Friday, June 21, 2013

Dealing with the state of Evangelicalism

The Aquila Report has reposted an article by R.C. Sproul of Ligonier Ministries, Moving Evangelicals Beyond Idolatry. In this article, Sproul speaks about the issue of idolatry through aberrational and heretical theology in the movement called Evangelicalism today.

Besides the fact that Evangelicalism does not really exists except by marketing [see D.G. Hart, Deconstructing Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004)], the fact of the matter is that its self-created identity has within itself the seed of its own destruction. By pandering to the lowest common denominator, what constitutes the Christian faith becomes more and more restricted to agreement on less and less doctrines, and soon only adherence to the form or the "spirit" of the doctrines remains, which is what had happened in mainstream Protestantism. Many people forget that the Protestantism of the 19th century used to call themselves "Evangelicals," even the liberals, and that the liberals only abandoned the label some time after the Fundamentalist/ Modernist controversy.

So back to the present, what do we make of the current state of Evangelicalism? First, we have to reject the latitudinarianism and doctrinal minimalism endemic to the movement, and thus the movement itself. Loving as it sounds, those who trumpet "Doctrine divides, but love unites" and all its permutations, are to be seen as misguided, however good their intentions. Such attitudes historically result in the destruction of the Church's witnesses and the apostasy of the churches themselves, even if those who trumpet the "love" banner do not intend such to be the result of their attitudes.

Second, if Evangelicalism is that apostate (and anyone who thinks otherwise ought to ask themselves how the early church would have countenanced anyone holding to theories such as Open Theism or even "Evangelical Feminism"), it means that modern Evangelicalism should be seen by us like the (pre-Tridentine) medieval Catholic church. Not yet fully apostate, Evangelicalism is nonetheless hovering around the line between orthodoxy and heresy, between a true church and a false church. That means that Christians ought to treat Evangelicalism like how the Protestants treated the medieval Catholic church. It was a church almost false, desperately needing reform, yet with many believers within her. We accept their sacraments, but should reject many of their churches as being false or almost false.

Modern Roman Catholicism has apostatized even further from Trent, and should be regarded as no church at all. Her sacraments should be seen as invalid, as she has devolved from a false church to a false religion. Modern Evangelicalism has taken the place previously occupied by her. While Evangelicalism still profess the Gospel, we should acknowledge that elements of the true church are within her, though she is in danger of falling.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The New City Catechism: Analysis Part 10

The means of grace

Heidelberg Catechism:

Q65: Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all his benefits by faith only, whence does this faith proceed?
A: From the Holy Ghost, who works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel, and confirms it by the use of the sacraments.

Q116: Why is prayer necessary for Christians?
A: Because it is the chief part of thankfulness which God requires of us: (a) and also, because God will give his grace and Holy Spirit to those only, who with sincere desires continually ask them of him, and are thankful for them.

Q117: What are the requisites of that prayer, which is acceptable to God, and which he will hear?
A: First, that we from the heart pray to the one true God only, who has manifested himself in his word, for all things, he has commanded us to ask of him; secondly, that we rightly and thoroughly know our need and misery, that so we may deeply humble ourselves in the presence of his divine majesty; thirdly, that we be fully persuaded that he, notwithstanding that we are unworthy of it, will, for the sake of Christ our Lord, certainly hear our prayer, as he has promised us in his word.

Westminster Shorter Catechism:

Q88: What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption?
A: The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption are, his ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.

Q89: How is the Word made effectual to salvation?
A: The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.

Q90: How is the Word to be read and heard, that it may become effectual to salvation?
A: That the Word may become effectual to salvation, we must attend thereunto with diligence, preparation, and prayer; receive it with faith and love, lay it up in our hearts, and practice it in our lives.

Q98: What is prayer?
A: Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.

Q99: What rule hath God given for our direction in prayer?
A: The whole Word of God is of use to direct us in prayer; but the special rule of direction is that form of prayer which Christ taught his disciples, commonly called the Lord’s Prayer.

New City Catechism:

Q38: What is prayer?
A: Prayer is pouring out our hearts to God in praise, petition, confession of sin, and thanksgiving.

Q39: With what attitude should we pray?
A: With love, perseverance, and gratefulness; in humble submission to God’s will, knowing that, for the sake of Christ, he always hears our prayers.

Q40: What should we pray?
A: The whole Word of God directs and inspires us in what we should pray, including the prayer Jesus himself taught us.

Q41: What is the Lord’s Prayer?
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

Q42: How is the Word of God to be read and heard?
A: With diligence, preparation, and prayer; so that we may accept it with faith, store it in our hearts, and practice it in our lives.

The Reformed catechisms link salvation to the means of grace, of which the Westminster standards lists the Word, Sacrament and prayer (WSC88), while the Heidelberg Catechism lists only Word and Sacrament (HC67). The concept of "means of grace" refer to those things which are instruments by which God communicates God's special grace to His people [Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology,604-5]. In other words, it is God's condescension to His people and His ordained activities through which God's favor and blessings are poured out on His people. The focus is always on God's gifts to His people. Through attending to these, we are strengthened in our faith.

Right here, we see that the New City Catechism generally follows the language of the WSC, and thus everything seems fine. The problem however goes back to the divorce of these activities from salvation and God's provision to His people. This lends the option of seeing the means of grace not as God's acts, but as Man's work towards God, or in other words "Spiritual Disciplines."

