April 2024

A Reformation Debate

A Reformation Debate: John Calvin and Jacopo Sadoleto, Edited by John Olin with a historical forward by Lester DeKoster ★★★★

This book is constructed as follows. DeKoster provides a historical overview of the current debate, followed by the letter that Jacopo Sadoleto wrote to the people of Geneva, and then followed by a rebuttal by John Calvin. The appendix then contains a review (extracted from Calvin’s Institutes) of Calvin’s theology of justification, followed by statements from the Council of Trent regarding justification by faith. The historical setting is 1539, and Calvin is in Strasbourg, having been ousted from Geneva. Knowing of the absence of Calvin and Feril in Geneva, the Catholic Cardinal writes a letter appealing to the folk in Geneva to return to the Roman Catholic church. Geneva, realizing Calvin’s literary skills, appeals to him to write a rebuttal, which he does. Soon afterward, Calvin returns to Geneva to continue a ministry there until the end of his life.

Both Calvin and Sadoleto write eloquently, though both debaters would be labeled a touch prolix by today’s standards. Sadoleto appeals to the absence of salvation outside of the Roman Catholic church, while Calvin rebuts how the Catholic Church has turned itself into a corrupt institution that preaches a false “gospel”.

The appendix is of great value in reminding the reader as to what is at stake in this argument. The vast divide between Roman Catholic thinking on justification versus Reformed/Lutheran thinking on justification will be noted by simply reading the two statements, that of Calvin in the Institutes compared to that as found in the output of the Council of Trent. In the church where I was saved, the doctrine of justification would have fit quite well with the Council of Trent. Over time and much reading of Scripture, my leaning has turned very strongly in favor of the Reformed view of justification. I believe that Luther and Calvin got the essentials of justification correct. Still, there are canons (anathemas) of the Council of Trent which I (and most Protestants) would favorably agree with. There are a few canons that the Protestant Church has not adequately addressed. I refer as an example to canon 21 “If anyone says that Christ Jesus was given by God to men as a redeemer in whom to trust, and not also as a legislator whom to obey, let him be anathema”. This statement rings loud as a parallel to the Auchterarder creed which was bitterly fought over in Scotland a century later. It reads “It is not sound and orthodox to teach that we are to forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ, and instating us in our covenant with God”. Perhaps the Auchterarder creed was written in the light of and to counter canon 21, perhaps not, yet both statements need much clarification before deeming them most consistent with Biblical teaching.

The Crook in the Lot

The Crook in the Lot: God’s Sovereignty in Afflictions, by Thomas Boston, translated by Jason Roth★★★★★

This is a wonderful book written in the 1700s by a Scottish pastor most well known for his involvement in the Marrow controversy. I obtained this book free from Amazon under the recommendation of D. Davis. Roth does us a wonderful service by translating the text into modern English, allowing it to be read more easily.

Boston first discusses the crook in the lot, by which he is referring to the afflictions that come across the Christian. He advises us on how to understand their intent, that God allows these afflictions to come upon us for our betterment, and how to most gracefully deal with affliction. Scripture offers assurance that afflictions are always temporary, though often not experienced this side of glory. The book’s second half addresses a similar topic in discussing humility and how to walk humbly when dealing with our afflictions.

Boston is a masterful pastor as well as an insightful theologian. Throughout this book, which is primarily devotional, one cannot avoid rich theological lessons on every page. Such pastoral qualities are now quite rare, though I have thankfully been occasionally enriched by such godly pastors, who are about as rare as hen’s teeth. It is uncouth nowadays to speak of afflictions; sermons must have happy tones and speak of the joys of being a Christian. In church services where the primary intent is evangelical, the proper ministry to be congregation goes lacking. Those pastors who imitate Thomas Boston may not grow large congregations, though they would surely grow strong and capable Christians.

This is a book well worth reading, even if one has to pay for it. Roth provides a masterful translation, and rich gems of Scripture will adorn the Christian who reads and hearkens to the message that Boston offers.

The Whole Christ

The Whole Christ, by Sinclair Ferguson ★★★★

This book discusses a controversy that raged in the early 1700s within Scottish Presbyterianism, reflecting on a struggle to define the nature of legalism and its supposed antithesis, antinomianism within the context of whether or not we can be assured of our salvation as Christians. The Marrow controversy, as it was called, stemmed from the Auchterarder Creed, which stated that one need not forsake sin in coming to Christ. Such a creed, as noted by some contemporary Divines, was terribly worded and lent more to confusion than to offering a statement in support of either solafideism vs legalism/antinomianism.

