Tensions in Presbyterian Confessionalism

For one reason and another, I’ve been thinking recently about the inherent tension in Presbyterian confessionalism. The tension arises between two poles. First, the Westminster Confession holds the scriptures alone to be the authoritative rule of faith and life and the only infallible rule for their own interpretation. Second, confessional subscription for Presbyterian ministers requires a commitment to the doctrine of the confession. For some, this is understood as a strict, unvarying approbation of every detail. The confession takes on the role of an authoritative rule. You see the tension.

This tension mirrors a tension which resides close to the heart of Reformed theology. This second tension can be understood as being between the poles of ‘being Reformed’ and the (necessary) corollary of ‘being reforming.’ Those who try to adhere to the first pole without recognising the second are not true to the Reformers’ principle of Ecclesia semper reformanda est (the church is always to be reformed). There always seems to be a vocal party within the Reformed family who want to over-emphasise the former at the expense of the latter. Perhaps some words from Bavinck would be helpful (they usually are):

All the misery of the Presbyterian Churches is owing to their striving to consider the Reformation as completed, and to allow no further development of what has been begun by the labor (sic) of the Reformers. . . . Calvinism wishes no cessation of progress and promotes multi-formity. It feels the impulse to penetrate ever more deeply into the mysteries of salvation…
Herman Bavinck, “The Future of Calvinism,” The Presbyterian and Reformed Review 5 (1894): 23 cited by Harvie Conn, Eternal Word and Changing Worlds, 221.

To return to the original tension, resolving the difficulties inherent in confessional subscription is no straightforward matter. This is clear from a debate on confessional subscription held at Westminster Theological Seminary (California) at the end of the last century. The debate was between Dr William Barker, professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) and Dr Morton Smith, professor of biblical and systematic theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The former spoke in defence of system (or loose) subscription and the latter in favour of full (or strict) subscription. One report of the debate relates the following:

Smith submits that there is biblical warrant for insisting on full subscription and the church must prohibit any teaching contrary to the standards in order to preserve orthodoxy. The Westminster Standards teach “nothing more or less than the very doctrines of the Word.” If exceptions are allowed to be taught, then ruin is inevitable…

Barker objected to the claim that the Westminster Standards teach “nothing more or less than the very doctrines of the Word.” According to him, this is de facto elevation of the Standards to the authority of Scripture.

Smith defended himself against the charge of elevating the Westminster Standards to the authority of Scripture by appealing to language within the Confession itself which teaches that the Scripture is our single rule for faith and life. If the Confession says this so clearly, then certainly one cannot charge the Confession with being elevated to a position which itself denies.

Here is the tension in black and white. For me, the position argued by Barker displays a greater level of intellectual honesty. No genuine defence of the charge of elevating the Standards was given by Smith: no-one charges the Confession with anything, but people certainly can be charged with elevating the Confession to a position which it denies itself. If there is to be honesty about the tension between confessionalism and reformation, then there must be an acceptance that subscription to the Confession, however it is labelled must involve a certain freedom of interpretation. Otherwise there is indeed a de facto elevation of it to a position of authority on a par with scripture. And yet, the debating of that freedom is always where the rub is.

The Westminster Confession is an incredible statement of the Reformed Faith. I have affirmed it as the statement of my own faith. However, we mustn’t forget that, in the words of the Confession itself:

All synods or councils, since the Apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both (WCF 31.4).

More Defending Religion

salem_largeLast time, I posted on what seems to me to be a common evangelical meme that goes something like this:

  • religion is about doing good works so that we get saved
  • Christianity is not about doing good works so that we get saved
  • ergo Christianity is not a religion
  • ergo religion is evil

The apostle James is clear that Christianity is a religion and that good works are important. And so the meme begins to unravel…. Whilst some religions might be about doing good works so that people will be saved, Christianity proclaims that faith in Jesus Christ as Messiah-God brings salvation. And genuine faith in Jesus is intimately linked with the good works that flow from it.