The idea of spiritual discipline refers to things that Man ought to cultivate towards growth in the Christian walk. It does not necessarily have to refer to any form of contemplative spirituality or eastern mysticism. In its most neutral form, spiritual disciplines seem to be virtues that believers should cultivate. After all, doesn't sanctification require us to mortify the flesh and vivify the new man? Certainly, we are not quietists who believe that believers just ought to "let go and let God" to grow in sanctification.

The issue however is not whether sanctification requires effort. The issue is who initiates it and the framework into which our striving in sanctification ought to take place. The difference between the "means of grace" and "spiritual disciplines" thus become clear. The "means of grace" are initiated by God. They are given by God for us to receive as we do them. Yes, we strive in sanctification, but we strive only after God has already given and we strive after receiving from Him. The means of grace are focused especially on God's Word and God's promises in His Word. It is God's voice, God's speech that reaches us, that touches us, that transforms us. Our striving comes after our receiving, and we come again and again to the means of grace to receive from the Lord His Word and His grace to us. In contrast, the "spiritual disciplines" focuses on asking us to do. 'Do this and you shall grow.' Hear the Word, and then you will know God more. Pray more and you will be more spiritual. Read the Scriptures more and you will grow in the knowledge of God. That is the problem! Do versus Done. By making the Christian life one of imperative upon imperative, we go back to a new Judaism where the steps we take towards godliness becomes like the Tower of Babel, with us building our way into the heavens. All the while, the Christian Life is like Jacob's ladder where God descends down to us. Law upon law wearies the soul, and instead of focusing on what Christ has done for us, we start to focus on our good works and godly actions.

The NCC thus opens itself to an interpretation of such activities as spiritual disciplines, instead of seeing them as means of grace. Judging by Tim Keller's love of mystics, it is not a stretch to see that it is possible to interpret those questions as speaking of spiritual disciplines. Without the clear statement that such are means of grace by which God is the initiator, the interpretation as spiritual disciplines cannot be ruled out. Therein lies the weakness of the NCC compared to the older Reformed catechisms, and why the latter are superior to the former.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The New City Catechism: Analysis Part 9 [Edited]

The Holy Spirit

Heidelberg Catechism:

Q53: What dost thou believe concerning the Holy Ghost?
A: First, that he is true and coeternal God with the Father and the Son; secondly, that he is also given me, to make me by a true faith, partaker of Christ and all his benefits, that he may comfort me and abide with me forever.

New City Catechism:

Q36: What do we believe about the Holy Spirit?
A: That he is God, coeternal with the Father and the Son, and that God grants him irrevocably to all who believe.

Q37: How does the Holy Spirit help us?
A: The Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin, comforts us, guides us, gives us spiritual gifts and the desire to obey God; and he enables us to pray and to understand God’s Word.

Historically, the Westminster Catechisms mention the person of the Holy Spirit in their discussion of God, and the work of the Holy Spirit are spoken about throughout the catechisms especially when dealing with the application of redemption, which is the Spirit's primary work now. Thus, they do not have a separate section on the Holy Spirit. The Heidelberg Catechism on the other hand has one question specifically on the Holy Spirit, since it is structured in part as an explanation of the Apostle’s Creed.

The New City Catechism has two questions on the Holy Spirit, which is OK. In light of Pentacostalism and the Charismatic movement, having questions specifically concerning the person and work of the Holy Spirit do seem warranted. That said, the NCC's questions and answers are general enough to encompass both Charismatics and Non-charismatics, and as such are not specific enough.

The New City Catechism: Analysis Part 8

Justification, Sanctification and the various benefits of salvation

Heidelberg Catechism:

Q56: What believest thou concerning "the forgiveness of sins"?
A: That God, for the sake of Christ's satisfaction, will no more remember my sins, neither my corrupt nature, against which I have to struggle all my life long; but will graciously impute to me the righteousness of Christ, that I may never be condemned before the tribunal of God.

Q60: How are thou righteous before God?
A: Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; so that, though my conscience accuse me, that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil; notwithstanding, God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ; even so, as if I never had had, nor committed any sin: yea, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me; inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart.

Q61: Why sayest thou, that thou art righteous by faith only?
A: Not that I am acceptable to God, on account of the worthiness of my faith; but because only the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, is my righteousness before God; and that I cannot receive and apply the same to myself any other way than by faith only.

Q62: But why cannot our good works be the whole, or part of our righteousness before God?
A: Because, that the righteousness, which can be approved of before the tribunal of God, must be absolutely perfect, and in all respects conformable to the divine law; and also, that our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.

Q63: What! do not our good works merit, which yet God will reward in this and in a future life?
A: This reward is not of merit, but of grace.

Q64: But does not this doctrine make men careless and profane?
A: By no means: for it is impossible that those, who are implanted into Christ by a true faith, should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness.

Q65: Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all his benefits by faith only, whence does this faith proceed?
A: From the Holy Ghost, who works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel, and confirms it by the use of the sacraments.

