Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Semper Reformanda Baptist Library

Back in January of 2014 I posted here that Stuart Brogden has made freely available a fairly extensive library of works pertinent to Reformed Baptists. He describes his website as the "Home of the Semper Reformanda Baptist Library, a free tool intended to encourage and equip my fellow Baptists to stand firm and dig into our rich history and theology, while never growing weary of reforming to the Word of God." I received a message yesterday stating that the web pages had been updated to provide links to library content by topic. Check it out and let us know what you think, or suggest other sites for our readers to check out.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

2016 "What is a Reformed Baptist?" Poll October Update

Nine months ago we began a poll on the blog. If you identify yourself as a Reformed Baptist and you haven't already taken part in the poll, please check out the "What is a Reformed Baptist?" Poll on the right sidebar on this page (the red box with white type). The intention is to run the poll for one year with an interest in how the Reformed Baptist community might answer this question. I have given four options for answers that I think basically sum up the various groups or individuals that I have found to be using the term. Here are the four possible answers:
To regard oneself as a Reformed Baptist, one must ...

1) adhere at a minimum to a Calvinistic soteriology.

2) adhere at a minimum to a Calvinistic soteriology and to Covenant Theology.

3) adhere substantially to the Baptist Confession of 1689 (e.g. modify regarding Impassibility).

4) adhere strictly to the Baptist Confession of 1689.
For those interested, here are the results thus far:
14% say that one must adhere at a minimum to a Calvinistic soteriology in order to be regarded a Reformed Baptist.

25% say that one must adhere at a minimum to a Calvinistic soteriology and to Covenant Theology in order to be regarded a Reformed Baptist.

42% say that one must adhere substantially to the Baptist Confession of 1689 (e.g. modify regarding Impassibility) in order to be regarded a Reformed Baptist.

20% say that one must adhere strictly to the Baptist Confession of 1689 in order to be regarded a Reformed Baptist.
Again, if you haven't yet taken part in the poll, please do so. You may read more about the poll here in order to understand better why it is phrased as it is.

Monday, October 03, 2016

Confessional Subscription: Strict vs. Substantial

We normally associate the term “subscription” with an arrangement to receive a certain number of periodicals, journals, and/or magazines to which we’ve “subscribed.” In religious or ecclesiastical parlance, however, the terminology “subscription” or “subscribe” when predicated of a creed, confession, or doctrinal statement refers to one’s agreement with or affirmation of a fixed body of doctrines or articles of faith that are officially representative of a church’s or denomination’s beliefs. The issue of subscription is important for churches or ecclesiastical bodies that are self-consciously “confessional,” especially as it relates to the commitment expected of the church’s or denomination’s officers and teachers.

Degrees or Levels of Subscription

Most churches and denominations require a higher level of commitment to their doctrinal standards from their leaders and teachers than they expect from their members.[1] Historically, there have also been different degrees or levels of subscription expected of church officers, teachers, or candidates for the ministry. On the one hand, some advocate modes of subscription that allow for a looser or more flexible commitment to the church’s, denomination’s, or organization’s official creedal statements. On the other hand, others advocate a mode of subscription that requires complete or nearly complete agreement with the doctrinal standards in view. Those who support looser forms of subscription often express a concern to protect the subscriber’s liberty of conscience and/or the primacy of Scripture’s authority. Those who support tighter forms of subscription are concerned to protect the church from too much doctrinal latitude that could open the door to serious theological error or heresy.

Strict Subscription Defined

From a desire to preserve the church’s orthodoxy and doctrinal distinctives, some Reformed leaders today advocate a “strict” form of subscription. Those who advocate this form of subscription usually define it both in terms of the nature and also the extent of one’s commitment to the Confession. As to the nature of the subscriber’s commitment, he is to affirm the Confession’s teaching because it is biblical in contrast to affirming its teaching insofar as it is biblical. This mode of subscription is usually identified by the Latin term quia (meaning “because”) as opposed to quatenus (meaning “insofar as”). With regard to the extent of the subscriber’s agreement, he is to affirm the Confession in its entirety. Accordingly, this form of subscription is also called “full subscription.”

Nothing More or Less than the Very Doctrines of Scripture

Advocates of this kind of subscription include R. Scott Clark,[2] Morton Smith,[3] and George Knight III.[4] Smith, for example, identifies “full subscription” with quia subscription[5] and argues,

In professing the Confession and Catechisms of this Church [Presbyterian Church in America] as his confession, [the ordinand, minister, or teacher] is subscribing to all of the doctrines in the Confession and Catechisms; they are all part of the system of doctrine.[6]
More specifically, for Smith and Knight, “The Confession and Catechisms assert nothing more or less than the very doctrines of the Word of God” (emphasis added).[7] This perspective seems consistent with Clark’s quia view of confessional subscription, which requires the ordinand and the church to view the teaching of the Confession as equivalent to that of Scripture. Writes Clark,
It is not that the authority of the confessions is ‘very nearly tantamount to that of Scripture,’ but it is tantamount to that of Scripture, assuming that a given confession is biblical and intended to be subscribed because (quia) it is biblical.[8]

Every Doctrine, Not Necessarily Every Word

Strict subscription acknowledges that not all doctrines in the Confession are of equal importance just as all teachings in Scripture are not of equal importance.[9] Moreover, while strict subscription requires agreement with every doctrine, it doesn’t require full agreement with every word or phrase in the confession. At least this is true of the version advocated by Smith and Knight. Smith clarifies,

Full subscription does not require the adoption of every word of the Confession and Catechisms, but positively believes that we are adopting every doctrine or teaching of the Confession and Catechisms.[10]
This raises certain questions. To begin with, what constitutes a “doctrine” or “teaching”? In his debate with William Barker, Morton Smith agreed to the following definition or description:
Every declaratory statement states something true or false. And every declaratory statement in the Standards is either one doctrine or several doctrines.[11]
But since the meaning of a “declaratory statement” is determined by the words and phrases that constitute the statement, how can one disagree with a word or a phrase without in some sense modifying the doctrine or teaching?

