Tag Archives: Canons of Dort

Ten Things I Learned from Reformed Scholasticism (1)

Petrus Van Mastricht

Though not nearly as often as previously, I still sometimes see the word “scholastic” used as a pejorative – in other words, as a nasty term.  If someone is deemed “scholastic,” then he must be one of the bad guys in the history of theology.  It’s similar to the word “Puritan” for some people.  It’s an insult.  If someone is “Puritan” or “Puritanical,” then he must be, at best, suspicious.  It’s the same with “scholastic” – a dirty word that instantly casts a dark cloud.

At one point in time, these types of notions were wide-spread.  However, in the last two or three decades, there has been a shift in the way scholasticism is discussed.  This is owing especially to the influence of scholars like Richard Muller, David Steinmetz, and Willem van Asselt.  It’s now widely recognized that scholasticism was a method of teaching theology – it did not have content as such.  There were medieval scholastics, there were Roman Catholic scholastics, there were Lutheran scholastics, and there were Reformed scholastics.  Each used the scholastic method to teach the theology they considered to be correct.

I came to better appreciate this teaching method through my doctoral research on the Belgic Confession.  Medieval scholasticism is in the background of the Belgic Confession, especially in its structure (see ch. 4 of For the Cause of the Son of God).  Protestant scholasticism is even more so in the background of the Canons of Dort.  The Canons themselves are not scholastic – and that by design – yet they bear the marks of men who benefitted from the method.  It should be no surprise.  Many of the delegates to the Synod of Dort were either theologians who used the scholastic method or pastors who had been scholastically trained.

I’ve also benefitted from studying this method.  While I think it would be inappropriate to import the scholastic method into today’s world, there is still a good deal to be learned from it, especially as it was implemented by Reformed theologians in the post-Reformation era.  Let me share ten things that I’ve learned from Reformed scholasticism.

  1. The Best Theology Begins with Sound Exegesis

Reformed scholastics are sometimes dismissed as “proof-texters.”  Throughout their theology works, they make references to Scripture, but don’t always enter into exegetical discussions in those works (there are exceptions).  But that doesn’t mean that exegesis was completely out of the picture – far from it!  In fact, before writing works of theology, many scholastic theologians had first produced exegetical works.  Just on the book of Romans, the Post-Reformation Digital Library indicates 236 titles.  Not all of them are Reformed works, but many are.  Intensive biblical study was the foundation for Reformed theology taught using the scholastic method.

  1. History Matters

Ours is an age often indifferent to history.  As a method in the hands of Reformed theologians, scholasticism worked with the thoughts and conclusions of those long dead.  For example, I turned to a random page in an important scholastic text often referred to as The Leiden Synopsis.  Antonius Thysius is discussing what it means to be created in the image of God.  He refers to the view of Tertullian and others that “the entire man is propagated from the whole man.”  Later on the same page, he interacts with another church father, Origen.  That they were so intimately familiar with these church fathers demonstrates that their discussions were on a different level than many of ours today.

  1. System Matters

While they were not the first ones to understand this, Reformed scholastics maintained that biblical theology is an inter-connected system.  In this system, all the parts do relate in some way to all the other parts.  Moreover, it was clearly understood by most of these theologians that there is a “logic” built into Christian theology.  Therefore, when you read a text like Amandus Polanus’ Syntagma Theologiae Christianae, you can expect that he will begin with preliminary matters (prolegomena), move to the doctrine of Scripture, then to the doctrine of God, deal with creation, sin, redemption, and so on, up to the doctrine of the last things.  This pattern has been continued by many systematic theologians since.

  1. Asking Good Questions

If you want good answers, you have to ask good questions.  Reformed scholastic theologians were skilled at formulating questions that would lead one to helpful answers.  This was an essential part of the scholastic method of training.  Issues would be formulated in terms of either a thesis or a question.  While the Heidelberg Catechism is not a scholastic document, Zacharias Ursinus’ commentary on the catechism certainly is.  When he discusses QA 21 regarding true faith, he identifies six key questions that help clarify this doctrine:

  • What is faith?
  • Of how many kinds of faith do the Scriptures speak?
  • In what does faith differ from hope?
  • What are the efficient causes of justifying faith?
  • What are the effects of faith?
  • To whom is it given?

