THE CONTROVERSY AT BLUE BELL OPC Part 2 of 2
- Having considered, in some detail, the history of the controversy at Blue Bell, one must now turn his attention to the theological issues involved. These have already, to some degree, been delimited. Thus, to reproduce the substance of the reasons for the complaints seems the best course to follow. Before that, however, it is proper to preface this section with a brief outline of the view of the covenant adopted by the complainants.
Reformed theology begins with
the acknowledgment of the absolute Creator-creature distinction. God and man
do not exist on a continuum of existence (analogia entis), but God is seen to
be qualitatively and quantitatively different. This gap between the Creator
and Ruler of all things and man, who is a mere creature, is bridged only by
God's voluntary condescension to man in the covenant (WCF VII.1). Without the
covenant, man can never truly know God. As De Graaf writes:
- We must never lose sight of the great significance of the covenant. Without covenant, there is no religion, no conscious fellowship between man and God, no exchange of love and faithfulness (Promise and Deliverance, Vol. I, p. 36).
- When we come to those passages in the New Testament which deal specifically with the new covenant in contrast with the old it is highly significant that the contrast between the new economy and the old is not expressed in terms of difference between covenant and something else not a covenant. The contrast is within the gambit of covenant. This would lead us to expect that the basic idea of covenant which we find in the Old Testament is carried over into the New.
We are confirmed in this expectation when we take account of the fact that the new covenant is the fulfillment of the covenant made with Abraham (Lk. i.72; Gal. iii.15ff.). The new economy as covenant attaches itself to the Old Testament covenant promise and cannot be contrasted with the Old Testament covenant in respect of that which constitutes the essence of covenant grace and promise (John Murray, The Covenant of Grace, pp. 26, 27).
Therefore, God is not bound by
anything outside of Himself, but sovereignly condescends to- man. The covenant,
thus, does not depend upon, or wait for, anything which must contingently occur
before God acts. Nor is the promise of the covenant something which is earned
by man (Deut. 4:44-5:3, 7:6-11; Lk. 17:10). And yet, the covenant is mutual,
involving two parties. Once freely and graciously established, the covenant
is made up of mutual obligations (Gen. 15:1-21, 17:1-14; Ex. 20:2; Zech. 3:9-
11; Rom. 8:12, 13; Heb. 10:24). Again turning to De Graaf:
- Without the covenant, man would be just an instrument in God's hand. When God created man, He had more than an instrument in mind: He made a creature that could respond to Him. Only if man was capable of responding would he be able to assume his position as partner in a covenant. Without a covenant, God would have only claims and man only obligations. But as soon as God gave man a promise, man also had a claim on God, namely, to hold God to that promise. Once the promise is given, we can speak of a covenant, for a covenant, after all, is an agreement between two parties in which the claims and obligations are spelled out (Promise and Deliverance, vol. I, p. 36).
- Do you mean by "condition": something which God has connected with something else, in order to make clear to us that the one thing cannot come without the other, and that we can not be sure of the one thing unless, at the same time, we have been assured of the other? Then we say unconditionally: "conditional be the device [of the covenant]! .... But now the fine point: God did give us PROMISES, but not PREDICTIONS. Thus, he does not say to N.N.: you shall get into heaven, and to another N.N.: you will remain eternally outside of it.
Therefore He gives a promise with a command, like the Canons of Dordt say: the promise comes with the command of faith and conversion .... and he who wants to call that Arminian, in my opinion, does not read the Bible in the good way, with which the Arminians were defeated (Klaas Schilder, Binding Above Scripture--A New Danger, pp. 14-17).
- These things being laid down, we say firstly, If the condition is taken antecedently, as apriori for the meritorious and impulsive cause, and for a natural condition, the covenant of grace is rightly denied to be conditioned; because it is wholly gratuitous, depending upon the sole good will of God, and upon no merit of man; nor can the right to life be founded upon any action of ours, but on the righteousness of Christ alone, But if it is taken consequently and aposteriori for the instrumental cause, receptive of the promises of the covenant, and for the disposition of the subject, admitted into the fellowship of the covenant, which flows from grace itself, it cannot be denied that the covenant is condionate (Institutes, Locus 12, Question 3, section 3).
- By their own defect and guilt, I admit, Ishmael, Esau, and the like were cut off from adoption. For the condition had been laid down that they should faithfully keep God's covenant, which they faithlessly violated (John Calvin, Institutes, III.21.6).
Because unless it the covenant was conditionate, there would be no place for threatenings in the Gospel, which could not be denounced, except against those who had neglected the prescribed condition; For the neglect of faith and obedience cannot be culpable, if not required (Turrettin, Institutes, Locus 12, Question 3, section 3).
The faithless are justly reprobated for their sin. While, therefore, man breaks the covenant, God is faithful to His promise which remains inviolate.
Hence, it is only in terms of the covenant that the Arminian dilemma of grace versus responsibility is escaped; for it is in the covenant that sovereign grace and human responsibility meet:
How then are we to construe the conditions of which we have spoken? The continued enjoyment of this grace and of the relation established is contingent upon the fulfillment of certain conditions. For apart from the fulfillment of these conditions the grace bestowed and the relation established are meaningless. Grace bestowed implies a subject and reception on the part of that subject. The relation established implies mutuality. But the conditions in view are not really conditions of bestowal. They are simply the reciprocal responses of faith, love and obedience, apart from which the enjoyment of covenant blessing and of the covenant relation is inconceivable. In a word, keeping the covenant presupposes the covenant relation as established rather than the condition upon which its establishment is contingent (John Murray, The Covenant of Grace, p. 19).