So, if the meme is demonstrably untrue, why does it persist? It’s an evangelical meme, the target of which is often legalistic or ‘nominal’ religion. That is, the problem of a faithless Christianity, or mere churchgoing. Doubtless, ‘nominal’ Christianity is a big problem in Britain in 2014. The ritual of mere churchgoing can empty Christianity of its power. It’s seen just as a cultural expression, or a social activity (as an aside, it’s not as big a problem as non-churchgoing!). Anyway, it’s the use of this meme in attacking the church that is, for me, the most worrying aspect. Last year, in an evangelical church outside Scotland, I heard this meme used in a prelude to describing (from the pulpit) other denominations’ religion as ‘poison’. This kind of attack dishonours the Head of the Church and hands a plateful of reasons to non-Christians for ignoring the church, and to other Christians for leaving the church. It’s an example of what Herman Bavinck wrote about (something I’ve quoted before):

Instead of making a broad and inclusive survey of all churches, carefully distinguishing between true and false, not throwing out the wheat with the chaff, they simply with one fell swoop condemn all churches as false, call all believers to secession and frequently elevate separation itself to an article of faith.… What is the fruit of all this? Not a reformation of churches but an increase in their number and a perpetuation of division. The Catholicity of Christianity and Church

It’s not that I don’t think nominalism is a problem, but nominalism exists in every church, and we need to be careful to distinguish an ignorant nominalism from what the divines called ‘hypocrisy’. ‘Hypocrisy’ is the phenomenon of people who profess faith and who belong to a church where they hear the true and sincere proclamation of the apostolic gospel of Jesus Christ, but who actually do not truly follow Jesus (often exhibited in an extremely selective following of Jesus’s and the apostles’ teachings). This is ‘nominal’ religion despite and in the face of the truth being proclaimed. It’s the kind of ‘nominal’ religion that is criticised by the apostle James. And it’s closer to home than we often want to admit – Herman Bavinck (assuming a James-like mode) also wrote of the hypocrisy of the Protestant emphasis on truth at the expense of any real emphasis on works, calling it an effective belief in ‘justification by good doctrine’.

That kind of thing is very different to ‘nominal religion’ in congregations where the gospel has been neutered by liberal theology, or  reduced to a kind of social theory. The regular folk (not the leaders, but those in the pews) who are nominally Christians in these churches are like sheep without a shepherd. How does the anti-religion meme attack benefit them? It’s a bit like a home carer who mechanically undertakes their designated tasks without showing any love for the person they’re caring for. What would you do? Tell them that what they’re doing is worthless, poisonous, evil? Or, teach them the importance of loving the person they’re caring for, so that their tasks take on a new quality and significance and so that their relationship with the cared-for person is transformed? The larger point is that a church where there is hypocrisy or nominalism is still a church – thank the Lord for his mercy to us all! Even where the Christian religion expressed by a church is full of faults and errors, it does not mean de facto that its religion ceases to be Christianity. In such churches, an informed critique ought to be directed at those who in such situations have neglected to teach the orthodoxy of the gospel.

It’s wrong to simply write off the rituals of religion, the ‘habits’ of our faith. What about all those times when we ourselves have been carried by the rituals and duties of the Christian religion through rocky and difficult patches in our lives? Sometimes, during periods of doubt, or struggle (whether with stressful circumstances, depression, or sin) we don’t feel like going to church; we don’t feel like praying; we don’t feel like reading our Bibles. But, our sense of duty – the ‘habit’ of attending the ritual – takes us out of the door to the prayer meeting or the Sunday service. And, often, we are blessed. Is that wrong? No. What about all of those people for whom ritual observance is merely the beginning of the journey to faith? In these rituals, Jesus is present and meets with us. Ritual plays an important role in forming our Christian characters and communities, and in giving stability to lives that are not immune to the trials of living in a fallen world. When we meet for worship, the ritual of singing together expresses our corporate worship of God in Christ and binds us together. The ritual of reading together from God’s Word unites us in a corporate hearing and affirmation of God’s truth. The rituals of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not mere symbols, but signify deep spiritual truths and carry real spiritual blessings. The rituals and disciplines of gathering for public and family worship, private prayer and Bible reading are at the heart of our faith. These rituals are part of our religion. For other brothers and sisters, the creeds, the Book of Common Prayer – these would be included too. The repeated ‘doing’ of them is important. Our religion and its rituals are important in inviting, nurturing and maintaining faith.

