Monday, August 31, 2015

A Window into Reformed Orthodoxy

Bernardinus de Moor, Continuous Commentary on Johannes Marckius’ Didactico-Elenctic Comendium of Christian Theology, trans. Stephen Dilday, vol. 1, 7 vols. (Culpeper, VA: L & G Reformation Translation Center, 2014). 266 pp. Hardcover.

Reviewed by Dr. Ryan McGraw

Some cities in the world today sit on the remnants of ancient civilizations. Ruins of ancient Greece and Rome, for example, stand as monuments to the foundations of modern culture. This is similar to the present state of Reformed theology, since most of the theological texts in our heritage are buried in Latin tomes inaccessible to most. In order to profit from this rich tradition, these works need to be resurrected and become a self-conscious part of English-speaking theology. Stephen Dilday’s translation of de Moor’s commentary on Marckius brings a significant piece of this literature to light for a new generation of Reformed readers. This can help bring both clarity and unity to Reformed thought as we search the Scriptures, engage in theology, and address a new generation. This review briefly treats the significance and structure of this work and its contents.

This book provides a significant window into Reformed orthodox theology. Bernardinus de Moor was a professor at Leiden University in middle of the eighteenth-century. Richard Muller has categorized this period as “late orthodoxy,” in which Reformed theology struggled to maintain its historical form and content in light of shifting philosophical developments. De Moor maintained the best emphases of the so-called Dutch second Reformation by wedding biblical Reformed theology to fervent piety and devotion. He aimed to continue the work of his mentor, Johannes Marckius (1689-1731), who was a famous late orthodox author. As the title indicates, de Moor’s textbook is a commentary on Marckius’ Compendium of Didactic and Elenctic Christian Theology. Each chapter expounds a paragraph of Marckius’ text. The translator could have improved the text by providing chapter headings, rather than forcing readers to write them in as they progress. Rather than regurgitating the work of his mentor, de Moor explained this shorter work in seven volumes with rich expositions of Scripture, ample use of the church fathers and contemporary Dutch Reformed theologians, and evident piety. Dilday provides brief biographical sketches of all authors cited in the footnotes, making this book read partly like a “who’s who” of the period of Reformed orthodoxy.

The content of de Moor’s work provides a refreshing challenge to modern approaches to the study of theology. This first volume treats the nature and definition of true theology. In contrast to post-Enlightenment Reformed theology, but in accord with the Reformed orthodox tradition, de Moor denied that theology is a science (186). He argued that if we follow Scripture, this discipline encompasses an intellectual (intelligence) bent of the mind created by the Spirit of God, the knowledge of God’s being and works (science), wisdom in knowing how to worship him and live to His glory, prudence in practicing God’s law, and art in producing benefits to the church (187). Removing obedience and piety from definitions of theology was tantamount to transforming theology into speculative philosophy (175). The end of true theology is the glory of God, with the subordinate end of man’s salvation and enjoying the triune God forever (262). He argued that God Himself was the incomprehensible foundation of true theology (theologia achetypa; chapter 7) who communicates Himself pre-eminently through Christ’s human nature as the pattern of theology both for angels and men (theologia ectypa; chapters 8-10). This grounded the knowledge of God in Christ’s person and effected it by His work. This makes this entire book explicitly Trinitarian, since the Father reveals himself through his Son and makes us true theologians by His Spirit. This practical Trinitarianism, which is often painfully absent in post-Enlightenment theology, was commonplace in Reformed Latin theology. The older Reformed emphasis on the character of the true theologian in communion with God as part of the definition of true theology is precisely what the church needs today to revive the vitality of her theology by aiming at the hearts of all who undertake its study.

De Moor’s commentary on Marckius was written for future ministers. The modern pastor needs theological precision coupled with devotional warmth in order to be clearer and more effective in the pulpit. Read de Moor as a window into our theological heritage. He may even spur some of you on to learn Latin in order to open the treasure trove of historic Reformed theology.