This method was also employed by Francis Turretin in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology – as well as by many others.

  1. Using Precise Definitions

Theologians often use the same words but with different meanings.  A Roman Catholic theologian will use the word “justification,” but he means something quite different than what a Reformed theologian means.  Hence, it is always important to precisely define important terms.  Going back to justification, we can note Petrus van Mastricht as an example.  In his Theoretico-Practica Theologia (6.6), he first gives an exegetical overview of the relevant Scripture passages (see point 1 above) and then moves into a dogmatic discussion based on that.  As part of that, he provides a precise definition of justification:  on account of Christ’s righteousness, God absolves believers of all their sins and pronounces them righteous to eternal life.  Justification, according to van Mastricht, includes God’s imputation of our sin to Christ and his righteousness to us.  He does not assume the definition of this key term, but makes it clear and proceeds on the basis of that.

(to be continued…)


We Distinguish…(Part 5) — Active/Passive Obedience

Romans-5.19

In this series, we are surveying some of the most important Reformed theological distinctions. These are not irrelevant or minor points of theology. Rather, these are distinctions where, if you get them wrong or ignore them, major theological disaster threatens to ensue. We need to strive for precision in our understanding of the teachings of God’s Word.

On the first of January, 1937, a dying J. Gresham Machen mustered up the strength to send one last telegram to his friend John Murray: “I’m so thankful for active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.” One of the founding fathers of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church made a point of stressing Christ’s active obedience in his last hours on this earth. It would be, however, a grave mistake to assume that this doctrine is uniquely Presbyterian. Not only is it found in the Three Forms of Unity, it’s also shared with confessional Lutherans (as I’ve demonstrated here).

We speak of a distinction between Christ’s active and passive obedience. We need to carefully define the terms, because they have sometimes been misunderstood as opposites. In normal English conversation, “active” and “passive” usually are opposites. “Passive” is typically denotes inactivity. However, in the context of Reformed theology, the word “passive” is derived from the Latin passio and it refers to Christ’s suffering – something in which he was definitely not inactive. Passive obedience, therefore, refers to Christ’s obedience in suffering the wrath of God against our sins. Christ’s active obedience speaks of his obeying the law of God perfectly in our place throughout his life – an active, positive righteousness that is imputed or accounted to believers. In Christ’s passive obedience we have the payment demanded so that our sins can be fully forgiven. In his active obedience we have the perfect conformity to God’s law demanded of all human beings. These must be taken together, and when they are, they form the basis of our justification (our being declared right with God as Judge).

This distinction is valuable because it points up how good the good news really is. We are not just promised forgiveness in Christ. In our Saviour, we are promised and given perfect righteousness in the sight of God. As God looks at us in Jesus Christ, he sees people who have been perfectly and consistently obedient to his law. Because of Christ’s active obedience imputed to us, God sees us as flawlessly obeying him not just in the externals, but also 100% from and in the heart.

When it comes to biblical support, there’s really no debating the passive obedience of Christ. The Bible is clear that he suffered in obedience to God’s will so that we can be forgiven all our trespasses (e.g. Hebrews 2:10-18). But what about the active obedience of Christ?   According to Romans 2:13, “doers of the law will be justified.” Galatians 3:10 reminds us that if you do not do everything written in the law, you are under a curse. God demands perfect obedience to his moral law. Romans 5 is one of the clearest places speaking to the fulfillment of this demand in Christ. There Adam and Jesus are contrasted in their disobedience and obedience. Says the Holy Spirit in Rom. 5:19, “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” The “one man’s obedience” there refers to Christ’s work on our behalf, including and especially his obedience to all of God’s law. As 2 Corinthians 5:21 reminds us, all our sins were imputed to Christ, and all his righteousness is imputed to us.

