My Use of the Reformed Confessions

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Pergamum

Ordinary Guy (TM)
My Use of the Reformed Confessions



My Use of the Reformed Confessions


A Presentation to the Trustees of Westminster Theological Seminary in California

by John M. Frame



I have been asked to tell you a bit about my own teaching, particularly with respect to my use of the Reformed confessional documents.

To begin with, I am rather a theological generalist. Bob Strimple once mentioned meeting a European scholar who specialized in the study of Anselm of Canterbury. When Bob asked the man what subjects he taught at the university, he replied, “Anselm, of course.” That scholar was not a theological generalist, on my definition. I suppose I can imagine someone even more specialized, say a European professor who limited his course offerings to one book of Anselm like the Cur Deus Homo, or perhaps even to Chapter One of the Proslogium. But if such a scholar existed, I would be on the opposite extreme from him. I teach three loci of systematic theology: Doctrine of the Word of God, Doctrine of God, and Ethics. I also teach theological epistemology, theological method, apologetics, the history of philosophy, the history of modern theology, the philosophy of science, modern culture and the arts. Also, in my work of publication, I have dared to venture into the areas of worship and church music, areas in which I have some training, some experience, and many concerns.

There are disadvantages to being a theological generalist, chief of which being that I’m never up-to-date on the literature relevant to all my fields. If you ask me about the latest books in the area of the history of philosophy, I would not be able to give you a very good answer. I approach the goal of being up-to-date only in the areas in which I am currently writing books, presently the area of the Doctrine of God.

Nevertheless, I do not envy the Professor of Anselm. Being a theological generalist is just fine with me. It motivates me to focus on the forest rather than the trees, to develop a broad overview of the theological enterprise and to see connections between the various theological disciplines. I’ve been able to take some of the broad themes of the Bible, especially that of God’s covenant Lordship, and apply those themes to a wide variety of theological subjects. God’s covenant Lordship implies (1) his control of all that comes to pass, (2) his supreme authority over all his creatures, and (3) his presence with his covenant servants in creation, providence, and redemption. That threefold understanding of God’s Lordship provides the main structure of my course and my forthcoming book on the Doctrine of God.

That triad also provides the basic outline of my lectures on the Word of God. God’s Word is the Word of the Lord, and therefore in displays God’s Lordship in those three general ways: it conveys his supreme power, his absolute authority, and it is the location of God’s personal presence with those to whom he is speaking. The Word of God is God speaking.

And my ethics course, Doctrine of the Christian Life, follows the same pattern. God’s controlling power corresponds to the goal of ethics, he controls the end to which all nature and history are moving. He tells us to seek his kingdom, the goal of history which he has sovereignly ordained. The standard of ethics corresponds to God’s sovereign authority, his law, and the motive of ethics corresponds to God’s providential and redemptive presence. We cannot do good without the motivation of Jesus’ redemption and the presence of God’s Spirit in our hearts.

The triadic structure applied to ethics coincides with statements of the Reformed confessions to which Cornelius Van Til drew our attention. Ethics has a goal, the glory of God, a standard, the word of God, and a motive, Christian faith. Maintaining a balanced emphasis between goal, standard, and motive, and finding the source of these in God’s covenant Lordship, saves us from the futility of secular ethics. Secular teleological ethics, or utilitarianism, focuses on the goal of ethics, without an adequate standard or motive, and without appealing to God as the source of its goals. Non-Christian deontological ethics focuses on standards: norms, moral laws, but it either denies or ignores the importance of goals and motives, and its norms are without content, since these thinkers try to find ethical norms apart from God’s Word. And non-Christian existential ethics tries to base ethics on man’s inner subjectivity, apart from either norms or goals, and, again, apart from God, who alone can raise our subjectivity above the level of wishful thinking.

As I study the Bible’s teaching on such matters, I have often found such interesting correlations between biblical theology and the statements of the Reformed Confessions. In my teaching on the Word of God, for example, for some years I emphasized that the authority of Scripture takes various forms, varying with the different kinds of language and subject matter. That is to say, in the Bible God makes different sorts of demands upon us: when he speaks to us indicatively, he tells us authoritatively what to believe. When he speaks imperatively, he tells us what to do. Then there are promises, which are not mere indicatives or statements of fact, although they are in the indicative grammatical mode. Rather in giving promises, God commits himself personally to bringing his purposes to bear in history. A promise demands not only belief, but trust, expecting him to bring something to pass. Similarly a divine threat mandates fear, trembling, and repentance.

I made these distinctions originally on the impulse of some philosophical study of the various distinctions within language. Indeed, I considered myself rather insightful. But somewhat later I re-read Westminster Confession 14, “Of Saving Faith,” section 2, which reads in part,

By this faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein; and acteth differently upon that which every particular passage thereof containeth; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come.

