Paul Helm has taught at the University of Liverpool (1964–93), was Professor of Kings College London (1993–2000), and held the J. I. Packer chair in theology at Regent College (2001–05). He was one of the first writers to critique the Calvin Versus the Calvinists approach to the history of Reformed theology (Calvin and the Calvinists, 1982) and is a distinguished writer in philosophy and theology. He has reviewed the new collaborative project organized by Crawford Gribben in which Darryl Hart, Matthew Bingham, Chris Caughey, and I also participated, On Being Reformed: Debates Over A Theological Identity. Read more about the book here. Here is an interview I did with Chris Gordon to discuss the book. Here is professor Helm’s review.
Five brief responses:
- He categorizes Clark and Hart as taking a “hard line” approach. This is the reviewer’s privilege but one cannot help but notice that he does not classify Gribben, Caughey, and Bingham as taking a “soft line” approach. Of course, being a so-called hard liner puts the confessionalist position at a rhetorical disavantage. It also illustrates the inadequacy of taxonomies like “conservative v. liberal.” They do not adequately describe or account for the participants in the debate. Gribben and Bingham belong to a distinct (Particular Baptist) confessional tradition. They are just as “hard line” about their tradition as Clark and Hart are about theirs. What we have are competing confessional positions and traditions.
- He laments that the “neo-Calvinism” of the Gospel Coalition, the Banner of Truth, and “Reformed Baptists” in the USA do not have a spokesman in the debate. Gribben and Bingham are familiar with the Particular Baptist churches and culture in North America and are fair representatives of that point of view. We might have invited a coalitional Calvinist to participate though the reader should be aware that “neo-Calvinist” and “New Calvinists” have different connotations. By etymology they are related by typically in Reformed circles “neo-Calvinist” refers to one of the schools of thought following Abraham Kuyper’s renewal and revision of Reformed theology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the Netherlands. “New Calvinism” describes the so-called “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movement associated with the coalitional Calvinists.
- Helm’s claim that the Westminster Confession, the Savoy Declaration, and the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689 “are substantially the same” is just what is at issue in the book. They are not and everyone in the 17th century knew it. That we have forgotten that fact says more about our grasp of what those churches were saying than it does about those churches and their confessions. The Westminster Standards and the Savoy are indeed substantially the same. They share the same covenant theology, the same reading of redemptive history, the same doctrinal convictions, and the same Reformed piety. However much the Particular Baptists of the period identified with aspects of the Reformed confession they simply did not accept substantial, even essential aspects of that confession. This is one reason why no one in the 17th century called Particular Baptists “Reformed.” Indeed, the plain fact is that even they did not call themselves Reformed. They knew better. They knew that they rejected the Reformed covenant theology, i.e., the Reformed reading of redemptive history. They did not see one covenant of grace with multiple administrations. Arguably, the leading Particular Baptists of the period, did not even see a covenant of grace in redemptive history until the New Covenant. That is no small matter. The Particular Baptists not only rejected the Reformed conclusions but they did not share the Reformed hermeneutic, i.e., the Reformed way of reading Scripture. This is an even more fundamental difference. Those who share the same basic approach to reading Scripture may differ in some points but they are likely to reach essentially the same conclusions because they are going at things the same way. Absent that shared method, there is no basis for unity. All that can be expected is some overlap (as in a Venn Diagram). Overlap does not a unity make.
- My third reply is closely related to the second. Helm writes, “I was reassured (but puzzled) by his [Clark’s] view that John Owen is regarded as a Reformed theologian.” I cannot see why this should puzzle anyone. The Reformed theologians during Owen’s life and after regarded him as a Reformed theologian. This is because he shared the Reformed hermeneutic (see above) and the Reformed reading of redemptive history. See volume 1 of his massive commentary on Hebrews. Particular Baptists can appeal to his comments on Hebrews 8 and elsewhere but removed from context of his introductory volume, those claims are misguided. Owen was (most of the time) a Congregationalist but so was Ames and no one doubts Ames’ Reformed credentials. Indeed, Ames, an English Congregationalist, is as responsible for Dutch Reformed theology, piety, and practice as any one else. Further, there were Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians at Dort and Westminster. They were all Reformed. Here I think it would really help readers to read Recovering the Reformed Confession before reading this volume, since the present volume is, in some ways, a response to or an argument resulting from RRC. All three polities at Dort and Westminster agreed on Reformed theology, piety (e.g., the principle of worship in the Directory), and practice even though they disagreed sharply on polity.
- Fourth, Helm seems to suggest that the “hardliners” are claiming that the confessions have never changed. This is puzzling since Hart and Clark freely admit that they have changed and for the better. What is at question is whether the rejection of the state-church by the Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands, by American Presbyterian and Reformed Churches, and by others—so it is grossly misleading to say, as Helm does, that the American constitution trumped the confessions—entails a substantial change in the confession. I argue that it does not. The 16th and 17th century Reformed churches might disagree with that revision but they would see the same hermeneutic, the same reading of redemptive history, the same doctrinal conclusions, the same piety, and practice confessed. It has to be shown and not just assumed that the revisions regarding the state church are of the essence of the confessions. The Reformed Churches have not seen it as a change in the substance of the Belgic Confession. On the revision of the Belgic see these articles. It has not been demonstrated.
- Finally, I am puzzled by Helm’s critique that the entire debate fails to “smell the coffee,” that in light of the state of the culture and the marginalization of Christianity, the participants are engaged in a less than useful debate. He writes, “At a time when the faith is increasingly under threat, and our family life as Christians is being undermined, and as there are various popular distortions as well as ancient heresies freely peddled, to have the strengthening of distinctive Christian fellowship is a traditional activity that should outweigh our marginal confessional differences.” The great difficulty of this complaint is that by this criteria, many of the Reformed confessions themselves should not have been written or published. The Spanish were seeking the murder Guy de Brès even as he was writing the Belgic Confession (1561) in hiding. The Westminster Confession was written during a bloody English Civil War, a war fueled by religion as much as anything else. This objection seems to me to be the definition of a non-starter. Let the reader be assured that the debate we are having is good-natured. Helm may not know that I worked and lived with Particular Baptist friends, students, colleagues for 20 years. They were warmly received by us and we by them. We can disagree and remain cordial and even pray together as I am off to do just now.