Confessionalism or Biblicism?

We have the benefit of the wisdom of the ages, particularly as it is collected in the consensus documents we call creeds and confessions.

If we wish to maintain that unity, we ought to give precedence to the arguments of those consensus documents – not receiving them as inspired, but searching the Scriptures to see whether these things are so, hearing with humility and grace, not a proud supposition that our own interpretations must be superior. If we do this, we will be slow to reject the teaching found in our Confession, but will seek to be instructed by the pastors and teachers Christ has given the church.

 

As the New Year dawned, I was directed to a review of John Frame’s Systematic Theology by Ryan McGraw, a review which I quickly linked myself.

I would strongly urge anyone interested in Reformed and Reformed Baptist theology to give this review a close read. McGraw lays out may of the elements of Frame’s divergent thinking which are central to the ongoing debate over the Confession in Reformed Baptist circles, and he does so in a calm and reserved manner.

If I am too much of a rabble-rouser for you, please read McGraw. I can vouch for him; he has never roused any rabble. But can anyone read the following without applying the “dangerous” label to Frame?

Examples include shifting from discussing God’s intent in the free offer of the gospel to something approximating English hypothetical universalism; misunderstanding the historical context of the lapsarian controversy; importing the two natures of Christ into pre-incarnate theophanies; careless language on the Trinity, such as referring to ‘three divine beings;’ inadequate understanding of the relationship between eternal generation and aseity in Reformed theology; imputing to the Son ‘eternal obedience’ and even ‘eternal subordination of role’ in relation to the Father; importing Christ’s threefold office into the definition of the image of God, rather than describing man’s function in the world in terms of these offices; opening the door for those who say that Adam was the head of a pre-existing group of early hominids, rather than existing by the special creation of God; redefining the Reformed doctrine of total depravity and accusing the traditional doctrine as teaching that man is as bad as he can be; questioning the legitimacy of a logical order in the traditional ordo salutis; and urging the church to adopt elements of Presbyterianism, Congregationalism, and Episcopleanism simultaneously and at its own discretion.

Mind you, that was the list of issues McGraw chose not to address at length!

While there is much that is useful in this review, one of the timeliest points for Baptists is in the conclusion. For those unlikely to read through a long review, I thought I would reproduce that conclusion here together with my own comments.

Of all of Frame’s bizarre constructions, the one which seems to have gained favor among the confessional-revisionists of our circles is his claim to adopt an approach that is “something close to biblicism.” This sounds quite admirably sola-scripturish, but ultimately it amounts to readily discarding the confessional formulations of the church anytime that the Christian, alone with his Bible, arrives at a personal interpretation distinct from confessional orthodoxy.

McGraw takes up this argument in his conclusion. He first points out the obvious: such an approach to theology undermines doctrinal unity.

Frame’s Systematic Theology is profound and thought provoking. Yet the very features that make his theology innovative make it less clear what relationship he has to the historic Reformed faith. His lack of historical theology makes his work less catholic in character. If the church does not self-consciously stand on the shoulders of its Reformed forefathers, then the term ‘Reformed’ will quickly lose all meaning in contemporary discussions. There is room for progress in our understanding of Scripture and of Reformed theology. A theology that is genuinely Reformed must be biblical and must not rest on human tradition. Otherwise that theology would call itself Reformed while simultaneously demolishing one of the primary foundation stones of Reformed theology. Yet a theology that does not build on the past threatens rather than promotes the unity of the church.

But what can we do? If we defer to written documents, are we not (as every non-confessionalist argues) elevating confession to the level of Scripture? This is a real problem, and to resolve it, we must find a biblical, exegetical argument for deferring to the collected wisdom of past ages as we interpret Scripture. This is what confessionalism represents – the consensus of the church as opposed to the private interpretation of the individual. But do we have any biblical precedent for approaching confessions in this way?

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