covenant.

 Chapter 2 again to stresses God’s self-sufficiency, and sets his relationship with his creatures in the context of this: he is glorified by them but does not need this, he is  sovereign over them, and knows all fully and necessarily. It conclude with the proper response of humans to God, which is grounded in God’s will (cf 7.1 and 21.1).

 The expression that God does not have “passions” is often taken to mean that God is apathetic or without anything like human feelings. However John Murray explains that the phrase refers either to “sufferings or to violent motions in the sense of bad temper” or to “passive qualities or properties applicable to a physical object “ (J. Murray, “The theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith” Scripture and Confession  P&R, 132). This squares with the Confession also saying that God is “loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering”. These terms have to be understood analogically when applied to God, but the scriptural precedents exclude a claim that the analogy removes anything like human affections from God.

 There is little expression here of God’s immanence, though the phrase “of whom, through whom, and to whom, are all things” would include the thought that “in him we live and move and have our being”. It is perhaps here that a Trinitarian statement would add to the treatment, since it is only that doctrine which allows us to affirm that God is truly transcendent and absolute and yet also present to and involved with his creation. Related to this concern is the observation that the confession has little to say at this point about God’s love for all his creation. Again I agree that more could be said. However I’d still defend the confession’s emphasis on God’s majesty over against creation. How strong this emphasis should be leads us into a discussion about Classical Theism (a discussion I am not going to go into here!).

Blogging the Confession 6 - no rival authority

The first chapter of the WCF finishes by clarifying the scope of the Bible’s authority. The implication has been clear through the chapter that the Bible has no rival for authority. That implication is spelt out and the confession asserts that all other teaching is to be tested by the teaching of the Bible, whether it comes from councils (such as the Westminster Assembly itself) or the Church Fathers, or the medieval theologians, or any human source, or from claims to have a private spiritual revelation.

This statement wraps up the exposition of the scripture principle nicely.

Ambrose, Gregory, Jerome and Augustine in the window of Cologne Cathedral (1848).

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Good and necessary consequences

George Gillespe (1613-48) was a leading Scottish member of the Westminster Assembly. He explained his view of good and necessary circumstances and how we should use reason in understanding the Bible.
"That necessary consequences from the written Word of God do sufficiently and strongly prove the consequences or conclusion, if theoretical, to be a certain divine truth which ought to be believed, and, if practical, to be a necessary duty which we are obliged unto, jure divino. This assertion must be neither so far enlarged as to comprehend the erroneous reasonings and consequences from Scripture which this or that man, or this or that church, apprehend and believe to be strong and necessary consequences … neither yet must it be so far contracted and straitened as the Arminians would have it, who admit no proofs from Scripture, but whether plain explicit texts, such consequences are nulli non obviae … the meaning of the assertion is not that human reason, drawing a consequence from Scripture, can be a ground of our belief or conscience … the consequence itself, is not believed or embraced by the strength of reason, but because it is the truth and will of God … ” George Gillespie Treatise of Miscellany Questions quoted in Leith, Assembly at Westminster John Knox, 1973, 82.
For an interesting article about Gillespe and others see
John Fesko "The Puritan Theological Method".

Blogging the Confession 5 - hermeneutics

I’ve been looking forward to working on this installment of the WCF, since it is a chance to look at the principles of the Biblical hermeneutics in the confession.

The rest of the sections of this chapter deal with how we should read God authoritative and sufficient word. The most important theological assertion about hermeneutics is that the “inward illumination of the Spirit of God” is necessary for the saving understanding of Scripture (Section 5). The purpose of the Bible is to bring salvation (not simply to bring conversion but to lead the church in its pilgrimage) and it does this when the Spirit brings saving understanding. This is not a negative statement which portrays the Bible as an obscure book which can only be decoded by the enlightened few. Rather it is a positive statement that Spirit who inspired Scripture will lead his people to understand it. This confidence continues in section 7 which admits that there are parts of the Bible which are not easily understood but affirms that the central message of the Bible can be understood. It is sufficiently clear that the unlearned as well as the learned can grasp its message. The confession does not make this connection, but I think the implication is that the major obstacle to understanding the Bible is not its obscure or difficult message but spiritual deadness of the reader apart from the Spirit.

The framers of the Confession were confident in the clarity of the Bible under the work of the Spirit, but they were not naïve in their approach to interpreting the Bible. They recognised that readers did need to make use of ‘ordinary means’ (careful reading, using a knowledge of grammar and some awareness of the historical and literary context of Biblical texts). The church as a whole needs teachers who can study the Biblical text in its original languages for it is these which are immediately inspired and preserved by God. Today we are more aware of textual critical issues in the Bible than were the members of the Assembly; however we can agree that just as all we need to know from Scripture can be found “in some place of Scripture or other”, so no Confessional doctrine is dependent exclusively on dubious texts.

A further confessional principle of Biblical interpretation is expressed in section 5, that things which can be deduced from Scripture by good and necessary consequence are part of God’s counsel and have his authority. This assertion shows that the Assembly’s method was different to what we might call a more “biblicistic” approach. The most extreme version of this was 
Socinianism which would accept only doctrines which were explicit in Scripture and allowed no terms or concepts which were not in scripture. In contrast the Assembly was committed the normative authority of Scripture, but allowed that reason had a proper role in the understanding and exposition of Scripture. Rather than crowding this post with more material I’ll put up another post with an interesting quote from George Gillespie on ‘necessary consequences’. The section also allows that there are matters involved in the ordering of the church in which what we might call “common sense” should be applied.

Section 8 expresses two common Reformation hermenutical principles. One is that Scripture should be interpreted by Scripture. The flow of thought is that the Bible is God’s inspired word and so despite complexities and puzzles presents a unified message, which means that when the meaning of one passage is not clear we should expect other passages to illumine and explain it. The section also rejects the medieval tradition of allegorical interpretation of multiple senses of Scriptures and affirms that there is one sense. These hermenutical principles are an entry way into both Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology (but that would be the topic for another blog).

Section 8 affirms the need for translations. It expresses the Reformation view that the Bible belongs to the whole people of God and should be available to all in readable translations so they may be able to worship God and experience his care.