Illusory Follies Andrew Flanagan's Blog


The Current Justification Controversy

The Current Justification ControversyThis is not meant as an in-depth review, but really more of a commenting on the book "The Current Justification Controversy" by O. Palmer Robertson, edited by by John Robbins and published by the Trinity Foundation. The book is somewhat technical in nature and walks through the proceedings and circumstances of the discussion and events that surrounded Norman Shepherd's controversial statements as he taught at Westminster Seminary during the late 70s and early 80s.

I picked up this book mainly because of the recent issues with Peter Leithart and the goings-on in the PCA and particularly within the Pacific Northwest Presbytery. I currently attend a church that's a part of this Presbytery and heard a lot about the whole situation during the Leithart proceedings. There are obviously many parallels between these two cases.

What interests me most is that it seems like nothing is new. I don't mean to gloss over the differences between the two men, but I do find it very interesting how the two situations had similar aspects:

  • The "experimental" style of re-describing or re-emphasizing traditional orthodox statements regarding core theological points
  • The mix of responses to this restatement which included both those that were vehemently opposed and those that thought that the approach was beneficial
  • The particular issue of whether the viewpoints (whether right or wrong from a Biblical standpoint) were in accordance with the Westminster Confession of Faith
  • The confusion over terminology and language which constantly seemed to mire discussion

I am no theologian. Nor am I that deeply involved in following either the Shepherd case or the Leithart case, but I do find the controversy of both to be discouraging for a number of reasons.

First, I realize that denominations such as the OPC and the PCA do hold the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) as their standard. I think it's good to have standards and I think it's helpful to reference and cite them. However, I find it very frustrating when a theological discussion is railroaded because of issues between a theological stance and a standard such as the WCF. The standard should merely be a reflection of revealed, Biblical truth. And now, for the part where I may lose some of my readers, I believe it is in error in at least some parts! If I were to become an officer in the PCA, I would need to indicate on which points I take exception. These aren't huge differences, but they are important. My first main gripe with both the OPC and PCA is that some in the denomination appear to believe that holding any exceptions to the standards makes a pastor, or ruling elder, or other officer less of an officer. It does not matter if that officer can show strong Biblical support for their position.

I'm conservative by nature and I do tend to think that changes ought to be very carefully considered before adopted. But I find it simply presumptuous to assume that the Westminster Divines got it 100% right. Personally, I would hope that over time we as a denomination would have the wisdom to refine our standards. In particular, the standards tend to be reflective of the situation at the time of the writing of the WCF. This makes sense -- the errors and heresies of the time were first and foremost in the minds of those who wrote the WCF. As new doctrines are developed, we should be willing to refine our standards to deal with those that are heretical and to embrace those that are both true and practical. I say practical here because I do not believe that all Biblical truth needs to be summarized in a standard such as the WCF in a perfectly exhaustive way. Rather, I think that the standards should illuminate the important parts and provide clarity to the interpretive framework by which Biblical truths are being explained.

Like it or not, the Bible tends to explain complex theological concepts using a variety of expression and terminology. It can be confusing to examine concepts like the Trinity, or free will vs. sovereignty, or a host of other similar concepts. When we write a standard, we tend to codify the expression of the complex Biblical passages into single statements. This is the purpose of a standard, no doubt, but I believe that it often makes for an incomplete or even worse, an inaccurate statement. When this happens, we ought to be able to back away from the standard enough to analyze whether the standard is in fact accurate instead of simply clinging to the standard. If the standard is deficient, let's update the standard. If the standard is not clear, let's make it clear.

Why is it that modern Protestant, Reformed churches can't update standards?

Secondly, the petty and argumentative way that discussions ensue (on both sides) is very sad. Theologians are human too; instead of coming to blows over a football rivalry as their lay members might do, it honestly seems like certain contemporary opponents on these issues would gladly go at it in a round of fisticuffs (if not for the fact that they tend to isolate their vitriol and pronouncements on the Internet). Since it doesn't seem practical to create an online "Last Theologian Standing" virtual boxing game that could result in some sort of catharsis, it seems like their ought to be accountability and even discipline within the ranks of the church for the sort of uncharitable outbursts that both sides engage in regularly. I don't mean strongly stated theological opinions or even debates. I'm referring to the potshots, the insinuation, the ad hominem attacks, the public vilification that all seems to take place. It's wrong and it ought to stop.

Third, it seems as if both sides ought to be more careful with their definitions. Words are important. The Bible sometimes uses the same words to mean different things. We all do this.We ought to be careful to define what we mean. In order to have a clear discussion about what we are talking about, it is important to realize that we are no all coming to the table with the same actual understanding of what each word means. When we start to disagree about theology, I think that often we are simply confused over what the other person is defining a word to mean. If we use the WCF (or another standard) as the only allowable dictionary for the expression of Biblical truth, I think we limit ourselves. To give an example of what I mean, I'd like you to consider what Paul, Peter, and James would have given as a definition of justification if we were somehow able to interview them. Would they respond with a canned line? Would they even necessarily repeat exactly what they had written in their letters? This is pure conjecture obviously, but I believe that not even the Apostles would give a perfectly unified response. I don't mean that some would be right and others would be wrong, but rather that each would point out a facet of justification that may not reveal all aspects or all truth in a single statement. Perhaps I'm wrong, but given the letters in the New Testament and the actual theology that we do have taught in those letters, I don't think so.