Archive for March, 2008

“The Doctrine of Conversion in the Westminster Standards With Reference to the Theology of Herman Hoeksema”

March 29, 2008

This is the title of a helpful article by David Silversides in Reformed Theological Journal 9 (1993), 62-84.  Here are some thoughts and quotations I’ve gleaned from the article.

Now, justification is a real favour applied to us in time, just as sanctification in the new birth: ‘and such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified’ (1 Cor. 6:11). Then were they sometime not washed.
Samuel Rutherford, Trial & Triumph of Faith, 1845, 91.

The Scots theologians of the mid 17th C seem to me to be quite opposed to any notion of eternal justification.  Things were not quite so uniform on this in England e.g. Thomas Goodwin.

The condition of the Covenant is faith: holiness and sanctification are the condition of the covenanters … This do was the condition of the Covenant of Works. This believe is the condition of this Covenant …
Samuel Rutherford, ibid, 87

The whole notion of “conditions” relating to the covenant of grace/gospel offer is something that is very interesting.  The Reformed divines (c.f. WLC Q&A 32) of the mid 17th C used the language of conditionality frequently but what they meant by “conditions” must be carefully understood.  I need to spend a fair amount of time expanding on this in the thesis which means a blog post on it will appear sometime.  Durham uses the language of “condition” everywhere but in one significant comment he says he doesn’t like the word very much!

God’s decree of election or His intention to save me, is not the proper object of my faith, but … Christ holdeth forth his rope to drowned and lost sinners, and layeth out an open market of rich treasures of heaven; do thou take it for granted, without any further dispute, as a principle, after to be made good, that Christ hath thoughts of grace and peace concerning thee, and do but now husband well the grace offered, lay hold on Christ, ay while he put thee away from Him, and if there be any question concerning God’s intention of saving thee, let Christ first move the doubt, but do not thou be the first mover.
S. Rutherford, A Sermon Preached to the Honourable House of Commons, 1643.
See also Trial p300.

A good example of gospel preaching.

If the anti-common grace position were correct, then Christ as God in no sense loved the reprobate even while they were in this world. As a man ‘made under the law’ the command “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” applied to Christ. Only two options are open. The first is an heretical division of the person of Christ, by maintaining that Christ loved only the elect in His divine nature but loved all men in His human nature. Clearly this must be rejected. The alternative is to say that Christ, in both natures, loved the elect only and that our obligation to love all men is founded on our ignorance of who the elect are. This means that we are required to love those whom God does not. Moreover, Scripture bases our obligation to love all men not on our ignorance of God’s mind, but the knowledge of it that we should have and our duty to be patterned after Him (Matt. 5:23-48).

Stark “either or” dilemmas are often double-edged swords but the above quote from Rev Silversides gets to the heart of a profound Christological problem for deniers of common love/grace.

… the Westminster Divines as a whole held to what became known as the doctrine of common grace in the sense that the Lord, in a variety of ways, displays his favour and lovingkindness even to the non-elect in this present life … The preaching of the Gospel and the overture of mercy which it includes is one part of that display of lovingkindness.

A sound piece of historical analysis.  This is what the Standards teach.

He offereth in the Gospel, life to all … [this is] God’s moral complacency of grace, revealing an obligation that all are to believe if they would be saved; and upon their own peril be it, if they refuse Christ … Christ cometh once with good tidings to all, elect and reprobate.
Rutherford, Trial, 129ff

Another good extract from Rutherford.

On another note my chapter “The Free Offer of the Gospel in the Westminster Confession” is now finished!  Hurray!  Required before the end of June – two chapters on James Durham.  This is the meat of my thesis and should be a pleasure to write.

Weekly Update 47 – John Brown of Haddington

March 22, 2008

One of the gems that I have come across in looking at previous interpretations of the Westminster Standards on the free offer of the gospel is John Brown of Haddington’s understanding of Westminster Shorter Catechism Q&A 31*:

Q: What is effectual calling?

