Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Dumb Evangelicalism, Neil Postman, and Church Splits

In his ubiquitous and often beloved book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman spends the first half of the book charting the rise and fall of the "typographical culture" which perished with the rise of new media (radio, television, etc.). In the first part of the book, Postman claims that 18th and 19th century "American public discourse, being rooted in the bias of the printed word, was serious, inclined toward rational argument and presentation, and, therefore, made up of meaningful content" (p 52). According to Postman, this was because the printed word created the context of discourse. The printed word created the environment in which people thought, conversed, and preached.

As part of Postman's effort to buttress this contention, he points to the contrast between someone like Jonathan Edwards and TV preachers like Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham. Whereas Edwards delivered lengthy treatises and dissertations from the pulpit (and the people understood him!), Falwell and Graham comparatively speak/spoke in soundbites with simplistic language. Largely, Postman observes, religious, legal, and political intercourse became dominated more and more by image and personality and less by direct theological concerns.

These sorts of observations are helpful, I think, in observing evangelicalism as a whole, today. I wish to offer an anecdote. The town in which I live has a population of approximately 13,000 people. In our town there are approximately (and this is very approximate) 50 churches (none of which are Reformed, by the way - are you reading, PCA/OPC church planters?). In the last ten years, there have been at least three new churches that I can think of. All of them arose from church splits. What I want to observe is not the existence of church splits - those happen all of the time here in the midwest - but rather, the reason for those church splits. Was it doctrine? Was it theology? Was it predestination and the virulent influence of incipient, ugly, unhappy Calvinism? No. It was personalities. These are churches which split off of one another and started new fellowships (all non-denominational churches) because they felt that a leader at another church was not given their due or because this or that group felt that they connected with a certain small group leader. Churches in my community appear to be more governed by personality than by truth/doctrine. My fear is that this is only the tip of the iceberg.

This may be a merely anecdotal proof, but it is a symptom of a sickness in evangelicalism today. I am at least encouraged by doctrinally-based church splits, because it reflects a culture where God Himself is more important to worshippers than the shepherd. However, to be frank, the state of evangelicalism in my town almost causes me to deeply despair over our ever living in a day when truth and reason are again celebrated over celebrity and personality. Some time back, Doug Wilson opined that Postman and McLuhan are wrong, and that technology will not destroy the church, but rather, enrich her as a type of wealth. I cannot help but think that if I were a post-millennial I might find room agree with his friendly assessment of the situation. As it stands, however, I see nothing ahead but a further dumbing-down and a further decline in terms of the content of the things which once mattered.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

New 'Five Views' Book

There is a new 'Five Views' book which came out less than a month ago. I only just found out about it, but I must say it seems like the most important of all of the 'views' books that have ever been released. I'll list the contributors, and you can try and guess the specific subject this new book is tackling.
  • Traditional Reformed (Michael S. Horton)
  • Progressive Reformed (Michael F. Bird)
  • New Perspective (James D. G. Dunn)
  • Deification, or Theosis (Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen)
  • Roman Catholic (Gerald O’Collins and Oliver Rafferty)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Bavinck on Benefits of Baptism and Incorporation Into the Church

The baptized person is saved from a corrupt generation, set apart from the world (Acts 2:40-41), made into a disciple of Jesus (Matt. 28:19; John 4:1), incorporated into his church (1 Cor. 12:13), and hence obligated to live a blameless life (Gen. 17:1) in newness of life (Rom. 6), to confess God's name and to keep his commandments (Matt. 28:19). All these benefits have already been bestowed on the baptized person before baptism in the word of the gospel. They were received on the part of the baptized by faith; but now these benefits are further signified and sealed to them in baptism. Hence the situation must not be pictured as one in which before baptism only a few and in any case not all of these benefits were granted in faith and that the one(s) still lacking are now bestowed in baptism. For the Word contains all the promises, and faith accepts them all. There is not a single grace that is not conveyed by the Word and only by the sacrament. Incorporation into the body of Christ also occurs through faith and receives its sign and seal in baptism.

Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics 4.521 (My italics)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Concerning Signs and Un-Sign-Like Language

TE Stellman: To that end, how would you respond to the language of the indictment’s first charge that baptism confers or conveys saving benefits?

Dr. John Collins: Right. Well then - - then it becomes incumbent upon us to ask, well what do we mean by saving and saving benefits. After all it is a Bible writer who said in Peter 3:21 baptism now saves you. And so it’s our job to understand what, what Peter means by saying that.

Leithart Trial Transcript, pg. 308
Throughout the Leithart trial, the defense insisted, repeatedly that their ascription of effectual power to baptism stems from a straightforward reading of texts like 1 Peter 3:21 and Titus 3:5. As sort of a counterpoint to this notion, I wanted to share an extended quote from John Fesko's wonderful book on baptism, Word, Water, and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism. Although Fesko does not deal with Federal Vision or with TE Leithart's sacramental views, he does deal with texts which seem to attribute saving power to signs, and therefore I find what he has to say very helpful.

Sometimes biblical language appears to equate the sign and the thing signified. For example, Christ gave the cup of the supper to His disciples and said, "This is My blood" (Matt. 26:28). Similarly, some interpreters see the identification of the sign and thing signified in Paul's statement to Titus: "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit" (3:5). And the apostle Peter says, "There is also an antitype which now saves us - baptism" (1 Peter 3:21a).

In one sense, this language is not new; there is a similar pattern in the Old Testament, where sacrificial rites were said to bring forgiveness of sins. For example, on the Day of Atonement, the animal sacrifices were an atonement for sin (Lev. 16:34). But in the New Testament, there is the seemingly contradictory statement: "For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins." (Heb. 10:4). This is not doublespeak, but is what exegetes have defined as a metonymy. A metonymy is "the use of one word (often an attribute) for another that it suggests, as the effect for the cause, the cause for the effect, the sign for the thing signified." An example of a metonymy is Psalm 23:5a: "You prepare a table before me." Here the word table is a metonym for food. In this respect, biblical signs have never been an end unto themselves, but have always pointed beyond themselves to the thing signified. Thus, the Old Testament sacraments, such as the sacrifices, had no saving efficacy but pointed to the person and work of Christ, the true sacrifice that brings the forgiveness of sins through faith by the working of the Holy Spirit. The sacraments of the New Testament function in the same manner. As argued in Part II, the water of baptism points to Christ's baptism of the church with the Spirit. Therefore, Christ through the Spirit saves, not the water. This conclusion is evident in the latter half of 1 Peter 3:21: "There is also an antitype which now saves us - baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ." The "answer of a good conscience toward God" is a God-given faith in the resurrected Christ. Calvin explains: "Neither ought our confidence to inhere in the sacraments, nor the glory of God be transferred to them. Rather, laying aside all things, both our faith and our confession ought to rise up to him who is the author of the sacraments and of all things" (Institutes 4.14.12).
At the end of this same chapter, Fesko sums up the Reformed understanding of baptism as a sacrament:
The covenantal context of the sacraments dictates that they are not merely human pledges or oaths. The sacraments do not bring regeneration automatically to the recipient. They do not convey infused grace or habits. Neither Christ nor His church is a sacrament. The sacraments are signs and seals of the covenant of grace that points to Christ and the Holy Spirit and their respective works. They do not work faith, but instead reinforce it, as a wedding ring reinforces love (Bavinck 4.489). They are visible words that function in the same manner as the invisible words of God. Just as the Word of God is double-edged, so too are the sacraments - they hold out covenant blessing and sanction. The difference between the reception of blessing or sanction depends on the presence or absence of faith in the recipient.