God established the covenant in His grace toward us and we, as parties of the covenant, are obligated to serve Him with faithful obedience which is rendered acceptable only by His grace. To say that the choice is either, "Give me God," or "Give me man," is unbiblical.
In summary: Thus, it is clear that within the covenant there are both elect and reprobate. Only those who ratify the covenant by faith (which faith is found only in those whom God willed to confirm His grace) are saved. All others break the covenant and are rejected.
Membership in the Church is of such great importance that no one may ordinarily expect salvation outside of it (Acts 2:47, Gal. 4:26, Eph. 5:23-27, 1 Cor. 12:13; cf. WCF, XXV.2). This Church, to which one must be joined, is the "pillar and support of the truth" (I Tim. 3:15). This being the case, it is clear that the common confession of the Church must affect the individual's I personal' confession of 'saving faith' in Christ. That is, if the Church is, in fact, the pillar and the support of the truth then any confession which purports to be a true confession must correspond to the confession made by the pillar and support. A confession which is contrary to the confession of the Church, or which is less than the confession of the Church, is, then, a confession which is contrary to, or different from the pillar and support of the truth.
Thus, Paul's injunction in I Corinthians
1:10 to "speak the same thing," definitely refers to a common confession. Indeed,
he goes on to urge that there be "no divisions among you, but you be made complete
in the same mind and in the same judgment." Paul tells the Corinthians to be
joined not in the same emotional feeling, or experience, but in the same mind
and judgment. Therefore, when Paul writes to the Philippians "let us walk by
the same rule" (Phil. 3:6), confession is once more in the forefront (cf. Gal.
6:16). For the rule, or canon, is that standard by which things are measured.
The apostolic Gospel, i.e. the whole counsel of God, is that by which the Christian
must walk. John expresses the same
thought and connects it with confession of faith (I Jn. 4:15). Paul puts it
even more strongly: "and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation"
(Rom. 10:10). The examples could be multiplied, but it is clear that confessing
the truth with the Church is a vital part of being united to the Church, which
is the very body of Christ.
Abraham Kuyper was clearly correct, when he wrote:
- Ye see, therefore, that the holy apostles, who wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and to whose word and meaning all people should be subservient, affirm the exact opposite of that of those ultra-spiritualistic people who assert that the common confession of a church is a comparatively unimportant matter. Whereas the latter maintain that the mind's confession affects the heart hardly at all, the holy apostles affirm in the name of the LORD that "with the mouth confession is made unto salvation", that you must be of one mind with the believers, and that you must speak the same thing with them. And they boldly add that he who, in this confession, departs from the true conception of the Son of God, is of the antichrist (The Implications of Public Confession, pp. 34f.)
One cannot argue that this confession
to which all are called is some sort of 'core', or 'fundamental', Christianity,
which is less than and different from the confession made in the standards of
the Church. As Herman Bavinck points out, every confession is an organic whole
and differences, then, are not differences of degree, but of organic wholes
(The Sacrifice of Praise, pp. 72f). One either confesses with the Church,
in its organic unity, or one may be said to confess against the Church, in its
- The church does this by its lesser and greater assemblies (synods), in which it establishes what according to its conviction must be held as divine truth and thus as a teaching of the church on some particular point or other. Thus the truth laid down in Scripture leads, on the part of all those who believe and embrace it, to a confession, a creed. Confession is the obligation of all believers and is also the dictate of their own hearts (Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith, pp. 118f.).
- Such restatements of the doctrine in new forms suited to the times were strictly declaratory--in the way of explanation, and not in the way of addition to the former revelation--we seem to be justified in saying that this office of the Church in regard to truth was not extraordinary, and peculiar. to the age of inspiration, but rather ordinary, and competent to the Church in every age (The Church of Christ, vol. 1, p. 295.).
Peter articulates the first Christian confession in response to Christ's question, "Who do you say I am?" This response--which was revealed by the Father--is spoken not just for Peter, but for all of the disciples. Indeed, it is spoken on behalf of the whole Church. The Church, in its organically growing confession, is doing nothing other than obeying the words of Peter when he later writes, "Be always ready with your defense whenever you are called to account for the hope that is in you." This work of the Church in confuting error and expanding tier confession is simply the work of safeguarding the deposit, which task Paul gave to Timothy (I Tim. 6:20). It is this task of guarding the 'core' Messianic confession which led the Reformers to formulate the great catechisms and confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Thus, to require from members a confession which is one with the confession of the Church standards is to require the same confession which Paul required or the Philippian jailer, i.e. a confession of the organically unfolded doctrine of the Church.
To require, then, confession of
this organic truth, which is unfolded in the Church under the guidance of the
Holy Spirit is not only not unacceptable, it is precisely that which the Church
is to do:
- And as the errors and heresies grow subtler and subtler, the church is more compelled to take careful account of the truth it confesses and to state its creed in definite and unambiguous terms. Naturally, the oral confession by force of circumstance becomes also a written confession (Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith, p. 119).
Further, to say that because the Reformed confessions are not complete, i.e. that the Church will learn more than she already knows, and, therefore, one cannot bind another to the confession, is patently false. The mere fact that one does not know everything does not mean that one cannot bind another to what he does know. Moreover, the fact that confessions may err does not mean that it is wrong to bind members to the confession; it merely means that the confession must be changed when such error is found so that the Church might confess the truth (James Bannerman, The Church of Christ, vol. I, p. 314).
