Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Saying Goodbye to the Neo-Reformed

I gladly admit becoming interested in theology because of Rush Limbaugh. Through Limbaugh and his fellow "conservative" radio commentators, especially Dennis Prager, I was awakened to the threat of the left. Opposition to abortion and the normalization of sexual deviance played a role. Encountering the arguments of non-Christians and anti-Christians in informal discussion provided additional impetus.

C.S. Lewis and Gordon H. Clark (a lesser known Presbyterian thinker) equipped me with accessible tools to defend the intellectual respectability of Christianity. In time, their salutary influences led me to reject the world- withdrawing tendencies of the theology of my youth (the original dispensational premillennialism of John Nelson Darby) and to embrace a form of Christianity with better historic bona fides: Presbyterian-Reformed Protestantism. At least classical Protestants make an attempt to show they are true heirs of the Medieval and Ancient faith.

The transition from dispensationalism to covenant theology was easy to make because of perceived important continuities between what I was raised to believe and the older religion. Dispensationalists are Protestant after all.

In time, I grew to appreciate more fully the less controversial and more foundational elements of the faith.
I spent five years in the Reformed fold attending a Neo-Reformed church. [For those not in the know, Neo-Reformed Protestantism is a moniker for a particularly toxic blend of solafideism, anti-Evangelicalism, anti-theonomy, and defeatist amillennialism which characterizes the theology of whiz kid Michael Horton (and associates).] I had no idea I was getting sucked into another dispensational religion in disguise—a form even worse than traditional Dispensationalism because it rejects the perpetual election of ethnic Israel.

For purposes of full disclosure, it must be said that toward the end of this time, I even spent an abortive year attending the institution best known for propagating the Neo-Reformed agenda. I am not proud of my academic performance that year, and freely admit that disillusionment with Neo-Reformed ideology played only a small part in dropping out of the seminary.

The champions of divine sovereignty always seem to have problems affirming corporate election along with personal election. 

The unregenerate mind doesn’t seem capable of grasping how even though a corporate body is elect, and all its members therefore elect while remaining in it, that God is free to grant final perseverance (as well as other spiritual blessings) to some only—if he so chooses.

Those who are vitally dedicated to denying the possibility of real corporate election deny the calling of Israel, and therefore serve a different god than the God who called Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These same must also deny that the Church on earth is the same Church that will be glorified at the second coming of Christ.

These destroy by dividing, or, as they call it, by “distinguishing.” These confess two different churches: a visible church and an invisible church. These divide the sacraments. These divide Christ.

Thank God, the Neo-Reformed are not in control of the Reformed churches. Please God, may their influence be short-lived. But let the Reformed fight their own battles; I am done with them.


Anonymous said...

I know this comment is coming late after the publication of your post, but I just discovered your blog. I'm not actually Reformed, though I share the Reformed belief in the absolute sovereignty of God and that all that comes to pass has been foreordained by Him, so forgive me if I am ignorant of the nuances of Reformed theology.

You write: 'The unregenerate mind doesn’t seem capable of grasping how even though a corporate body is elect, and all its members therefore elect while remaining in it, that God is free to grant final perseverance (as well as other spiritual blessings) to some only—if he so chooses.'

What does it mean, in a Reformed context, for a person to be elect at a particular time if not ultimately saved?

A. M. said...

Greetings, Sam. I was hoping someone would come along and ask the question you raised.

Short answer: For Reformed, all persons who profess faith and are baptized are considered—or presumed—elect. Later on, if they fall away, it is supposed they were never truly elect in the first place. Norman Shepherd, in my view the best among contemporary Reformed, argues persons are truly elect by virtue of being joined to the elect community, i.e., they are included in the covenant.

Long answer: Reformed tend to make an external/ internal distinction here. Some will argue that externally a person may be in the covenant, but internally (or spiritually) not really a part of it. The emphasis here falls upon the true state of the person.

Calvin has a category of temporary faith, where a person may exercise faith for a time and is--I assume--truly justified, but I'd need to look into this further to be sure.

Others will argue that there are external / internal aspects to the covenant itself. Here, persons who do not ultimately persevere unto eternal life may actually experience outward benefits (but not all internal graces) of the covenant for a time.

It all depends on how election is cashed out, whether it is primarily individual or corporate, or a combination of the two.

