Theology

Ante Nicene Fathers Volume 3

Ante Nicene Fathers Volume 3: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, Philip Schaff General Editor ★★★★★

It has been a little over a year since I published the review of volume 2 in this series. The folk who scanned and digitized these volumes did an excellent job of maintaining all of the quality, as well as the references as found in the print edition of this book. I am reading this on my iPad mini.

This volume consists entirely of Tertullian’s works. Tertullian was a Latin saint, but is a touch controversial, in that in later years, was a separatist in the Montanist camp. Thus, he is not regarded as a “saint” by the Roman church. Tertullian is frequently quoted (e.g., the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church), and wrote frequently in defense of the faith as well as on morals and practice in the church.

The lengthiest part of this volume is his writings against heretics, especially his 5 book series against Marcion. Such is relevant for today, as there is a strong Marcionizing tendency within the theology of the Christian church. Many other works are included, such as his defense for a resurrection of the body. The last portion is the discussion of various topics, including repentance, prayer, patience, and baptism. A jewel in this set includes a biography probably edited and not written by Tertullian on the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicia.

This volume was a gem, and most informative of the thinking of Christians in the early centuries of the church. Tertullians’ works extend into volume 4, but I will be taking a break from the Ante-Nicene Fathers and jumping ahead to the Nicene and post-Nicene fathers, namely, reading the works of Augustine and Chrysostom.

The Whole Christ Part 2

The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson (part 2—an addendum)

More Reflections on The Whole Christ

The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson is the object of an every other Saturday men’s group that meets at church. This is a good book and addresses some of the issues that churches struggle with in dealing with either legalism or antinomianism.  Even still, there are incomplete issues that Ferguson leaves standing, which unfortunately can lead to conclusions that are extra-biblical and thus unwarranted. Let’s begin…

Whole Christ vs whole counsel of God?

A favorite phrase of one of my favorite theologians, John Gerstner, is “the whole counsel of God”. What is meant by this is that every jot and tittle of Scripture must be taken into account when organizing a theological statement. Theologians of the past were particularly keen on this issue, though it makes for very laborious reading of their theological writings. Just think of John Owen, who is practically uninterpretable in today’s world. John Owen forced himself to follow a very logical sequence of thinking that left no stone unturned. I am currently reading through the works of Tertullian, a third century saint. Yet, even in the Patristic era, the church fathers like Tertullian painstakingly worked through the entirety of Scripture in arguing against heresies. When Scripture seemed to conflict, they offered explanations rather than ignoring some texts that didn’t seem to fit. The Westminster Divines also assiduously held to the principle of the whole counsel of God. 

How does this affect our theological outcomes?. A whole Christ is by necessity a testimony that all of Scripture, OT and NT, are witness to Christ, and thus the whole counsel of God would be equivalent to speaking of a totus Christus, a “whole” Christ, or a tota Scriptura. I discussed in my main review of this text the impossibility of dividing the actions of Christ from the person of Christ. In other words, you either have the “whole” Christ or no Christ at all. Thus, I’m puzzled as to why Ferguson would make this the title of his book.

Tim Keller writes the Foreword?

Tim Keller held to a number of heresies. I don’t hold him to be condemned to hell, and will certainly see him in heaven. Yet, his belief in a number of issues have done great harm to the cause of Christianity, for which he will need to be accountable. The web site Jude 3 PCA (https://jude3pca.org/) has a whole section on Keller, how he was willing to compromise on social justice, on a non-offensive “gospel”, on homosexuality, and most importantly, his highly public stance in support of the troubling heresy of theistic evolution. I won’t belabor the problems of theistic evolution, but you ultimately have a Deistic god who stands back while random Darwinian events take their course to develop mankind, and then are left with a population of about 10K-100K humans (humanoids) for which Adam served as their representative agent. Theologically, this is beyond troubling to me. I realize that Keller and Ferguson both worked at Westminster East Seminary together, and probably were close friends until Keller’s death. Ferguson’s choice of Keller to write the foreword for such a sobering topic as found in this book was a grave mistake. Oddly, on the Jude 3 website, refutations to Tim Keller’s position on many issues are given by Sinclair Ferguson!

