Mr. Phelps’ Impossible Mission:
NAPARC, his URC, and Sectarian Impulses (3)

MI teamMy broader concern in writing this series of blog posts is to examine the integrity and honesty of Reformed and Presbyterian ecumenicity. Among such churches in North America, that ecumenicity comes to expression principally in an organization called NAPARC (North American Presbyterian and Reformed Churches).

Pretend ecumenicity?

I’m concerned about what could be called “pretend” ecumenicity in NAPARC.

Pretend ecumenicity can wear different faces, of course.

Perhaps a church federation joins NAPARC with its fingers crossed behind its back, because their leaders covertly believe that the only real and binding ecumenicity occurs between sister churches or churches in ecclesiastical fellowship. For them, membership in NAPARC is more like a feather in their cap than a calling from the LORD. It’s what I call “tip-o-the-hat ecumenicity”: federations acknowledge bits of shared faith, but organic union? Not in a million years. This is faux fraternizing.

And then there’s foe fraternizing. This occurs when a church federation hangs out in NAPARC to avoid the opprobrium of being viewed as a stick-in-the-mud backwater micro-denomination. Meanwhile, its leaders allow themselves the luxury of routinely criticizing and publicly condemning the leaders of—and the discipline (or lack thereof) of—a fellow NAPARC member denomination.

A dead end for NAPARC?

In this series, my concern has been this second face of pretend ecumenism (although the first visage is rather ugly as well).

You see, here’s how it could go. Mr. Phelps leaves a NAPARC church, slamming the back door behind him with public accusations about that church’s doctrinal and confessional infidelity, only to be received through the front door of another NAPARC church, welcomed for his commitments to liturgical and doctrinal orthodoxy. Welcomed before he has “finished his business” with a church whose decades-long practices have recently troubled his conscience. Welcomed as someone publicly opposed to some practices and ideas that, whether or not he knows it, closely resemble practices and ideas in the receiving NAPARC church.

But at that point, it’s no longer just Mr. Phelps’ problem. For if the integrity and honesty of ecumenicity mean anything, his reception would place the receiving church under an obligation to do something about the current situation in NAPARC.

If words mean anything, then some church(es) will have to leave NAPARC, either voluntarily or by expulsion.

NAPARC cannot survive for very long when leaders and their sycophants in member churches call other member churches (and their leaders) unfaithful, heretical, gospel-deniers.

A better way?

It’s time to look for a better way, a way that enhances ecumenicity with integrity.

At this point, my suggestions are not very sophisticated or politically nuanced. The better way is the way of principled churchmanship among denominations, one that is characterized by self-denying humility amid careful truthfulness. Such churchmanship understands that there is a proper mode, manner, and method for calling others to repentance, for identifying and demonstrating error, for applying gospel grace and gospel judgment against sin in the church. Without self-denying humility, the knife blade of criticism will lack redemptive impact. Truthfulness must be careful—that is, it must be wise, timely, measured, and loving. For the sake of the other.

A good place to begin—and with this suggestion we conclude—is by ingesting the essay written more than 125 years ago, by Herman Bavinck, entitled “The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church.” Here is a taste of that theological delicacy:

“In the Protestant principle there is indeed a church-dissolving element as well as a church-reforming one.”

“There is no universal Christianity present above the confessional divisions but only in them. No one church, no matter how pure, is identical with the universal church. In the same way no confession, no matter how refined by the Word of God, is identical with the whole of Christian truth. Each sect that considers its own circle as the only church of Christ and makes exclusive claims to truth will wither and die like a branch severed from its vine. The one, holy, universal church that is presently an object of faith, will not come into being until the body of Christ reaches full maturity. Only then will the church achieve the unity of faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, and only then will she know as she is known.”

With his example and his theology, Bavinck has bequeathed to us a legacy of Reformed and Presbyterian catholicity. The NAPARC churches of our generation are left with a straightforward choice: use it or lose it.

Mr. Phelps’ Impossible Mission:
NAPARC, his URC, and Sectarian Impulses (2)

MI team


(The numbers introducing various comments refer back to associated elements in the previous narrative.)

1. Liturgical unity/uniformity

1.1  By his own admission, Mr. Phelps was received and ordained into the PCA in a time when it lacked the liturgical unity/uniformity that he now seeks. This defect has troubled his conscience for some time, to the point where he now considers the PCA to be unfaithful to the Westminster Standards regarding worship.

1.2  To be sure, personal conscience must be respected. However, if with the passing of time, Mr. Phelps’ conscience has become wounded by the diversity of liturgical practice within the PCA, and if that diversity existed at the time he entered the PCA and its ministry, should he now be publicly criticizing the PCA as being unfaithful to its constitutional standards?

1.3  In addition, appealing to personal conscience as a public officeholder is a dangerously complicated matter. Minimally, we should be able to find a trail of unsuccessful attempts—at presbytery level, at general assembly level—whereby Mr. Phelps tried to persuade others to agree with his judgment of conscience regarding alleged liturgical and confessional infidelity. In principle, any appeal to personal conscience, especially in the church, must at some point be universalizable—that is: the objector must desire that everyone agree with and share his moral judgment. Where is the evidence of such responsible churchmanship on Mr. Phelps’ part?

1.4  Fact: Regarding the URCNA and what many people term “‘the’ regulative principle” of worship, it must be observed that the history, ethos, and practice of the URCNA are not at all identical to the Westminster Directory for Public Worship. If that is the standard by which Mr. Phelps is condemning liturgical diversity in the PCA, what consistent moral claim would justify his seeking to identify with a group of churches that are not governed by or do not observe that standard?

