More from That Bad Dog on the phrase Essentially Reformed

June 10, 2010 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

[Kris says:  Commenter “That Bad Dog” (you can check out his blog here) came back and shared more of his thoughts about Jeff Purswell’s explanation for what Sovereign Grace Ministries means when they claim to be “essentially Reformed.”  You can see the first part of his analysis here

Thanks, “That Bad Dog”!]

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3. “Because We Say So!” (Confusing assertions with proof)

In Purswell’s article What does it mean to be essentially Reformed?, “Reformed theology” is reduced to the idea that God is sovereign and we should glorify him. These are great truths, grand truths even, but they are hardly a historic definition for what “Reformed” means.

To justify rejecting/ignoring/minimizing most of what is actually Reformed doctrine, Purswell/SGM plays two cards: 1) the “it’s not biblical” card, and 2) the “it’s a human system of theology” card. Which brings us to-

That Bad Dog’s 3rd Axiom of Theology: “The less actual evidence is given that a doctrine is biblical (or not biblical), the more likely it becomes that the claim will be expressly made.”

In practice this often means that the only argument given for the biblical nature of a doctrine is the speaker or writer/s claim that the doctrine is biblical!

This is to confuse assertion with proof, or, as I like to call it, the “Because we say so” argument.

Let’s say you were arrested, brought before a judge, and charged with a crime. Before you can say a word, the judge says, “having found you guilty of this crime I sentence you to 20 years hard labor.”

You might say, “Hey, wait a sec, there was no evidence!”

The judge says, “To the contrary, the prosectution has stated that you committed this crime.”

You say, “No, but seriously.”

The judge says, “The prosecutor is a man of great integrity, chosen by God himself to pursue this high calling, and would never allege something that wasn’t true. We trust him. You are guilty.”

Sound like a Kafka novel? It’s done all the time, in pulpits.

Countless sermons run something like this:

1. Tell joke or funny story.
2. Make assertion about doctrine/behavior (“The Bible says…”)
3. Reference one or two of out-of-context verses, or say something like “this is what Paul meant!”
4. Raise voice. Repeat assertion. Say how important it is to believe assertion.
5. Tell story about terrible/great thing that happened to someone who did/didn’t believe assertion.
6. Cry.
7. Threaten (sorry, I mean exhort) audience saying you “watch over their souls as someone who must give account”, they “need to submit to those God has placed over them.”
8. Conclude with prayer.

This frequently works on evangelical audiences for a specific reason.

We regard the Word of God as the source of truth. We are taught, correctly, that the Word of God is the ultimate source for doctrinal truth. Being “unbiblical” is a bad, bad thing. Too often, men are able to take a shortcut right through the thinking bits of our minds, simply by using this language. It immediately puts you on the defensive for a host of reasons.

But, saying something is or isn’t biblical is not the same as proving something is or isn’t biblical. Saying it loudly, with lots of hand gestures; saying it with pleadings or warnings; saying it sincerely with tears; none of these make you more likely to be right, or entitle you to be believed.

Getting back to Reformed theology, and the SGM redefinition. The men who wrote the Reformed confessions were not sitting around trying to come up with new doctrines to add to the Bible. The minutes of the Westminster Confession debates are a remarkable record of how closely they examined every word they wrote, down to the prepositions. These men feared God, and feared to teach something He had not revealed.

Now, that doesn’t mean they were right about everything, or anything, for that matter. But, to simply dump the bulk of Reformed theology, while claiming to be Reformed, with no explanation or proof other than “it isn’t biblical”, is absurd.

4. Systematic Theology is from Mars

The other card played goes like this, “We reject ‘X’ (usually some part of TULIP) because it is a ‘merely human’ system of theology.”

This is a silly argument.

a. It is a false representation of Reformed theology, pretending that it consists only of extended chains of logic, rather than specific interpretations of Scripture. As if Reformed theologians mostly reason out their ideas from theological premises, rather than studying the Bible and trying to understand its teachings. People who say this have often read little or no actual Reformed theology, which makes me highly suspect of SGM-ers making this claim.

b. It falsely implies that the theology held by the one making the claim is a “divine” system (once again, with no proof whatsoever, naturally). But unless you are claiming direct verbal revelation, every doctrine you believe is an interpretation of the meaning of the words of Scripture. A human interpretation. Even if you say, “I only believe the actual words of Scripture,” there is no escape. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved!” OK, but what does the word “believe” mean? What about the word “saved” or “Christ” or even “on”?

Of course, our human belief may and should, and some day entirely will, align with the truth of God’s word. But trying to cleave a distinction between a so-called “human” system of theology, and your own “divine” one, is a merely a bad bit of misdirection.

All this leaves us with a final question. SGM seems at pains to distance itself from a great deal of the actual content of creedal Reformed theology, while at the same time appropriating the Reformed badge. Why?

More on Being Essentially Reformed…

June 7, 2010 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

A commenter (“That Bad Dog” – check out his blog here) left such a great explanation for precisely what is wrong with the phrase, “Essentially Reformed.”   Here is what he shared:

1. The problem of “essentials”

It is a theological axiom that whenever someone puts the word “essentially” in front of a doctrine, it is because they intend to deny something that has previously (and sometimes universally) been regarded as actually essential to the doctrine.

Example: If someone says they are “essentially Trinitarian”, it is because they deny some part of the historic, accepted, creedal definition of the Trinity, but don’t wish to face the consequences of an honest admission of fact.