Q86: Since then we are delivered from our misery, merely of grace, through Christ, without any merit of ours, why must we still do good works?
A: Because Christ, having redeemed and delivered us by his blood, also renews us by his Holy Spirit, after his own image; that so we may testify, by the whole of our conduct, our gratitude to God for his blessings, and that he may be praised by us; also, that every one may be assured in himself of his faith, by the fruits thereof; and that, by our godly conversation others may be gained to Christ.

Q87: Cannot they then be saved, who, continuing in their wicked and ungrateful lives, are not converted to God?
A: By no means; for the holy scripture declares that no unchaste person, idolater, adulterer, thief, covetous man, drunkard, slanderer, robber, or any such like, shall inherit the kingdom of God.

Q88: Of how many parts does the true conversion of man consist?
A: Of two parts; of the mortification of the old, and the quickening of the new man.

Q89: What is the mortification of the old man?
A: It is a sincere sorrow of heart, that we have provoked God by our sins; and more and more to hate and flee from them.

Q90: What is the quickening of the new man?
A: It is a sincere joy of heart in God, through Christ, and with love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works.

Q91: But what are good works?
A: Only those which proceed from a true faith, are performed according to the law of God, and to his glory; and not such as are founded on our imaginations, or the institutions of men.

Westminster Shorter Catechism:

Q29: How are we made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ?
A: We are made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ, by the effectual application of it to us by his Holy Spirit.

Q30: How doth the Spirit apply to us the redemption purchased by Christ?
A: The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling.

Q31: What is effectual calling?
A: Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.

Q32: What benefits do they that are effectually called partake of in this life?
A: They that are effectually called do in this life partake of justification, adoption, and sanctification, and the several benefits which in this life do either accompany or flow from them.

Q33: What is justification?
A: Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.

Q34: What is adoption?
A: Adoption is an act of God’s free grace,a whereby we are received into the number, and have a right to all the privileges, of the sons of God.

Q35: What is sanctification?
A: Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

Q36: What are the benefits which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption, and sanctification?
A: The benefits which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption, and sanctification, are, assurance of God’s love, peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Ghost, increase of grace, and perseverance therein to the end.

Q39: What is the duty which God requireth of man?
A: The duty which God requireth of man, is obedience to his revealed will.

Q40: What did God at first reveal to man for the rule of his obedience?
A: The rule which God at first revealed to man for his obedience, was the moral law.

Q41: Wherein is the moral law summarily comprehended?
A: The moral law is summarily comprehended in the ten commandments.

Q42: What is the sum of the ten commandments?
A: The sum of the ten commandments is, to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength, and with all our mind; and our neighbor as ourselves.

New City Catechism:

Q32: What do justification and sanctification mean?
A: Justification means our declared righteousness before God, made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection for us. Sanctification means our gradual, growing righteousness, made possible by the Spirit’s work in us.

Q33: Should those who have faith in Christ seek their salvation through their own works, or anywhere else?
A: No, they should not, as everything necessary to salvation is found in Christ. To seek salvation through good works is a denial that Christ is the only Redeemer and Savior.

Q34: Since we are redeemed by grace alone, through Christ alone, must we still do good works and obey God’s Word?
A: Yes, because Christ, having redeemed us by his blood, also renews us by his Spirit; so that our lives may show love and gratitude to God; so that we may be assured of our faith by the fruits; and so that by our godly behavior others may be won to Christ.

Q35: Since we are redeemed by grace alone, through faith alone, where does this faith come from?
A: All the gifts we receive from Christ we receive through the Holy Spirit, including faith itself.

As we progress into soteriology proper, we deal with the issues of how exactly a person is made right with God. The focus deals with the relation of faith and good works to salvation, of justification and sanctification. How exactly does the New City Catechism fare here?

It can be seen that the NCC here is orthodox, and its questions and answers are true. It correctly distinguishes justification and sanctification, and speaks of good works as a necessary fruit of our salvation. However, there are a few points of concern with the NCC.

The first concern is that the NCC does not properly define what good works are. As mentioned earlier, by placing the Ten Commandments at the beginning, the NCC seems to focus predominantly on the first use of the Law. Therefore, when the idea of good works comes up, the NCC deals with the why but not the what, reducing good works to 'godly behavior' which is done out of love and gratitude towards God. While all that is true, that does not tell us what good works actually are. The Reformed catechisms on the other hand direct us to the Law of God as the summary of the good we ought to do, and thus there is an emphasis on the third use of the Law as well as the first use in the Reformed catechisms.

The second point of concern has to deal with the atomistic manner that the NCC deals with the topics. The questions become almost academic, as they give textbook-correct answers of what justification and what sanctification are. The NCC however fails to explain how the various applications of redemption (and they did not even use that language) relate to each other. What is the pastoral import of justification, and of sanctification? The NCC does not say. Why do we need to know the difference between justification and sanctification? Compare the short answer in the NCC with the sentences in the Reformed catechisms, where there is shown what justification and sanctification mean specifically for believers. Along these lines of course we could mention the omission of effectual calling as the logical link between Christ's work accomplished and redemption applied to believers. In fact, there is a lack of the mention of Christ's work in the questions of the NCC, which is a real problem. With the doctrines disconnected from each other, why is justification as a one-time act important? One cannot see why knowing the distinction between justification and sanctification is necessary from the NCC as it is.

