Archive for the ‘Church(es)’ Category

John Newton Brown and Calvinism

In the discussion about Baptists and Calvinism, Emir Caner made some comments about the New Hampshire Confession of Faith arguing that it is neither Arminian nor Calvinist, but Baptist. Aside from the historical confusion in such a statement, is the gist of what he is getting at true?

My friend Mark Nenadov has written two posts giving pertinent advice on how to view the Confession in its historical context, particularly as it pertains to the one who most view as its principle framer, John Newton Brown. Mark is an independent researcher who runs a website dedicated to Brown and has written an excellent essay on him that I hope will soon be published. Mark is a published poet and came to his interest in Brown through the latter’s poetry.

In his first post, Mark outlines two misapprehensions about the New Hampshire Confession that are worth being aware of. In his second post he looks at the Calvinism of Brown, calling him an “American Particular Baptist.” He gives some excellent quotes from Brown outlining his Calvinism. These posts highly relevant to the current discussion and I hope that they get a wide reading.

Fuller and the Atonement

This post is occasioned by the recent discussion over Fuller and the atonement begun by Emir Caner, who argued that after a debate with the Arminian Dan Taylor, Fuller adopted a general atonement. This assertion was responded to ably by Michael Haykin who argued that this was not the case, and that the issues involved in Fuller’s theology of the atonement are deeper and need better nuance. David Allen has since replied to Dr. Haykin seeking to vindicate Caner’s original assertions. In his reponse, Dr. Haykin spoke of the influence of certain New England theologians on Fuller’s language of the atonement. I thought I would elaborate on Dr. Haykin’s brief words. For what it is worth, I remain convinced that Dr. Haykin’s initial response to Caner stands.

Last autumn I had the opportunity to present a paper at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society on Andrew Fuller as a Calvinist Theologian. In it I dealt primarily with Fuller’s view of the atonement and whether his later change in theological language prohibited him from a seat at the Reformed table. This paper, together with others delivered as part of the Fuller Studies Group, will be published in a volume introducing Fuller’s life and thought, hopefully some time this year.

The big debate in Fuller studies is whether he changed his view of the atonement from the so-called “limited atonement” perspective championed by traditional Calvinism to a “general” atonement more in line with certain forms of Arminianism. Fuller’s most important work was his Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation (1785) that was at once a break with his Hyper-Calvinist upbringing and a spur to the modern missions movement and the sending of William Carey, William Ward, and Joshua Marshman to India. In the first edition of Gospel Worthy he had a succint, but clear discussion of the application of Christ’s satisfaction where he quotes John Owen and Herman Witsius approvingly, self-consciously reflecting a standard Reformed view.

The controversy over Fuller’s view of the atonement comes with the publication of the second edition of Gospel Worthy (1801). It has been argued by a number of scholars that Fuller adopted the “governmental” language of the atonement that was used by the New Divinity men in New England—Samuel Hopkins, Joseph Bellamy, and others who are the heirs of Jonathan Edwards. They famously spoke of Christ’s satisfaction in more general terms. There is no doubt that Fuller was indebted to the New England theologians, as he made clear in a number of places. What is not clear is whether he adopted their view of the atonement in toto. What I argued in my paper (and I am not original here, scholars like Robert Oliver and Tom Nettles have argued likewise) is that though Fuller adopted some of the language of the New Divinity men, it did not require him to change the substance of his theology of the atonement which remained committed to penal substitution, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and particular redemption.

Without going too far afield, Fuller did adopt “figural” language of imputation without denying the reality of it (you will have to read my essay to get more detail about this!). And suffice it to say that Fuller openly adhered to penal substitution after 1801—in 1803 he told his friend John Ryland Jr. that it was never a question with him: “I have no consciousness of having ever called the doctrine of substitution into question” (“Three Conversations,” [687]). But what about particular redemption? Did he deny it?

In the second edition of Gospel Worthy Fuller related the application of Christ’s death to the sovereign design of God. God intended for Christ’s death to be applied to “those that are saved.” To quote him at length:

[A]s the application of redemption is solely directed by sovereign wisdom, so, like every other event, it is the result of previous design. That which is actually done was intended to be done. Hence the salvation of those that are saved is described as the end which the Saviour had in view (“Gospel Worthy,” [374]).