When pressed for examples, Smith offered two examples where one might take issue with phrases that employ archaic language. For instance, the Westminster Confession, like the 1689, uses the term “vulgar language” to mean the vernacular (1.8).[12] Smith also alluded to the Larger Catechism’s prohibition of “keeping of stews” (WLC Q139).[13] In these cases, we may suppose that Dr. Smith would recom­mend we substitute them with synonymous expressions that would be intelligible to a modern audience.

Two other examples offered by Smith seem to allow for actual differences at a semantic level. Smith acknowledged that there was difference of opinion as to whether the term “testament” is the best term to portray the biblical concept (cf. WCF 7.4). Apparently, one could disagree with that term as an appropriate gloss for the Hebrew and Greek terms yet still affirm the doctrine that term was conveying. Smith also alluded to the practice of Dutch churches requiring full subscription to the Three Forms of Unity but allowing the subscriber to question whether Paul really wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews, as the Belgic Confession suggests when it refers to the “fourteen Epistles of the Apostle Paul,” which includes “one to the Hebrews.” Preferring the ordinal “thirteen” instead of “fourteen” would not constitute, in Smith’s view, a disagreement with a doctrine but simply with the wording of a doctrine.[14]

What About Scruples or Exceptions?

For R. Scott Clark, the answer appears quite simple: “If a confession is not biblical, it should be revised so that it is biblical, or it should be discarded in favor of a confession that is biblical.”[15] Apparently, Clark doesn’t believe a subscriber should be allowed to have scruples or take exceptions to his church’s confession. In his words,

Why should a church adopt a confession that some or even most of the church believe to be at least partially unbiblical? Why should a church not draft and adopt a confession she believes to be wholly biblical? ... Wherever there are exceptions, then it is no longer clear which document is being subscribed. Every time an exception is taken, the document being subscribed functionally changes at least for that subscriber and arguably ... for the body permitting the exception.[16]
“One could hold,” writes Smith, “that no exceptions to doctrines taught in the Confession and Catechisms should be allowed.” He continues, “This is the position that the full subscriptionist prefers.”[17] On the other hand, Smith suggests, “One could hold that exceptions may be allowed so long as those who take the exceptions are not permitted to teach views contrary to the Standards.”[18] In his debate with William Barker, Smith made clear that in allowing an exception the presbytery was in effect labeling the exception as “error” but deeming that the error did not strike at the heart of the gospel.[19]

Some Problems with Strict Subscription

While I respect the good intentions behind those who advocate this mode of subscription, I believe it’s unwise and potentially unhealthy. In particular, I see at least three problems with strict subscription.


If the church believes the Confession to “assert nothing more or less than the very doctrines of the Word of God,” on what basis can she allow for exceptions? Moreover, I would submit that to change the meaning of even one word or phrase is to alter the doctrine to which that one word or phrase contributes. For example, how can I say, “I affirm the entire Confession to teach nothing more or nothing less than the very doctrines of Scripture” but simultaneously object to the Confession’s depiction of a biblical covenant as a “testament”? Wouldn’t that be taking exception to a doctrine? Or, to use another example, aren’t we rejecting a doctrine of the 1689 when we refuse to affirm (with Judgment Day certainty!) that the pope (or papacy) is “that [final, eschatological] antichrist”?

It seems to me that for full subscription to be perfectly consistent, it could not allow for any exceptions.[20] After all, if the doctrines of the Confession are nothing more or less than the very teaching of Scripture, what warrant could there be for taking exception to said teaching? Furthermore, the only allowable exceptions to the wording of the Confession would entail one’s preference for a certain synonymous word or phrase over another. For the moment one substitutes a word or phrase that differs in meaning from the original he has altered the doctrine (be it ever so slightly!). This is a departure from what one professes when he subscribes to the Confession in the language demanded by strict or full subscription.


Those who advocate strict subscription are careful to affirm the primacy of Scripture and subordinate role of the church’s doctrinal standards. The Bible is infallible and ultimately authoritative. The human creeds (including their own confession) are not infallible, and their teaching is derivatively authoritative, insofar as it agrees with the Bible. Yet at times the advocates of strict subscription speak as if there is or could be a one-to-one correspondence between the teaching and authority of Scripture and the teaching and authority of the church’s doctrinal standards. “If a confession is not biblical, it should be revised so that it is biblical, or it should be discarded in favor of a confession that is biblical” may sound sensible to some. In my opinion, I think it betrays a lack of realism.

The Westminster Standards and the 1689 Confession, unlike some creeds and doctrinal statements, are fairly lengthy and comprehensive documents. Is it really reasonable to advocate a position that requires one to affirm such an extensive doctrinal statement as fully biblical in its entirety? The fact that we deny the Confession is infallible doesn’t necessitate that all the doctrines of the 1689 Confession are erroneous. Nonetheless, given the length and breadth of the Confession, it’s highly probable that there’s some part of the Confession—be it ever so small and limited—that’s not quite in accord with Scripture.[21] Accordingly, I find strict subscription, especially when tied to lengthy and comprehensive doctrinal standards, to be an unrealistic expectation to place upon the subscriber.[22]


I don’t question the sincerity and conviction of those who advocate an unqualified full subscription yet simultaneously insist that they’re not elevating the Confession to the level of Scripture. However, I fear that the practice of an unqualified full subscription will often have the very practical consequences that these sincere brothers wish to avoid. It will bind men’s conscience to the Confession in a way that only Scripture itself warrants. Moreover, it will make the Confession practically unamendable and irreformable, which undermines the Reformation principles of sola Scriptura and semper reformanda.

