Category Archives: Historical Theology

Discern Regeneration

Read this quote carefully:

We believe that all men everywhere are lost and face the judgment of God, that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation, and that for the salvation of lost and sinful man, repentance of sin and faith in Jesus Christ results in regeneration by the Holy Spirit.

Did you find anything wrong with that quote?  The first two clauses are fine — it’s the last clause that needs a careful look.  Does repentance and faith result in regeneration by the Holy Spirit?

We’re discussing regeneration.  It’s a doctrine where there’s often confusion and misunderstanding, even among confessionally Reformed believers.  Let me try and make it as clear as I can.

Regeneration has several aliases.  The Bible calls it being born again (John 3:7), being born of the Spirit (John 3:6), and being born of God (1 John 5:1).  Whatever expression may be used, it’s clear that this is something that happens at the beginning of a Christian’s spiritual life, whenever that may be, and however that may be experienced.  It is something that happens once — it’s not an ongoing process in the Christian’s life.  This much is clear from passages like 1 Peter 1:23 which says of believers, “you have been born again.”  There the perfect tense is used in Greek, which indicates a completed action with effects into the present.  We find the same thing in 1 John 3:9, 4:7, 5:1 and 5:18, except in these passages the Holy Spirit speaks of being born of God.

Why is there a need for human beings to be born again or regenerated?  Jesus tells us in John 3:3, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  What does it mean to “see the kingdom of God”?  It’s the same thing as entering the kingdom of God (John 3:5).  It’s the same thing as not perishing but having eternal life (John 3:15-16).  In other words, unless you are born again, you cannot be saved.

Let’s dig into this a little deeper.  What does the new birth do?  It brings someone to spiritual life.  Without spiritual life, there’s no possibility of faith and repentance.  Ephesians 2:1 says, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked…”  Before regeneration, before being born again, a person is a spiritual corpse.  It’s categorically impossible for a spiritual corpse to repent of sins and believe in Jesus Christ.  Regeneration precedes repentance and faith.  It must.

Now it must be said that there is a development in the historic Protestant formulation of this doctrine from the Scriptures.  Amongst the Reformers, there was sometimes a tendency to collapse what we call sanctification and regeneration together.  You can find this in John Calvin’s Institutes — for example, “I interpret repentance as regeneration…” (3.3.8).  Under the influence of Calvin, this phenomenon is also in the Belgic Confession, in article 24, “We believe that this true faith, worked in man by the hearing of God’s Word and by the operation of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a new man.”  Here regeneration is being used to denote the work of the Holy Spirit in our sanctification, the life-long process of growing in holiness.  However, that wasn’t the way Christ was speaking of regeneration/being born again in John 3 — as if the Pharisee just needed to grow in holiness some more.

In time, doctrinal controversies forced theologians to become more precise in their formulations and terminology.  The most important controversy was with the Arminians or Remonstrants in the early 1600s.  Here we have to tread carefully, because it’s easy to lump all Arminians, past and present, together into the same camp.  The views of Arminius himself are quite complex — it would too simplistic to just say point blank, “Arminius believed that regeneration follows faith.”  He did, but he also taught that there was a sense in which it precedes (see here for a lengthy essay with far more detail from a sympathetic perspective).  Whatever the case may be, the views of Arminius and his Remonstrant followers led the Synod of Dort to express the Reformed doctrine of regeneration with more precision.  In chapter 3/4 of the Canons of Dort, in articles 11 and 12, regeneration is described as a work of God’s sovereign grace “which God works in us without us.”  Moreover, those who are effectually regenerated “do actually believe.”  Regeneration unambiguously precedes faith in the Canons of Dort.

In the years since Dort, Arminians have become clearer as well.  These days we find unambiguous declarations in statements of faith that repentance and faith result in regeneration.  The statement I quoted at the beginning was taken from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association website.  Numerous other organizations and churches use the same or similar wording.  When you see anyone suggesting these days that repentance and faith result in regeneration, you can be almost 100% sure that such a person is an Arminian.  It’s a big tip-off to the presence of Arminianism.