Does this book truly answer the tension between antinomianism vs. legalism? 

Both antinomianism and legalism are misuses of the law. Ferguson is correct in identifying that the solution is not to find a middle ground, where you have some law, but not so much law that you become a legalist, or to replace law with the “guidance of the spirit”. You will NEVER find a proper balance because any balance or replacement is an abuse of the “law”. The moral law describes holiness, and holiness is exactly what God is! Thus, the moral law describes an ontological character of God; law is an aspect of His very being. The big question remains; what is the purpose of the moral law in regard to the Christian? Let me explore that question by means of a diversion.

We are accustomed to speaking of the ordo salutis. Looking at the portions of the ordo salutis that are monergistic vs synergistic, we see the following…

predestination – monergistic (God alone does it)

election – monergistic (God alone does it)

calling – monergistic (God alone does it)

regeneration – monergistic (God alone does it)

faith – monergistic (God alone does it)

repentance – synergistic (God and us are involved; the law convicts and “brings” us to Christ, though it is also a work of God)

justification – monergistic (God alone does it)

adoption – monergistic (God alone does it)

union with Christ – monergistic (God alone does it)

sanctification – synergistic (there is involvement on both ours and God’s part)

perseverance – monergistic (God alone does it), though it could be argued to be synergistic

glorification – monergistic (God alone does it)

Thus, repentance is a synergistic action, fulfilling what is called the first use of the law. In agreement with John Calvin in the Institutes, repentance is a daily, lifetime activity, and thus should have no special position in the ordo salutis. Sanctification is also synergistic. To quote Berkhof “It (sanctification) is essentially a work of God, though in so far as He employs means, man can and is expected to co-operate by the proper use of those means”. One of those means is in ordering one’s life according to holiness, and, holiness is not a vague notion, but a manner of behavior as described by the law of God. It is too easy for modern theologians to confuse one’s talk about sanctification, which is a synergistic activity, with justification, which is a monergistic activity. 

Ferguson’s thesis is that our union with Christ resolves the antinomian/legalist tension. I don’t follow his logic. Everything that is done for us in a monergistic fashion, especially that of justification, resolves the antinomian/legalistic tension. If Ferguson had chosen anything else, he would have been safer choosing adoption. Adoption is something done for us and cannot be undone. We play no part in it. Yet, as a family member, we are told of the rules of the family. The rules are just another way of speaking of God’s law. We obey God’s law because we want to please the Father, out of gratefulness to Him. We also obey God’s law because we are ordered to do so by our Father in heaven. Only muddled thinking will imply that we are using the law to save ourselves. The confused mind may conclude that because we are commanded to obey God, we are diminishing the doctrines of sola fide and sola gratia. 

Ferguson presents union with Christ as the solution for negotiating the wiles of the law or lack of it. It is almost as though “union” is a talisman or magic solution for resolving the issue of law. It reminds me of the follies of my youth when the solution for engaging in the higher and sin-free life was to be “filled” with the Spirit in a very Pentecostal sense of the word. Truth be told, there is no magic solution for spirituality, and it will always be a struggle. There is danger in omitting the use of the law in ordering our walk with God. If sanctification is deemed to not be a synergistic activity of God and man, the result is Quietism (“let go and let God”) and an antinomianism that is repulsive to God. Union with Christ stresses a mongergistic action in being a Christian, but the synergistic action as found in repentance and sanctification emphasizes the need for personal choices and struggles to be holy.