1.5  Fact: Despite the attempts of some leaders to force the URCNA into their mold of pre-twentieth century liturgical style and practice, the URCs throughout the US and Canada display a wide variety of worship practices. Songs are consistorially adopted for use in public worship—a practice that ensures diversity, both of quality and content, in the hymns and songs used in public worship. There is no federation-wide prescribed liturgical order; churches are free to incorporate—and they do incorporate—a wide variety of activities within public worship that would not fit with the what some insist is “‘the’ regulative principle of worship.”

1.6  Because he has not identified which liturgical practices throughout the PCA are not “necessarily Reformed,” as he now seeks to enter his URC, Mr. Phelps has established his personal conscience as the arbiter and pivot-point for determining those liturgical practices that are “necessarily Reformed.” Would these perhaps include: Exclusive psalmody? Bible songs/hymns? Weekly communion? Substituting grape juice for wine? Music leader(s)? Women ushers? Women reading Scripture in public worship? Weekly reading of the Ten Commandments? Pronouncing the salutation and benediction with uplifted hands? Projecting songs for public worship on a screen? Incorporating a time of mutual greeting with the worship service? An interactive, Q/A style of preaching?

Who knows? With the URCNA having far less connectionalism than the PCA, were he to become a URC minister, Mr. Phelps could genuinely build his own church according to his own liturgical (and theological) preferences and predilections! Especially if it’s a new church plant.

2. Vestments and ceremonial liturgy

2.1  Fact: A number of ministers in the URCNA wear vestments robes as they conduct public worship. If it is replied that among the URCNA, such vestments robes are not nearly as elaborate as in some PCAs, then the quibble is over a matter of degree, not over a matter of principle.

2.2  Fact: Many URCNA ministers respect and follow the church year liturgical calendar for public worship. Again, if it is replied that among the URCNA, such liturgical observances are not nearly as elaborate as in some PCAs, then the quibble is over a matter of degree, not principle.

2.3  Because Mr. Phelps nowhere identifies the specifics of his conscientious objection, any churches receiving him as pastor would be at risk of importing private, personal predilections and preferences as normative. (For example, would having Advent candles lit throughout a worship service violate Mr. Phelps’ conscience? Would using guitars for accompaniment? Incorporating within public worship a time of sharing personal prayer requests? Each of these is practiced somewhere in the URCNA.)

2.4  Once again, if these and similar practices already occur throughout the URCNA, which some would surely describe as going “in the higher church direction,” should not Mr. Phelps and his conscience be directed elsewhere, lest in a few years he be compelled to pen another essay, this one entitled, “Grateful and Grieved: My Goodbye to the URCNA”?

3. Toleration of “FV” outside the PCA, and throughout the URCNA

3.1  Mr. Phelps alleges that the PCA has now come to tolerate “the Federal Vision,” whose teachings he alleges to strike at the foundation of the gospel. He identifies key components of that vision, and evaluates them in terms of the Westminster Standards, which elements qualify “Federal Vision” as heresy and whose alleged toleration now prompts him to leave the PCA.

3.2  Fact: URCNA office-bearers subscribe to, and are bound by, not the Westminster Standards, not the theology (or theologoumena) some derive from the Westminster Standards, but by the Three Forms of Unity—again, not by Ursinus’ Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, not by various theologoumena some derive from Ursinus or Reformed scholasticism, but only by the ipsissimis verbis of the Three Forms of Unity.

3.3  All of this becomes important when Mr. Phelps insists upon a “bi-covenantal” dichotomy of a covenant of works (Law) and a covenant of grace (Gospel) as a measure of orthodoxy.

Fact: This theologoumenon is not binding within the URCNA.

Fact: A significant number of URC office-bearers in good standing reject and repudiate the theologoumenon of a meritorious prelapsarian covenant of works.

3.4  Mr. Phelps insists that the Westminster Standards teach that the divine grace associated with baptism is given only to the elect.

Fact: The classic, historic, traditional liturgical Form for the Baptism of Infants (Form Number 1) used in the URCNA—the Form on which most URC members were nursed, fed, and grown—says, among other things, the following:

“And when we are baptized into the Name of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit assures us by this holy sacrament that He will dwell in us, and sanctify us to be members of Christ, imparting to us that which we have in Christ, namely, the washing away of our sins and the daily renewing of our lives, till we shall finally be presented without spot among the assembly of the elect in life eternal” (italics added).

“Almighty God and merciful Father, we thank and praise Thee that Thou hast forgiven us and our children all our sins, through the blood of Thy beloved Son Jesus Christ, and received us through Thy Holy Spirit as member of Thine only begotten Son, and so adopted us to be Thy children, and sealed and confirmed the same unto us by holy baptism” (italics added).

Fact: In other words, the URCNA is rooted in a liturgical-ecclesiastical-theological tradition, has embraced that tradition, and has sought to continue that tradition which has historically taught “that baptism is always efficacious when administered.” This means that every child presented for baptism receives the bona fide divine sign and seal of grace at baptism, given in terms of the promises spoken long ago to Abraham.

3.5  Fact: A significant number of URCNA office-bearers in good standing believe and teach that good works are necessary unto salvation, and that a believer’s good works will play an important role at the final judgment.

3.6  Fact: The URCNA have for years been engaged in intense ecumenical conversations with the Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC), on several levels, including both the federative and local levels. The CanRC Acts of General Synod Carman 2013 reports (Art. 129) that several consistories wrote to the synod stating that “some points of Federal Vision can find sympathy in the [CanRC] . . . .”