The preceding is scheduled to be printed in an upcoming issue of The Banner of Truth.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Demythologizing the Prostestant Reformation

Peter Opitz, ed., The Myth of the Reformation, vol. 9, Refo500 Academic Studies (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013). 380pp. Hardcover.

Reviewed by Dr. Ryan McGraw

The provocative title of this volume will no doubt arrest the attention of many potential readers. Changing the title to the plural, “myths” rather than the singular, “myth,” may indicate better the aim of the work. This is to uncover common “myths” in Reformation scholarship regarding the personae, theology, and practices of the Reformation. The primary value of these essays is to present and evaluate up-to-date scholarship on a wide array of Reformation related subjects, while challenging some common viewpoints. Most of the time, its authors shed light on useful and neglected aspects of the Reformation, while occasionally they go too far in their attempts to challenge commonly accepted interpretations.

The bulk of the articles in this compilation usefully assess some neglected areas of Reformation scholarship. The first two contributions address whether the Protestant Reformation was primary German and the Catholic Reformation was primarily Spanish, respectively. Both authors argue for more nuanced origins of each movement. Other chapters treat topics such as the Reformation in Poland, the limits of Luther’s apocalyptic self-identity, the inability of modern scholarship to account for the spread of the Reformation without using sixteenth-century categories of conversion, seventeenth-century evaluations of the movement, church and state relations according to Musculus, Calvin as a lover of order, incipient congregationalism in Pierre Viret, Bullinger on the Reformed pastor, Lutheranism in Denmark, divine accommodation in Calvin, and uses of Cranmer’s martyrdom in Hungary. The last two chapters challenge the conception of Lutheranism as largely replacing images with the Word. The former does so generally and the latter in relation to Danish Lutheranism in particular. These essays help give readers a broader view of the narrative of the Reformation.

Some of these essays go too far by way of overcorrection. The most glaring example of this is John Balserak’s chapter entitled, “Examining the Myth of Calvin as a Lover of Order.” Balserak’s basic contention is that not only were John Calvin’s ideas subversive to social order, but that the man himself was also (160). In relation to Calvin’s Reform efforts in France, Balserak calls him, “the veritable Osama bin Laden of Sixteenth-century France” (161). In spite of his defense of this comparison, his arguments read like a prosecuting attorney of whom the court later learns had a personal vendetta against the accused. By marshaling evidence such as plots against the French crown via a lesser magistrate and statements such as Calvin asserting that, “We, therefore, are able boldly to overthrow the whole of the papacy” (160, 163, 171), he labels Calvin as “disturber of the peace” (166). He concludes that Calvin could not truly have loved peace and order, and that any country today would have imprisoned him for his actions in the sixteenth century (172). The element of truth in these assertions is that Calvin was not willing to achieve peace and order at the expense of his convictions. However, while the article is well-written, and could possibly win a conviction in a modern court of law, it fails to examine Calvin’s thought and actions in their historical context. For example, the citation about overthrowing the “whole of the papacy” refers, in context, to overthrowing the doctrinal foundation of the papacy as an institution through his exposition of Scripture. The essay comes across as impugning motives to Calvin through circumstantial evidence rather than engaging in sound scholarship with reference to his writings and in comparison with his contemporaries. This is a rare fault of this otherwise excellent volume.

As Daniel Timmerman notes in his contribution to this work, “historical research thrives on myths and the pursuit to demythologize them” (190). The Myth of the Reformation is not, in most cases, an attempt to recast radically our picture of the Protestant Reformation. Instead, it aims to bring the broader landscape of the Reformation into clearer focus. Its essays vindicate the editor’s assertion that one great myth of the Reformation is “that the Reformation era is a boring period where not much is left to discover behind the traditional myths” (5). This interesting volume admirably achieves this end.

This review will appear in print in the January 2016 issue of Puritan Reformed Journal.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Learning Luther

Robert Kolb, Irene Dingel, and L’ubomir Batka, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014). 662pp. Hardcover.