I recall being at a Ligonier Conference in Dallas, TX in the mid-1990s, and two speakers followed in succession. The first was Chuck Colson, who gave a very moving talk about doing right even when it is costly and difficult. John Piper followed, refuting everything that Colson said, and insisted that as Christian hedonists, we will always have joy and delight in serving God, and that Colson needed to essentially “chill out”. RC Sproul got the last word in, claiming that both were correct. Sproul seemed quite embarrassed by the Colson-Piper interchange and sought a political resolution rather than speaking Scripture. I’ve never had a serious regard for John Piper after that event. The story reflects that there are those theologians that try to resolve the legalism problem by forming, as John Piper has done, a modified form of antinomianism that uses the gloss of defending the doctrines of sola fide and sola gratia. I’m not fooled.

Assurance?

Assurance is a major topic in the later chapters of this book. Sadly, there is no sure-fire means of providing assurance to the godly person who is trusting in Christ, and yet doubting his salvation. There are churches where assurance is considered not possible. The Roman Catholic Church is a prime example. The Netherlands Reformed Church, from which Joel Beeke was expelled as a “heretic” is another. Our baptism is a definite assurance, even though baptism does not save us. Pastors can attest that there are godly members who struggle with accepting their own personal assurance, and words and comfort fail. Even the Westminster Confession admits that at times God may be leading a person through a dark valley where one’s salvation becomes in doubt. Perhaps assurance is also a monergistic work of God? 

Redemptive-Historical (RH) exegesis and preaching- does it help in the issue of legalism?

Redemptive-historical exegesis is a manner of interpreting Scripture, especially in the Old Testament, which seeks to see Jesus in everything. While there is value to that, it seems to me to be a return to the school of Alexandria, where allegorical interpretations were held in the highest value. This is in contrast to the other main theological academy of Christendom in Antioch in the 3rd century AD, which taught grammatical-historical (GH) exegesis. Though it may sound like redemptive-historical exegesis does the most honor to Christ, it does just the opposite, by not allowing Scripture to speak for itself. The entire process is to drain Scripture of its moral and devotional elements. This can be seen in the outcome of RH preaching, where moral elements are missing. The preaching of imperatives is rendered the equivalent of preaching legalism, and thus to be avoided. Similarly with the preaching from the Old Testament, especially from Psalm 1, 19, and 119. To denigrate the preaching of the law is a evil distortion of the meaning and significance of the law, and a misinterpretation on Paul’s invective against the law. Augustine never did it. Luther never did it. Calvin never did it. The Puritans never did it. Why is it now quasi-heretical to preach law???

Several results of this are found in the RH preaching method. First, the whole counsel of God is no longer preached. Second, it makes much of the text of the OT irrelevant. Reformers taught (appropriately) that salvation was the same in the OT as in modern times. Yet, much of the OT text is moral admonitions. If OT saints were saved similarly as NT saints, why are we claiming the message is now so much different? Why is the text of much of the Psalms, the major and minor prophets, and historical books offered in terms of obedience to the moral law of God? Third, it does violence to the words and ministry of Christ while on earth. Here is a perfect example of a Biblical narrative in which RH preachers would have to perform Marcion-style slashes to the text to make it consistent with their thinking. When the rich young man (ruler) came to ask Christ how he could be saved, Jesus should have replied, “Just have faith in me”. Instead, he gave the “legalistic” reply, “Have you kept the 10 commandments?”. The man ultimately went away sad when Jesus noted that he needed to sell all that he had. Jesus then commented to the disciples as to how anybody could be saved, and noted firstly the emphasis that it is impossible to keep the law to be saved. Jesus then did a major “blunder” by commenting that “everyone that has left houses and family… will inherit eternal life”. Heavens to Mergatroyd!!!!! Jesus never grasped the new interpretive theology of modern Presbyterianism! Someone please inform Jesus in heaven of the doctrine of sola fide!!!!!! Maybe the next time Jesus comes back to earth he’ll have it right!

But, there are Scriptures that are also in my defense.