An unqualified full subscription promotes an inordinate and unhealthy view of the Confession relative to the Scripture. The late Dr. John Murray wrote,

It seems to the present writer that to demand acceptance of every proposition in so extensive a series of documents would be incompatible with the avowal made in answer to the first question in the formula of subscription and comes dangerously close to the error of placing human documents on par with Holy Scripture.[23]
In other words, our first and primary calling and commitment is to teach the whole counsel of God as taught in Scripture, not necessarily to teach and defend the Confession.[24] Murray’s reservations about a strict form of subscription also surface in the reflections of Benjamin B. Warfield. “The most we can expect,” writes Warfield, “and the most we have the right to ask is, that each one may be able to recognize [the Confession] as an expression of the system of truth which he believes.” He continues,
To go beyond this and seek to make each of a large body of signers accept the Confession in all its propositions as the profession of his personal belief, cannot fail to result in serious evils—not least among which are the twin evils that, on the one hand, too strict a subscription overreaches itself and becomes little better than no subscription; and, on the other hand, that it begets a spirit of petty, carping criticism which raises objections to forms of a statement that in other circumstances would not appear objectionable.[25]
Furthermore, an unqualified full subscription can quench the Spirit’s ongoing work of illumination and, as a result, the church’s ongoing reformation. John Fesko, a professor at Westminster Seminary California, remarks, “If we posses [sic] the very doctrines of Scripture in the Standards, then how is one supposed to disagree or revise ‘the very doctrines of Scripture’?”[26] That is, one would have to renounce his vow before he could ever entertain the thought that per­haps something he’s reading in the Bible doesn’t quite mesh with something taught in his Confession.[27]

In order to protect the supremacy of Scripture and to keep the church’s doctrinal standards in a position where they’re subject to the scrutiny of God’s Word, I suggest some other form of subscription than the version of strict or full subscription described above.

A Better Way: Substantial Subscription

Smith and Clark argue that if a Confession is unbiblical at any point, the church ought to renounce whatever article is out of accord with Scripture and adopt one that is in accord with Scripture.[28] Of course, there’s an element of truth in this sentiment. Ideally, if we know something’s wrong, we ought to fix it. On the other hand, in a sin-cursed world we shouldn’t expect a perfect confession.[29] Nor is it easy to get churches to amend their confessions.

Dr. Sam Waldron reflects a more realistic view, in my opinion. As he stated it in an address to the 2010 General Assembly of the Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America, “I believe in the 1689 Baptist Confession .... It’s not a perfect confession; it’s just so much better than all the rest.”[30] If that’s the way we view the 1689 Confession—not perfect but the best we know of—then shouldn’t the kind of confessional subscription we expect and promote correspond to our view of the Confession, i.e., the best, but not perfect?

Substantial Subscription Defined

For that reason, I prefer the mode of subscription required by Reformed Baptist Seminary. In its Articles of Cooperation, the Reformed Baptist Seminary declares,

The doctrinal standard of RBS will be the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. This requires that every overseeing church and every instructor in the seminary must substantially subscribe to this confession (emphasis added).
One should distinguish “substantial subscription” from what is known as “substance subscription.” The term “substance” in this context means something like “essentials” or “fundamentals.” The idea is that one is affirming whatever he or the church deems to be the essentials or fundamentals of the Confession without adopting the entire Confession. Historically, this mode of subscription has tended to allow too much latitude. “Essential” is only intelligible when one ties it to some reference point. On the one hand, it may simply refer to the bare essentials of Christianity. On the other hand, it may refer more narrowly to the essentials of Reformed Christianity. In any case, it seems to allow a bit too much fluidity.

“Substantial subscription” is closer to the kind of “system subscription” known as “Good Faith Subscription,” which has been officially adopted by the PCA and which reflects the “Old School Presbyterian” version of system subscription. This mode of subscription requires that the subscriber affirm the system of doctrine contained in the Confession, which “system” is presumably “Reformed theology.” Moreover, it requires the ordaining entity to query the candidate concerning any scruples and requires the candidate in “good faith” to be open and honest about any and all scruples he may have with respect to the confessional standards. The ordaining authority must then determine whether any of the candidate’s reservations or exceptions are “out of accord with any fundamentals of the system of doctrine” and ensure that his exception is “neither hostile to the system nor strikes at the vitals of religion.”

Though similar to system subscription, I prefer the modifier “substantial.” The primary usage of “substantial” is “of ample or considerable amount, quantity, size, etc.” Thus, unlike “substance” or “system” forms of subscription, substantial conveys the message that the subscriber is in agreement with a significant proportion of the Confession. Moreover, like “good faith” subscription, substantial subscription requires the subscriber to be open and honest about any and all of his scruples related to the teaching of the Confession. Furthermore, like “system subscription,” substantial subscription is tighter than substance subscription.

But substantial subscription goes farther than system subscription in that it formally conveys a high level of agreement not merely with the system in the Confession but with the Confession as a whole. Indeed, since substantial subscription takes the whole Confession as its starting point and since by its nature only allows for a limited amount of non-substantive exceptions,[31] it may be viewed as a version of “full subscription” that formally allows for a limited number of non-substantial caveats or exceptions.[32]

Substantial Subscription Commended

I think “substantial subscription” commends itself in several ways.

It guards the doctrine of sola Scriptura.