Reviewed by Dr. Ryan McGraw

Martin Luther is one of the most influential figures in world history in the past five hundred years. This is true in the West, even where his influence serves as an underappreciated backdrop to western theology and culture. It is true even in the East, where Christianity is expanding explosively and eastern Christians begin to grapple with the western part of their Christian heritage. This reviewer is not a Luther scholar, but a student of seventeenth-century Reformed orthodoxy, with special interest in its continuities and discontinuities with Medieval scholastic theology and the Reformation. Martin Luther is a vital link in this historical milieu, and it is to their detriment if Reformed students of historical theology ignore his theology and influence.

The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology is a useful comprehensive introductory text that will both challenge scholars and introduce beginners to current research on Luther’s theology. Reformed readers will find much here that is familiar and much that is foreign to their thinking. Both of these facts make this handbook a useful tool to enable readers to understand better the broader Protestant tradition and to evaluate it in light of Scripture and our respective confessional traditions.

This book is well-organized, well-researched, and comprehensive in scope. Forty-four recognized scholars in various fields of Luther research contributed to its chapters. The reader is led in seven sections through Luther’s life, the Medieval backgrounds of his thought, his hermeneutical principles, the traditional loci of theology, Christian living, the genres of his theological expression, and his impact of subsequent theological and philosophical reflection. Of particular interest to this reviewer are the treatments of Luther’s appropriations and rejections of Medieval theology and method in Section 2. The picture that emerges is that while Luther was overtly anti-scholastic regarding theological method, he inescapably appropriated portions of it from his context and education. Moreover, in contrast to seventeenth-century Lutheran and Reformed orthodox theologians, who incorporated aspects of scholastic methodology into their theological systems, Luther placed greater emphasis on reforming strains of monastic mystical piety and methodology (esp. Chapter 3).

Several of the essays in this volume helpfully present opposing views in Luther research, such as continuity and discontinuity with Medieval thought (chapters 7-8) and the Finish school on Luther’s views of union with Christ and justification (chapters 17-18). The latter example highlights poignantly where Reformed scholars will find the material both familiar and foreign. The Finish school presents the familiar concept of union with Christ in salvation, while mitigating the forensic aspects of Luther’s view of justification. However, the opposing essay maintains the decidedly forensic character of his teaching, but maintains that Luther taught a passive and an active justification. In this view, passive justification referred to the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the sinner, while active justification referred to the gradual transformation of the Christian life from unrighteousness to holiness. This latter aspect of this analysis will be jarring to most Reformed readers, who subsume this teaching under the doctrine of sanctification. The remaining chapters present a well-rounded view of Luther’s theological development in a way that will lead readers to helpful theological reflection.

One drawback of the comprehensiveness of this book is that it devotes more than 25 per cent of its pages to the reception of Luther’s theology from the seventeenth through twentieth centuries. While this feature enlightens readers as to what people have done with Luther’s thought, it threatens to diminish the character of the carefully wrought historical theology that marks the other three fourths of the work. The most glaring example of this danger is Chapter 31, which treats “Luther as a resource for dialogue with other world religions.” While the author recognizes that Luther was closed to dialogue with world religions based on the exclusive character of the gospel, he argues that modern readers can use Luther’s solas to uphold theological distinctions while building on his simuls (e.g. simultaneously sinner and saint, etc.) to open the door to ecumenical dialog with other religions. He concludes with the historically untenable conclusion, “Had Luther experienced the profound religious diversity and pluralism of today’s world, he probably would have recast the nuances of his dialectic differently for a positive engagement with the world’s religions” (444). The problem is that Luther is a historical figure who can neither be divorced from his times nor from his convictions. The historical Luther is the only Luther that exists, and this Luther would most certainly not have entertained such modern ideas of ecumenicity. His solas demanded an exclusive gospel grounded in the Scriptures, and his simuls described the application of that gospel to believers in Christ exclusively. However, chapters such as those treating Marxist evaluations of Luther (Chapter 42) and the reception of Luther in Asia, Africa, and Latin America (Chapters 45-47) illustrate how the modern world, rightly or wrongly, has appropriated, rejected, or transformed Luther’s theology. The chapter addressing “Luther’s abiding significance for world Protestantism” (Chapter 44) is particularly eye-opening in showing Luther’s inescapable impact on modern Christianity, even where his shadow is unnoticed by many.