What man is there who desires life and loves many days, that he may see good? Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it. The eyes of the LORD are toward the righteous and his ears toward their cry. The face of the LORD is against those who do evil, to cut off the memory of them from the earth.
Psalm 34:12-16 and re-quoted in 1Peter 3:10-12!!!!!! (i.e., NOT legalism to say such things!)

or

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work
IITim 3:16-17

and

But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained  by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
Heb 5:14

RH preaching also does violence against the entirety of Christian worship. RH preaching would make you think that when preaching for reproof, correction, or righteous training, it should be deemed legalistic because it denies the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. Horse feathers!!!!!  When  preaching is cheapened, everything is cheapened. “Church” becomes just another form of entertainment, and an appeasement for the guilt of not attending church. Music becomes contentless, and the praise ditties speak of nothing but repetitive garbage which I liken to Tibetan prayer wheels—repetitive vacuous statements to a god, powered by the blowing of the wind. Sadly, at the start of the contemporary Christian music (CCM) scene, back in the late 1960s at Calvary Chapel, the hippies would write Scripture to music; though typically not suitable for corporate worship, it was quality music. Today’s music scene lacks both significant content as well as creative tunes that match the lyrics, and depend entirely on an upbeat rhythm to stimulate the emotional sensitivities of the singer.  

All of this is the result of fear that any moral instruction will evoke a legalistic attempt to justify oneself. Protestants attack Roman Catholics with vim and vigor over their failure to properly distinguish justification from sanctification, yet Protestants are offering another form of confusion between the two. We have little ground for theological superiority. 

In conclusion, Sinclair Ferguson does good in this book by pointing out a great historical doctrinal issue in the church and how it was partially resolved by the Marrow Men. Better thought regarding doctrinal issues of law, grace, antinomianism, and legalism now need to follow. 

Post Script

I’m not a professional theologian, yet it doesn’t escape my notice that seminaries are generating much of the rubbish theology that we pew sitters have to endure. Perhaps my contemplations in this article are wrong in certain respects, and I am more than willing to be corrected by any theologian who can give a Biblical explanation for my errors. There is nothing above that I would take as personal, should someone rightly correct me. Neither am I addressing a particular congregation, even my own, as this seems to be a widespread problem in today’s churches. My rant is universal.

Christ and Covenant Theology

Christ and Covenant Theology,: Essays on Election, Republication, and the Covenants,  by Cornelis Venema ★★★★

This a very thought-provoking set of essays, written and compiled by Cornelis Venema, the president of the mid-America Reformed Seminary. In defense of what Venema identifies as the historic Reformed faith, Venema tackles the issues of Republication, the association of the Covenants with the doctrine of election, infant baptism, the Federal Vision movement, and new thinking on righteousness and justification as presented by NT Wright. I will discuss each of them separately.

Republication

Republication is the idea that the covenant of the law was reproduced (republished) with the Mosaic law, forming (though he doesn’t use the term) a hybrid of the covenant of works (as found in the prelapsarian period) with the covenant of grace. The covenant of works is a misnomer (and identified as such by Venema) of the covenant that God had with Adam before the fall, and though found in the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), has been questioned by theologians as notable as John Murray. The “covenant” with Adam is noted in Gen 2:16,17, with orders to not eat the fruit of a particular tree in the garden or he would die. Perhaps the so-called creation mandate to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it would also be a part of that works covenant? In the discussion of the covenant of works, Reformed Theologians evoke a counterfactual, arguing what would have eventually happened had Adam NOT committed sin. Insistence of God’s design and rule throughout history does not allow for a counterfactual. We can not ask what might have happened if Adam remained sinless. It would do violence to my thinking of predestination, foreordination, and election to imagine that the fall came as a surprise or as a two-branch option for God. 