The third point of concern, which has been mentioned in the previous analysis section, is that there seems to be a divorce of salvation from the means of grace. HC 65 speaks about the confirmation of faith by the use of the sacraments, while we have seen earlier WSC85 connects salvation with the use of the means of grace. Salvation it seems become exclusively internal without any link to the church, which is regrettable.

Prayer request for US Sgt Bergdahl

The OPC General Assembly has called for a day of prayer for the release of US Sgt Bowe Bergdahl, who is a Taliban POW and a non-communicant member of the OPC. This has nothing to do with American wars or the American military, but solely for the safety and release of a Christian brother.

The New City Catechism: Analysis Part 7

Salvation, Unbelief and Saving Faith

Heidelberg Catechism:

Q10: Will God suffer such disobedience and rebellion to go unpunished?
Answer: By no means; but is terribly displeased with our original as well as actual sins; and will punish them in his just judgment temporally and eternally, as he has declared, "Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things, which are written in the book of the law, to do them."

Q11: Is not God then also merciful?
Answer: God is indeed merciful, but also just; therefore his justice requires, that sin which is committed against the most high majesty of God, be also punished with extreme, that is, with everlasting punishment of body and soul.

Q20: Are all men then, as they perished in Adam, saved by Christ?
Answer: No; only those who are ingrafted into him, and, receive all his benefits, by a true faith

Q21: What is true faith?
Answer: True faith is not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in his word, but also an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel in my heart; that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness and salvation, (e) are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ's merits.

Q22: What is then necessary for a christian to believe?
Answer: All things promised us in the gospel, which the articles of our catholic undoubted christian faith briefly teach us.

Q23: What are these articles?
Answer: 1. I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth: 2. And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord: 3. Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary: 4. Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead, and buried: He descended into hell: 5. The third day he rose again from the dead: 6. He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty: 7. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead: 8. I believe in the Holy Ghost: 9. I believe a holy catholic church: the communion of saints: 10. The forgiveness of sins: 11. The resurrection of the body: 12. And the life everlasting.

Westminster Shorter Catechism:

Q84: What doth every sin deserve?
A: Every sin deserveth God’s wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come.

Q85: What doth God require of us, that we may escape his wrath and curse, due to us for sin?
A: To escape the wrath and curse of God, due to us for sin, God requireth of us faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, with the diligent use of all the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption.

Q86: What is faith in Jesus Christ?
A: Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.

Q87: What is repentance unto life?
A: Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.

Q88: What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption?
A: The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption are, his ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.

New City Catechism:

Q27: Are all people, just as they were lost through Adam, saved through Christ?
A: No, only those who are elected by God and united to Christ by faith. Nevertheless God in his mercy demonstrates common grace even to those who are not elect, by restraining the effects of sin and enabling works of culture for human well-being.

Q28: What happens after death to those not united to Christ by faith?
A: At the day of judgment they will receive the fearful but just sentence of condemnation pronounced against them. They will be cast out from the favorable presence of God, into hell, to be justly and grievously punished, forever.

Q29: How can we be saved?
A: Only by faith in Jesus Christ and in his substitutionary atoning death on the cross; so even though we are guilty of having disobeyed God and are still inclined to all evil, nevertheless, God, without any merit of our own but only by pure grace, imputes to us the perfect righteousness of Christ when we repent and believe in him.

Q30: What is faith in Jesus Christ?
A: Faith in Jesus Christ is acknowledging the truth of everything that God has revealed in his Word, trusting in him, and also receiving and resting on him alone for salvation as he is offered to us in the gospel.

Q31: What do we believe by true faith?
A: Everything taught to us in the gospel. The Apostles’ Creed expresses what we believe in these words: We believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

In beginning to deal with the topic of salvation, one would have supposed that the New City Catechism should be a beautiful masterpiece on this topic, coming from people who emphasize the Gospel and the importance of being "Gospel-centered." This section on the beginning of salvation deals with the subjects of the necessity of faith for salvation, the definition of faith and the content of faith for salvation. Sadly, the problems of New Evangelicalism (and even Evangelicalism in general) plague this enterprise, although there are a couple of bright spots here and there.

I will analyze the New City Catechism (NCC) here under the following headings: (1) The issue of common grace in relation to salvation, (2) the eternal destiny of unbelievers, (3) the way of salvation, (4) what is true faith, (5) the content of the Gospel, and (6) salvation and the means of grace.

(1) The issue of common grace in relation to salvation

Question 27 starts off the section of salvation by transiting from the issue of sin and the Fall into the question of salvation. The NCC correctly notes that not everyone will be saved, but only those elected by God and united to Christ in faith, a particularism that is laudable and comparable to the HC and the WSC, noting that it goes against the grain of universalism prevalent in this age. Yet in this question and answer, the insertion of a sentence on God's giving of common grace is extremely problematic, and here's why.

The issue of "common grace" is controversial in conservative Dutch circles, with the PRCA (Protestant Reformed Churches of America) rejecting the idea of common grace. To put it succinctly, the PRCA sees the notion of "common grace" as compromising the doctrine of Total Depravity. After studying the issue, I have seen that the concept of "common grace" was intended by its more orthodox proponents to be non-salvific. God's "common grace" is "common" as it is expressed formally through God's provision in the Noachic Covenant (although it applies even to pre-diluvian times), and it is "grace" as describing God's demerited favor to sinful Man. "Common grace" has therefore to do with God's providence, and not to do with salvation.