In discussing the Marrow controversy, Ferguson offers a solution through the union that all believers have in Christ. Ferguson appropriately notes legalism and antinomianism to be bastard twins, originating in the same mistakes in thinking. With our union in Christ, we can have assurance that we are saved and will be among the elect in His kingdom.

There are a few minor problems that I find with Ferguson’s discussion. The first in the title of the book, taken from a phrase by Calvin, “totus Christus”. Yet, the phrase is itself poorly worded, in that it suggests that you can separate Christ into components. Ferguson suggests the tendency to separate the person of Christ from the actions of Christ, which is an impossibility. You either have the whole enchilada, or, you have nothing, though perhaps you have a fake, imitation resemblance of Christ. This is not just a problem with the second person in the Trinity. Even as humans, our identity is formed not only by our physical presentation but also by our actions, accomplishments, personality, and history, which lends a more relevant description of who we are than what our bodies may look like.

Secondly, there is such a tendency among Reformed thinkers to be legalistic-phobic as well as anti-antinomian so that their development of the uses of the law goes by the wayside. If one dared preach imperatives from the pulpit, the preacher would be accused of being a legalist. As a result, preaching against antinomianism will occur resulting in a phenomenon that I call creedal anti-antinomianism but functional antinomianism. To defend solafideism, many Reformed preachers (thankfully, not all!) will do one of several things.

1) The pastor will feel the need to offer great explanation whenever an imperative is preached, almost to the point of deeming the 10 commandments as either not applicable to Christians today, considering them to be only 10 suggestions, or teaching that obedience affects our situation on earth while not affecting our eternal salvation.

2)The pastor will point to two great creeds of Reformed Christendom, the Westminster Confession and the Heidelberg catechism suggesting that our obedience to the law is done solely out of gratefulness to Christ for his work for us. That certainly is true, but, is that the whole story? Is there never a sense of obligation or duty that we have to God? Is not the law also a descriptor of the ontologic character of God, a reflection of God’s actual being, with whom we should imitate (Lev 11:44, 19:2, 20:26, I Peter 1:16)?

Those of the Reformed faith will note that salvation by faith alone was how sinners achieved salvation in both the Old as well as the New Testament. Yet, to the careless reader, the OT seems to speak of nothing but law, law, law, while the NT then focuses entirely on grace (of course, leaving out the Sermon on the Mount and most of the teachings of Jesus while on earth). I simply don’t see Scripture that way; instead, I see a moral God who makes moral demands on his children. Too many so-called solafideists have a tendency to view the OT from a neo-Marcionic perspective, as though God either completely changed his personality with the resurrection of Christ, or perhaps it was different gods (father-god vs son-god????) that inspired the OT prophets.

I am not a theologian, as so will refrain from offering a full Biblical solution to this problem. Ferguson, in the same vein as Martin Luther, does not provide a complete solution for the law-gospel tension, choosing instead to weigh in with a solution that allows for a doctrine of assurance, and thus not really giving us the “whole Christ”. I believe that we can hold completely to the doctrine of sola fide and yet also insist on obedience to Christ (the law) as an imperative. These are two truths that must be held in tension, not giving more weight to either one or the other truth, consistent with what my old pastor, JI Packer, and many Puritan Divines taught.

This is a good book, giving me a much better grasp as to the Morrow Controversy and the battles that were fought by Thomas Watson, the Erskine brothers, and other saints of the Scottish Reformed persuasion. Ferguson writes with clarity and facility. I would not hesitate to recommend this book to those with an interest in the doctrines of law and grace. It is a book that a men’s group at church will be working through on alternate Saturday mornings. I don’t believe that the group discussions will change my overall comments regarding this book.

James Monroe: A Life

James Monroe: A Life, by Tim McGrath ★★★★★

This book is one of many biographies that I have completed in the last few years on the founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and presidents Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. Monroe makes the fifth president that I’ve read. I’ll be skipping John Quincy Adams and going to Andrew Jackson, then Polk, and Lincoln as well as the chronology of other Civil War notables and history of the war. The authors in all the cases so far, present their biography most resembling a hagiography, viewing the world from the subject’s perspective and defending their positions. I suggest this because the subjects of the other biographies I’ve read tend to take a beating, including Washington, and are left as less-than-perfect characters. Hamilton and Jackson are the most frequently attacked, though no founding father has escaped the critical hand of contemporary biographers.