Fesko, pg. 304-307

Saturday, October 15, 2011

A Revealing Exchange

Stellman: It sounds. I’m going to move on to another quote here. But the fact that you insist that I am asking you in disguise, about the active obedience of Christ being imputed, is telling because I’m quoting the confessional language that the - - that the obedience and satisfaction of Christ are imputed to us. And you’re saying, well, that’s just code for the imputation of active obedience.

Leithart: No. I’m - - I’m saying that I agree with the Confession. I’ve said that in direct. And you’re disputing that I agree with it. And your dispute that I agree with it is based on your convictions about imputation of active obedience.

Stellman: Alright. The protestant doctrine has been too rigid in separating justification and sanctification, more rigid certainly than scripture itself. Justification and definitive sanctification are not merely simultaneous nor merely twin effects of the single event of union with Christ though I believe this is the case. Rather, they are the same act. Yes or no. Do you dis- - do you agree with Dr. Horton who says that affirming that definitive sanctification and justification are the same act is, in fact, collapsing justification and sanctification because definitive sanctification is much more related to sanctification which is what the term our Confession uses than it is to justification. Do you agree with him when he says that what you’re saying here is amounts to a collapsing of the two concepts together.

Leithart: If - - if I can add to my yes or no answer. It’s a collapsing but it’s a collapsing that I think Paul is doing.

Stellman: So, do you think Paul was, was, was a, would have been uncomfortable with our confessional language on this point?

Leithart: Paul certainly uses justify at least in Romans 6:7 in a way that we don’t.

Stellman: So, I’ll take that as a yes.

PNWP Leithart Trial Transcript, Pg. 202-203

Friday, October 14, 2011

More Free Kindle Books (Hodge, Turretin, Calvin...)

A friend of the blog, Zack, has done something similar to me and begun creating his own Kindle books for personal use. He has given me permission to share them for the rest of you to download. You can pay Zack a visit at his blog, The Stranded Scholar, where he has lots of other more scholarly free resources. For me, the highlight is definitely being able to have Hodge's 3 Volume systematic theology tucked away and searchable in my skinny little Kindle.

Abstract of Systematic Theology by James Petigru Boyce

Institutes of the Christian Religion (Beveridge Translation) by John Calvin

The Scriptures by Francis Turretin

Systematic Theology (3 Volumes) by Charles Hodge

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Comparison: 2007 FV Report vs. PNW SJC Leithart Ruling

Point 7 of the FV Report says:
The view that one can be ‘united to Christ’ and not receive all the benefits of Christ’s mediation, including perseverance, in that effectual union is contrary to the Westminster Standards. (Emphasis Added)
Now look at this section from the SJC’s Leithart Ruling:
The Court finds Dr. Leithart’s views on union with Christ and apostasy to be in accord with the Standards (SJC Ruling, p. 25.4ff.)...Dr. Leithart does believe that some who are united with Christ will not persevere in faith and so will not be saved (Trial Transcript, p. 178.12ff.).

Why Federal Vision Will Never Be Successfully Prosecuted in the PCA

From the PNWP SJC Judgment and Reasoning:
What of Dr. Leithart’s statement that the difference between the covenant in the garden and the covenant of grace is not soteriological? (Quotation a, Charge 2) The Court agrees that this was extremely problematic language, and in fact contradicted by Dr. Leithart’s own clear statements that there are very significant differences in the way in which humans maintain or gain favor with God in the garden and since. The Court is happy, therefore, to note that Dr. Leithart has agreed that it was a poor choice of words and has retracted the statement (Defense Brief, p. 4). The Court is heartened by this example of a man admitting a mistake and correcting it; the Court feels this happens far too seldom in our circles and we commend this example to all our brothers.
This statement was not a mere slip of the pen. It's not like he meant to write "hypothetical" and instead wrote "soteriological." That would be what you might call a "mistake" (and a very strangely executed mistake). Rather, this statement of Dr. Leithart's was problematic because it indeed strikes at the vitals of the system of doctrine contained in the Westminster Confession. Maybe someone can answer this question for me - does Leithart's recantation at this point simply erase the statement from the record? It is, after all, part of the reason why the prosecution was led to believe that Dr. Leithart taught contrary to the Standards in the first place. I am as heartened to hear him recant this statement as anyone, but there is still a whole system of doctrine behind it that made it possible and even reasonable for him to make the statement in the first place. Am I the only person whom this strategy strikes as being evasive?

