Doug Van Dorn

Og Blog

Confessionalism, Controversy, and the Current Climate

Posted on December 1, 2017 at 1:50 PM

With the simplicity/impassibility issue reaching a new fever pitch, I’m going to add my who-is-this-guy and who-does-he-think-he-is take by giving a very different perspective of the whole thing from a Confessional point of view. This has been my stance since before this all erupted in ARBCA. I was there, in the trenches, watching things unfold. I took this stance then. I take it again now.

First off, I like the 1689 LBC quite a bit. I hold to it, as does our Church. I think it is a good document. Helpful in many ways. God has used it, and when it is used well, it has been a source of unity and help to many churches and individuals.

One of the reasons I like it so much is because of how it came to be. Those involved in crafting it were borrowing directly from at least two other documents: WCF and Savoy. Of course, they felt free to edit and change whatever they wanted in those other documents in order to develop their own. In this way, were they not giving us at least an implicit view of the form of subscriptionism they themselves held?

Another reason I like it is because of how it begins. Everyone knows it starts with Scripture. But there are words that come immediately preceding the controversies in 2.1. Chapter 2.1 is not Chapter 1.1.

I’m talking, quite literally, about the sentence just before it that I want to explore here with you. Incredibly, this is found almost word for word in the big three: 1689, WCF, and Savory. Meaning? This was a foundational teaching for those that so many who have entered the discussion on simplicity/impassibility say they want to follow. All of these Confessions were grounded on these words. But quite honestly, these same words are now, as they have been since the beginning of this controversy, either being ignored or in some cases through ridicule of those who want to follow them, mocked and discarded altogether.

Before I get to them, consider an important point that has been brought up by those taking the so-called “classical” view of these doctrines. Does it not matter even a little to those trying to “modify” 2.1 to know what the Church has meant about things like “without body, parts, or passions?” Of course, this is the same kind of argument most of us use against the “Living Document” view of the United States Constitution. Does not the original intent of the Framers matter at all? And the answer I hope we would all agree is, yes it does. Of course it does!

With that in mind, consider the words that immediately precede 2.1 in all three Confessions. “The supreme judge by which all controversies of Religion are to be determined, and all Decrees of Counsels, opinions of ancient Writers, Doctrines of men, and private Spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Scripture delivered by the Spirit, into which Scripture so delivered, our faith is finally resolved.” One might ask, what was the original intent of such a statement? What did they mean by it?

Did they mean by it that really, when there is a difference of opinion on something, historical theology is to be the final arbiter? How about philosophy? Reason? Experience? A council or board of important people? Some popular writer of today or the past? Private opinion? Some guy's 50 tweets on the matter? Another's several-article blog posts? Or might they have meant exactly what they said? When there is a disagreement, Scripture alone is the final arbiter, and in its sentence alone we rest.

Is your first impulse after reading me say this to respond, “Yes, but…” Do you read this and say to yourself, "Yes, the Bible. Of course! But that isn’t practical in a situation like this, because this just turns into a free-for-all of personal opinion where everyone reads the Bible as they want to. That's the definition of heresy. We need orthodoxy to make that final call." If so, then just know that if that’s what you think, congratulations, you have just become Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. They don’t believe sola scriptura is actually possible for precisely this reason. Your thought is the foundation of their defense against the very thing you say you believe.

I happen to believe that sola scriptura is possible, but as I taught in a recent sermon on the subject, I actually believe that one’s stance towards the doctrine is moral in nature. You either have it deep in your soul that you want God’s word to rule everything that you believe, knowing that other things really are important, but not the final word, or you don’t. That's sola scriptura. Not solo scriptura. Not "I want to twist the Bible to meet my adenda" scriptura. This is what every confessional person is supposed to not only confess, but love deep within their essence. And it is either there inside of you or it isn’t. I trust God’s word to be able to settle these kinds of matters, not just in its direct teaching on the doctrine, but also on how it is that Christ’s high priestly prayer can become a reality when difference of opinion like this arise in our midst. The Bible isn’t relevant in these matters only where it talks for or against simplicity. More on that in a moment.