This is no degradation of the
confession of sola scriptura. For the Church has always recognized the
confession as a norma normata (norm which is determined), while the Bible
is a norma normans (norm which determines). Scripture is the final court
of appeal, but confession, if within the bounds of Scripture, cannot be considered
as any threat to the authority of Scripture. Bavinck notes:
- The function of the confession or creeds is not to push the Scriptures into the background, but rather to maintain them and to protect them against individual caprice. So far from violating the freedom of conscience, they support it over against all sorts of heretical spirits who seek to lead weak and uninformed souls astray. And, finally, the confessions do not impede a growth in knowledge but keep it in the right course of development, and they are themselves to be checked and revised against the Holy Scriptures as the only norm of faith. Such examination and review can take place at any time, though it must be done in warranted and legitimate ways (Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith, P. 119).
The most insidious argument used
against confessional membership is that while the Church has the task
of growing in confession, the individual members do not. Thus, the Church
is seen as something different from the members and the truth which the Church
confesses is, at best, some sort of Kantian limiting principle to which the
member strives, but does not achieve. Only the ministers and the ruling elders
are bound to the confession of the Church--and that only is the loosest sort
of way (quatenus, rather than quia, subscription).
Therefore, one is reduced to a Roman Catholic sort of imlicit
faith; the teachers and rulers believe the Reformed confession for the people. To be sure, they also teach it to the people, but the people are under no obligation to confess it. In this way, the ministers and the ruling elders are seen as really being the Church. The other members are not the Church and bear no organic relationship to the truth which the Church confesses.
Through confession, however, the individual believer and the whole Church express a readiness to accept all the implications of that confession and to defend its contents (I P. 3:15). The confession, in its precise articulation, varies and has a dynamic component, but it is also that which finally delimits the difference between heaven and hell (I Jn. 4:15, Matt. 10:33). For the confession is that which unites the Church into a community. The person who comes to faith does not come to faith independent of the confession of that faith. The act of faith unites the believer to the content of that faith and, thus, also to its proper formulation. Believers, therefore, are those who are united to the confession of the truth and are, hence, also united to each other. Anyone who cannot make this confession his own is excluded from the fellowship of the Church, for the confession of the truth is both inclusive and exclusive.
It is clear, too, that the secondary standards take this view of confession. In XXIV.3 of the Confession, three phrases stand parallel to one another: "Christians," it such as profess the true reformed religion," and "such as are godly." The Assembly is here giving an extended paraphrase of I Corinthians 7:39. In this context, "such as profess the true reformed religion" is considered to be synonymous with "Christian." That is, whom did the Assembly consider to be Christians? Those who professed the true reformed religion. Some of the opponents of the complainants have countered that their exegesis of I Corinthians 7:39 does not yield anything distinctively 'reformed' and, therefore, the Assembly could not have meant "true reformed religion'' to mean "true reformed religion." That is, the confessional statements are not seen as the Assembly's exegesis of certain passages and the conclusion which they then drew from that exegesis. Rather, one is to exegete the proof text and then uses that exegesis to interpret what the standards mean. But such is the road to madness. It is, instead, clear that the Assembly considered a confession of the "true reformed religion" necessary to be considered Christian.
This is all the more striking when one realizes that profession of the "true religion" is constituitive of belonging to the Church (WCF XXV.2). XXIV.3 provides a gloss on the phrase the "true religion," for it makes clear that the "true religion" is the "true reformed religion." it would seem, then, undeniable that for the Assembly the "true religion" means Reformed theology and practice.
Further, in the Scottish National Covenant of 1580 we find one of the earliest usages of the phrases "true religion" and "true reformed religion." In this document, the Scottish Confession (1560) is "ever styled God's true religion, Christ's true religion, the true and Christian religion, and a perfect religion" which "all within this realm are bound to profess, to subscribe the articles thereof, the Confession of Faith, to recant all doctrine and errors repugnant to any of the said articles." Further, all who do not accept the confession are to be "punishable as rebellers and gainstanders of the same, who shall not give their confession, and make their profession of the said true religion." This confession is to be "according to the Confession of Faith." Finally, they acknowledge dangers to "the true reformed religion" and add that "with our whole heart we agree, and resolve all the days of our life constantly to adhere unto and to defend the fore said true religion." This National Covenant, which was subscribed to by "persons of all ranks," forms the necessary historical background For the interpretation of the Westminster standards. And this background yields the expected result: Reformed theology and practice constitute the true religion. This is the meaning which the phrase used in XXV.2 had when the Assembly chose it to describe who belonged to the Church.
Similarly, The Sum of Saving Knowledge, which the Scots appended to the standards, indicates that this "sum" is the reformed faith (see Heads I-IV). Moreover, A Solemn Acknowledgement of Publick Sins and Breaches of the Covenant (1648) states that one of the Scottish Church's sins was a failure to uphold the true religion by suppressing various heresies, including Independency, Anabaptism, and Arminianism. One must conclude that the standards support the confessional membership position.
Yet, some of the opponents of
the complaintants have argued that the historical argument is irrelevant. As
Rev. R. Craven put it, we are part of a "living tradition." To be sure, the
standards may err and should be corrected where they do err. But if a position
is in accord with historic Reformed and Presbyterian practice, and has the support
of legitimate interpretation of the standards, then, it would seem that the
burden of proof falls upon those who oppose that practice. One cannot take refuge
in confessional "neo-orthodoxy", i.e. the confession means what we interpret
it to mean now. As G.C. Berkouwer, in his more orthodox days, noted about this
sort of a position:
- "Discussion" about the truth of the creed, in the sense that everyone can interpret the creed as he likes, cannot be allowed. The result can only be that we have a voice which no longer says anything decisive in an undecided world (,Modern Uncertainty and the Christian Faith, p. 83).