The judgment of the PNWP states the following:
First, as TE David F. Coffin, Jr. recently wrote for the GA SJC in SJC Case 2010-04, Complaint of TE Art Sartorius, et al. vs. Siouxlands Presbytery: “If a view can be interpreted in an orthodox fashion, it ought to be so interpreted until one is forced to do otherwise.” Likewise, “One cannot properly impute implications that are drawn from a position to a person who expressly denies the implication.”
Over at Stellman's blog, Dean has hit the rhetorical nail on the proverbial head:
How many cases in church history had to endure this insurmountable hurdle? How many prosecutors would have won under these terms?
So Leithart (and every other defendant) is always, from the get-go able to wiggle out from under any and every implication which puts him in a difficult corner. Per Coffin's statement, if Leithart denies the implications drawn by the prosecution of one of his views, the Presbytery will have to accept the defendant's assessment of the implications of his own views or else, if backed into a corner, retract the troubling statement.

Talk about an impossible position.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Trial of Peter Leithart Now Available as Kindle Book

My special thanks to the Pacific Northwest Presbytery for making the trial documents available for the public. The first thing I did was to set about creating a readable Kindle formatted version of the documents. As a whole, the document is 700+ pages. Those who actually plan to read all of this would have a great deal of eye-strain.

The eBook can be downloaded here.

I included this notice at the beginning of the file:
This Kindle book was created for informational, but not official purposes. Row numberings have been removed from many of the documents included below because of the nature of the Kindle to keep numbers from being scattered throughout the text and to make all of the documents more readable. This makes citing specific passage (especially in the trial transcript) a challenge and is evidence that any official usage of this information ultimately should come from the original court documents. An active table of contents has been added at the beginning so that the documents can be easily navigated. Some of the larger documents have their own sub-tables of contents. This would be especially true of the trial transcript which clocked in at nearly 200+ pages, single-spaced. This eBook is neither officially sanctioned or commissioned by the PNW Presbytery but nevertheless reflects the full content that has been released. The original files which this eBook used as source material can be found at the Pacific Northwest Presbytery's web page,, and more specifically

My thanks to the Pacific Northwest Presbytery for making this information available to the public.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Free Kindle Book: Robert L. Dabney's Systematic Theology

"...he was not only a Calvinist in name, but in fact, that he knew why he was a Calvinist."

Download Dabney's Systematic Theology in Kindle format (Complete with working table of contents) by clicking here.

Lane Keister Testimony before PNWP in Kindle Format

On Friday, Lane Keister made available his testimony before the Pacific Northwest Presbytery for download. It was a mammoth 45 pages of testimony, and so with his permission I created a Kindle version of his testimony for anyone who is interested in having an easier to read version for download. You can follow this link to download it.

In the future, once all of the documents of the trial are made public (fingers crossed) I will compile them all into one single file and make that available as soon as I'm able.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

This Just In: No Such Thing as Federal Vision

That's right, folks. False alarm. Do you remember that report which the GA of the PCA overwhelmingly adopted back in 2007 which roundly condemned the theological positions of the Federal Vision? Well we do, and as it turns out, nobody actually is Federal Vision.

Funny story... Turns out it was all just a big hoax. We apparently imagined/invented bogeymen who reject the bi-covenantal nature of the Westminster standards. We apparently imagined that there are people teaching that one is "elect" by virtue of being a member of the church. We apparently imagined that there are men out there teaching that union with Christ makes imputation redundant. The GA apparently made up a group of people who teach that baptism effects a "covenantal union" with Christ and that one can be united with Christ while not receiving all of the benefits which belong to Christ.