Regardless of how imprecisely Calvin and his immediate heirs used the terminology, today we have no excuse.  Historical theology teaches us how important it is to use terms with as much precision as possible.  For the sake of truth and God’s honour, let’s do that.  The sovereign work of the Holy Spirit prior to faith which makes a dead sinner come to spiritual life is regeneration.  The work of the Holy Spirit after repentance and faith which transforms a believer’s life, and in which the now-spiritually alive believer has a role to play, is sanctification.  If we maintain that distinction and use those terms, it becomes a lot easier to discern when we’re being faced with Arminian denials of God’s sovereign grace.

 


An Index of Calvin’s Distinctions in the Institutes

I recently finished reading straight through John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.  I plan to write an essay on that experience in the near future.  For now, one of the things that struck me was how Calvin worked with various theological and philosophical distinctions.  I catalogued as many as I could discern and you can find them in this document.  There are many of them!  Many Calvin works with in a positive way, but there are also a few he rejects as “wily,” “loathsome,” or “worthless.”  It’s said that distinguishing well is a hallmark of a good theologian — Calvin certainly ranks up there with the best.


The Reformation of Purgatory

Our celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation continues.   One of the most important Reformers in the Low Countries was Guido (or Guy) de Brès.  Martyred in 1567, we remember him primarily as the author of the 1561 Belgic Confession.  Today let me share with you a little known fact about de Brès:  he reformed the doctrine of purgatory.

This came out when he was in prison in Tournai.  He and another Reformed pastor (Peregrin de la Grange) were initially imprisoned there and then shortly afterwards transferred to Valenciennes.  While awaiting transfer, de Brès and de la Grange were visited by many people.  He had become a celebrity.  He wrote, “…I was visited by a large number of gentlemen, women, and young girls, who said that they wanted to see me because they had heard so much of Guy de Brès, and had never seen him before.”

Among those visitors was Monsieur de Moulbay, the commander of the Tournai castle where de Brès was imprisoned.  He came looking to debate points of theology with the pastor.  They first tried to argue with de Brès about the invocation of Mary and other saints.  De Brès stumped them with quotations from Scripture and Augustine.  Their next attack came with the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, Jesus’ mother.  De Brès affirmed that he believed that she was always and still is a virgin — not an uncommon position among sixteenth century Reformers.  The answer surprised his accusers.

Then de Moulbay alleged that de Brès did not believe in purgatory.  By that, he meant the Romanist idea that most believers, after they die, would have to go to a place of fiery cleansing.  Purgatory was an unpleasant experience necessitated by the fact that most believers were going to die with unconfessed and unforgiven sin.  De Moulbay thought that de Brès rejected this teaching.  This was the response of de Brès and the follow-up:

Pardon me, sir, I do not belong to those who deny a purgatory.  For I hold the blood of the Son of God to be the purgatory of the sins of those who repent and embrace this benefit by faith.  But I do not recognize the burning and roasting of souls as held by the fables of the priests.  Then he answered me in anger, saying that I might as well deny that there is a hell.  But I said that I held that there is a hell for the sinful and wicked, just as the Word of God teaches us, but that I did not hold to such a purgatory as the priests had invented because the Scriptures teach us nothing about it.  Then they said that I should find out if there is a hell, when I would be damned.  To which I responded to him that I have my Judge in heaven and he would judge altogether different — and concerning that I was confident because of his Word.

We read nothing of anything further between de Brès and de Moulbay.  Immediately after this, de Brès and de la Grange were shipped out of Tournai on their way to Valenciennes.

It is possible that de Brès’ thinking about purgatory was influenced by John Calvin.  In Institutes 3.5.6, Calvin wrote:

For what means this purgatory of theirs but that satisfaction of sins is paid by the souls of the dead after their death?  Hence, when the notion of satisfaction is destroyed, purgatory itself is straightway torn up by the very roots.  But if it is perfectly clear from our preceding discourse that the blood of Christ is the sole satisfaction for the sins of believers, the sole expiation, the sole purgation, what remains but to say that purgatory is simply a dreadful blasphemy against Christ?