Those who oppose confessional membership exhibit an agnosticism which is inherent in their position. To them the Scriptural testimony on such issues as infant baptism and Arminianism is so unclear that one may not 'bind' a person's conscience on such matters. Some would, in fact, say that nothing which is 'distinctively' Reformed is binding. The Church, they say, is the beginning of discipleship, not the end. And at this point doctrinal discussion sinks into a morass of private judgment.
Yet such argumentation is a very wrong use of sola scriptura, for it seeks to achieve a situation of "me, Jesus and the Bible," apart from the testimony of the Spirit through the Church On. 16:13). As A.A. Hodge said, the real question is not "between the word of God and the word of man, but between the tried and proved faith of the collective body of God's people, and the private judgment and the unassisted wisdom of the individual objector. This view exalts the individual conscience above Scripture. it also virtually denies the perspecuity of Scripture on various controversial points. Indeed, if the Reformed faith is true, ought it not be grasped as the starting point for discipleship?
The question resolves itself to this: Is the Reformed faith the truth, the Gospel, or is it one of a number of more, or less, valid paraphrases of the truth? More pointedly, is the Reformed faith a subset of general Evangelicalism, or is the Reformed faith a genus unto itself? It does no good to answer that all "Christians" are Calvinists on their knees. This is merely the ecclesiastical equivalent of "there are no atheists in the foxholes." Such a view does an injustice to the confessions of the Arminian and the Baptist. If the Arminian says that he believes that he cooperated in his salvation and if the Baptist says that his children are not covenant children, the Reformed may not say, "Yes, you claim those things to be true, but we know better; we know that you do not really believe those things. On your knees you are one with us." Such argumentation is pointless subjectivism. The confession of the mouth must be judged by its content and not by what the Reformed suppose is its intent. As Abraham Kuyper once noted, all "Christians" may be Calvinists on their knees, but only the Calvinist lives out his prayers.
If the Reformed faith is true,
then everyone-- and not just office holders- -must cling to its truth. If it
is not true, then no one should hold it. It cannot be some sort of third being
which is true for the enlightened, but is not binding on the masses. If the
Reformed faith is not seen as coextensive with the Gospel, if the standards
of the Church are not faithful summaries of the truth of Scripture, then away
with them. If only a 'core' Christianity is required for salvation, then let
us only confess that which is needful. But if the Reformed faith is the gospel,
if the standards do faithfully summarize Scripture, then let us bind all who
claim to be Christians to them. And the complainants following Dr. C. Van Til
and Dr. R.B. Kuiper, claim that the latter is the case:
- All agree that the dogmas of the Church have been derived from the Scripture. Hence it is true that ultimately systematics seeks to expound the system of truth as given in the Scriptures. It was not till after a great deal of work had been done on the Scriptures by systematic theologians that the Church was able to formulate its dogmas. The creeds of the Church are, as far as their content is concerned, no more than a systematic statement of the truth of Scripture. They are distinguished from the systematic statement of Scripture given by systematic theology (a) by their brevity, limiting themselves as they do to the most essential matters; and (b) by their authoritative character, since they have been officially accepted as standards by the councils of the Church.
- Once these standards or dogmas of the Church have been accepted, it goes without saying that a theologian who writes a work on systematics will write it in accordance with the interpretation given in those standards. To say that this hampers his freedom is to say that he has not himself freely adopted these creeds as a member of the church (Cornelius Van Til ' Introduction to Systematic. Theology , pp. 3f. Emphasis added.)
It is my firm conviction that the only theology contained in the Bible is Reformed theology. However, I wish it understood that by THE REFORMED THEOLOGY I mean not merely that which distinguishes it from more or less variant interpretations of Christianity, but also that which it has in common with these. For example, the Reformed theology includes the doctrine of the Trinity, that of the diety of Christ, and that of the substitutionary atonements as well as the so-called five points of Calvinism ... For me the Reformed faith is at once the purest and the most comprehensive of Christian theologies. Its glory is that it embraces "all the counsel of God" (Acts 20:27) (R.B. Kuiper, God-Centered Evangelism, pp. 8f.).
Therefore, the complainants believe
that what is necessary for Church membership is a knowledge of and commitment
to the truth of Scripture as summarized in the standards of the Church and taught
in the Church. And that the individual promises, by God's grace, to resist all
teachings and errors which are contrary to that truth. It is sometimes objected
that this requirement is virtually tantamount to the qualifications expected
for officebearers. This is not so. First, it is to be noted that confession
of the truth is not the sole criterion for holding office; indeed, it is not
even peculiar to office holders. There can be no disjunction between a "Christian"
confession and a Reformed confession. They are one and the same. Second, each
individual applying for membership must be examined and dealt with specifically.
That is, there is no one confession which must be reiterated by
all. Instead, the session must take into account different levels of
intellectual ability and understanding.
Thus, the standards are a rule which
the session must apply in differing circumstances. Certainly office bearers
ought to have a deeper and more articulate understanding than those who
are applying for membership. Third, however, this does not mean that
the individual confession may materially
differ from the standards of the Church.
Finally, the requirements for holding office imply a whole range
of spiritual gifts and competence which are not required to have membership.
It is interesting that the
argument against confessional membership even contradicts the Orthodox Presbyterian
Directory for Worship. In Chapter IV, "Of the Celebration of the Sacraments,"
the minister is directed to ask this question of parents:
- Do you promise to instruct your child in the principles of our holy religion as revealed in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and as summarized in the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of this church (emphasis
One final note needs to be added here. The advocates of confessional membership do not consign to hell all those who do not confess the Reformed faith. To say so is to caricature their position. Of those who do not confess the true reformed religion, one must say that they are disobedient and need to repent. But how much heresy the Lord will tolerate and still save one, no one knows. It is not the place of man to peer into God's secret counsel (Deut. 29:29). Rather, operating from what is revealed, the Church calls all men to confess the truth and warns of the consequences of failing to do so.