Another axiom of theology is that, the more a person is departing from a doctrine, the more he will seek to control the public definition of the doctrine. Rather than just saying, “I agree with the doctrine of X to this point, but disagree here,” people try to sieze control of the definition itself, to insist that they belong under the umbrella and should be unchallenged. Same thing here with Purswell/SGM and the “Reformed” banner, which brings us to…

2. What is “reformed”, and who gets to define it?

First, a point of history. “Reformed theology” is often confused in popular talk with “Reformation theology” but this is not correct. Reformed is a stream of Reformation theology, but the Reformation river includes Lutheranism, and the anabaptists, among others. Importantly, the Lutherans do not consider themselves Reformed, even though they embrace the 5 Solas, which should immediately suggest that there is more to it.

Reformed theology, in a historical sense, refers to the theology which emerged first (mostly) in the Swiss reformation, then developed in the Dutch and second English Reformations, and which is represented in the primary creeds of those churches: in the Continental churches, the Three Forms of Unity (Heidelberg Catechism, Synod of Dordt, and the Belgic Confession); in England, the Westminster Confession, and the other confessions derived from it (2nd London Baptist, etc.).

It is true that these confessions embrace the 5 solas, and TULIP. It is not true that this is where the distinction ends. All of these confessions teach Covenant theology, the third use of the Law, federal headship, the Israel-Church identity, and a host of other interrelated doctrines. If you had asked these men what the Reformed essentials were, they would have replied “read our Confessions, we wrote in them what we regard as essential.

So the question is this: Should “Reformed theology” be defined by the historic creeds of the Reformed churches, which were held with little alteration for hundreds of years, and continue to be used today…or, by people like Purswell who deny substantial amounts of that creedal content.

This is not just a semantic question. There is nothing wrong with saying that you are influenced by Reformed theology, or that you embrace the 5 Solas, or TULIP. But I do wish men like Purswell would stop insisiting that they are actually Reformed, or the word will eventually become as useless as the word Evangelical. John Macarthur, for example, is not Reformed by any historic definition. He is a an Calvinistic dispensationalist who has shown more and more influences from Reformed theology, but he denies several key Reformed doctrines, due to his dispensational beliefs. This doesn’t make him bad, BTW, and it doesn’t prove he’s wrong. Maybe he’s right and the creeds are wrong. But it does mean that he is not “Reformed” in the historic, creedal sense. 

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“Bad Dog” promised that he’d come back and add more.  If he does, I will update this post.

“Essentially” Reformed?

June 1, 2010 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

Sovereign Grace Ministries describes its churches as “essentially Reformed” in doctrine.

That phrase – “essentially Reformed” – is bothersome for a couple of reasons.

First of all, it’s “junk semantics.”  The phrase is NOT a precise use of language whatsoever.  When I’ve dialogued with SGMers, both past and present, many of them really have no clue how the rest of the Reformed world defines what it means to be “Reformed.”  Current SGMers tout SGM’s supposed “Reformedness” proudly.  Former SGMers speak of it wistfully (because they’re often convinced that they’ll never find another church that is “both Reformed AND Charismatic”).

But if pressed, it’s often clear that neither the current nor former SGMer is even positive what he or she means by “Reformed.”

Most of the time, “Reformed” seems to be defined in SGMers’ thinking primarily as having to do with acknowledging the “T” in “TULIP” – Total depravity.  SGMers have been taught to be VERY concerned that humans’ innate and persisting sinfulness is properly recognized as the bottom-line truth of every situation.

But ask them about other aspects of Calvinism (like “Unconditional election,” “Limited atonement,” and the “Perserverance of the saints”) and how those do not seem to get much play within the SGM world, and you’ll be met with all sorts of disclaimers.  “That’s where the ‘essentially’ part of ‘essentially Reformed’ comes in,” they’ll say.

Basically, modifying “Reformed” with “essentially” enables SGM to toss out or de-emphasize whatever they feel led to toss out or de-emphasize…and yet still fly the “Reformed” flag, both to appeal to the “Reformed” seekers doing their research online to find a new church as well as to reassure longtime SGMers of their “sound doctrine.”

[Which begs the question – does SGM also advertise itself as “having essentially sound doctrine”? Somehow, I kind of doubt it.  :D]

So “essentially Reformed” is troublesome because it’s a very imprecise use of language that leads to little but confusion, so that people really don’t even know what “Reformed” means.

The phrase is also troublesome because it gives leaders wiggle room to teach all sorts of non-Reformed stuff and have all sorts of non-Reformed practices…and yet still keep people thinking that SGM is “Reformed,” that SGM holds to the doctrines of grace.

Um, they really don’t. Not really.  Not when the rubber hits the road.

Take the whole child baptism conundrum. SGM’s latest policy limits baptism to those who have exhibited a “believable profession of faith.”  But who gets to define what “believable” means?   Doesn’t that inevitably introduce an unbiblical and completely un-Reformed performance-based element into the process?

But oh yeah, SGM is only “essentially Reformed,” so some performance-based elements are OK…?

A funny little exercise, actually, would be to start tossing around the modifier “essentially” when discussing these performance-based elements of SGM’s actual practices (the “where the rubber meets the road” aspects of SGM life).  Why, for instance, is there no “essentially” in the phrase “believable profession of faith”?  Why not make it an “essentially believable profession of faith”?

Why not, when considering a man’s qualifications for becoming a pastor, introduce the word “essentially”?  With SGM’s stern emphasis on a pastor’s having his family “in order” – which means that his kids must perform, must behave like believers as SGM would currently define believerhood – why not instead say that a pastor’s family must only be “essentially” in order?

The bottom line, of course, is that “essentially” is not used in other contexts within SGM because it naturally leads to ambiguities.

Here is a fun little activity for all you present-day SGMers out there reading this:  today, take some time to define for yourself what “Reformed” means to you…and then do some research to discover what “Reformed” has meant to the church historically.  For extra credit, pay special attention to the aspects having to do with church governance.