Lately it’s been like watching a really good hitter during batting practice. The same pitch comes again and again and each time there is a satisfying “crack” as bat meets ball and said ball leaves the park.
Andy Webb has been in the batting cage at Green Bagginses and the pitch that keeps coming is their claim that: “We’re the one’s following the Bible. You confessional types have already decided in advance what the Bible can say.” Of course this charge has been answered in this discussion repeatedly.
What struck me when I read Andy’s response (yet again) to the moralists is how much the FV argument sounds like not only that made by the Anabaptists, the early Socinians, and the Remonstrants, but also how much it sounds like the pietists and the liberals. They all claimed, at different times, to be more faithful to Scripture than the confessional Protestants.
Almost invariably, when I compare the biblical exegesis offered by the alternatives to Protestant orthodoxy, I find the biblical exegesis of the confessional Reformed churches more satisfying not because it agrees with conclusions I’ve already reached but because it gives the best explanation of the widest range of biblical passages. I did not become a confessional Reformed Christian because I decided things ahead of time. I followed the Bible. I left broad evangelicalism because I found it’s explanation of Scripture to be inadequate. I’ve become quite critical of much of contemporary Reformed theology, piety, and practice because it is unbiblical. I’ve even written a book (forthcoming in the fall, Dv) explaining why I think this is so. It’s not a question of whether the critics of the FV are following Scripture. Rather the question is whether the FV is following the Reformed understanding of Scripture. The United Reformed Churches, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church in America, the Reformed Church in the United States, the Orthodox Christian Reformed Churches, Westminster Seminary California, and Mid-America Reformed Seminary have all rejected the FV as unbiblical.
The question that Andy addresses in his latest post is “vine” discourse in John 15. The FV boys all want you to think that when Jesus said, “I am the true vine” and “Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes” means that, in baptism, every Christian is conditionally, historically, temporarily, in the same way, “head for head” united to Christ, elect, regenerated, adopted, justified etc. We’re told that the point of the discourse is that Christians have been so graced must do their part to retain all that they have been given in baptism or else they will be pruned.
Of course this passage and others like it (see Hebrews 6 and 10) have been addressed repeatedly in this controversy. They FV interpretation consistently ignores the the distinction (which they regard as evidence of our Procrustean bed –whereby we conveniently ignore difficult passages–we use to understand such passages. As has been noted repeatedly, the Reformed understanding of this passage and others like it is that it assumes that there are two ways of being in the one covenant of grace. This is exactly what Paul teaches in Rom 2. This explains Paul’s address to visible congregations as “saints.” He’s not saying that everyone of the recipients of an epistle is necessarily elect and he’s certainly not saying that they are all temporarily, conditionally, historically, united to Christ etc. Paul is simply addressing the entire congregation according to their profession of faith.
In John 15 and in the other cases to which the FV boys appeal, Scripture speaks to the church as a visible assembly. It always assumes the truth of Rom 2:28 or what Witsius called the “double mode of communion” in the covenant of grace. Remember, in 14:22 Jesus rebuked Judas. He knew he was speaking to a mixed communion, as it were. The cross is before him and our Lord is preparing his disciples for what lay ahead. The FV interpretation would have us think that Judas was “in” (united to) Jesus. This is just false. One of the great points of the discourses in chapters 14-15 is to show that Judas was never “in” Christ. How do we know? He never loved Jesus. Remember, the same Apostle John who gave us these chapters also warned us in his Epistles (1 John 2:9) about folks claiming to be Christians but who denied the humanity of our Lord. “They went out from us because they were not of us.” They were members of the visible assembly, but they ultimately showed what they really were. They never were “of” us. They never were “in Jesus” or truly “in” the vine. They were externally members of the covenant of grace, but never actually united to Christ. Scripture knows nothing of a temporary, conditional, historical, union with Christ or election or justification or adoption.
Jesus says in John 16:1 that he warned the disciples about all these things (in ch. 15) to keep them from falling away. The FV says, “Aha, there it is! He wouldn’t have said “fall away” if it wasn’t a real possibility and only those who are united can fall away.” Not so fast. Yes, falling away is a real possibility to those in the visible assembly. That’s why such warnings are issued here and in Hebrews 6 and 10. This is the distinction between the administration of the covenant of grace and its substance. We all participate in the administration but we don’t all participate in its substance. The warnings are part of the administration of the covenant of grace.
When our Lord spoke he knew who and what Judas was. He knew that they too would be sorely tempted to fall away, but the Spirit uses means, he uses the Gospel to strengthen his people in times of tempation, to enable them to resist.
The beauty of the confessional Reformed understanding of these discourses is that it reads them in the light of passages such as Rom 2:28 and Rom 9 and 1 John 2:9 We know that reprobates (e.g. Judas) may be part of the covenant of grace outwardly but never inwardly. We know that Esau was never elect, never united to Christ, and never adopted, even though he was an outward member of the covenant of grace.
Now, the FV have a completely different explanation of this passage and the others like it. Whose explanation of John 15 do they follow? Is it the Reformed explanation? No. As Andy illustrates, the FV understanding of these passages is much closer to that of the Jesuit counter-Reformation theologian Cornelius a Lapide (1567-1637).
That the FV boys agree with a Roman exegete doesn’t ipso facto make them wrong. I have agreed often with Roman exegetes (e.g., Raymond Brown and Rudolf Schnackenburg) on John. Most of the evangelical commentaries are a little superficial. It is interesting, however, to see how, when it comes to a fundamental issue, the FV reading of Scripture is at odds with the Reformed reading of Scripture.
This is not a matter of simply “tweaking” a passage here or there. There is certainly room for disagreement over the interpretation of this passage or that. What is afoot here is that the FV folks are proposing an alternate system of theology under the guise of simply “following the bible.”
As has been noted in this space (and in countless others) a system of theology is unavoidable. No one reads the bible with attempting to relate one passage to another and one topic of biblical teaching to another. The moment one does that, one has a “system” be it small or large. Every new movement promises to show us all the “real” or even the “hidden” message of Scripture. That’s why the Reformed churches confess their understanding of Scripture in formal, ecclesiastical documents.
It’s not we haven’t considered the point of view proposed by the FV. We have. We considered it in dealing with the medieval Roman church, the Counter-Reformation Roman church, and the Remonstrants, and in certain respects, confessional Lutheranism post 1570. We’ve considered it again in the FV controversy. We’ve considered the possibility that baptism places one “in” univocally until one is “out” univocally and we’ve rejected it. It doesn’t mean that we haven’t faced up to the challenge of relating passages with one another but it means that we’ve done and come to different conclusions.