Venema continues his argument to maintain that grace was NOT present in the infralapsarian period, a thought I find misguided and troubling. Venema does this through a sleight of hand, stating that “grace” is defined as “God’s unmerited favor to sinners”, rather than the more obvious definition as simply “God’s unmerited favor”. Grace was abundant before the fall, as Adam and Eve did not earn the right to live in the garden, and did not earn the right to have the blessings of an unblemished (perfect) paradise. The obligation to live a holy life was as strong in the prelapsarian period as in the postlapsarian period. Seriously, it is idle thinking to claim that the covenant of “works” was “republished” conjointly with the Mosaic covenant of grace. Are Christians in the NT epoch now relieved of this “covenant of works”? Is the law now written in our hearts, to the extent that we don’t need a written law? Have we all just become Quakers? What about the period between the fall and Moses? If the law wasn’t “republished” in the preMosaic epoch, was there no guidance or obligation as to right and wrong? How did Enoch or Noah do it? Was it purely natural law in that period? I don’t believe so, yet the Scriptures are entirely silent on this issue, and so should we. How contemporary Reformed theologians formulate the covenant of works vs. grace is bothersome to me, and leaves more questions than answers!

There is a similar movement, either tacitly assumed or overtly stated, to diminish the idea of moral obligations of the covenant of grace. It is thought that to stress our obligations as sinners saved by grace does violence to the sola fide/sola gratia doctrine. Most notably, a thoughtful but definitely slightly misguided move against preaching “the law” can be found in the Redemptive-Historical preaching movement. I encourage those who have read my review thus far to stop for a moment and read a well-stated argument about Redemptive-historical preaching as found on the Banner of Truth website. (https://banneroftruth.org/us/resources/articles/2018/redemptive-historical-preaching-and-the-decline-of-the-preaching-of-repentance/). Those in the Redemptive-Historical camp may claim to not be antinomian, but their preaching certainly denies that claim; perhaps they should be titled neo-antinomians. Venema comes dangerously close to neo-antinomianism by confusing our covenantal obligation to live holy with that of a works righteousness. Of course, he will deny that claim. Venema puts in great effort to attest that OT and NT saints are similarly saved, yet remains silent as to why the preaching and writings in the OT, in the ministry of Christ, and in much of the NT  are so “law” oriented. Why in the world would John write in Rev. 20:12 “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.”? Why in the Sam Hill did John not take the time to read Paul’s Romans letter before writing this “ridiculous” statement? Indeed, theologians have formed a new type of thinking, calling it either neo-Marcionism or neo-antinomianism, but the latest Reformed thinkers have chased themselves down a rabbit hole in not thinking the entire counsel of God regarding this matter. As many Reformed theologians (including Venema and Bavinck) have noted, this covenant entails both gracious, unmerited promises, as well as obligations. While those obligations are obeyed by us out of gratefulness (as noted in both the Heidelberg Catechism as well as the WCF), to make those obligations nothing but a sign of our gratefulness does travesty to the meaning of an obligation. It would be best to call them the 10 Suggestions on how to please God. 

Several contemporary theologians provide a better answer to this dilemma. JI Packer, in his wonderful treatise on the covenants (An Introduction to Covenant Theology, found on Amazon.com) was reviewed by me a few years ago. In this, Packer wisely avoids the covenantal “clash” by insisting that covenantal theology should be viewed as a hermeneutical principle in understanding how God deals with man. Was there one covenant (Murray), 3 covenants (works, grace, and redemption: Venema), 6-10 covenants (Dispensationalists), or what? The escape from this morass is to view the covenants as nothing more than how God deals with his people; God interacts always with us in a covenantal fashion.

Robert S. Rayburn in his masterful text The Truth in Both Extremes provides a second solution to the grace-works problem, a solution that can also be found in Packer’s writings, as well as that of many Puritan Divines. This provides that Scripture has a tension between grace and works, both must be held true, and both must not be confused or placed in competition with each other. Rayburn’s text allows for the reality that we are entirely predestined creatures, yet from a human perspective, we make free choices in life. It does NOT deny the bondage of the will or the fact that all events in life are foreordained by God, but offers an explanation as to why we can believe in two seemingly opposite truths, that we are foreordained and yet must make choices in life and have moral responsibility for our actions. There is no Quietistic “let go and let God” type of thinking in Rayburn (or Packer), or a sense that Christ’s obedience (imputed active obedience of Christ) relieves us of strong moral obligations to obey God’s law. 

