A Response to Rick Phillips

As the Wilkins controversy continues to give off fumes, I would like to refer you to three places before we begin our next installment of comments. The first is to reiterate that Steve’s written responses to his presbytery exam can be found here. The second is a response to that, written by Rick Phillips, found here. And the third is a first-rate response by Jonathan Barlow to Rick’s piece, found here. I’ll give you a few minutes to work through all that.

Okay, here is the problem. In my response here I am simply reworking or amplifying Jon Barlow’s central point, which was outstanding, and hoping all the while that I do not obscure it for anyone. What we have here is a linguistic controversy, which many have mistaken for a substantive doctrinal disagreement. While there is a doctrinal disagreement involved in all this, it is not located where the FV critics want to locate it, and it does not involve a denial of the Westminster Standards.

But also, before responding to Rick’s critique of Steve, I want to register a personal note. At various times in this imbroglio, it has been more than a little obvious to me that agendas and motives other than what has been publicly claimed have been driving this whole affair, and I believe that I have noted this on more than one occasion. I bring it up here simply because I want to make it absolutely clear that in my mind Rick is emphatically not in that category. I believe that Rick is honestly interested in preserving and protecting the truth of the Reformed faith, and I do not believe that he is playing ecclesiastical politics. I have solid grounds for saying this, and my respect for his personal integrity is high.

Having said this, I believe he is badly misconstruing what Steve is saying, and I hope to be able to show why I say this. First, let me list a battery of quotes from Rick’s article, with my comments marked in bold. Then I would like to conclude this point with a counter-example, and a question.

“As TE Wilkins’s answers consistently show, he affirms the teaching of the Westminster Standards and then proceeds to argue that the Bible teaches otherwise. [Wilkins actually says that the Bible teaches the same doctrine as the Standards, but that it does not always use the same words in the same way.] But this is not to affirm the Standards.”

“It is not sufficient, I would argue, to affirm the scriptural doctrines as taught in the Confession unless one agrees with the meaning of the terms. [Agreed] TE Wilkins states that his reading of Scripture yields “broader” definitions of doctrinal terminology. [Broader definitions in Scripture are not the same as contradictory definitions. More on this anon.] I will argue that the true effect of these broader definitions is that TE Wilkins teaches different definitions of key terminology that appears in the Confession in such a way that his teaching is out of accord with the Confession’s summary of biblical truth. [This would only follow if Steve were substituting the different definitions found in Scripture into the Confession. But in the Confession, for Steve, elect means decretally elect, the way the Confession means it. And in Scripture, he argues, the word elect is sometimes used in a sense other than this precise meaning. But the more precise meaning remains true.]

“But the question pertains to the acceptable consistency of certain of TE Wilkins’s published teachings with the Confession’s doctrine of election. [As mentioned above, the issue is verbal consistency, not substantive consistency.]

“But the point of his question is to reconcile the [verbal] difference between the Confessional doctrine and the biblical doctrine – yet the Confession maintains that its doctrine is the biblical doctrine. [Steve maintains that the Confession’s doctrine is the biblical doctrine too. But he also says that it is not the only biblical doctrine, and that the Bible uses some of the same words with greater latitude than a Confession of Faith can or ought to.]

“He is, in effect, declaring that the Standards define and use the key doctrinal term ‘election’ in a way that is at odds with the Scripture definition and usage of that term. [Something may be different without being ‘at odds.’]

“His answers to the LA Presbytery’s questions serve primarily to argue that the Standards are out of accord with Scripture.” [A better way of putting this would be: ‘His answers to the LA Presbytery’s questions serve to argue that the Standards employ a technical theological vocabulary in places where Scripture does not. Which is fine, both places.]

My counterexample is this. There are few theological words that are as important as hypostasis. The three persons of the Trinity are described with this word, and the ancient Standards also teach us that there is a hypostatic union between the divine and human natures of Jesus. For more on the problem of definitional ambiguities surrounding this word, please see at Robert Letham’s wonderful book on the Trinity. I am currently high-centered by an ice storm in an airport, and therefore do not have my Greek stuff. But if you look it up, you will discover that the Bible uses the word hypostasis in a very different way than the later fathers did. This later use, a stipulated, theological meaning does not intend to contradict the scriptural uses, nor does it actually do so in fact. Nevertheless, they still set a precise, theological definition for particular purposes which I applaud, and I wholeheartedly subscribe to Nicene and Chalcedonian orthodoxy. Not only so, but I would take it amiss if someone were to suggest that my statement that there is a “broader” or “different” use of this word found in the Bible was being advanced by me in an attempt to show that Nicene orthodoxy was somehow “unbiblical.”

