Monday, March 20, 2006

Labels, traditions -- a sloppy pre-reflection

Some time I'm going to write a disciplined, well-thought-out post on how useful but imprecise labels are; on how traditionalistically hidebound we "Reformed" people can be -- when we're the last who should be; and on how glorious it is to be a Biblical Christian not chained to repeating the mistakes of the past. I may even throw in some of my thoughts on what is really terrific, and really bad, about denominations.

This isn't that post. In fact, that will probably be three or more posts, won't it?

Over at Pyromaniacs, I just posted an essay titled The laziness of unbelief. In doing some reading on Matthew 11 and Luke 7, I came to find that older commentators seemed to have a different "take" on the question John the Immerser asked Jesus via his students. I was actually a bit startled to find a respected commentator take the line that John wasn't asking for his own benefit; he was actually asking for the disciples' sake. So Jesus' answer was directed to them, not John.

In fact, I found that our man Calvin seemingly took that line as well.

Now, if we were Romanists, and Calvin our magisterium, I'd have to choose between Calvin and my lying eyes. I'd have to explain away the context, explain away how Jesus directs His answer to John (not the students), explain away how He then talks about John (not the students), explain away how the students are barely mentioned, and then only in passing....

But I don't have to do any of that, because I agree with Luther: my conscience is bound to the Word.

But sometimes we "Protestants" have to remind ourselves that sola Scriptura means more than just that we're not bound to the Roman magisterium; we're not strictly bound to the "Reformed" magisterium either. With us, it's pretty well a "duh" -- thank God -- that we're not chained to repeating the mistakes of the Roman past. It's somewhat less of a "duh" that we're equally not bound to repeating the mistakes of the "Reformed" past, either. Calvin, Owen, various Hodges, Warfield, Spurgeon, Edwards, Machen -- all wonderful men, all heroes, all exemplary, all probably our betters, all our teachers, all being dead yet speak, true true true.

But all men, and not masters. They help, they help direct, they inform our faith. But they don't and shouldn't lord it over our faith.

Too many seem to see no middle ground between unquestioning thralldom to history on the one hand, and arrogant indifference to it on the other. Seems to me that there is only one cognitive source to which I owe absolute submission: God's Word. Wisdom lies somewhere betwixt the two extremes.

(I have some more thoughts on this in Mapping the path towards Biblical Christianity.)


Castusfumus said...

According to B.H. Carroll I'm not a protestant; I'm Baptist!

With that out of the way I want to thank you guys for the outstanding work you do in your dilligent study. The fruit of your discernment comes into public view.

I am working my through the passages that you are bringing forward at this time. I am using Thomas & Gundry's Harmony as an outline for Sunday School material that I exegete with the help of the "mostly" dead mentors of whom you speak. I am woefully short on Luke commentary sans Hendriksen, Barclay, Calvin and G.C. Morgan. Got any suggestions as where the best bang is for the buck?

I haven't read Calvin yet but I found that his view is brought up in Hendriksen's material on Matthew and Luke.

Screaming Pirate said...

I could not agree with you more. Thanks for saying that. Most people I meet have only a very very rudementary understanding of Church history if any. They dont see the importance of it. How ever I have run into those that think if its writen in an older book by well respected reformed types. but they also in their nistalga, dont want to look at some of the flaws of those men. You must see them as men. It also go to show y i am so uncomfortable with the lable "calvinst".

DJP said...

castus -- I have not done a great deal of preaching on Luke just yet, and don't have a hands-down favorite. If you read Greek, I actually very often find old Henry Alford's exegesis good, and worth a ponder. Of course there's Darrel Bock's two-volume commentary on Luke from a basically conservative stance; if I were preaching or teaching Luke, I'd dig into that, as well as Plummer and of course Hendriksen. I'd probably buy the new NICNT volume on Luke, or at least check it out. Also Ryle.

Here's my "trick" for selecting commentaries, assuming you have a half-decent Christian BOOKstore near you... and that's assuming a lot. Pick a passage you find difficult, and/or a passage you have studied very closely. Look at the commentaries, and compare how they handle it. See who "scratches" where you "itch."

Hope that's at least some help.

Dan B. said...

The labels thing is quite an interesting subject. Frank had quite a discussion about the term "Christian" over at his blog, but I was wondering, with a term like "Calvinist," at what point do you not call yourself something because you disagree with some of what they say? Is there a certain percentage, or certain essentials that you would disagree with them on? (I'm not intending to go down the road of whether the term becomes useless or not, but whether with terms lesser than "Christian" when are they used?)

For example, if I remember correctly, HighlandHost said in another comment thread that he agreed with 90% of what Wesley said, but might call himself "Reformed" and not "Arminian." (this may be a bad example, but I'm just curious on your thoughts)

Oh, and I guess I'm "Reformed Baptist".

DJP said...

Aigh, fellow-Dan, you've tapped into that other essay I mean to write, sometime. At best, labels are useful but virtually always imprecise; at worst, misleading and distracting.

How many "Calvinists" believe everything exactly as Calvin did, down to remarks he makes about Mary and all? Is there any label within which all the adherents think the same? Even the totalitarian cults like Mormonism and Roman Catholicism have variants within them, though they're not supposed to. (Okay, I've never known a JW to have any different thoughts about anything, but....)

So then you weigh in what the label means to your hearer(s), and that's where both utility and risk go up. Most know "Calvinism" really focuses on the sovereignty of God. But to very many, being a Calvinist amounts to believing "once saved, always saved," which is both true and misleading.

Of course, if you give up in despair and just say, "I believe in the Bible," your Christian Scientist and Jesus-Only and Barking-Mad-Hyper-Charismatics and Word-Faith hearers will all nod enthusiastic agreement.

There. I trust I've cleared it all up for you.

Or, as Thomas More says in A Man for All Seasons, "I trust I make myself obscure."


Dan B. said...

Yes, you've made yourself completely opaque! (ha)

Perhaps that's why it might be better for labels to characterize us to a certain degree (showing folks where we might start from on a concept), rather than define, us. In other words, I might identify with Calvinism's tenets, but not everything that Calvin said defines my positions or who I am as a Christian, per se. Ultimately, only the Scriptures should do that, yes?

Libbie said...

I'm a reformed baptist, but only by default..

It's a nervy business looking at scripture and disagreeing with worthies, though. I came from not even knowing that anyone could explain Romans 9, for example, to being confident that even I could explain it, backed up by centuries of Christians before me.
But those passages wherein I might disagree with some of those brothers I'm still perhaps not swung back toward centre, and the place where I can confindently state my position on contention.
I know I'm still cowed by Adrian Warnock, and I'm trying to work out why. I don't know much about martin Lloyd jones, but I know he respected. And when he's waved around like a trump card, I am timid enough to just retire from the field.