Personally, I think the external/ internal approach faulty. It separates the internal reality from the external appearances and tends to oppose them; things that are joined by divine appointment.

Sacraments are composed of two parts, an outward sign and an invisible grace, but these cannot be divided. What God has joined together, let no man separate.

There is a reason why Protestants allow divorce and the Catholic Church does not. It has to do with whether a validly enacted sacrament is dissolvable or not. Hath God said?


Jesus Christ is the Elect Son. The election belongs to him, i.e., all other election subserves, is derivative of, the election of Jesus. Persons are saved by abiding in Jesus, by abiding in his body, the Church. The Church founded by/ upon Christ is visible, has historic continuity with OT Israel, and is filled with the authority & power of God. It would not be the Church apart from these qualities. It is the ark of salvation, and all who remain therein will be saved.

Predestination, calling, justification, and glorification are all phases of the outworking of God’s purposes in Jesus. Those who persevere along this foreordained path to glory (conformity to Christ) will ultimately be saved. I make no judgment here about which mechanism determines perseverance: whether it is through God’s determination alone or a synergistic process of divine and human activity. As far as I know, both views are permissible within orthodox Christianity.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating. Thanks!

A. M. said...

Sure thing, Sam.

I'd like to comment further on what I mean when I say the "unregenerate mind" is incapable of holding both corporate and individual election together.

Unregenerate reason is reason that remains entrapped (and even motivated) by the basic principles of this world, especially the principle of death, which is the separation of the spirit from the body.

The unregenerate mind cannot conceive of a truly visible elect Church, because it disbelieves the divine promise in favor of a conclusion falsely drawn from what is empirically true: that not all the baptized finally persevere. Therefore, the Church must not be what it claims to be. And, therefore, baptism must be powerless to accomplish what it signifies.

And so, the unregenerate mind proceeds to divide the external sign from the internal reality and oppose them to one another. This is the mental act of tearing body from spirit and attempting to dash them against each other to destroy them. It is an act of murderous malice perpetrated in the mind.

The unregenerate mind knows for an absolute certainty that the materiality of creation is devoid of the grace of God because it has done all it can to destroy their relation. Indeed, in unregenerate thought no relation between them exists. Sacramental faith has been lost.

The false conclusion, that baptismal water is merely material water, that the rite is a merely human rite, depends for its validity on questionable premises. Premises such as, God's forgiveness is unconditional, and, God's forgiveness includes forgiveness for all sins: past, present, and future.

What motivates the unregenerate mind to hold these beliefs? Well, the unregenerate mind desires to have the world all for itself, to do what it wants, to rule the world as it sees fit, and not be condemned for it. The unregenerate want to enjoy God's favor and retain an immunity to get away with doing whatever it is they are determined to do.

The unregenerate desire individual salvation, but they know corporate salvation--salvation of society (non-universalistically understood), salvation of creation --involves limits on their behavior. The unregenerate, like Cain, wants no one to be set higher than himself, wants no one to tell him what he must do. To have a Church implies a structure of accountability, obedience, and submission. Therefore, the unregenerate desire salvation apart from the Church.

In order to avoid the uncomfortable demands of the Church, the unregenerate mind abolishes the Church in thought by pulverizing it into a disorganized mass of individuals. Again, the unifying power of God is denied and the body "dies" and decays (disintegrates). There is no Church that God has promised to preserve; it has been defined out of existence. Ecclesial faith is thus lost.

Please don't mistake me here; not all who hold to the absolute and unconditional forgiveness of sins or spirituality of the Church are unregenerate, but the unregenerate have motivation to hold these beliefs.

Sure, it is possible for the unregenerate to desire magical "sacraments" that do the work of placating God apart from the exercise of genuine faith, love, and repentance on the supplicant's part. This is a real possibility.

But the lack of faith, love, and repentance cannot detract one iota from the pledges of God's good faith, the testimonies of his covenant faithfulness. "Let God be true, though every man a liar."

Finally, it is no credit to one's faith to remain sceptical about the objective and inherent power in the sacraments. Can such faith, disbelieving the power and promises of God, save?

charles said...

Hello Andrew,
Very interesting discussion.

I am at a point, myself, where I'm ready to write of the "Reformed" churches off as 'radical'. Reformed theology is only a slight grade above anarchy, and often when you deal with these folks, it's like dealing with someone who's lost their mind.