Let’s return to the original intent. Do you suppose that those who wrote 1.11 believed that what they were talking about extended to every other counsel, writing, and doctrine of men but their own? Does this paragraph exclude itself? Or could it be, that it was placed here because not only did they know that, in the future, men would differ over its teaching (as we are seeing now with 2.1), but they actually saw, in living color, differing opinions in their own meetings as the very document(s) was being drafted in all kinds of places? Could it really be that such a paragraph which ends one of the great chapters on Holy Scripture ever penned is saying, “Now when you disagree with this document, you must go to the Holy Scripture and let it be your final arbiter?" How much more profound is this to our own current climate to know that this is the sentence literally immediately prior to 2.1?

But brothers, this is precisely what has not happened and continues not to happen with our disagreement on 2.1 (which by the way, to the best of my knoweldge, everyone says they agree with! It isn't the words in the Confession that are the problem, but the history behind them that is the controvery. My point is, we are not dealing here with people who are saying they disagree with the words of the Confession. But you wouldn't know it by the rhetoric flying around).

Is Scripture quoted and cited like a proof-text? Honestly, only sometimes. In fact, when this whole thing first erupted in ARBCA, I was there when a lengthy preliminary paper was given to the Administrative Counsel and we were told to vote on whether to proceed with a position paper or not. I didn't vote no. I didn't vote yes. I abstained. The reason? I wasn’t against such a paper in principle, but there wasn’t a single reference to the Bible made in this preliminary assignment. Not one. So, on grounds that I wanted to be confessional, I abstained. How could I go against one part of the Confession in order to uphold another? It is recorded in the records of ARBCA exactly why I did so. I made them put it there. You can go read it yourselves.

Similarly, it is common to read entire chapters, blogs, journal papers, tweets, and posts that never mention anything at all about God’s word on the matter. Or, if they do, there is nothing even remotely resembling exegesis. It's just proof-texting. How is this being confessional? Does only one part of the Confession matter, but not others? Hence, that was my point then. It remains my point today.

Still, I want to think the best, and I know that at the end of the day, both sides do cite Scripture. I think it is fair to say that both sides want to claim that this is the teaching of Scripture.

But that’s not the problem. What has been happening and continues to happen is that even though Scripture may be cited, it is not being used as the final arbiter of our disagreements on these matters. Far from it. Rather, we get an almost endless list of arguments about what the original framers meant by certain phrases, or about what the Christian tradition and orthodoxy has “always taught” about a thing. We get long, protracted logical deductions about why they did so. And we get Aristotle, Aquinas, and Dolezal.

To be fair, on the other side, not to be outdone, we get similar things. Lectures and papers on how there was a reaction against this kind of thing early on with Luther against scholasticism. Or how Van Til picked up on it, and now Oliphant and Frame are championing it. OK. Those are important to consider. Most all of us on both sides have done this. But where’s the Scripture in any of that?

And what about this obsession with personally retaliating when others have personally blasted or laid attacks at our doorstep or those at the door of those we agree with? Cheap shots abound, and no one seems to care, unless, of course, those cheap shots are against "me." Meanwhile, we keep on biting and devouring one another. I think Paul may have had a thing or two to say to the Galatians about that.

So again I ask, how are we letting our own Confession solve our problems? And by the way, what that means, again, by its own statement, is how are we letting Scripture solve our problems--God’s word that he has given to us, which is supposedly sufficient for everything we need regarding these very kinds of controversies? At least, that's what we confess.

Just here, I think we need to consider the wisdom of 2.1’s very, very brief treatment of a doctrine that some have been talking about every single day for the past several years, as if there is nothing else in the whole wide world that matters. “Without body, parts, or passions.” Five words.

I realize that this phrase owes its origins to even earlier documents and Confessions. I know that some want us to believe that there has never been any difference of opinion on philosophical matters that underpin them. And frankly, there is much truth to that. Though, at the same time, I not only wonder how that relates to 1.11, but more basically, I wonder what they would say about simplicity in Aristotle’s day, where some could say something like the human soul (which is where the discussion about God started according to one preeminent scholar) is simple and yet has parts or powers? There’s plenty of material out there that shows this incredibly difficult and complicated doctrine has not been universally accepted absolutely identically by everyone in history. All you have to do is go out and read it. But that might mean, you know, reading something we don't already agree with that wasn't written by someone we already have it out for. God forbid.

