Saturday, August 2, 2008

Arguing from the confessions

Reading yesterday's selection at Daily Confession it occurred to me that it's a good idea when arguing for the truth of Reformed (or Calvinistic) theology to argue on the basis of Scripture and the Reformed confessions (Westminster Standards and Three Forms of Unity). This might seem like a self-evident statement, but usually people argue on the basis of what such-and-such popular conference speaker said or what so-and-so theologian wrote. That's unfortunate because the confessions are the finest distillation of what 16th and 17th century Reformed pastors and theologians believed Scripture taught. Yesterday's reading was Articles 15 & 16 of the Canons of Dordt, which came out of the Synod of Dordt convened to respond to the Arminian Remonstrants.

I was struck by the compelling way these two articles address two common objections to the monergistic doctrines of grace. Article 15 addresses the objection that these doctrines tend to foster pride or an exclusivistic attitude. I'm sure there are prideful Calvinists out there, but that's the fault of their sinful hearts not the theology. Properly understood, these doctrines cast down pride and remove all grounds for boasting. Paul writes to his child in the faith Timothy, "that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost." Notice he didn't say, "of whom I was the foremost." This is Paul's appraisal of his present situation. How can we say any different?

Article 15: Responses to God’s Grace

God does not owe this grace to anyone. For what could God owe to one who has nothing to give that can be paid back? Indeed, what could God owe to one who has nothing of his own to give but sin and falsehood? Therefore the person who receives this grace owes and gives eternal thanks to God alone; the person who does not receive it either does not care at all about these spiritual things and is satisfied with himself in his condition, or else in self-assurance foolishly boasts about having something which he lacks. Furthermore, following the example of the apostles, we are to think and to speak in the most favorable way about those who outwardly profess their faith and better their lives, for the inner chambers of the heart are unknown to us. But for others who have not yet been called, we are to pray to the God who calls things that do not exist as though they did. In no way, however, are we to pride ourselves as better than they, as though we had distinguished ourselves from them.

An even more common objection is that the Reformed doctrines of grace negate human intellect and freedom of will...basically turning us into puppets or automatons at the mercy of a capricious God. I'll let Article 16 speak for itself.

Article 16: Regeneration’s Effect

However, just as by the fall man did not cease to be man, endowed with intellect and will, and just as sin, which has spread through the whole human race, did not abolish the nature of the human race but distorted and spiritually killed it, so also this divine grace of regeneration does not act in people as if they were blocks and stones; nor does it abolish the will and its properties or coerce a reluctant will by force, but spiritually revives, heals, reforms, and — in a manner at once pleasing and powerful — bends it back. As a result, a ready and sincere obedience of the Spirit now begins to prevail where before the rebellion and resistance of the flesh were completely dominant. It is in this that the true and spiritual restoration and freedom of our will consists. Thus, if the marvelous Maker of every good thing were not dealing with us, man would have no hope of getting up from his fall by his free choice, by which he plunged himself into ruin when still standing upright.

Hallelujah what a Saviour!


Randy said...

Hi Steve,
Always nice to follow your blog, and the movie stuff is interesting and artfully done.

I like your premise in this recent blog about confessions -- so true that we often try to say it ourselves when it is better formulated elsewhere, etc. you might expect, I'd like to engage on two small points.
You quoted this last sentence in the one selection:
"Thus, if the marvelous Maker of every good thing were not dealing with us, man would have no hope of getting up from his fall by his free choice, by which he plunged himself into ruin when still standing upright."
1. Working backwards from the last phrase, "when still standing upright" is a curious expression. I can imagine rejoinders, but I have to ask "Where in Reformed theology is a human being ever considered to be "standing upright" BEFORE plunging himself into ruin? I assume this is a reference to Adam, for no one after Adam could ever be considered "upright" before said choice, could they? Please feel free to straighten me out -- or not. I just can't see how such a concept could ever apply to anyone but the first Adam. And...I do not think "in Adam's sin we sinned all" saves the problem here.

2. The phrase "if the marvelous Maker of every good thing were not dealing with us, man would have no hope of getting up from his fall by his free choice", as far as it goes, has NO quarrel with standard Wesleyan understanding. Much maligned as "semi-pelagians" or whatever, we would indeed be heretics if we imagined we could ever have "hope of getting up" had not the "Marvelous Maker of every good thing" dealt with us.
I realize Dordt may have been directed at a statement that said, or was perceived to say, the opposite -- that somehow we had, without God, hope. Is there indeed a statement within standard Synergistic understanding that clearly says we have hope outside of grace?
But I don't need Reformed, Remonstrants, etc. to understand this. I only need Classical Orthodoxy which always maintains that we are hopeless without Christ.

And as to Monergism, a bit oversold in terms of the church's understanding over time, but I've said enough.


Stephen Ley said...

Greetings, Randy! Thanks as always for your gracious comments. As one who's just beginning to discover the richness of the Reformed heritage, I'm glad you liked the premise of this post even though you disagree with some of the substance.

I'm not sure I understand your first point. I take the last sentence of Article 16 to mean we are all "in Adam" and thus unable by our "free choice" to pick ourselves up apart from God's gracious initiative. We take "dead in sin" to mean just that.

As to your second point I accept your representation of Wesleyan theology. I'm far from an authority on this, but it's possible that this particular article of the Canons is not responding to a specific statement from the Remonstrants. Plus, I'd add that one point where the Arminians and Calvinists agreed was on the doctrine of total depravity (although later prominent anti-Calvinists denied it e.g. Charles Finney).

As one who believes the mongergistic understanding of salvation is Scriptural I disagree with your last sentence, but "let everyone be convinced in his own mind." I also join you in happily affirming "mere Christianity" and Classical Orthodoxy as contended for by heroes of the faith from a variety of church traditions.