Making Seneca Crack Up

My friend Garry Vanderveen has been kind enough to suggest a side-by-side comparison of what Jim Jordan and I teach on the subject of regeneration, coming to the conclusion that we are not all that far apart. I commend that post to you, with the exception of whatever was going on when they justified the right margin. As Peter Leithart put it a couple years ago, everybody in the room is a high predestinarian, which surely should count for something.

I want to keep myself quite open to the possibility that what we are saying is not that far apart, and I certainly believe we are not as far apart as some might like us to be. And that said, however far apart we are — is it lettuce/arugula or is it lettuce/cabbage?) — I don’t believe these issues in themselves are issues of heresy.

But with that said, in this postmodern climate, heresy is never that far away from anyone who graduated from seminary in the last several decades, whatever the presenting issue might be. So don’t get cocky, kid. If you don’t believe that the laws of thought are attributes of God, then peril is crouched by your door like sin stalking Cain. To maintain that lettuce and cabbage are the same thing represents a profound capitulation to a view of the world that turns absolutely anything into heresy.

There are important issues here that require careful definition — catholicity and confusion should not be considered dialog partners. We can define things carefully, and distinguish things that differ, without slinging careless accusations about. But we have to debate like (charitable) 17th century divines who believed in absolute truth, and not like pomothinkers, whose softness of head is rivaled only by their hardness of heart.

So whatever you call this particular issue — lettuce/cabbage, amber ale/oatmeal stout, puritan/lutheran — keep in mind that we are distinguishing for the sake of maintaining good fences between good neighbors.

But if this in fact were the case, and Jim and I have been saying almost the same thing all this time, then I would be content to retreat from the discussion, fully abashed. Here I have been, pleading words and names and our own law, just begging Gallio to drive us away from his court. I never want to be the guy who hands Gallio a ripe story capable of making Seneca crack up at the next family reunion. I mean, who wants to be that guy?

But . . . and you knew that was coming, right?

Garry summarizes Jim Jordan’s position on regeneration thusly:

“Wilson insists that in regeneration, God gives us a new ‘nature.’ Jordan, however, insists that in regeneration, God gives us the Holy Spirit now and forevermore.”

Now if this were a complete summary, I would confess myself entirely satisfied. As I’ve stated repeatedly, I don’t want to get hung up on the terminology, particularly the terminology of “nature.” What I care about is the substance of the doctrine. But also, if this is an accurate summary, I would also need to confess that I have been entirely befuddled this entire time. True, it has been a special kind of befuddlement, a theological befuddlement, a theofuddlement, if you will, but there you go.

So, say it again, emphasis mine this time:

“Wilson insists that in regeneration, God gives us a new ‘nature.’ Jordan, however, insists that in regeneration, God gives us the Holy Spirit now and forevermore.”

But, as I understand it, this is precisely what is at issue. I understand Jim to be saying something quite different. I understand him to be saying that in regeneration He gives some covenant members His Holy Spirit for the present, and others He gives His Spirit now and forevermore — and that apart from the content of God’s inscrutable decree, there is no difference between the man who has the Spirit for the present and the man who has the Spirit “now and forevermore.” In this view, He gives both kinds of people regeneration, and to the decretally elect he gives perseverance in that regeneration. In short, regeneration is reversible.

In another place, Garry states the differences in such a way as to make them appear not all that different.

“Jordan also wants us to understand clearly that not all who are in the covenant (i.e. baptized) are elect (i.e. regenerated), and he wants to make the same pastoral exhortations as Wilson (i.e. to trust and obey, for there’s no other way!), but he formulates his position somewhat differently. To those in covenant (i.e. the baptized), he says, ‘I don’t know if you will persevere or not [i.e. I don’t know if you are elect/regenerated], but I know this: God has chosen you  before the foundation of the world [i.e. to be part of the covenant] . . .

I have no real difficulty with the doctrinal content of what Garry is saying here, and everything I have ever read from Garry on the subject strikes me as nothing other than mainstream Reformed orthodoxy. But is it really true that Jim distinguishes baptism from regeneration like this? And is it really true that he identifies regeneration with decretal election? I know that I distinguish baptism and regeneration, and if Jim does too, then great. We’re good, and never mind, everybody.