When the full subscriptionist says, “the Confession asserts nothing more or less than the very doctrines of the Word of God,” he’s blurring the line between a fallible human document and the infallible Holy Scripture. That may not be his intention, but his mode of subscription lends itself to that effect. I’ve already cited Murray’s warning above. One of my seminary students shared the same concern in his assessment of R. Scott Clark’s quia subscription:

Such an approach muddles the necessary distinction between the supreme authority of Scripture and the subordinate authority of the confession. Sola Scriptura not only means that the church goes to the Word as its standard and rule in all matters of Christian life but also that the church by necessity treat no other standard with the same level of deference and respect owed to the Word.[33]
On the other hand, if we approach the Confession as an excellent though not perfect summary of the doctrines of Scripture and if our form of subscription formally acknowledges that discorrespondence, we maintain the integrity of the Confession (it’s excellent) and we uphold the uniqueness of Scripture (the Confession isn’t infallible; Scripture is).

It protects the integrity of the subscriber’s conscience.

As Francis Turretin observed, “[Creeds] cannot bind the inner court of conscience, except inasmuch as they are found to agree with the word of God (which alone has power to bind the conscience).”[34] Accordingly, if we concede that the Confession doesn’t possess a perfect one-to-one correspondence with Scripture in terms of authority and accuracy, why should we adopt a mode of subscription that seems to require one to view the Confession as “tantamount” to the very doctrines of Scripture? Ironically, I think an unqualified full subscription is more likely to tempt pastors or professors to “fudge” with respect to the integrity of their conscience. John Frame agrees and remarks,

Arguably, the stricter the formula of subscription, the more people will be tempted to subscribe ignorantly or deceptively, keeping to themselves the parts of the confession that they don’t understand, or that they doubt.[35]

It maintains a healthy esteem for ecclesiastical tradition.

Not all tradition is bad. Moreover, though Scripture is our supreme authority, that same Scripture delegates authority to the church. Consequently, we should show respect toward creeds and confessions that are expressions of ecclesiastical authority, particularly those that are officially endorsed and adopted by the ecclesiastical body or bodies we serve. The balance, though, is maintaining a high esteem for ecclesiastical tradition and authority without unduly venerating it. As Frame observes,

When the claims of a tradition are suitably modest, and that tradition facilitates the communication of the biblical Word of God, that tradition should be respected, even while being viewed with a critical eye. What we should avoid is traditionalism, such as (1) the view that once a tradition is established, it can never be changed, (2) the notion that some tradition is just as authoritative as Scripture, and (3) the notion that we should not test traditions by the Scriptures.[36] 
Substantial subscription affirms that the confession is an “excellent guide” that “facilitates the communication of the biblical Word of God.” But it stops short of requiring a commitment to the Confession that views the Confession’s teaching as “nothing more or less than the very doctrines of the Word of God.”

It encourages a Berean spirit and facilitates semper reformanda.

Our primary concern and preoccupation should be to study the Scriptures. And as we study God’s Word, we need to maintain a willing disposition to bring ecclesiastical tradition into greater conformity with the Holy Scriptures. John Murray encourages this Berean spirit when he notes,

However architectonic may be the systematic construction of any one generation or group of generations, there always remains the need for correction and reconstruction so that the structure may be brought into closer approximation to the Scripture and the reproduction be a more faithful transcript or reflection of the heavenly exemplar.[37]
On the one hand, by publicly declaring the 1689 to be an excellent and overall accurate summary of biblical doctrine and by requiring substantial agreement with it, we discourage those with major differences and divisive agendas from throwing in their lot with us. By formally allowing men to take exceptions, a church or an association isn’t placing an unreasonable stricture on a man that prevents him from evaluating his tradition under the light of Scripture with a critical eye. This mode of subscription upholds the doctrine of sola Scriptura, protects the subscriber’s integrity of conscience, maintains a healthy esteem for ecclesiastical tradition (thereby preserving orthodoxy and our theological distinctives), and facilitates the application of semper reformanda to our Confession, freeing us to make a good thing even better.


