Friday, January 16, 2004

A response to James White 

I have just read Dr. James White’s criticisms of Tim Enloe on his blog. I felt that I might take a few moments to engage with some of Dr. White’s claims as Tim is not going to. The following are merely some of my own thoughts on the issues raised; I do not claim to be speaking for anyone else. I would echo Tim in saying that Dr. White needs to find other people to engage with on this issue. Tim is certainly very sharp, but to my knowledge he is a layman and has not been ordained to a position in the church. Whilst laymen like myself and Tim may discuss these issues, if Dr. White wishes to engage with people on this subject I believe that he should first seek out people who have been ordained to teaching positions within the church. Failing this, he should look for qualified academics, which neither Tim or I am. If the best representative of a particular position is an undergraduate like Tim (or an unqualified layman like myself), then something’s seriously wrong somewhere. The New Perspective The following are some brief thoughts on some of the issues that Dr. White raises. I’ll start with some comments on the New Perspective. Dr. White writes:—
The issue of whether there is, in fact, a positive imputation of Christ’s righteousness or not (the issues relating to New Perspectivism) is vital to how we view ourselves, our relationship to God, our standing in Christ, and any number of pastoral questions and issues.
I believe that the charge that the New Perspective rejects the essence of the doctrine of imputation is unfounded for a number of reasons. It should be obvious to Dr. White if he has read New Perspective material in any depth whatsoever that it is not about Paul’s understanding of imputation, but about Second Temple Judaism. I presume that Dr. White is thinking more specifically about the theology of N.T. Wright. I don’t believe that N.T. Wright undermines the central concerns of the Reformed doctrine of imputation; I hope to demonstrate this sometime in the next few months when, God-willing, I will post a full treatment (10,000+ words) of the subject on this blog. Wright rejects the traditional formulation for what I believe are biblical reasons. His approach on the subject is rigorously exegetical (see his Romans commentary in particular). If Dr. White has engaged with this exegesis anywhere, I would be very interested to see it. Christian Knowledge Dr. White writes:—
Folks, the foundation of the Christian life is knowing who God is, what He has done in Christ, and that I have peace with God not because of anything I have done but solely because of what Christ has done. Until that relationship of peace is established and understood, the rest is just window dressing. You can sprinkle water on somebody’s noggin until they drown, but without that foundation you will never build a proper, balanced Christian life.
I appreciate much of what Dr. White is saying here. However, I do have to take issue with a few points. The foundation of my Christian life is not my knowledge of who God is, what He has done in Christ, and that I have peace with God not because of anything I have done but solely because of what Christ has done. My Christian life is founded upon the reality of these things, not upon my knowledge of their reality. This is no small distinction. Someone can taste of the reality without being able to articulate it in an orthodox manner. Of course, what Dr. White says would be nearer the truth if you grant a broader meaning to the word ‘knowing’, along the lines of ‘tasting the reality’ (just as an infant can know a relationship with its mother without being able to intellectually articulate it). However, the wording of his statement does not make this reading easy. Furthermore, if he granted this, much of the rest of his argument would collapse. The Nature of the Christian Faith Much of Dr. White’s argument at this point rests on the assumption that baptism itself is not part of the ‘foundation’ of the Christian life. This does not surprise me. Dr. White, like most other Reformed Baptists, treats the Christian faith as something that is fundamental a system of doctrinal truths. The Church is ultimately bound together by common ideas, rather than by participating together in common practices and a common life. He should not be surprised that I strongly disagree with him. Our theologizing does not have to do with some abstract system of doctrine. Regeneration, justification and election are not abstract truths about how the individual is to be saved. They are facts, realities that are known within the physical, temporal and visible Church. These realities should be seen in the worship of the Church when she is faithful to Christ. The Church is not some abstract doctrine; it is a living reality. Our doctrine of the Church should not be too dissimilar from an OT ‘doctrine of Israel’. An OT ‘doctrine of Israel’ could never be abstract; it had to deal with the imperfect historical community of Israel. In a similar manner, our ‘doctrine of the Church’ must take into account the reality of the Church, in all its historical complexity and imperfection. Reformed Baptists try to define the Christian faith in such a way as to render any historical ecclesiastical community as peripheral. The Christian faith is fundamental a system of doctrinal truths. The church is the group of people who believe these truths. Of course, we can never know who really believes these truths deep down inside so a merely functional ecclesiology is generally adopted. I am convinced that the Christian faith is primarily to be understood as a public fact, rather than as a private belief system. Seeing a Christian society can never be a marginal concern to the gospel. The creation of a Christian society lies at the very heart of the gospel. The Church is the new nation in the midst of the world. The nations of the world are called to submit