On the basis of the preceding, it is also clear that the Lord's Table must be restricted to those who profess the true reformed religion. The Directory for Worship teaches that no one may come to the Lord's Table prior to public profession of faith (V.4) and, in the same way, access to the Table is one of the rights of membership (V.5). Thus, since it is biblical and confessional to require that those who would be members of the Church confess the true reformed religion, it is obvious that access to the Table is also restricted to those who profess the true reformed religion. For one could not say that the Table is for those who are not acceptable as members inasmuch as access to the Table is a right connected with membership. So it is that in I Corinthians 11, Paul is not writing to an undifferentiated mass, but to those who were members of the Church-- the very same people whom he had encouraged to be in "the same mind and in the same judgment" (I Cor. 1:10).
One cannot say that there are those who are outside of the visible body of Christ and yet who are entitled to the outward sign and seal of the covenant. Nor can one argue that "teachability" qualifies one for the Table. First, teachability is not given in Scripture as a prerequisite for admission to the Table. Second, just what "teachability" (or "sincerity," or "Christian character," for that matter) is has never been made clear, nor can it be for it is a subjective criterion. The Table ought not be used to "win" people, nor to show the communion of the saints to those with a different confession. The Table is for those who confess the truth.
The term "restricted communion" needs, however, to be more closely defined. Restricted communion is not to be confused with closed communion. The latter position would limit access to the Table to the members of one congregation; in its most virulent forms, it would restrict communion to those who. "knew" beyond doubt their election and who could demonstrate that election to the satisfaction of the elders. Restricted communion does not fence the table in such a way as to keep out those who have a right to partake. On the contrary, restricted communion opens the Table to those to whom it belongs. But it opens that Table by following the objective command of Christ and not by setting up various man- made subjective criteria.
Restricted communion, then, involves the elders and revolves about their proper exercise of the keys of the kingdom. The Table is not open to every individual; and it is not up to the individual to decide whether or not he ought to partake. That is the role of the elders. It is their duty to ensure that all who partake of the Table fulfill the biblical requirements for Table fellowship.
Thus, to say that a mere oral warning from the pulpit suffices to discharge the elders' responsibility is simply wrong. Unlike the call of the Gospel, the fellowship of the Table is not indiscriminately offered to all. The Table is only for those who rightly discern the body and blood of Christ; and it is the task of the elders to determine who it is that has this discernment. The individual, then, may not decide for himself on the basis of an oral warning.
The elders must see to it that they uphold the Word of God. And this they do by applying the biblical criteria: a profession of the true religion, a godly life, and membership in a true Church.
That is, God has entrusted this ordinance to the :Church (WCF XXV.3, XXIX.1. The Lord's Supper, then, is not to be administered to an individual irrespective of his relationship to the Church, which is the covenant people of God, united in confession of the true reformed religion (WCF XXIV.3; XXV.2). That is, the Lord's Supper is only for those who have professed this true reformed religion, have made this profession credible in their lives, and are members in good and regular standing in the true Church (I Cor. 12:13; WCF XXIA.1, 8; XXX.3.). This means that not all who desire to come may come, for the ignorant or the scandalous--- those delinquent in doctrine or life-- are forbidden access to the Table (WCF XX.3; L.C. 63, 173; cf. Heidelberg Catechism q. 82). Failure to thus restrict the Table will result in the wrath of God being revealed against the whole congregation (WCF XXX.1-3; R.B. Kuiper, The Glorious Body of Christ, p. 207). And, in fact, out of pastoral concern for the unworthy partaker, it is the duty of the elder to keep him from the Table, lest he eat and drink judgment unto himself (I Cor. 11:27; WCF XXIX.8; John Murray, "Restricted Communion," Collected Writings, vol, II, p. 383).
Thus, the Larger Catechism envisions
that there may be those who make claims to faith and yet have been found at
some point to be ignorant and living in sin. In question 173 we read:
- Such as are found to be ignorant or scandalous, notwithstanding their profession of the faith, may and ought to be kept from the sacrament by the power which Christ has left in His Church, until they receive instruction and manifest their reformation.
Any who held to false doctrines
were in open violation of God's Word (L.C. 113). Because of their ignorance,
and therefore, sin, they were to be excluded (cf. L.C. 173). is there any doubt
that an Arminian or a Baptist would, according to the criteria of the Westminster
standards--being a confession of the true religion--be considered ignorant and
holding to false teachings? Ignorance, here, involves more than a denial of
the trinity or of sola gratia. It involves any teaching which is in obvious
contradiction to the true religion. And ignorance of the truth is sin. As Kuiper
- Those churches which still exercise some discipline today are ordinarily much less concerned about the beliefs of the members than about their behavior. That is a grave mistake. According to Scripture the church should show an equal concern for both .... Nothing could be more logical, for one's beliefs determine one's behavior. That may not always be immediately evident, but in the long run is inevitable. Besides, error itself is sin (The Glorious Body of Christ, p. 311).
- Church censures are necessary for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren, for the deterring of others from like offences, for purging out that leaven which might infect the whole lump, for vindicating the honor of Christ and the holy profession of the Gospel, and for preventing the wrath of God which might justly fall upon the church if they should suffer His covenant and the seals thereof to be profaned by notorious and obstinate offenders (XXX.3).