You see that all my bright ideas were already there in our confession.

So in my classes, I make much use of the confessions, asking the students to read relevant portions of them and sometimes including material from the confessions in my lectures and exams. I do more of this, I believe, than my own teachers did at Westminster/Phila. in the early 1960s.

At the same time, my courses are not catechism courses. The confessions and catechisms are not the focus of my teaching, although I do mention them and make substantial use of them. Rather the focus of my teaching is our primary standard, the Word of God itself. This is my practice for the following reasons:

1. One of the great principles of the Reformation and of Scripture itself is sola Scriptura. The Scriptures themselves are the only ultimate source for Christian doctrine. Luther and Calvin stood on this principle and therefore had the freedom to take a critical stance toward popes, councils, and any human tradition that failed to measure up to the standard of the Word of God.

2. Therefore, in the tradition of Westminster, we do not teach systematic theology, apologetics, ethics, philosophy, and so on through a survey of history and tradition, referring to the Bible only occasionally for confirmation. Rather, our approach is to prove each doctrine by careful exegesis of the original source. This approach is somewhat different from that of many theologians in the Reformed tradition. G. C. Berkouwer’s books, for example, are structured according to controversies that have emerged in the history of doctrine. But John Murray, who taught systematics at WTSP for over 35 years, rejected this approach both in his practice and in his statements on theological method.

3. When we show how Reformed doctrine is grounded in Scripture itself we give to our teaching a cogency it would never have if we presented these doctrines merely as human traditions. When I first came to Westminster, evangelical friends told me that Reformed theology was speculative and was based on tradition rather than the Bible itself. I resolved not to believe anything on the basis of tradition alone. But Westminster showed me that the Reformed faith is strongly based in the Word of God, giving me the greatest assurance possible to a Christian that these doctrines were true. That is the blessing I want to impart to my own students.

4. To base doctrine on Scripture itself is especially appropriate to Westminster’s mission as a graduate level institution requiring biblical languages of all students. When a student is admitted to Westminster, we assume that he or she is capable of doing serious exegesis. How could we then allow ourselves to lose an opportunity to help them search the Scriptures for themselves?

5. Westminster does have excellent teaching in the history of doctrine through the church history department. It is wonderful to teach in a school where there is a high degree of mutual trust among faculty members. So I am confident that I really do not need to focus on the church’s confessional history as I might have to do in another institution.

6. I do believe there is a danger in the evangelical churches of what I would call traditionalism. In traditionalism, the evangelical or Reformed faith is defined according to its history, in doctrine, worship, evangelism, and church life. And those who differ from those traditions, even on the basis of biblical arguments, are excluded. I’ve written a couple of articles recently on this subject. One is called “In Defense of Something Close to Biblicism” which was published in the WTJ 1997 and also as an Appendix in my book Contemporary Worship Music: a Biblical Defense. In a situation like this, it is especially important that students become aware of what Scripture says on these matters and, equally importantly, what Scripture doesn’t say. It is only by means of careful exegesis that we will have a firm basis to distinguish which traditions are grounded in God’s Word and which ones are not. And, as with Luther and Calvin, it is important for us to maintain a critical stance toward the traditions of the church so we may have the freedom to apply the biblical principles in the fullest possible way to contemporary life and ministry.

7. I look forward to the time when God will equip his church to write new confessions. The Reformed confessions of the 16th and 17th centuries are wonderful documents that have served the church well. But we need confessions that speak to the issues of our own time: abortion, postmodern ideology, egalitarianism, new spiritualities, ecumenism, the gifts of the Spirit, common grace, the precise role of the Mosaic law the status of non-Christian religions, the obligation of Christians to the poor, the nature of worship, biblical standards for missions and evangelism, and, indeed, the nature of confessional subscription. We need confessions also that can state the old Reformed and biblical doctrines in contemporary language and support those doctrines with the biblical scholarship that has developed over the last 400 years. Perhaps we are not ready yet to write new confessions, granted the spiritual immaturity of the contemporary church and the proliferation of denominational division. But if we are ever to reach the point at which new confessions can be written, we need to train pastors and teachers for the church who are able to develop doctrinal formulations from the Word of God itself. And we need to graduate students who understand that the 16th and 17th century confessions are not the final word, that there is much more that God calls us to say to the church and to the world.
 

DonP

Puritan Board Junior
Why not just write an addendum confessional stance on some of these other subjects.
Besides most of them are non essentials. Its nice to have a church or denom creed, but the Confession should be limited to essentials of the faith we must agree on to share pastors etc.
 

toddpedlar

Iron Dramatist
Many of the things Frame addresses in his last point that he thinks should be the subject of a new reformed confession seem to me to be patently absurd. A confessional statement on abortion, for example, makes absolutely NO sense - unless you want to redefine what a confession is. The status of non-Christian religions? PLEASE.
 

