The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Posts Tagged ‘Reformed

Reformed and Baptist: the third wave

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This is a cross-post from Reformation21.

Not long ago, the good Dr Trueman took up the question of why the label ‘Reformed’ is more often associated with Baptists than with Presbyterians.

I appreciated the irenic tone of Carl’s answer (appreciably and appreciatedly different to the caustic and dismissive attitude of some others), and I share a number of his underlying convictions. My intention in this post is not to start a fight with the esteemed Trueman or anyone else, nor to try to put clear blue water between churches like the one I serve and everyone else in the whole wide world, nor indeed to enter a competition about who is the most Reformed. (Indeed, I admit to a sinking feeling whenever someone – usually with a self-satisfied tone – takes it upon themselves to inform me that not only are they Reformed, but that they consider themselves to be very Reformed – whatever that means.)

Carl concluded his piece by saying that “the eclipse of Presbyterians in the evangelical world’s adoption of the term ‘Reformed’ is probably in large part a function of the transformation of the term’s meaning by the contemporary evangelical scene. This is not something I myself will lose any sleep over.” No more do I lose sleep over the strident demands of some Presbyterians that I relinquish any right to the label: I am happy to be a Reformed Baptist, a Particular Baptist, a confessional (or ‘1689’) Baptist, an independent Baptist, or whatever particular label enables someone to fit me fairly accurately into a fairly appropriate pigeonhole.

Similarly, I think that there is a degree of common ground between Carl and those of my ilk, stamp and kidney: I agree that the word ‘Reformed’ should mean more than ‘vaguely Calvinistic in its soteriology.’ I agree that the word ‘confessional’ is bandied around with some carelessness and a great deal of vacuity as a kind of synonym for ‘orthodox’. I further accept that real confessionalism – like any form of real conviction – enshrines certain proper distinctions (and, in degree, necessary divisions) over issues of the ordinances and ecclesiology (though it should be noted that soteriology raises its head here as well). Indeed, it is for these very reasons that when someone tells me that they are a Reformed Baptist, my response tends to be something like, “That’s great! Would you mind telling me exactly what you mean by that?”

Furthermore, I accept (without agreement) that for some Presbyterians (I am not suggesting that this is true for Carl), the historical narrative for the Reformed and the legitimate application of the word stop short somewhere in or around Dordrecht in the early seventeenth century (others would, perhaps, like to turn a little further back and south toward Calvin’s Geneva, some forward and west toward Westminster in the mid-seventeenth century). Indeed, I have seen one definition of ‘Reformed’ that included, as a fairly central element, the wearing of a Geneva gown in worship. Now if that isn’t an oddity, kindly fax me an explanation of what is!

But in the midst of it all, I find that nowhere does the good doctor properly allow for the kind of Reformed Baptist that I am and that many of my friends are, and neither do many of the discussions of this issue. I guess I am, in part, picking up on this because of Carl’s Anabaptist jibe of some moons ago, to which I responded with tongue equally firmly in cheek. But behind those friendly barbs and this post lies a more serious concern. In the discussion of what it means to be Reformed, and in the consideration of what it means to be a Reformed Baptist (or whatever else you wish to call us), I generally find that there is a gap on the spectrum that is overlooked or quickly dismissed, the gap that tends to be brushed over with the suggestion that there are Reformed Baptists who are not quite (or at all) Pipettes or a certain brand of Southern Baptists or Acts 29 types or SGM guys, but who actually – to use Carl’s words – “hold to more traditional forms of worship and polity.”

This post, after that long preamble, intends to introduce the small group of such men and churches more formally. And no, I do not presume to be any kind of appointed spokesman for all or part of that group. And no, I do not presume that relative smallness means that we have an innate claim to greater purity than anyone else (though it does have an effect on our visibility). Furthermore, we do not really have, as far as I know, any great gurus or monumental figureheads – I mean, we have enough personalities to start some miserable fights, but no name behind which we all line up. People might come to our churches and start throwing around the names of the evangelical and ‘Reformed’ celebrities and trying to figure out whether or not we are of Paul or Cephas or Apollos but – by and large – we do not neatly fit into such camps, although we have genuine and sometimes close affinities with several of them. It may be that part of the problem is that, historically, we did not have our roots in the US (although it is fair to say that the twentieth century resurgence – for the New Calvinists are not the first to use the word – among Reformed Baptists probably had a more American flavour than otherwise).

It was, indeed, the Anabaptists who provided the backdrop to some of the first public statements of those who would become known as Reformed Baptists, but not as some would imagine. The first Calvinistic or Particular Baptist churches in England had their origins in the 1630s when men like William Kiffin (and, later, Hanserd Knollys) sat under the umbrella of the Independent congregation usually known as the Jacob-Lathrop-Jessey church. By the mid-1640s both Kiffin and Knollys had left the Jessey church to form distinctively Baptist congregations.

Perhaps the definitive breaking of cover for the Particular Baptists was their 1644 Confession. This is an important document: seven churches produced it in order to make plain their distinctive beliefs while putting distance between themselves and the excesses and errors of the continental Anabaptist groups on the one hand, as well as the General (Arminian) Baptists on the other. At this time (and, my, haven’t things changed!) the label ‘Anabaptist’ was a deliberate slur, designating the kind of people who could be relied upon to turn any society morally upside down within moments (“Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!”), and was readily slapped on people or groups which advocated the novel and dangerous notion that the church did not consist of everyone born into a particular nation-state under the auspices of its national church. Drawing on a couple of earlier documents, the 1644 was an important step at a point when an essentially Presbyterian Parliament was exercising unprecedented powers and the Westminster divines were recommending some fairly uncomfortable measures for those considered outside the fold. Revisions swiftly followed in 1646, several of which read as unnecessary attempts to appease the powers that be – this was not necessarily an advance, although the line was holding firm.