In summary, republication reflects confusion as to the nature of God’s covenantal interactions with man. We should not fight over the number and nature of the covenants but rather focus on the beauty of the covenantal nature of God. I highly advise the reader to read Packer’s treatise on covenant theology for the best understanding of the nature of the covenant!

Covenants and Election

The writings of a few contemporary cavalier theologians suggest the necessary connection between covenants and election. Make no mistake, all theology is necessarily and logically connected in one manner or another. But, to force the idea that someone who is a member of the covenant is necessarily also elect, an election which could be undone, is (in my opinion) wrong thinking. One only need to remind themselves that the OT Israelite community was covenantal yet not all those within the covenant were elect. 

This section has two divisions, the first entailing two chapters reviewing Herman Bavinck’s thinking about the covenants in his Reformed Dogmatics, and the second related to the issue of paedobaptism. The section of Bavinck’s theology of the covenants gets no disagreement from me and attests to Bavinck’s brilliance as a theologian. The paedobaptism question did not seem to be a contentious issue with me, as I transitioned from adhering to the adult baptism belief to the paedobaptistic belief many years ago, so I won’t belabor the issue. Sadly, so many theologians and pseudo-theologians try to resolve the baptism issue in debates, which is a terrible way to resolve theological doctrines. 

Venema ventures slightly upon the issue of paedocommunion, for which he is less consistent. At stake in this debate is the meaning and significance of the sacraments. Those of us in the Reformed faith recite thoughtlessly that the sacraments are signs and seals of the covenant. We easily attest to both baptism and the eucharist as being a sign of our covenantal status with God. When we speak of the sacraments as being a “seal”, our thinking tends towards muddiness. If the sacrament of baptism is nothing but a sign of the covenant, then those who adhere to the believer’s baptism are most correct. We like to think of something more important as occurring in the sacrament. When we partake of baptism or communion, we hold that Christ is actually present in the sacrament, something that John Calvin (and even Martin Luther) would heartily agree to. Venema discourages the idea that we can use our baptism as the assurance of our salvation. Yet, my baptism was most assuredly that, even though I absolutely do NOT feel that baptism saved me! If baptism doesn’t provide assurance, then the sacraments of both baptism and the Lord’s supper lose meaning and become nothing but good suggestions on how to make God happy. When we speak of the sacraments as also being a seal of the covenant, many Reformed theologians remain inconsistent in their thinking. I hold the sacraments are also a means of grace, that is, something else is happening when I partake of the bread and wine or experience baptism. The exact nature of that means of grace and how we are sealed in the covenant are legitimate topics of discussion. I have no opinion as to paedocommunion, but wish that church leaders would be more consistent in their thinking. So many pastors in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) are adamant against paedocommunion but offer only a confused argument in their defense. I am neither for nor against paedocommunion, as I defer to other minds to decide that, only wishing that church leaders would cast their personalities aside and think clearly on this issue. The argument in this book against paedocommunion is that the partaker needs to be able to search themselves. This is a weak argument, as I’m still learning how to really search myself. Perhaps the Lutheran or Catholic approach of confirmation at age 12/13 when a child can demonstrate a solid grasp of the faith is a better approach?

Federal Vision

I first sought illumination on the Federal Vision (FV) movement in the book edited by Gary Johnson and Guy Waters titled By Faith Alone: Answering the Challenges to the Doctrine of Justification. Those of us in the Reformed Faith feel that the doctrine of sola fide is the foundation for our faith. Yet, Johnson and Water’s book left me more confused than enlightened. It was then that I felt that I was experiencing a gaggle of theologians suffering from theological constipation. They were the ones that were supposed to bring sense to “false” doctrines, rather than vomiting simple rants that FV adherents were denying the doctrine of sola fide. 