[1] Some, like R. Scott Clark, believe that the same level of commitment to the church’s confessional standards should be expected of the clergy and the laity. “It is not obvious,” Clark observes, “that establishing two levels of subscription, one for laity and another for ordained officers, is either biblical or consistent with the Reformation.... If the Reformed confession defines what it is to be Reformed, then establishing two distinct relations to the same constitutional document would seem to be a recipe for confusion and effectively two churches within one.” Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2008), 179. In my opinion, Clark’s position is neither biblical nor confessional for the following reasons: (1) In the New Testament, baptism and church membership usually precede a thorough grounding in Christian doctrine (Matt 28:19-20; Acts 2:41-42; Eph 4:11-14). Thus, while a fuller affirmation of the church’s confession may be the goal for membership, it shouldn’t be a prerequisite for membership. This places the cart before the horse. (2) This approach is consistent with the 1689 Baptist Confession. According 26:2 (“Of the church”), “All persons throughout the world, professing the faith of the gospel and obedience unto God by Christ according unto it, not destroying their own profession by any errors everting the foundation, or unholiness of conversation, are any may be called visible saints; and of such ought all particular congregations to be constituted.” The prerequisite for church membership is, simply, a credible profession of faith that is not contradicted by serious doctrinal error or ungodly behavior. Mastery of the Confession as a requirement for membership is conspicuously absent. (3) Confessions and creeds are designed to protect the church from false teachers, not from weak or immature brethren. And (4) a creed or confession is an extension of human, specifically, ecclesiastical authority. God’s requirement that we submit to such authority does not necessitate that we fully agree with the authority, especially on non-essentials. See also Andrew Fuller, Complete Works, 3 vols. (1832; reprint, Harrisonburg: Sprinkle Publications, 1988), 450.
[2] See Recovering the Reformed Confession, 177-91.
[3] See Morton H. Smith, “The Case for Full Subscription,” in The Practice of Subscription, ed. David W. Hall (Oak Ridge, TN: The Covenant Foundation, 1997), 185-205.
[4] See George W. Knight III, “Subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms,” in The Practice of Subscription, 119-148.
[5] Holding Fast to the Faith: A Brief History of Subscription to Creeds and Confessions with Particular Reference to Presbyterian Churches (Self-Published, 2003), 15.
[6] “The Case for Full Subscription,” 185.
[7] This language, which Smith cites approvingly, is taken from a study paper submitted to the 10th General Assembly of the PCA. The paper is available online here (accessed Nov 16, 2011). In the audio debate on subscription between William Barker and Morton Smith, Barker cites this phrase as representative of Smith’s position. The audio debate can be accessed here: “Confessional Subscription Debate: Smith/Barker”, Part 1  (accessed Nov 16, 2011.) The summary of the debate, which is available on the Orthodox Presbyterian Church website (click here), also employs this clause to describe Smith’s position. Knight also refers to the study paper and affirms the “doctrines of the Confession are to be regarded as ‘the very doctrines of the Word.’“ “Subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms,” 129.
[8] Emphasis his; Recovering the Reformed Confession, 178. For a helpful review and critique of Clark’s book, see Nicolas Alford’s “The Quest for Illegitimate Religious Traditionalism (QIRT): A Review of R. Scott Clark’s Recovering the Reformed Confession” (accessed Nov 16, 2011).
[9] “The Case for Full Subscription,” 185.
[10] Ibid., 186.
[11] This definition was actually proposed by someone in the audience seeking clarification of Smith’s position. It occurs towards the end of the debate about 29 minutes into part two:  “Confessional Subscription Debate: Smith/Barker”, Part 2 (accessed Nov 16, 2011).
[12] Today, “vulgar language” normally denotes crude, coarse, or obscene language.
[13] The reference to “stews” in the Larger Catechism is slang. At one time “stews” referred to public bathhouses. Since these bathhouses were often associated with prostitution or illicit sex, the Catechism is apparently using the term by way of association.
[14] I gleaned these examples from the audio debate between Barker and Smith.
[15] Ibid., 178.
[16] Ibid., 180.
[17] Holding Fast to the Faith, 60.
[18] Ibid.
[19] This was stated at about 49 minutes into the debate.
[20] Or as Smith suggests, at least bar men from teaching such exceptions.
[21] Scripture is God speaking to man. Theology is human reflection on God’s revelation. Thus, the distinction between Scripture and theology reflects the Creator/creature distinction. Failure to distinguish between the authority of Scripture and the authority of human creeds results in a blurring of the Creator/creature distinction. Of course, we must also affirm the possibility of correspondence between divine revelation and human theology. God’s knowledge is archetypal and our knowledge is echtypal. D. A. Carson illustrates the analogical but not univocal relation of objective truth and subjective interpretation of the truth with the asymptote. He observes, “A curved line may approach a strait line asymptotically, never quite touching it but always getting closer…. In precisely the same way, we may not aspire to absolute knowledge of the sort only Omniscience may possess, but the ‘approximation’ may be so good that it is adequate for placing human beings on the moon.” The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 121.
[22] The so-called Apostles’ Creed is not nearly as comprehensive as the WCF or 1689. While most Reformed believers can affirm the Apostles’ Creed, a good number would take exception to the phrase that depicts Jesus as descending into hell. At the very least, they’d feel the need to qualify that language.
[23] “Creed Subscription in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.” in The Subscription Debate (Greenville, SC: Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, n.d.), 79.
[24] Certainly, the Confession may and should serve as a helper and a guide in our proclamation and defense of Scripture. As Spurgeon expressed it to his congregation, “This little volume is not issued as an authoritative rule, or code of faith, whereby you are to be fettered, but as an assistance to you in controversy, a confirmation in faith, and a means of edification in righteousness.” Cited in the preface to the Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 (Carlisle, PA: Grace Baptist Church, n.d.), 8.
[25] From his “Presbyterian Churches and the Westminster Confession,” as cited by George W. Knight III in “Subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms,” 135.
[26] “The Legacy of Old School Confession Subscription in the OPC,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 46:4 (Dec 2003): 695.
[27] John Frame agrees and writes, “[Confessions] could never be amended; anyone who advocated change would auto­matically be a vow-breaker and subject to discipline.” Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987), 308. Similarly, James E. Urish remarks, “Of course, if one took the ‘strict’ full subscriptionist position, one could not teach anything contrary to any articles in the Confession or Catechism. One wonders how the Church could ever perfect these standards with this kind of constraint. It does seem that from the full subscriptionist position there is an implicit assumption that the Westminster Standards fully or satisfactorily summarize the teaching of the Bible and ought not to be amended.” “A Peaceable Plea About Subscription: Toward Avoiding Future Divisions,” in The Practice of Subscription, 223.
[28] In his debate with Will Barker, Smith remarks, “If we don’t believe them, then we should not prescribe them” (about 58 minutes into the audio, Part 1). Clark’s viewpoint has been cited above.
[29] John Frame avers, “There is no perfect creed, and there never will be. A perfect creed would of necessity have the same authority as Scripture, and that can never be.” Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 305.
[30] Emphasis added. I’m citing from the opening words of Waldron’s sermon “A Church with a Passion for God’s Son and God’s Glory,” which may be downloaded here (accessed Nov 16, 2011).
[31] One important note on “exceptions.” Exceptions do not necessarily imply belief that a statement is unbiblical. Exceptions can also mean that the statement is a matter of opinion that shouldn’t be elevated to level of the confession. Exception simply implies that the statement is not confessed. It is not necessarily a “no vote.” It may be viewed, rather, as an “abstention” on that particular statement.
[32] The Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America (ARBCA) requires “full subscription” but has apparently taken a step in the direction of formally allowing for exceptions. In a recently drafted set of procedural guidelines for handling exceptions, the association states, “Any exceptions to terminology or phrases must be stated by the applying church to the sponsoring church before application to ARBCA. No exception may undermine the integrity of the doctrine in any Article, or the integrated system of the historic Reformed Faith in the confession, or any of our Baptist distinctives defined in the Confession.”
[33] Nicolas Alford, “Confessional Imbroglio” (Unpublished paper, 2010), 4-5.
[34] Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1997), 3:284.
[35] The Doctrine of the Word of God (Presbyterian and Reformed, 2010), 287n.5.
[36] The Doctrine of the Word of God, 282.
[37] The Covenant of Grace (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1988), 5. In a similar vein, Murray warns, “However epochal have been the advances made at certain periods and however great the contributions of particular men we may not suppose that theological construction ever reaches definitive finality. There is the danger of a stagnant traditionalism and we must be alert to this danger, on the one hand, as to that of discarding our historical moorings, on the other.” “Systematic Theology,” in vol. 4 of Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982), 7-8.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A Portrait of God by Daniel Chamberlin