That said, consider what we call "Reformed" came from a relatively late period of the Reformation during the 16th century. Prior to 1560, Geneva and Zurich were not leading lights of the Swiss but 'reformation backwaters', taking third place behind Strausburg and the Lutherans. Between 1530-1555 Reformed theology was mainly being driven by Melanchthon, Capito, and Bucer. Their work represented a center of Protestant thought as known through the Wittneberg Concord (1536), Augsburg Variata (1540), and the First Helvetic Confession (1536).

This work sadly collapsed after 1555, mostly, due to the passing of Luther combined the apparent dead end of Trent. Once the 'center' gave, Bullinger and Calvin inserted themselves and polarized the protestant church with the Second Helvetic.

So, I believe we should distinguish between 'early' and 'late' Reformed. The 'early' Reformed would be Philipist not Calvinist. This is actually a pretty big difference as the later is based upon a fairly radical iconoclasm and sacramentarianism.

Furthermore, the Philipist only survived through the English articles of religion, thanks to Cranmer through Bucer. Thus, the Reformed Church of England is 'reformed' in the 'early' sense not the 'late'.

You might appreciate the efforts of both Bucer and Melanchthon at the Ratisbon conferences. The younger Melanchthon placed an emphasis on good works joined to faith. This was in his 1535 Loci, dedicated to Henry VIII.

It also comes through in the discussions with English, 1536-1540, as found in the Ten Articles and those Henrician catechisms following. This would become the theological core of the English Settlement, a reservoir the Crown and the High Church party would repeatedly draw upon. Very important.

Anyway, the Reformed as we know them, are basically reactionaries and not protestant in any strict sense of the word-- no more than the average anabaptist fanatic.

charles said...

Feel free to correct my typos.

A. M. said...

A couple of thoughts, Charles.

"Reformed" has come to be historically applied to the continental Protestant churches that aren't Lutheran. I believe this refers principally to the churches that subscribe to the Three Forms of Unity (for our other readers these are: the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordt). The meaning of this term is pretty well historically established.

Maybe, in order to avoid confusion, we ought to just talk about "Reformational" Protestantism as opposed to "Radical" Protestantism. What do you think?

Anyway, wouldn't you recognize an early radical period in Luther's life (when he cooperated to some extent with the radicals and promoted iconoclasm)? Maybe our taxonomy of Reformational Protestantism shouldd acknowledge & distinguish between the early and late Luther as the dual fount from which both Phillippian Protestantism and the more radical predestinarian / iconoclastic Protestantism proceeded. Melanchthon would then be seen as carrying on the tradition of the "conservative Luther" in order to preserve existing unity and work toward resolving Christendom's disputes reasonably.

charles said...

Yes, the popular understanding are that such churches are 'reformed'. But technically they can only make partial and 'late' claims to such. The original reformed church were those that maintained the Wittenberg Concord and Augsburg Variata as standards. The Prussian Evangelical Union churches seem to have done this for a time, and the Anglicans formally held the 39 articles until about 1865 when subscription terms experienced alteration. The 39 were the 'anglicized' versions of the Variata and Wittenberg.

Sadly, the common appellation of "reformed" prevails, and the history is basically forgotten. But, common application of the term is much like calling a quaker a 'protestant' or spelling "know" like "no", etc.. We've lost the faculty to correctly use our ecclesiastical language, leaving such to insincere ecumenical counterparts or the democratic-revivalist culture that biases history in favor of dissent and the second cousin of unitarianism.

In the end, our lack of ability to define terms proves yet another marker of Anglican decomposition and is not the Anglicanism, imo, of our great disciplinarians like Laud and Juxon. Perhaps the nicest way to state it is to allow the calvinist churches the use of the term for the sake of flattery.

For the sake of discussion, I will go with your nomenclature. I do think the Philipist has been lost, and this is largely due to the revisionism of both gnesio-lutheran and calvinist, neither of whom wanted to rapproach Rome through the Erasmusian lines of Charles V during the 1540's or even the period after 1841 when the Crown of Great Britain was proposing ecclesiastical union with Frederick William, returning to the old consenus. Today, the "reformed" would work tirelessly to undermine such a pact, but it could not happen without parity. That has been lost since the late 19th.

charles said...

feel free to correct my "no" and "know's"...