Don’t Look Now But Your “Reformed” Theology Might Not Be Confessional

There has not just been a blurring of Reformed confessional boundaries but, also, some churches and presbyteries have intentionally erased their doctrinal walls of protection. None of this is surprising once we consider that the formal teaching of systematic theology has at many institutions been relegated to historians rather than theologians. This phenomenon has opened the door to subjective and more novel takes on settled matters of theological intricacy. Stated differences and exceptions to confessional standards are not taken seriously. Pastors and ruling elders needn’t be acquainted with their confessions, let alone be theologians, as long as their views can be accompanied by a fragile appeal to confessional standards being a “consensus document” along with citing a scattered few seventeenth century theologians who held to sometimes esoteric views that did not win the confessional day.

In recent years the debates of the Reformation period have taken priority over the theology of the debates. Somehow possessing vast acquaintance with multiple sides of doctrinal disputes has in some circles become more academically impressive and pastorally relevant than possessing an intimate working-understanding of which doctrines are theologically Reformed and defensible. Consequently, there has not just been a blurring of Reformed confessional boundaries but, also, some churches and presbyteries have intentionally erased their doctrinal walls of protection. None of this is surprising once we consider that the formal teaching of systematic theology has at many institutions been relegated to historians rather than theologians. This phenomenon has opened the door to subjective and more novel takes on settled matters of theological intricacy. Stated differences and exceptions to confessional standards are not taken seriously. Pastors and ruling elders needn’t be acquainted with their confessions, let alone be theologians, as long as their views can be accompanied by a fragile appeal to confessional standards being a “consensus document” along with citing a scattered few seventeenth century theologians who held to sometimes esoteric views that did not win the confessional day. One can now earn an honorary degree of “Reformed orthodoxy” merely by possessing an air of historical understanding without actually subscribing to much of what was once upheld as Reformed theology.

A way back?

If we are to recapture objective confessional theology, we must stop confusing Reformed theology with Reformed theologians. The former is an objective consideration whereas the latter is a subjective matter of degree. A pastor can be more or less Reformed, but a doctrine either is or is not Reformed. Conflating the two leads to recasting “Reformed” theology in terms of a multitude of broadly based theologians rather than the particular Reformed confessions that were providentially produced by and through them.

From hereafter I’ll be referring to the Westminster standards as representative of confessional Reformed theology in the context of churches that on paper subscribe to it.

In ascertaining whether a particular doctrine is Reformed or not, we mustn’t fall prey to misleading slogans that deflect and obfuscate rather than define and defend. It is irrelevant that “good men have been on both sides of the issue” or that the doctrine under consideration is “not a test of orthodoxy.” It doesn’t even matter whether the doctrine in view is correct! When determining whether a particular doctrine is Reformed or not, the only question of relevance is whether the doctrine is contained in or necessitated by the confession of faith.

Reformed theology is just that, the theology of a Reformed confession. A doctrine is Reformed if it agrees with or is implied by confessional theology. Whether one’s professed theology is Reformed must be measured against an objective standard. Otherwise, what are we even talking about? Moreover, an acceptable doctrine might not be defined or implied by the confession. We may call such doctrine extra-confessional, but not all extra-confessional doctrines are un-confessional. Amillenialism and Postmillenialism are extra-confessional because the confession doesn’t take a position (implied or otherwise) on the triumph of the gospel in the world; whereas premillennialism is not only extra-confessional, it is also un-confessional because of the general resurrection and single judgement (WLC 87, 88). So, just because William Twisse was historical premillennial doesn’t mean he or his eschatology is Reformed in this regard. Similarly, the baptismal regeneration doctrine of Cornelius Burgess, which contemplates an infusion of grace for the elect at the font, is not Reformed because it’s not confessional.

It should be apparent, if we were to allow the unfiltered theology of the Westminster Divines to define Reformed Theology for us, our confession would not be a fair representation of Reformed theology! Our confession could become contra-Reformed depending upon the particular theologian to which one might appeal for doctrinal precedent. Consequently, true Reformed theology cannot be defined by particular Divines but instead must be elucidated by the doctrinal standards they produced.

Fence posts:

A “consensus” document does not preclude certain doctrines from having won the day. Certain Divines championed what is now settled un-confessional doctrine.

Regarding confessional status, any (a) direct contradiction of the confession or (b) extra-confessional teaching that leads to intra-confessional doctrinal contradiction may be confidently rejected for being un-confessional even if not explicitly refuted by the church’s standards (regardless if a delegate to the assembly held the view in question). Otherwise, we unnecessarily introduce incoherence and confusion into our system of doctrine. Also, any doctrine that is theologically derivable from other confessional doctrines must be considered no less confessional than the doctrines from which they come. Otherwise, we would not be able to refute on confessional grounds doctrinal claims that oppose the necessary implications of our own theology!

Let’s put some meat on the bones by making the abstract practical:

Any view of free will (e.g. libertarian freedom) that by implication entails that God is contingently infallible, not exhaustively omniscient, or undermines God’s independence and aseity, must be rejected as un-confessional. Conversely, if compatibilist type freedom is the only type of freedom that comports with confessional theology proper and the theological determinism of the divine decree (WCF 3.2), then such a doctrine of free will is Reformed and none other.

Even though the Divines didn’t have the advantage of the philosophical refinements of the past three hundred years, their system of doctrine requires the compatibility of free will, moral accountability and God’s determination of all things (including the free choices of men). Consequently, adherence to the Westminster standards in toto entails a rejection of libertarian Calvinism and, therefore, requires an affirmation of something else. (Richard Muller and Oliver Crisp are simply mistaken.)

So it is with John Davenant’s hypothetical universalism, which leads to intra-confessional doctrinal incoherence. If the salvation of the non-elect is not metaphysically possible, then hypothetical universalism’s most distinguishing feature (i.e., the possibility of the salvation of “vessels of wrath”) is false. After all, if it were truly possible that the non-elect might be saved, then God who believes all truth would believe contrary truths: (a) Smith might believe and (b) Smith won’t believe. Consequently, Davenant’s view of the atonement undermines a confessional understanding of Godand on that basis alone is un-confessional and must be rejected as being outside the Reformed tradition.

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