Now, it could be objected that "common grace" does provide the environment needed for special grace to function, and thus it is in some sense salvific. But such is to confuse the means and ultimate intent for the immediate intent. God's immediate intent in the Noachic Covenant was not salvation, although His ultimate intent has always been salvation. One cannot confuse the means and ultimate intent with immediate intent. Otherwise we would end up with all sorts of absurd and heretical conclusions. The Gospel functions as the means to harden the reprobates in their transgressions and unrepentance (2 Cor. 2:15-16). Should we therefore conclude that the Gospel is a damning message? God forbid! But that is what happens when we confuse categories and confuse the immediate intent with the ultimate intent. Just as the Gospel is good news, yet it function as bad news to those who are perishing, so likewise "common grace" is not salvific, although it functions as the backdrop for salvation.

Here, we see the problem with the NCC. By putting the notion of "common grace" into a section on salvation, it at the best confuses categories, and at the worst it seems to posit some form of "common salvific grace," a gross monstrosity that fits the PRCA caricature of "common grace" rather well. We note here that the Reformed catechisms are much more circumspect and omit the whole issue of "common grace" in this section, although they did mention the providence of God. We further note the insertion of the phrase "works of culture," where we see the transformationalist framework inserting itself into the catechism. Instead of opting for catholicity, the NCC by the use of such language decides to limit itself to a certain Neo-Kuyperian urban missiological framework, which is a negative point compared to the Reformed catechisms which aim to express the catholic Christian faith.

(2) The eternal destiny of unbelievers

The NCC does a good job in holding on to the eternal punishment of unbelievers, and that such is indeed a punishment by God (c.f. NCC 18). The NCC preserves the good point of making the punishment of unbelievers due to them not being united to Christ by faith, and not because people reject the Gospel. Here, the NCC does well.

(3) The way of salvation

Here, we see a very curious phenomenon. The NCC has decided that not only must you have faith in Christ, but you must have faith in Christ's substitutionary atoning death on the cross in order to be saved, the latter not found in any of the Reformed catechisms. Now, I am certainly not suggesting that one can deny Christ's substitutionary atoning death on the cross and be a Christian, but why pick this doctrine only as the one doctrine that must be believed in order to be saved? Secondly, if Christ's substitutionary atoning death on the cross merits separate mention from faith in Christ, does it mean that one can have faith in Christ without believing in Christ's substitutionary atoning death, or is the addition of the latter clause an exercise in redundancy? Yes, it is good that the imputation of Christ's righteousness is also mentioned as something that needs to be believed in, but how does all these relate to having faith in Jesus Christ?

We note here how the Reformed catechisms deal with the question. The Heidelberg Catechism just mentions receiving by a true faith, and left it to the next question to define what true faith is. In other words, the focus here is not to dichotomize between having true faith in Christ, and belief in cardinal doctrines. There is no true faith in Christ apart from belief in cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith, whereas that does not seem to be the case with the NCC. In the WSC, faith in Christ is mentioned along with its other side repentance, and the diligent use of means. We will discuss the diligent use of means later, but it is noticed here that besides that, what we have left is faith, since repentance is just the flip side of faith — one cannot have faith without repentance, and one cannot repent in a godly manner without having faith.

The issue here is that the NCC confuses the way of salvation with the content of the Gospel to be believed. We preach Christ and Him crucified, not the technicalities of the atonement. Yes, people ought to believe in the substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross, but they are saved by the person of Christ (manner), not theories about Christ however true and vital they are. Thus, the NCC is not as good as the Reformed catechisms on this subject.

(4) What is true faith?

Here, the NCC describes true faith rather well. It is however strange to see the multiplication of redundant participles, for after describing true faith as trusting in Christ, it goes on to describe it as receiving and resting on Christ alone, but what else does trusting in Christ means except "receiving and resting on Him"? More reflection should be done here so that what constitutes true faith could be succinctly expressed, instead of combining phrases together, as if the more words the merrier.

(5)The content of the Gospel

The NCC puts forward the Apostles' Creed as the content of what the Christian ought to believe, as the summary of the truths taught to us in the Gospel. The HC on the other hand not only puts forward the Apostles' Creed, but also interprets the Apostles' Creed as to the content of the Gospel. The WSC just mentions that the Gospel is to be believed. In terms of content, it seems that the HC defines what is to be believed more exhaustively, followed by the NCC and then the WSC. However, is that really so?

It must be remembered that the Apostles' Creed is confessed by branches and sects that trace their history to the early Church. Both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy confess the Apostles' Creed. The continental Reformed in the HC were confessing that they were actually the true catholics, and thus they confess the Apostles' Creed again in the HC. But rather than just stating the Apostles' Creed, they explain how they interpret the various articles of the Apostles' Creed, and thus they make it plain just exactly what is the Gospel that is to be believed in. In other words, the HC did not just put forward the Apostles' Creed as the summary of the Gospel, but actually exposits it.

The WSC on the other hand did not specify what the Gospel is, and thus we must see it as the entire system of doctrine concerning soteriology as expressed in the Westminster Standards. While not necessarily going into the technicalities, the Gospel message must include the vital parts of the system of doctrine of the standards, and thus while salvation does not require knowledge of all doctrines with their technicalities, yet there can be no Gospel message that explicitly or implicitly denies any of the cardinal truths of the Westminster standards.