4. The viability of NAPARC v. the impulses of sectarianism

4.1  You can find information about the identity and purposes of NAPARC online.

In light of its constitutional documents, it’s clear that member churches promise to recognize the discipline being applied by other NAPARC churches. The logical implication is that this recognition pertains to the discipline applied in both the prosecution and the acquittal of members and officers. Including the acquittal of Peter Leithart.

That acquittal occurred, first, by the Pacific Northwest Presbytery (2011), and second, by the PCA SJC (2013). In both occurrences, the central and prevailing point adjudicated was whether or not the prosecution had proven its case against Leithart. In both occurrences, the verdict was acquittal.

To argue on this basis that “the PCA tolerates heresy” is unwarranted in terms of both logic and polity, and is most uncharitable.

4.2  Somewhere, sometime, someone in a URC was asked by a Reformed newbie which Reformed and Presbyterian churches are “the true churches”? The answer? “There’s no list exactly, but for the purposes of admitting people to communion we [in the URCNA] follow the rule adopted by the Synod of Dort, in the original Dort Church Order (1619) that only those who profess ‘the Reformed Religion’ may come to the table of the Lord in a Reformed congregation. In our setting we see that those churches that belong to the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council confess substantially the same faith with us” (italics added).

This same URC source was asked where ecclesiastical refuge and protection were to be found from the ideas associated with Federal Vision, and as recently as June 9, 2013 (nota bene: after both the Pacific Northwest Presbytery trial of Peter Leithart and the PCA SJC decision denying the complaint against the Pacific Northwest Presbytery had been published), the answer came in this public declaration: “The URCs still seem resolute against the FV. The rest of the NAPARC world does not seem to be weakening in its resolve” (italics added).

4.3  Question: Why would Mr. Phelps depart, for reasons of conscience, from one church that he has accused of infidelity, to join another church that continues in full ecumenical fellowship with the allegedly unfaithful church he is leaving?

4.4  Question: If Mr. Phelps should accomplish his mission of serving as pastor somewhere in the URCNA, what implications would his reception via a classis-administered colloquium doctum have for the ecumenical integrity and future of the URCNA within NAPARC?

(To be continued.)

Mr. Phelps’ Impossible Mission:
NAPARC, his URC, and Sectarian Impulses (1)


  • This new series of posts constitutes an application and development of our previous series on practicing genuine ecumenicity. Readers of this series may wish to review terms and concepts introduced there.
  • The heart-burden of this series involves the integrity of practicing ecumenicity among Reformed and Presbyterian churches in North America, principally by means of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC). This series is occasioned by the publicly announced departure of a minister (teaching elder), Mr. Tony Phelps, from the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), who is seeking a call within the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA).
  • Brief curriculum vitae: I was baptized, catechized, and professed faith in Christ within the Christian Reformed Church (CRC); was ordained to the ministry of the Word and Sacraments in the CRC in 1975; served two CRCs as pastor; left the CRC in 1991 en route to assisting in the formation of the URCNA (1996); taught Reformed church polity on the seminary level for more than twenty-five years; became a Teaching Elder in the PCA (2011–present).
  • What follows is not a defense of what many call “Federal Vision.” The claims and counter-claims of this debate are not in view here. At all.
  • What is in view here, and what follows here, is an examination of the meaning and practice of genuine, integrous (i.e., characterized by integrity), biblical ecumenicity among Reformed and Presbyterian churches in North America.


(All highlighted numbers within parentheses have been inserted to facilitate subsequent commentary.)

On February 5, 2015, using the digital magazine known as “The Aquila Report,” Mr. Tony Phelps announced that he had left the PCA as a pastor (teaching elder) and was seeking a call to a URC, while presently serving as interim pastor in a URC.

The announcement was entitled, “Grateful and Grieved: My Goodbye to the PCA.”

In this farewell, Mr. Phelps says many nice things about the PCA’s passion for evangelism and church planting, and about many nice people in the denomination. He’s grateful for all of that. But his gratitude is darkly overshadowed by his being “grieved by the confessional state of the PCA,” claiming that though the PCA is Reformed on paper, it is not Reformed in practice.

After almost twelve years of pastoring in the PCA, Mr. Phelps criticizes the lack of unity and uniformity in worship practices among PCAs. “In the PCA, this [unity/uniformity] is not the case—and probably never was.” (1.1-1.2)

The culprit for this unspecified liturgical diversity within the PCA is a kind of loose evangelicalism, along with something he calls “the Federal Vision movement”: “Some influenced by the Federal Vision movement may go in the higher church direction—using vestments and a more ceremonial liturgy—embracing an idiosyncratic worship that is not Reformed (nor Lutheran nor Anglican for that matter).” (2.1-2.4)

Mr. Phelps renders this personal judgment: “And so worship in the PCA is like Forrest Gump’s philosophy of life: it’s a ‘box o’ chocolates—you never know what you’re gonna get.’”

This verdict against the PCA is gussied in prettier dress with an appeal to personal conscience: “This bothered my conscience for some time. How can the PCA claim to subscribe to Westminster regarding worship and so often ignore what it confesses?” (1.1-1.3)

But liturgical diversity has led to doctrinal diversity, of the worst sort. Mr. Phelps alleges: “Sadly, I fear that the PCA’s toleration of diverse practices which are not necessarily (1.6) Reformed has now degenerated into a toleration of diverse doctrines which are in no way Reformed. The Federal Vision (FV) controversy has served to directly test the PCA’s confessional fidelity.”