This comprehensive collection of essays is a useful aid in helping historians and contemporary theologians to ground theological reflection in an informed historical theology. It has much to offer to Lutherans, Reformed theologians, and beyond.

This review will appear in print in the January 2016 issue of Puritan Reformed Journal.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

An Expert's Tour through the Westminster Confession

Chad B. Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith: A Reader’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, 2014.

Reviewed by Dr. Ryan McGraw

Chad van Dixhoorn once described a dream of his in which he was puzzling over the handwriting of the original minutes of the Westminster Assembly. In his dream, as he agonized over making out the writing, Samuel Rutherford put his arm around his shoulder and comforted him by promising to help him work through the documents. The next best thing to having Rutherford, or another member of the Assembly, guide you through its proceedings would be to have Chad van Dixhoorn lead you by the hand through the Westminster Confession of Faith. Van Dixhoorn is an internationally respected scholar on the theology of the Westminster Assembly who has likely spent more time with the writings of the members of the Assembly than anyone living. In Confessing the Faith, he combines his expertise as a scholar with his skill as a pastor to produce a layperson’s guide to understanding and using the Westminster Confession in light of Scripture. This makes this a must-have volume for anyone desiring to study the Westminster Confession of Faith.

The text of this book follows the 33 chapters of the Confession itself. While Van Dixhoorn limits his citations of primary sources, his explanation of what the Confession means draws from his extensive knowledge of this material. He teaches the theology of the Confession from the proof texts that the divines used themselves. It has become a widespread half-truth to say that we should not make too much of the proof texts in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms because Parliament required the Westminster divines to include proof texts against their wishes. However, many people miss the fact that after settling each doctrinal expression, the Westminster Assembly debated what proof texts of Scripture were most appropriate to substantiate each proposition. Their reticence to fulfill Parliament’s mandate did not result in hastily chosen Scripture passages destined to puzzle modern readers, but they were concerned that each Scripture citation required careful explanation (xxv). Van Dixhoorn’s method of teaching the theology of the Confession using these texts both enables readers to understand how its authors understood Scripture and why they used it rightly and how each doctrine and text applies to believers today. This makes Van Dixhoorn’s book deceptively simple and ideally suited to leading church classes on the Confession of Faith and for devotional purposes.

The simplicity and brevity that constitute the strengths of this work result in some unintended weaknesses. The largest difficulty is that while Van Dixhoorn states, “This is not a book intended to reflect the author’s own theological interests or preferred emphases” (xiv), he also notes, “this commentary does, from time to time, first state the assembly’s own perspective on an issue and then argue against it” (xxi-xxii). The book reads as though the author is writing and teaching theology to a modern audience. Though his method is purportedly historical, as the statement above and the general style of the book indicate, it is not purely historical. Both perspectives are needed, but it is often difficult for readers to distinguish them in this work. While this reviewer can think of no more reliable guide than Van Dixhoorn to lead a reader through the Westminster Confession of Faith, the absence of footnotes directing to primary sources gives the impression that we must simply take his word for it that his comments are historically accurate. Documenting his sources would have made this book much longer. Moreover, this reviewer is biased to believe that a scholar such as Van Dixhoorn has things right. Professing to present the historical meaning of the Confession with little proof as to why this is what its authors meant requires great faith from readers. Van Dixhoorn has earned a high degree of trust in this area, but he is not infallible and he deprives readers of the tools needed to test his assertions.

Even with this rather serious criticism, Van Dixhoorn’s work is (surprisingly) the first full-scale commentary on the text of the Westminster Confession from an historical perspective. In a time when the church needs desperately to recover historical clarity regarding her teaching coupled with rediscovering the biblical foundations on which her teaching alone rests its authority, this study is not only much needed, but long overdue.