When Oliver Cromwell died and – after a period of confusion – Charles II assumed the throne, the Baptists were among those who faced severe persecutions. The full weight of a church and state, yoked together in oppression, came down on anyone outside the restored and vengeful Church of England (whether Baptist, Independent or Presbyterian, who were all now more or less beyond the pale). Persecution drove these groups more closely together than they could have been when some Presbyterians had been advocating the forcible sublimation of Baptists and their churches.

Out of this arose a desire on the part of the Baptist churches to demonstrate their common ground with their fellow pilgrims, while maintaining their own distinctive identity from the Paedobaptists on the one hand and the Anabaptists on the other (including the Constantinianism/Erastianism of the former and the wild political radicalism of many of the latter). The result was what is commonly called the 1689 (Second London) Baptist Confession of Faith. Some slight awkwardness arises from the fact that this confession was actually written in 1677, although it was not signed and published until 1689, the year of the Glorious Revolution, when there was a greater degree of freedom afforded to the men and churches responsible.

The 1689 (which I will call it for the sake of simplicity) takes a line from the Westminster Confession of the Presbyterians through the Savoy Declaration of the Independents. Much water had passed under the bridge (and, indeed, over the Baptists) since 1644, and this document was the result of the mature thinking of the finest and godliest minds among the growing churches of the Particular Baptists. It is a great shame that many modern editions of the 1689 omit the introductory epistle “To the Judicious and Impartial Reader,” and what is simply entitled, “An Appendix,” both masterpieces of irenic polemicism, or polemic irenicism, depending on which side you like your bread buttered.

In the former, they explicitly link their work with the form and purpose of the 1644 Confession, while making plain that they wanted not only “to give a full account of our selves, to those Christians that differ from us about the subject of baptism” (I modernise the English slightly in this and the following quotes) but also a defence of the genuine godliness that the doctrine of the Particular Baptists was producing, a godliness that would have been recognised as essentially the same as that of other orthodox believers, tying it in with the work of the Westminster divines and the Savoy Conference. “We have no itch,” they wrote, “to clog religion with new words, but do readily acquiesce in that form of sound words, which has been, in consent and the holy Scriptures, used by other before us.” With a sincere spirit, they went on,

In those things wherein we differ from others, we have expressed our selves with all candour and plainness that none might entertain jealousy of aught secretly lodged in our breasts, that we would not the world should be acquainted with; yet we hope we have also observed those rules of modesty, and humility, as will render our freedom in this respect inoffensive, even to those whose sentiments are different from ours.

The Appendix is equally irenic and equally incisive. It begins:

Whosoever reads, and impartially considers what we have in our forgoing confession declared, may readily perceive, that we do not only concenter with all other true Christians on the Word of God (revealed in the Scriptures of truth) as the foundation and rule of our faith and worship. But that we have also industriously endeavoured to manifest, that in the fundamental articles of Christianity we mind the same things, and have therefore expressed our belief in the same words, that have on the like occasion been spoken by other societies of Christians before us.

What follows, having established this common ground, is a quite brilliant Baptist apologetic (and I do not say that simply because of my fundamental agreement with it), laudable for its clarity and brevity and simplicity, setting out key elements of the Baptist view of salvation, covenant, ordinances and church, concluding:

So may it be now as to many things relating to the service of God, which do retain the names proper to them in their first institution, but yet through inadvertency (where there is no sinister design) may vary in their circumstances, from their first institution. And if by means of any ancient defection, or of that general corruption of the service of God, and interruption of his true worship, and persecution of his servants by the Antichristian Bishop of Rome, for many generations; those who do consult the Word of God, cannot yet arrive at a full and mutual satisfaction among themselves, what was the practise of the primitive Christian Church, in some points relating to the Worship of God: yet inasmuch as these things are not of the essence of Christianity, but that we agree in the fundamental doctrines thereof, we do apprehend, there is sufficient ground to lay aside all bitterness and prejudice, and in the spirit of love and meekness to embrace and own each other therein; leaving each other at liberty to perform such other services, (wherein we cannot concur) apart unto God, according to the best of our understanding.

What needs to be understood is that these men were not trying to start a war, but neither would their consciences allow them to retreat. The Particular Baptists of the seventeenth century unashamedly considered themselves as the heirs and the advancers – the third wave, if you will – of the Reformation.

Such an awareness was not misplaced triumphalism or mere bombast. These men and churches appreciated where they had come from, but they had clear views as to where they needed to go. In espousing their distinctive convictions they realised that they were in disagreement not only with the Anglican Church but also with fellow Dissenters – Presbyterians like Richard Baxter and Independents such as John Owen. They understood that the magisterial Reformers had struck the first blows, being responsible for exposing the corruptions of Antichrist and bringing important doctrines such as justification by faith to light. The second wave they identified in men like William Ames and later John Owen, who argued that on the one hand a true gospel church was comprised of professing saints, but on the other hand that the children of believers were still to be baptized by sprinkling. They appreciated that many of the Puritans had gone (far) beyond the half-way Reformation of Anglicanism (which – despite some outstanding men, and because of circumstances peculiar to the United Kingdom – stalled in its application of the same foundational realities), and how the Puritans pressed the principles of the Reformation into additional spheres of faith and life, many paying for it with their expulsion. But with the third wave the error of infant baptism was exposed. Now the Particular Baptists, self-consciously a part of this progress, were pressing those Reformation principles more fully into further areas of faith and life, not least the doctrine of the church, especially with regard to its very nature and its role and purpose on the earth.