Since it’s found in Scripture, it’s no surprise to find it in the Three Forms of Unity. For example, it’s implied in chapter 2 of the Canons of Dort, in the Rejection of Errors #4. The Arminians taught that God had “revoked the demand of perfect obedience to the law.” The Synod of Dort said that this contradicted the Bible and was part of “a new and strange justification of man before God.” At the bare minimum, the Canons of Dort maintain that God still does demand perfect obedience to his law. However, the Canons do not explicitly say how this demand is to be met.

But that is not to say that the Synod of Dort ignored this issue. Far from it! In fact, the denial of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ was an issue amongst the Reformed churches of that period. As a result, the Synod of Dort edited article 22 of the Belgic Confession on this point to clarify that Christ’s active obedience is essential to Reformed orthodoxy. The revised article 22 reads (the underlined words were added by Dort): [God] “imputes to us all [Christ’s] merits and as many holy works as he has done for us and in our place.” This result brought the Dutch Reformed churches into line with the English and the French – they had also previously ruled that Christ’s active obedience was a non-negotiable point of Reformed doctrine. Later, in 1693, the Walcheren Articles appeared in the Netherlands and these were even more resolute on this question. Denying the imputation of the active obedience of Christ is not an option for Reformed confessors.

Unfortunately, in our day there have been some who have either denied or minimized this point of doctrine. I’m thinking especially of some figures associated with the Federal Vision movement. I’ve briefly addressed their teachings in a booklet (which you can find here). Suffice it to say that attempting to sideline this doctrine: 1) requires a dishonest handling of the Reformed confessions, 2) requires a reconfiguration of the biblical doctrine of justification, and 3) robs Reformed believers of comfort, joy, and strength in Christ.  This is not making a mountain out of a doctrinal molehill.

For those who would like to read more on this important topic, Dr. N. H. Gootjes has an excellent essay entitled “Christ’s Obedience and Covenant Obedience.” It’s in chapter 4 of his book Teaching and Preaching the Word. I also have a copy available online here.

 


Clearing the Confusion on Regeneration

With my preconfession students I’ve been surveying what we call the Order of Salvation — theologians usually use the Latin term Ordo Salutis.  These are the logical steps involved in salvation.  The Reformed Order of Salvation looks like this:

  • Election
  • Effectual Calling
  • Regeneration
  • Justification
  • Adoption
  • Sanctification
  • Glorification

I’ve been devoting a class to each of these.  Last week, we looked at the topic of regeneration.  Unfortunately, there’s often a bit of confusion in our Reformed churches on what regeneration involves.  In this post, I briefly want to address that.

It’s always important to begin with a definition.  We are speaking here about regeneration in this basic sense:  God brings the dead heart of a sinner to life.  A more thorough definition can be found in chapter 3/4 of our Canons of Dort, particularly article 12.  It is the “new creation, the raising from the dead, the making alive…which God works in us without us.”  It is a “supernatural, most powerful, and at the same time most delightful, marvellous, mysterious and inexpressible work.”  If we look at Canons 3/4, article 11, we find that this regeneration or conversion is a comprehensive act of God upon the human subject.  It includes the enlightening of the mind, as well as the opening, softening, and circumcising of the heart.  It also instills the will with new qualities, makes it come alive, makes it good, willing, and obedient.  It is a radical change in a person which leads onward to faith and a transformed life.  From all this, it is clear that the church confesses that regeneration is not a process, but an event which takes place logically prior to God bringing a person to saving faith.  After all, “raising from the dead” is not a process.  Either you’re dead or you’re alive.  At one point Christ was dead in the tomb, and the next moment he was raised to life.  The same thing happens in regeneration as described in chapter 3/4 of the Canons of Dort.

This is precisely the point where confusion often sets in.  We have sometimes been taught that being born again/regenerated/converted is not an event, but an ongoing daily process for believers.  We’ve heard things like, “We must be born again every day.”  Is that wrong?  Is regeneration a process throughout our lives or an event that takes place prior to saving faith?