This review first appeared in the July 2015 issue of Puritan Reformed Journal.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Plain-Style Preaching – a Puritan Perspective

This article is the first in a series on the Puritan perspective on preaching. It is a brief contextual sketch in which to set a consideration of what the Directory says about preachers and preaching.

By Richard Holst

1. The Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God

Among the documents produced by the Westminster Assembly is the DIRECTORY FOR THE PUBLIC WORSHIP OF GOD. On June 12, 1643, the English Parliament commissioned the Westminster Assembly to settle “the government and liturgy of the Church of England, and ... the clearing of the doctrine of the said church from all false calumnies and aspersions.” The Assembly’s initial task was to revise the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, but with the breakdown of order and the signing the Solemn League & Covenant by the Scottish and English parliaments, the original task was abandoned in favour of a more root-and-branch reformation of national reformation.

The first step towards this was the Directory for the Public Worship of God, which appeared in December 1644. Publication occurred in January 1645 followed by endorsement by the English and Scottish parliaments in February and March respectively. The aim or “meaning” of the Directory ... “[was] that the general heads, the sense and scope of the prayer s, and other parts of publick worship, being known to all, there may be a consent of all the churches in those things that contain the substance of the service and worship of God; and the ministers may be [thereby] directed, in their administrations, to keep like soundness in doctrine and prayer, and may, if need be, have some help and furniture.” The Directory was an attempt to create uniformity of faith and practice throughout the British Isles and to provide “help and furniture” in the conduct of public worship.

The aim was to expound the general heads of the parts or elements of worship and, at the same time, remove any ground of excuse for ministers to “become ... slothful and negligent in stirring up the gifts of Christ in them.” The intention was to “furnish [their] heart and tongue with further or other materials of prayer and exhortation, as shall be needful upon all occasions,” but not in the form of set prayers, which tended to encourage “an idle and unedifying ministry, which contented itself with set forms made to their hands by others, without putting forth themselves to exercise the gift of prayer, with which our Lord Jesus Christ doth please to furnish all his servants whom he calls to that office.” Stanford Reid argues that “the principle of freedom has been followed consistently” and that “there is not one prayer set down in full” (The Westminster Assembly's Directory of Worship, Bible Christianity 1938, 3). In reality the Directory is unclear about whether its directives are suggestions or prescriptions and words like “necessary,” “requisite,” “expedient,” “convenient” and “sufficient” appear throughout. (Van Dixhoorn, in Pastors, Preachers and Ambassadors). However, the amount of detail there is shows that public worship was a matter of the greatest importance to the Assembly.

Many evangelicals, especially in Western Europe have an anti-liturgical bias and therefore would wonder about the necessity of a directory, just as they wonder about the necessity of a confession of faith. On this point Carl Trueman attributes this bias to an “innate mysticism and pragmatism that instinctively rejects external authority in favour of 'what is true for me.” (Creedal Imperative, 38-43) Creeds, confessions and directories certainly are human compositions, conditioned by the circumstances in which they were composed and lacking the direct authority of Scripture. Indeed, in the eyes of some, the thought that the Westminster standards were written at the behest of the political authority might only add doubt to their validity. On the other hand, it is simplistic to assume that human compositions are unbiblical. The authors of the Directory tell us that they did their work “according to the rules of Christian prudence [ensuring that everything was] agreeable to the general rules of the word of God.” The crucial point is that the elements of worship identified are of “divine institution.” The Directory suggests no new element of worship but simply identifies and expounds those found in Scripture, while helping us to understand with John 4:24 that God seeks a certain kind of worship from a certain kind of worshipper.

We cannot say that there is necessity for a directory, since we have the Word of God. But it is a help, which is what the authors intended it to be. In an age of creativity, innovation, forgetfulness and individualism, it is helpful to have the elements identified and brought together in an ordered fashion so that worship does not descend into a free-for-all. It by no means removes an appropriate freedom. For example, the Puritans differed from one another on the use of set or free prayer.  Baxter approved of set prayers but felt free to extemporise. Owen felt that men should not prescribe anything. Regarding the order and beauty of worship, he wrote, “God himself is the proper judge” (Works IX, 76ff). Yet even by saying this, Owen upheld in essence the regulative principle of worship.

