Never Reforming?

More from The Academy… This is from Riddlebarger’s series of lectures on Francis Schaefer, but it has nothing in particular to do with Schaefer. Responding to a question about the mantra “Always Reformed, Always Reforming”, and the “trueness” of confessions, Riddlebarger had this to say (for fuller context, you can listen to the whole question and answer starting at 1:07:20 of the .mp3 at this link):

Confessions are written for a particular time and place, and there is a sense in which any confession is outdated probably twenty years after it is written, because a whole bunch of new things come up. …I think it’s the task of the church — every other generation or so — to write new confessions. … At the end of the day, truth doesn’t change, but circumstances do. And because the Bible is sharper than a two-edged sword, and the Spirit is always speaking to God’s people through it, we should expect our scholars to always be finding new insights in scripture. Those new insights are not going to contradict stuff that’s already true, but really create a need to continually update and keep things current, and the problem in our own tradition right now is that we’re 450 years out of date in our confessions. And that’s an issue. And there’s some of us that would like to see all the Reformed churches call an ecumenical assembly, and write some new confessions.

Now I don’t want to be accused of taking Riddlebarger out of context; he is not at all talking about chucking any of the existing confessional truths we hold dear (the gospel, election, predestination, the doctrines of grace…), but adding to what we already have, in order to cover circumstances that have arisen over time.

There are two categories Riddlebarger identifies as candidates for confessional upgrade, which I guess would roughly correspond to doctrine and life.

In terms of the evolution of the practice of churching since the 1600’s, the 3F speak of three “marks of the true church”, but they don’t deal with what we see often today, namely churches that exhibit only one out of three marks — i.e. gospel preaching, but incorrect administration of the sacraments, and no church discipline. (How the confessional, reformed church is supposed to relate to churches like that is a central theme of this whole blog!)

In terms of doctrine, Riddlebarger notes a historical, cyclical trend of advances in Biblical theology, which need to be followed by systematic theologians to organize it all and fit it into the framework. As an example, he gives Kline’s biblical theology work concerning Suzerainty treaties and the implications of their structure showing up in Biblical covenants. (I’m at a bit of a loss as to how this would fit in a confessional framework).

My point, however, is this: when accused of championing “Always Reformed” at the expense of “Always Reforming,” I am accustomed to hearing some form of, “Well, that phrase ‘Always Reforming’ doesn’t mean what you think.” So I was quite surprised to hear OS Riddlebarger say basically “Yup, we’ve been lax in keeping our standards fully up-to-date,” and I wanted to kick this around a little here at the Outhouse.

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11 Responses to Never Reforming?

  1. rana says:

    have you discussed or posted what it means to be Reformed anywhere on OH? i find myself asking this question in GRusalem more often than in Escondido.

  2. rana says:

    i meant to say more often than i ever did in escondido (WTSCA).

  3. Echo_ohcE says:

    I take Riddlebarger to be saying that our theology is actually more robust than our confessions, and therefore, our confessional standards should reflect that.

    For example, we should elevate our Two Kingdoms doctrine to the level of confessional standard, so that theonomy isn’t possibly acceptable. Maybe we want to elevate Amillennialism to the level of confessional standard, so as to do away with post-millennial dreams that lead to theonomy. Maybe we want to have a clearer statement on Justification, so as to make sure there is no room in our confessions for even the most twisted mind to think that the New Perspective on Paul and Federal Vision are acceptable ideologies. (Though almost all of the Reformed churches by now have answered that one, saying that there is no room.) And maybe we want to explicitly say that we believe in a covenant of redemption; maybe we want to explicitly describe the acceptable views of Creation; maybe we want to explicitly describe our hermeneutics a little better; maybe we want to make some explicit statements on church membership; maybe we want to explicitly denounce certain errors, perhaps saying at a confessional level that we believe the Roman Catholic Church is a false church, and that the Pope is a pagan. The list could go on and on.

