Presbyterianism

Presbyterianism's Visible Church

Our most recent Sunday School lesson was on the parable of the Sower. The teacher, who is fond of the Westminster Confession, tied Christ's teaching on the wheat and fake wheat with the Confession's notion of the "visible church", but he didn't go into any detail other than mentioning the division of the church into "invisible" and "visible". Naively, one would think that the "invisible" church is the "wheat" from all ages and the "visible" church is the current "wheat" crop.

This naive view is partly right. The Confession does consider the invisible church to be the wheat through all ages:

The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all. -- WCF 25.1

But the Confession considers the visible church to be a community of believers and unbelievers!

The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law)1, consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion and of their children and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ the house and family of God out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. -- WCF 25.2

This clearly puts non-elect into the body of Christ, the Church, because not all who profess believe and not all children of believers are elect. That I'm reading this correctly is confirmed by this citation:

The visible church is the church on earth as Christians see it. ... The visible church will always include some unbelievers... -- Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem, pg. 856-857

I can only wonder why Reform theology puts unbelievers in the church. I suspect it's because they view the church as a place where a particular program is carried out instead of a world-wide community on a mission. For example, according to Calvin, a "true" church is one where the word is preached, the sacraments are properly administered (for some definition of "sacraments" and "properly"), and discipline is administered
2.

This narrowing of interest
3 leads R. C. Sproul to write:

Since the days in which this was written in the seventeenth century, we have seen an explosion of parachurch ministries, such as the Billy Graham Association, Youth for Christ, Young Life, Campus Crusade, and teaching ministries like Ligonier Ministries. There are many ministries that are basically evangelistic, through which people become Christians outside the pale of the visible church. We hope they are quickly brought into the visible church. -- Truths We Confess, R. C. Sproul

This is completely incoherent since, on the one hand, Sproul says people can become Christians outside the ministry of the visible church, yet the Confession states that outside the visible church "there is no ordinary possibility of salvation."

The church builds buildings, but the buildings aren't the church. The church organizes itself to carry out her mission, but the organization isn't the church. The church develops programs and procedures, but these are not the church. The WCF ties itself into knots, in my opinion, by confusing these "accidents" with the "essence" of the visible church. Instead, the church can be viewed in three ways: invisible, visible, and local. The local church is a subset of the visible church which has a location where believers interact with each other and the world and provide various ministries. These local "franchises of the King" can then argue about which franchise has the purer "product", the most capable "employees", the most effective organization, the leading "customer satisfaction" indicators, the highest "health scores", and so on.



[1] This parenthetical aside is puzzling. I think they're trying to say that God only dealt with Israel prior to Christ, but this should obviously be seen to be false. In Romans chapter 4 Paul makes it very clear that the gospel isn't new -- it preceded the giving of the law. That God cared about Gentiles is evident just from reading Jonah (4:10-11), and the Ninevites "believed God" (Jonah 3:5), just as Abraham did.
[2] See also
Article 29 of the Belgic Confession.
[3] The
Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is as true of creeds as it is of languages. Limiting the church to preaching, sacraments, and discipline hinders our ability to reflect on the fullness of kingdom work and to adapt to changes around us. Mike Baer, who wrote Business as Mission, has a wider vision for what the church can -- and should -- be.

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Presbyterianism and the Pope

[Originally published 1/5/2020; Updated 2/6/2020]

Unbeknownst to me, there is a newer version of the Westminster Confession, available
on-line in PDF. Chapter 25.6 now says:

There is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof.

So the Presbyterians decided to agree with me on whether or not the Pope is the anti-Christ. However, given that Presbyterian ideas of what constitutes the invisible and visible churches is incoherent, if the Pope makes the claim that he is the head of the visible church, then all Presbyterians can do is say, "you're not the boss of me!" They certainly don't have a Biblical basis for -- or against -- their position.



