articles in this series: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8
by Wes White
This series was originally posted in 2011 atJohannes Weslianus, the former site of PCA Pastor Wes White. Reprinted with permission]
I am beginning the actual critique of the , which was written by Doug Wilson and signed by PCA Pastor Jeff Meyers, with their fifth statement, which is on the proclamation of the Word. I have already critiqued their idea that the Trinitarian relationship is a covenant . [Editor's note: since the author's site is down, this link is no longer valid]
Where I have some questions and thoughts is on their assertions about theological vocabulary and terminology.
In their section entitled “The Proclamation of the Word,” they state:
We affirm that God’s Spirit has chosen the best ways to express the revelation of God and reality, and that the divine rhetoric found in Holy Scripture is designed to strike the richest of all chords in the hearers of the Word of God.
For these men, this does not mean that we should not use theological vocabulary not drawn directly from the Scriptures or that we should not make creeds, but they do provide a pretty big caveat to the use of non-Scriptural terminology:
We do deny that such translations are superior to or equal to the rhetoric employed by the Spirit in the text, and we believe that the employment of such hyper-specialized terminology in the regular teaching and preaching of the Church has the unfortunate effect of confusing the saints and of estranging them from contact with the biblical use of the same language. For this reason we reject the tendency to privilege the confessional and/or scholastic use of words and phrases over the way the same words and phrases are used in the Bible itself.
Thus, they are concerned that extra-Biblical terminology has trumped the expressions of Scripture itself.
I think that such a warning can be a very good reminder. The Biblical language is given by God Himself. We should do our best to understand it. In our theological formulations, we should make our best effort to take into account all the ways that the Bible speaks on a given topic.
Second, we also should appreciate that the Bible speaks in different ways. We should make use of its songs, imagery, and proverbs, as well as the more systematic statements like those we find in the Gospel of John and the Epistles.
I think it is helpful to recognize that this issue of Biblical language and terminology has often come up in the history of the Church. To explain this, I’m going to refer to Francis Turretin’s arguments in , Third Topic, 22nd Question, dealing with Trinitarian terminology. In a general way, Turretin warns:
It is often found that they who litigate more pertinaciously than others against the words, cherish a secret virus. It is sufficiently evident that those new corruptors of religion condemn the words adopted by the ancients for no other reason than that they are unwilling to receive the things designed by them (17).
Turretin provides several examples of this in this question. In the early Church, the anti-Trinitarian heretics contended against the words used by the orthodox to defend the truth of Scripture. Arius stated, “Why is the word, of which neither the prophets nor the apostles make mention, added to the apostolic faith?” (16). Augustine would later reply, “Against the impiety of the Arian heretics they introduced the new name homoousios, but did not signify a new thing by that name” (21).
In Turretin’s own time, this same battle was fought by the Anabaptists, the Arminians, and the Socinians. Stephen de Courcelle, an Arminian wrote that it is better “to return to the simplicity of the sacred writings, and reject from them all words invented by men, or at least compel no one hereafter to swear by them” (16).
I think the Federal Visionists are aware of the pedigree of some of their arguments, and that is why they have rightly sought to be more qualified than the Arminians and the Arians.
Again, this is not necessarily a disagreement with the FV, but I think it is helpful for us to review the arguments that Turretin puts forward for the use of extra-Biblical terminology.
To begin with, he notes that “the question is not whether it is lawful to introduce into the church rashly and unnecessarily foreign and new words unauthorized by Scripture” (18). This would seem to match the concern of the Federal Visionists in their Profession.
Turretin then gives several reasons why we may and should use extra-Biblical terminology. First, it is useful for explaining mysteries. Second, it is necessary because otherwise we could not interpret or apply the Scriptures. Third, it is necessary because, as the Council of Alexandria said, “we have to do with skin-changing heretics, who force us to use it.”
Now, I would like to point out that the Federal Vision uses plenty of phrases and terms that are not found in Scripture. I will confine myself to the Joint FV Profession document. Consider the following:
We affirm that the triune God is the of all covenantal relations.
We affirm therefore that the Christian faith is a public faith, encompassing every realm of human endeavor. The fulfillment of the Great Commission therefore requires the establishment of a .
We affirm that membership in the one true Christian Church is visible and , and is the possession of everyone who has been baptized in the triune name and who has not .
We affirm that Adam was in a with the triune God in the Garden of Eden, in which arrangement Adam was required to obey God completely, from the heart. We hold further that all such obedience, had it occurred, , in a . Adam was created to progress from to , but (all italics indicates terminology that is not found explicitly in Scripture).
I will stop there. Note how many things are stated in their statement of theology that do not appear explicitly or even at all in the Biblical text.
I would like to make three points here. First, would they apply the same warning to themselves that that they gave to others?
We believe that the employment of such hyper-specialized terminology in the regular teaching and preaching of the Church has the unfortunate effect of confusing the saints and of estranging them from contact with the biblical use of the same language.
It seems like there is plenty of “hyper-specialized” terminology in these statements.
Second, this seems like a good instance of what Ligon Duncan warned about in his talk this year at . He said, “When people start speaking against systematic theology, watch out! They’re going to try and slip in systematics through the back door.” His point is that systematic theology and terminology is inevitable and that those who rail against systematic theology are often brining in an entirely different system.
Third, there is nothing wrong with using “specialized” terminology to describe phenomenon in Scripture. However, the key thing to recognize is that the FV does not like the so-called scholastic terminology of the Confession because they want to introduce a different terminology. They want to introduce a different terminology because they hold to a different system. This is what TE Jeffrey Meyers, Pastor of Providence PCA in
explicitly: St. Louis, MO
I do think the latest scholarly work in biblical theology demands that we go back and redo a great deal of the
standards. They were written when people still thought of the
covenant as a contract and believed that ‘merit’ had some role to play in our
covenantal relations with God. The whole bi-polar covenant of works/grace
schema has got to go. And if that goes, the whole ‘system’ must be reworked. Westminster
This is the real issue. Yes, we all need to pay attention to Biblical language. However, we will always use other terms and phrases to describe what we believe the Bible as a whole is teaching. Those terms and phrases will grow out of our understanding of what the Bible is teaching. The Westminster Confession and the FV use different terminology because the Federal Vision is a different system of doctrine than that of the Westminster Confession, as I have demonstrated repeatedly on these pages and hope to show again as I go through the Joint FV Profession.
Editor's note: Signers of the 2007 Joint Federal Vision Profession include:
Douglas Wilson (minister, CREC), Peter Leithart (minister, PCA), Jim Jordan (minister, teacher at large), Steve Wilkins (minister, PCA), Randy Booth (minister, CREC), John Barach (minister, CREC), Rich Lusk (minister, CREC), Jeff Meyers (minister, PCA), Tim Gallant (minister, CREC), Ralph Smith (minister, CREC), and Mark Horne (minister, PCA). Credentials were those held by the signers when the profession was released.