With bullet-point simplicity, Mr. Phelps identifies the alleged PCA doctrinal failures he’s leaving behind.

“Let’s survey [the] Westminster [Standards] v. FVism to compare:

  • Westminster is bi-covenantal–it confesses from Scripture the covenant of works (Law) and the covenant of grace (Gospel); FVists promote various degrees of ‘mono-covenantalism’ and so confuse Law and Gospel. [3.2-3.3]
  • Westminster confesses the perseverance of the saints–those united to Christ will never be lost; FVists teach that all those who are baptized are united to Christ spiritually, but can fall away and lose their salvation if they don’t persevere in ‘covenant faithfulness.’
  • Westminster confesses that the efficacy of baptism is not necessarily tied to the moment in which it is administered–the grace promised [3.4] is given only to the elect in God’s appointed time; FVists teach that baptism is always efficacious when administered, and its gracious benefits are given to all the baptized, who can then lose those benefits. (At his presbytery trial, Leithart said he was essentially Lutheran in his view of baptism–which would indisputably contradict Westminster’s view on that matter; or so you’d think.)
  • Westminster confesses that those who would partake of the Lord’s Supper in a worthy manner must discern the Lord’s body, be conscious of their faith to feed upon Him, etc.; FVists commune infants and / or small children who cannot yet fulfill these biblical requirements.
  • Westminster confesses a distinction between the visible church (all those who profess the true religion and their children) and the invisible church (the elect only); FVists deny this distinction.
  • Westminster confesses the RPW [1.4]; FVists tend to advocate a highly ceremonial liturgy, which includes the use of clerical vestments (albs & stoles) & an extensive liturgical calendar. [2.1-2.4]
  • Westminster confesses the imputation of Christ’s righteousness/obedience to the believer; FVists deny or demur on the imputation of Christ’s active obedience.
  • Westminster confesses justification by faith alone; FVists undermine ‘faith alone’–and Leithart even goes so far as to say, ‘Covenant faithfulness [which includes works] is the way of salvation, for the doers of the law will be justified at the final judgment.’” (3.5)

The reader is provided this summary verdict: “If the PCA can flex Westminster to accommodate not only non-Reformed practice, but now the anti-Reformed, Gospel-corrupting doctrines of the FV, then the PCA as a whole is no longer meaningfully confessional.” (4.1-4.4)

As he leaves the PCA behind, and seeks to transfer his ordination into the URC, Mr. Phelps hopes for a brighter, more certain and secure liturgical and doctrinal future. “In the URCNA, officers subscribe to the Three Forms of Unity because they agree with the Word of God. Reformed faith and practice are not divorced, but the former necessarily shapes the latter. Not only is the FV repudiated on paper, but I have confidence that the URCNA will not provide a safe haven for the anti-Reformed, Gospel-corrupting doctrines of the FV.”

(To be continued.)

Herman Bavinck on fundamental articles of faith

bucketsDuring his tenure as professor at the theological school of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, Herman Bavinck delivered an address to an audience of colleagues, students, and trustees on 18 December 1888. His address was entitled, “The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church.”[1] Among his points of emphasis was the difference between Luther and Zwingli, on the one hand, and John Calvin, on the other, with respect to the breadth and scope of redemption as the integral recreation of all reality in Christ Jesus. The Calvinist understanding of religious catholicity—all of life is to be lived under the claims of King Jesus, and all of life is religious—naturally influenced the reformation of the church. Whereas Rome has tied salvation to subjection to the papacy, the Reformed did not view Reformed churches as the only salvific institution. The church as the body of Christ is one, it is universal, and it is therefore not limited in space or time, said Bavinck.

One of the dilemmas arising from this ecclesiology involved the recognition of other, non-Reformed churches as churches of Jesus Christ, including the Roman Catholic Church (opinions on this matter, however, varied among Reformed theologians). This dilemma became perhaps most pressing and practical when it came to recognizing the baptism administered by these other, non-Reformed churches. The Reformers acknowledged as valid the baptism administered by all Christian churches (Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anabaptist, and Remonstrant churches). All of this is to say that Protestants generally, and the Reformed especially, have insisted that we cannot fix the measure of grace needed for salvation, nor establish the (minimum) amount of knowledge required to be saved.

In the face of this dilemma, Protestants developed the distinction between fundamental and non-fundamental articles of faith.[2] John Calvin himself sought to protect church unity with the use of this distinction, since without it, the church would over time degenerate through schism after schism into sectarianism. Unlike Rome, who called everyone a heretic who departed from that church’s teaching, Protestants have also found useful the distinction between doubt, error, and heresy. Not every doubt is an error, and not every error is a heresy.

The theological distinction between fundamental and non-fundamental articles of faith was understood strictly in confessional terms. A fundamental truth was defined in terms of one’s own confessions. Bavinck pleaded, however, for a more organic view of the catholicity of church and her confession of the truth.

“In the same way that the one universal Christian church comes to more or less purity of expression in individual churches, in the same way the one universal Christian truth comes to more or less pure expression in the various confessions of faith. There is no universal Christianity present above the confessional divisions but only in them. No one church, no matter how pure, is identical with the universal church. In the same way no confession, no matter how refined by the Word of God, is identical with the whole of Christian truth. Each sect that considers its own circle as the only church of Christ and makes exclusive claims to truth will wither and die like a branch severed from its vine. The one, holy, universal church that is presently an object of faith, will not come into being until the body of Christ reaches full maturity. Only then will the church achieve the unity of faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, and only then will she know as she is known.”[3]

According to Bavinck’s analogy, just as the one universal church transcends any particular church, so too the universal Christian truth transcends any particular confession.