    But I disagree with him. While I think some errors could be more explicitly denounced, yet there is no room for most of the errors we would denounce. And we want to have a certain degree of freedom.

    I think, and I could be wrong, but I think that part of Riddlebarger’s argument must include his belief (if he holds such a belief) that the intent of the original framers of our constitutional documents was for our confessions to be extensive, even exhaustive, leaving little or no room for disagreement.

    I think this argument must presuppose that the confessions represent the extent of their framers’ theology.

    But even Calvin’s theology is more robust than the Westminster Confession in some ways. A casual glance at Turretin reveals that those 17th century scholars weren’t so unenlightened as we.

    No, I think the framers left room for disagreement for the sake of unity.

    For example, there are men I know of who deny that there is any such thing as a covenant of works, at least nominally, who I would say are actually orthodox. John Murray is an example. While he denied the covenant of works nominally, he still believed in much the very same thing, though he disagreed that we should call it a covenant. And for him, it definitely didn’t lead to the errors we see so prevalent today. Norm Shepherd tries to claim Murray as his father, but I think it is an ill-founded claim. Murray is the very one whose book “Redemption Accomplished and Applied” was my first teacher about the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. It remains something we use today, even though he denied, nominally, the covenant of works.

    So should we then say that this man is unorthodox? No. Rather, we take it on a case by case basis. This is actually very wise, and I am continually impressed at the wisdom of it.

    I recently met a man who holds to the literal 6-24 view of creation, and to a pre-mill eschatology. He does not wish to deny that the framework or analogical views are unorthodox, even though he disagrees with them. Meanwhile, even though he knows his pre-mill views are acceptable so far as it goes, yet there are plenty of places in the Confession and Catechisms that directly contradict his view. So he has taken his scruples in that regard. But he said that when and if he is teaching on those points, he doesn’t teach his view, but he teaches the catechism or confession. Whatever it says, this is what he teaches, and he submits to that.

    I say that this is incredibly healthy, and I am happy to have fellowship with such a man, with such a healthy attitude, because it demonstrates his humility. He recognizes that he doesn’t have all the answers, but our confession is the answer we have.

    We have to allow for some differences of opinion.

    And this gets back to what it means to be ordained. After all, at least in the Presbyterian tradition (as opposed to the Dutch continental tradition), the confessional standards are for officers. We demand only that our officers take a vow of submission to our confession and catechisms, allowing them to have scruples on a case by case basis. We do not demand this of our members. We have a much simpler demand placed on what they must believe, and we ask them to vow to submit to their elders.

    So to change the confession is really to change the standards of ordination.

    This is an important point. What does it mean to be ordained? It means to be entrusted with the shepherding of God’s people. When a man is ordained, that responsibility, privilege, and burden is placed in his hands. And it is to God to whom he must give an account.

    What we are most concerned about is judging whether or not a man is capable of shepherding God’s people. We are not concerned to see how he interprets the entire Bible. We are not concerned to see what he believes about everything. Rather, we have a standard, which we have judged is sufficient for him to meet, in order for us to judge him worthy and capable of such an office.

    But once he is in that office, he has a certain measure of authority, which the church, at the denominational level, should not suppose they have the right to micromanage. To be sure, if a man proves that he fails to meet the standard, let him be removed from office. And I assure you that this does happen, even if it happens very slowly and carefully.

    But we must be very slow, patient, and careful, because once a man is ordained, he has been proven to be called to that office by God himself, insofar as such a thing can in fact be proven to us mortals.

    Has he proven that he is perfect? Far from it, and we should not expect him to be so. We must be careful not to elevate our standards too terribly high, because we are weak sinners, even if we get ordained. So the church has decided to leave room for some ordained men to be more mature than others. A young minister is not as mature in his thinking as an older minister. Yet the young and less mature man is no less called by God to serve. In time, he will grow. But if he proves unable to continue to meet our standard, then let him be called to repent, that he might begin to meet that standard once again. If he refuses to repent, then he no longer meets the standard, and should be removed from office.