This last line is a statement of particular redemption. Fuller goes on to say, as he argued in the first edition, that there is no contradiction between “the peculiarity of design” and the universal offer of the gospel. As with election, the preacher is commanded to offer the gospel freely to all without fear of contradicting Reformed soteriology. In “Three Conversations” he puts this in the language of the Synod of Dort (1618-1619): that Christ’s satisfaction was “sufficient for all” but in its application was “efficient” for “those whose salvation it was intended” (“Three Conversations,” [696]).

The debate over Fuller’s view of the atonement was initially struck in his own time by the great London Baptist Abraham Booth who feared that Fuller had veered too close to Arminianism. I argued in my piece—following others like Oliver—that Booth misunderstood Fuller. The most notorious modern critic has been George Ella, who I believe has been satisfactorily answered by scholars like Oliver and Nettles. Ella argued that Fuller adopted the “Grotianism” of the New Divinity men—that is, the view of Christ’s satisfaction taught by the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius (1583-1645). My basic argument, following Oliver Crisp and Garry Williams, is that Grotius was not a Grotian and neither was Fuller.

While Fuller was an admirer of much of what Hopkins, Bellamy, etc., wrote, he rejected accusations that he accepted their theology carte blanche—see his response to Hyper-Calvinist John Martin in this regard. Though Fuller adopted their language as the lingua franca of the day, he consistently maintained the particularism that he first espoused in 1785.

In the conclusion of my essay I gave the last word to Kenneth Dix who was essentially the curator of the Strict and Particular Baptist heritage of which Fuller was a part—a man that I am happy to say I met in Dunstable, England, with Dr. Haykin some ten years ago now. Dix wrote of Fuller:

There were certainly times when Fuller made statements which might have been construed as a departure from the particularist position, but this was not the case. His belief in an atonement that was sufficient for all men but efficacious only for the elect, offended high-Calvinists, but he never gave up the seventeenth-century confessions. Andrew Fuller was no more responsible for any shift from orthodox Calvinism in the nineteenth century than the men who framed the 1677 Confession could be held responsible for the path taken by some of their descendants into the chilling winds of high-Calvinism (Strict and Particular, [269-270]).

Question: What About John Tombes?

For my paedobaptist friends who would argue that a Baptist cannot be “Reformed” based on our view of baptism, I am interested to know your thoughts on John Tombes (c. 1603-1676), whom Michael Renihan called an “Anglican Antipaedobaptist.” Should we think of Tombes as part of the Reformed tradition? He was an Anglican, yet he did not practice infant baptism. I’m not trying to be cheeky. I know how I would answer the question. I genuinely want to know how you would.

For Tombes’ writings against paedobaptism, see the collection at PRDL.

Charles M. Johnston


The Canadian Baptist Historical Society held its annual meeting for 2014 this past Saturday at McMaster Divinity College. As this year marks the centenary of the Great War, the papers for this meeting were dedicated to commemorating it in relation to Canadian Baptists. Gord Heath of McMaster presented on the Boer War as a precursor to World War 1, looking at Canadian and New Zealand Baptist responses to it. I presented the chapter that I co-wrote with Michael Haykin on Canadian Baptist responses to the War, which was a real privilege for me. But by far the highlight lecture was given by McMaster’s official historian.

Charles M. Johnston penned the authorized history of McMaster University, a two-volume work published in the 1970s. Although it is out of print, it remains a major source for any researcher looking into the period we were exploring on Saturday. As I wrote my chapter last year, Johnston’s first volume was always ready to hand. So, when I heard Dr. Johnston was presenting, I was thrilled. And I must say, he far exceeded my expectations.

Dr. Johnston is now 88 years old, and is legally blind (though he can see if he holds an object close to his eyes). I didn’t realize this when he ascended the lectern. All I kept thinking was, “He looks like Jack Palance.” I did notice, however, that he did not have any notes with him. I was sitting next to Dr. Haykin, who leaned over to me to whisper Johnston’s age, with a sense of marvel in his tone. Finding out that the reason he had no notes was due to his blindness amazed us even further.

I must say, even if Dr. Johnston had his notes, I would have been thrilled with his lecture. It was wonderfully crafted, beginning with a biographical sketch of Bernard Trotter, whom he likened to being Canada’s version of Siegfried Sassoon, and then winding to another sketch of the great Canadian intellectual Harold Innis. He also discussed the role that women played in Canadian physics during the war, and the great cost to McMaster as a result of her sending men overseas. He was gregarious, hilarious, and incredibly informative. It was a lecture I could only give in my dreams.

And to think, he delivered this wonderfully crafted lecture—that went for over an hour—without recourse to notes!