This central issue and their sense of their place is evident in the preface to Philip Carey’s splendidly-titled A Solemn Call unto all that would be owned as Christ’s Faithful Witnesses, speedily and seriously, to attend unto the Primitive Purity of the Gospel Doctrine and Worship: or a Discourse Concerning Baptism (London,1690). Five prominent London Particular Baptists – William Kiffin, John Harris, Richard Adams, Robert Steed and Benjamin Keach, theological leaders among their brothers – put their names to this piece, arguing that “the true gospel visible church is to consist only of such as are saints by profession, and who give themselves up to the Lord and to one another by solemn agreement to practice the ordinances of Christ.” (For more on the doctrine of baptism these men held, see chapter 12 of Austin Walker’s The Excellent Benjamin Keach [Dundas, Ontario: Joshua Press, 2004].)

For all their esteem of the magisterial Reformers and for their ground-breaking labours, and for all their (and our) respect for the often underestimated and undervalued principles and practices that those Reformers embraced, Reformed Baptists cannot regard Geneva as the sole and abiding high-water mark of the Reformation. While recognising the genuine continuity between the Old and New Covenants, our forefathers – with modern Reformed Baptists of the same stripe – also recognised the genuine discontinuity that the Scriptures themselves demand.

In that respect, the principle of a gathered church of baptised believers, conducting itself in the holiness of renewed lives, was something to which those pioneers believed their brothers-in-arms had not attained. A failure to embrace this principle allowed a potentially fatal rot to set in. Again, Benjamin Keach made their convictions and concerns plain when he wrote Light broke forth in Wales, expelling Darkness (London, 1696):

I look upon Infant-Baptism to be one of the chief Pillars of the Romish Church, and of all National Churches and Constitutions in the European World; this is that Christendom that is so cried up, and the way of making and continuing the pretended Christian-Name; in the Anti-christian Church, and World, all are made Christian in their Infant-Baptism: And thus the inhabitants of the Earth are cheated, and deluded with a Shadow and empty Name that signifies nothing; and certain I am, until Christendom (as it is called) is Unchristianed of this pretended Rite, or Christendom, there will never be a thorough Reformation: I mean until they see that Christianity, or Christian-Name, which they received at their Infant-Baptism, signifies nothing, but throw it away as an Human Innovation, and labour after true Regeneration, or a likeness to Christ, and so believe and are baptized upon the profession of their Faith, according as in the Apostolical Primitive Church: ’Tis Infant-Baptism that tends to uphold all National Churches, and deceives poor People who think there were hereby made Christians. (234)

To those who follow these men, in terms of pursuing and applying the Biblical principles that have led and do lead to the reformation of the church, the Reformed or Particular Baptist activity of the seventeenth century was a further step in the right direction, and is an essentially healthy heritage. It is also a developing heritage, as the stream of Particular Baptist thought – with all its struggles and stands, its tensions and triumphs (in common with other traditions) – flows down through a host of gracious and godly men into the present day. (If you are interested in learning more about the men and the issues, you might begin with Robert Oliver’s History of the English Calvinistic Baptists 1791-1892[Banner of Truth, 2006] or the volumes edited by Michael Haykin on The British Particular Baptists I, II and III[Particular Baptist Press].)

In speaking in this way, I am not trying to sneak in the assertion that we are ‘very Reformed.’ However, it ought to be recognised that these Particular Baptists, and those who follow them and take up in this sense the label of ‘Reformed Baptists’, were self-consciously advancing the cause of the Reformation by deliberately pressing its principles into every area of faith and life, even those which had been sacred cows beforehand. At the same time, they were concerned to emphasise their shared doctrinal and practical convictions with those who stood in the same stream of historic, orthodox, Reformed Christianity. (For a brief and popular treatment of both the common ground and the distinctive territory, I think one of the best documents that speaks to this definition of the Reformed Baptists remains the booklet, What is a Reformed Baptist Church? by Jim Savastio.)

And this is one of the particular blessings of a confessional inheritance with so much common ground. When I, as a confessional or 1689 Baptist, sit down with a Westminster Presbyterian or Savoy Congregationalist or Independent, I know just how much we hold in common, and I am able to enjoy fellowship with such a brother on a broad, deep, shared foundation. We also know, clearly and concisely, those issues on which we differ, and how and why we differ, and are therefore able to embrace one another as brothers who walk with a clear conscience before God.

But while we trace the spiritual history, let none of us forget the spiritual reality. Here faith and life must be joined or we will have nothing but painted fire. Surely the Reformed faith is far more than a particular historical connection, a certain theological tradition, or a series of dogmatic assertions. This grasp of things presumes a soul-conquering vision of the great God and Saviour lifted up; it embraces a soul-humbling conviction of one’s own natural sinfulness and wretchedness before that great and holy God; it supposes a soul-enrapturing reception of the grace of that great God and Saviour; and, it issues in a soul-encompassing consecration of the entire redeemed humanity of a saved sinner to the glory of the Lord. It was described, in its essence, by B. B. Warfield in his essay on Calvinism, as lying “in a profound apprehension of God in His majesty, with the inevitably accompanying poignant realization of the exact nature of the relation sustained to Him by the creature as such, and particularly by the sinful creature. . . . when the sinful soul rests in humble, self-emptying trust purely on the God of grace” (Works [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1991], 5:354-5).