    But we don’t call men to repent for everything. For example, were John Murray alive today, we might want to see him repent of his error, but few would say that he should be brought on charges for it. He remains capable of shepherding God’s people, even if imperfectly.

    Paul gives us the standards for qualification to the gospel ministry. It’s that “able to teach” qualification that is in question here. The question is, can the man preach the Word of God such that it yields the proper results in the hearers, namely faith in Christ? Well, our churches have set the standard for what that means.

    I for one would like to see some explicit mention of how a sermon should always include the gospel. But as strongly as I feel about that, I’m not sure that this is conducive to really letting men exercise the authority of their office as ministers. There is a statement about that in our Book of Church Order, our tertiary standard, so men are bound to that anyway, but I think it rightly belongs there. There is plenty in our confessional standards that when rightly understood demand that the gospel be preached every time.

    I have put my money where my mouth is on this point as well. Not long ago, I was interacting with a young man about the need to preach the gospel in every sermon. He and I went back and forth on that point quite a bit. After some time, he became convinced of the need to do just that, but disagreed with me on what that means. But I have refused to say that he is unfit for office. Rather, I say he has some growing to do. If he can convince the presbytery he is in to ordain him, then so be it. I would not like to see the presbytery micromanaging peoples’ sermons. It is not their place. That is an authority that the minister has before God, not before men. That’s not to say that the presbytery never has a right to charge a man with his improper preaching. But it is not a matter of law, but of wisdom.

    This distinction between what is law and what is wisdom is very important.

    While I have a great deal of sympathy with what Riddlebarger says here, I nonetheless think that this would tend toward elevating issues of wisdom to the level of law.

    I will give you an example of this distinction. I don’t think, for example, that it is a violation of the law of God to have multiple instruments as part of the worship service. To have drums, a guitar, a trumpet, a violin and a piano is not a sin.

    But I think it is extremely unwise. A session who has all these instruments is not violating the law, they are not sinning, but they are acting unwisely. It is unwise for many reasons, but they all relate to how these things will be interpreted by the congregation. Some in the congregation might not be tempted by these instruments at all. Some, however, will be tempted to think that worship is a matter of taste, that it involves being entertained. Some will lose the focus of what we are trying to do in worship. They will become focused on the music, and the beauty of it, and come to think that this is important to have in a worship service, when in fact it is not. The beauty of worship is not found in the beauty of the music, but in the beauty of the privilege we have of confessing our faith in response to the preached Word. The beauty of worship is in being nourished in our faith, of having words of faithful confession placed in our mouths, and the joy of confessing these truths with the congregation is the point. To have many instruments takes away from that focus.

    But still, despite this opinion of mine, I remain steadfastly insisting that this is a wisdom issue, not an issue of law. If a session has lots of instruments, I don’t think the appropriate response is to call them to repent or to bring them up on charges. No, the proper response for me as a parishioner would be to try to convince them that what they are doing is unwise, and that it may lead to various sinful responses in the congregation. They would not be responsible for that sinful response, but they would be giving an occasion for it. The responsibility for the sinful attitude still remains in the person in the pew, not the session. Nonetheless, I don’t suppose they want to provide even the occasion for sin in their people. But this is a matter of wisdom, not of law.

    Were it a matter of law, then we’d have to say that it would be impossible for this to not lead to sin in the congregation. But we can’t say that. We know that if the congregation was sufficiently sanctified, and if they understood worship properly, they would not be distracted by many instruments. But what makes such a decision unwise is that not everyone in the church is sufficiently sanctified, but are weak in this regard. In fact, most of them would be, though not all of them. That is why this is an issue of wisdom.

