Confessional Subscription

Tom Chantry has written a series of very helpful blog articles on the subject, “Words and their Meaning: Confessional Subscription and Divine Impassibility.” In part 1 he writes:

Confessions of faith are intended as tools of doctrinal unity within a church or an association of churches. To “subscribe” to a confession of faith is to claim it as a summary of your own theological convictions. Thus when many people subscribe together to the same confession, they profess that they believe the same things about those matters addressed in their confession. Such subscription is necessary at some level; otherwise we would be forced to cooperate with those who have defined Christ and the faith differently than ourselves.

Various approaches to subscription have been taken. Historically, churches that have attempted a generalized “system” subscription have demonstrated the error of such an approach: when subscription to a confession does not mean subscribing to its particular doctrines, then it means nothing. System subscription has proven to be a highway to apostasy. Some have followed a stricter approach, but allowed for various “exceptions.” In most cases there is an agreed-upon list of doctrines to which one may take exception, but defining “acceptable” exceptions may become a far messier process than many would imagine.

Associational Reformed Baptists have followed an approach called “strict” or “full” subscription. This does not mean accepting the Confession as inspired truth in a word-for-word sense, but rather an agreement with every doctrine found in the confession as a true and biblical doctrine. Individuals have voiced objections to certain wordings but have confessed agreement with every doctrine taught in the confession.

However, in order for such subscription to mean anything, one other principle is necessary: we must subscribe to the doctrines intended by those who wrote the confession; otherwise we subscribe to a malleable confession – a living document which might be twisted to mean anything. Just as constitutionalism requires constitutional history, so confessionalism requires historical theology. We cannot knowingly confess unless we know what we are confessing, and for that we must know what the writers of our confession meant by their words.

It is when we find that we cannot subscribe to the words of a confession as its writers intended them to be read that we find ourselves outside of a confessional community. This is why new confessions have been written. If we were at liberty to press the words of our confessions into new meanings, we would never need to separate from an old confession and write a new one. Of course, subscription would once again be meaningless.

As an example, consider the Westminster Confession of Faith. The framers of the Second London (1689) clearly respected the work of the Assembly. Why did they not merely adopt its confession? You know the answer: they were Baptists by conviction. But does that really mean that they could not adopt the words of the Westminster Confession? I realize there are other differences, but probably the key difference is found in Westminster 28:4, which reads:

Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized.

Is it really so difficult for a Baptist to confess those words? What if we were to argue that in our understanding this paragraph were teaching that the spiritual children of believers – i.e. those whom they led to faith – are to be baptized? Such a reading is at least plausible. Paul spoke in Galatians 3:7 of those who shared Abraham’s faith as his children, and that principle applied more broadly than only to Abraham. In I Timothy 1:2 he called Timothy “my true child in the faith,” clearly meaning a spiritual descent. Oh, you say, but the framers of the confession covered that by speaking not only of children, but of infants! Except that in I Corinthians 3:1 Paul called immature Christians “infants in Christ.”

Boom!

Why don’t we just confess the words of the Westminster Confession, but say that in our understanding 28:4 means that Christians and all whom they lead to faith, even if they be spiritually immature, should be baptized? What Baptist couldn’t confess that? And after all, we’re using Paul’s own eminently biblical language to say it. Honestly, think about this question: why write a new Confession of Faith?

The reason is that of course we all know that immature spiritual children in the faith is not what the Westminster Assembly meant. As such, it would be dishonest on our part to pretend that we hold their Confession when we neither believe nor practice in accordance with their own meaning of their own words. It would be silly to pretend otherwise. To subscribe to WCF 28:4 we would have to believe what the Westminster Assembly meant by 28:4; our own plausible re-interpretation of their words simply won’t do.

I am not arguing for “historical subscription”, but merely for a sane form of “full subscription.” I did not say that we must be exactly like the framers of our confession in every way; only that we must believe the same doctrines they were talking about when they wrote the confession.

Consider, I do not say that we must be just like them in practice. (Most of them sang no hymns.) I do not say that we must be just like them in every detail of theology. (The Confession does not address the Millennium.) I do not say we must be like them politically. (They were monarchists, of course, which played a role in forming the 1689, chapters 23, 24, and also – if you know the history – 25.) We do not need to adopt their philosophical systems, their form of clerical dress, or (thankfully) their hairstyles. But to subscribe to the 1689 Confession, we must believe what they intended by the words they wrote. That’s really a pretty obvious fact, without which full subscription means nothing at all.

Where it seems less obvious is simply where our knowledge of historical theology wanes. If we didn’t know what the Presbyterians believed about baptism, perhaps the faux interpretation of their words offered above would not seem so absurd. To interpret a Confession, then, we need some historical background; otherwise how will we know what we are subscribing to?

At times, discovering the original meaning of the confessional text even serves to make it easier for us to subscribe. Many Baptists have taken issue with 1689, 26:4, particularly the language, “…but is that antichrist, that man of sin, etc.” To the modern ear, this sounds like an identification of the last, apocalyptic antichrist at the end of the age, and many have balked at assigning that designation to the papacy. Most, though, upon further reflection on the confessional meaning, find themselves easily subscribing. The 17th century did not obsess over the apocalyptic antichrist, being more concerned with the “spirit of antichrist” which, we are told, is already in the world. To them, the word “that” did not indicate a shift from the general antichristness of the pope to some form of eschatological specificity. Once we know what they meant, the phrase becomes a lot less problematic.

In other places, though, the discovery of the historical meaning of a phrase can pose a new challenge. This is precisely what has happened with regard to the statement in 2:1 that God exists “without body, parts, or passions.” Too many of us for too long simply read those words without thinking about them or could not figure out what they meant. (I plead guilty.) Others assigned them a meaning of their own making. But consider, if we subscribe to the form of the words without any meaning, or to a form of words with a new meaning, are we subscribing at all? Is it enough to come up with any plausible meaning, like I did with Westminster 28:4, and to subscribe to that? Not if we mean anything by full subscription.