Surely this is the core of the matter: being captured and captivated by the triune God, therefore seeing oneself in proper and humble perspective, both in terms of what we once were without grace, might still be apart from grace, and have now become because of the grace of God in Christ Jesus. What fools we would be to ignore the treasure and fight over the box! If our confessionalism of any genuine stripe – which provides what we are persuaded are Biblical boundaries and direction to the whole – does not involve and produce this vibrant spirituality, then surely it is missing the mark, a mere cipher, a pretty shell without any enduring substance. By this measure, perhaps we ought to ask whether or not we have quite so much scope for self-congratulation as we sometimes seem to imagine? For this view of God in Christ, with all its concomitants and consequences, ought to be what above all unites those who are Reformed, and what imposes those degrees of separation from those with differing views of God and of man.

So, when the issue of what it means to be Reformed gets discussed, we ask not to be lauded and applauded, so much as simply, accurately and fairly recognised as existing. It may be that you just did not realise that we exist. It may be that the kind of Baptist convictions – about soteriology, ecclesiology, pneumatology, doxology and a whole bunch of other ologies – to which you have been exposed have left you with some serious and significant questions, and you have given up looking for the answers among Baptists. It may be that you have met some who take the name of Reformed Baptists who, through pride or ignorance, have left you with a sour taste in your mouth, for which I am sorry. It may be – and I say this in a spirit of straightforward inquiry and not backhanded accusation – that you would rather not acknowledge this part of the spectrum because it does not fit into your historical narrative, and rather upsets your carefully piled apple-cart. But please do not repeat the old saw about Anabaptism; if I might be so bold, it will not wash. Neither dismiss us with the vague assertion that there are some Baptists out there who are both Calvinistic in their soteriology and traditional or conservative in our doxology. That is not what we really are, certainly not all we are. An honest historiography surely requires that – if nothing else – those original Particular Baptists (discounting, of course, the apostles and the early church!) are at least considered on their own terms, and taken for what they believed themselves to be, even if you might disagree with them.

There are those who are still doing what our forefathers did (and, in fact, what their Reforming, Presbyterian and Congregational forefathers had begun to do): seeking to press the Word of God ever further and more firmly into the hearts and minds of the people of God, individually and corporately, so as to promote, under God, this full-orbed appreciation of and consecration to the Lord God. As such, the Particular Baptists are – or should be – not so much slipping back as stepping forward in reformation, finding the older paths and walking in them, and – in the spirit of fraternal encouragement – it would be remiss of me, even churlish, not to invite you to join us.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 9 July 2012 at 12:50

“Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety and Practice”

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Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety and Practice by R. Scott Clark

P&R, 2009 (234pp, pbk)

In Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety and Practice (Presbyterian & Reformed, 2008), R. Scott Clark seeks to establish himself as the bouncer on the door of the Reformed Club: if your confession isn’t down, you’re not coming in. With crisp clarity, and a confidence that borders on abrasiveness, Clark makes his case: the concept of being “Reformed” is firmly situated in time and space and documentation (the Three Forms of Unity – the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort – together with the Westminster Confession and its Catechisms), and Geneva is its high-water mark. Clark contends that, outside of this tradition, Western Christianity has succumbed to two false pursuits: the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty (seeking epistemic and moral certainty on questions in which it is neither desirable nor attainable, seen, for example, in the desire to make 6/24 creation a boundary marker and the pursuit of theonomy) and the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience (the desire for an unmediated encounter with God apart from the use of ordinary means, epitomised in something like Finneyism but encompassing Jonathan Edwards and Martyn Lloyd-Jones). Positively, Clark sets out his pursuit of a genuine Reformed identity in such matters as a right distinction between the Creator and his creatures, a genuine, strict and carefully-defined confessionalism, holding to the Lord’s day Sabbath, and a strict application of the regulative principle of worship, understood in a limited historical context. Also interesting is that the kind of high Presbyterianism espoused by Dr Clark sometimes bears more than a passing resemblance to the position of the Federal Visionistas, and – while I have no particular delight in that grouping – it may be that one of the reasons for the cutting antagonism (in this and other forums) between Clark and friends on the one hand and proponents of the FV on the other is precisely because the boundary between the two is quite a low one, and they are fighting over much of the same territory. These boundaries and territories need to be aggressively maintained to prevent a blurring of identities that neither party would countenance. Dr Clark would find his position easier to defend if he put more clear Scriptural water between the two groups.

As our author lays down his law, many believers may be surprised to discover that they are not Reformed. Baptists are by their very nature infra dig. Congregationalists have abandoned proper polity (John Owen, I think, somehow scrapes through by virtue of being John Owen). Some Presbyterians will be afforded the honour, but only if they attain to the Genevan standard (to be honest, by the time Genevan gowns were mentioned I was struggling to discern whether or not Dr Clark was joking). Are you persuaded that, while there is a normative core of Christian truth and experience, there are occasions in which they are known and felt in more unusual degree, and do you long for more of it? You may be more than a little quirky (perhaps, QIREy), and therefore beyond the pale.

And yet, for all this, in reading through the book many will find much with which to agree, often strongly. For example, some of Clark’s defence of the Lord’s day and the regulative principle of worship is cogent and helpful. Confessional Christians of different stripes might applaud his desire to see those confessions properly confessed, together with his readiness to accept that – under the proper circumstances – fine-tuning an existing confession or producing a new one may be required.