This claim can easily be misconstrued and misunderstood.

The story is told of several blind men who were asked to place their hands on an elephant—one on the animal’s tusk, another on the trunk, a third on its ear. Each man was asked to describe, on the basis of what his hands “saw,” what an elephant was. The first said the elephant was really like a spear, the second that the elephant was like a snake, and the third that the elephant was like a fan. Each was right and each was wrong, because although each held part of the truth in his hands, none held all the truth. This fable is often used to defend the claim that each world religion has only part of the truth, and none of them has all the truth. If we put them all together, we would have a closer approximation of the truth.

Some make a similarly improper claim about Protestantism: each denomination, each confession has part of the truth; put them all together, and we would have a closer approximation of Christian truth.

This is not at all what Bavinck meant when he insisted that the universal Christian truth transcends any particular confession. He meant, rather, that because of the nature of human understanding and expression, there is always room to grow, room for improvement, opportunity to arrive at a fuller understanding. His metaphor of organism and growth takes account of history, of the progress of time, and of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the church—a spiritual growth that does not go against or contrary to that which the church has enjoyed and confessed before, but growth that extends and deepens the church’s living grasp of the Bible’s truth. Bavinck did not claim that because a particular confession is limited in content, historical in origin, and focused in its teaching, it is therefore inadequate or untrue in any way. His point was that a particular confession is not, and cannot be, exhaustive of the truth. Once more: all of this is to say that Protestants generally, and the Reformed especially, have insisted that we cannot fix the measure of grace needed for salvation, nor establish the (minimum) amount of knowledge required to be saved.

What Bavinck wrote in 1888 resembles in part the formulation of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) in 25.4, where it is confesses that

“This catholic church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them” (italics added).

(To be continued.)

[1] The Dutch original was entitled De Katholiciteit van Christendom en Kerk, and was published in 1888 by Zalsman (Kampen); an English translation by John Bolt is available as “The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church,” in Calvin Theological Journal 27, no. 2 (1992): 220-51.

[2] Bavinck, “The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church,” 240.

[3] Bavinck, “The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church,” 250-251.

Christian doctrine as an organism

bucketsThe Protestant Reformers taught that some doctrines are rudimentary, foundational, and basic to the gospel, and other doctrines are developed, expansive, and complex. Christians are identified as less mature or more mature in terms of their capacity for receiving, integrating, and applying biblical truths ranging from the rudimentary to the complex, from the basic to the developed.

Perhaps the analogy of the human body will help clarify this. The heart and the lungs are organs essential to the human body, whereas fingers and toes are not. Many people live full and productive lives who either have lost, or perhaps were born without, a finger or a toe. But if a finger or toe is injured and does not heal, such that blood-poisoning sets in, then healing that toe becomes essential to the body’s health.

The nature of both Christian doctrine and the Christian church is one of organic relationship. Even as an infected toe, if left untreated, can ultimately result in a body’s death, so an unbiblical premise seemingly far removed from the “heart” of the gospel, if left uncorrected, can ultimately compromise the truth and poison the body of Christ, the church.

But to press the analogy further: How must we relate to a Christian who was born without a finger, or a toe, or even an eye? The Bible defines and describes the boundaries and characteristics of being fully Christian. No question about that. But the Bible also provides room for Christians who are not fully mature, who have not grasped the full implications of the gospel (see Romans 14-15, and 1 Corinthians 8-10).

The point is this: just as we can identify an entity as a human person who does not yet have fully developed toes and fingers, or is lacking toes or fingers, so too we can identify a person as a Christian who does not fully grasp Christianity’s more developed, expansive, and complex doctrines.

It seems to me that confessional Presbyterians among whom I live and labor are employing this understanding of doctrine-as-organism when, while examining a man for office, they evaluate his declared “scruples” about the Westminster Standards in terms of this important question: Does this man’s “scruple” strike at the vitals of the system of doctrine taught in the Westminster Standards? If not, the exam continues. If so, we pause for further discussion.

Among the “scruples” that regularly receive exemption in our Presbytery are convictions that the humanity of the Incarnate Son of God may be portrayed visually in art (think, for example, of Rembrandt); that pious believers may enjoy recreation on Sunday; and that the phrase “covenant of works” is not the most felicitous expression. Each of these convictions involves, at some point, very significant and vital Christian doctrines. But the key word is “involve.” Such involvement is not vital or direct, but indirect.

Part of our reason for this ongoing discussion is to encourage you to reflect on how we can identify co-believers who share with us the lifeblood of Christianity, and in appropriate ways join with them as co-belligerents in the battle between the two kingdoms (God’s and Satan’s).

We hope to persuade you to quarantine out of the church the tiresome and toxic debates about issues that are mere theologoumena (non-confessional theological opinions, such as what some call “common grace”). These opinions are not directly related to the vital doctrines of the faith. These opinions are neither essential to the Christian faith nor inherent to Reformed confessional fidelity.

Be excited, then, about the powerful reality,
embodied in a shared life of Christian faith-in-practice among today’s dark and confused world,
a shared life that witnesses to what can be celebrated among all Christ-followers,
that regrets what cannot be,
that expects the dawning day when every one of us will attain full maturity.