Daniel Chamberlin's book A Portrait of God is now available at Free Grace Press. Here is the description of the book on the website:
Stephen Charnock's Discourses Upon the Existence and Attributes of God is a classic, but is over 500 pages. Daniel Chamberlin has done the church a service by summarizing the essential thoughts of Charnock on the doctrine of God for the 21st Century reader.
This is a great tool for groups to work through together, as each chapter is nicely divided up into bit size portions.
Jeff has highly recommended it to me, and I look forward to reading it myself. Please let us know what you think here at the Reformed Baptist Blog after you've had a chance to read it yourselves. If you are interested in digging deeper into Charnock's work, you can get the free eBook of his Discourses Upon the Existence and Attributes of God here. I think you will quickly appreciate why an introductory, summary work such as A Portrait of God can be so helpful, especially if you are trying to acquaint others with such theology.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

"Abortion" by Randy Alcorn

I am planning to attend a fundraising dinner tonight for the Pregnancy Resource Center here in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, an organization that has been used of God to bring many to salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord and to save the lives of many unborn children as well. As I was thinking about the issue of abortion again -- an issue I have taken to praying about every day -- I was also doing some extra reading on the subject and ran across an article by Randy Alcorn at the Ligonier website entitled Abortion. In the article Randy does an excellent, succinct job of explaining the Scriptural view that abortion is indeed murder. Here is the first part of the article:
Some “pro-choice” advocates claim to base their beliefs on the Bible. They maintain that Scripture does not prohibit abortion. They are wrong. The Bible does, in fact, emphatically prohibit the killing of innocent people (Ex. 20:13) and clearly considers the unborn to be human beings worthy of protection (21:22–25).
Job graphically described the way God created him before he was born (Job 10:8–12). That which was in his mother’s womb was not something that might become Job, but someone who was Job—the same man, only younger. To the prophet Isaiah, God says, “Thus says the Lord who made you, who formed you from the womb and will help you” (Isa. 44:2). What each person is, not merely what he might become, was present in his mother’s womb.
Psalm 139:13–16 paints a vivid picture of God’s intimate involvement with a preborn person. God created David’s “inward parts” not at birth, but before birth. David says to his Creator, “You knitted me together in my mother’s womb” (v. 13). Each person, regardless of his parentage or handicap, has not been manufactured on a cosmic assembly line, but personally formed by God. All the days of his life are planned out by God before any come to be (v. 16).
Meredith Kline observes: “The most significant thing about abortion legislation in Biblical law is that there is none. It was so unthinkable that an Israelite woman should desire an abortion that there was no need to mention this offense in the criminal code.” All that was necessary to prohibit an abortion was the command, “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13). Every Israelite knew that the preborn child was a child. So do we, if we are honest. We all know a pregnant woman is “carrying a child.”
Please consider taking a few minutes to read the rest of this article, and please prayerfully consider what you may do to help stop abortion in any way that you can.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Helpful Responses to Andy Stanley's Aberrant Teaching

Many of you may be familiar with my own previous challenges to the teaching of Andy Stanley in a previous blog post entitled Is Andy Stanley Ashamed of the Bible? In that post I offered a critique of three of Andy's sermons and demonstrated how his disdain for expository preaching derives from a different view of Scripture. In fact, I have come to believe that Andy has departed from the orthodox faith in regard to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, and his more recent assertions have only reinforced this belief. In light of these more recent assertions and teaching, then, I would recommend reading my previous post if you have not already done so, for in it I challenge many of the very kinds of things he has been continuing to say. But I would also like to recommend listening to the critique offered by James White (pictured right), which is contained in the videos below, as well as reading some recent articles over at the Pulpit & Pen blog, which are linked at the bottom of this post.

In order to set the table, many of you may already be familiar with Andy's recent comments made in an interview with Russell Moore. Here is the video containing the relevant comments:

In the Dividing Line video below, at about the 30 minute mark, James White begins to discuss Andy's statements. He challenges Andy's assertions in the interview, as well and some other statements made by him on his church's website. He also does a very good job of working through 1 Corinthians 1 and demonstrating the difference between Andy's perspective and that of the Apostle Paul.

In the next video below, James responds to Andy's sermon entitled The Bible Told Me So, the third part of a series entitled "Who Needs God," in which Andy continues to make the same kind of silly argument I had challenged in the sermons I had previously critiqued. Here is the description of the episode from the Dividing Line website:
There were three major topics on the DL today (after the opening discussion of some urgent situations where the people of God need to bring certain issues before the throne of grace): first, an article published today on Revelation 16:5 and the Textus Receptus; then, a rather lengthy review of Andy Stanley’s sermon from Sunday on the Bible and Christianity. About 2/3 of the way through we were joined by Dr. Tony Costa on the phone, but we pressed on and finished the sermon, commenting as we went along.  And then in the last half hour or so Tony and I discussed the double standards so often used by Islamic apologists. Two and a half hours long! Have the days of hour long Dividing Lines ended? Tune in next week to find out!
As you can see, James has as hard a time being brief in his critique of Andy as I did! But it is well worth listening to the entire critique, which begins at about the 41:30 mark.