to the Lord of all — Jesus Christ. As the gospel is the public fact of Christ’s universal Lordship, I think that chopping down pagan trees is a perfectly reasonable way of going about proclaiming it. And, for Dr. White’s information, I don’t believe that this necessarily demands that we hold a particular form of postmillennialism. Can Baptists be Reformed? Defining the Christian faith in such a manner is one of the ways in which some Baptists can define themselves as ‘Reformed’, whilst denying the validity of the Reformers’ baptisms. They often claim that the Reformed faith is essentially TULIP and that the sacramental theology and practice of the Reformers and their ecclesiology are really peripheral to these more important issues. To me this smacks of hubris. It would be like my claiming the title ‘Eastern Orthodox’ whilst claiming that the Eastern Orthodox views of Mary and the use of images in worship are just peripheral. I have no right to claim this when the Eastern Orthodox tradition disagrees with me. ‘Reformed’, just like the term ‘Eastern Orthodox’ belongs to an ecclesiastical tradition, rather than to a set of abstract propositions rattling around in an individual’s skull. Baptists have a tradition to be proud of in many, many respects. But it is not the Reformed tradition. The Reformers did not believe that infant baptism was peripheral to their faith and I think it is fair to say that they would be more inclined to be ecumenical with Catholics than with Baptists. In case someone thinks that I am being overly harsh on Reformed Baptists at this point, I would point out that the definition above makes my claims to being ‘Reformed’ tenuous also. I am a member of a Reformed Baptist church, and happily so. I am happily a member of this church because I believe that the church’s purpose is primarily to incarnate people, not ideas or beliefs (as Zizioulas observes). The idea of the church as a confessional entity is not altogether helpful in this respect. We need to be more careful about our use of language. Only people who have a very low view of the sacraments and the Church (obviously not the Reformers) would define anti-Arminian Baptists as ‘Calvinistic’ or ‘Reformed’. Much of Dr. White’s criticism rests upon a view of the sacraments that sees them as little more than ‘visible’ expressions of belief in particular propositions and fails to recognize the formative role that common practices such as Trinitarian baptism play within the Church. Are Roman Catholics Brothers? I believe that we ought to recognize Roman Catholics as our brothers. I believe this for a number of different reasons. Firstly, they are part of a church that has historically been faithful. Whilst I deny that Mormons are part of the true Church, Roman Catholics most certainly are. Secondly, the Church exists where people are gathered together by the Word and the sacraments. Despite their mistaken understanding in many areas, the sacraments are still administered among them. The false doctrine of transubstantiation does not, in my opinion, empty the Supper of its significance, no more than the memorialism of most evangelical churches empties their celebration of the Supper of any significance. Their doctrine of baptism may be mistaken (I also believe that the standard evangelical understanding of baptism is also mistaken), but it is still administered among them. The Roman Catholic church may be far from perfect, but so is the evangelical church. Thirdly, the gospel is also proclaimed among them. They may have many errors, but the essential gospel message is still taught. We must not forget that the gospel is grossly distorted in many supposedly evangelical churches. Often the attention given to Roman Catholic abuses can serve to draw the attention away from our own abuses. Roman Catholics may be in error at many points. However, they hold to the Apostles’ Creed, which I believe teaches the essential gospel message. They hold to the Trinity and to an orthodox Christology. I would have problems with anyone who believes that we must believe more than these things if we are to be saved. They hold a number of doctrines which I believe compromise these truths. However, until they explicitly deny the validity of the doctrines of the Apostles’ Creed, the Trinity and the Person of Christ, they should be treated as fellow Christians, although they still harbour serious errors. Justification by Faith in Practice The doctrine of justification means that individuals are saved by believing the gospel proclamation that Jesus is Lord. Nothing else is necessary. To claim that belief in justification by faith alone is necessary if we are to be justified is to deny the doctrine. As Turretin observed, the doctrine of justification is a ‘negative and excluding doctrine’. It is not necessary that we believe justification if we are to be saved. However, a denial of justification will compromise (although not deny) certain doctrines that are central to our faith. In practice justification means that individuals are saved by believing in Jesus. The Christian church is marked out by a common confession of ‘Jesus is Lord’. To refuse to fellowship with people who seek to be faithful to Jesus as Lord on the grounds that they do not accept the doctrine of justification by faith alone as we understand it is to compromise the doctrine. This is not lowest common denominator ecumenicalism; this is recognizing the distinction between that which is essential and that which is secondary. Our Protestant distinctives are very, very important and I do not want to see them compromised in any way. It is my commitment to the truth of justification by faith alone that forms the foundation of my conviction that we should recognize Catholics who confess Jesus as Lord as our brothers. We are saved by believing the gospel (i.e. Jesus is Lord), not by holding a particular soteriology.

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