A: Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.Brown makes a number of vital points in relation to the free offer of the gospel while expounding this section of the catechism: 

  • He defines the offer of the gospel as Christ “holding forth himself as able and willing to save, and inviting sinners to receive salvation from him.”  Two vital things here.  First the gospel offer speaks of the willingness of Christ to save and second the gospel offer is an invitation (as opposed to being, say, a presentation of facts).
  • He emphasizes the universal extent of the offer stating that Christ offers himself “to every one that hears the gospel, without exception”.
  • He notes the offer is “earnest” and explains this as “all the divine persons do often, in the most engaging terms, and with the most powerful motives, beseech, intreat, and command us to embrace Christ”.  This is key.  The offer does not just come from the preacher but from God – fundamentally it is God’s offer.  Also note that Brown emphasises the well meant nature of the offer.
  • Finally the offer of the gospel is our warrant to come to Christ for “Q. What warrant have we to embrace Christ in the gospel? A. … Christ’s offer offer of himself to us … [and the Father’s] setting forth Christ as the great mean of salvation, which everyone of mankind hath a right and welcome to receive, John iii. 16.”

 Of course John Brown (Haddington) was heir to the Marrow tradition of Boston & the Erskines so we would expect him to be good on the free offer of the gospel – and he is! The Marrow tradition represents Scottish Calvinism in all its glory.

*All quotations from John Brown, An Essay, Toward an Easy, Plain, Practical, and Extensive Explication of The Shorter Catechism (Philadelphia: Printed by Henry Frick for M’Carty & Davis, 1818), 142-3. 

Weekly Update 46 – Anglicans, Anarchists and the Westminster Assembly

March 15, 2008

Again time is tight – the deadline for getting this chapter done is Tuesday night and things are looking, well, not so good at the moment but I’m sure I’ll get there in the end.  So instead of a proper post these are some of my notes on Chad B. Van Dixhoorn’s MTh thesis entitled “Anglicans, Anarchists and the Westminster Assembly: The Making of a Pulpit Theology” (MTh., Westminster Theological Seminary, 2000).  Of course Dr Van Dixhoorn has gone on to bigger and better things since his MTh becoming the foremost expert on the Westminster Assembly and spearheading the first full printing of the Westminster Assembly Minutes, however his MTh still makes some interesting points.

… the men of the Westminster Assembly were heavily dependent on their theological predecessors.

As any good theologian will be!  We must get out of the mindset (especially in purely exegetical circles) that the past 50 years  (if we go back that far!) of writings are all that matter for the theological task today.  That is a grand mistake.

From my reading it appears that Martin Luther, though frequently cited by the Westminster divines, is used more as a source for cleaver quotations than for his theological insights. There are, of course, exceptions to such broad generalisations; I only suggest this as a tendency.

There is no denying that there are many “clever quotations” in Luther but there are better theologians (even though Luther got the main things spot on).

Calvin’s influence on the Assembly… is beyond doubt. “Mr Calvin” is frequently cited in the works of divines and was at times appealed to even in the midst of a sermon.

Calvin against the Calvinists anyone 🙂

It is a well known fact that the Westminster Assembly produced consensus documents in part, at least, for political reasons. Over the summer of 1643 the English Parliament was loosing too many battles to the royalist forces and look north for help to the equally unhappy Presbyterian Scots. The majority of Scots Presbyterian lairds (but not all) agreed to help the parliamentarians so long as the English would sign a six point treaty entitled, “The Solemn League and Covenant”.

Politics and religion in the 17th century – never far from one another!

The fact that almost all of them [Westminster Divines] came from the colleges from Oxford and Cambridge is also important. At Cambridge, William Perkins still loomed large; in both schools Calvin’s Institutes was a standard text.

Again Calvin versus the Calvinists?

… the present line of inquiry seems to suggest that the Assembly’s stress on preaching may not only represent conformity to a respected theological heritage, but may also indicate a concern over the neglect of preaching by the Anglicans only recently removed from power and the sudden burst of heterodox preaching which flooded the country during the civil war.

