Monday, April 30, 2012

Some Reflections on a New Reformed Confession

This morning I learned from Mike Bird at Euangelion about a new Reformed Confession drawn up under the auspices of the World Reformed Fellowship.  As Bird notes in his post (drawn from the Introduction penned by the Rev. Professor A. T. B. McGowan):
The purpose of the new confession was (1) to provide a statement of faith that would be agreed upon by Reformed churches that used different Reformed confessions from the Westminster Standards (Scottish) to the Three Forms of Unity (Continental Reformed); (2) To address issues that are encountered by the Reformed churches in the twenty-first century, not Roman Catholicism and Arminianism from the 17th century, but liberalism, postmodernism, and pluralism; and (3) To reflect the beliefs of the Reformed churches that are global rather than Eurocentric (accordingly there was a very international list of members on the panel).
As someone who stands broadly within the Reformed stream of theology flowing from the Reformation and who is Calvinistic in his soteriology, this news piqued my interest greatly.  Having now read through the long (19 pages!) confession twice, I offer the following observations and reflections.

Confessional documents are interesting, illuminating creatures.  In contrast with such  formulae as the Apostles' and Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creeds, which serve to define the essential content of the faith of the ecumenical church, confessional formulae such as the Augsburg Confession (1530), the Thirty-Nine Articles (1563), the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), and this new Statement of Faith of the WRF serve to define the "standards" of a discreet group within the universal Body of Christ.  As such they not only serve as convenient boundary markers (a good thing)—i.e., what does it mean to be Lutheran, Anglican, or "Reformed"?—but they also can and, at times, do serve as "blinders" to discerning observation and inhibitors to better historical interpretations and contemporary contextualizations of the biblical text (a bad thing).  This was one concern about the creeds articulated by the (Anglican) Tom Wright in his new book, How God Became King (see my ongoing reviews here and here).  If the creeds, how much more the Protestant confessions!  This warning is especially a propos when so-called "Confessional" Evangelicals act as though their confessional affirmations bear scriptural authority while giving lip-service to a denial of that commensurability.

Moreover, confessional documents are always historically- and culturally-conditioned.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the doctrinal statement of my alma mater, Dallas Theological Seminary, originally drawn up to serve as a definitive statement of the scholastic dispensationalism popular in the first half of the 20th century.  Though still dispensational (in a greatly modified way), the theological emphases of the school's curriculum hardly match the heavy Israel versus Church and futuristic eschatological emphases of its official doctrinal statement.  Likewise, an earlier incarnation of the doctrinal statement of the Bible College where I formerly taught had an obviously secondary, blunt statement against the continuance of the "sign gifts" of the Spirit that was designed transparently to counter the charismatic movement popular in the 1960s and 1970s.  In such cases, it is not difficult to discern who the implicit opponents of the drafters were.

This new statement is no different in two respects.  First, despite the stated desire to speak to issues relevant to the 21st century, the confession remains largely directed (at least in its soteriological sections) against the traditional Reformed targets of Roman Catholicism and Arminianism.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, though at times it can be.  For example, while Calvin and his heirs may certainly have had better interpretations than their Catholic opponents, they may still have failed to provide optimal interpretations because, of course, their interpretations were conditioned by the thought world of their day (the same goes for us, as well, no matter how clearly we prefer to see it exclusively in others from the past).  One example of this leads me to the next point.

Second, the confession, while supposedly aiming to target contemporary issues like liberalism, postmodernism, and pluralism, gives inordinate focus to matters they see as being under siege from "insiders."  A number of issues stand out.  I will mention two.  The first is, as one might expect, justification, which takes up three sections (V.6-8).  Clearly intended to counteract the influence of N. T. Wright, the document reads as follows:

6. Justification

Justification is the act of God which follows effectual calling by the Holy Spirit and the sinner’s consequent response of repentance and faith: ‘whom he called, these he also justified.’ In justification God declares sinners to be righteous in his sight, regarding their sins as forgiven and counting the righteousness of Christ as belonging to them. Justification is not a pretence on God’s part that sinners are righteous when in fact they are guilty. For justification to be real and consistent with the holiness of God, it must have a meritorious ground. A real righteousness must exist for God to be righteous in his declaration of justification. Sinners are justified on the basis of a righteousness supplied by another, the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ which is counted as belonging to them. This imputation of the righteousness of Christ is

fundamental to the Christian faith.

7. The righteousness of Christ is the basis of our justification

The righteousness of Christ comprises his life of perfect obedience to every commandment of the law of God and his death on the cross by which he bore the penalty of God’ holy wrath due to the sins of all his people, a work sealed by his triumphant resurrection. Believers now share the same righteous status as Christ who has satisfied all the demands of God’s law in their place and on their behalf. The ground of the sinner’ justification is solely the perfect righteousness of Christ.

8.The harmony between Paul and James in their teaching about justification

There is no conflict between the teaching of Paul and that of James regarding justification. Paul writes of justification as pardon and acceptance before God; James insists that if this justification is real, it will show itself in a life of obedience.