James does a good job of pointing out the theological issues with Andy, not to mention the fact that he simply doesn't know what he is talking about in much of what he says (unless he is deliberately distorting the most basic facts of Church history). At any rate, we need to warn our brothers and sisters in Christ about the real danger of ignorant, liberal, unorthodox teachers like Andy Stanley, and I appreciate James so ably helping us in this regard.

I also appreciate the efforts of Bud Ahlheim over at the Pulpit & Pen blog, who has written a series of recent posts about these issues:
SBC Conference: “Get The Spotlight Off The Bible” (Courtesy of Russell Moore & Andy Stanley)
Superstar Mega-church Son of A (Hopefully Ashamed) Preacher Man Andy Stanley: Scripture Can’t Be Defended  
Andy Stanley: You’re Not Smart Enough If You’re Not In “One of Our Churches” (Doubling Down on Unnecessary Scripture)
Although I would have stated a few things a bit differently, I certainly agree with Bud's conclusions regarding Andy's view of Scripture and the Church. As always, we welcome your comments.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

2016 "What is a Reformed Baptist?" Poll September Update

Eight months ago we began a poll on the blog. If you identify yourself as a Reformed Baptist and you haven't already taken part in the poll, please check out the "What is a Reformed Baptist?" Poll on the right sidebar on this page (the red box with white type). The intention is to run the poll for one year with an interest in how the Reformed Baptist community might answer this question. I have given four options for answers that I think basically sum up the various groups or individuals that I have found to be using the term. Here are the four possible answers:
To regard oneself as a Reformed Baptist, one must ...

1) adhere at a minimum to a Calvinistic soteriology.

2) adhere at a minimum to a Calvinistic soteriology and to Covenant Theology.

3) adhere substantially to the Baptist Confession of 1689 (e.g. modify regarding Impassibility).

4) adhere strictly to the Baptist Confession of 1689.
For those interested, here are the results thus far:
13% say that one must adhere at a minimum to a Calvinistic soteriology in order to be regarded a Reformed Baptist.

25% say that one must adhere at a minimum to a Calvinistic soteriology and to Covenant Theology in order to be regarded a Reformed Baptist.

43% say that one must adhere substantially to the Baptist Confession of 1689 (e.g. modify regarding Impassibility) in order to be regarded a Reformed Baptist.

19% say that one must adhere strictly to the Baptist Confession of 1689 in order to be regarded a Reformed Baptist.
Again, if you haven't yet taken part in the poll, please do so. You may read more about the poll here in order to understand better why it is phrased as it is.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Free eBook of Old Paths by J.C. Ryle

I have discovered that Monergism.com has made available the free eBook of Old Paths: Being Plain Statements On Some Of The Weightier Matters Of Christianity. You may download it here in ePub, .prc (Kindle) or .pdf formats. Here is a selection from the preface, in which Ryle explains his purpose:
“If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” - 1 Corinthians 14:8
The volume now in the reader’s hands consists of a series of papers, systematically arranged, on the leading truths of Christianity which are “necessary to salvation”.
Few, probably, will deny that there are some things in religion about which we may think other people hold very erroneous views, and are, notwithstanding, in no danger of being finally lost. About baptism and the Lord’s Supper, about the Christian ministry, about forms of prayer and modes of worship, about the union of Church and State, about all these things it is commonly admitted that people may differ widely, and yet be finally saved. No doubt there are always bigots and extreme partisans, who are ready to excommunicate everyone who cannot pronounce their Shibboleth on the above-named points. But, speaking generally, to shut out of heaven all who disagree with us about these things, is to take up a position which most thoughtful Christians condemn as unscriptural,narrow, and uncharitable.
On the other hand, there are certain great truths of which some knowledge, by common consent,appears essential to salvation. Such truths are the immortality of the soul, the sinfulness of human nature, the work of Christ for us as our Redeemer, the work of the Holy Ghost in us, forgiveness,justification, conversion, faith, repentance, the marks of a right heart, Christ’s invitations, Christ’s intercession, and the like. If truths like these are not absolutely necessary to salvation, it is difficult to understand how any truths whatever can be called necessary. If people may be saved without knowing anything about these truths, it appears to me that we may throw away our Bibles altogether, and proclaim that the Christian religion is of no use. From such a miserable conclusion I hope most people will shrink back with horror.
To open out and explain these great necessary truths, to confirm them by Scripture, to enforce them by home, appeals to the conscience of all who read this volume. This is the simple object of the series of papers which is now offered to the public.
The eBook was actually produced by the folks at PreachtheWord.com, who have done a good job creating a very mice-looking and easily navigated eBook. They also have a number of other such sources freely available here.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Joy Comes in the Mourning

Do you know what it’s like to feel the sorrow of a bereaved mother? A mother’s life is wrapped up in the care and well-being of her children. When those children are taken away from her or, worse, when they’re wantonly slaughtered before her eyes, it’s like ripping out her heart. She feels empty. She feels as if she no longer has any purpose for existence. Perhaps you’re experiencing that kind of grief. You’ve not been bereaved of your children, but you feel the same kind of empty sorrow. You feel hopeless and without purpose in the world.

