In the Reformed and Presbyterian world summer usually means Synod or General Assembly, and the summer of 2007 was a particularly notable season for such assemblies since both the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA) took action regarding the New Perspective(s) on Paul and the self-described Federal Vision movement. In turn, these assemblies followed on the heels of reports received by three other confessional Reformed denominations and federations (the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Reformed Church in the United States, and the Orthodox Christian Reformed Churches) also rejecting the same movements. In the series of essays to follow I will explain the statement of Pastoral Advice that was adopted by the delegates to Synod Schererville (URCNA).
New Perspectives Since 1974 the confessional Reformed and Presbyterian Churches in North America have been troubled by a series of proposed revisions of a series of related doctrines. The Rev. Mr. Norman Shepherd, then a professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia, PA), proposed to in a course of lectures on the doctrine of salvation (soteriology) that sinners are justified by “faith and works.” This doctrine created considerable opposition and ultimately led to Mr. Shepherd’s dismissal from the seminary. Over the course of the controversy in the 1970s he modified his language to teach justification through “covenant faithfulness” but without discernable change to the substance of his theology. Since that time he has openly rejected the historic Reformed doctrine of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ (i.e. that all of Christ’s obedience was not for himself but for us and that all that he did and not just his death on the cross is imputed to believers). Along with this proposed revision of justification by faith alone (sola fide) came proposed revisions of the doctrines of covenant, election, and baptism (which have been addressed in the pages of this magazine).
At the very same time these revisions were being proposed within the Reformed churches scholars of Palestinian Judaism and scholars of the New Testament were proposing equally far-reaching revisions of our understanding of setting and doctrine of the Apostle Paul. This movement has come to be known as the “New Perspective(s) on Paul (hereafter NPP). In the 1990s these two movements coalesced in certain quarters of the Reformed churches. The revisions first proposed by Mr. Shepherd in the 1970s seemed to have been given a new lease on life by this vigorous academic movement that seemed to be reaching similar conclusions. According to the NPP, speaking quite generally, the Apostle Paul was much less concerned about how one is “right with God” and much more concerned with determining who is “in” the covenant community and who is “out.” Some of the more popular writers advocating versions of the NPP seemed to be saying the same thing as Mr. Shepherd (and others): we get into the covenant of grace by grace by baptism, which makes the baptized person temporarily, historically, and conditionally united to Christ, elect, and justified, and we stay in the covenant by cooperating with grace.
Of course those who know their church history will recognize this formulation as exactly that which was rejected by the Protestant Churches in the sixteenth century. It also turns out that the picture painted for by the proponents of the NPP is misleading. The impression is sometimes created that because some rabbis sometimes talked about grace that when the Protestants criticized Paul’s opponents for teaching a doctrine of righteousness by works that the Protestants misrepresented the rabbis. The evidence seems to disagree, however. What seems to have been happening is this: some rabbis spoke quite baldly about appearing before God on the basis of works. Others did speak of grace, and cooperation with grace. The proponents of the NPP and the FV do not seem to be aware that righteousness before God on the basis of “grace plus works” is not much better than righteousness before God on the basis of works alone. In both cases our works are definitive for our standing before God. Second, neither the NPP nor the FV seem to understand that the Reformation was responding to a very similar doctrine: THE NINE POINTS OF (URCNA) SYNOD (SCHEREVILLE) 2007 Synod affirms that the Scriptures and confessions teach the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone and that nothing that is taught under the rubric of covenant theology in our churches may contradict this fundamental doctrine. Therefore Synod rejects the errors of those:
1. who deny or modify the teaching that “God created man good and after His own image, that
is, in true righteousness and holiness,” able to perform “the commandment of life” as the representative of mankind (HC 6, 9; BC 14);
2. who, in any way and for any reason, confuse the “commandment of life” given before the fall with the gospel announced after the fall (BC 14, 17, 18; HC 19, 21, 56, 60);
3. who confuse the ground and instrument of acceptance with God before the fall (obedience to the commandment of life) with the ground (Christ who kept the commandment of life) and instrument (faith in Christ) of acceptance with God after the fall;
4. who deny that Christ earned acceptance with God and that all His merits have been imputed to believers (BC 19, 20, 22, 26; HC 11-19, 21, 36-37, 60, 84; CD I.7, RE I.3, RE II.1);
5. who teach that a person can be historically, conditionally elect, regenerated, savingly united to Christ, justified, and adopted by virtue of participation in the outward administration of the covenant of grace but may lose these benefits through lack of covenantal faithfulness (CD, I, V);
6. who teach that all baptized persons are in the covenant of grace in precisely the same way such that there is no distinction between those who have only an outward relation to the covenant of grace by baptism and those who are united to Christ by grace alone through faith alone (HC 21, 60; BC 29);
7. who teach that Spirit-wrought sanctity, human works, or cooperation with grace is any part either of the ground of our righteousness before God or any part of faith, that is, the “instrument by which we embrace Christ, our righteousness” (BC 22-24; HC 21, 60, 86);
8. who define faith, in the act of justification, as being anything more than “leaning and resting on the sole obedience of Christ crucified” or “a certain knowledge” of and “a hearty trust” in Christ and His obedience and death for the elect (BC 23; HC 21);
9. who teach that there is a separate and final justification grounded partly upon righteousness or sanctity inherent in the Christian (HC 52; BC 37).