In interpreting any document context is key.  So although we can say the Westminster Confession’s emphasis on preaching is because of their biblical understanding it also has a polemic function against certain Anglicans and Seperatists.

… the body of the Directory’s practical instructions is Perkinsian in colour, elaborating the three part sermon structure of exegesis, doctrinal extraction, and application found in The Art of Prophesying. The conclusion of the Directory echoes many of Archbishop Usher’s nine exhortations to his ordinands.

So we need to be well read in earlier Reformed theology to grasp where the Confession is coming from and what the major influences on it are.

The hope that preaching extends to the lost is a recurring theme in the Assembly’s writing.

Happy days – Dr Van Dixhoorn’s thoughts tie with my own!  I must be on the right track after all.

It is the metaphor of ambassador that most seems to awe and grip the divines when they think about preaching and preachers.

It also grips Durham.

“… a minister… standeth in God’s room, and in God’s name makes offer of salvation, 2 Corinthians 5:10.”
William Gouge, Hebrews, Kregel, 1980, chapter 2, section 23, vol. 1, 101.

This is why I don’t understand the argument that the preacher only offers the gospel indiscriminately because he does not know who is elect or not.  Because it isn’t really the preacher doing the offering it is God’s offer – and he does know who is elect!

“…every sermon I come to hear, I must expect to be nearer heaven or nearer hell.”
Burroughs, Gospel Fear, SDG ed, 20

A profound thought.  Do we go to hear sermons with that thought on our minds and hearts?

“When a Minister preacheth and applieth the promises of the Gospel, he doth not only declare and make known God’s mercy and goodness to poor sinners, but also is an especial means to move those sinners to believe and embrace reconciliation with God.”
William Gouge, Whole Armour, Works, 262

A fitting note to end the post on.

PS I’m away on holiday this coming week from Wednesday until the following Monday so I may not get the chance to post again until Monday 24th.

Weekly Update 45 – Two Johns on Preaching, Systematics and being a Warrior

March 8, 2008

I’ve been very busy this week writing up, reading some more material, tracking down some new books, etc., so I’ve not had much time to dedicate to thinking about the blog.  Still waiting then to be put into digestible format are David Dickson’s views on the free offer and James Durham on the Lord’s day.

Once I finish this chapter on the Free Offer in the Creeds (which I am finding a bit of a bind to write up) and move straight into writing up the two chapters on Durham’s theology and understanding of the free offer of the gospel the blog should flow naturally from what I am writing up.  But at the moment things are slow.  So what follows is a fairly random selection of comments and extracts that I’ve been thinking about this week.

John Murray on Preaching

John Murray was a theologian whose writings I was taught to treat with the utmost respect when I was growing up.  Some of the older saints in the Highlands still speak with reverence of his preaching.  Murray spent a considerable amount of time thinking and writing about the free offer of the gospel (defending the traditional position) and here is one of his challenges about the practical outworking of the free offer:

It is a fact that many, persuaded as they rightly are of the particularism of the plan of salvation and of its various corollaries, have found it difficult to proclaim the full, free and unrestricted overture of gospel grace.  They have laboured under inhibitions arising from fear that in doing so they would impinge upon the sovereignty of God in his saving purposes and operations.  The result is that though formally assenting to the free offer, they lack freedom in the presentation of its appeal and demand.
John Murray, “The Atonement and the Free Offer of the Gospel,” Collected Writings, 1:81

Perhaps if more freedom were evident in the presentation of the gospel, conversions would be more evident also (with due deference to God’s sovereignty).

On the Value of Systematic Theology

There is a movement amongst certain sections of evangelical (& perhaps Reformed) thought to decry systematic theology.  John Dick in his Lectures on Theology has a few glorious statements in his introductory chapter which puncture the arrogance of these claims beautifully:

It is granted, that the Scriptures do not deliver religion to us in that artificial form which we find in the writings of the schoolmen … although there is certainly an approach to it in some parts of the Bible … but no man, I think, who is in possession of his senses, and understands what he is saying [ouch!], will deny, that religion is systematic.  The Word of God is not an assemblage of writings which have no other relation to each other but juxtaposition … There is arrangement here … although it may require time and patience to discover it … The study of the Scriptures is not recommended to us, that we may load our memories with a multitude of unconnected ideas, but that we may bring together and combine the truths which are scattered up and down in them, and thus “understand what the will of the Lord is.”
John Dick, Lectures on Theology, 1:6-7.