But that takes me back to five little words. Could not the framers of the Confessions, if they had wanted, made this one doctrine an entire chapter that everyone must confess everything about because it was the most important thing we can think about? Sure. Did they? No. It seems to me the spirit of the thing here is not one of exclusion, but inclusion. Saying little is often done so that those who have quibbles within what might be said, but agree with what is said, can fellowship together. Is this not the very point being made by rewriting two other documents that are outside of your own views, retaining a huge percentage of them, yet changing what you think needs to be changed? Were they not trying to say, “See, we are more like you than not?” Were the Baptists seeking to remove themselves as far from the Presbyterians and Congregationalists as possible in doing this? Or might it have been the opposite?

Of course, none of this solves the actual current debate. For that, there is going to have to be lots more theological, philosophical, historical discussion. There's nothing wrong with that. Did you think my saying we are to uphold sola scriptura meant I think we should discard that? Scroll up. Read again. Return here when you understand. There's also going to have to be a way to do it outside of the bloody internet. This is not the forum for such things. And I fear we are being used by it more than we are using it. And the way it is using us does not appear to be very good. That leads me to this point.

There is going to have something else. Namely: charity, patience, long-suffering, kindness, thinking the best of others, wanting to find a way to come together, and so on. In other words, there’s going to have to be that word that it seems so many Calvinists really don't like all that much: "love." Love that tempers our zeal for truth. Unfortunately, this seems in pretty short supply these days, so I’m not hopeful that it will happen. But who knows? God is still good to each of us every day. If we each internalize just how profound that is, maybe I guy could dream.

But if not, can we at least admit one thing before this goes any farther? If we are so proud of our confessionalism and our zeal to ensure that the Framer’s conceptions that made the five words appear in 2.1 be followed, can we not be fair and do the same with 1.11?

Let me put it bluntly. If we say that we are confessional, but do not carry out in practice what 1.11 tells us about how to deal with this, then we are not Confessional. Plain and simple. If we say that we are confessional because we hold to the Framer’s views of 2.1, while we mock and/or chastise those who want to do what it says in 1.11, then we are not confessional. We make a mockery of our own beliefs, and the greater Christian church, indeed even the very world itself, sees it. There are extremely practical reasons why 2.1 is not 1.1. There are reasons why 1.11 completes the chapter on Scripture.

Furthermore, if we do not start acting like L-O-V-E is not a four-letter word forbidden by the Eleventh Commandment, but a word that God cares about as way we interact with, tweet about, talk about, write about people—that he actually cares as much about persons (indeed, more about them) than he does forms and ideas, then how in the world are we even being Christians? Does not 1 John have anything at all to teach us about this?

Thus, it seems to me that it may not just be the Scriptures that deal with the issues in 2.1 that can help us resolve our problems. I’ve learned quite a bit about an interesting doctrine in the past four years. I continue to refine my thinking, mostly because it is being thrown in my face on a daily basis and I sort of have no choice. But I also like to think about it. This is my God I’m trying to understand better.

But I’ve also learned that we are not doing well at all on an entirely different kind of theological teaching in God’s word. That is, how we deal with one another as brothers for whom Christ gave his life because he loved them so much. That's what 1.11 is supposed to be getting at. Do we even care that our Lord wants his church to be One? Are we so busy hoping that the guy who disagrees with me isn't actually a Christian and therefore I can justify my actions towards him because I'm not violating Jesus' prayer, that we have missed the whole point of what it means to be Christ-followers altogether? This has got to stop. And it has to stop now.

I hope God uses this post to this latter end. But if not, at least I will have spoken my conscience about a deep hypocrisy that made itself known to me years ago, that has been occuring, is continuing to occur regularly, is not being addressed hardly at all, and yet is spreading now far beyond my little circles regarding what it means to be confessional.

God Help us.

Categories: Confession of Faith

Comments are disabled.