Fundamental v. non-fundamental doctrines

buckets Fundamental doctrines are those doctrines, belief in which is necessary to salvation. These beliefs in a rudimentary sense identify a person as a Christian. For many, the Apostles Creed is viewed as the substantive content of true faith (e.g., Heinrich Bullinger). John Calvin observed that not all doctrines are of the same sort. Some doctrines must be believed which, if they be denied, would undermine the Christological foundation of the truth of the gospel. These include the beliefs that God is one, Christ is God, Christ is the Son of God, and salvation is by grace. Other articles of faith, though disputed, do not break the unity of the faith (e.g., whether one must believe that at death human souls go to heaven, or simply that they live to the Lord) (Calvin Institutes 4.1.12). Subsequent to the Reformation, Lutherans saw belief concerning the mode of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper to be a fundamental doctrine, whereas the Reformed did not.

In the history of Protestantism, the positive function of the distinction between fundamental and non-fundamental doctrines arose with the appearance of the catechisms of the Reformation. Usually such catechisms treated the Decalogue, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the sacraments. In order to produce a digest of biblical teaching, the church must employ some distinction like this. Reformed thinkers even distinguished between those articles of faith that are catholic or universal, which are to be believed and taught unto salvation, and thus taught in catechesis—and those articles which are theological, which are necessary for theological work but not for faith (such as extra-biblical historical and archaeological facts). Reformed churches have sought to steer a middle course between those who rejected any notion of basic doctrines altogether, and those who multiplied fundamental doctrines. In addition, some recognized a difference between the doctrinal rules and judgments of particular churches, and doctrines enjoying the general assent of the universal church.[1]

            [1] For a thorough historical discussion of the rise and function of the distinction between fundamental and non-fundamental doctrines in the period following the Reformation, see Richard Muller in Prolegomena to Theology, 2nd ed., Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy Ca. 1520 to Ca. 1725, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), esp. pp. 406-430.

A bucket exercise, for the sake of genuine ecumenicity (2)

bucketsBased on our previous post, the following claims seem accurate and true:

  • a true church (confessionally defined) is not determined by whether elders serve for a term or a lifetime (a matter of prudence)
  • being Reformed (a confessional identity) does not require commitment to presuppositional apologetics (a theologoumenon, or theological opinion)
  • one can be a Christian (a fundamental essential), yet not believe infant baptism to be true (a confessional truth)

Recall our six buckets:

1. Essential truths, also called “fundamentals of the faith”
2. Confessional truths, explained by documents like the Three Forms of Unity or the Westminster Standards
3. Dogmatic claims—think Herman Bavinck, Louis Berkhof, Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield
4. Theological opinions, often influenced strongly by assumptions arising in biblical studies, or in philosophy, or in logic
5. Prudential convictions, or sensible claims that seem to “fit” with one’s biblical and/or theological understanding
6. Varia

We offered the concluding observation that although necessary and helpful, this bucket analogy is also dangerous. Three dangers come to mind.

Danger 1: Some truths belong in more than one bucket.

For example, the truth about Christ’s human and divine natures belongs in buckets 1., 2., and 3., for sure. Many convictions relating to eschatology belong in buckets 3. and 4. It’s hard to imagine that convictions about a minister wearing a robe behind the pulpit could be placed any lower (i.e., be any more important) than bucket 4.

The reason this presents a danger involves two impulses. One is to elevate every aspect of a truth, or demote every aspect of a truth, to the higher or lower bucket, according to one’s personal preferences. And if placement options exist, differences of opinion are sure to arise, jeopardizing “unity in the faith.”

Danger 2: Some truths in a higher-numbered bucket require warrants or justifications that belong in a lower-numbered bucket.

I have dubbed “common grace” a theologoumenon, a theological opinion. It is not a core belief that determines whether one is a Christian, nor is it a confessional truth that distinguishes, say, Reformed from non-Reformed.

Oh, I know that some opponents of common grace, believing the issue to be confessional in nature, have sought and do seek to eradicate common grace, root and branch, from the thinking and convictions of their followers. So their justifications reach down (again, think lower-numbered buckets) all the way to important confessional convictions about absolute divine sovereignty, total depravity, election and reprobation, particular grace, and more.

My point here is that the yarn with which one knits the sock is not the sock itself. There are others who take that same yarn and using different stitches, knit an altogether different sock. Hence the category: theologoumena.

But why is this feature of the bucket analogy dangerous? Very simply because when one borrows elements from buckets 1., 2., and 3. to construct a truth-claim that belongs in none of those buckets, but belongs rather in bucket 4., very heated arguments and bloody verbal fisticuffs ensue. It’s almost as if these theologoumena-defenders need the soaring temps and searing rhetoric in inverse proportion to the validity of their claims to being . . . whatever: orthodox, classically Reformed, confessional, you pick.

Danger 3: Ecumenicity–which is the purpose of this discussion–is of different kinds and can therefore occur at different levels.

Let me enumerate five distinct ecumenical levels or intensities.

3.1 Organic ecumenicity: like human marriage (i.e., between a man and a woman), some church unions over the years lose all sense of “us v. them,” or “my people v. your people.” Rare, to be sure, when it comes to churches, but ideal and blissful.

3.2 Organizational ecumenicity: less intimate than organic ecumenicity, here’s where you still find, unto the second and third generation of those who fear, A-churches and B-churches in the same denomination. They’re joined, but the seams bulge for . . . ever.

3.3 Co-belligerence ecumenicity: this kind of ecumenicity is experienced at pro-life rallies and pro-life vigils, for example; prayers are prayed, Bible verses read, songs sung, hands held. Christians are united on the basis of what they are fighting.