Chapter XXV, section VI, of the Westminster Confession says:

There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ.[13] Nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalts himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God.[14]

This is, of course, utter nonsense. Certainly, a Pope may be an anti-Christ, just like a Presbyterian elder may be an anti-Christ. But the Pope is not an anti-Christ, much less
the Anti-Christ, simply by virtue of his office. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

Christ’s Transfiguration aims at strengthening the apostles’ faith in anticipation of his Passion: the ascent onto the “high mountain” prepares for the ascent to Calvary. Christ, Head of the Church, manifests what his Body contains and radiates in the sacraments: “the hope of glory” (Col 1:27; cf. St. Leo the Great, Sermo 51, 3: PL 54, 310c).

Christ “is the head of the body, the Church.” He is the principle of creation and redemption. Raised to the Father’s glory, “in everything he [is] preeminent,” especially in the Church, through whom he extends his reign over all things.

Of the office of Pope, the Catechism says:

The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, “is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful.” “For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.”

A vicar is a representative so, in the Catholic scheme of things, the Pope is the visible "the buck stops here" representative of Christ. One might complain about the use of
unhindered power, but as the Catechism subsequently states, this refers to the relationship between the Pontiff and the College of Bishops; not between Christ and the Church.

Too, one might argue about what the structure of the visible church should be: a group of unallied independent congregations, independent congregations joined in a voluntary flat federation, congregations organized in a hierarchy, or whatever other scheme might come to mind. Scripture doesn't say how churches are to be organized. A hierarchical organization with a single head, who reports to Christ, is certainly one way to do things. The
Presbyterian church is hierarchical, although that doesn't prevent our presbytery from being about as useful as a camouflaged golfball.

Finally, it might be argued that the Pope is the Anti-Christ because of doctrinal differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Certainly, Protestants and Catholics differ on whether or not Peter was the first Pope, issues surrounding apostolic succession, and so on. But the Westminster Confession, in XXV.V, states:

The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error;[10] and some have so degenerated, as to become no Churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan.

As someone who used to write software architecture documents for a living, XXV.V is useless, because it cannot be implemented. That is, there is no test for determining which error(s) result in which congregational classifications. Any Presbyterian could say, "you're a congregation of Satan because you don't measure up to my particular checklist." Vague requirements might make a committee feel like they've accomplished something, but this statement should never have passed critical review.
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Presbyterian's Terrible Responsibility

The more I read the Westminster Confession of Faith, the more frustrated I become. If it were simply the case that the Confession said "this is true" while I happen to think "that is true", then it would be easy to examine the arguments for "this" and "that". But when the Confession makes multiple statements which are true but ends with a conclusion I don't agree with, it's much harder to show where the error lies. Sometimes the error lies in something held to be true, but not explicitly stated. [1] Then you have to find that missing piece and show why it doesn't fit. It can take a great deal of unravelling of the Gordion knot to see where this kind of mistake was made.

An easier example, however, is found in J. Gresham Machen's
Christianity and Liberalism, where a number of true and partially true statements are made leading to a wrong conclusion. He writes:

At the very basis of the work of the apostolic Church is the consciousness of a terrible responsibility. The sole message of life and salvation had been committed to men; that message was at all hazards to be proclaimed while yet there was time. The objection as to the exclusiveness of the Christian way of salvation, therefore, cannot be evaded, but must be met. In answer to the objection, it may be said simply that the Christian way of salvation is narrow only so long as the Church chooses to let it remain narrow. The name of Jesus is discovered to be strangely adapted to men of every race and of every kind of previous education. And the Church has ample means, with promise of God's Spirit, to bring the name of Jesus to all. If, therefore, this way of salvation is not offered to all, it is not the fault of the way of salvation itself, but the fault of those who fail to use the means that God has placed in their hands. But, it may be said, is that not a stupendous responsibility to be placed in the hands of weak and sinful men; is it not more natural that God should offer salvation to all without requiring them to accept a new message and thus to be dependent upon the faithfulness of the messengers? The answer to this objection is plain. It is certainly true that the Christian way of salvation places a stupendous responsibility upon men. But that responsibility is like the responsibility which, as ordinary observation shows, God does, as a matter of fact, commit to men. It is like the responsibility, for example, of the parent for the child. The parent has full power to mar the soul as well as the body of the child. The responsibility is terrible; but it is a responsibility which unquestionably exists. Similar is the responsibility of the Church for making the name of Jesus known to all mankind. It is a terrible responsibility; but it exists, and it is just like the other known dealings of God.