I wanted to give him a standing ovation at the end of it.

When I spoke with him and his lovely wife after the meeting, and thanked him deeply for such a wonderful talk, I was delighted to find out that she was a major reason why this lecture was so excellent. After he typed it, using a computer at 26 point font, she read and reread it over and over to him to help him commit it to memory. I thought that was deeply touching. Every once in a while, during his talk, I would glance at her, and she sat totally riveted to her husband, smiling at certain points. What a wonderful team!

May God help me to have that kind of marriage, and that kind of ability as an historian when I’m 88! Dr. Johnston was a real model for us, and put us all to shame.

The Unlikely Evangelist

Centurion's servant Paolo Veronese

Unearthed in a longish Andrew Sullivan thread about atheists relating to religious culture:

Recently a young fellow who openly identified as atheist began attending the same church I do, and by attending I mean fully participating: small group meetings, community service projects, Sunday School – the whole nine yards. It turns out, he is there for much the same reason I am, because he needs friends and community and a church can be a good place to find it.  He is welcomed with open arms and loved by everyone.

Fast forward to a recent Sunday meal with a young couple who also turned up at our church.  When the question was asked how they found out about our church, the answer was through our young atheist friend.  ”We thought if you accepted him, then we’d have a place too.” As it turns out, our atheist has been the best recruiter our little church has ever had.  I count at least eight regular attendees he brought with him. Some of them were already people of faith, some were searching, and others were just lonely.

I love that kid and the way he has opened up space in our midst. The church should be a place of refuge for everyone and when it truly is people just might start coming.

This is remarkable for a variety of reasons – perhaps most that the church has been so embracing of this young man and that he has reciprocated by inviting so many people to this church. On another note there is something about this story that is quite satisfying to me but that I fear some would find dissatisfying: we have almost no way to identify this church or its denomination or its theology. It reads as broadly Protestant to me, but who knows, maybe the writer is a Protestant convert to Catholicism who still uses Protestant language. I suspect this is in the American South where church still has something of a central role in allowing people to find social connection in the broader community. But I have no idea. Is this church mainline? Is it Reformed? Is it Pentecostal? We don’t know. So no one gets to boast about how missional their tribe is and conversely no one gets to criticize another tribe for being so apostate as to having an atheist act as their chief evangelist.

Millennials and Civil Society

A recent report by the Pew Research Center on millennials gives some worrying news:

The portrait painted of Millennial Americans by the Pew Research Center in its new report Millennials in Adulthood is not rosy. Sure, compared with earlier generations, Millennials (now aged 18 to 33) are exceptionally tolerant, optimistic about their economic future, and connected to friends, family, and colleagues on the “new platforms of the digital era” — from Facebook to Twitter. But this report makes clear that Millennial ties to the core human institutions that have sustained the American experiment — work, marriage, and civil society — are worryingly weak. …

If today’s events in Europe, not to mention of the last century, tell us anything, it is that a generation of young adults “unmoored” from the institutions of work, family, and civil society, and distrustful of their fellow citizens, can end up succumbing to the siren song of demagogues, especially if the economy dips into a depression.

Peter Martyr Vermigli on Final Justification

In the past I have discussed the Reformed tradition’s variety regarding the doctrine of final justification by works. There are at least two, or maybe three, different ways that members of that tradition have formulated the relation between initial justification by faith alone, and the final judgment which in some sense will take works into account. Peter Martyr Vermigli is another example of the stream that was comfortable speaking of two justifications:

A different kind of justification follows this upright life of holiness by which we are clearly praised, approved and declared just. For although good works do not bring that first righteousness which is given freely, yet they point to it and show it is present. Hence Abraham is told in the book of Genesis: “Now I know that you fear God, because you have done this thing and have not spared your own son for my sake.” Surely God was not previously unaware of Abraham’s piety; only then does he testify that it will be apparent to all what Abraham’s faith and religion were like. So too David, because of his upright life, is pronounced as a man after God’s own heart, and Job is called holy and just, as are Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Joseph, the man betrothed to the blessed Virgin. And surely we ourselves are also assured and we realize that we are enriched with good works. Peter urges us to make our righteousness sure by this means. And on this same basis we will be justified by Christ in the last judgment by the remembrance of good works, that is, we will be declared just, on the testimony of mercy shown to our neighbors. Since it has been exhibited by us, it will be an indication that the chief and solid righteousness which we dealt with in the first place was not lacking. [p. 147 from The Peter Martyr Reader; excerpted from In Selectissimam D. Pauli Priorem ad Corinthios Epistolam Commentarij (from Vermigli's commentary on 1 Corinthians)]