3.4 Martyr ecumenicity: this kind is virtually ineffable, because it arises in the crucible of suffering oppression and martyrdom; Protestants and Roman Catholics and Orthodox share the Eucharist in a P.O.W. camp before facing a firing squad together, or refugees from various Christian traditions huddle together singing silently in celebration of a convert’s baptism.

3.5 Tip-o-the-hat ecumenicity: this is the most distant, most frigid form ecumenicity, where Christians/churches/federations acknowledge bits of shared faith and pieces of common practice. But union? Not in a million years. Some of this goes on in NAPARC today. Another term for it is faux fraternizing.

Once more, why is this feature of the bucket analogy dangerous? Because the arrangement of the buckets has so often encouraged people and churches to define themselves over against others, even in the same “family” of churches, on the basis of buckets 4., 5., and 6. This in turn allows Christians/churches/federations to rest content with the ecumenicity described as 3.5.

Next time: from buckets to circles.

A bucket exercise, for the sake of genuine ecumenicity (1)

bucketsI won’t say that great minds think alike, but I had sketched the structure of this post several days before October 15, 2014, when Mark Jones posted about Reformed Theological Diversity (lots of it). I’ll let you decide that stuff about great minds.

First, then, please go read Dr. Jones’ essay.

Here is one of his lead paragraphs:

Richard Muller’s introductory essay in Drawn intro Controversie should be required reading for Reformed ministers, especially those who polemicize on matters regarding Confessional orthodoxy. In his essay he lists: 1) Debates that concerned confessional boundaries, which crossed over or pressed the boundaries; 2) Debates over philosophical issues; 3) Debates concerning issues of significant import that threatened to rise to a Confessional level; 4) Debates over theological topics that did not press on confessional boundaries. The various debates that I had selected for discussion in the book were placed into these categories.

Well then, here’s where I was headed last week, in my pre-composition ruminating stage.

I’d like to invite you to do a bucket exercise together. So imagine someone setting before you six buckets, each labeled as follows:

Bucket #1: Essentialia
Definition: that without which one will not see the Kingdom, enter heaven, or be saved; beliefs that define what it means to be a Christian
Examples: Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human; sin separates people from God; divine redeeming grace comes apart from any and all work, yet necessarily produces works

Bucket #2: Confessionalia
Definition: those beliefs that define what it means to be a Reformed Christian; beliefs stipulated by the Reformed Confessions; truths that distinguish between churches that are Reformed, Lutheran, Baptist, etc.
Examples: infant baptism; the presence of Christ in the Eucharist; the continuing requirement of personal holiness

Bucket #3: Dogmas
Definition: the scholarly formulation of confessed truths, which constitutes the church’s tradition of theology and doctrinal expression
Examples: the peccability of Christ; infra- and supra-lapsarianism; the covenantal structure of reality, revelation, and redemption; certain kinds of imputation

Bucket #4: Theologoumena
Definition: theological opinions; inferences drawn from a system of dogma
Examples: common grace; presuppositional apologetics; Mosaic covenant as the republication of the so-called “covenant of works”; ways of understanding divine simplicity

Bucket #5: Prudentia
Definition: matters of wisdom and prudence with respect to the church’s life and practice
Examples: lifetime v. term eldership; the necessity and use of liturgical forms; single cup v. multiple glasses for the wine at the Lord’s Table

Bucket #6: Varia
Definition: the stuff church splits are made of (sorry, just kidding; sort of)
Examples: women ushers; organ skirts; wearing a robe as a preacher

We plan on returning to this bucket exercise, for the sake of genuine ecumenicity, so keep them out, and think about what you’d put in each of them.

As you do that, ponder the keywords for this set of blog posts: nuance, balance, calm.

Next time: why the bucket analogy is dangerous, but helpful and necessary.

John Murray and Christian schools: an Orthodox Presbyterian testimony from 1945

johnmurrayFrom the “I never knew that” file (HT:

The Report of the Committee on Theological Education, found in the Minutes of the 1945 General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, contains the following:

It is highly important to remember, however, that though the church is obligated to teach the whole counsel of God, it does not follow that the teaching of the whole counsel of God may be given only under the auspices of the church. There are other auspices under which it is just as obligatory to teach and inculcate the Word of God. Such teaching should be given by parents in the instruction and nurture of their children. But the life of the family is not conducted under the auspices of the church. Such teaching should also be given in the Christian school in all of its stages and developments. The Christian world and life view as set forth in Scripture is the basis of the Christian school, and so the whole range of Scripture truth must, in the nature of the case, be presented if the education given is to be thoroughly Christian in character. But the Christian school, whether at the elementary or the secondary or the university stage, should not be conducted under the auspices of the church. The teaching of the Word of God given in the family and in the Christian school will indeed, as regards content, coincide with the teaching given by the church, but this coincidence as regards content does not in the least imply that such teaching should be given under the auspices of the church.

Notice: teaching the whole counsel of God is “just as obligatory . . . should also be given in the Christian school in all of its stages and developments.”

Followed by this crowning touch: “The Christian world and life view as set forth in Scripture is the basis of the Christian school, and so the whole range of Scripture truth must, in the nature of the case, be presented if the education given is to be thoroughly Christian in character.”

Thoughtful people are asking at least three questions:

1. What ever happened to the breadth and catholicity of thought, along with commending Christian day school education, that characterized John Murray and OPC leaders in a former generation?

2. Why is it not reasonable to conclude that contemporary NL2K (R2K, “Escondido theology”) advocates are in truth bent on destroying the shared legacy of not only Abraham Kuyper and “the” neo-Calvinists, but also of John Murray and (former) OPC leaders?

