Confession and Repristination

So this interesting and important discussion continues. In his latest post, Lee accuses me of wanting “repristinate” 17th-century orthodoxy. To this all I can say is that evidently he hasn’t read my published work. I don’t think anyone would accuse me of advocating repristination in Caspar Olevian and the Covenant of Grace, or in Protestant Scholasticism or in any of the essays I’ve written and published.

Quite to the contrary, in class I argue against this very thing and I explain why in the forthcoming book, Recovering the Reformed Confession, the substance of which is available in free lectures.

That said, I think we can learn a good deal from the Reformed tradition, and, as I’ve written here many times, these lessons are both negative and positive. We don’t want to embrace the majority 17th-century view on science, politics (most of them were practical theocrats—have I not defended and advocated the Two Kingdoms often enough in this space?), or Bible translation. These are areas where we’ve figured out better approaches and where we’ve either become more biblical or confessional.

When it comes to theology, piety, and practice, however, there is a great deal we need to re-learn. Thus, I don’t think we can avoid the sort of chronological snobbery implied in Lee’s post. Take the current justification controversy for example. Virtually every issue we faced with the FV has already been addressed by the Reformed tradition. The same is true regarding the question of middle knowledge or the current arguments over worship. We could do a lot worse than to recover the older Reformed understanding on these issues.

Repristination isn’t the issue, however. Indeed, it’s a red herring. The Reformed confessions are not just anybody’s 17th-century Reformed orthodoxy. By equating the confessions with private dogmatics published by the Reformed in the period of classic orthodoxy Lee is doing exactly what I warned against in the previous post. The confessions are public, binding, ecclesiastical summaries of God’s Word. Polanus’ Syntagma is a marvelous piece of work worthy of devoted and devotional study (and the works of the orthodox period are essential for understanding our confessions correctly) but it is not the confession of the churches.

Second, he ignores the update to the post in which I noted that our form of subscription (at WSC) equates the “system of doctrine” with the Reformed confessions. The language does not suggest that there is a system within the confession but that the confession is the system of Scripture.

Am I critical of Hodge and Old Princeton (and implicitly Old Westminster) on this point? Yes. Semper Reformanda. As I say, history shows that the attempt to keep together a national church based on Hodge’s confessional minimalism (see the previous post) failed and we got the sort of fragmentation he feared. Confessional minimalism didn’t work so let’s try confessional maximalism. We can’t do any worse than we have for the last century.

Would this approach have created difficulties for Meredith Kline? Well, Meredith’s later views on the Sabbath were different than those I learned from him when I was a student, but he wasn’t teaching here when his latest views were published so it wasn’t an issue. Could it have become an issue hypothetically? Sure! I’ve also said that I think that it would have served the churches well to test, in the courts of the church, Mr Murray’s departure from the WCF on the covenant of works. Seminary profs are not above they church. They serve the church. I don’t accept the implicit premise of Lee’s post, which seems to be, that somehow it’s unthinkable that the views of even a revered prof might be tested in the courts of the church. They can and should be when there is good reason for such a process.

Now I don’t see Meredith’s views on creation as a departure from the WCF. The Framework falls within the understanding of the Scriptures and confession as received by the American Presbyterian Church. Still, some believe that Meredith’s views on creation were contra-confessional. In that case they had a duty to test their concerns in the courts of the church. Meredith’s critics failed miserably. They carped but they never acted on principle. The shame in that case it that those who objected used to complain to us vigorously about the fact that he was here teaching the framework view. We used to ask those OPC critics who complained, “Is he a minister in good standing in the OPC? Have you filed charges against him for his views?” Invariably the calling critics went silent. I heard that there was a dreadful move late in Meredith’s life to charge him — if this is true, despicable is not too strong an adjective for waiting until he was ill and quite old when his views (for the most part) had been public knowledge for 50 years!

I’ve sworn fidelity to the confessions as part of my ministerial vocation. I’ve sworn submission to the churches. I’m here as a teacher because of my vocation by Christ administered through the churches. If the churches want to call me on the carpet, as it were, that is their right.

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  1. So when interpreting the confessions, is how the church officially interprets the confessions now authoritative, as opposed to the way the confession was interpreted when it was written?

  2. Hi Jamie,

    This is an excellent question. The short answer is yes, so long as the church does it openly. The confession is the summary of our (i.e. the institutional church’s) interpretation of Scripture. If our views have changed our confession should reflect that. It is a bit complicated when we haven’t confessed our faith anew for several hundred years. This is another good reason for a new confession. Our forefathers wrote confessions about every 5-6 years in the 16th-17th centuries. They would be shocked that we’re still using confessions from the 16th and 17th centuries. Don’t get me wrong. We should still confess substantially (and extensively) the same faith but, in the case of creation for example, I don’t think that we are as worried about a renewal of Augustine’s view (or the view the divines believed he held which was making a comeback) of instantaneous creation as they were. In the case of the Framework view, it’s been around for at least 50 years and nothing bad has happened. This is why WSC tolerates multiple approaches to reading Gen 1-2. We should confess what’s essential: a real, historic creation, a historic Adam and fall, the reality and truth of divine providence and concursus, the reality of nature (as opposed to the Platonists and Gnostics who deny it) and so forth.

    The churches adopt and receive a confession with “intent.” This spirit of adoption colors the way a confession is read. The American Presbyterians in the 20th century have adopted the Westminster Standards to allow for a diversity of views on creation.

    Further, there is evidence that the divines didn’t necessarily intend to bind the church to 6/24 creation — despite the fact that most of them likely believed in it.

    It’s not that original intent is not important. It is! In the FV controversy original intent is crucial to defeating their subjective, self-serving, and radical re-interpretation of the confession.

    There is also a distinction to be made as to those things that are of the essence of the Reformed faith and those things that are not. To hold this or that view of creation does not materially affect the Reformed faith. To hold this or that view of justification does.

  3. I can see where both of you are coming from. What I’ve been wondering for years now is why the confessions haven’t been modified so that the controversial parts (like attributing Hebrews to Paul) aren’t just changed so that we don’t have to even be having these debates. I think most Reformed theologians would agree that you can be a Reformed pastor or professor without holding to Paul being the writer of Hebrews, but since the confessions do indeed say that, it gives people a case to reject strict confessionalism. And it’s not like we’ve never modified the confessions before, because they certainly have in the past. Why is it that people are afraid to do that now though? It seems like it could help really clear things up.


  4. Pat, one good reason for not changing the confessions is so that we realize how much the views of the Reformed churches have changed over time. And we’re more likely to do a little introspection ourselves and understand that some of our beliefs are probably just as loony, but we don’t know which ones.

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