But there is hope if you will believe the good news about Jesus Christ. Weeping may endure for the night, but joy will come in the “mourning.” That’s one of the biblical themes that the apostle Matthew highlights in his Gospel account. Let’s reflect on how Matthew develops this theme in the second chapter of his Gospel.

The Slaughter of Bethlehem’s Children

When most people think of birth of Christ and the little town of Bethlehem, they have in mind a beautiful and peaceful scene—shepherds and wise men worshiping the young Christ. But that is not the whole picture. Matthew would remind us that from the very beginning, there was much hatred aimed at the Lord Jesus Christ—hatred that resulted in the shedding of innocent blood!

In the second chapter of his Gospel, Matthew records an event that followed the birth of Christ: the slaughter of Bethlehem’s children. According to verse 7, Herod had learned from the wise men when the star first appeared. Then, once he realized that the wise man had become privy to Herod’s scheme and escaped, he calculated the time elapsed from the appearing of the star, and he sent his soldiers to slaughter every male child two years and under.
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men (Matt 2:16 ESV).
Matthew’s portrait of Herod accords well with secular history. History portrays Herod as a very gifted and capable leader, which is one of the reasons he was called “Herod the Great.” In his lifetime, he had many achievements to boast to his credit. But Herod was also a very cunning and cruel ruler. During the latter years of his rule, Herod became very suspicious that someone would usurp his throne. In fact, we’re told that he had three of his seven sons murdered, as well as one of this wives, because he suspected them of treason. For this reason, the Roman Emperor is reported to have said: “Better to be Herod’s pig [hus] than his son [huios].”

So it should be no surprise us to see Herod responding this way to the news that the King of the Jews has been born. Bethlehem’s population was probably under 1000 people, which, according to statistics, would put the number of baby boys slaughtered at around 20-30. Can you imagine such a horrible scene? Why would Matthew include such a gory scene in his gospel?

Not Everybody Loves Jesus

Commenting on this text, J. C. Ryle notes that Christ is portrayed as “‘a man of sorrows’ even from his infancy.”[1] Don’t let the sweet little Nativity Scenes fool you. Here’s the “rest of the story”: not everybody loves Jesus. And there are still people today who, like Herod, would rather murder the Christ than worship Him.

What’s more, if you’ve been a Christian for very long and if you’ve made a public commitment to Christ, you know about the opposition. You’ve experienced the truth underscored by the apostle Paul: “All who live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Tim 3:12).

The End of Rachel’s Tears

There is another reason why Matthew includes this tragic incident. According to verses 17 and 18, this gruesome event was no mere accident, but it happened in order to fulfill OT Scripture:
Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: ”A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more” (Matt 2:17–18 ESV).
Ramah was a city located on the border between Ephraim and Benjamin, about 5 miles north of Jerusalem and 10 miles north of Bethlehem. This is significant, because Ephraim was part of the Northern kingdom and Benjamin was part of the Southern kingdom. According to Jeremiah 40:1, the city of Ramah was used as a staging place for the deportation of God’s people into captivity. Rachel was one of Jacob’s wives. She had two sons: her first son was Joseph, to whom was born Ephraim. Her second son was Benjamin.

The Tragedy of the Exile

But Rachel has been dead for over 1,000 years. How could she be weeping? Obviously, Jeremiah is using figurative language to portray Rachel as the mother of the nation—Ephraim represents the north and Benjamin represents the south. From the grave the mother of the nation weeps for her children, and she refuses to be comforted because they are no more!

Try to imagine what this would be like. Families are literally being tom apart. Husbands and wives are being exiled to separate locations. Brothers and sisters will never see one another again. Mothers are being separated from their children. What great sorrow and grief! As Matthew reflects upon the sorrow experienced by the mothers at Ramah and that experienced by the mothers at Bethlehem, he obviously sees a clear correspondence.

All Hope Seems Lost!

But the correspondence is much deeper than mere emotional grief. As you know, the hope of redemption was bound up in the promise of a male seed who would descend from the nation of Israel, from the tribe of Judah, and from the line of David.

But when the young men of Israel—especially the descendants of David—were lined up in Ramah to be exiled from the Land of Promise, all hope of redemption seemed to be lost! All hope of salvation forever vanished!

Joy Comes in the “Mourning”!

And yet, all is not hopeless! “Though weeping may endure for the night; joy comes in the morning” (Psa 30:5). And so, the Jeremiah assures God’s people:
Thus says the LORD: “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work, declares the LORD, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, declares the LORD, and your children shall come back to their own country” (Jer 31:16–17 ESV).
Jeremiah’s prophecy is not primarily a prophecy about sadness and grief. It’s primarily a message about joy and hope! In fact, as you know this chapter goes on to predict the coming of a New Covenant! (31:31-34). Yes, tears will precede the joy. But joy will come in the morning!

Jesus Wipes Away Tears

That’s Jeremiah’s message, and I believe Matthew’s point is that the “end of Rachel’s grief” portrayed by Jeremiah has come to fulfillment in the coming of the Messiah which began with the grief of Bethlehem’s mothers. In other words, the weeping mothers of Bethlehem do not merely recapitulate the sorrow experienced at Ramah. But they serve as a harbinger of the Messianic hope foretold by Jeremiah! As Donald Carson writes
The tears of the exile are being fulfilled—the tears begun in Jeremiah’s day are climaxed and ended by the tears of the mothers of Bethlehem. The heir to David’s throne has come, the Exile is over, the true Son of God has arrived, and he will introduce the new covenant promised by Jeremiah.[2]
Isn’t that glorious! Let me put it in more practical terms: Christ is the end of sadness and grief and He is the beginning of joy and hope to all who will believe. And that’s true for sinner and saint alike! Whoever you are, look to Christ and find joy in the midst of your mourning.

[1] Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, 1:15.
[2] “Matthew” in vol. 8 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 95.