Venema provides a clearer account of the FV movement, and actually discusses doctrinal issues at stake with the FV movement, and thus is greatly appreciated. Before I started reading this text, I was not a FV adherent, and after completing this book I remain against the FV movement, though I see strengths in FV thinking; I will not throw out the baby with the bathwater. It is cruel and misguided to call FV thinking a heresy. Many moons ago, I took systematic theology from JI Packer, and when discussing the theology of the Holy Spirit, Packer mentioned that the Pentecostals were a gadfly to force mainline theologians to think more clearly about Holy Spirit doctrines. He would never disparage the Pentecostals or accuse them of heresy. I feel the same about the FV movement. The FV folk bring up some important issues, and rather than reacting strongly against them, theologians need to welcome their thinking as a guide for resolving sticky issues in the Reformed and WCF doctrines of the faith. Among those issues include thinking better about the nature and extent of God’s covenant with man, thinking more clearly about the nature and significance of the sacraments,  and thinking more clearly about exactly about the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (most notably, the meaning of the imputation of Christ’s active righteousness). I’ve had brothers in the faith tell me that FV denies the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, which is something that FV certainly does NOT do. Yet I’ve had other brothers tell me that we don’t need to keep parts of the law (like the Sabbath) since Christ kept the law for us and that Christ’s obedience has been imputed to us. Venema (and Johnson/Waters) tempts me to read some FV writings to discover what they actually are saying since I’m having trouble trusting their bias. Don’t worry, as my interest in the FV controversy has already waned sufficiently to defer the matter to younger and brighter folk. 

NT Wright

My introduction to NT Wright came from a few of audio lectures by DA Carson regarding the new perspectives movement. The New Perspectives on Paul (NPP) thinking seemed odd to me, and Venema’s discussion of Wright maintained that impression. Carson’s arguments stemmed from linguistic studies of the Greek and Hebrew words for “righteousness” as found in the Scripture. Neither knowing Greek nor Hebrew, I simply had to defer to his research, which was quite massive. NT Wright possesses much wisdom, and apparently, he and Carson are close friends who have studied together, so, I don’t think Carson’s attack on the New Perspectives is personal. I am troubled that some are graduating from Covenant Seminary with an affection for the NPP. The arguments for and against  NPP are beyond my reach. I don’t see any patristic literature in support of an NPP version of righteousness and justification. I’m left with thinking that Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and the bevy of Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed scholars perhaps had it right. I’m forced to leave the discussion at that. Again, NT Wright raises questions about the exegesis of Rom 5:12-21. The passage in Romans can be confusing regardless as to how you read it, and the doctrine of Universalism is the easiest misguided reading of that passage. I don’t need NPP thinkers to add to that confusion.

Venema ends his text with a chapter summarizing the preceding essays. I commend Venema for an excellent text, that should be thought-provoking to anybody who is thinking deeply about his faith. This is not milk-of-the-word teaching. As you can tell, I had sufficient objections to where Venema was going to hope that theologians in like vein would produce clearer answers to the doctrine of sola fide and sola gratia that account for both God and man’s perspectives on the nature of the covenant we have with God. 

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.

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.

Know the Creeds and Councils

Know the Creeds and Councils, by Justin S. Holcomb ★★★

Holcomb is an episcopalian priest who teaches at Reformed Theological Seminary. This book was written to inform the general church-going public about the creeds and councils. I’m not sure he accomplished his task. The writing is at the 8th-grade level, i.e., fairly simplistic. There are facts that he either got wrong or was confused about. His selection as to which creeds or councils he would discuss is at times a touch problematic. I certainly appreciate that he doesn’t attack certain individuals or groups (eg., the 19-20th century Roman Catholic church) like a vicious Doberman. Unfortunately, the creeds and councils are for Christians of such intense significance that a superficial reading does the reader a disservice. Thus, I would recommend reading the book but only with the understanding that the reader uses this text as a springboard for further study.