Instead, we’re going to need to engage in a bit of historical theology. What did the framers of our Confession mean when they included these words? Obviously they meant something; equally obviously, they did not mean many somethings.

It is exactly here that Samuel Renihan has done us such a service by writing God Without Passions. This careful examination of historical theology may or may not convince us biblically that the confessional position is correct. However, it defines clearly what the confession means in that section.

In very short form, here is a summary of the confessional doctrine:

First, God is without body. This is the simplest to explain; it means that God is pure Spirit, in His divine essence neither having nor needing a physical form. Implications of this are deeper, though. It means that God in His essence is other than us, and that we will only know Him by way of analogy (God speaks of His eyes, which is an analogy in our language to speak of his perception, for he has no bodily eyes.)

Secondly, God is without parts. This is the doctrine of divine simplicity. God is not a composite of various elements, for He is not created, nor can He be divided from His own perfection in any way. He is not three parts love and two parts holiness, for instance, but is instead perfect love and perfect holiness. One implication of this doctrine is that we may never set His attributes against one another and guess which one will win out. God does not possess attributes, He rather is those things which He attributes to Himself in His word. So while we may look at a man and say that his love wins out over his anger, with God wrath and love are each perfect and entire. Neither may win out over the other.

Finally – and here is where all the controversy has arisen – God is without passions. This was intended to communicate a facet of God’s immutability. Our passions are reactive to the changing world around us and thus are in constant flux. Because we have passions, we are ourselves in constant flux – one moment pleased and another grieved. But God does not change, so He must not be subject to the ebb and flow of emotional change – what the confessional writers called “passions.” God neither has love nor experiences love; He is love. It is also true that God demonstrates wrath, but we cannot then think of God moving back and forth between loving-kindness and burning anger. His love for his people and his wrath against sin are changeless dispositions rightly attributed to God; they are not emotional poles between which He cycles.

That is what the words mean. It is what the confessional writers meant by them, and it honestly doesn’t matter if we can come up with some clever new interpretation to those words which they never intended. To subscribe to the confession is to subscribe to its doctrines, not to our own ideas which we have shoehorned into the confession through interpretive gymnastics.

Here, then, is the starting point for the discussion of impassibility among confessional Reformed Baptists: was the confessional doctrine biblical and true, or was it flawed at this point? If the former, we may subscribe. If the latter, we may not.

Some say they cannot; what are they to do? I would suggest that a number of options are available:

Perhaps the simplest approach would be to try to claim an exception, to say, “I still subscribe to the 1689 Confession, but I take exception to its view of divine impassibility.” It is hard to see, though, how such an approach will be acceptable. Reformed Baptists have taken exception to words and phrases, not to entire doctrines, and certainly not to any doctrine so centrally located in our confessional system as the nature and character of God Himself.

A much more difficult approach would be that taken by the Particular Baptists in light of Westminster’s and Savoy’s paedobaptism: those who object to divine impassibility could consciously break from their confessional position and produce a new confession embracing a new theology. One wonders, though, whether the will or the capacity for such a revolution exists.

The option I would recommend is difficult, but realistic. Perhaps those who object to a doctrine newly discovered in their own confession of faith should take a deep breath and consider that perhaps theism – so inherently central a topic to any theological system – is fundamental to the system of doctrine they have embraced in the 1689 Confession. Would it not make sense to allow ourselves to be informed by the very men whose confession we have learned to trust? Would it not make sense to labor first to understand what they were saying – and why – and to grow in our own understanding of God?

What is not an option – or at least a legitimate option, is to pretend to subscribe to the Confession while redefining its terms. This is simply dishonest. Let us not play games with what the words of the confession might mean, but let us instead face head-on what they do mean. Our forefathers did no less with baptism; should we not show at least as much integrity when dealing with the more central and fundamental issues of theology proper? If some Reformed Baptists find themselves obligated to abandon confessionalism altogether, let them at least do so honestly, even at the expense of admitting that they are not, after all, Reformed Baptists. There is a dignity to be found in honest renunciation of a document you believe to be flawed.

*****

Testimony of the Ages: Confessional Subscription and Divine Impassibility, Part 2

In my post yesterday I spoke of the confessional doctrine of divine impassibility. Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists all affirm this doctrine in exactly the same words: the only true God is “without body, parts, or passions.” In order to subscribe to the confessional documents containing those words, we must confess what they meant by those words; otherwise we do not subscribe.

But what is the origin of this doctrine? Many assertions have been made during the last year; among them that the words can be properly interpreted in a number of ways. Another assertion has been that the doctrine of divine impassibility was a novel doctrine of the scholastics, a philosophical group of late medieval teachers including Thomas Aquinas. Is this the origin of this doctrine?

It is the conviction of confessional Reformed Baptists that this doctrine did not originate in the scholastic era, but rather in Scripture itself. Specifically, divine immutability and its component, divine impassibility, were first expressed as part of the divine polemic against the false gods of the nations.

Numbers 23 tells us the story of Balak the king of Moab and Balaam, the prophet he hired to curse the Israelites. God refuses to allow Balaam to pronounce a curse, but Balak thinks he can accomplish his ends by moving the prophet from one hilltop to another. To the modern mind, this seems silly, but Balak was used to the false gods of the nations, who frequently changed their moods and their minds. In response, Balaam tells him in verse 19, “God is not a man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind.” Balak needed to rethink the presumption that God is like us, particularly the idea that he might change.

In Malachi 3, the prophet was speaking of God’s intent to reverse the judgment against Israel and to show mercy. Is this because God’s disposition toward them has changed? Not at all. Instead in verse 6 the prophet reveals the opposite, telling us that God has said, “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” The unchanging disposition of God toward His people is not a liability for them, instead it is the foundation of their hope of salvation.