All in all, this not an easy book to categorise. Dr Clark’s tone can be aggressive to the point of caustic, shifting quickly through the gears from helpfully distinctive to unnecessarily antagonistic. Always incisive, whether or not you consider the book essentially divisive or unifying probably depends on where you sit in terms of Clark’s categories, for Dr Clark seeks to leave no middle ground.

Is Clark right to be concerned about the loose and open-ended employment of the word “Reformed”? I think so. Is he right to look at the historical realities in order to address the nature of the beast? To a degree, yes. Are predestinarian convictions the sole mark of a Reformed Christian? No, there is much more to it than that, and Dr Clark is right to point that out – issues of ecclesiology, pneumatology, and doxology also enter the mix.

At the same time, I am not persuaded that Dr Clark’s Reformed absolutism (perhaps, supremacism) is the answer. His thesis is primarily historical, and one could suggest that he is guilty of as much arbitrariness in his arguments as are those against whom he argues. Certainly he has as much of a tendency as those he stands against to make assumptions grounded in his own convictions and experiences. Even if we accept that Geneva has some sort of historical primacy in terms of defining what it means to be Reformed, the notion that a return to Geneva would invariably be progress and could never be regress is never addressed. Others would argue, both from Scripture and history, that some of the principles applied in Geneva needed to be further applied, and in additional areas, and that this continuing work of reform has as much right to claim the notion of being “Reformed” as any others, and perhaps more so. There are more streams that flow from the Reformed fountain than Clark is willing to admit, and there are more nuances within the camp of the genuinely Reformed than Clark will acknowledge – the creature is simply not as monolithic as Dr Clark is saying it is, or perhaps would like to have it. By making the matter of Reformed identity an all-or-nothing issue, there is perhaps a risk of many saying, “Fine – nothing!” and walking away without receiving any of the good things on offer.

Genuinely polemical, most readers will be much stimulated, and many will be significantly provoked. Dr Clark has set himself up as the arbiter of what it means to be Reformed. Leaving us in no doubt what he thinks and why he thinks it, Clark makes a fairly brutal gatekeeper. This is a book which demands engagement, requiring an intelligent understanding of the issues, a degree of conviction in the response, and a historical sense not only of the “period of orthodoxy” that Clark identifies, but also of the streams that flow out of it. I would also suggest that a Spirit-governed heart and tongue would help to keep any respondents from being sucked into a vituperative war of words. I would imagine that Dr Clark is not as high-minded and dismissive in person as he can appear on the page of the book and the post of the blog, and he should be answered not only with a serious and sensitive attention to his historical nous and well-argued thesis but also in the spirit which he doubtless intends to manifest, but which is not always evident in his writing.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 26 July 2010 at 17:27

Posted in Reviews

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Name or nature?

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I was struck by the force of Calvin’s earthy rhetoric when reading his sermon on Acts 5:13-16:

The Lord shows his majesty for two reasons. . . .

The second reason is that there are others who are in awe of that assembly and dare not affiliate with the faithful.  That is because they are not all worthy.  For how many of us enter the church of God as we should, and with the kind of reverence I spoke of earlier?  It is true the gospel is preached.  So what?  To what extent do our lives conform to it?  It seems we have conspired to spite God in all we do.  We do not hesitate to use the word ‘reformation’, but to what purpose?  We have no difficulty, no scruples, in saying we are reformed according to the gospel.  But what authority does the gospel have for us?  Does it not influence us to flout God and his word?  What is worse, that is the very reason God’s name is blasphemed, and people call the gospel a teaching for complete disintegration.  But are they right?  ‘Those people say they are reformed, but they are more inclined to do evil than before.’  That is how we will give the papists and other unbelievers an opportunity to speak badly of God’s teaching and blaspheme it.  It is true that one day they will give an account of their blasphemies, but we will not be excused before God, for we will have given them occasion to speak ill of it.  Whereas they should be convinced by our good lives and conduct, we are the reason that God’s teaching, which is the teaching of life and salvation, is called ‘the teaching of devils’, and labelled as false and misleading.  Let us keep in mind the punishment we deserve for such sacrilege.  Let us be aware that the gospel is not preached to us for that reason, but so that our lives will be completely changed by it and our sins rooted out so that God may be seen to be ruling in our midst.  Otherwise, we will boast in vain of possessing the gospel and living according to the reformation it brings.

This is not abstract theological reasoning, but concrete Christian living grounded in the truth.  We like the name, but do we have the nature.  This works itself out in the daily grind of our life as believers, before the eyes of family members, colleagues, friends and neighbours.  I could not help but be reminded of this clever little fiction from Ben Witherington:

A man was being tailgated by a stressed out woman on a busy street. Suddenly, just in front of him, the light turned yellow. He did the right thing, stopping at the crosswalk, even though he could have beaten the red light by accelerating through the intersection.

The tailgating woman was furious and repeatedly honked her horn, screaming in frustration, as she missed her chance to get through the intersection, while also, dropping her cell phone and makeup.

As she was still in mid-rant, she heard a tap on her window and looked up into the face of a very stern looking police officer. The officer ordered her to exit her car with her hands up.

He took her to the police station where she was searched, fingerprinted, photographed and placed in a holding cell. After a couple of hours, a policeman approached the cell and opened the door. She was escorted back to the booking desk where the arresting officer was waiting with her personal effects. He said, ‘I’m very sorry for this mistake. You see, I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, flipping off the guy in front of you and cussing a blue streak at him. I noticed the ‘What Would Jesus Do’ window sticker, the ‘Choose Life’ license plate holder, the ‘Follow Me to Sunday-School’ bumper sticker and the chrome-plated Christian fish emblem on the trunk; naturally… I assumed you had stolen the car.’