Notice how Calvin speaks about Christ’s blood as “the sole purgation” (or the only cleansing).  That’s similar to how de Brès answered de Moulbay.

However, there is a late medieval letter which may be an earlier influence.  Wessel Gansfort was a Dutch theologian who lived about a century before de Brès.  He was writing to Jacob Hoeck, another theologian.  They had been arguing about the role of tradition and Scripture, specifically with regard to the issue of indulgences.  Indulgences were the church’s means for reducing the believer’s time in purgatory.  Hoeck had asserted that the Bible said nothing for or against indulgences.  Gansfort completely disagreed.  He wrote,

In my opinion it was not the first Pope, Peter, but the Holy Spirit through Peter who issued the one and only permanent bull of indulgence.  Peter testifies that this bull is permanent because it provides ample entrance into the kingdom of God and of our Saviour Jesus Christ.  And Peter further testifies that the bull is the only one and adds, ‘Whoever lacks these things [the ten things enumerated in 2 Peter 1] is blind and feeling his way by hand and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins.’  Therefore no other bull is to received or authorized which does not include this.  Every other bull is superfluous and, therefore, Scripture does speak about indulgences, because it refers to ample entrance into the kingdom. (Forerunners of the Reformation, ed. Heiko Oberman, 103).

Gansfort was speaking about a different (but related) issue, yet we find him using the same polemical method as de Brès about a hundred years later:  co-opting your opponent’s terminology.  Had de Brès read Gansfort?  It’s impossible to say.  More likely, both Gansfort and de Brès were using a method of argument that had been developed by someone else in an earlier period.  Regardless of where it came from, de Brès rejected the Romanist doctrine of purgatory and insisted that, if we are going to speak about the purging of sin, it must be done only in connection with the blood of Christ shed on the cross.  That’s the only way to reform purgatory.


The Reformation and the Apocrypha

Did you know that the first editions of the Belgic Confession included two proof-texts from the apocrypha?  Did you know that our contemporary editions continue to include one small quote from the apocrypha?  Elsewhere in his writings, Guido de Brès referred more often to these non-canonical writings.  Moreover, de Brès was not exceptional in doing this.  Other Reformers did likewise, and so did other Reformed confessions.  In this paper, I outline de Brès’ use of the apocrypha, put it in the historical context of the Reformation, and attempt to explain it.


The Reformation versus the Post-Reformation?

For quite a while it was customary for historians, theologians, and preachers to bewail the post-Reformation as a sort of regrettable appendix to the glory-days of Calvin and Luther.  I certainly encountered this way of thinking in my theological training.  I was taught that the Reformation was a glorious return to the Word of God, but immediately after the Reformation “scholasticism” negated many of its great gains.  Moreover, it was alleged that many of the problems in Reformed theology in the last 200 years can be traced back to this scoundrel, “scholasticism.”  It ruined almost everything.  “Scholastic” thus became a loaded, pejorative term.  If you heard a Reformed minister or theologian describing someone as “scholastic,” you knew that they were one of the bad guys in theology.

All this came to mind again as I was reading Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (Crossway, 2004).  I have much appreciation for the book’s overall argument.  Pearcey believes we need to recover the idea of a Christian worldview and I fully agree.  However, I do take issue with some of her historical analysis.

In chapter 2 she describes how medieval theologians like Thomas Aquinas formulated a view of creation that involved a nature-grace dualism.  It is a two-storied view of reality.  The Reformation, however, overcame it.  Writes Pearcey, “The Reformers sought a return to a unified field of knowledge, where divine revelation is the light illuminating all areas of study” (page 81).  Thus, away with dividing life into secular vs. sacred.  All of life is one before the face of God.  We are called into this world to live all of life according to Scripture.