Indeed, God reveals Himself as one who is truly untouchable. Nothing in man can change Him in any way. He said as much in Job 35:6-7, “If you have sinned, what do you accomplish against him? And if your transgressions are multiplied, what do you do to him? If you are righteous, what do you give to him? Or what does he receive from your hand?” Job’s obedience or disobedience affects him greatly, but God Himself changes not. He is, in other words, very other from us, and also from the false gods men made in their own image.

Among the pagans there were some who saw the absurdity of anthropomorphic gods known for their passionate engagement with the world. These were the philosophers, who conceived of a creator god who was nevertheless distant and impersonal. By the time the New Testament was given, Jews and Gentiles alike were familiar both with the passionate and devious gods of Homer and with the unmoved mover of Aristotle. How does the New Testament address this? Does it in some sense revoke the Old Testament teaching of a changeless, impassible God?

Quite to the contrary, the problem is not resolved through theology proper, but rather through the revealed miracle of the incarnation. This is the import of Hebrews 4:15, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” God as God may not be tempted, but Christ the God-Man was tempted in every way. The writer to the Hebrews does not say, “Do not worry, you have a heavenly Father who sympathizes because He is very much like you,” but instead, “Do not worry, you have a High Priest with God who, being man, is like you in every way except sin.”

The gods of the pagan mythologists were very human and passionate, but God is not like them. The god of the pagan philosophers could be cold and distant, but God, though not passionate, has an eternal disposition of love toward His people, a love manifest in time by the incarnation of the Son, who sympathizes with our creaturely weakness. Thus the New Testament upheld the otherness of the transcendent God while also upholding His immanence through the Son.

The biblical two-pronged polemic against philosophical and mythical paganism was thoroughly embraced by the ancient church and played a major role in the realization of orthodox Trinitarianism and Christology. Various gnostic sects, animated by the adoption of Greek philosophical speculation into Christianity, adopted forms of Docetism – the heresy that the Son only appeared to become incarnate. The church, appreciative of Hebrews’ statement of our need of a sympathetic Savior, denounced this teaching and upheld the biblical doctrine that the Son had become like us in every way except sin.

Yet in the same era, other sects advanced the error of modalism, arguing that it was God Himself, the Father, who became incarnate as the Son. The ancient response to this heresy demonstrated their appreciation of the biblical polemic against false gods. They branded the teaching “Patripassianism,” or the doctrine of the Father’s suffering. This was impossible, they argued, for the very reason that it posited a God who in His divine essence may suffer. They perceived this as a radical departure from saying that Christ suffered according to His humanity. Particularly, God’s creatures cannot cause Him suffering! Understanding that such a theology would make them subject to the whims of a god very much like that of pagan mythology, the early church was quick to uphold the doctrine of divine impassibility.

Their denial of Docetism on the one hand and of Patripassianism on the other forms part of the historical context leading to the creedal era and the full enunciation of Trinitarian orthodoxy. That God in His essence cannot suffer was a given; yet God in the Person of the Son entered into our suffering. The church was unwilling to embrace either the unbiblically transcendent God of philosophy or the unbiblically immanent god of mythology. Instead they posited the biblical God who is transcendent and immanent, who exists eternally as One God in Three Persons, and who, though impassible in Himself, entered into our suffering through the incarnate Son, who suffered according to His humanity. It is unsurprising, then, that those who have recently attacked the doctrine of impassibility have done unintentional violence to orthodox Christology by confusing the divine and human natures in Christ.

The battle over the nature of God was thus one of the battles won in the adoption of the Ecumenical Creeds. Those battles over, it fell to another generation of theologians to reflect on what had been posited about God from the Scriptures. Thomas Aquinas, chief among the scholastics, was the systematizer of this doctrine, demonstrating how the various incomprehensible attributes of God – His eternity, aseity, infinity, simplicity, immutability, and yes: impassibility – all fit together as a comprehensive whole. While he used Aristotelian logic as a theological tool, he yet confessed the incarnate Christ, a complete departure from Aristotle’s deity. This illustrates an important point: Aquinas was not inventing new doctrines, but rather demonstrating how the doctrine already existing in the church fits together in a logical manner.

When we see how this doctrine was embraced and expressed over time, we understand better why the confessional era embraced “scholastic” terminology. The Reformers and those who came after them recognized in what is called “classical theism” the teaching of Scripture and of the ancient church packaged in clear language by the scholastics. That is why they embraced the same teaching; they understood that by confessing God “without body, parts, or passions” they were confessing nothing more than the ancient and orthodox faith. Cranmer’s wording in the 39 Articles was consistent with the teaching of Catholics and Reformers alike, and was eventually adopted by the Westminster Assembly, the Savoy Assembly, and the General Assembly of Particular Baptists.

This doctrine would go unquestioned in orthodox circles for centuries. No confessional churches in the 16th or 17th centuries, when the confessions were written, nor indeed throughout the 18th century, would oppose impassibility. However, old problems tend to reassert themselves when they are unwatched, and in the 19th century the doctrine of divine impassibility began to be questioned anew. Already I have noted that Charles Spurgeon, the great London Baptist, was confused by the confessional wording of this doctrine and seemed in places to reject it.

At the same time, a more fundamental revolution was underway in American Presbyterianism. Princeton Seminary during the 19th century was the bulwark of the American church against the inroads of modernist theology and German higher criticism. Charles Hodge and his later contemporary, Benjamin Warfield, are remembered as heroes of the doctrine of Scripture. They stood for the inspiration and infallibility of the Word of God when many were abandoning it.

However, neither Hodge nor Warfield were confessional in a meaningful sense. They advocated a form of system subscription which allowed wide variance on the specific doctrines taught in their confession. In other words, much though we may admire their rejection of liberalism, the Princeton of the 19th century was truly father to the Princeton of the 20th.