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 2 April 2009 at 10:28

Are you REALLY Reformed?

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Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 19 February 2009 at 11:24

Posted in General

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What is it to be Reformed?

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When I reviewed Collin Hansen’s book, Young, Restless, Reformed, I asked a question about what it meant to be Reformed.

Furthermore, there is – if not a confusion – at least a question of terminology. Most of the subjects welcome the Reformed label, but how accurately is it being applied? It seems that most of those involved in this movement share a Reformed (or, at least, a Calvinistic) soteriology. The question is raised even in the book as to whether this really constitutes “being Reformed,” as well as how much it matters. Do we need, for example, a Reformed ecclesiology, a Reformed pneumatology, or Reformed worship (or all of the above) in order to call ourselves genuinely ‘Reformed’? In other words, would the patron saint of the new Calvinists, Jonathan Edwards, recognise all these individuals and groups as Reformed? One could argue that this very question may be redefined by weight of numbers involved in this movement who do not embrace what has traditionally been, and been accepted as, part of the Reformed package. On this basis, there may be many who will wonder whether or not they are a part of this movement, and whether they want to be, and – if so – to what extent. This is especially so where the question is being begged over the extent to which the church is reaching the culture as opposed to the culture assimilating the church.

Scott Clark is even blunter than I am.  An interview with Collin Hansen has raised the same issue again for him.  Clark uses the label ‘Baptist’ to make his case:

You can’t simply redefine ‘Baptist’ by fiat and you can’t impose such a minimalist definition [i.e. “I believe in baptism”] on the word ‘Baptist’ because, after all, all Christians believe in Baptism. Defining it that way doesn’t tell us anything about the person using the adjective. It becomes meaningless.

The progression of Scott’s argument is solid, but it is – I think – clear that, by the time he has done, there are not that many people who can use the word “Reformed.”  Here is his thinking:

So it is with those of us who are identified with the historic Reformed Churches and with their confessions. Our people spilled blood for being called Reformed and for confessing the Reformed theology, piety, and practice. The Synod of Dort did not simply issue five canons against the Remonstrants, they also published a church order and they worked on worship and other ecclesiastical issues. To break into the Armory (where the Synod met) and to steal the Five Points from the ecclesiastical context in which they were formed and in which they were meant to be applied and to use them alone to define the adjective “Reformed” is just vandalism and identity theft.

I’m glad folk want to identify with the Five Points of Dort. I’m glad that folks are interested in the Reformed reformation. Keep coming. The road to Geneva is a nice trip and I think you’ll enjoy the destination. If you’re hungry, we will feed you. You don’t have to steal. It’s okay, we love you. Indeed, we’ll put a Geneva gown on your ministers, we’ll baptize your children in recognition of their status as covenant children and we’ll offer you communion in the body and blood of Christ regularly (the Geneva City Council is dead, long live communion). We have a polity, a piety, and a passion for the lost. You’ll love it.

It is interesting to see that – perhaps tongue in cheek – being Reformed involves (of necessity?) wearing a Geneva gown to preach and being a paedobaptist, as well as enjoying the Lord’s supper.  Do you have to sing psalms only to be Reformed?

st-pierre-geneva-2I am a Reformed Baptist.  Can I be?  I hold to the 1689 (Second London) Baptist confession of faith.  Am I allowed to use the label?  Where does one draw the line?  At which point does your standing in the stream remove you from the current?

Don’t get me wrong: I agree with the essence of what Scott is saying.  To simply hoick the label ‘Reformed’ on to any believer who holds to the five points (or even four or so of them) is to empty the phrase of much of its significance.  But where does being Reformed start and end?  Do Scott Clark or Richard Muller finally pin it down?  Is being a Reformed Baptist an inherent contradiction?

I agree with Dr Clark that being soteriologically Reformed is not enough to warrant the label, but I want to affirm my standing in the stream of historic Biblical Christianity.  All of which demands an answer to the question: if you need to (and I agree with Scott that you do need to), where do you draw the line?

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 22 January 2009 at 20:52

The Exiled Preacher interviews Paul Wallace

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Guy Davies interviews my friend from Magherafelt, Paul Wallace (who blogs at Reformed and Baptist).  Paul has some good things to say in answer to a question about what it means to be both Reformed and Baptistic (contra those who would suggest that they are mutually exclusive).

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 15 October 2008 at 16:09

The Westminster Conference 2008: “Old Paths, New Shoes”

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The Westminster Conference for 2008 – “Old Paths, New Shoes” – will take place later this year on Tuesday 9th and Wednesday 10th December at the new venue of Whitefield Memorial Church in Tottenham Court Road, London.  The brochure will be mailed out shortly, but you can download a pdf copy here (or click the picture on the right) which can be printed out.

The schedule for the conference is as follows, God willing:

  • “What can we learn from the Puritans?” by Iain H. Murray
  • “The recovery of the Reformed vision” by John J. Murray
  • “The life and legacy of E. F. Kevan” by Paul Brown
  • “Tradition – the Puritan and Reformed perspective” by Robert Godfrey
  • “Spiritual conflict” by Jonathan Watson
  • “William Grimshaw” by Faith Cook

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 29 September 2008 at 13:46

Truly reformed

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Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 18 July 2008 at 08:13

“Catch the Vision: Roots of the Reformed Recovery”

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Catch the Vision: Roots of the Reformed Recovery – The Men and Movements in the Mid-20th Century by John J. Murray

Evangelical Press, 2007 (191 pp, pbk)

Reading enough books and blogs written by or referencing evangelical or Reformed preachers and authors eventually produces a list of key names – names of men, churches, seminaries, organisations – that were, under God, the seedbed of the recovery of Reformed doctrine and practice that took place in the middle of the 20th century.  John J. Murray organises, orders, and analyses those various strands of recent history, putting people individually and corporately in their context and relationships.  The book is in many respects a personal record.  The focus is substantially on the British scene, but those books and blogs mentioned above certainly demonstrate that much of the activity during this period was generated in and from the UK, although it could be argued that in many respects the baton has subsequently passed to the US.