Steven Furtick vs. Slavoj Zizek

Furtick cult

This past week word has permeated the evangelical world that Steven Furtick of Elevation church maybe drifting into cult territory with his church’s aim to indoctrinate both adults and children into following Furtick’s vision to the exclusion of any other possible influence. Many of the responses to the claims that Furtick has made about his unique power to be a visionary leader in the church are generally met with one of two responses: 1) The person who effectively agrees that yes, Furtick is some sort of visionary and we had all better give him the benefit of the doubt because he’s clearly seeing some kind of success thus far, or 2) Furtick is a charlatan because there is no such thing as the role of “visionary” among pastors and therefore this man is little more than a garden variety huckster and or narcissist who is faking it. I think that there is a third option here as well: Furtick may well have some kind of mystical experiences (whether from God, some other spirit or just straight up undiagnosed schizophrenia) but that doesn’t make him a good man or a wise leader. Watch here as Zizek dismantles a couple of notable mystics:

One’s inner life of prayer or meditation or devotion does not make one righteous. We can grant someone the authenticity of their visions while still holding them to account as ordinary human beings.

Beige Like Church: Thoughts On Donald Miller & Churchgoing

Homer Sleeping in Church

Much has been made of this post by Donald Miller concerning his preference for worshiping God in contexts outside of being in a church for a Sunday service. Now, in the age of the “spiritual-but-not-religious” and the rise of the “nones,”  there probably isn’t anything that special for someone to post online that they are spiritual in ways that do not follow traditional (Christian) religious practice. What makes this post different is that Miller is also the author of a little book called Blue Like Jazz, that has become something of touchstone for particularly younger evangelicals in the last decade or so. Now, I’ve scanned a little bit of Blue Like Jazz and I get a sense of why it had the impact it did with its audience (people more or less like me). With that out of the way, here are a couple of excerpts from Miller’s post and how I read them:

“It’s just that I don’t experience that intimacy in a traditional worship service. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of sermons I actually remember. So to be brutally honest, I don’t learn much about God hearing a sermon and I don’t connect with him by singing songs to him. So, like most men, a traditional church service can be somewhat long and difficult to get through.”

It was funny that so many people in the Reformed tradition were critical of Miller’s piece as this bit could have been lifted almost directly from one of Mark Driscoll’s many insistences that church needs more manliness. He seems to be describing the same problem – albeit coming to a different conclusion (or perhaps not, but more on that later).

“Research suggest there are three learning styles, auditory (hearing) visual (seeing) and kinesthetic (doing) and I’m a kinesthetic learner. Of course churches have all kinds of ways for you to engage God including many kinesthetic opportunities including mission trips and so forth, but if you want to attend a “service” every Sunday, you best be an auditory learner. There’s not much out there for kinesthetic or visual learners.”

Miller says he’s studied psychology and education, but this is such a gross oversimplification of the theories surrounding different types of learning that I fear that he’d have done better just leaving this little bit out. That said, for what it’s worth, I can’t help but remind myself here that evangelical Protestants are about the worst when it comes to this. Traditional liturgies involve a lot more movement and many other Christian traditions incorporate all manner of iconography into their places of worship. Evangelicals are uniquely skilled in making church seem like a large-scale office meeting with the appropriately bland walls, pseudo-comfy seating, and fake plants. [I had to pause after I wrote that, I think I just described hell.]

I think Miller has a point, and one that is not particularly new or different, but I don’t know if he’s articulated it well or really sought to explore how he can best connect with God other than by looking at vegetation or something.

The Magic of a Kind Word

“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”

-Proverbs 15:1

Much has been said about Pope Francis’ statements on atheism or homosexuality, the sorts of things that have earned him the nod from Time as Person of the Year for 2013. What’s remarkable is that nothing that he’s said really contradicts what either of his two most recent predecessors have said. What he has really changed is more a matter of tone. There is nothing in the substance of Francis’ statement about how he can’t judge a gay man who seeks God that contradicts Benedict’s assertion that all gays are “objectively disordered.” There is a world of difference however in the tone of such remarks. Benedict was successful at capturing very conservative church people from Evangelical denominations, Francis is capturing the attention (and the imagination) of pretty much everyone else. And yet for all those who either laud or damn him as a crypto-Marxist, nothing he has said seems to fall outside of conventional Catholic teaching.