The misunderstanding partly arises because there is some overlap with the terminology used for our progressive sanctification.  Sanctification is the process by which we are increasingly conformed to the image of Christ.  Sanctification is most definitely an ongoing affair.  We are always works in progress, until the very moment we are called to glory.  Now sometimes our confessions use the terminology of regeneration to describe sanctification.  You could think of our Heidelberg Catechism, question and answer 88:  “What is the true repentance or conversion of man?  It is the dying of the old nature and the coming to life of the new.”  Notice the word “conversion,” the same word used in Canons of Dort 3/4, article 11 as a synonym for regeneration.  But in the Catechism it’s being used to describe the process of sanctification.  It’s the same word, but used in a different sense.  Notice how the Canons use “conversion” to describe an event that “God works in us without us.”  However, the Catechism in QA 88 uses “conversion” to describe a process that includes our actions — QA 89 speaks of us hating sin and fleeing it.  We are to apply ourselves to these things and work with God in them.  In other words, we are passive in our regeneration, but active in our sanctification.

But, to be clear, the Catechism also speaks of regeneration as a definite one-time event.  We find that in QA 8, “But are we so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined to all evil?  Yes, unless we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.”  There regeneration is viewed in terms of the Order of Salvation — this is regeneration as an event in which we are passive.  That’s evident from the fact that the proof-text for the second part of the answer is from John 3:3-5, where Christ is speaking to Nicodemus about being born again.  Being born again there is an event — just as you are physically born once from your mother, so the Spirit gives spiritual birth but once as an event.

Perhaps the clearest place in Scripture that speaks of regeneration as an event is 1 Peter 1:23, “…since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God…”  “You have been born again” are the key words here.  In Greek, this is written in the perfect tense, which means that the action is completed, but has effects into the present.  Peter’s readers are not being spoken of as being born again as a process day after day, but as people who have had a radical change in them by the sovereign power of the Holy Spirit working through the Word.

In terms of Reformed theology, nothing I have written above is anything new or innovative.  For centuries, Reformed theologians have properly distinguished regeneration as an initial sovereign act of God which has renewed the mind, will, and heart from sanctification as a continuing action in the life of the Christian.  Understanding the Reformed Order of Salvation helps keep this important distinction clear.


Now Available: To Win Our Neighbors For Christ

To Win Our Neighbors for Christ

Now available from Reformation Heritage Books!

In many modern histories of Christian missions, the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century is depicted as a movement lacking missionary zeal. It has virtually become a given that the Reformation was not oriented to the church’s missionary task. In To Win Our Neighbors for Christ, Wes Bredenhof answers these charges, proving that it is a mistake to say the Reformation and the confessional documents it produced have nothing to say about missions. The author demonstrates that the Three Forms of Unity—the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort — properly understood, have much to offer the study of missions. More importantly, they encourage us to care about a world lost in unbelief, making us more mission-oriented and outward-looking.

Endorsements

“To Win Our Neighbors for Christ is a helpful tool for every Reformed Christian seeking to understand and use our confessions in a missional way. It gives the historical background for each of the three forms of Unity and shows that the original intent of our confessions was indeed to reach the lost with the good news of the gospel. It also shows how we as a church need to have that same desire to clearly articulate these truths to our own generation of souls today.” — Richard Bout, missions coordinator, United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA)

“Full disclosure: Dr. Wes Bredenhof is my family’s enthusiastic pastor, through whom we are fed with pure gospel preaching. His heart pulses with true love for the biblical, Reformed faith and with a deep desire to reach the lost. In this book he shows us that these two things belong together— indeed, that the Reformed confessions themselves encourage mission. I pray that many more believers would see the intricate interconnections of these two pulses, and I’m sure that this book will help them.” — Dr. Theodore Van Raalte, professor of ecclesiology, Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary

YOU CAN PURCHASE THIS BOOK HERE


Outward Looking Church: Current Craze or Christ’s Commission? (2)

Revised from a presentation for the Spring Office Bearers Conference held March 22, 2014 in Burlington, ON.  See here for part 1.