CatechumenPatrick

Puritan Board Freshman
I learned a lot from Frame when I was an undergrad and I've read and reread most of his works.
However, if he is a good example of a theological generalist then I think that should be a warning sign for those of us, in our scholarship, pursuing a "generalist" model. Frame in my estimation has spread himself far too thin while attempting to do more than he is able. A "theological generalist" should take extreme care when trying to advance the debate in any subject. Frame's view on the nature of confessions and the practice of confessional subscription, for example, is not terribly well-informed. He does not interact with much recent work on this issue (as tends to be the case, unfortunately, in most of his work).
 

DonP

Puritan Board Junior
Jack of all trades, master of none ???

I would rather read the masters.

Of course if you are young, you can learn something from anyone.
 

Pergamum

Ordinary Guy (TM)
Many of the things Frame addresses in his last point that he thinks should be the subject of a new reformed confession seem to me to be patently absurd. A confessional statement on abortion, for example, makes absolutely NO sense - unless you want to redefine what a confession is. The status of non-Christian religions? PLEASE.

Is it as absurb as naming the Pope the antichrist?
 

SolaScriptura

Puritanboard Brimstone
Many of the things Frame addresses in his last point that he thinks should be the subject of a new reformed confession seem to me to be patently absurd. A confessional statement on abortion, for example, makes absolutely NO sense - unless you want to redefine what a confession is. The status of non-Christian religions? PLEASE.

Seems to me that these types of things - abortion, ecumenicism, etc - would be best addressed in a position paper rather than in a confessional statement.

-----Added 4/20/2009 at 01:27:22 EST-----

Many of the things Frame addresses in his last point that he thinks should be the subject of a new reformed confession seem to me to be patently absurd. A confessional statement on abortion, for example, makes absolutely NO sense - unless you want to redefine what a confession is. The status of non-Christian religions? PLEASE.

Is it as absurb as naming the Pope the antichrist?

I think that this type of statement would also be best addresed in a position paper.
 

DonP

Puritan Board Junior
You had better edit that last post and put a smiley behind it.

else my church would drop your support as a missionary

We believe in the necessity of a Confession for central doctrines that define the essentials of the faith.

The rest, yes position papers can be adequate. Or local church creeds, by laws etc.

And the pope might be the antichrist, and if you lived then, with ministers defecting to Anglican and Catholic you may have believed he was and thought it essential to preserve the faith to believe this.
 

Hamalas

whippersnapper
You had better edit that last post and put a smiley behind it.

else my church would drop your support as a missionary


We believe in the necessity of a Confession for central doctrines that define the essentials of the faith.

The rest, yes position papers can be adequate. Or local church creeds, by laws etc.

And the pope might be the antichrist, and if you lived then, with ministers defecting to Anglican and Catholic you may have believed he was and thought it essential to preserve the faith to believe this.


Maybe you should add a smiley face after that sentence too. :)
 

Scott1

Puritanboard Commissioner
If the author thinks there is great need for a new Confession, the author needs to be up front about what differences he holds with the doctrine of the historic Confessions.

The author seeks and has been given credibility in confessional circles and I assume has taken vows he receives the Westminster Standards. It would be helpful to know what differences he has with the confessions he professes to hold.

Confessions of faith are not intended to cover everything and not intended to cover practical positioning on other issues. Surely the author knows this.
 

DonP

Puritan Board Junior
else my church would drop your support as a missionary[/B]

We believe in the necessity of a Confession for central doctrines that define the essentials of the faith.


Maybe you should add a smiley face after that sentence too. :)

Why, we did just drop a missionary, kept up some discussions with him for a year but no $$.

I would hops all churches would only support missionary ministers they would have in their pulpits, they would ordain in their denomination.
If someone decides the Confession should not be of more value than a position paper, I would not want to support them.

Except maybe to go back through seminary.

I generally don't read the books of non-confessional men, I prefer others.
I like the OPCs structure where they can't use money form the regular collection for non-denominational missions. They can take a special designated collection for Guideons etc.
And that OPC missionaries must be OPC ministers.

But that is one of the main things that started the OPC, the loose mission boards the Presbyterian GA approved.
 

Pergamum

Ordinary Guy (TM)
:eek:
You had better edit that last post and put a smiley behind it.

else my church would drop your support as a missionary

We believe in the necessity of a Confession for central doctrines that define the essentials of the faith.

The rest, yes position papers can be adequate. Or local church creeds, by laws etc.

And the pope might be the antichrist, and if you lived then, with ministers defecting to Anglican and Catholic you may have believed he was and thought it essential to preserve the faith to believe this.