One of the doctrines which both rejected was divine impassibility. Like Spurgeon, they could not adopt the language “without passions.” Instead they advocated a form of voluntary passibility in God, in which He for His own purposes might enter into emotional change. This deviation from the classical doctrine of immutability was possible because they did not consider themselves committed to confessional subscription.

The 19th century – a cultural period which we probably need to remember was identified either as “romantic” or “Victorian” – thus ended with significant confusion introduced into the doctrines of theology proper.

At the end of the 20th century, the doctrine of divine impassibility came under perhaps the strongest attack since paganism. Open Theism, a doctrine which taught a god so similar to us that it even denied divine foreknowledge, proposed that God is entirely passible and reactive to the world He created. This theology is a complete rejection of classical theism in all of its tenets – even divine omnipotence and divine omniscience. It posits a very mutable deity.

We might expect that the church would have responded to this with a full-throated defense of the Scriptural, ancient, catholic, and orthodox view of God, but such has not been the case. In part this is no doubt attributable to the confusion introduced into theology proper during the nineteenth century. The church has been further hampered by the postmodern age in which we live – an age in which truth claims are increasingly difficult to advance. When men are willing to twist words to mean their own opposite, how does one mount a full-throated defense of anything?

Postmodernism is not only a problem in the wider culture or in heterodox circles; it has also made inroads in the believing church – including in Reformed and Reformed Baptist circles. Presbyterian John Frame has introduced a form of relativism into the church’s discussions – a form very suitable to the postmodern culture, in which words may mean whatever we wish them to mean. I have written before about how Frame has abandoned his own confession while pretending to uphold it. He could have simply rejected the Regulative Principle of Worship, which he clearly does not believe. Instead he claims to have adopted it – and promptly redefines its terms so that it now means – to him – the exact opposite of what it has meant for five centuries. Orthodox Presbyterian G.I. Williamson has called this method “demolition by redefinition.”

It is not at all surprising that Frame’s system is held in high regard by those who want to pretend that the sufficiency of Scripture is compatible with charismaticism, or with others who insist that justification sola fide is compatible with the Federal Vision. If the Particular Baptists of 1677 had only known of multiperspectivalism, they could have adopted my absurdist rendition of the Westminster Confession and avoided writing a new confession altogether! If Reformed words may be used to affirm Lutheran worship, why not use paedobaptist words to affirm credobaptism?

Multiperspectival poison has weakened the church exactly when it requires a strong response to Open Theism. We should not be surprised that a group of “modified theists” has arisen, all arguing that A means “Not A.” Reformed readers who learned their epistemology from Frame have proven particularly susceptible to this approach.

Rob Lister of Talbot certainly channeled the spirit of the age when he wrote God Is Impassible and Impassioned. Perhaps the problem is that too few understand the word “impassible.” Those who do must realize that this title makes as much sense as “God is infinite and limited,” or “God is eternal and mortal.” Lister’s justification for positing that God is A and Not A is an appeal to the divine will. Under Lister’s system, God can adjust Himself if He wants to because He is sovereign. However, He changes only in His “relational properties” toward men.

A Reformed twist on the same idea has been advanced by Scott Oliphint (of Westminster East, where Frame has not been rejected but is instead admired). Oliphint has given us the term “covenantal properties” to suggest that God is passionate in His interaction with men, but impassible in His divine essence. The glory of covenant – that the transcendent God has entered into a covenantal arrangement with us – is thus somewhat muddied: God is in covenant with us, but according to different properties than those He possesses in Himself.

In the Reformed Baptist world there has also been an attempted redefinition of “impassibility.” Robert Gonzales and Nicolas Alford of the Reformed Baptist Seminary have warned Reformed Baptists against taking “refuge in the false citadel of illegitimate confessionalism.” Quoting extensively from John Frame, Gonzales urged a broader form of confessionalism which is “something close to biblicism.” Is it, then, any wonder that Gonzales has been at the center of the Reformed Baptist controversy over divine impassibility?

Gonzales has followed the Lister/Oliphint approach to argue that God is A and Not A; in fact, he all but adopts Lister’s title in his essay, “God is Impassible and Passionate.” Gonzales posits a God who, though immutable, may yet somehow sovereignly will Himself to change, though only in His relationships with His creatures. Yet Gonzales is unwilling to take the honest approach and abandon the 1689 Confession: “We don’t agree with theologians like Wayne Grudem who deny impassibility and would remove it from the confessions. Better, we think, to clarify what we mean.” (page 28) In other words, Gonzales attempts to retain the words of the confession while rejecting its teaching.

Along the way, Gonzales, his followers, and some whom he cites have fallen into the very errors which the confessions were designed to prevent. Not only one biblical doctrine is imperiled by this approach, but many. It upends divine simplicity by positing one attribute of God (sovereignty) against another (immutability) and picking a winner. It calls into question the aseity of God by suggesting that His creatures may be the cause of variance in Him. It clearly and obviously undermines His immutability, no matter how careful Gonzales and others think they have been to guard against Open Theism. It even redefines the eternality of God; Gonzales devotes several pages to explaining how God can be eternal and immutable and yet change in time.

Brothers, we are playing with fire. A doctrine of God which the church has upheld literally for millennia is being tossed aside in favor of a God more relatable – more like ourselves. Can there be any greater act of hubris?

*****

Your Honor, I Object: Confessional Subscription and Divine Impassibility, Part 3

During seminary I had lunch one day with a friend who was in law school. He told me a riotous story from his summer clerkship which I find apropos, so I share it with you today.

He found himself attending court to assist the lawyers who defended the town of Hanover, PA from a lawsuit stemming from the Hanover Race Riots. (I am not making this up; there was such a thing.) The plaintiff in the case claimed an injury during the course of the rioting and assigned blame to the town for failure to control the streets.