How Do Our Confessions Answer?

Since I phrased my thesis in terms of the confessions, it makes sense to start there.  There is a lot that could be said.  Appeal could be made to Lord’s Day 12 of the Catechism and how it speaks of the three-fold office of Christians.  As prophets we are to confess the name of Christ.  Who are we to confess the name of Christ to?  This obviously has an outward looking orientation.  We could go on and think of Lord’s Day 32 and how winning our neighbours for Christ by our godly walk of life is part of the reason we must do good works.  There again at least part of the perspective is looking outward.  Or we could spend some time on Lord’s Day 48, dealing with the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come.”  We confess that this includes asking our heavenly Father to “preserve and increase” his church.  The word “increase” there refers to numerical increase and that implies a certain orientation among those who pray along the lines of this petition.

We could move on from the Catechism to the Canons of Dort and the same perspective is in evidence there.  It comes in connection with the doctrine of election.  There are those who say that election knocks the motivation out of outreach.  Maybe you’ve heard Reformed churches mockingly referred to as “the frozen chosen.”  But that can only be true if we don’t take our own confession seriously.  We believe and confess that God uses his church and her witness to draw in the elect.  Election becomes evident (or comes to expression in history) through evangelism.  Article 5 of chapter 2 of the Canons of Dort is clear enough on this point:

The promise of the gospel is that whoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish but have eternal life.  This promise ought to be announced and proclaimed universally and without discrimination to all peoples and to all men, to whom God in his good pleasure sends the gospel, together with the command to repent and believe.

Our confession says that we have a gospel promise which we are obligated to announce universally, to all peoples, all men.  The language is undeniably clear.  So also if we take the Canons of Dort seriously, they should produce an outward looking orientation in the church.

Indeed, we could spend a lot of time on what the Canons and Catechism have to say about this.  But I want to focus our attention on the Belgic Confession this morning.  Let me first explain the rationale for doing that.  The period of about 1950 to 1990 was one of widespread deconfessionalization in the Christian Reformed Church.  For many CRC members (but by no means all), the confessions became museum artifacts, pieces of CRC history and heritage, rather than a living expression of the biblical faith of the church.  In that 40 year period, many claimed that the CRC had basically become a Dutch ghetto.  The perception was that the church was turned in on itself, too often only inward looking.  Discussions took place at various levels and in various venues about why this was.  Blame was often assigned to the Three Forms of Unity and especially the Belgic Confession.  One CRC seminary professor (Robert Recker) wrote that with the Belgic Confession we’re faced with a church “talking with itself rather than a church before the world.”  Influential figures in the CRC agreed with Recker.  So, in other words, if you want to know why the CRC became a Dutch ghetto turned in on itself, look no further than the Belgic Confession.  Then the solution also begins to suggest itself: we can hold on to the Confession as a museum artifact, something that shows something of our history and where we came from, but for today we need a new confession which will really help us be an outward looking church.  That partly accounts for the development of the “Contemporary Testimony: Our World Belongs to God.”  This new confession in the CRC was adopted in 1986 and its history is rooted in dissatisfaction with the Three Forms of Unity on certain points.  That included a perception that the Belgic Confession is an exercise in ecclesiastical navel-gazing.  That historical episode puts the question squarely before us this morning:  what orientation does the Confession provide for the church?

When we think of the Belgic Confession today, we typically think of a section at the back of our Book of Praise.  This is true of all our confessions.  For us, they’re embedded in a rather large book.  However, around the world, in different places, these confessions are being printed separately in convenient, cost-effective formats.  For example, there is the Heidelberg Catechism in Spanish produced by CLIR in Costa Rica.  There is also the Belgic Confession in Russian, produced by the Evangelical Reformed Church in Ukraine.  Both are in a convenient and cost-effective format so that believers can share them with others.  There’s an outward looking, evangelistic intention here.  They didn’t make these booklets for church members, but so that church members could share their faith with outsiders.  That fits precisely with the history and original intentions of these documents, especially the Belgic Confession.