A major historical problem appears when Pearcey posits this Reformation perspective against that of the post-Reformation.  This paragraph illustrates the issue:

Despite all this, the Reformers’ emphatic rejection of the nature/grace dualism was not enough to overcome an age-old pattern of thought.  The problem was that they failed to craft a philosophical vocabulary to express their new theological insights.  Thus they did not give their followers any tools to defend those insights against philosophical attack — or to create an alternative to the dualistic philosophy of scholasticism.  As a result, the successors of Luther and Calvin went right back to teaching scholasticism in the Protestant universities, using Aristotle’s logic and metaphysics as the basis of their systems — and thus dualistic thinking continued to affect all the Christian traditions. (page 82)

Where to begin in discussing this?  First I wonder: why would it have been necessary for the “Reformers” (this is a broad term) to craft a philosophical vocabulary to express their new theological insights?  From my reading of Calvin, to take but one Reformer, he was quite able to adapt the existing theological/philosophical vocabulary of his day in order to express himself.  For example, in his discussion on providence in the Institutes (1.16.9) he writes about absolute necessity (necessitas consequentis) and consequent necessity (necessitas consequentiae).  Why would there be a need to create a new vocabulary?  The existing vocabulary was already quite rich.  Why would a new vocabulary have to be crafted to repel philosophical attacks or to create an alternative to dualistic philosophy?  I fail to see how all this follows.  My non sequitur alarm bells are ringing.

But more significantly, note Pearcey’s own vocabulary:  “the dualistic philosophy of scholasticism” and “teaching scholasticism in the Protestant universities.”  She assumes that scholasticism is something with a definite content, including Aristotle’s logic and metaphysics as its basis.  Scholasticism was taught in universities, she says.  But nowhere does she precisely outline the content of this “scholasticism.”  She does not indicate whether she’s speaking of theology, philosophy, or any another field of study.  Moreover, nowhere does she indicate whether or if this post-Reformation scholasticism differed from pre-Reformation scholasticism in any way.  But she is quite sure that it was a bad development because it ensured that dualistic thinking would be harboured in Protestantism for some time to come.  The broad generalizations here raise these and more questions.

Here’s the nub of the problem:  scholasticism was a method of teaching.  As a teaching method, it was especially marked by the use of careful definitions, distinctions, and argumentative techniques.  It was a method used across the spectrum to convey different systems with widely differing theological content.  There were Roman Catholic scholastic theologians, as well as Lutherans and Reformed.  The scholastic teaching method was used both in the classroom and in writing.  However, there are examples of theologians often identified as scholastic writing books that are not at all scholastic.  Some of the best post-Reformation works on Christian piety and experience come from men who spent much of their time in the academy using the scholastic method.   A friend (an expert in this area) pointed me to Antoine de Chandieu.  This Huguenot theologian used the scholastic method in various works, but he also wrote a collection of meditations on Psalm 32.  I might point out too, that though it sometimes happened, it was considered bad form to take the scholastic method into the pulpit.  It was meant for the university context, not the church.  Readers wanting to look into this more should have a look at this book.

Pearcey also argues that post-Reformation scholasticism used “Aristotle’s logic and metaphysics as the basis of their systems.”  This raises questions too.  Are we talking about theology?  What do you mean by “basis”?  What do you mean by “system”?  What time period are we discussing exactly?  Let’s say we’re talking theology, so systems of theology.  Let’s say by “basis,” Pearcey means the foundations, what it’s based on.  To be even more specific, let’s say we’re talking about the period of early orthodoxy (1565-1640).  Let’s then take one of the preeminent handbooks of Reformed theology from this period, the 1625 Leiden Synopsis.  What was the basis of the Leiden Synopsis?  “We shall commence our disputations with Scripture, since it, being divinely inspired, is the principle for the most sacred Theology, its source of proof, and its means of instruction.”  Scripture is the principle, the basis (or to use the technical term, principium cognoscendi).  Nothing about Aristotle.  From my reading of post-Reformation Reformed theology, this is typical not exceptional.

Contrary to what Pearcey and others have argued, the post-Reformation did not negate the gains of the Reformation — it built on them.  Or to put it in other terms, there is more continuity between the Reformation and post-Reformation than has sometimes been recognized.  So where does that leave Pearcey’s attempt to explain the continuing prevalence of dualistic philosophy?  I reckon she has to find another explanation.  Perhaps the cause has more to do with something as simple as the innate human proclivity to double-mindedness.