The Bible uses hypostasis in a particular way, and the task of exegesis is to find out what that meaning was in its original context, and then to believe and teach it. The fact that a later creed uses the word hypostasis to describe a different biblical reality, but which reality is not described in the Bible with the word hypostasis creates a minor problem . . . but it is a problem which can be resolved by spending ten minutes with Jon Barlow’s essay. These uses are different, but they are not contradictory. The fact that I believe the Bible to teach that there is a fixed number of people to the decretally elect, which number cannot be augmented or diminished, just like Westminster teaches, does not obligate me to assert that every use of the word elect in the Bible has to carry the same decretal denotations and connotations.

And so here is my question for Rick. It is a version of a “have you stopped beating your wife yet?” But no need to worry — this is for illustrative purposes only, and I do not intend to accuse Rick of being anti-Trinitarian. But if the reasoning being employed against Steve is legitimate, then I think a series of questions like this would have to lead to such charges. “Do you believe that hypostasis is used in the Bible in the same way it is in the Nicene formulations? If so, could you please demonstrate this lexically? And if not, could you please defend your denial of the Trinity and Incarnation?”

One more quick thing. Rick takes Steve to task on the subject of the invisible church because Steve says that except in the mind of God, the invisible church “does not yet exist.” Rick says that this is out of conformity with the Standards, but then astonishingly quotes the Standards where they say that the invisible Church consists of the “whole number” of the elect. But if a goodly portion of that whole number does not yet exist, then how can an entity which requires their presence exist? I can’t make a present omelet with future eggs. Rick skates quickly over this, which is a good thing, because the ice is pretty thin here. He says, “What TE Wilkins sees as an eschatological fulfillment growing out of the visible church, the Confession sees as a past, present, and future reality in overlap with the visible church.”

But what do you mean, exactly, by “future reality?” If you mean that it is settled by God’s decrees, and is therefore known to God, then I could go for that, and Steve would too. In fact, in his written answers, he did go for that. The whole number of the elect, by name, does exist in the mind of God. So we affirm that it exists this way, but Rick rejects this formulation. He rejects it while saying that the invisible Church is a “past, present, and future reality,” and so he must mean this in some other sense than that God simply knows who the future elect are. The entire Church invisible has to “exist” in some important sense distinct from existing in the mind of God. Since the invisible Church is made up of the whole number of the elect, which includes members not yet born, this means that the future exists in some sense other than in the mind of God. And this must be a very important doctrine, because to deny it gets this kind of controversy going. So my question to Rick here would be this: “What specifically do you mean by the invisible Church existing as a past, present, and future reality? Where? How? When? And most importantly, where does the Bible teach this?”

Enough for now.

Okay, I read over this before posting, and need to point out one other thing. To subscribe to the Westminster Confession (as I do) does not obligate me to affirm that the Confession represents the doctrine of Scripture exhaustively. The Westminster is not a summary of the entire Bible. It is a summary of the Bible’s teaching on the subjects that it addresses. I affirm that it represents Scripture accurately, as far as it goes, but I deny that the Confession represents the Bible exhaustively, and also deny that it ever intended to. For example, Jon Barlow mentions missiology as a missing subject, to which I would add my beloved postmillenialism. Now that’s enough.

Faith Is Mediated

When someone says that God foreordained the conversion of Smith, and that the conversion of Smith was therefore made necessary, a denial of this would include the view that the conversion of Smith was contingent, not necessary, and that God’s foreordination took up some percentage of the whole deal that was less than 100%. In other words, if the conversion weighed ten pounds, God carried nine and Smith one, or God eight and Smith two. This kind of thing is a denial of God’s sovereignty in salvation.

But if someone says that God does it all, and that His foreordination does not need the cooperation of any other agent in order to make it effective, but that it is also true that Smith is not a puppet, and that God uses various instruments in layered hierarchies, all subordinate to the sovereign use of God, who is directing it all, this does not amount to a denial of God’s sovreignty in salvation.

Now a fundamentalist Calvinist, if we may postulate such a one, could say that all this theologizing makes his head hurt, and that as soon as we starting saying things “how will they preach unless they are sent?” we are threatening to undermine pure Calvinism, as he understands it. But by pure Calvinism he means invisible lightning bolts from heaven, converting souls in a willy nilly and inscrutable fashion, and connected in no way to Christian literature, preaching, prayers, Christian nurture, or any of that stuff. But this is not Calvinism — it is a caricature.