By producing a directory, the men of Westminster did not overlook what the Bible says about worship as a thing of the heart. Nor were they being inconsistent by removing the Book of Common Prayer and appearing to put something similar in its place. Their complaint against the Prayer Book was that it was too prescriptive and that it marginalised preaching in favour of ceremonies. They also understood that in the matter of what is acceptable to God, God is the proper judge; and that in the matter of what worship is, the principle of reciprocity applies. God speaks to His people in the greeting, call to worship, reading and preaching of Scripture, sacrament and benediction. His people respond in the elements of praise, prayer, the offering and the “conscionable hearing” of the Word.

The dynamic of worship is not only God-centred but God-directed, and when it is both, there is a meeting of heaven and earth. This is the “order and beauty of worship” that God walks and talks with his people and permits them to talk to him but as in every family, in a proper way, with proper respect and an acceptable protocol, which under the power of the Spirit allows the miracle to happen and the earthly place to become the house of God and gate of heaven — all through the mediation of Christ by whom we have access to the Father.

The preceding was first published in The Presbyterian Network, Summer edition, 2015.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Will of God and the Will of Man

Jeongmo Yoo, John Edwards (1637-1716) on Human Free Choice and Divine Necessity: The Debate on the Relation Between Divine Necessity and Human Freedom in Late Seventeenth-Century and Early Eighteenth-Century England, vol. 22 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013). 311pp. Hardcover.

Reviewed by Dr. Ryan M. McGraw

The relationship between human volition and God’s sovereignty has generated much theological controversy. Jeongmoo Yoo examines John Edwards’s teaching as representative of classic Reformed teaching on this subject. Edwards was an Anglican Reformed minister who was one of the few remaining Reformed orthodox theologians in a church increasingly dominated by Arminianism. Yoo explains Edwards’s teaching on the relationship between human choice and divine necessity and he challenges ably theological and historical caricatures of Reformed theology as a philosophically deterministic system. This book clarifies this complex issue and it should prevent caricatures of Reformed teaching on the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility.

Yoo treats free choice in Edwards’s thought in relation to predestination, foreknowledge, providence, the origin of sin, and conversion. He sets Edwards in his seventeenth and early eighteenth century British context, though with less emphasis on the international character of Reformed orthodoxy at that time other than giving evidence that scholastic distinctions diminished in the eighteenth century (151). However, Yoo draws from an impressive array of primary source material from both continental and British authors. His primary contention is that secondary literature has largely caricatured Reformed theology as a deterministic system. He argues instead that Reformed theologians, such as Edwards, taught that God ordained free and contingent causes freely and contingently without offering violence to the will of the creatures. Yoo proves his thesis so abundantly that the citations from Reformed authors become almost monotonous. Edwards breaks this monotony at one point with the surprising suggestion that there are possible exceptions to the divine decree infallibly and unchangeably determining all actions (131-133). It is difficult to see how such as a view is compatible with his otherwise standard Reformed theology. For these reasons, this work is useful to both systematic and historical theologians in their quest better to grasp Reformed orthodoxy.

The primary drawback of this volume relates to its style. There are a surprising number of typos and grammatical errors throughout the book. This includes frequent and obvious misspellings both of English and Latin terms, using the definite article in superfluous and awkward ways, confusing singular and plural nouns, and an inordinate number of superfluous sentences that increase the length of the book. The text reads as though the author is not at home expressing himself in the English language. It is more surprising that the publishers did not ensure that the author obtain help fixing these problems. While the work also expresses clearly the content of Edwards’s Reformed theology, there is very little analysis of the formulation and significance of that theology.

In short, Yoo’s work is a well-researched but simple book on a complex issue in Reformed theology. It is simple in that its arguments are clear, but perhaps too simple in its analysis. However, his research will likely help many readers better understand Reformed teaching on divine sovereignty and human freedom.

The preceding review was originally published in the April 2015 issue of Calvin Theological Journal.