Thursday, June 12, 2008

On Being Presbyterian

Sean Michael Lucas is a professor of Church History at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis. A few months ago my pastor gifted me with a copy of his book, which bears the same name as the title of this post. The aim of the book, as I read it, is to present to a contemporary audience of Christians who are unfamiliar with historic Presbyterianism an overview of said historic Presbyterianism. He organizes this endeavor into three parts: beliefs (orthodoxy), practices (orthopraxy), and stories (church history).

The most enlightening section, and the most enjoyable for me, was the third section on the history of Presbyterianism. As a modern church historian, Lucas is more comprehensive in his treatment of 19th and 20th century presbyterianism, and this was also good for me as I've been recently interested in figures like Charles Hodge, Warfield, Dabney, Machen, Clark, Van Til, and others. I was genuinely enlightened as I read these "stories," and have little ground for critical examination of Lucas's conclusions.

In the beliefs section, however, I found a few things a bit more fuzzy in his presentation. Granted that Lucas is going for a "mainline" position, and granted that the audience Lucas aims at is largely ignorant of the minor details of Reformed theology. Even granting these intentions, I would have preferred to see more nuance, or at least less casual language in treating several issues. Let me explain. . .

The doctrinal heads that Lucas identifies with Presbyterianism are these:
1. God's Sovereignty
2. The Priority of Grace
3. Covenant Theology
4. The Nature of the Church
5. The Sacraments

The first topic Lucas handles very well, using Scripture, the confession, and a selection of appropriate hymns to bring the conclusion into focus.

The second topic follows in like fashion with the first, again worthy of admiration.

The third topic is more difficult than the first two in contemporary Presbyterianism, but Lucas does a good job of not going beyond what the Confession states (especially with regard to the Covenant of Works). However, it is in this chapter where I think Lucas stretches his focus a bit beyond what his audience needs, as well as beyond what is just in regard to what he attempts.

The problem arises when Lucas attempts to contrast Covenant Theology with Dispensationalism. He rightly shows that the former emphasizes the continuity of the covenants and testaments, whereas the latter emphasizes discontinuity. However, instead of leaving it at this conclusion (which would have been enough for his audience to chew on), he extends himself, saying:

Sometimes, though, Presbyterians may overstress continuity. There are those who argue, for example, that the civil laws of ancient Israel should be applied to governments today, or that the representation of children in the Passover meal means that small children should come to the Lord's Supper without a prior profession of faith. The Presbyterian tradition has tended to see these claims as overextensions of continuity. After all, there are basic differences between the old and new covenants, wrought by Jesus' death and resurrection. As one theologian wryly noted, we know there are basic differences between the old and new covenants because, for one thing, we don't sacrifice bulls and goats anymore. Still, the one thing to remember here is that God is telling one story in Scripture, the story of his redeeming activity for the sake of his people.

Here are my problems with the above passage:

1. Lucas introduces two controversial topics and dismisses them without discussion. The examples do not further elucidate his distinction between Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism, but may in fact compound any confusion in the ignorant reader.

2. On the matter of the application of the civil laws to contemporary governments, Lucas overstates consensus, or at least fails to properly distinguish the issue. That the Law of God, including the moral AND civil law, continues to bind the conscience of men is openly affirmed by the Confession. Scripture is the sole source of knowledge for matters of faith and practice, including the practice of law by civil governments. With regard to the civil laws given to Israel, the Confession says:

To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require. (WCF 19.4)

Although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned; yet is it of great use to them, as well as to others; in that, as a rule of life informing them of the will of God, and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly; discovering also the sinful pollutions of their nature, hearts, and lives; so as, examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against sin, together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and the perfection of his obedience. It is likewise of use to the regenerate, to restrain their corruptions, in that it forbids sin: and the threatenings of it serve to show what even their sins deserve; and what afflictions, in this life, they may expect for them, although freed from the curse thereof threatened in the law. The promises of it, in like manner, show them God’s approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof:s although not as due to them by the law as a covenant of works. So as, a man’s doing good, and refraining from evil, because the law encourageth to the one, and deterreth from the other, is no evidence of his being under the law; and, not under grace. (WCF 19.6)

The civil laws are recognized as valid according to their "general equity," not restricted to believers only ("of great use to them"), but to all men ("as well as to others"). If Luca is trying to point toward theonomy in general (or Christian Reconstruction in particular) then he does not present his statement well. The consensus of the Presbyterian tradition has affirmed the validity of the civil law in its general equity, while having its intramural debates concerning what exactly is implied by that term (i.e. "general equity).

3. As for paedocommunion, Lucas may be correct in presenting the consensus of the tradition, but it is confusing to bring this point up when trying to stress Presbyterian "continuity." The "backing" for his "warrant" is that Christ's death and resurrection are the ground for the basic differences. Apart from being nondescript, the same argument is precisely what Reformed Baptists would say to the Presbyterian practice of paedobaptism (more precisely, oikobaptism). The ignorant will hardly quibble with Lucas, but those reading from an informed baptist position will no doubt smirk at the "apparent" contradiction in his treatment.

As you can see, aside from the problem of precision, the major problem I find is that Lucas is introducing more than is helpful to the ignorant reader, and less than is helpful for the informed reader. If he is attempting to strike a middle ground, I suggest he has done so: landing right between a rock and a hard place.

My only other quibble with this chapter is that Lucas could have spent more time on the implications of Covenant Theology upon culture. Although he touches on the necessary outworking of spiritual renewal and transformation in the material life of the Church, he limits his view to individuals and the Church, leaving a deafening silence as to the larger culture, in which the Church, with Christ as Head, is to be the primary cultivator. He could have postponed this elements of Covenant Theology to his discussion of the Church in the next chapter, but it doesn't appear there either.

The chapter on the Sacraments is ok, but brings out more evidently the troubles inherent in rejecting the continuity of the sacrament of communion with the passover meal. If the sacraments are "signs of God's promises" and "seals of God's promises," which "put a visible difference between those that belong unto the Church and the rest of the world" (WCF 27.1), indeed, "mark[ing] believers as different from unbelievers, as being on a different team, if you will," then what does it signify to the world and to our children when we refuse them a place at Christ's table?

Lucas makes the important distinction between validity and efficacy with regard to baptism (the sign is objectively valid, though it may prove ineffectual in the life of the person upon whom it is conveyed), he does not extend this logic to communion, which is no less external or objective in what it conveys. Children who are considered holy under one believing parent are baptized on the basis of faith exhibited by their federal head (i.e. children of believers are considered part of the Body of Christ, the Church), but they are yet unworthy to partake of any spiritual union with Christ until the session has considered them as having made a competent confession of faith. The instruction of children flows from the faith of the parents, but is inadequate as a foundation for inclusion of these same children into the Covenant meal, although Jesus welcomes children to himself, testifying that the type of trust that children exhibit is worthy of the Kingdom--indeed, without this type of trust the Kingdom is beyond anyone's ability to enter!

But I digress.

The chapters on Presbyterian practices are good, although I am more ignorant of these than I am of the doctrines. As I said above, the history is by far my most favorite portion of Lucas's book. If my criticisms appear to be a straining at gnats and swallowing of camels know that I would recommend the book to all of my family, friends, loved ones, and enemies. Praise is due notwithstanding my acute criticism.