    Similarly, while Paul says that it is not a matter of law that prohibits people from eating food sacrificed to idols, yet for the sake of the weaker brother we should refrain if our eating will cause someone to stumble. This is not a matter of law, because if you eat the meat, you have not sinned, for all food is clean. Nonetheless, you may provide an occasion for your weaker brother to sin if you do eat it in front of him, because he may not understand it as you do. This is a matter of wisdom, not of law.

    And perhaps we may take note that Jesus is recorded as drinking wine in the gospels; Jesus who is wisdom incarnate. Surely his action is not unwise. Nonetheless, many churches have opted to serve both wine and grapejuice in communion. They are not obligated to do this as a matter of law. But they may feel it is the wisest thing to do. Some parents have issues of conscience with regard to allowing their 10 year old to drink wine in church. They may feel that their son cannot understand this, or that it will be a stumbling block to him somehow. So maybe they want him to drink grapejuice. Further, it IS, after all, illegal for anyone under 21 to drink alcohol. Though there is an exception for communion, nonetheless, we don’t want the child under 21 to think they can simply break the law. You may say that parents can just explain this to their children, and that the church should explain this, but some sessions may feel that the wiser course is to provide grapejuice and let the parents decide. In our church, the wine we use is port, and some people who never drink, just because they don’t like it, find drinking a little port to be an extremely unpleasant experience. Some of them even gag. For their sake, perhaps an alternative is the wiser course. But the church that fails to provide grapejuice is not sinning.

    So we must leave room for pastors to grow in wisdom apart from law. We cannot elevate issues of wisdom to the level of law, because we unduly add to the law when we do this. And furthermore, we leave no room for wisdom and maturity.

    So on these grounds, while I have a great deal of sympathy with what Riddlebarger says, I would disagree with him. I think our confessions are just fine the way they are. I would also cite that the OPC, for example, has refused to adopt resolutions that would add to the confession in the past. There was an attempt to make post-mill the only acceptable view in the OPC, and that failed. Yet they have not ruled post-mill out in response. Rather, they have chosen to tolerate men with such a view, because that view alone doesn’t make them unfit to preach the gospel. These are very difficult issues, and require much wisdom, but if we make the standard too high, elevating wisdom issues to the level of law, we will only end up excluding some who, in time, would have made excellent and wise ministers, like the man I cited with his 6-24 view and his view of pre-mill eschatology. I don’t agree with him on these points, but he remains in my estimation fit for office. Heck, he ministered to me, and I learned great wisdom from him. I would not dare exclude such a man from the pastoral ministry. We need more like him.

  4. Echo_ohcE says:

    If I may add one more thing, it would be this: the question seems to me to revolve around where a man’s authority to preach comes from. Is his authority derived from the denomination, or from the presbytery? Do THEY give him his authority to preach?

    I would argue that they do not. Rather, they recognize that God has given him that authority. They recognize his gifts and calling. This means that because the presbytery is made up of ordained men, the authority of individual ministers and elders is the basis for the authority of the presbytery, not the other way around.

    This is in my opinion, a very important point.

    I think what Riddlebarger suggests would tend to reverse our thinking on this.

    For if we legislate issues of wisdom, demanding a very precise belief system from our pastors, then we are saying that the pastor derives his authority from the denomination, that the denomination gives him his authority.

    In allowing for some freedom, we recognize that God gives him his authority, and our standards are our measuring stick to determine if such authority and calling has been given by God. To be sure, a man cannot be ordained until it has been declared so by the presbytery.

    But similarly, a person cannot become a church member without having the profession of their faith judged by elders. Though they judge the profession of faith, it remains the work of the Spirit to implant that faith. That person is a Christian regardless of the judgment of the session. They either have true faith through regeneration by the Spirit or they don’t. The place of the session is not to give regeneration, nor to legislate what regeneration is. Rather, their place is to recognize, based on evidence, if regeneration has taken place.