The same kind of thing is going on with this Auburn Avenue business. If I were to say that we are saved by the instrumentality of faith alone (which I in fact do say), this does not commit me to deny God’s use of secondary instruments. These secondary instruments are subordinate to the sole instrument used by God when a man is justified . . . by faith alone. Where does this faith come from? Faithfulness to sola fide does not require us to say that it comes from that invisible lightning bolt. God uses means, and He uses primary means (faith) and secondary means (preaching, baptism, nurture, etc.). Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God. St. Paul does not say “faith comes by lightning bolts.”

Put another way, faith is mediated to us.

A Target Rich Environment

Obviously, since I am in Monroe (still) for the now finished Auburn Avenue Pastors’ Conference, the “situation” in the PCA has been much on my mind. And the guys have talked about it in various ways, and from various angles.

As I was reflecting on it this morning, I thought that I should write about one aspect of all this that I do not believe I have mentioned before. Steve Wilkins is accused of some kind of incipient Arminianism in his alleged departure from the Confession. (Incidentally, Steve’s last talk at the conference was on the Westminster Confession, in which Steve clearly demonstrated his fundamental allegiance to the Reformed understanding of the role of creeds and confessions.) Now this confessional “departure” of his has to be pretty subtle because, for the life of me, I can’t find it. Steve is a straight-up predestinarian, and he acknowledges that this sovereignty on God’s part encompasses all things, including the salvation of individuals coming to faith in Christ. If this is all true, then it has to be said that Arminianism is really different from what it was when I was a kid.

Anyhow, this is all happening in a denomination in which there are scads of genuine, bona fide Arminians running around in ministry. The PCA does not have any shortage whatever of man-centered contemporary evangelicalism. Happy clappy goo churches are plentiful, and in many of them, the extent of their acquaintance with Calvinism is that the pastor once read a book about it in seminary, which book he won’t publicly admit to reading. Now, in this setting, a group of predestinarian TRs have set about to get predestinarian Steve. Anybody who believes that there isn’t something personal about all this just isn’t paying attention. Why go after a minister whose “Arminianism” is so implicit as to be non-existent, and leave alone those countless ministers in the PCA whose compromises with contemporary Arminianism are explicit? If that is what you want to do, the PCA should be a target-rich environment. But the PCA pragmatism (that does not take the Bible seriously) is not the target in all this, and the federal vision (which takes the Bible and the Reformed faith very seriously) is the target. What is the explanation?

Steve has been examined by his presbytery, twice. If later this month, on the basis of the second exam, the presbytery declares him to be a-okay, then the Standing Judicial Commission of the PCA has the option of picking up original jurisdiction on this. Technically, they would be reviewing or evaluating the actions of Louisiana Presbytery, not Steve, but given the procedures they have been willing to violate to get to this point, it seems pretty clear that they could “get Steve” if they so desired. If they do, I believe it is important for them to have to do it in broad daylight, on the fifty-yard line, with the stadium full. Hence these posts.

What is happening here is all in Girard. A victim has been selected, and the courts of respectability want to draw a veil of respectability over the process of dispatching the victim. The more the victim protests that this is all an abuse of the church courts and procedures, the more this enflames those who want the justice they dispense to be self-evidently “righteous.” But it is not — it is nothing of the kind.

Imagine a classroom where students are standing on their chairs, throwing spitballs, yelling at one another, and so on. One student is sitting in the back, quietly. He shifts his feet, and accidentally brushes the desk in front of him, moving it two inches. Suppose the teacher ignores all the other students, and busts this one. If the teacher really cared about classroom decorum, he has other things to address first. But if he does not, then we are justified in thinking that what is happening is more a matter of settling some personal score, than a matter of protecting the classroom.

If the TRs out to get Steve defend themselves by saying that “you have to start somewhere,” and if they succeed in using the SJC to accomplish what they want, then this should strike fear in the hearts of all the other rowdy students. There should be a “chilling effect” across the PCA, where every minister who is running some Finney-inspired seeker service should think to himself, “Oh no! The PCA will deal with us next!” But there will be no chilling effect at all. No one will even slow down. The rowdy students will continue their classroom riot, while the quiet student is cooling his heels in the principal’s office. And this is because everybody involved knows exactly what this is about. We also know what it is not about. Why pretend otherwise?