But if he doesn’t — as I believe he doesn’t — that doesn’t make him an orc, or a heretic. It would simply put him outside the Reformed mainstream (which is not the same thing as being outside the Reformed tradition). There were voting representatives at the Westminster Assembly who were outside the mainstream, but (obviously) not outside the tradition. So am I saying that I am more in the mainstream of Reformed theology than this or that member of the Westminster Assembly? Well, yes, I am. I am looking at you, Twisse.

I am saying that the Reformed world ought to look more like the Westminster Assembly than it should look like the caucus of congregationalists at the Assembly. I am fine with the Reformed world having edges, and am fine with people living there. But it should follow from this that I am also fine with the Reformed world having a center. And on this issue of regeneration that center is summarized very nicely by our confessions — and if the historic Reformed view of regeneration is Kansas, then I live in Topeka. I don’t live on an island off the state of Maine, but if I did, I would still be an American. But as an American, there on my island, I wouldn’t be saying things like, “That’s the way it is, here in the heartland . . .”

One other thing. In the course of his discussion, Garry linked to an old post by Peter Leithart that came to a similar conclusion, i.e. that Jim and I are not that far apart in our views of this. Like I said before, that would make me happy if it were so — but also as I said before, if we are three feet apart instead of three inches, that is not cause for a flame war.

“There are still differences, which I think have mainly to do with Jim’s Rosenstockian insistence on thinking in temporal and not static, spatial categories, and Jim’s instinct to think in personal rather than substance categories.  For him, the life of the newborn child of God is a life of constant, personal responsiveness to the life-giving Spirit.  What maintains the Christian’s new life through life is not an inalienable deposit in the soul but the continuing, persistent, relentless work of the Spirit with the elect.  Despite these differences, if the reasoning here is sound, then I don’t think my two friends are as distant from each other as it might appear.”

I actually want to expand on this point a bit, because it is one of the central points of confusion. And I admit that part of the confusion is the result of that pesky word nature. But I would want to argue that I am not depending on substance/nature at all, but rather a concept of paternity/nature. And paternity/nature is a relational thing. Throughout all my discussions of this issue I have insisted that the central question is the central relational question. In short, who’s your daddy?

The same kind of thing goes for temporal categories, as opposed to static and spatial ones. In other words, when God changes the “nature” of a human being, what He is doing is providing a father transplant. When God changes me in regeneration, what He is turning me into is a human being.

Prior to that moment, I was not a static, spatially bound human being, sitting there like a triangle with three sides. Rather, I was a disintegrating human being. I was created in the image of God, but parts were falling off. This is because of the temporal aspect of who I was. I was by nature an object of wrath, which means that I was in the process of circling the drain of damnation. I was headed somewhere bad, and I was headed there because the devil was my father. So was Cain. So was Belial. That whole bad business was temporal and relational.

In effectual call regeneration, that fundamental identity (who my father is) is transformed. This transformation was entirely relational. So I am talking about who’s-your-daddy-nature, not triangles-have-three-sides-nature.

Now if it is possible for covenant members in good standing to continue to have the devil for their father, and Scripture is plain that it is, then what this means is that there has to be some substratum reality going on that is distinct from (not independent of) the sacraments.

There is no way to tie this reality to the sacraments without tying yourself up in knots.

And the fact that there is obviously much more to say does not mean that I am going to say it now. Sorry to disappoint, but I believe you have other things to do today. Me too.

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Joseph Spurgeon
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It’s posts like this that make me glad I am a baptist.

David Douglas
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David Douglas

“I mean, who wants to be that guy?”

Certainly not me. But I do want to be in on the joke. Can you point me in the right direction, Doug?

But don’t wait up for me, rhetorically speaking. I’ll catch up.

