Thursday, November 28, 2013

Debate on the Marks of the Church: Response to the First Clarification

This post continues a conversation I have been having with the blogger at By the Light of Latimer's Candle ("LC") on the subject of church discipline.  You can find his latest response to my previous post here, and I would urge you to read it.  At that location you will also find links to our earlier posts. As a sign of our commitment to discuss the issue thoroughly, I would note that after writing this present post, LC and I will each have written multiple entries while barely touching on the ultimate subject of our discourse.  At this point we are continuing our discussion of the sacraments and a bit of church government. These are foundational issues that lead to differences down the road.

Before responding to LC's latest entry, I wanted to pause to say a word to our readers who don't come from a confessional background and may wonder about our persistent references to his Anglican Book of Church Order and my Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith.  Why not just get back to the Bible?  We would both -- I'm presuming to speak for LC here, but I am doing so with considerable confidence -- affirm that the Bible is our only final authority for faith and practice, and it stands above all creeds and confessions, which only have authority insofar as they agree with Scripture.  However, while we look ultimately to Scripture, we do not talk about the Bible as though it fell out of heaven the middle of last week.  These questions have been discussed by Christians for two millenia, and LC and I stand in two historic streams (frequently convergent streams, I will add) of that discussion.  We look to the Bible ultimately for our faith and practice, but neither of us is arrogant enough to suppose that we should look at the Bible in a way that suggests that this 2,000 year discussion has not occurred.  Rather, we openly represent viewpoints that have been informed by that discussion.  The failure to engage doctrinal and ethical issues in this way is a significant weakness of the modern church.

It should also be said, though, as LC implied in his latest post, that it is not helpful for us to try to represent all who stand in our respective streams.  Even among conservative Presbyterians, there is a fair amount of variety in terms of confessional adherence.  Some Presbyterians in my denomination, the PCA, are more or less evangelicals who believe in predestination, while others are more thoroughly covenantal and confessional in their orientation (of note: in recent years I have moved from being more like the former category to more like the latter).  Anglicans have at least that much variety, and this has impacts in terms of worship, confessionalism, the sacraments, and, of course, church discipline.  While this does not mean that LC and I are representing just our individual viewpoints, it does mean that the conversation will move best as we set out to represent that portion of our churches' positions with which we most closely align.

With this background, I will now set out to respond to some of the key points in LC's latest post.

  1. In response to my criticism of Anglicanism's holding to 7 sacraments, LC took more time to distinguish between the two sacraments instituted by Christ and the other "sacramental rites," which I suppose should be called everything you could want from a sacrament, and less.  Snide remarks aside, while I would suggest that the designation of "sacramental rite" is unhelpful and open to confusion, I don't know that our differences here are terribly important to our discussion.
  2. Regarding the Lord's Supper, Presbyterians agree with LC's statements that Zwingli's memorialist only view is insufficient and emphasize both communion and baptism as means of grace. Chapter 27.3 of the Westminster Confession of Faith declares, "The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them; neither doth the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that doth administer it: but upon the work of the Spirit, and the word of institution, which contains, together with a precept authorizing the use thereof, a promise of benefit to worthy receivers."  While LC did not address the subject of the nature of the presence of Christ in the sacrament, I would note in passing that Calvin, and Presbyterians after him, held to a mediating position that differed both from Luther's consubstantiation and from Zwingli's symbolic view, with Calvin maintaining instead that by the Holy Spirit, Christ is spiritually present in the bread and wine to the faith of the partaker.
  3. On the subject of the relationship between baptism and regeneration, LC provided helpful clarification, but it is also clear that we have substantial differences in this area.  I would agree with his statement that "election and covenant inclusion are not synonomous," as this is crucial to understanding the distinction between the visible and invisible church.  The visible church (that which we can see) is made up of all who profess faith in Christ and their children.  It is essentially equivalent to the Kingdom of God.  The invisible church is composed only of the elect, meaning those who are not elect and never actually believe are excluded. In Presbyterian ecclessiology, baptism is open to believers who were not previously baptized (we hold to believer's baptism!) and to the children of believers (when at least one of the parents is a Christian).  However, not all baptized children who come of age ultimately believe, and so some of them were not elect. Because Anglicans hold to, if I am reading correctly, baptismal regeneration for elect children, that leads to a different thological approach to their understanding of both baptism, which is received differently by elect and non-elect children, and reprobation.  While I would recognize baptism as a sign and seal of the covenant which, as such, signifies regeneration, I would not hold that in baptism the Spirit brings about regeneration for the elect or, of course, the non-elect (at least not in the normal course of things:  the Spirit willeth as He moveth). The Westminster Confession of Faith helpfully breaks down the issue this way:  "The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administeredyet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in his appointed time."
  4. While it will be interesting to see how the topic in the above item unfolds, it appears to me that this distinction explains to a large degree why Presbyterian talk about church discipline and fencing the table at communion strikes someone holding to the Anglican view as indicating a quasi fall from grace or a type of light legalism. While I think that we recognize that both of us, in fact, hold stringently to the doctrines of justification by grace alone through faith alone and to the perseverence of the saints, it is not hard to see how misunderstandings can emerge. That is the theme that LC develops over a few paragraphs in the latter half of us post, and I think he is largely correct regarding the nature of the difference in understanding. I do disagree somewhat in that I think that he underestimates the extent to which Presbyterians value the Supper as a means of grace and instrument of the Holy Spirit in our sanctification (though I concede that since most Presbyterians don't observe it as frequently as do Anglicans, we don't seem to give it as much priority).  However, I think that the differences over baptism and regeneration lead to some profound downstream differences.
  5. LC clarified that the episcopol hierarchy relates to the offices and not to the persons holding those offices.  While I don't see a need to belabor the point, I will remind him that this remains a significant difference from Presbyterian ecclessiology.  There is no hierarchy of elders in the Presbyterian church.  We have only two ordained office -- elder and deacon -- with the latter office being one of service and the former having spiritual authority.  Within the elders, there are no positions of greater authority -- thus, there are no bishops, archbishops, etc., within our structure. Regional jurisdiction is just made up of elders who have convened in accordance with the bylaws of a presbytery, synod, general assembly, etc. However, there is nothing higher than an elder, and while most Presbyterians distinguish between teaching elders (seminary trained and ordained pastors) and ruling elders (ordained laymen), in the courts of the church the two have equal standing.
I enjoyed the quote from Luther and have found these interactions illuminating.  I will look to LC to respond to these points as he sees fit and decide where we proceed next.


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