When the Belgic Confession was first published in 1561, it didn’t appear as part of a Book of Praise.  It was published as a booklet in a convenient, cost-effective format.  It was designed for mass distribution, not just amongst Reformed believers, but also with their friends, family, and neighbours.  We know of two printings of the Confession in 1561, from two different Huguenot cities in France, Rouen and Lyons.  Only one copy remains of each of those printings.  We might ask why.  We don’t know how many copies were involved in those first printings – it’s impossible to tell.  We do know that the printing from Rouen included at least 200 copies.  We know that because there is a report from the Spanish authorities saying that they found some 200 copies in the library of Guido de Bres.  The Spanish authorities burned those.  But other copies were circulating; we just have no idea of how many.  We do know they were printed cheaply and quickly.  There are a couple of possibilities to explain why we only have one copy from each of the two printings in 1561.  One would be that the Spanish destroyed most of them.  Another might be that they were so widely used and distributed that they fell apart and didn’t fare well over the following decades and centuries.  It could be a combination of both and maybe there are other factors besides.  What is clear is that, from the beginning, it was designed as a document with an outward orientation.  The format speaks to that.

Early printings of the Belgic Confession included this page of Scripture passage encouraging believers to profess their faith before men.

Early printings of the Belgic Confession included these two pages of Scripture passages encouraging believers to profess their faith before men.

This is confirmed when we look closer at the Confession as it first came off the press.  On two of the first pages of the booklet, we find a collection of Scripture passages.  Over these passages were these words, “Some passages of the New Testament in which the faithful are exhorted to render confession of their faith before men.”  Then followed Scripture passages:  Matthew 10:32-33, Mark 8:38, Luke 9:26, 1 Peter 3:15, Romans 10:10, and 2 Timothy 2:12b.  Each of these passages has an outward perspective.  The point being made is that confession of faith is inherently an outward action.  We confess our faith “before men,” to the world.

Oftentimes when we think of the Belgic Confession, we think of it merely as an effort to gain tolerance for the Reformed faith.  The Reformed Churches in the Low Countries were persecuted by the Spanish led by Philip II, and they wanted to reassure the authorities that they were not rebellious.  Instead, they were simply God-fearing people who believed what the Bible teaches.  In this understanding, the Confession is simply a defense.  But this understanding doesn’t do full justice to the original intent of the Confession.  It was not simply to gain tolerance that the Confession was written, it was also to win converts.  There was an acute self-awareness that the Reformed churches existed in the midst of unbelief and their confession was addressed to that lost world in darkness.  Throughout the Confession, you find the words “we believe,” and those very words signify that there is a body of believers confessing together, confessing together to a pagan world in need of the gospel.  Whenever you see a believing “we” in the Confession, you should also think of the lost “them.”

Based on these general considerations, P. Y. DeJong was exactly right when he wrote a commentary on the Belgic Confession and entitled it The Church’s Witness to the World.  Earlier I mentioned the deconfessionalizing of the CRC, but you may remember that I was careful not to paint everyone in the CRC black.  In that forty year period, there were men like P. Y. DeJong who stoutly resisted the deconfessionalization of the church.  They argued that the Confessions were misunderstood and undervalued.  Later, men like P. Y. DeJong would become founding fathers of the United Reformed Churches.  Having been through a struggle in the CRC, they maintained that the Confessions, when they’re rightly understood, do not produce ecclesiastical scoliosis, a dysfunction where the church is curved in on itself.

But that’s about the broad nature and historical intent of the Confession, what about the actual content of the Belgic Confession?  Does that say anything to the question before us this morning?  Since we’re speaking about the church, let’s just focus on the ecclesiological articles of the Confession, articles 27-32.

Click here to continue reading part 3…

Bibliographical note:  the quote from Robert Recker comes from his article, “An Analysis of the Belgic Confession As To Its Mission Focus,” Calvin Theological Journal 7.2 (November 1972): 179.