This is simply a restatement, in contemporary language, of traditional Reformed theology on this subject which, as any Evangelical academician knows, Reformed folk have been exceedingly zealous to defend in recent years.  Nevertheless, one wishes they had taken more time to study the work of one of their own, Professor Bird, whose The Saving Righteousness of God provides a better way out of the impasse.  In particular, their insistence of the "imputation of Christ's righteousness" is an advance upon, and corrective to, prior Roman Catholic notions.  Nevertheless, I would maintain that it is not optimal: not only does it continue to understand "righteousness" along the lines of the medieval discussions of iustitia, it also ultimately fails to see justification as a metaphor, in which "righteousness" is not behavior—let alone a reservoir of meritorious achievement to be drawn upon by the elect—but rather a status granted, i.e., the status of having been declared "Not Guilty" by God the Judge.  Likewise, their definition of Christ's "righteousness" that serves as the "ground" of justification as both his obedience to the Law (this is itself problematic at multiple levels) and atoning death runs counter to Paul's teaching in Romans 5:18-19, where Christ's "obedience" and "act of righteousness" are transparently to be limited to his "obedience to death" (as even Reformed scholars Herman Ridderbos and Doug Moo acknowledge).  Finally, their harmonization of Paul and James is somewhat problematic.  Specifically, their assertion that "James insists that if this justification is real, it will show itself in a life of obedience" blatantly misstates what James says.  On the contrary, James concludes, "You see that a person is justified by works, and not by faith alone" (Jas 2:24).  Now, I don't for a minute believe that Paul and James are difficult to reconcile.  Nor do I think that what they say James says is theologically objectionable (though what they say is probably how Paul would have resolved the tension).  It simply is not what James said. And, if we are to be "biblicists" (in the best sense of the term), we must let James be James.  Certainly, semantic imprecision in the name of simplicity is not the route to take.

The second issue is that of so-called complementarianism between male and female as God's creatures.  It was shocking, to say the least, to find already as I.2 the following claim:

There is a basic equality of being between men and women but with differences, so that the callings of men and women are not interchangeable but complementary. Although there is no distinction of gender in God, he reveals himself to us essentially in masculine terms and his Son became incarnate as a male.

To be up front: I am not a strict "complementarian" in the euphemistic sense intended by modern adherents of the term, i.e., as a code word denoting a permanent hierarchy of authority between men and women (I believe in complementarity, of course, but not a necessary, gender-based authoritarian structure and circumscription of roles in the home).  But this statement really surprised me.  Normally "complementarians" limit the hierarchy to the spheres of the home and the church.  Not here.  To expand the range of female subordination is bad enough.  But to raise it to the level of confessional conscription is doubly bad.

Despite these criticisms (I could make many more, but then again, I'm not trying to associate with the group), this new confession does have a number of strengths.  I will mention two in particular.  The first concerns the explicit calls to compassionate concern for social justice as a necessary element in the church's mission.  Thus, for example, X.1, entitled "Our calling to be God's witnesses through word and deed:"

Our mission in the world flows from our passion for the glory of God and our assurance of the coming of his kingdom. The church as the community of Christ, is God’ instrument of evangelism, which is the preaching and sharing of the gospel of Jesus Christ, through both words and deeds, that Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead according to the Scriptures and that he, as the reigning Lord, now offers forgiveness of sin, eternal life and gifts of the Spirit to all who repent and believe. In obedience to the commission of our God, we have to present two hands to all people: (1) the hand calling them to repentance, faith and eternal reconciliation with God through Christ, and (2) the hand manifesting deeds of mercy and compassion, extending the goodness of God’ kingdom on earth in the name of Christ. This is the example given to us by Christ himself and proclaims that we are conformed to the image of Christ and have received the Holy Spirit as the first fruits and guarantee of God’s new creation.
This is quite a good statement, as are the calls for Christian compassion (X.3) and transformation of human society (X.4), though I suspect Darryl Hart will not appreciate the latter article.  It is in places like this that the influence of Christians from the third world most likely has manifested itself.

Finally, the confession gives a nod to biblical theology and to the salvation-historical outworking of God's purposes.  Though, in my opinion, it underplays the discontinuity essential to New Testament theology and the role of the story of Israel in the biblical narrative, the confession reaches its greatest heights when it writes, concerning the eternal plan of God:

At the very beginning of time there was a promise of fulfilment in the end of Adam’s probation, God’s Sabbath rest, and the promise of eternal life from the tree of life. All these anticipated God’s intention to perfect what he had made very good. Paul saw the resurrection (or recreation) of the last Adam as the fulfilment of the creation of the first Adam before the Fall. The history of redemption is the outworking of God’ saving purposes, culminating in the life and death of the Saviour, the taking of salvation to the nations, and the eschatological recreation of heaven and earth. In the present time, those who are united to Christ already experience the power of the world to come by the Spirit who lives in them. Even though they will experience death, they already have a taste of the future resurrection.

 This is the type of theology that gets my blood moving.

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