I am at a loss to understand the declamations which are so common against systematic Theology; and am disposed to think, that they are often as little understood by their authors, unless it be their design, as, in some instances, we have reason to suspect, to expose to contempt a particular set of opinions, to cry down, for example, not the system of Socinus or Arminius, but the system of Calvin.  Were their objections pointed against a particular system, as improperly arranged, as too technical in its form, or as encumbered with a multiplicity of useless distinctions; we might concur with them on finding the charge to be true.  But to admit, as they must do, that religion is not a mass of incoherent opinions, but a series of truths harmonized by the wisdom of God, and, at the same time, to exclaim against its exhibition in a regular form, as an attempt to subject the oracles of Heaven to the rules of human wisdom, is conduct which ill befits men of judgment and learning, and is worthy of those alone, who “know neither what they say, nor whereof they affirm”.
John Dick, Lectures on Theology, 1:7-8

He doesn’t mince his words, does he!  Systematic theology should be the crowning glory of Christian theological endeavour.  Historical theology is but a humble handmaid.

On being a Warrior (Polemic Theology)

A term of abuse which is often directed at those who value doctrinal exactness is to be called one of “Machen’s Warrior Children” (a reference to the founder of Westminster Seminary J. Gresham Machen).  This aversion to polemic theology is not new and has been well answered by John Dick:

In … Polemic Theology, the controversies are considered which have been agitated in the church … A polemic divine is a warrior; he goes forth into the field to encounter the adversaries of the truth.  The word has an odious sound, and seems to accord ill with the character of a teacher of religion, who ought to be a minister of peace.  On this ground Polemic Theology is often held up as the object of scorn … and it is loudly demanded, that the voice of controversy should be heard no more within the walls of the church, that the disciples of Christ should bury all their disputes in oblivion, and without minding differences of opinion, should dwell together as brethren in unity.  There is much simplicity and want of discernment in this proposal, when sincerely made.  It is the suggestion of inconsiderate zeal for one object, overlooking another of at least equal importance, accounting truth nothing and peace every thing … Often, however, it is intended to conceal a sinister design, under the appearance of great liberality; a design to prevail upon one party to be quiet, while the other goes on to propagate its nostrums without opposition … Nothing is more obvious, than that when the truth is attacked it ought to be defended; and as it would be base pusillanimity to yield it without a struggle to its adversaries, so it would be disgraceful … in one of its professed guardians not … to uphold the sacred interests of religion by his arguments and his eloquence.
John Dick, Lectures on Theology, 1:8-9

It is as if John Dick were writing today and not the best part of 200 years ago.  Indeed, there is nothing new under the sun!

Weekly Update 44 – Good will toward men?

March 1, 2008

No, it’s not that time of the year already!  This post is about a sermon from the great Scottish preacher and theologian  Thomas Chalmers entitled “On the Universality of the Gospel Offer” based on the words of Luke 2:14 (Thomas Chalmers, Sermons and Discourses, New York: Robert Carter, 1844, Vol 1, 234-241).

Why post on Thomas Chalmers?  Well he is a significant figure in his own right and worthy of study.  But more importantly he illustrates the way the disruption Free Church of Scotland understood the free offer of the gospel.  There are two things necessary to understand how a creed functions within a church.  First, it is necessary to understand the original intent of the confession.  This is what I am looking at in my thesis.  But in order to understand fully how a confession functions within a church it is necessary also to consider the animus imponentis or the intention of the church subscribing to the creed.  Thomas Chalmers helps us to understand the intention of the disruption Free Church in confessing that Christ is “freely offered in the gospel” (WCF 7:3).