3. Why today’s loud repudiation of what once was acceptable in OPC circles, namely, the positive and hearty endorsement of “the” “Christian” “world and life view” “as set forth in Scripture”?

The Role of Religion in America's Current Crisis:Reflections on September 11, 2001

Written originally in September 2001 for publication in the Dutch daily, Reformatorisch Dagblad

* * *

I live in Dyer, Indiana, in the heartland of America, far away from New York City.

Last evening I was talking casually with my neighbor, Don, as we were both working outside in our yards, cutting our lawns and tending our flowers. When I complimented him for his display of a large American flag and for his colorful patriotic decorations, he explained why his home was decorated so colorfully. “I was there,” he said in a quiet voice. “In New York, you mean?” I asked. “No,” he replied, “I mean I was on the 57th floor of the North Tower when the first plane hit several stories above me. I was there on business, doing computer maintenance for a client, when the explosion occurred. And as I was walking down those stairs to get out of the building, I was praying that I wouldn’t die.” Last Saturday evening his family and friends joined him for a “Thank God I’m alive” party. And he’s been going to mass rather often since he returned home last Wednesday.

The tragedy of 9/11 (these digits 9-1-1 are more than a date–they are also the emergency telephone number in every American community) has been broadcast into our living rooms with images burned into our minds for generations. So too have many stories of survivors and rescue workers, narratives laced with thanks to God. Community gatherings throughout the nation feature prayers and religious vigils for the victims and their families. Like a pastor holding the nation’s hand, President Bush quoted from Psalm 23 to comfort the American people.

Suddenly religion has become prominent in America. An irony, really, in view of vigorous attempts to eradicate religious expression from American public life. Does all this public piety represent a genuine renewal, a national return to God—or is religion the spare tire Americans will be using until we can get our needed repairs?

Religion as instinct

There are no atheists in foxholes, so we’ve heard. War makes many people religious. In America’s current national crisis, religious expression is an instinctive response.

At 10:30 AM last Tuesday [September 11], less than an hour after the third airliner crashed, people were gathering for prayer in the Washington National Cathedral. At noon, more than 2,000 people filled another church for a memorial service called by the Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington, D.C. That evening, across America thousands of churches and synagogues held prayers service or candlelight vigils.

The events have occasioned interfaith services and ecumenical calls for unity. Because of Islam’s high profile in the current situation, many clerics are taking great pains to emphasize those elements common to all religions, namely, peace, love, and toleration.

Songs sung at public events are serving to express religious feelings and patriotic loyalties. When major league baseball resumed this past Monday, the traditional song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” usually sung during the seventh inning stretch, was replaced with “God Bless America.” In fact, this song, written in 1918 by Irving Berlin and revised in 1938, has become the public’s favorite, being sung more often than the national anthem. Members of Congress sang “God Bless America” on the steps of the nation’s capitol, and members of the New York Stock Exchange sang it at the reopening of the trading floor this past Monday.

What we have been witnessing, I think, is the body politic, traumatized by terrorism, reacting instinctively by reaching upward for help from the God we all know exists. Religion is a natural human response (Acts 17:22-28; Rom. 1:20), and to the extent that it corresponds to God’s created purpose for the human race, we may be extremely thankful for spontaneous, instinctive, national talk about God.

From instinct to interpretation

But as the hours turned into days, and the days now become weeks, religious talk in America is moving from the level of instinct to the level of interpretation. At this level, religion helps to explain both the attacks and the response appropriate to them. Clergymen who read parts of the Sermon on the Mount about “turning the other cheek” and praying for one’s enemies are offering more than comfort. They are offering direction as well. And so were pastors who preached last Sunday on Romans 13.

At this level, religious talk employs some very heavy biblical words, terms like “forgiveness” and “justice.” Appeals to sacred writings and to the character of “God” are serving to justify both calls for non-retaliation and calls for military engagement.

Last week Thursday, former Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell (and colleague, Pat Robertson) made the controversial claim on television that God has removed His protection from America because specific secular organizations (whom Falwell named) had led the nation to condone abortion and gay rights while banning prayer in public schools. Other Christian leaders insist that God is judging America for its arrogance toward Third World countries, for supporting their despots while plundering their resources, for indifference to Third World poverty and pain. Unfortunately, in his subsequent correction and retraction, Rev. Falwell felt compelled to disconnect both the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) and God from the tragic events at the World Trade Center, suggesting thereby that we Americans need not think about the religious meaning and divine purpose in these events.

The apparent unity on the level of religious instinct is now giving way to differences of religious understanding that have long existed in our nation. As we see from the quick public condemnation of Falwell’s premature moralizing, the contest has already become one of competing interpretations that then ought to guide public policy and national response. While we may well sing “God Bless America” together at the baseball park, national harmony fades as the music dies and the preaching begins.

From fear to faith: the opportunity of “religion” in America

To say that the attacks of 9/11 have made many Americans afraid is an understatement. Many fear the unknown. When and where and how will the next terrorist attack occur? Many fear the future of American society with its commitment to open democracy. What kind of society will our children and grandchildren inherit? Many fear Islam, a religion whose claims are as absolute and total as the claims of Christianity.

But such national fear serves simultaneously as an opportunity for biblical faith-obedience. It is no easier for American Christians than for Dutch Christians to distinguish between religious commitment and patriotic loyalty. America’s current crisis gives Christ’s church a fresh opportunity both to learn and to live out her unique calling in the modern world. That calling is to keep declaring and demonstrating the good news—the power of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Only this power will transform “religion” in America from a means that serves human need to an end, the glory of the only true God. Ora pro nobis.