It is true that salvation is found only in Christ. It is true that salvation is by grace, through faith, and that faith comes from hearing the word of God. It is true that there will come a time when there can be no more Gospel proclamation -- the door will shut. The problem is in the notion that the presentation of the Gospel is "committed" to men. The hidden assumption is that we, and we alone, are responsible for delivering the message and that, if we do not, terrible results will follow.

But this position cannot be supported by Scripture. If salvation is by grace, and God's grace is irresistible (as Reform doctrine affirms), then the "terrible responsibility" side must affirm that God's irresistible grace will not reach someone when we fail in our duty to proclaim the kerygma. This ties in with the Presbyterian understanding that one of the "means of grace" is the word, leading to the conclusion that we can thwart God's grace by not evangelizing. But this cannot be true. God does not need us to convey His grace. He can speak through dreams and visions, a burning bush, a donkey, or any other way He desires. Jesus was quite emphatic when He said, "I tell you, if [my disciples] were silent, the stones would shout out!" [2] This also shows a problem with the Presbyterian view of Scripture. Scripture is whatever God says, however God says it, whether it's confined to the pages of 66 books or not. This, of course, opens us up to the problem as old as Eden, "has God said?" But it does the Church no good to take the easy way out and say "these books and no others". That's contrary to what the book itself says. After all, Paul quoted pagan philosophers. But that's a topic for another time.

No, the proclamation of the Gospel is not a "terrible responsibility". Instead, it is joyful participation in Kingdom life. It is joyful because we participate in what the King is doing. [3] It is joyful because it bears fruit. [4] It is joyful because if we fail, we have a Shepherd who will not lose any of His sheep. [5]

If you ask me "why evangelize?" then I will give you two answers. First, our Lord told us to do it. [6]. Second, even a pagan Norse god knows the reason for right behavior: [7]

Heros.Do



[1] The "means of grace" is one such example. "It is only in an indirect way that the Confession treats of the means of grace..," (
here, which then notes, however, of fuller direct exposition in the Catechisms).
[2] Luke 19:40
[3] Rom 10:18
[4] Isaiah 55:11
[5] Ezekiel 34:11-12, John 10:27, John 18:9
[6] Matthew 28:19-20
[7] Thor: Ragnarok.
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Presbyterianism and the Sabbath

The book of Nehemiah came up in the sermon rotation and, in due time, Nehemiah 13:15-22, where Nehemiah lamented the lack of Sabbath observance by the Israelites and took corrective action. Our assistant pastor said [@ 21:11]:

"How are we to worship? ... Very clearly, [our Pastor has] said 'theologians are divided.' I happen to be on the other side, I believe that this is binding to us, this is one of the Ten Commandments..."

This position comes from the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXI:

VII. As it is the law of nature, that, in general, a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God; so, in His Word, by a positive, moral, and perpetual commandment binding all men in all ages, He has particularly appointed one day in seven, for a Sabbath, to be kept holy unto him:[34] which, from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, was the last day of the week: and, from the resurrection of Christ, was changed into the first day of the week,[35] which, in Scripture, is called the Lord's Day,[36] and is to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian Sabbath.[37]

VIII. This Sabbath is to be kept holy unto the Lord when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe an holy rest all the day from their own works, words, and thoughts about their wordly employments and recreations,[38] but also are taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of His worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.[39]

I dissent.