:eek:


How did I ever slip through the radar in the first place! :duh:




How about this: the Pope is AN Antichrist....THE One and Only Antichrist sounds awful sure of itself and makes the Reformers sound like children of their age.



Just to come clean, here's my confessions:

--I really like John Frame,
--I hold to the 1689 Confession,
However,
---New churches overseas need not merely adopt our confessions but write their own confessions anew (though, they should not vary in substance from the previous truth the Church has already wirtten). These new confessions should also adopt additional positions somehow (maybe in a position paper) that further clarify the Gospel in light of cultural concerns. For instance, the issues of respect/homage to parents, even dead ones, and foods offered to idols might still be big issues in the East and might need to be addressed.







Finally, brother, when your church drops me, make sure you tell them the reason (i.e. that it was not for moral failure or heresy, but due to not respecting the confessions with enough awe or reverance). I know some Presbyterian PCA missionaries that you might fit better with anyhow who need support to go to Spain and it might be a better fit to support them anyway. PM me and I will give you their email. They are easier to get along with than me anyhow and need additional support before they can leave the US again to Spain.
 

Ask Mr. Religion

Flatly Unflappable
I for one would like to understand Dr. Frame's view of how our Confessions are somehow no longer relevant to so-called modern issues. I'm just sayin'. ;)
 

Pergamum

Ordinary Guy (TM)
Quote by Dr. Clark:

Dr. Clark:


Quote:
We could and probably should have new confessions, if we were consistent with our principles, but first we must recover our principles and stop using idiosyncratic -- rather than confessionally determined -- definitions of what it is to be Reformed.



http://www.puritanboard.com/f30/should-we-precisely-emulate-theology-worship-confessions-reformers-puritans-10785/#post142449





Finally, consider this quote by John M. Mason, Presbyterian pastor (early 1800s). How is John Frame alike or different from the sentiment that Rev. Mason asserts:



Christian Brethren,

We should greatly undervalue our spiritual mercies, were we insensible that "œthe lines have fallen unto us in pleasant places; yea, that we have a goodly heritage." The unadulterated faith once delivered to the saints; that religious polity which Christ has instituted for his Church; and a worship, on the whole, scriptural; are benefits which God bestowed on our fathers, and which by his grace they have transmitted unto us. To insure our peaceful enjoyment of them they underwent no ordinary trials. It is the fruit of their labors, their tears, and their blood, which merit from their posterity an everlasting remembrance.

But, brethren, we should prove ourselves unworthy of such an ancestry, if, under the pretext of prizing their attainments, we become indifferent about our own; if we lose their spirit while we boast of their names: much more, if, falling short of their excellence, we do not endeavor to regain and surpass it. Magnanimous men! they not only cherished their light, but applied it to expose delusion, and to explore the paths of forgotten truth. Far from being satisfied with previous reformation, they inquired if any corruption had been retained, any error unnoticed, any duty overlooked; and exerted themselves to supply the defect, both by condemning what was wrong and by performing what was right. No favorite prepossessions, no inveterate habits, either appalled their courage or paralyzed their efforts. According to their knowledge they cheerfully sacrificed whatever is contrary to the simple and spiritual ordinations of their Lord. Accompanied herein with his blessing, they were eminently successful, and have left us an example, which it is our glory to imitate. And we are to imitate it by comparing with the scriptural pattern that branch of the church to which we belong, that we may discover whether there yet remains aught which needs correction. No opinion can be more dishonorable or dangerous than this, that reformation being already achieved, we have nothing to do but to tread quietly on in the track of precedent. Godliness is not the nursling of tradition. If we have no better reason for our sentiments and practice than that they were the sentiments and practice of our fathers before us, our religion is not a rational but a mechanical service. Christianity allows no implicit faith, except in the divine testimony. It is not enough that a point of doctrine or worship has the sanction of venerable names and ancient custom: these may command respect, but can neither obligate conscience nor relieve us from the trouble of examining for ourselves, because there is no believing by proxy. Like the Bereans, in whom the gospel excited a spirit of noble inquiry, we are to search the scriptures for the warrant both of our religious profession and our religious observances. We are charged to PROVE all things, and to HOLD FAST that which is good. The charge embraces not merely such things as we have not hitherto adopted, but whatever we already possess. "œTry ALL," saith the Holy Ghost, "œhold fast that which abides the trial, and let go the rest." And we shall answer, then, to our Master in heaven, we are bound to review our religious order and usages; and if we shall find them in any particular at variance with his appointments, thankfully to own our mistake and faithfully to amend it. No plea can justify our refusal; for whatever purity we may really enjoy, none of us have the vanity to claim an exemption from error, nor to suppose that the furnace of the sanctuary can detect no dross in our gold. A church may in her leading characters be sound and evangelical, and yet in some parts of her conduct go exceedingly astray.




Semper Reformanda!
 
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