Beginning with the loss of ‘the vision’, Mr Murray paints a bleak picture of post-Downgrade Britain, before identifying some of the forerunners of the recovery, men like E. J. Poole-Connor, A. W. Pink, Ernie Reisinger, W. J. Grier, and others.  The author then progresses to some of the movers and shakers of the recovery, Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones prominent among them.  Others given their own chapters include Geoffrey Williams (architect of the Evangelical Library), James I. Packer, Iain Murray (founder of the Banner of Truth), and Professor John Murray.  The author’s affection and esteem for Professor Murray become increasingly evident as the book progresses.  This is not merely a Scotocentric peculiarity – it is a reflection of Professor Murray’s doctrinal and devotional profundity, and the impact that he clearly had both on the author and on many others.  Each of these key men receives a treatment selective in detail but nonetheless fairly comprehensive in scope, and – in the course of each life review – other more or less significant players swim into and out of focus.

The book closes with an assessment entitled “Maintaining the Vision.”  Murray deals first of all with the expectation of a coming revival among those who shared in the Reformed recovery.  He quotes a perceptive paragraph from Iain Murray, in which the latter suggested that the recovery was the prelude either to a revival or preparation for a flood of apostasy in which a few would be called to stand fast, being well grounded.  John J. Murray – apologies for the multiplicity of relevant Murrays! – suggests that the UK is closer now to the latter than the former condition.  He then offers a sensitive but nonetheless searching critique of where the recovery has succeeded and where it failed to advance sufficiently.  He suggests that the vision was fulfilled in that this period demonstrates again what God can do through a leader in the most difficult times, even in the face of widespread apathy and antipathy; Dr Lloyd-Jones is singled out as being, in many respects, God’s catalyst.  Then there is the abiding armoury of Reformed truth, an inheritance for the likes of which some of our predecessors would have given their eye-teeth.  Thirdly, there is the worldwide spread of Reformed theology, and its abiding impact on the faith and life of many.

However, he also demonstrates that the vision was, to some extent, unfulfilled.  The recovery faltered in certain key respects.  The author locates some of the difficulties in the late 1960s, in a series of what he calls ‘partings’ between men.  Three things are identified as being areas of weakness, and therefore vital to the continued recovery of the Reformed vision, and its further advance.  The first is the necessity of maintaining a full-orbed witness to the Reformed faith.  Here the author spells out the value of genuinely confessional Christianity, guarding against doctrinal indifferentism.  Distinct and distinctive truth is to be pursued and expressed, not to the disruption of genuine fellowship (though recognising where we differ from others), but especially to the exclusion of error.  Reformed truth gives the only ultimate guarantee of success – at the end, suggests A. A. Hodge, the conflict will be between multiform Atheism and uniform Calvinism.

The second issue is the necessity of maintaining zeal for church reform.  Here Murray identifies certain weaknesses and shortcomings with regard to the life of the body of Christ, the church, in its local expression.  Evangelical unity became a bigger issue than church health, with lamentable results.  Says Murray: “It is clear that the way of trying to unite evangelicals by common adherence to a minimum of essential scriptural truths has not been a success” (164).  Not just confessional Christianity but confessional churchmanship must be high on our agenda.

Thirdly, says Murray, we must recover the creation and covenant view of the family (whatever our view of baptism).  His point actually seems broader than this: the emphasis must be on a more than Reformed ministry: it must be on the reality of truth having a sweet and saving and sanctifying impact on the lives of the men and women, boys and girls, to whom that truth is ministered.  The truth must not merely be preached from the pulpit but must become embedded in the pew.  Murray locates (rightly) a vital, even central, ingredient of this process in the family, but goes beyond it.

There are dangers in writing a history of times from which key protagonists are still alive, or in which the acolytes of key protagonists stand ready to defend their man or men to the hilt, or to give alternative versions of events.  Doubtless many will seek to do so.  But it is also necessary to have such a history before these men and events are forgotten, or become further coloured by passing time, or even twisted in their interpretation by those with an agenda of their own (as has, indeed, already happened).  In this regard, it is worth remembering that the author himself was a protagonist (he joined the editorial department of the Banner of Truth in June 1960).  His perspective is as valid as any other man’s, and there is a weight of experience and wisdom with which he writes.  No doubt many will disagree, or see matters differently, but that by no means undermines the value of this contribution.

I would suggest that Catch the Vision is essential reading for all who consider themselves inheritors of this tradition.  It gives a vivid and intense flavour of the spirit of the times, and the eagerness and expectancy with which these various men of God came to deeper views of his glorious truths and felt the impact of those truths on their souls.  There was a freshness and liveliness that, sadly, many inheritors have lost, replaced by a dullness and smugness that ill becomes those who claim to be followers of the Most Holy One.  This volume will instruct, chasten, enlighten, and – I hope – stir up a fresh appetite not only for the Word of God but for the Spirit of God, not only for the truth of God but for its free course in our hearts and in the hearts of many others.