It is only on the basis of confession
of the true reformed religion, a godly life, and membership in a true Church
that one can come to the Lord's Table. Objections which take their starting
point in either an invisible Church doctrine, or in a doctrine of union with
Christ which is abstracted from Church membership, run aground on the rocks
of Deuteronomy 29:29. To argue that "union with Christ"-- that is, mystical
union--is the prerequisite for Table fellowship requires the elder to be able
to read the heart of the person requesting admittance. For the elder is to decide
on the person's worthiness apart from his confession of faith, except in the
most minimal sort of way, and his standing in the true Church. Of course, most
advocates of this position, e.g. Charles Hodge, are willing to allow godliness
of life to be a criteria, or, more generally, Christian character-- whatever
that might be. Sainthood is not the requirement for admission to the Table.
Elders, working with what is revealed, may rightly admit those who are not regenerated
and may rightly refuse those who are. As John Murray notes:
- It may happen, and sometimes does, that those who are truly united to Christ and who, therefore, in the forum of the divine judgment as well as in the forum of conscience are eligible to partake of the Lord's Supper are, neverthless, excluded by the session and that quite properly because they are not able to make the requisite confession of faith. A session is not able in some mystical fashion to examine the heart and God does not give special revelation respecting those who are his. The session, must act upon the basis of credibility and observable data. This discrepancy and ' apparent injustice arise from the infirmity inseparable from the limitations under which God himself has placed those who govern the church. It is regrettable that the person concerned is not able to make the necessary confession but we may not say that, in the absence of this confession, it is regrettable that the session excluded the person concerned ("Restricted Communion," Collected Writings vol. 11, p. 382, emphasis is original).
The session cannot and must not seek to determine whether a person is regenerate, or saved. The elders must look rather to the fruit of regeneration and the fruit of salvation--a sincere and consistent profession of the Gospel. Sincerity is not found apart from the profession (i.e. the "sincere" Arminian or Baptist), but in the very profession itself. Never may an elder dig deeper than the profession; never may an elder seek to know a man's heart. Instead, and here is where the argument hinges on the argument for confessional membership, the elder must content himself with a professsion of the true reformed religion and a godly life. Any other life is not enough; any other confession is not enough. The Table is not for all saved, or elect, individuals. The Table is for the Church which is made up of those who profess the true religion and their children (WCF XXV.2).
Although not officially part of the complaints, a great deal of the discussion at Blue Bell centered around the dissatisfaction which several of the complainants expressed with the notion of the invisible Church as expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith (XXV.1). This rejection of the invisible Church does not-imply that the complainants reject the notion that election, regeneration, etc., are spiritual realities and as spiritual they are, in a sense, invisible. Yet it remains unclear whether or not one may ever speak of the Church as being invisible. For these spiritual realities, election, regeneration, and so forth, do not exist in and of themselves. Considered in that way, they are mere abstractions. Election, for example, is the election of a people; calling is the calling of a people, and so forth. Election in the abstract does not make a Church; election in the abstract is not even an invisible, for election in the abstract does not exist. Yet, thirty-five called persons, make a Church and that Church is visible. To argue that election is invisible does not make the people invisible. At best, one can speak, with John Murray, of invisible aspects of the visible Church (John Murray, "The Church: Its Definition in Terms of 'Visible' and 'Invisible' Invalid," Collected Writings, vol. I, p. 231f.). If, however, these invisible aspects are sufficient to denominate the Church as invisible, then one also ought to denominate each Christian as invisible.
Perhaps some might argue that
the Church is to be viewed as invisible because no man can preceive it in its
totality. Yet this is a confusion of 'invisibility' with 'unsurveyable.' As
- Suppose that a Himalayan mountain is partly invisible behind the clouds and partly visible beneath the clouds. Furthermore, suppose that I, knowing what kind of thing this mountain is, would then say that the part I can see under the clouds really belongs to the mountain. If a philosopher would then claim that I am absolutizing this part of the Himalayan mountain, I would say: Thanks, but I do not believe that I am absolutizing. Rather, you are abstracting. And if this man would then say that the visible part of the mountain is a manifestation of the transcendental one, I would say: Thank you kindly, it is a part of it (Klaas Schilder, quoted by Jochem Douma, Another Look at Dooyeweerd, p. 17.).
Yet it is true that there are hypocrites who are in the visible Church and there are yet sheep to be gathered into the fold. Does this not warrant the description of the Church as invisible? Is it not the case that the hypocrite is part of the visible Church, and not of the invisible Church? And is the elect person outside of the visible Church not part of the invisible Church? This leads to hopeless confusion; and it gives an almost irresistable call to decretal thinking. The Bible makes it clear that there is chaff mixed with the wheat and Paul tells us that not all of Israel is of Israel. Still the one Church--and not the invisible Church as opposed to the visible Church--is the body of Christ. It is far more simple (and far more biblical) to say that the hypocrite is in, but not of, the Church. And those who are now outside of the Church, but one day will be gathered in, are, quite simply, outside of the Church until they come into the visible Church.
The notion of the invisible Church gives rise to the idea that there are two more or less independent Churches, and that the invisible Church is some how the "real" Church. There is no support for this idea anywhere in Scripture. It comes, rather, from a Platonic (or perhaps, in our day, a Kantian) idealism in which the visible Church is the manifestation of the Church which cannot be visible (the copy of the form?). Thus, if the visible Church reflects the invisible Church at all, it is a happy coincident. The Church, in Scripture, however, is not an entity hovering above the earth. The Church is in space and time. To project into the realm of the invisible, the true holy apostolic Church which fully bears the attributes and the marks of the Church while this visible Church is mere beggarly copy, is to denude the Church of meaning. It is to open the doors to denominationalism. The true Church is not some sort of ontological thing which forms the deep background for the visible Church. No, the true Church exists here and now. And it is this Church with which Scripture is interested.