Addressing Pietism and ‘The Thing’

calvinA busy few weeks attending the British New Testament Conference and researching at Tyndale House has kept me away from World Without End. But, my mind has been turning over the things that I’ve posted on previously: the influence of pietistic dualism (the strict separation of natural and supernatural) in the Church. Whilst away I had a stimulating conversation about the influence of Pietism in Welsh evangelicalism. Just yesterday, I read an interview with the first Jesuit head of the Catholic Church – a Pope who celebrates the particular mysticism of the Society of Jesus. Closer to home, there is the mystical dualism of the traditional local Catholicism and the evident strong strain of pietistic mysticism (with its attendant dualism) in Scottish Presbyterianism, especially in the Highlands and Islands. In a previous post, I noted Bavinck’s view that this kind of pietism was incapable of the Reformation of the church. The Reformation project at its very heart sought to fundamentally connect the natural and supernatural.

Conventionally, the Reformation of the sixteenth century is seen exclusively as a reformation of the church. In fact, however, it was much more than that; it was a radically new way of conceiving Christianity itself. Rome’s world-and-life view was dualistic; her disjunction between the natural and supernatural was a quantitative one. By returning to the New Testament, the Reformers replaced this with a truly theistic worldview that made the distinction a qualitative one. Bavinck, The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church, 235.

The Reformers’ healthy, biblical view of Christianity (a ‘Worldly Christianity’) was rooted in the place they afforded to the doctrine of creation. It was good ol’ Jean Calvin who took this furthest…

In the powerful mind of the French Reformer, re-creation is not a system that supplements Creation, as in Catholicism, not a religious reformation that leaves Creation intact, as in Luther, much less a radically new creation as in Anabaptism, but a joyful tiding of the renewal of all creatures. Here the Gospel comes fully into its own, comes to true catholicity. There is nothing that cannot or ought not to be evangelized. Not only the church but also home, school, society, and state are placed under the dominion of the principle of Christianity. 238

But, this great principle of the Reformation – of the goodness of creation, of God’s purpose to affirm and renew all things in Christ – did not take root. By the time of the Westminster Confession, this aspect of Reformation thought is waning. In Bavinck’s words, ‘the Reformation retreated into itself’. The dualistic outlook remained.

I’ve become convinced that it is Pietism that is at the root of some of the common problems found in traditional Highland Presbyterianism. Congregations which have retreated from the world, which are unable to either mobilise or contextualise their mission, which show little concern for social justice, and which have a negative view of language and culture – these congregations can be identified, but why are they like this? They have ‘the thing’, that intangible, nebulous affliction discerned through its symptoms. To my mind, ‘the thing’ is rooted in Pietism and must be addressed by a truly Reformed, Worldly Christianity. Mere ‘Evangelicalism’ cannot be the answer, because Pietism is alive and well in that school of thought as well. If we want a focus for the on-going task of Reformation in Scotland, then the all-embracing, most-wholeheartedly biblical, creation-affirming principles of Calvin’s Reformed thought are what we must grasp and apply.