Given the fact that in the last few months, three teaching elders whose teachings fit well within the range of what the 2007 report defined as Federal Vision have all been exonerated, we can, I think, safely assume that this was an imagined threat, on par with those snipes that the older boy scouts made me chase in the dark when I was 12.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Leithart Declared Not Guilty by PNW Presbytery

The news just broke earlier today that the Standing Judicial Committee of the Pacific Northwest Presbytery unanimously declared Peter Leithart not guilty of teaching Federal Vision theology. The presbytery then, according to the Aquila Report, approved of the ruling "overwhelmingly." Regarding how the votes broke down, Prosecutor Stellman says the following on his blog:
Concerning the voting, the commission's verdict on each of the five charges was voted on separately, with votes like 33-3-2 or 33-5 (in favor of the commission's not guilty verdict) being pretty representative.
The trial, which took place June 3-4 of this year, concluded with a gag order which was not lifted until earlier today.

TE Lane Keister and Michael Horton both testified at the trial, which was prosecuted by TE Jason Stellman. Stellman says that he will be sharing information on the trial in the near future (presumably via his blog) - although there are evidently limits to what Stellman is allowed to discuss publicly.

The Aquila Report has more information on the ruling here, and Lane Keister has some of his thoughts, along with his testimony here. Without any intention of impugning the elders within the PNW Presbytery, I must say I am bewildered. Those of us within the PCA who have even a cursory knowledge of the writings and teachings of Dr. Leithart cannot help but be stunned that any governing body which is under the Westminster Standards could rule that Dr. Leithart's views are in keeping with those standards.

To put it bluntly, if Peter Leithart does not exemplify and embody Federal Vision theology, then King David wasn't Jewish.


Wes White discusses what is next in the process at his blog. I recommend it, especially for the curious.

Blog Tour: A Hitchhiker's Guide to Jesus

I have been invited by the fine folk from Baker Academic to participate in a blog tour for one of their new titles, A Hitchhiker's Guide to Jesus by Bruce N. Fisk. Let me say out the outset that this is a very clever book. The presentation of the material is done in a new and fresh way.

At its core, this volume is an introduction to the Gospels and the so-called "search for the historical Jesus." The book is laid out as the journal of a recent college graduate named Norm Adams, as he makes a journal through the Holy Land. The book is full of dialogue, pictures and even email correspondence will Norm's former Bible professor, as Norm moves through the places Jesus is said to have been. Along the journey Norm interacts with many notable New Testament scholars, such as James Dunn, Scott McKnight, and John Dominic Crossan. This book deals with some of the questions college students would be dealing with as they are introduced to many of the forms of Higher Criticism. Because of that, this book would seem to be a good text book for a college introduction class on the Gospels. The format and style would seem to appeal to to most students, even those who are being forced to take your course. The way that the author interweaves details of the Holy Land makes you feel, at times, like you are there. One thing is for sure, after reading this book any Bible student wants to visit the places described in these pages. The readers of this blog would like to know that Fisk takes a more historical/critical approach to the study of the Gospels, rather than a canonical approach. If this is kept in mind, most of the material in this guide to Jesus is solid.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Free Dan Phillips Book for the Kindle

Dan Phillips, whom you may know as a regular contributor at Pyromaniacs, has a book, The World-Tilting Gospel which is currently available for free on the Kindle. You can get it by going here.
The first generation of Christians turned the world upside down. But the church today is being turned upside down by the world. Why? And why aren't we-with all our social medias and high-tech gadgets-more effectively producing Christ-centered, Gospel-liberated, biblically-instructed, world-tilting believers?
As always, I have no idea how long this book will be available for free, so grab it while you can.

NOTE: It is no longer free, of 10/9/11.