It should also be noted that John J. Murray will be one of the speakers at the 2008 Westminster Conference.  This will be held, God willing, at Whitefield’s Tabernacle (“The American Church in London”) on Tuesday 9th and Wednesday 10th December.  Mr Murray’s paper is entitled, “Recovery of the Reformed Vision,” and I would expect significant and profitable overlap.  If you are able, I would strongly recommend coming to hear Mr Murray, and enjoying what will no doubt be a fruity and compelling discussion to follow.

Missional & Reformed

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Although I have yet to finish reading them, from what I have seen, the six papers from the 2008 Westminster Seminary California Conference – entitled Missional & Reformed: Reaching the Lost & Teaching the Reached – contain much stimulating material that begs serious engagement. All the papers are online at the link above. Enjoy!

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 10 May 2008 at 22:19

“Young, Restless, Reformed”

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young-restless-reformedYoung, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists by Collin Hansen

Crossway Books, 2008 (156 pp, pbk)

Dever; Driscoll; Duncan; Challies; Harris; Horton; MacArthur; Mahaney; Mohler; Piper; Sproul: these are the meats sometimes uncomfortably sandwiched between the pages of this book, together drenched in “Reformed” mayonnaise. Young, Restless, Reformed is the exploration by Christianity Today editor-at-large Collin Hansen of the phenomenon of the new Calvinists, the so-called Reformed resurgence.

With the exception of a few scant references, the focus is entirely on the US. Nevertheless, most of the names will be familiar to those with an interest in Reformed doctrine and practice. Hansen begins with John Piper and “the Piper fiends” (Pipettes?), before surveying “Ground Zero” (Southern Baptist Seminary, Louisville, where Al Mohler holds sway), then considering the Mahaney/Harris axis at Covenant Life Church and the New Attitude conference, and ending up with Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill in Seattle. In between and helping us along the way are a multitude of other movers and shakers and bit-players. Hanging over it all is the far-from-spectral but somewhat ambivalent figure of Jonathan Edwards.

It is, in many respects, a joyous read. To see a substantial recovery of Biblical truth on such a large scale cannot be anything but exciting. To see the unity and co-labouring it prompts and promotes is delightful. To read of predominantly young men and women in the modern West giving themselves to prayer and the study of the Scriptures is thrilling and humbling.

Hansen does take time to consider the detractors and the devaluers, but there is a sympathetic tone that makes plain that Hansen is fundamentally ‘on-side’ with those of whom he writes. This perhaps contributes to the fact that the book can read more like an exercise in comprehension than in analysis: it provides a snapshot rather than a vigorous assessment.

Another weakness is that the whole scene can appear somewhat incestuous and self-referential. The book is about or refers to people who endorse it in the blurb, read by them, reviewed by them (often in the Web 2.0 environment). The same people are writing books from the same publishers and referring to one another’s blogs. Is there a danger of self-congratulation, of failing to recognise that this is a much bigger community than it was, but still not that big or effective a community? Might the mutual back-slapping hide the fact of how much work there still is to do?

Furthermore, there is – if not a confusion – at least a question of terminology. Most of the subjects welcome the Reformed label, but how accurately is it being applied? It seems that most of those involved in this movement share a Reformed (or, at least, a Calvinistic) soteriology. The question is raised even in the book as to whether this really constitutes “being Reformed,” as well as how much it matters. Do we need, for example, a Reformed ecclesiology, a Reformed pneumatology, or Reformed doxology (or all of the above) in order to call ourselves genuinely ‘Reformed’? In other words, would the patron saint of the new Calvinists, Jonathan Edwards, recognise all these individuals and groups as Reformed? One could argue that this very question may be redefined by weight of numbers involved in this movement who do not embrace what has traditionally been, and been accepted as, part of the Reformed package. On this basis, there may be many who will wonder whether or not they are a part of this movement, and whether they want to be, and – if so – to what extent. This is especially so where the question is being begged over the extent to which the church is reaching the culture as opposed to the culture assimilating the church.

Finally, and leading on from this, one must ask, So what? and, Who cares? We must understand what is the trajectory of this movement, and what its terminus (or termini, if it splinters). We must watch its effects. Will the somewhat insular nature of the new Calvinist community betray it into a failure to preach the very gospel it boasts of recovering to those in need of Jesus on our doorsteps? In some circles there seems to be a very real temptation to preach to the converted (in the essential sense of that word), gaining ‘converts’ from other Christian camps rather than from the world around us, to argue other believers into our camp far more than to proclaim a saving Christ to needy sinners. Surely if we are constrained by what Warfield defined as of the essence of genuine Calvinism (of Biblical Christianity) – “a profound apprehension of God in His majesty, with the inevitably accompanying poignant realization of the exact nature of the relation sustained to Him by the creature as such, and particularly as a sinful creature”[1] – then it will work itself out in a determination to have God glorified in salvation as well as among the saved, in both reaching the lost and teaching the reached.

There is much that is splendid about the movement described by Hansen, but it contains within it some fascinating and fearful tensions, as well as some wonderful prospects. Much depends on the legacy of the present leaders, and the readiness of those who follow to pursue a comprehensive Scripturalism that will govern head and heart and hands. Reading this book will help observers and participants to gauge both the trajectory and the likely terminus of this curious company, but should also challenge us about the extent to which our faith and our life are keeping pace.

[1] B. B, Warfield, Works, vol. 5, Calvin and Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1991), 354.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 10 May 2008 at 09:06

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