Editor’s Note: The following is a letter to the editor in response to an article by the Rev. Mr. Doug Barnes, “A Radical Narrowing of the Gospel,” in The Outlook vol. 72, issue 5 (Sept/Oct, 2022).
I just read Rev. Barnes’ article “A Radical Narrowing of the Gospel.” He is a colleague and brother in Christ for whom I am appreciative (especially when he is serving as a clerk of Synod, guaranteeing that I will not be asked to serve in that capacity). So I offer what follows by way of friendly disagreement with a fellow minister who is in good standing in the URCNA.
As I read, I couldn’t help wondering what the next installment in this series of articles in The Outlook might be. Will the editors include an article entitled “A Radical Narrowing of Religion,” correcting James who reduces pure and undefiled religion to “visiting widows and orphans in their affliction and keeping oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27)? Surely the Christian religion is more than just that! John Calvin wrote hundreds of pages on the Christian Religion. How can James be SO NARROW! And I’m sure we will see a third article tackling “A Radical Narrowing of Faith.” Doubtless this article will rebuke the author of Hebrews for his inadequate definition of faith. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). How can he say so little? Had he never studied Heidelberg Catechism, Question 21!?
If you detect that my tongue is firmly planted in my cheek, you are quite correct. Of course, James does not radically narrow the definition of religion. He uses a particularly narrow definition of religion for the sake of his broader argument. Similarly, the author of Hebrews uses a narrow definition of faith that he will unpack in the great passage that follows. When it comes to theology, definitions are important.
As I read Rev. Barnes article, Zacharias Ursinus’ discussion of the gospel in the “General Prolegomena” of his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism kept flashing through my mind. There, Ursinus calls law and gospel “the chief and general divisions of the holy scriptures” and writes that they “comprise the entire doctrine comprehended therein.” He goes on to say that “Christ himself makes this division” in Luke 24:46–47 and that in law and gospel we have “the doctrine revealed from heaven for our salvation.” Ursinus defines the gospel as “the doctrine concerning Christ the mediator, and the free remission of sins, through faith.” In distinguishing the law from the gospel, Ursinus begins by saying, “The law prescribes and enjoins what is to be done, and forbids what ought to be avoided; whilst the gospel announces the free remission of sin, through and for the sake of Christ.” These definitions and distinctions are so basic, Ursinus make them on pages 2 and 3. Is Ursinus’ short definition of the gospel really so different from those offered by Drs. Clark and Horton? I don’t think it is, but any definition can be made shorter or longer, broader or narrower, depending on how the topic is being addressed.
For example, ask a minister committed to the Three Forms of Unity (The Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort) to define the means of grace, and he will respond that they are two: “the preaching of the holy gospel, and…the use of the holy sacraments” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 56). Ask a Presbyterian minister committed to the Westminster Standards, however, and he will tell you that the means of grace are “all of [God’s] ordinances, especially the Word, the sacraments, and prayer” (Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 154). In fact, he would include the reading of Scripture along with the preaching of the Word in his definition of the Word as a means of grace (Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 155). So, who is right about the means of grace? Are the Presbyterians the “radical expanders” or are the Reformed the “radical narrowers?”
The answer, of course, is that we use different definitions of the means of grace. Heidelberg Catechism Q. 65 uses a narrower definition of the means of grace, speaking of them as the means by which the Holy Spirit works and confirms faith in our hearts. The Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 154 uses a broader definition, defining means of grace as “the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of his mediation.” I do not believe that either of us are wrong about the means of grace. We are simply using different definitions.
The above example demonstrates the flaw in Rev. Barnes’ article about the definition of the gospel. Arguing that someone who uses a narrow definition of the gospel in one YouTube video or in one particular blog post thereby denies any and all other definitions or implications of the gospel is fallacious in the extreme. I’m thankful he includes the references for the quotes he cites, because this allows the reader to peruse the full text or video to assess whether the gospel is being used improperly in those individual contexts. In any event, one isolated statement here or there is an insufficient basis on which to argue that a scholar’s entire definition of the gospel is always and in every way flawed.
One final problem to note is that no theological or logical connection exists between a narrow view of the gospel and the Two Kingdoms doctrine. The article assumes this connection but does little to explain or justify it. The fact that Two Kingdoms critics persist in alleging this connection between Two Kingdoms and the Law-Gospel distinction where none exists continues to perplex me.
All that being said, I think I can speak with a higher degree of certainty than Rev. Barnes can concerning the doctrine of Drs. Horton and Clark. I don’t know if he has ever spoken to either of these brothers about these issues, but I have. I have had several classes with Dr. Clark, read his writings extensively, sat under his preaching, and have had many personal interactions with him inside and outside the classroom. I can say the same about Dr. Horton, who was also my faculty advisor in seminary. I am currently Dr. Horton’s pastor and he is my pastoral colleague as an associate minister. I have absolutely no scruples about their orthodoxy. None. They are both ministers in good standing in the URCNA. We may not agree on all points, but I am thankful to have learned from them and am glad to call them both friends.
I regard this article as very unserious and unworthy of The Outlook. It reminds me of many things I’ve read and heard elsewhere from the over-heated keyboards of the small but vocal cadre of Radical Two Kingdoms Alarmists (R2KA). To be clear, I do not mean to lump Rev. Barnes in with the R2KA. But his article could certainly serve to embolden R2KA who continue to insist online and on any forum that will print or give them a hearing—with the notable exception of the official assemblies of the church—that serious bogeymen lurk in the darkness, purveying their “RADICAL” Two Kingdom viewpoints. Just as President Biden raises the specter of “MAGA-Republicans” to disparage his enemies and embolden his allies, so too the R2KA raise the specter of a R2K teaching that threatens the very core of our biblical doctrine. But the specter they decry is in reality just a straw man of their own making: big, scary, and entirely imaginary.
I’ll close with an anecdote from a recent conversation. Over lunch at a classis meeting, several of my ministerial colleagues, a fraternal delegate, and I were discussing Two Kingdoms theology. Some at the table held to Two Kingdoms theology, while others of us did not. We had a very interesting discussion. But at the end of our talk, the fraternal delegate made a remark to this effect, “I keep hearing about these radical, insistent Two Kingdoms guys, but in my travels in your circles, I have yet to meet one.” I thought his statement was illuminating. This brother has traveled widely in our circles, he hears the R2KA raising their ruckus, and yet he has never met anyone who resembles what they describe. I think the reason he hasn’t met one of these novel-view-holding, gospel-shrinking, antinomian-teaching, morally-neutral-realm-believing, kingdom-deniers is because they don’t exist. And if such a person did exist, the R2KA might be surprised to find themselves standing shoulder to shoulder with Drs. Horton and Clark as opponents of any such teaching. And that’s good news for our churches.
Not Gospel good news, but you know what I mean.
Rev. William C. Godfrey
Senior Pastor, Christ URC (Santee, CA)
©William Godfrey. All Rights Reserved.
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