The Roots of Pietistic Dualism

monasteryIn The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church, Bavinck traces the influence of that dualistic view of the world which is at the heart of pietistic Christianity and finds its roots in the early church:

It is not to be denied that the vision of the world held by the first Christians was, in general, extremely dark. The apologists saw a work of the devil in pagan culture. Not only the theater but also pagan science, philosophy, and art were strongly condemned by many. Wealth, luxury, and earthly goods were regarded with suspicion. Marriage was not condemned, but a celibate life was still prized more highly. A certain tendency toward asceticism arose rather quickly. The hallmark of a true Christian was a contempt for the world and for death. The second and third centuries are filled with dualism and asceticism. 228

From this view, according to Bavinck, comes the mediaeval conception of the kingdom of God, the work of Christ and of the Spirit. This was the view of the church that the Reformers came out from. Bavinck acknowledges that there are differences between the mediaeval view and that of Roman Catholicism in his day. This will be even more the case today, post-Vatican II, but Bavinck’s description of the Roman Catholic view of grace is still broadly valid:

It does not reform and renew that which exists, it only completes and perfects Creation. Christianity is that which transcends and approaches the natural, but it does not penetrate it and sanctify it. With this, Rome, that considers itself to be truly catholic, changes the character of New Testament catholicity…The catholicity of the Christian principle that purifies and sanctifies everything is exchanged for a dualism that separates the supernatural from the natural by considering it as transcendent above the natural. 229

It is not difficult from this to see how it became necessary for Rome to set itself over against culture, the state, society, science, and art. According to Rome, Christianity is exclusively church. Everything depends on this. Outside the church is the sphere of the unholy. The goal had to be to bring about the church’s hegemony over everything…. Thus, while the natural order is in itself good, it is of a lower order…worldly art is good but ecclesiastical art is better. Marriage is not rejected, but celibacy is the ultimate Christian ideal. Possessions are legitimate, but poverty is meritorious. Practicing an earthly vocation is not a sin, but the contemplative life of the monk has a greater excellence and worth. 230

This outlook, present in mediaeval Christianity and challenged by the Reformers, re-emerged in similar (but not identical) form in Protestant evangelicalism.

Humility, Perspective and Balance


Without a doubt, there is a glorious truth to be found in Pietism and all the religious movements akin to it. Jesus himself indeed calls us to the one thing that is necessary, namely, that we seek the kingdom of heaven above all and set aside concerns about everything else because our heavenly Father knows what we need. The life of communion with God has its own content and is not exhausted in our moral life or in the exercise of our earthly vocation.

The mystical life has its own legitimacy alongside activity; the busyness of work makes rest necessary; Sunday, though situated at the beginning of the work days, does remain next to them. In this dispensation we will never achieve the full harmony and unity that we expect in the future. Some onesideness will remain in us as persons and churches. None of us has our intellect, emotions and will, our head, heart and hand, equally governed by the Gospel.

However, in order to prevent the “spiritual” (godsdienstige), side of Christianity — that which in the good sense of the term can be called the “ascetic” side — from degenerating into an improper mysticism and monastic spirituality, it needs to be supplemented by the moral (zedelijke) — the truly human side.

Faith appears to be great, indeed, when a person renounces all and shuts himself up in isolation. But even greater, it seems to me, is the faith of the person who, while keeping the kingdom of heaven as a treasure, at the same time brings it out into the world as a leaven, certain that He who is for us is greater than he who is against us and that He is able to preserve us from evil even in the midst of the world.

— Herman Bavinck, The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church

Pietism: Missing the Full Truth

One of the most fascinating themes in Herman Bavinck’s The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church is his conviction that a dualistic view of the world (as found in pietism) is an enemy of the catholicity of Christianity. It’s far from a mute point. Evangelicalism grew in the soil of pietism and continues, to a greater or lesser extent, in that vein today. I’ve already posted on Rookmaaker’s brief description and critique of pietism in Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, where he labels it ‘mysticism’.