The case went poorly for the plaintiff, largely because no one actually seemed to believe that the city had done a poor job under the circumstances. The plaintiff’s attorney called an expert witness who had once worked for the state police, expecting him to testify that the local police had botched the crowd control that night. Now I have attended exactly zero hours of law-school lectures, but I was a devoted fan of “Law and Order,” so even I know that a lawyer should never ask a question in court without knowing exactly how the witness will respond. It turned out that the expert was entirely satisfied with the town’s conduct on the night in question.

The next thing you know, the plaintiff’s attorney was harassing his own paid, expert witness, insisting that he was drawing improper conclusions. The defense attorneys were uncertain how to proceed; they wouldn’t tolerate such aggressive questioning of their own witnesses, but should they stand up for the plaintiff’s expert? At last the questioning became so egregious that the lead defense attorney humbly offered, “Your honor, I object.” This provoked an outburst from his frustrated opponent, who angrily insisted, “I have the right to impeach my own witness!”

Do I need to tell you how this debacle ended? Once your case is reduced to discrediting your own star witness, it’s over.

That lesson has come to my mind during the last few weeks as I have followed the debate over divine impassibility among Reformed Baptists. As I wrote yesterday, in the last few years an entirely novel approach has arisen which pits God’s sovereignty against His immutability, arguing that God does experience emotional fluctuation because He wills Himself to react this way within His relationship with His creatures. This teaching – which is strictly proscribed in the 1689 confession – has found advocates among Reformed Baptists, most notably Robert Gonzales of the Reformed Baptist Seminary.

At the time that Gonzales was blogging on impassibility, he was an elder in a church in the Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America. An investigation of his views eventually led to the current year-long process within that association to examine divine impassibility with a view to adopting (or rejecting) a formal statement of the confessional doctrine at this year’s General Assembly.

Last spring, as the issue of impassibility started appearing on the radar of various Reformed Baptists, the advocates of the new view assembled a witness list – reliable Reformed voices who, they assured us, supported either their own view or something like it. Of course some of those voices were from among those compromised multiperspectival paedobaptists I mentioned yesterday. Others were Victorian-era Presbyterians who, while they did not hold to the views advocated today, did not subscribe to the confessional position either.

Most prominent, however, were three living authors whose reputation for sound doctrine is unlikely to be questioned by anyone. Dr. Samuel Waldron is himself a Reformed Baptist pastor and professor whose church recently joined the association. Dr. Michael Horton is of course a well-known author and professor at Westminster Seminary in California – where ARBCA maintains its official ministerial training branch, the Institute for Reformed Baptist Studies. Finally, Phillip Johnson is the Executive Director of Grace to You Ministries and a lay pastor at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, CA. These three, we were told, would validate the extra-confessional position being advocated among Reformed Baptists.

Only none of these witnesses has answered from the stand in the manner predicted by the side which called them.

Waldron was quick to distance himself from the view now being advocated, pointing out that his own understanding of the issue has grown over time, that his cited works were out of date, and that even they did not quite agree with what Gonzales and others are now writing. (This would prove to be a common thread: writings from before the advent of “modified impassiblism” obviously did not refute it; this has been misunderstood as support.) More recently, in an endorsement of God Without Passions Waldron concluded:

For all these reasons, and especially in the difficult matter of the doctrine of God and divine impassibility, we are indebted to Sam Renihan for not being a slacker himself and giving us the massive work compiled in this book. He has given us the views of the “seven wise men” with regard to divine impassibility. We do well to pay close attention.

The focus of attention turned to Horton, whose statement on impassibility in his recently published The Christian Faith was brief – yet obviously inconsistent with classical theism. His Earlier Lord and Servant addressed the matter more extensively and gave even more cover to the modified view. Yet Horton has also backed away from his earlier statements, both in discussion with Reformed Baptists and in his classroom. His lectures on Theology Proper in the current academic year were decidedly orthodox and confessional on this point. He also endorsed God Without Passions (are all the expert witnesses going to endorse this book?) in the following words:

It has been said, “We keep re-inventing the wheel and it’s never round.” Re-imagining, re-visioning, re-constructing our doctrine of God–away from the alleged ‘abstractions’ of rigorous exegetical, theological, and philosophical detail–has turned out usually to be little more than a more superficial version of errors from the past. Today, a growing number of evangelicals (even conservative ones) are jettisoning the notions of God’s impassibility and kindred attributes. However, their arguments are usually evidence that they haven’t wrestled sufficiently with the sources of classical theology. In one collection, God Without Passions helps us do our homework and, to paraphrase the Apostle Paul, “leaves us without excuse.”

johnson
Why yes, I did select the Hawaiian Shirt/Dark Glasses/Bullet Holes picture. Your point?
With the publication of this book, most mention of Horton has died out. That left Phil Johnson. Increasingly one heard the statement from those opposing the confessional view, “We are only saying what Phil Johnson said in his article, “God Without Mood Swings.” This narrative came crashing down when the final expert witness took the stand.

On February 10 an interview of Johnson by Richard Barcellos was posted on the Confessing Baptist website. During the interview, Barcellos asked Johnson about his own article and also about a more recent article in which James Dolezal reacted to the modified view. Johnson’s answer surprised many:

I don’t think I would change that article [Johnson’s own] at all. It’s a simple approach to the issue, I think. It’s not as technically detailed as you’d have to be today if you were going to answer Scott Oliphint and all of those guys. I think James Dolezal is doing a good job of answering those guys on a more technical level, but my goal was simply to show why this was important.

It was apparent that Johnson had aligned himself – and his earlier article – with Dolezal’s strong critique of modified impassibility as well as his affirmation of the classical and confessional view.

What truly bothered me, however, was the treatment that Johnson then received from my Reformed Baptist brethren!