In contrast, the NCC, by putting forward in question 29 the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross, seems to prioritize that doctrine above all other doctrines. By putting forward the Apostles' Creed without any exposition, it also seems to make the content of the Gospel message needed for salvation vague. The NCC opens up the possibility that salvation is possible for anyone who professes to hold the Apostles' Creed and agrees with the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement, which is indeed an improper view of the content of the Gospel. As stated, why is the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement singled out, while the doctrine of the Trinity for example not mentioned? Also, in light of the current liberal ecumenical movement, can the NCC allow for the salvation of Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox in their respective communions, not despite their communions, which is what the Reformed hold to? All of these problematic questions are possible interpretations of the NCC, and thus the NCC here is inferior to the Reformed catechisms.

Now, of course it could be objected that the rest of the NCC sets forth the Gospel such that it excludes Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. That is certainly a possible interpretation of the NCC. However, there is a difference between what a confession or catechism teaches as the truth, and what it states ought to be believed. In this case, it seems that the NCC limits the content of the Gospel for salvation to the mere words of the Apostles' Creed and the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement, while it could be interpreted that the other parts of the NCC set forth the fuller content of the Gospel that are not necessary for salvation.

(6) Salvation and the means of grace

Lastly, we deal here with the relation between salvation and the means of grace. As it is mentioned, WSC 85, in dealing with salvation, speaks about the "diligent use" of the outward means of grace. Here, the WSC, better than the HC, connects salvation with the way in which God works salvation out in the life of believers. This is also why the questions concerning faith and salvation in the Westminster catechisms come after the questions on the acts of God in salvation. Thus, justification, sanctification, adoption are all discussed before faith; God's acts and works for Man and in Man before Man's response. The WSC (and the WLC) connects salvation not just to Man's act of faith, but to the larger tapestry of God's act of salvation. That is why the means of grace enters into the discussion, for not only does Man ought to have faith, but such faith necessarily results in the diligent use of the means of grace, the means of grace which are spelled out in WSC 88 as attending to the Word, the sacraments and prayer.

So firstly, the NCC here, in putting the topic at the beginning, lends itself to seeing salvation as something one does, as opposed to the Westminster language about all these being the communication of Christ's benefits of redemption. It allows for an interpretation that sees an individual as appropriating the salvation won by Christ, instead of Christ communicating to believers His benefits through their faith. In the former, the focus is on the individual doing something, while in the latter, it is Christ doing the saving even through our personal faith, which is the mere receiving instrument. It is the empty hand of faith into which Christ pours out His redemptive benefits, not the active act of believing that grasps Christ's redemption.

Secondly, the NCC, by just dealing with salvation without speaking of the use of the means of grace, seems to think of salvation as a one-time act of believing. For sure, justification is a one-time act of God, but salvation is a process from election to glorification. The WSC is thus superior here since it sees an intricate connection between having faith in Christ, and the diligent use of the outward means of grace. We note here that WSC 85 uses the preposition "with." While not wishing to read too much into the preposition, thus shows that salvation is not construed as requiring faith plus an additional work of attending to the means of grace, but faith that, as it is a true faith, comes with the work of attending to the means of grace.

Now, it may be asked whether the same criticism could be applied to the HC. To that, we would answer no, for the way the HC is structured shows it has a different pedagogical focus. The NCC mostly follows the Westminster Catechisms in structure, and thus it has a more systematic ordering like it.

Conclusion

While it has its bright spots, the flaws in the NCC at this point is an indication of the problems within the New Evangelical Calvinism regarding a sloppy view of common grace, an emphasis on certain aspects of the Gospel while downplaying other areas of doctrine, its downplaying of the means of grace, the broad ecumenical impulse, and the revivalist focus. The Reformed catechisms are thus superior to the NCC in this area.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

God's sovereignty and "metaphysical distanciation"

A charge Cheung makes against the idea that God is not the author of sin is that such makes him to be not sovereign. In his book The Author of Sin [Vincent Cheung, The Author of Sin (Boston, MA: Vincent Cheung, 2005)], Cheung makes the following statements:

I affirm the meaningfulness of so-called "second causes" only in the sense that these are the means by which God executes his immutable decrees; however, these second causes are not themselves self-existent, self-determined, self-caused, or self-powered. Rather, all so-called "secondary causes" are themselves immediately caused and controlled by God, and the objects on which these secondary causes supposedly act upon react in ways that are also immediately caused and controlled by God. (p. 20)

...

Now, "soft" determinism is used in contrast with "hard" determinism. Using these terms, the popular Reformed/Calvinistic position, which is compatibilism, would be called "soft" determinism, whereas my position would be called "hard" determinism.

The former is "softer" in quality and/or in quantity regarding the level and/or amount of control (determinism) that God exercises over his creation, whereas "hard" determinism is absolute, affirming that God exercises complete (in level or quality) and comprehensive (in amount or quantity) control over everything.