In his sermon on “good will toward men” Chalmers is not emphasising the terrors of the law (a necessary truth) or the glorious worth of the Saviour the gospel calls us to, but rather, he emphasises the well meant nature of the gospel offer.  “The goodness of the things to which you are invited is one thing.  The good-will with which you are invited is another.  It is the latter argument which we are at present called upon to address to you.” (p235).  By this good will Chalmers means “the desire of God after you – it is His compassionate longing to have back again to Himself, those sinful creatures who had wandered away from Him…” (p235)

Chalmers expounds on this good will in the gospel offer under three headings which we consider in turn.

I) The principle of the gospel message – good will

Chalmers here notes that it is a work of “greater difficulty” than might be expected to get sinners to accept the truth of “God’s willingness to take every sinner into acceptance” noting “there is a barrier in these evil hearts of unbelief, against the admission of a filial confidence in God.” (p236).  This is a great tragedy for “If you saw the good-will of God, in all that kindly and endearing character which belongs to it, you would find a treasure in which you would greatly delight yourself.” (p236).  This is of relevance for those who are “smitten and softened under a sense of unworthiness” and yet cannot obtain a sense of God’s goodness to them.  Even though true in general, this goodness of God is particularly suited to help smitten sinners for it is those who feel sin who will seek a Saviour, “He pleads the matter with you.  He beseeches you to accept of reconciliation at His hand.  He offers it as a gift, and descends so far as to knock at the door of your hearts and to crave your acceptance of it.” (p237).  Note the evangelistic use of Rev 3:20, the description of the offer as God “beseeching” and “craving” acceptance.

II) The object of the gospel message – men

Chalmers argues that “much is to be gathered, from the general and unrestricted way” in which Luke 2:14 is stated.  In particular “the generality of the term may tell us that no one individual needs to look upon himself as shut out from the good-will of his Father in heaven.  Let him be who he may, we cheer him on to confidence in God’s good will to him…” (p237).  Chalmers insists, “We see no exception in the text; and we make no exception from the pulpit.” (p237).  The universality of the gospel offer means that, “If the call be not listened to, it is not for want of kindness and freeness and honesty in the call… There is no straightening with God.  It is all with yourselves.” (p238).  Chalmers explains the good will in the gospel offer as follows, “Turn ye, turn ye, why will you die?  We speak in the very language of God, though we fall infinitely short of such a tone and of such a tenderness as He has over you.  If you think otherwise of God, you do Him an injustice.” (p238).

But there is of course a question to be answered, “how does the declaration of God’s good-will in the text, consist with the entire and everlasting destruction of so many of the species?” (p238).  In answer to this question we are to understand, first, that “the good-will of the text, consists, not in the actual bestowment of eternal life upon all” – for that would be inconsistent. (p239).  Rather the good will is “the holding out, in this world, the gift of eternal life to the free and welcome acceptance of all”. (p239).  Because of this there is no inconsistency.  For example, “We hold out a gift to two people, which one of them may take and the other refuse.  The good will in me which prompted the offer, was the same in reference to both.  God in that sense willeth that all men shall be saved.” (p239).  There is no inconsistency here.  Also, note that for Chalmers it is perfectly acceptable to speak of God willing the salvation of all.

Chalmers ends this section by urging, “Be assured every one of you, that God has good will towards each and towards all.  There is no limitation with Him; and be not limited by your own narrow and fearful and superstitious conceptions of Him.” (p239).

III) The application of the gospel message

Chalmers concludes by noting that “You are guilty; and to you belong all the weakness, and all the timidity of guilt.  The idea of God is apt to send terror into your hearts…” (p240).  The grand application is to these people, that they should look to the truth of “God being gracious, of God being willing to take you back again unto himself, of God pressing your return with every offer of friendship and every feeling of tenderness…” (p240).  In trusting these truths in Christ they would then “set to your seal that God is true” and be saved. (p240)

The doctrine of the free and well meant offer is the doctrine of the Free Church’s foremost founding father.  May this doctrine always be the staple of the Scottish pulpit!

As an aside, Steve Carr has an interesting post on this verse over at Beholding the Beauty – it can be found here.