On Phil’s Facebook page, Reformed Baptist modified impassiblists immediately clamored for an explanation. Johnson’s response certainly clarified his understanding:

The contemporary quest to make God passionate is in my view a foolish and sinful attempt to humanize the Almighty. It entails a heterodox view of God that certainly points in a decidedly unorthodox (not to say “heretical”) position. It’s not an immediate cause for separation, but it is certainly worthy of vigorous debate, because it’s a doctrine crucial to the nature of God. So I can envision cases where, yes, I think it could become a point worth dividing over.

Also, giving the view a label like “modified impassibilism” barely obscures the fact that it’s a rejection of historic confessional impassibility.

I’m not part of or privy to whatever debate has taken place in the Reformed Baptist community, but from what I’ve heard it’s similar to discussions I took part in as long as 20 years ago. And I would bet money that Grudem’s Systematic Theology is the go-to text for the “Modified” team.

It would seem more accurate to call Grudem’s view “soft passibility,” or something like that. It seems obvious to me that Grudem’s charismatic bent drives his opinion on this issue. But at least Grudem is honest in saying he does not affirm that statement in the confession.

This did not sit well with the plaintiff’s attorneys. ARBCA pastor Nick Kennicott responded:

I’m going to let you know that the current debate is actually nothing like what you dealt with 20 years ago, it is very, very nuanced and narrow. You want to know what text the so-called “modified team” is using as a go-to text? Your paper.

Sit down, Phil, and let us tell you what you think! Meanwhile, another Reformed Baptist demanded to know when Phil had changed his mind:

Have you fully changed your position? (in what you wrote in “God Without Mood Swings”)

That is, have you moved from one that cites J. I. Packer five times in your article, to supporting James Dolezal’s position? Dolezal says that Packer’s view “represent[s] a striking departure from the classical account of impassibility,” meaning that while both Packer and Dolezal affirm the doctrine of divine impassibility, but one cannot wholly affirm Dolezal while also affirming what Packer says. Thus, to affirm what Dolezal teaches, would essentially mean that you have changed your position from what you wrote in “God Without Mood Swings” to something different.

Meanwhile, back at the Confessing Baptist, Robert Gonzales accused Johnson of not answering questions in the interview and implied that he didn’t really understand the issue.

Now it may be that Phil really has changed his position and would agree with Dolezal 100%. However, if that’s the case, then Phil would need to significantly revise his article. That article sets forth a view of impassibility affirmed by many Reformed scholars to today but one which is, according to Dolezal, and some Reformed Baptists like Richard Barcellos, completely incompatible with the language of the Confession.

I was also disappointed that Phil never directly interacted with Oliphint or Lister, the so-called “revisionists” of impassibility. He referred to Grudem. However, Grudem dismisses impassibility altogether. But neither Oliphint nor Lister dismiss or reject impassibility. That’s a point that needs to be underscored and which some listeners may miss. Unfortunately, Phil never tells us what problems he has with Oliphint or Lister. Yet the interview leaves us with the impression that Phil really disagrees with them.

As a result, the interview leaves many of us uncertain where Phil currently stands.

Gentlemen, you called this witness! Why so quick to impeach him? In one morning Phil Johnson went from being the orthodox champion who would explain and legitimize modified impassibility to some guy who doesn’t even know what he believes. How did that happen?

It would seem, however, that Johnson knows exactly what he believes, and at the end of the day he brought both discussions (at the Confessing Baptist and on his Facebook page) to an abrupt halt with this declaration:

Unless I have totally missed something in Dolezal’s work, those who imagine some great gulf between him and me are seeing something that simply isn’t there. Though we wrote our respective views in vastly different contexts, separated by two decades, both of us are arguing against subtle (and not-so-subtle) attempts to rewrite classic theism as outlined in our Reformed confessional standards. I applaud Dolezal’s work. It’s much more thorough and more carefully nuanced than mine (and in that respect it is a major step forward). He objects to some expressions that I had simply let slide. But I don’t disagree with any fundamental point he makes.

Specifically, I quoted some statements from J. I. Packer and agreed with the gist of what Packer said: **that God is not indifferent or unfeeling**—and yet His affections (love, anger, hatred, grief, etc.) are not involuntary “emotions”; they are active, deliberate, immutable expressions of the immutable will of an immutable God. In the passage I quoted, Packer clearly assumed the Biblical expressions about God’s love, the Holy Spirit’s grief, divine anger, etc. are “_anthropopathisms_.” (He uses that very word.) These dispositions are (in Packer’s words) “not involuntary surprises forced on him from outside.” Read my article and you’ll see that those were the very points I stressed.

Dolezal quotes one of the same passages I cited from Packer and takes issue (rightly, I think) with the idea that “God has ‘experiences’ that ‘come upon’ him.” It’s quite true that Packer has used an inelegant and unfortunate expression. I may not be as certain as Dolezal that this reflects a deliberate departure from classic theism on Packer’s part, but if indeed it is Packer’s intention to “[suggest] some sort of progression and change in God’s life,” then Dolezal is absolutely right to object to that notion.

Second, Dolezal makes a point I did not, and I agree with his point: While it’s important to stress the fact that God “is perfectly in _control_ of [His affections] and has chosen them for himself,” we’re not to imagine that the difference between the divine affections and human emotions consists in that fact alone. The root of the difference lies in God’s pure actuality. Experiences don’t “happen” or “come upon” Him. While I did not expressly make that point in my article, 1) I affirm it; 2) Dolezal is by no means *denying* that God “is perfectly in control of [His affections] and has chosen them for himself; 3) nor is he denying that this is a significant way God’s affections differ from human emotions.

So it turns out that every reliably orthodox living witness who is not a multiperspectival relativist (or whatever it is that J.I. Packer has become these days) has now spoken, and not one of them spoke in favor of the modified position. As the witness list dwindles, I’m beginning to hear rumors of a new list – men far enough away from the Reformed Baptist discussion that they likely don’t know the details but who had private discussions with one side in which they allegedly supported the modified position. That is what is called “hearsay,” and it is about as useful in a theological discussion as it is in a court of law.