First, the Confession bases the positive command to keep the Sabbath on Exodus 20:8-11 -- the fourth of the Ten Commandments. Even if we ignore the larger discussion of the relation of the New Covenant to the Mosaic Covenant, the Confession ignores what St. Paul says in Romans 14:5-6a:

Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord.

This alone should be enough to show that Sabbath observance, as described in Exodus, is not binding on the Christian. It is permissible for the Christian to treat all days the same.

The Confession also ignores what St. Paul says in Romans 13:9-10:

The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

"And any other commandment" includes the Fourth Commandment in the Mosaic Covenant.

Paul provides yet more detail why love fulfills the Law in Colossians 2:16-17. Because the "substance belongs to Christ":

Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.

Paul repeats this idea in Romans 10:4

For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.

Now, we can argue over what τέλος means in this passage: does it mean the end of the book, or the end of the term of a contract, after which something new happens; or does it mean the goal to which all things point, in which case the thing continues completed? The second part of VII implicitly argues for the latter by claiming that the Christian Sabbath is the first day of the week. But the passages used as support by the Confession say no such thing. The Confession is reading into the text what isn't there. One could also, and with more fidelity to Scripture, argue that the disciples met on the first day of the week because that is when Jesus rose from the dead and began the first day of the new creation.

What the Confession ignores is that Christ, crucified on Good Friday, spent the Sabbath in the tomb. In "
The Parables of Grace", Capon observers:

(Sunday, for Christians, is not the sabbath; it is the First Day of the Week, the Lord's Day, Dies Dominica, celebrated in honor of the resurrection. In the Romance languages, the name for Saturday comes from the Hebrew-e.g., the Italian Sabbato; the name for Sunday comes from the Latin for Lord's Day-e.g., the French Dimanche).

Item. In the old covenant, the sabbath is a day of rest in honor of God's work of creation; in the new covenant, the sabbath becomes a day of death-the day Jesus' body lay in the tomb, the day Christ lag in Totesbanden....

The death of Jesus, therefore, is not just something that lasted through a single sabbath day in the spring of A.D. 29. Precisely because he who was dead that day was the Incarnate Lord, the Second Person of the triune God, his death is an eternal as well as a temporal fact. Jesus is not only risen forever; he is also dead forever.

This is how the substance of the Sabbath belongs to Christ. His body partook in the ultimate rest.

In Romans 6:4-5, Paul shows how this substance belongs to us:

Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

We are united with Him in His perfectly kept Sabbath -- the one He kept in the tomb. And therefore, I also dissent from subsection VIII. We observe the Sabbath by our union with Him by faith.


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John Owen's Trilemma

In today's adult Sunday class on the parable of the wedding banquet (Matthew 22:14), the trilemma of John Owen was mentioned as an aside. Owen tries to show the doctrine of Limited Atonement -- formulated as Christ died only for the elect -- from this argument:

The Father imposed His wrath due unto, and the Son underwent punishment for, either:
  1. All the sins of all men.
  2. All the sins of some men, or
  3. Some of the sins of all men.
In which case it may be said:
  1. That if the last be true, all men have some sins to answer for, and so, none are saved.
  2. That if the second be true, then Christ, in their stead suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the whole world, and this is the truth.
  3. But if the first be the case, why are not all men free from the punishment due unto their sins?
You answer, "Because of unbelief."

I ask, Is this unbelief a sin, or is it not? If it be, then Christ suffered the punishment due unto it, or He did not. If He did, why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which He died? If He did not, He did not die for all their sins!"

I would argue that this argument fails because the correct answer is #3: Christ died for some of the sins of all men. In fact, I would propose a modified form of #3: Christ died for all but one sin of all men. This is, in fact, what Jesus Himself said in Matthew 12:31:

Therefore I tell you, people will be forgiven for every sin and blasphemy, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.

We might argue about what the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit entails, but I hold that it refers to unbelief, since Paul, in Romans 3:21-25, wrote:

But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.