righteousness before God on the basis of grace and cooperation with grace. The Reformation agreed with the Apostle Paul (Rom 11:6), when it comes to righteousness before God, grace and works are two opposite principles. As far as we are concerned justification is either by God’s unmerited and underserved favor or it is by works. We confess that Jesus has accomplished all righteousness (Matt 3:15–17) for us and we benefit from all he did by faith alone, i.e. by a “certain knowledge and a hearty trust” that “God without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sin, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me” (Heidelberg Catechism 21, 60).
One of the main matters of business at Synod was to address an overture brought by Classis Michigan regarding the FV theology. As part of dealing with that overture Synod took two actions. First it re-affirmed and strengthened the language first adopted at Synod Calgary regarding justification by faith alone (sola fide). Synod affirmed: “the Scriptures and confessions … teach the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, based upon the active and passive obedience of Christ alone” and “the Scriptures and confessions teach that faith is the sole instrument of our justification apart from all works.” Synod also determined to “remind and encourage individuals and churches that, if there are office-bearers suspected of deviating from or obscuring the doctrine of salvation as summarized in our confessions, they are obligated to follow the procedure prescribed in Church Order Art. 29, 52, 55, 61, and 62 for addressing theological error.” That same assembly also voted overwhelmingly against the distinctive doctrines that compose the FV. So there were Three Points on sola fide and Nine Points on the FV adopted in two motions.
It is important to note that we are discussing ecclesiastical action. These are not private opinions of pastors and theologians but represent the consensus of those delegated to Synod by the churches. This means that we must exercise care in interpreting these points. This approach, of course, assumes that the Nine Points can and should be understood by ministers and laity alike. It has been suggested, however, that only those who were actually in attendance can actually, accurately interpret the these Synodical actions. This is an odd hermeneutic. Neither you nor I were present during the history of redemption, nevertheless we interpret the Bible daily. It is true that all “all things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.7), but Scripture is clear enough, with the help of God’s Spirit, to be understood for faith and life, that even the simplest of God’s people can understand what they must for righteousness and life. The proposed hermeneutic (only those present can understand) would also make it impossible for us to understand the Canons of Dort.
Fortunately, the Reformed Churches have and should never consider that only those present at synods can actually discover the intent of the document and the intent of the body in adopting a document. When an ecclesiastical body adopts a document or a series of points that use the expressions, “synod affirms” or “synod denies” the intent of Synod is not a mystery. The question remains what exactly Synod is affirming and denying (hence these essays explaining the Nine Points) but it is clear that Synod has taken a clear stand for some doctrines and against others. Synod’s rejection of the inclusion of works in the definition of faith as it functions in the act of justification is unambiguous. According to the Reformed faith, sanctification and good works are necessary as “fruit” (Belgic Confession, Art. 24; Heidelberg Catechism Q. 86) and evidence of justification (James 2:14–26) but not as part of the ground or instrument of justification (righteousness before God). The ground of justification is certain: the imputation of Christ’s active and passive obedience. Further, it seems clear from the “Three Points on Sola Fide” that Synod intended to reject the revision of the doctrine of justification proposed by Mr. Norman Shepherd and his followers in the FV, that we are justified by trusting and obeying.
Synodical Ambiguities There is, however, a question about the nature of the action taken by Synod Schererville in adopting the Nine Points. Synod took the unusual step of describing the Nine Points as “pastoral advice.” The difficulty arises from the fact that the words “pastoral advice” do not occur in the church order and thus there is some ambiguity about the force of something called “pastoral advice.” In one sense, insofar as “Federative relationships do not belong to the essence or being of the church” (Foundational Principles of Reformed Church Government, #7, adopted at the first Synod in 1995), all actions of Synod are “pastoral advice” in a federation since any congregation that cannot submit to the decisions of Synod are free to withdraw from the Federation (Church Order, Art. 29). In another sense, insofar as we are voluntarily bound together in a federation, nothing Synod does is “pastoral advice.” Article 29 of the Church Order says in part, “All decisions of a broader assembly are to be received with respect and submission, and shall be considered settled and binding, unless it is proved that they are in conflict with the Word of God or the Church Order.” Even though Synod described the Nine Points, as “Pastoral Advice” they were adopted, after thorough and vigorous debate, by Synod. Surely when the Church Order says “decisions of a broader assembly” it means for us to think of those actions of Synod adopted by Synod. The Nine Points constitute an act of Synod.