    This same principle must also be applied to what ordination means. For the presbytery will not ordain a man without a calling. He must first be called by a church. No call, no judgment. The presbytery merely judges if a man should hold the office. They are judging whether or not God has called him to that office, just as they are judging a profession of faith as evidence of God’s calling someone to the office of church member. Yes, that is an office. God calls to this office, and the leaders of the church only validate that, and judge it to be genuine. That is their place.

    Just as they don’t put too many rules on what you must believe in order to be a church member – though they do have a minimum criteria – so they should also not put too many rules on what you must believe to be judged to be genuinely called to the office of minister.

  5. RubeRad says:

    No, I think the framers left room for disagreement for the sake of unity.

    Satan’s lawyer here… If unity is the goal, then certainly confessional standards are getting in the way, and we should eliminate them, or at least trim them way back. OK, OK there has to be a balance; just the right amount of confessional protection to maintain orthodoxy, and just the right amount of liberty of conscience to maintain unity — but what makes us think Westminster struck that balance perfectly, 450 years ago? Or that they struck that balance exactly the way that is needed in our time and place?

    When I first came to the confessions, I was leery of the possible relevance of standards written in the 1600s, and revised only once since. I’m still not even familiar with all that’s in there, but the more I get to know, the more I see how robust and helpful the standards are.

    Maybe there are some things missing for our day and age, but I’m afraid of what would happen if we cracked the door to make a few necessary tweaks — for instance, how do we keep the Federal Visionistas out? How could we be sure we weren’t going to just jack it all up? And I don’t want to put too much weight on words spoken in a Q&A (versus carefully written and edited), but Riddlebarger is not just talking about tacking on an addendum every other generation. He said “all the Reformed churches call an ecumenical assembly, and write some new confessions”!

    Even for starters, where do you draw the line of “all the Reformed churches”?

  6. RubeRad says:

    For example, we should elevate our Two Kingdoms doctrine to the level of confessional standard, so that theonomy isn’t possibly acceptable.

    Actually, that’s already been done, as the one and only revision to Westminster (in the OPC/PCA pedigree, anyways). Lee Irons does a great job of laying out the 1647/1789 versions side-by-side, and then analyzing the differences.

  7. RubeRad says:

    I don’t have the time, but it would be interesting to investigate the couple other historical developments with the Westminster standards, as noted on Wikipedia. Machen et al tried and failed to fix the PCUSA by strengthening the confessions — maybe his proposed changes would be a place to start?

  8. RubeRad says:

    Someday I’d also like to go through our confessions pages, and make notations that indicate the difference between the original and current versions of Westminster…

  9. Echo_ohcE says:

    The thing with revising the old confession is that people think it’s illegitimate. You’ll notice that some people are still theonomists, and are simply against the revision.

    So I think people want to totally scrap the old and start from scratch, and I think Riddlebarger is one of them. He’s by no means alone.

    But I think the Confession is a remarkable document. Sure, we’ve had to fix it (and I regret the removal of the language about the Pope being the Antichrist; maybe they should have just changed it to “an antichrist”) a little bit, but only a little bit. I think it’s a fine document.

    When I say for the sake of unity, I don’t mean that there’s no standard of unity, obviously. Many Evangelicals criticize the Reformed confessions for being too narrow. The WCF is the narrowest document that the Church has EVER had. And my point is, it is quite narrow enough.

    I think as narrow as it is, it excludes those who would not be effective ministers, and yet it is broad enough to include those who would be. So I think it’s fine. Yes, that means that in my opinion, if someone can’t agree with the WCF, they don’t belong in the pulpit. That’s exactly what I’m saying. That’s exactly what my church says.

    But note too that scruples are permitted on a case by case basis. No big deal, depending on what the scruple is.

  10. Echo_ohcE says:


    Don’t reinvent the wheel on Confessional comparison. I’m sure you’d be able to find that on the internet, or at least in print.


  11. Echo_ohcE says:

    Also, the OPC adopted a version of the WCF that rejected some of the silly additions of the PCUSA.

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