Showing an error in an argument for something, of course, does not prove that thing and this post is not looking at the doctrine of Limited Atonement in general. However, in reviewing the doctrine of Atonement in the Westminster Confessions, I found
this discussion interesting, in that it said that the Amyrauldians present at the Westminster Assembly were not hesitant to sign the Confession. That argues for some ambiguity in the wording of the Confession.
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St. Paul and Antimonianism: Part I

The series on Presbyterianism (Intro) will deal with the role of the Law in the Christian faith. For now, I want to put this aphorism out into the world, as it will be the crux of the forthcoming post on the appearance of antinomianism in St. Paul's thought:

We live within law,

not by law

The charge of antinomianism against Paul is supported by the "not by law" part of the statement. But the charge of antinomianism is ultimately defeated by the "within law" part. The forthcoming post will show how this is so.

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Presbyterianism: Intro

Several weeks ago in Sunday School, before class started, I was asked if I was Presbyterian. I really didn't know how to answer the question. On the one hand, I'm Calvinist in the sense that I hold to at least four of the five points of Calvinism. On some days I affirm all five and other days I affirm four1; still this basic understanding is a prerequisite to Presbyterianism. On the other hand, I've read the Westminster Confession of Faith, agree with some parts of it, disagree with others, and find myself wondering about whether or not I've read it correctly in the first place. Parsing the Westminster Confession can sometimes be as difficult as trying to understand whether or not the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution really provides for individual firearm ownership2. Words can be obtuse, readers can be obtuse, and sometimes both hold. Presbyterians may hold to the "perspicuity of Scripture"3, but the same can't be said about the Confession. To further confuse the issue, I was told recently by the pastor of a Presbyterian church that I am "more Presbyterian" than most in the congregation. He didn't mean that as an insult, but I had to ask, since I've been told that the defining characteristic of Presbyterians is that they like to argue.

So, upon recommendation, I read "
On Being Presbyterian" by Sean Lucas. Written for the laymen, it's a clue as to how Presbyterians understand the Westminster Confession and Scripture. Now, it starts well:


The gospel of the Reformation, which proclaimed that God's righteousness shall come to those who live by faith alone, fundamentally challenged the basis of medieval religion and piety. If salvation came by faith alone in Christ alone, and if this provided an effective removal of religious guilt and anxiety...

But what I find with having been around Presbyterians for some time is that, in my opinion, religious guilt and anxiety is very real. (This isn't limited to Presbyterians, but they are the focus of this series of posts). My thesis is that this is because the Westminster Confession gets several things wrong in critical areas. If orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy (as I believe the Bible affirms), then heterodoxy can lead to heteropraxy4.

Two recent examples of this deal with the doctrine of "irresistible grace". The first error is thinking that, if grace is irresistible, then not only do Christians not need to evangelize, but the elders of a congregation do not need to shepherd the flock. The response to this is, certainly, God does not need us to advance His Kingdom. As far as we know, no missionary came to Abraham. Still, God delights to work through us, imperfect though we may be. We are told to make disciples
5, elders are told to tend the flock6. The second error is thinking our falling short of living the Chrstian life -- our hypocrisy, our hardness of heart, and all of our other failings -- impede the spread of the Gospel. "They won't believe me because I fall short" denies irresistible grace. Irresistible grace should be one ingredient that calms our fears; that is does not means that doctrine and practice haven't been fully integrated.

The next several posts in this series will deal where I dissent from Presbyterianism in the areas of:
  • means of grace
  • the role of law
  • Baptism and Communion
  • Corporate Identity
  • Miscellaneous

Note that I will restrict my musings to topics covered in Lucas' book.



[1] Limited Atonement. I'm so glad we aren't saved because of our correct knowledge.
[2] If the Supreme Court decided
Heller by a 5-4 split, what hope do laymen have?
[3] Westminster Confession of Faith, I.VII
[4] We can sometimes do the right things for the wrong reasons.
[5] Matthew 28:19
[6] 1 Peter 5:1-5


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