Auburn Avenue 2007 In the Can

Sorry for the paucity of posts, and the reason for this is that I have been on the road. More specifically, I have been delighted to have been (once again) a guest speaker at the Auburn Avenue Pastors’ Conference. Just finished at noon today. As always the singing was stupenderous, the hospitality top drawer, and the fellowship was the kind you get when you put a bunch of happy people together. The talks by Jeff Meyers, David Field, and Steve Wilkins were really, really good. Not only that, but Auburn Avenue now has a media center where you can download this stuff right away. If you want to take a look, go here. They also have various podcasts, interviews, etc. Check it out.

Flourishing Green

Minister: Lift up your hearts!

Congregation: We lift them up to the Lord!


Oh, bless the man who does not walk,

     Where ungodly men give their wisdom.

Bless the man who will not stand

     Where sinners stand,

     Where the scornful sit.


His true delight is in the law,

     His meditation in the Lord,

     Day and night he thinks on this.


Like a tree, by a deep river,

     He flourishes,

     And bears fruit in season.

His leaf is green,

     Whatever he does flourishes green as well.


The ungodly are brown,

     Like dry chaff

     That the wind carries off.


They will not stand in the judgment of God;

     Sinners cannot remain

     In the congregation of saints.


God knows the way of the righteous,

     But the way of the sinner

     Will die along with him.

Psalm 1

And so, gracious Father, we worship You now through Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end, amen.

Playing Tennis With the Devil

Once there was a young Christian man who had a terrible day. Everywhere he went, and everywhere he turned, there was some temptation waiting for him there, leering. On the way out the door to school, his mother asked him three times if he wanted his gloves, and by the time he got to the car he was struggling mightily with annoyance. The fact that he had to scrape the windshield without gloves didn’t help. On the way to school he had to drive by a billboard with a model on it who was almost wearing some clothes, and that tugged at him, and as a result irritated him. When he got to school he discovered that the assignment he thought was due on Friday was actually due on Thursday, and because today was Wednesday, there went his evening with the guys. The whole day went like that.

That evening, disgusted, he was talking with his father about it. “I think it was my worst day ever,” he said in a funk.

“Well, that may be,” his dad said. “But it sounds to me like it might have been your best day ever.”

The son’s eyebrows went up. His dad was always saying strange things like this. “Okay, what?” he said, after a moment.

“Dealing with temptation,” his father said, “is like playing tennis with the devil. You don’t lose any points just because the ball comes on your side of the net. The problems start when you hit it back over the fence, into the net, or catch it and put it in your pocket.”

“What do you mean?”

“All these troubles, these suggestions, these temptations. Did you hit them back?”

“Well, yeah. It wasn’t pretty, but I hit them all back.”

“And you are discouraged now because the devil kept it up too? You hit it back, and then, right away, there another temptation was, back on your side of the court? You volleyed all day?”

“Yeah, that’s it.”

“Well, you’re not defeated . . . just tired. This doesn’t sound to me like one of the worst days ever. It sounds like one of the best days ever. Hence my comment.”

Best is wanting to sin every ten minutes?”

His dad laughed. “That’s not bad Christianity. That’s good tennis.”

Death and Resurrection Both

This is, for us, a cup of blessing. We rejoice here, and we give thanks here, as the Scriptures teach us to. At the same time, we must remember that the cup that the Lord drank—and at a basic level, it is the same cup—was a cup of agony. Just before the Lord asked for the cup to be withheld from Him, He said, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death” (Matt, 26:38).

When the Lord described something with a word like exceeding, we know that He was facing a formidable challenge. Jesus said that His soul was so overwhelmed with sorrow that He was at the point of dying, without Judas, or Pilate, or the soldiers.

Now this cup that Jesus prayed to avoid, this cup that He nevertheless received as the will of His Father, this cup that He drank obediently, down to the dregs, this cup of woe is for us a cup of blessing, of thanksgiving, of joy. How is this possible?

This is the direction God works. We by our sin made a ruin out of the world. Jesus came as God’s own priest for us, stepping into this wretched world. He then gathered up all the sin of all His people, and the wrath that was resting upon that sin, put it in a cup, and drank it down. He swallowed all of it, and death was swallowed up by victory.

But note the nature of the victory. It is not the kind of “victory” that carnal men would have anticipated. The cruciform shape of Christ’s triumph would not lead us to anticipate, unless our eyes have been opened by the Spirit of God, the resurrection that followed. God’s way of victory is death, and there is no shortcut or detour around that death. There is no going straight to resurrection.

Jesus drank this cup for the joy that was set before Him, which He saw by faith. We participate in what He did, also by faith, and we do so with the glad willingness to identify with Him in every aspect of His obedience—death and resurrection both.