Tim McGrath gives us a picture of a great though flawed fifth president. Perhaps the Monroe Doctrine is best remembered, though Monroe played an enormous part in the acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase, as well as Florida. Monroe had a somewhat elitist upbringing in Virginia on the farm, becoming a lawyer through the aid of close family members. He fought in the Revolution along the side of Washington and Lafayette but was critically wounded at the battle of Trenton, leaving him on the sidelines for the remainder of the war. After the Revolutionary War, Monroe struggled continuously with his financial situation, while alternating between being a somewhat successful lawyer, running the plantation(s) that he owned, as well as serving stints in politics. He became the American ambassador to France under Jefferson, and then the secretary of state under Madison before being voted in for two terms as president of the USA. At the inception of our republic, civil servants, including the president were woefully underpaid, so that many functions of the president, such as travel or White House dinners with foreign dignitaries, came out of the president’s own pocket. The legislature was rather stingy with funds, including necessities such as maintaining an army and navy or building infrastructure such as roads, for the good of the whole nation. What this all meant was that one had to be a person of means to even survive civil office, not exactly fulfilling the constitution’s preamble of a government “of the people” since it was a government always of the elite.

Besides learning much that I didn’t know about Monroe, I also learned that the government even in the “golden age” of the Republic was seriously disjointed, manifesting extreme disagreements that nearly cost the nation its existence (such as political battles during the war of 1812); infighting, bickering, jealousy, and downright loathing of other political figures were abundant, leading one to wonder how the nation even survived. Indeed, it was not the elitist politicians, most of them truly nominal “Christians”, but the common man and his freedom and faith that allowed our nation to thrive and grow. The rift between the North and the South was quite extreme even at this early time of the Republic, and was over issues such as tariffs and management of the Indians, though the most prominent even back in Monroe’s time was the issue of slavery. Those who argue that the Civil War was not about slavery are deluded ideologues or confused states-rightists, driven more by ideology than an interest in discovering the full historical facts. Slavery was a bitterly hot issue in Monroes’ day, and while most of the early founding fathers (eg. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe) owned many slaves and knew that slavery was inconsistent with the ideals of the Constitution, they frequently expressed the wish to eliminate slavery yet had no incentive or reason to do so, so that, when each of the slave-owing president’s died, they did NOT grant their slaves freedom. Such hypocrisy is excelled only by the British, as well as many of our current politicians.

History of the Christian Church

History of the Christian Church, Complete in 8 Volumes, by Philip Schaff ★★★★

This is my second time reading through Philip Schaff’s History, though, this time including the last two volumes that discuss the German and then the Swiss Reformation. This time, I read it in digital format, as I had already given away the hard copies that I had. I actually jumped between two different digital editions as found on Amazon, and both of them were awful. The other edition had huge segments of text dropped, most notably, whenever there was a reference annotation. This edition was poorly edited with numerous spelling errors, little formatting, and no reference links. What a shame.

Schaff’s history has its good and bad points. Schaff seems oriented in the liberal German tradition, having studied under Baur and Harnack. He is Reformed in his orientation. The first time I read through this set was about 30 years ago, back when I was just becoming acquainted with church history. This time, I was considerably more well informed. I appreciated Schaff’s formatting of the book, where he separates political and ecclesiastical history, then discusses historical theology, church life and liturgical practices separately, and short descriptions of the most notable saints.

No history of the church can be written in only 8 volumes. I noted that Schaff fails to discuss many pertinent aspects of church history, including offering sufficient detail of the church councils, omitting a number of the most notable saints of the church (e.g. St. Anthony, the Stylite monks, Theodore of Mopsuesta, etc). The history of the German Reformation was nicely covered as well as the history of Zwingli, but Schaff went crazy on the history of Calvin, and editing should have reduced Calvin’s story by about a half. There is, for example, a fairly lengthy chapter of quotes from people following Calvin’s death, offering praise for Calvin and his ministry; this was totally unnecessary. Lengthy quotes from Calvin’s letters were a distraction, when a short summary commentary should have been offered.

Sadly, Schaff’s History needs an update and critical editing as well as corrections, though I doubt that it will ever be performed. There are really no quality histories of the primitive church to the Reformation that are available that are as complete as this. I’ve looked far and wide and found nothing, so I welcome recommendations. There are excellent texts that address one small aspect of church history, such as the books I had just read on the seven ecumenical councils. Our age seems to put little weight to our historical origins, much to our own loss.