One can understand why this notion came into being. The Papist version of the Corpus Christi was such that mere visibility made a Church true and a person a Christian. But the Reformers did not intend, in speaking of an invisible Church, a Church which was in addition to the visible Church. Nor did they mean the form of the visible Church. No, the invisible Church was the Church as it existed in the judgment of God. But Calvin's invisible Church is not to be posited as the "real," or true, Church as opposed to the visible. He would recognize no such separation.
The Church is always something real, something tangible, just as Christians are always real and tangible. The believers, in very true sense, are the Church. They are not just in some sort of metaphysical thing. The Church has spiritual aspects, but these aspects are all concerned with real people; otherwise they would be mere theological abstractions. The Church in Scripture is the visible Church: The Church in Rome, in Corinth, in Colossae, in Philippi, in Antioch, etc. It is not as though Christians have been transported from the visible realm into some sort invisible Church idea: It eliminates the teaching that Christ is gathering His flock here and now and that His flock hears His voice through the proper preaching of the Gospel. The invisible Church is devoid of preaching, office-bearers, and, of course, discipline. it also weakens Christ's call to all believers to join themselves to the true Church. That true Church, which is visible, is the Church which preaches the pure doctrine, properly administers the sacraments, and exercises discipline according to the Word of God.Back To The Table of Contents
The complaint which Presbytery of Philadelphia did not sustain cuts to the heart of the local congregation's right to exist free from hierarchical imposition. The Form of Government clearly states with regard to the provisions concerning the establishment of an interim session that "the presbytery, with the consent of the congregation, may appoint ruling elders or ministers, or both, normally from within the same presbytery, to be an acting session or to augment the existing session temporarily" (XII.10). Even the Presbytery of Philadelphia was forced to admit that the provisions of the Form of Government were not met. Thus, they ought to have ruled that the interim session was illegitimately formed.
They, however, did not. it was heard on August 10, 1984, and is now heard again in some quarters of the Orthodox Presbyterian denomination, that since the previous session had invited the interim session to come that the if consent of the congregation" was given through its elected representatives. In the face of such reasoning, however, one must maintain that it is a basic right of the congregation to elect its own elders. That is, elders cannot be imposed either by a session or a presbytery, but can only be installed by the vote of the congregation (The Form of Government, X.1, 2; XXV.1-4). Elders must be judged by the congregation--and not merely by a session or presbytery-to meet the qualifications of I Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-16 (cf. The Form of Government X.2.). Acts 6:3, although dealing specifically with deacons, sets forth the general rule that office holders within a congregation may only take office upon the vote of the congregation. Similarly, Acts 14:23 signifies the election of elders "by the consent of them all" (cf. John Calvin, Commentary at Acts 14:23). As Hoeksema notes, "Without the calling of the Church there is no calling to any office whatsoever" (Herman Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 629). And Church in this context must be taken to mean the local Church (cf. p. 625). In other words, those who would argue that the previous session had the right to invite the interim session to rule, give that previous session a right which no other body has: The right to appoint office bearers without congregational approval.
It is also wrong to argue that
the members of the interim session were ordained elsewhere and, therefore, could
rule at Blue Bell. The Form of Government makes clear that the call must
come from the congregation in which the-rule is exercised (III.0. Anything else
represents an unbiblical hierarchy. Calvin summarizes this well when he writes:
- And lest I seem to forge my evidence, I shall make my point plain by a similar example. For Luke relates that presbyters were appointed through the churches by Paul and Barnabas; but at the same time he notes the manner, or means, when he says that it was done by votes--"presbyters elected by the show of hands in every church," he says (Acts 14:23). Therefore, these two apostles "created" them, but the whole group, as was the custom of the Greeks in elections, declared whom it wished to have by raising hands. In like manner, the Roman historians frequently say that the consul who convened the assemblies "created" new magistrates for no other reason than that he received the votes and acted as moderator of the people in the election.
Surely it is not likely that Paul granted more to Timothy and Titus than he claimed for himself. But we see that it was his custom to "create" bishops by the vote of the people. Therefore, the above passages are to be so understood as not to diminish any part of the common right and freedom of the church. Cyprian, then puts it well when he contends that the choosing of the bishop in the presence of the people before the eyes of all, and the proof of his worth and fitness by public decision and testimony, descend from divine authority. Indeed, we see that this was observed by the Lord's command in the case of the Levitical priests, that before consecration they were brought into the presence of the people (Lev. 8:4-6; Num. 20:26-27). In the same way Matthias is appointed to the company of the apostles; in the same way the seven deacons are created--with the people looking on and approving (Acts 1:15ff.; 6:2-7). "These examples," says Cyprian, "show sense and with the knowledge of the people, in order that the ordination, which has been examined by the witness of all, may be just and lawful (Institutes, IV.III.15; cf. IV.IV.11).
It is clear, then, that it is
illegitimate for elders to be imposed upon a congregation by any body outside
of that congregation, including presbytery (The Form of Government, XIV.5).
Titus 1:5 illustrates that elders may not come from outside to rule over a congregation.
For any body to appoint elders, Calvin says, "almost wholly profaned" the "administration
of the Church." Rather, elders are men "who had been chosen or desired by the
people" (Commentary at Titus 1:5). Thus, the interim session was illegitimately
imposed upon the congregation; in fact, the whole notion of an interim session
from outside of the congregation is suspect, representing an "almost wholly
profaned" administration. As Louis Berkhof notes:
- That every local church is a complete church of Christ, fully equipped with everything that is required for its government. It has absolutely no need of it that any government should be imposed upon it from without. And not only that, but such an imposition would be absolutely contrary to its nature (Systematic Theology, p. 589).