Jane
Member

I can’t speak for David Douglas for some of us, that explanation doesn’t help all that much. I know explaining it will ruin it, but…

David Douglas
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David Douglas

Well, Jane it turns out I do kind of get it. But only because Doug told me that Seneca was his brother….and he was a the Roman official in the Book of Acts which I would have known had I not mis-read him originally to be Galileo, who I recall vaguely had something to do with something, but much later. I think Doug is referring to the fact that the Jews brought a baseless case before him against Paul. He treated the case as baseless, although it is not clear to me that it was proved baseless so much as… Read more »

john k
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john k

My other Reformed friends advise me not to read here, because folk who used to be Reformed are so critical of reformed orthodoxy, and its offered solutions to questions of election, assurance, and apostasy. I don’t know if Calvin was ensnared by Aristotle regarding “natures,” but some account of “phusis” appearing in the New Testament must be given. I believe Hodge denies a change in human nature in regeneration. It all depends on definition, doesn’t it? But the human mind cannot fully define the “nature” of anything, since everything was made and is sustained by our ultimately incomprehensible God. I… Read more »

john k
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john k

I’m sorry, that should be 2 Peter 1:10!

Jane
Member

I am sorry for being really dense, but I read up on the story of Gallio and followed David’s explanation but I still don’t get how that pertains to being “that guy” that Doug does not want to be. Gallio I know, and Doug I know, but who is “that guy” and how would Doug be him?

Andrew Lohr
Member

Jim Jordan, Peter Leithart, and Jeff Meyers grew up Lutheran, paying special attention to certain things, and Doug grew up Baptist?, paying special attention to other things. Now they’re all Presbyterians with histories. Doug tends to emphasize that ya gotta be SAVED–and Jim would agree, tho he may emphasize perseverance. Jim and Peter tend to emphasize that ya gotta STICK WITH IT–and Doug would agree, tho he might emphasize that ya gotta have it to keep it (hey, gotta have it to have it), and if you really have it you will keep it. Jim would agree, tho he’d remind… Read more »

J
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J

Andrew Lohr

Now they’re all Presbyterians with histories.

I enjoyed a solid chuckle from that. Thanks

J
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J

To Jospeh and Doug, I would have to somewhat agree with you Joseph in your sentiments. But as Doug points out it seems like a lot of fun. And I would be lying if I didn’t say that sometimes I wouldn’t mind joining in…..just for a bit. It’s kind of like watching (from the bank) a bunch of your friends go out into a really beautiful swimming hole that has had a decent amount of people grabbed by the foot and dragged under by some strange unseen monster never to arise again. And there they are laughing and carrying on… Read more »

john k
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john k

Jane,
I think it’s any guy whose deep “concerns” are actually irrelevant to the welfare of the church’s teaching, analogous to the Jews before Gallio. Gallio deemed their concerns irrelevant to the welfare of the empire. (Luke wanted to show that lawful authorities perceived no threat in the gospel, even one about a crucified messiah.)

Seneca Griggs
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Which Seneca are we cracking up?

katie
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katie

Props for the Star Wars reference.

christian
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christian

Joseph Spurgeon: But as a baptist you still have to deal with (1) the desire for and amdministration of multiple baptisms because “I don’t think I was really saved when I was baptized in college at 1st Baptist of XYZ” and (2) treating your kids as pagans-hopefully-incubating -to -be -Christians, keeping them away from the table, and their professions of faith as insufficient until you discern that their behavior is some unknown % sufficient to match up with your standard % of how a “bona fide” Christian really acts and (3) head scratching when the deacon runs off with his… Read more »

Drew
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Drew

This issue is so much more easily resolved if you interpret “tasting the grace of God” in Hebrews 6 as referring to regeneration. Then you HAVE to say that regeneration is reversible. But of course, you then have to deal with biblical passages that support perseverance. Doug, I like how you categorize non-elect covenant members in good standing who still have the devil for their father. And I think it very well may be a biblical category, especially in light of passages that support perseverance. But I’m still left wondering, so what if they are “covenant members”? If they’re non-elect,… Read more »

timbushong
Member

This is more of an observation regarding the two aforementioned articles by Garry and Peter L.–is it just me, or is there a slightly glaring absence of any reference to the ‘classic’ biblical passages that address the doctrine of regeneration?

Seriously–not being facetious–no mention of God writing the Law on the heart, nor of stone being exchanged for flesh, nor of blowing wind, nor of the ability (or inability) of man to “see the kingdom”, nor of what the effectual call is about.

Another thing–I don’t see the Scriptures radically bifurcating between different types of ‘election’ the way that Jordan does.