I am in the throes of trying to make real progress on the commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism. Today, I hope to finish the section on Heidelberg Catechism 92. My goal is to finish the work by the end of August. So, just a brief note this morning about some of the responses to PCA Overtures 23 and 37, which were passed at the recent PCA General Assembly and which intend to forbid the admission to special office anyone who self-identifies as a celibate, homosexual. The Revoice-influenced critics of the overture believe that a homosexual orientation is not sinful per se and they accuse the critics, who believe that it is necessarily sinful per se, of teaching the nineteenth-century theology of Robert Pearsall Smith, Theodore Jellinghaus et al., i.e., the doctrine of complete deliverance from the power of sin as a second blessing. Now it may be that the Higher Life theology has had more influence on contemporary Reformed theology than many (myself included) have hitherto recognized. Thus, to begin to think through this allegation I was reading a bit in B. B. Warfield’s monumental two-volume work, Perfectionism. In volume 1 he surveys the Higher Life movement specifically as a subset of the broader movement. As I read his account of the intersection of the “Mediating Theology” among the Germans—on this movement Zachary Purvis, Theology and the University in Nineteenth Century Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016)—with the Higher Life movement that swept across Europe, the British Isles, and the US (even influencing Abraham Kuyper for a time) it seemed more familiar than I expected. I recognize some of the ideas and themes from some modern Reformed writers. Thus, the influence of the Higher Life movement on Overtures 23 and 37 is not, a priori, impossible. E.g., as I plunge headlong into the sixteenth-century context of the catechism again and compare that with way some modern Reformed folk talk about, e.g., union with Christ, I realize that some of what has been presented as the Reformed doctrine of union with Christ may have more to do with Albert Schweitzer’s doctrine of mystical union than it does with Calvin’s doctrine of union with Christ.
Is the criticism true, however, that the claim that a persistent, immutable homosexual orientation is inherently sinful and corrupt, contrary to nature, and therefore disqualifying for pastoral ministry, is the product of the Higher Life movement and not authentic Reformed theology? Preliminary report: not according to Warfield’s account of the Higher Life movement. Part of what is at stake here is the Reformed doctrine of concupiscence. Another part of what is at stake here is the Reformed understanding of nature. I have been arguing for some time that the advocates of the Revoice theology do not properly distinguish nature and grace (see the resources below) and thus they do not appear to understand that homosexuality is not only sinful but also contrary to nature. A third consideration is the way the Revoice advocates talk about homosexuality, which, as I have been arguing, has more to do with post-1973 psychology than it does Scripture. So far none of this has anything to do with the Higher Life movement.
What is at issue is how we should talk about sanctification. Is it evidence of the influence of Keswick theology to speak of acknowledging a homosexual orientation per se to be sinful? No. This is old-fashioned confessional Reformed theology. I have spent the last week neck-deep in Ursinus’ Corpus doctrinae (our English translation of his lectures on the catechism, the Willard edition of the Commentary, is not always reliable) and in part 2 of Olevianus’ De substantia. In my mind, there is no question that were we to put to them the question whether the Revoice anthropology (the Christian doctrine of humanity) is acceptable, they would reject it heartily. One could not insert a worn dime between their theology of humanity and sin, their doctrine of definitive justification and progressive sanctification as the “double benefit of Christ” (Olevianus’ language), and that of the Westminster Standards.
I am not presenting myself as expert on the Higher Life movement but if we may take Warfield as a reliable guide then we should think that the Higher Life doctrine of sanctification is rather distinct from that embodied in overtures 23 and 37.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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