A second ambiguity about the Nine Points also emerged after Synod Schererville. The same Synod that adopted the Nine Points also established a study committee to bring a report to the next meeting of Synod (2010) leaving something of a vacuum in the intervening period. Thus these essays on the Nine Points are not offered as an authoritative, ecclesiastical interpretation, in lieu of the committee’s report, but they are offered as an interim work for the edification of the churches seeking to understand the issues surrounding the contemporary controversy over the doctrines of covenant, election, justification, and baptism.
Whatever ambiguities may surround the Nine Points, one thing is clear. They are a series of unequivocal denials of error adopted overwhelmingly by the delegates to Synod Schererville. Those errors are clearly stated and just as clearly rejected. Synod does not “pastorally” reject a series of errors. It rejects them categorically.
The Righteousness of Synod It has also been suggested that Synod acted improperly by considering the committee recommendation of the Nine Points. In the years preceding Synod Schererville it has sometimes been argued that Synod can only address the FV problem if a minister or elder was charged with error and if that case came to classis or Synod on appeal. Two things are to be noted in response. First, Synod has not agreed with this principle since Synod Escondido (2001) when the assembly adopted a series of points on the creation controversy even though no officer had been charged with error. Second, it is fortunate for us that the Reformed Churches did not follow this procedure in the seventeenth century or else there would never have been a Synod of Dort to produce the Canons we rightly treasure.
It is clearly within the power of Synod to address matters “that pertain to the churches of the broader assembly in common” (Church Order Art 25). It is clearly within the power of Synod to make decisions that are “to be received with respect and submission” (Art. 29). Of course Synod can address doctrinal errors that threaten the whole Federation.
Finally, under this heading, some have objected that it was improper for Synod to adopt the Nine Points since they did not come from a consistory but from an ad hoc committee of Synod. This objection is particularly hard to understand since, were the United Reformed Churches to adopt this principle we would become genuinely congregational and not Reformed in our polity. Second, it would mean that no broader assembly could actually act as a deliberative body, i.e. it could not adopt committee recommendations, amendments, or substitute motions. Church Order Art. 25 says, “In the broader assemblies only those matters that could not be settled in the narrower assemblies, or that pertain to the churches of the broader assembly in common, shall be considered. All such matters shall originate with a Consistory and be considered by classis before being considered by synod.” It certainly appears that the Nine Points adopted by Synod meets these tests. The Nine Points came to the floor of Synod from the committee appointed by Synod to consider an overture by Classis Michigan concerning these very issues. The doctrines of covenant, justification, election, and sacraments affect all our churches. This matter had already come, in a less developed form, to Synod Calgary (2004) by way of an appeal of classical action. In response to that matter Synod reaffirmed that the United Reformed Churches understand the Word of God as confessed by the Reformed faith to teach justification by faith alone, without works, and that the basis of our righteousness before God is the imputation of the active and passive (suffering) obedience of Christ. By Summer 2007, with an overture from Classis Michigan before them, it become obvious to the delegates to Synod Schererville that it was time for Synod to address these questions more completely. We may be grateful that the delegates found a way to speak clearly, biblically, and confessionally to these difficult issues.
Dr. R. Scott Clark is an Associate Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, California.
R. Scott Clark, Baptism, Election, and the Covenant of Grace (Grand Rapids: Reformed Fellowship, 2007).
-— “Baptism and the Benefits of Christ: The Double Mode of Communion in the Covenant of Grace,” The Confessional Presbyterian Journal 2 (2006): 3–19.
-— ed. Covenant, Justification and Pastoral Ministry: Essays by the Faculty of Westminster Seminary California (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2006).
Cornelis P. Venema, Getting the Gospel Right: Assessing the Reformation and New Perspectives on Paul (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2006).
-— The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ: An Assessment of the Reformation and ‘New Perspectives’ on Paul (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2006).
Michael S. Horton, Covenant and Salvation: Union With Christ (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007).
Guy P. Waters, The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology: A Comparative Analysis (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2006).
-— Justification And The New Perspectives On Paul: A Review And Response (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing. 2004).
Gary L. W. Johnson and Guy Waters, ed. By Faith Alone: Answering the Challenges to the Doctrine of Justification (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007).
Report on Justification Presented to the Seventy-Third General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (2006).
Mid-America Reformed Seminary, The Doctrinal Testimony Regarding Recent Errors (2007).
For more resources see: http://www.wscal.edu/clark/fvnpp.php.