Bavinck’s own assessment is that pietism

sin(s) against the catholicity of Christianity and the church and (is) thus incapable of the Reformation to which we are called today. 244

Bavinck has no desire to overstate the case in a critique of pietistic Christianity:

It is not our intention here to deny the gift that God gave to the church in times of decline through such men as Fox and Wesley, Spener and Francke, Von Zinzendorf and Labadie, Darby and Irving, Moody and Booth. And who would deny the rich blessing that often rested on their work? Their passion, courage, faith, and love were admirable. Their protest against the worldliness and corruption of the church was not without foundation. Often they were seized by a holy passion for the honor of God and the salvation of people or else, withdrawing to a life of solitude, they excelled in many Christian virtues… 245-6

He does however, highlights its weaknesses:

Nonetheless, there is something lacking in their Christianity. It immediately makes a different impression on us than the truly Christian and also thoroughly healthy worldview of the Reformers. One misses the genuine catholicity of the Christian faith in them…. 246

It needs to be noted that while this orientation has much about it that is Christian, it is missing the full truth of Christianity. It is a denial of the truth that God loves the world. It is dedicated to conflict with and even rejection of the world but not to “the victory that overcomes it” in faith. 246-7

In a Reformed and Reforming church, we must pursue the ‘full truth of Christianity’ – that God loves the world.

The Breath-taking Beauty of Catholicity

font2I’ve been reading and re-reading Herman Bavinck’s ‘The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church’. This 1888 address, delivered at Kampen, has really grabbed me. Our church structures and relationships must assist us never to lose sight of the great truth of the catholicity of the Church of Christ. Different traditions, different doctrines, different understandings, but where there is orthodoxy, there is unity. One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism. Too often we want to respond to these kind of sentiments with a ‘Yes, but…’. Can we just pause and reflect on the Unity of All Christ’s People? One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism.

This catholicity of the church, as the Scriptures portray it for us and the early churches exemplify it for us is breath-taking in its beauty. Whoever becomes enclosed in the narrow circle of a small church (kerkje) or conventicle, does not know it and has never experienced its power and comfort. Such a person short-changes the love of the Father, the grace of the Son, and the fellowship of the Spirit and incurs a loss of spiritual treasures that cannot be made good by meditation and devotion. Such a person will have an impoverished soul.  

By contrast, whoever is able to see beyond this to the countless multitudes who have been purchased by the blood of Christ from every nation and people and age, whoever experiences the powerful strengthening of faith, the wondrous comfort in times of suffering to know that unity with the whole church militant that has been gathered out of the whole human race from the beginning to the end of the world, such a person can never be narrow-minded and narrow-hearted.   

Herman Bavinck The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church
Within our denominations, in the realisation of fellowship and partnership between our congregations, in the unity of vision and adventure for the kingdom in our presbyteries, in the vision for the nation and our speaking truth to power, and in a multitude of other ways, we are aware of the church being bigger than our own small church, congregation or conventicle.
Through our denominations and their ecumenical relationships with other churches both in the UK and around the world, we are aware of the global beauty of the Church. Let us work hard in our own work, but let us shun parochialism. Let us hold to our own distinctives, but be passionate about ecumenism. Let’s not lose sight of the breath-taking beauty of the catholicity of the Church.
One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism.

Contraction and Expansion

MenorahThis from Bavinck’s ‘The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church’, as published in Calvin Theological Journal in 1992:
Our attention is unavoidably drawn to the fact that the five books of Moses, which begin with the grandeur of Creation, with a vision of the entire cosmos and the whole of humanity, conclude by focusing attention on a small and insignificant people and its minute concerns about holiness and cult. There seems to be an undeniable disproportionality between this sublime beginning and this narrowly focused conclusion….
In Israel itself revelation dominates everything. A separation between the cult (godsdienst) and the rest of life is altogether impossible. All dualism is eschewed in the unity of God’s theocratic rule… Here we encounter an inner catholicity, a religion that encompasses the whole person in the wholeness of life…. In this way Israel’s theocracy is a by of the coming kingdom of God that shall take up into itself all that is good and true and beautiful. The prophets unveil for us the mystery that Israel’s religion will not be restricted to national Israel. The universal kernel breaks out of the particular husk in which it is enclosed…  In the future all nations will be blessed by Abraham’s seed. Torah, history, and prophecy, each in its own way, point to this glorious future. The day is coming when through the servant of the Lord, the light of Israel will shine upon the nations, and the Lord’s salvation will reach to the ends of the earth.