The situation that Blue Bell faced can only be called that of an hierarchical imposition upon a local congregation. Scripture, however, teaches that the Church is complete in whatsoever location it manifests itself. Acts 2:47, 5:11, 8:1 and 11:22 all apply the name "Church" to local gatherings of believers. Acts 11:26, 13:1 and 14:23 make the same claim, while Paul uses the plural in discussing the areas of Galatia (1:2) and Judea (1:22). Paul writes to the Church in Rome, at Corinth, and in the province of Dalmatia; John addresses letters to the seven Churches in Asia Minor. Thus, Herman Bavinck concludes:
- It is remarkable that all these various home-churches or house-churches were definitely given the name of church. The one was not subordinated to another, but each of them was independent, having the same rights as the others (our Reasonable Faith, p. 520).
Therefore, no broader assembly
may meddle in the internal affairs of a local Church. As Berkhof argues:
- (The Form of Government) stipulates the rights and duties of the major assemblies, but also guarantees the rights of the local church. The idea that a classis (presbytery) or synod can simply impose whatever it pleases on a particular Church is essentially Roman Catholic (Systematic Theology p. 590, emphasis added.
- It is one of the fundamental principles of Reformed or Presbyterian government that the power or authority of the Church does not reside first of all in the most general assembly of any Church, and is only secondarily and by derivation from this assembly vested in the governing body of the local Church; but that it has its original seat in the consistory or session of the local Church, and is by this transferred to the major assemblies, such as classes (presbyteries) and synods or general assemblies (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 584).
It is not at all true, as some
have argued, that the view of the Church adopted by the complaintants is that
of independency. The complaintants reject and abhor the view of the local Church
held by the Independents. The Westminster Assembly rightly rejected the position
of the Independents as unbiblical. Even a superficial reading of the above argumentation
should make this evident. The autonomy of the local Church is not equivalent
to independency. What the complainants urge is the view of the Church which
Reformed churches have upheld for
generations. If American Presbyterianism rejects that which is historically
Reformed and is still held today in orthodox Reformed churches, then let American
Presbyterianism prove its case. But it is the shoddiest sort of ad hominem
to smear Reformed polity with the label "Independent." Does the Orthodox Presbyterian
denomination wish to go on record with the interim session and the Presbytery
of Philadelphia in accusing the Reformed churches of independency?
Independency teaches that the local
Church alone is the assembly of the Church which has binding authority. There
is no federative union, no broader assemblies. Independency denies the catholicity
of the Church of Christ. The complaintants reject this notion. Rather, the local
Church is obligated to seek out union with Churches of like faith and practice.
With these Churches, the local Church forms broader assemblies. These assemblies
have authority delegated to them from the local level and their decisions are
considered as settled and binding-- unless those decisions conflict with the Word
of God, or the secondary standards. This cannot be confused with Independency
(cf. Thomas Witherow, The Apostolic Church: Which is it?, pp. 62ff.). If
this view conflicts with American Presbyterianism, particularly in the course
it has set since 1729 (the Adopting Act), then so be it. But the complain ants'
position is both biblical and squarely within the mainstream of Reformed thinking.
The Question of Schism
Having completed an outline of the
theological issues involved, one must turn to the question of whether or not the
Blue Bell congregation committed the sin of schism in withdrawing from the Orthodox
Presbyterian-denomination. Such was claimed by the representatives of the Presbytery
at the October 7, 1984 meeting. Such has continued to be claimed by the opponents
of the congregation--even some of those who had told the congregation to leave
in November of 1983 have picked
up this refrain. And if it were true, it would be
a serious charge indeed. It
is not, however, true. The union of the Church is not a mere mechanical, or governmental,
ordering of things. The union of the Church is based
upon the common confession and the common practice. Can it reasonably be
claimed that the Orthodox Presbyterian denomination, as represented by the
Presbytery of Philadelphia, shared
a common confession and practice with the
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congregation in Blue Bell? It is, rather, the case that in a number of decisions--the 1966 report concerning Church membership, the 1983 report concerning Rev. Hofford, the May 5, 1984 decision concerning Mr. Kok, any one of the decisions of the interim session concerning any of the controverted points, the August 10, 1984 decision of Presbytery, and so on--the denomination in general and the Presbytery in particular have said that the views of the congregation were not their views. True, there was a theoretical possibility of pursuing matters even further into the courts, but as Rev. J. Mitchell repeatedly informed the congregation it could at any time after the interim session had denied the formal complaints, regard such a ruling as final, for the Form of Government clearly states:
- These assemblies (i.e. sessions, presbyteries, general assemblies) are not separate and independent, but they have a mutual relation and every act of jurisdiction is the act of the whole church performed by it through the appropriate body (XII.2, emphasis added).
Brothers, we ask you to carefully consider what happened to the congregation in Blue Bell and to consider the theological issues involved. These are, as we said at the outset, questions which will determine just what sort of Church the Orthodox Presbyterian denomination wishes to be. We have at all points attempted to work as patiently and as exactingly in accordance with the Form of Government as beat as we have known, not ex post facto for the sake of self-justification.; but rather, de jure, for the sake of Christ's church. Our appeals to the courts for formal, sober, biblically and confessionally based study went unheeded. We, therefore, now appeal to the local Churches individually to make that study so that the Spirit of Truth might lead us into all truth.
The mailing address for the Reformation Church in Blue Bell is:
Reformation Church in Blue
Post Office Box 40
Blue Bell, PA 19422