Impeachment of expert testimony, introduction of hearsay; what’s next – jury nullification?

Actually, that has been going on for some time. As I explained above, the current debate is more than a debate; it is the preparation for a formal decision to be made at the ARBCA General Assembly in April. In this case, the “jury” will be made up of the delegates from the member churches. The ongoing discussion may be thought of as the evidence which they must consider.

But one of the perennial frustrations of life as a Reformed Baptist is the way that so many theological questions are framed as matters of personal loyalty. The name “Reformed Baptist” – as much as it irritates some Reformed paedobaptists – was invented to distinguish 1689 confessional churches from the vaguely Calvinistic and baptistic congregations which dot the evangelical landscape. Yet from the very first decade of the movement, many have treated the Reformed Baptist movement as a country club to which one gains entry on the basis of personal friendships. This problem has not been limited to non-associational churches; it has been a very real problem within ARBCA itself.

As a result, doctrinal questions are rarely approached only with reference to our primary and secondary standards (Scripture and the Confession), but also with an eye to who has been offended and what friendships might be threatened. The current discussion of divine impassibility is an existential crisis for ARBCA and – arguably – for the entire Reformed Baptist movement. Will we go forward with a confessional identity, or will we jettison confessional language in favor of maintaining personal connections?

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard that the real tragedy of this last year is that good men are being divided from one another. That pain is very real, and I feel it myself, but honestly, is it any way to determine our understanding of the nature and character of God? And is it right to attempt to sway ARBCA delegates with an appeal to personal affronts when such grave matters are at stake? Yet look at how the case is being argued – and by its principles, no less.

On January 17 Jim Butler, a member of ARBCA’s Theology Committee, posted “A Brief Statement on Divine Impassibility” at the Reformed Baptist Fellowship. The comment thread developed into a debate on the questions at hand. Read the back and forth of comments, and it will become clear that the confessionalists are interested in discussing the doctrine while some of the modified impassiblists want instead to voice objections to the process and to express their sense of grievance. This was perhaps most evident in the summary of the process given by Gonzales himself. Two details stand out. After explaining his early interactions with ARBCA committees, Gonzales wrote:

At this point, I had no heart to go through the process. It had become plain to me that certain people in ARBCA didn’t want me in. So I just wanted to leave.

Gonzales cannot seem to imagine that the differences between himself and ARBCA were doctrinal; instead the problem was personal. “They didn’t want me in.” That statement irks me, and I’m not even part of the association! ARBCA is not a neighborhood treehouse with a “No Modified Impassiblists Allowed” sign tacked to the door; it is an ecclesiastical body seeking to define its commitment to its confessional and constitutional documents.

Then, a bit later, Gonzales added the following:

Yes, Chuck Rennie had contacted me earlier in February. He offered to fly to South Carolina in March and meet with me. I initially agreed. But having just listened to … a recent SS series on impassibility in which [Chuck] publicly attacked me and another RB pastor and feeling that such a meeting would be moot in light of a condemnation already rendered, I suspected Chuck’s motives and intent. I rudely cancelled the meeting. I later apologized to Chuck, and he forgave me.

I am glad that Pastors Gonzales and Rennie came to some accommodation, but I confess I am rather hung up on the words “publicly attacked,” which Gonzales still uses to describe Rennie’s Sunday School lesson. “Publicly attacked” how? Did Rennie threaten Gonzales? Did he call him bad names? Did he question his faith? Or, as I suspect, did he quote him and say he was wrong?

I tremble to think that this is what the sons of Coxe, Keach, and the Collinses have come to. If you clarify your doctrinal position you reject us personally, and if you disagree with us you offend us deeply. How sad!

So the witnesses have spoken, the case has collapsed, and we are left with personal recriminations. The argument for modified impassibility is in shambles. It does not speak well for our movement that there remains any question whether or not we will uphold our confession on this point. I ask again, and probably not for the last time, will Reformed Baptists be a movement based on a confession, or on personalities?

*****

Brothers, I Implore You: Confessional Subscription and Divine Impassibility, Part 4

It’s Friday, and I have written for most of a week about the doctrine of divine impassibility. I’ve written about its confessional definition and the need to subscribe not only to the words of a confession, but the meaning those words were intended to convey. I’ve written about the history of this doctrine and how we arrived at the place we stand today. I’ve written about the nature of the discussion in Reformed Baptist circles and how distractions have risen to crowd out the critical doctrinal issues. This is, as far as I know right now, the last I will have to say on the subject for the time being. I want to address myself to Reformed Baptists, particularly those in ARBCA.

It is reasonable to expect, however, that some will ask why I am so passionate (sorry…I know) about this issue. I can only answer in this way: I am a Reformed Baptist by conviction. I am convinced that in a world of doctrinal decay, we need the anchor of a confessional standard, and that standard must be defended until such point as it is demonstrated to be contrary to the Word of God. I have to be a Reformed Baptist in the same way that a true, confessional Presbyterian has to be a Presbyterian and that a true, confessional Lutheran has to be a Lutheran. I am convinced of the biblical truth of my Confession, and I have no choice but to pastor my church according to its sound form of doctrine.

I know that there are many others like me. We are a fraction of the Kingdom of Christ, but as Christian men we have no choice but to believe and preach those truths which we find in Scripture, and our Confession is a true and forthright summary of those teachings. I care about our neighborhood within the broader Christian community, and I want it to be strong – for our sakes, for that of our children, and also for the sake of the broader church. I believe we have something to offer, but to do so, we must be well-settled in our convictions and commitments.