But this means that "soft" determinism is really partial determinism – that is, partial (not full) either in quality or in quantity, or both. And if what God does not absolutely determine can still actually happen, then this means that there is another (one or more) determining power in the universe. When we are speaking of God's relation to man, attributing only partial determinism to God necessarily implies attributing partial determinism to man also. So this becomes a version of dualism.

In other words, one who believes that God absolutely determines everything is a full determinist, since he believes that God fully determines everything, in terms of both quality and quantity, and in terms of both the level (extent) and the amount of control exercised. To believe anything less than this is not full; therefore, it is partial.

Also, since "soft" determinism really means partial determinism, this also necessarily means that it is partial indeterminism (that is, partial non-determinism). Granted, since Calvinists usually (claim to) affirm greater determining power to God than man, this indeterminism is a very "soft" indeterminism, but it is still partial indeterminism.

It becomes just a matter of emphasis as to which term one wishes to use. So the term "soft" determinism is at least a little misleading, making its adherents look better than they really should. To some, it has the effect of sounding "softer," kinder, and less extreme. But if we don't let the language deceive us, we see that it is really partial determinism, weak determinism, incomplete determinism, or "soft" indeterminism. And, at least by implication, dualism. (p. 25. Bola and emphasis original)

...

Those who see that it is impossible to disassociate God from the origination and continuation of evil still attempt to distance God from evil by suggesting that God merely "permits" evil, and that he does not cause it. However, since the Bible itself states that God actively decrees and causes everything, and that nothing can exist or happen apart from his will and power, it makes no sense to say that he merely permits something – nothing happens by God's mere permission. In fact, when it comes to ontology, "God's permission" is an unintelligible term. (p. 70)

According to Cheung therefore, to embrace the idea of contingencies and second causes, except as mere means, is to believe in "partial indeterminism." It invokes metaphysical distanciation of God from the event, introduces uncertainty into the equation, and thus lead to a compromise of God's sovereignty. God must exercise "complete and comprehensive control over everything," or He is not fully sovereign at all.

The problem with Cheung is that he is involved in categorical confusion, and reasons one-dimensionally. Firstly, Cheung confuses sovereignty with direct control. If agent G causes action x to agent A, and agent A causes action y to cause event B, why is agent G not as sovereign over event B as over agent A? The syllogism pairs 'If p, then q'; 'if q then r' would yield 'if p, then r' as a logical deduction. So upon what basis does Cheung claim that non-direct control implies a loss in sovereignty?

Cheung claims that language such as "permission" and the idea that secondary agents are actually really agents introduces indeterminacy into the equation. In other words, indirect control means that the indirect agents have some measure of determinacy. However, such is to confuse agency with sovereignty. Just looking at the basis syllogism pairs for instance, does the fact that agent A could choose otherwise factor into the fact that 'if p, then r'? No, the syllogism pairs (if correct) function independently apart from the state of agent A in doing q to get event r. Even if A does not want to get to event r, yet if the syllogism holds true, his doing q would necessitate the happening of event r. In other words, intention has nothing whatsoever to do with sovereignty. God and the secondary agents could both be free in their respective spheres (divine and creaturely freedom), and yet God is sovereign over all things.

Cheung of course has a counter in the idea that "freedom" is defined from God, and thus creatures are not free, as defined by freedom from God. Contingencies of second causes are not free from God and thus not free (Cheung, 23). Thus, Cheung divorces creaturely intentions from the equation altogether. But such is a redefinition of "freedom" as well as a strange definition of "direct control." Upon what basis does Cheung glosses over human intentions, and claim that, since God is sovereign, therefore "direct control" implies "ultimate control"? It's as if Cheung claims that God's ultimate control over all things means that the intention of the secondary agent can be overloooked, when the issue under discussion is whether God's control is direct, not whether God's control is ultimate. How can one claim that God's control is direct by writing the creaturely intention out of the equation, and then claim that proving God's ultimate control implies proving God's direct control? One can only do that by illegitimately claiming that denying direct causation implies denying ultimate causation, a claim which is logically fallacious (as seen in our syllogism pairs) and having a unbiblical idea of what sovereignty implies, which brings us to our second point.

Cheung's second error is that he reasons one-dimensonally. In theological terms, he confuses the archetypal/ectypal distinction. But even worse than that is his flattening of all categories into a one-dimensional strait-jacket. Even secular philosophers may think in more than one level, whereas for Cheung everything must be reduced to one level. Thus, for Cheung, sovereignty implies direct control, and he has no place whatever for more sophisticated understanding of sovereignty. In other words, by his definition, if a theory denies direct control, they necessarily must deny sovereignty since that is all his strait-jacket thinking can conceive of.

Cheung's thinking of sovereignty looks like this:


Fig. 1

The problem here of course is that the whole process is one-dimensional. There is in this case metaphysical distanciation because God is removed from B greater than from A; (x + y) is certainly greater than x.

If one however sees a difference in the manner of causation of God and the agent A, then one could hold on to a two-dimensional view of causality, as follows:


Fig. 2


Fig. 3

In figures 2 and 3, the distance between God and event B is a vector of x.y, as opposed to the simple scaler equation of (x + y). As seen in figure 3, the vector can function in such a way that the distance between God and event B is exactly the same distance as that from God and agent A (in an isoceles triange), but such is not necessarily the case.