Holcomb superficially covers the first 6 councils, omitting altogether the 7th council. Various other minor Western church councils are briefly discussed, such as the councils of Carthage and Orange regarding Pelagianism; unfortunately, the discussion was so abbreviated as to leave the reader more confused than informed. Various Catholic councils were discussed including 1st and 2nd Vatican Council and Council of Trent. The development of the Heidelberg & Westminster Confessions as well as the 39 articles of the Anglican church but nary a mention of the Formula of Concord, the Belgic Confession, and other Reformed confessions. And, no mention of the Anabaptist confessions. The deficits don’t help the reader grasp the dynamics of those who wrote the most popular Reformed confessions.

This book might be best used as a junior high school text, supplemented by teacher insights to “fill in the gaps”. Otherwise, there are better texts to read for understanding the creeds and councils of Christendom.

First Seven Ecumenical Councils

The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology, by Leo Donald Davis ★★★★★

Growing up as a child, I was sternly taught that the word “ecumenical” was a bad word and that we just didn’t participate in that sort of thing. Thankfully, time and maturity have corrected that notion, while still acknowledging that “ecumenical” is not synonymous with “truth”.

Davis is a Roman Catholic theologian though he writes a book that may easily be accepted by both Protestants and Roman Catholics alike; the seven councils referred to in this text were well before the theological crises of the Reformation had occurred, and indeed, at least the first 4-6 councils were found to be acceptable to the Reformers, such as Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin. Davis quotes heavily from the Protestants, and especially such scholars and JND Kelly.

This book starts off a little slow and stodgy, though Davis is highly successful at eventually drawing the reader into the spirit of the age. Better than any of the authors I’ve read on early church history, Davis provides the detailed historical context of each of the seven councils and includes a summary of council conclusions as well as the aftermath of those councils. I am not going to go into blow-by-blow accounts of the councils, as they are too detailed, and anything other than reading the book would do one a disservice.

I find a few details most interesting. First, all of the first councils were initiated by the state, and NOT the church. Politics and religion don’t mix well, a lesson that Luther should have learned and that today’s so-called conservative pundits that identify the USA (or any other country, for that matter, including Belize) as a Christian nation or in need of Christian nationalism surely get wrong. Second, oftentimes we allow the crisis of the moment to dictate our later opinions. A perfect example is the battle between Nestorius and Cyril. Both characters were slimy and despicable in many accounts. Yet, Nestorius is branded as the heretic and Cyril is not. A recently discovered document written by Nestorius and found in Armenia demonstrates that Nestorius mentioned that the Council of Calcedon precisely stated his view. Simultaneously, the entire “heresy” of Monophysitism was generated from the writing of Cyril. Go figure.

This is a wonderful book to read and I enjoyed it from cover to cover, but only after a rough start. If you have any interest in the church, please get a copy and read it!

Truly Divine Truly Human

Truly Divine Truly Human: The Story of Christ and the Seven Ecumenical Councils, by Stephen W. Need ★★★★

Stephen Need is an Anglican priest who has taught for many years at St. George’s College in Jerusalem. This text reflects a strong bent toward the Eastern Orthodox perspective of the seven councils. In this text, Need shows great skill in that of being a teacher and producing a book that is easy to read, with supportive summaries and tables. After a chapter describing the situation before the first council (Nicea), Need walks through each of the seven councils, identifying the theological crisis, and detailing the solutions resolved at the council. He also includes a summary of other church management decisions made at the council, such as prohibitions against the purchase of church office, or prohibitions against bishops moving from one See to another without permission.

I truly enjoyed this book and how Need painted the councils. At a few times, there were comments made leaving suspicion for Need being a liberal in the theological sphere, but that did not distract from the overall quality of the text.