For all those reasons, I am deeply concerned about the future of ARBCA – the only national association committed to our Confession of Faith. My own congregation was established because of the gospel commitment, the wise oversight, and the remarkable generosity of an ARBCA church. However, when we constituted as an independent church seven and a half years ago, I chose not to actively lead our congregation into association within ARBCA. The reasons for such a decision are always complex, but at the core was a lack of certainty whether or not ARBCA would prove itself committed to maintaining its own confessional standards.

Brethren, my decision was wrong, and I acknowledge it as wrong today.

I was wrong to think that we could be a thoroughly confessional 1689 church without any association. Over the course of the last two years, as I have studied our standards, our history, and our interpretation of Scripture, I have become convinced that both the Confession and the Bible demand accountability to other churches within a formal structure. My fellow-elder shares this conviction. Moreover, we are less and less trustful of ourselves as men and as leaders. We believe our people deserve both the protection and the encouragement that comes in association.

I was wrong in my assessment of ARBCA men, and I repent of it. Over the last few years I have watched from outside while pastors in the association have done the very things I doubted: they have stood for truth and sought to define the confessional nature of their organization. I have been guilty more than once of failing to have confidence in my brothers, and to some of them I have had cause to offer a sincere apology.

But most importantly, I was wrong in that, by remaining out of association, I have absented myself from the very significant – I would say crucial – decisions which will shortly be reached. I have relegated myself to an observer’s role, and this was cowardly and wrong. Too late I have realized my error, and now I must watch and trust the fidelity of other men.

In each these ways, but particularly in the last, I am now convinced that my leadership of my own congregation has been deficient. For we need – all Reformed Baptists need – the ARBCA General Assembly to do its work in a forthright and godly manner. Two issues hang in the balance in April, both of which are dear to my heart:

First, a monumental question concerning the doctrine of God faces not only Reformed Baptists, but the whole church. Debates over impassibility and classical theism have raged not only among Reformed Baptists, but much more widely. Yet ARBCA will be the first ecclesiastical body to determine whether or not the confessional view will be upheld. I believe this decision will reverberate widely in the Body of Christ. As I would frame it, the question is whether you will maintain a high view of God or whether you will allow that view to be eroded. I do not mean to say that the modified impassibilists have a low view of God, but I am convinced that their arguments, – whether intentionally or not – have chipped away at the doctrine of His immutability. This is a matter of gravest consequence.

Second, a matter nearly as important to me and to my church is this question: what will become of the confessional Reformed Baptist movement? For fifty years now the Reformed Baptists have swung between a polity of confessionalism and another polity of personal attachments. Make no mistake, when the association votes on impassibility, the underlying issue will be this: will ARBCA continue to be what its constitutional documents say that it is – an association defined by subscription to a common confession? If the Assembly concludes that one may reinterpret the words of the confession contrary to their original meaning, then confessionalism will have ended within the association, and there will be no national association of confessional churches.

The delegates will therefore rule on one precise matter but at the same time determine the trajectory of two major issues facing not only themselves and their churches, but facing many of the rest of us as well. I have made my mistakes and taken myself out of this decision, and as such I have no right to expect any voice. But these matters are too weighty for me to ignore, and so I implore you, ARBCA delegates, to consider carefully what you do in April.

Again, I realize that I have no right to say what should happen in ARBCA. I do, however, share the same Confession, and I am asking you delegates – as fellow Reformed Baptists – to keep your eye on the great issues at stake. What does our Confession of Faith say about the doctrine of God? Is it acceptable to redefine that statement and consequently chip away at a proper biblical understanding of His attributes? Can you affirm what our confession says, or must you abandon it? Perhaps most significantly, if the confessional view is biblical, will the Reformed Baptist movement continue to affirm and be defined by that Confession?

I see distractions clouding the horizon, and I am not even privy to what goes on within the associational fold. I beg of you, don’t be distracted. Do not let personal grievances and perceived slights distract you from the weighty issues at hand. Of course we should conduct ourselves as Christian gentlemen. Of course we should speak the truth and avoid invective. But do not fall prey to the spirit of our day and allow concern over style and tone to outweigh your concern over substance and truth. These decisions are far too important to be determined according to personal loyalties; they may only be considered with prayer and in light of God’s Word. As confessional men, we must consider them in light of that Word, being instructed by our confessional forefathers and determining whether or not we are convinced by their arguments. Let that be your task, and leave the rest alone.

I would also say a word to those of you who find yourselves unconvinced by the confessional doctrine. Some of you I know; you are my friends and I hope that the current strife will not change that. I would ask you also to consider well what your true options are. I spoke in my first post in this series about the choices that face us when we find that we no longer subscribe to our confessional standard.

Please do not deceive yourselves and others by claiming to subscribe to the words of the Confession while rejecting its doctrine. You are better men than that. I know no one within the Reformed Baptist movement that I could properly label a post-modernist, but to subscribe to a confession according to your own novel interpretation of its words is a post-modern act. Let us all quit ourselves like men, and say honestly what we believe.

If your convictions are strong, and if you believe them to be biblical, and if you must therefore abandon the Confession on this point, then do so openly and honestly. There is great honor in saying what you mean and meaning what you say. If this means that you depart from the Reformed Baptist camp, it does not mean that you depart from the Body of Christ. If you go, you will go with my prayers for your blessing as well as the prayers of many others.

But if your convictions are in any way not yet firmly formed, I would urge you to consider another option: allow yourself to be led and instructed by your Confession as you study the Word of God. Many have said that before this year they never considered the doctrine of divine impassibility. Why then are so many willing to abandon the teaching of the confessional framers who have led you right in so many other areas? They did consider it; perhaps we all need to think long and hard about what they concluded. I have been blessed by entering honestly into that process, and so have many others. Is it not possible to wait quietly for a time and to consider whether or not the Confession may be right?

Brothers, I am praying for you, and I commit to pray for you while this matter remains unsettled. May our Lord bless His church, and may He bless the Reformed Baptist movement.