For a Christian however, figure 4 betters fits the biblical data of what we know about God, as follows:


Fig. 4

In figure 4, God is at the center of the sphere. God is sui generis and is totally unlike the rest of creation, which are on the surface of the sphere. God is at once totally immanent and totally transcendent, at once close to His creation (since it's a distance away), but far from it (since it's a distance away). God thus causes agent A through action x to do action y resulting in event B, but all things (agents, events) are at the same distance away from the center by the radius of the sphere. God is thus just as near and just as far away from secondary, tertiary and further removed events. Just as the distance from the center to any point in the surface of the sphere is the same, so likewise God is just as sovereign and in control of the effects as the agents, without being directly causing them.

So God is sovereign over all things. All things are under God's control, directly or indirectly, and there is no distanciation involved by positing the contingencies of secondary causes. God's freedom is freedom indeed, as there is an infinite number of lines possible to be drawn from the center to the surface of the sphere. Creaturely freedom is also real (by which we do not mean freedom from God, a ridiculous redefinition of "freedom"), for there are an infinite number of points chosen for A to connect. A could connect to B, C, D, E, F and so on.

God is sovereign, and Man is free. That is not a contradiction, when one understands that creaturely freedom functions on a different plane from God's freedom. Cheung's errors in the whole issue is that of confusing categories, flattening the categories into a rationalistic straitjacket, and in so doing impinges the character of God by either making God the culpable agent of evil, or by divorcing God's will from His nature.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Vincent Cheung and the Author of Sin

Vincent Cheung is a hot-headed polemicist who does post lots of provocative thoughts. As a interlocutor, his writings are challenging to interact with, if one can see past the slurs, ridicule and insults. However, the problem with Cheung is that people actually think he is right, and tragically such a following does harm to the Body of Christ. Just because evangelicalism is wrong on many issues does not mean that the opposite extreme on any one issue is right, and the positing of such sharp dichotomies by Cheung makes his position seem reasonable, since it is painted as the consistent opposite of the error that Evangelicalism holds to.

Cheung's book on theodicy, The Author of Sin, is a case in point. The book has tremendous shock value, and is most certain to repulse most Christians. Yet the book raises legitimate questions, which most people wouldn't think about as they are repulsed by its errant conclusions. So on the one hand, we have Christians who legitimately reject what Cheung is saying, yet they miss out on the legitimate questions Cheung raises out of revulsion at what Cheung is promoting. On the other hand, we have those who are more rational who see the legitimate questions Cheung raises, and because they are more philosophically inclined (and also without adequate discernment I may add), they accept Cheung's conclusions. In the storm of dissension, clarity on the subject is surely missing.

Without interacting with the entirety of Cheung's book, I would like to address his blog post dealing with the subject, entitled WCF, secondary causes, etc.. In this blog post, the crux of Cheung's issue with the phrase "author of sin" is expressed. The question Cheung raised is a good one: "What is wrong with saying that God is the "author of sin"? In Cheung's argument, since God is the ultimate cause of all things, and in colloquial speech, an "author" is someone who orchestrates all things to come about, God is certainly the "author of sin," because God as sovereign brings about all things including sin. God "metaphysically cause(d) evil" but does not "morally commit evil," and thus the language of the WCF (Westminster Confession of Faith) is said to be confusing and in error.

As mentioned, the question Cheung raises is a legitimate one. Surely, the Scriptures does portray God to be totally sovereign. Surely, the ultimate cause of sin in this sense must be God. Doesn't this therefore mean that God is the "author of sin"? The answer however is NO, as I will show why.

Now, it must be admitted that one can posit that God can cause evil without being culpable for evil, since God does not actually do evil. Cheung raises a valid point here against those who try to soften God's sovereignty by distancing Him from evil. Yet the problem with Cheung's solution is that it raises an insurmountable problem in theology proper. While formally resolving the problem of theodicy, it raises questions regarding the nature of God. Is God actually good? Does God actually act according to His nature? Phrased another way, is God's will independent of His nature?

The problem with the denial of contingency and secondary causes is that it makes God out to be a monster. Yes, one exonerates God of moral evil in creation and providence, but that only comes at the expense of either divorcing God's will from God's nature, or making God evil. Either option makes God to be something other than who He has revealed Himself to be. To the former, if God's will is divorced from his nature, if extreme nominalism hold true, then how can one trusts such a capricious God? To the latter, there is no difference here between God and the Devil.

Cheung is seriously in error, even heretical, in his portrayal of God as the "author of sin." According to Cheung, "to say that God is not the author of sin necessarily means that his sovereignty cannot be direct and exhaustive." In reply, I would counter that "to say that God is not sovereign if He operates through contingencies and secondary causes is fallacious." Why does the usage of contingencies and secondary causes necessarily imply that God is not absolutely sovereign? Why is such a usage considered "distant"? Upon what basis can Cheung make such a claim? Such philosophical claims cannot be found in Scripture! Since Cheung claims to be following Sola Scriptura, why has he imported philosophical concepts not taught in Scripture into the teachings of Scripture?

My challenge to Cheung and his followers stands here: Prove from Scripture where it is stated that (1) God is not sovereign if He operates through contingencies; (2) Operating through contingencies means that God is not directly sovereign over the process, (3) God can will and do anything contrary to His nature. Let's see if any of them dares to take up the challenge!