Foundations: No.82 Spring 2022

The Corporate And The Individual, The Spirit And The Sacraments: Some Reflections On Comments By Stephen Clark

Robert Letham

Stephen Clark has written a characteristically kind and generous review article in dialogue with my recent Systematic Theology. He recommends settling down with it in a comfortable armchair on an evening, although in his case I imagine it would more likely be a sun lounger after emerging from a February swim in the Mediterranean. In the course of the review, Stephen raises some points of disagreement, inevitable in dealing with a book of this size. I would like to add some explanatory comments that might shed some light on our different approaches.

Most of the issues Stephen raises relate in some way to the respective priorities to be accorded to the individual and the corporate. I had set out, as I state in the introduction, to write from a confessional perspective, as one committed ecclesiastically to the theology of the Westminster Standards. This, in line with the Westminster divines themselves, was to be in a catholic context, drawing on the best thought of the historic church and the Christian tradition, from patristic, medieval, Reformation, post-Reformation and recent sources, from both the Western and Eastern church.

Along these lines, in the introduction, I give my approval to the methodological grid set forth by Oliver Crisp.[1] In this, Scripture is the supreme authority over all human opinions. Under Scripture, the ecumenical councils of the undivided church are accorded a primary place as representing the overall consensus of the whole people of God down the ages. A third and subordinate layer features confessions and creeds setting forth the theological convictions of ecclesiastical bodies in the fragmented church. Finally, and at the lowest level, are the writings of individual theologians, which are subject to the approval, successively, of the higher levels; these are essentially theological opinions, theologoumena as the Greek church calls them. This grid provides meaning to all that follows and is set out in detail in the introduction. It explains, inter alia, why I pay relatively little attention to contemporary New Testament commentators. Besides the point that I am not a professional New Testament scholar, it will take time before proposals on individual exegetical points ever become part of the body of received doctrine. New Testament commentators focus mainly on the background and exegesis of a biblical book whereas systematic theology considers the whole of Scripture, both in its statements and entailments and in the complex inter-relationship of those entailments, on both theoretical and metatheoretical levels.[2] Moreover, since divergent opinions of various individuals can be found in every ecclesiastical setting and on every theological point, as they are evident in every human activity, due to imposed word limits it precludes a preoccupation with such matters. I discuss this point more fully in the introduction.

In this light, my original idea for the title of the book was Church Dogmatics. For a number of reasons, the publisher considered the eventual title to be preferable, and I agree that this verdict was correct. Apart from creating the false impression that I was aping Barth, it was thought that such a title would not resonate with the general Christian public. This in itself tells a story, as it indicates an unfamiliarity by that public with doing theology, let alone other matters, in the context of the church and its historic formularies.

That is why I have given relatively cursory attention to the detailed proposals of various exponents of the self-styled ‘new covenant theology.’ Whatever the status of its supporters, and among these are highly respected names, I have demonstrated that, by its abandonment of the Decalogue as the rule of the Christian life, it is outside the great tradition of the church – Reformed, Anglican, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, patristic, including the historical tradition of Christian catechesis, in which the Apostles’ creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments are the backbone.[3] That contemporary evangelicalism considers the ‘new covenant theology’ an evangelical option displays the state of contemporary evangelicalism. Since, for obvious reasons, this movement has made inroads largely in credobaptist churches, I hope to deal with the matter in detail at a later time.

This raises further questions. Stephen remarks that such scholars stand “firmly within the evangelical tradition, with a high view of Scripture and with careful exegesis and impressive historical scholarship.” Without respect to the scholars Stephen names, I contest the claim that these features are by themselves sufficient to place a person within the evangelical tradition, whatever that tradition may be. As but one example, the Socinians had a high view of the Bible. John Biddle, after expounding his rock-solid doctrine of Scripture went on to oppose virtually every doctrine in the Christian faith since he rejected the Christian tradition, the ecumenical councils and their use of extra-biblical terms.

On the question of spiritual gifts. I am close to completion of a book on the Holy Spirit, which should, all being well, see the light of day in 2023. It will be well to note, as Thiselton comments regarding prophecy and tongues, that there is no consensus among New Testament scholars as to what these gifts actually were in the first century. The Pentecostal, Gordon Fee remarks that we have no way of knowing what many of them were and there is little point in asking.[4] To have included such discussion in a book of the present nature would have made it unwieldy and exceeded agreed word limits. In passing, it is interesting that Stephen includes favourable references to the Lewis Revival of 1950, of which Donald MacLeod wrote that it introduced “a whole new language as unknown to the Bible as it is to the Highland pulpit.”[5]

This brings us right back to the relationship between the individual and the corporate, the particular theologian or exegete and the church. These questions come to the fore in Stephen’s treatment of the right to private judgment. No one in their right mind would deny for one nanosecond that the gospel places on each one of us, as individuals, the call to believe and obey, nor that God, in Scripture, does anything other than hold us personally to account. However, I have argued that this is framed by the fact that we are part of the church, as people in Israel were seen in relation to their forebears and their tribe. The entire race is either in Adam or in Christ. I have written elsewhere that the individual flourishes in the community; cricketer Ben Stokes can only display his skills in the context of being part of a team. Stephen cites Cranmer as calling each individual person to the reading of Scripture – but Cranmer was instrumental in the drawing up of confessions, as indeed were all the other figures Stephen mentions. They were churchmen. Certainly, Athanasius was writing letters and treatises of his own composition but let us not forget he was doing so as bishop of Alexandria and was fighting precisely for a right churchly confession of the status of the Son and the Holy Spirit in the trinity. Moreover, the Reformers were not individualists, and did not decide to up sticks and leave the Roman church of their own initiative; they were forced out in various ways, often under threat of death. It was Rome that was disruptive, they claimed, for the contemporary church had abandoned the teachings of Scripture, the fathers, and the best of the medievals.

Stephen proceeds to indicate problems in societies that have a strong communal nature. While that is true – which culture lacks problems in a fallen world? – this misses my point. I am not arguing in favour of adopting an Asian cultural model, but I point out that in order to grasp many of the structures in which the gospel is presented in the Bible we need to see that there is a collective orientation and that this can be more immediately understood in those societies that have a tribal or communal structure than in ours. Union with Christ, in Adam, in Christ – these are not peripheral or incidental for they are at the heart of the New Testament’s teaching on salvation. This is not academic. It is pastoral. Yet, since beginning to be aware of sermons over sixty-five years ago, I cannot personally recall a single occasion, until recently, while I was in the pew, when these were ever explained.

I do not try to pit the individual against the community but rather to set the individual within the community, with the recognition that the community as such has precedence since the Father has determined to present the Son with a bride, the church, not with a colossal aggregate of disparate individuals, even though the church is colossal in size and scope and composed of individuals. Cricket provides the individual with an outstanding forum in which to flourish while in the pursuit of the interests of the team. I have always insisted that cricket is vital for theology.

Stephen thinks I have too great an emphasis on the sacraments. Yet, while he recognizes their importance it might be well to recall that our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, in his parting message to his apostles before his ascension, says “Go therefore, and disciple the nations, baptizing them…” For him, it was first in order. Indeed, the Reformation spilt more ink over the sacraments than on any other single issue.

Finally, Stephen has concerns with my comments on the Spirit conferring grace in connection with baptism. This is somewhat surprising since Stephen does not want to be considered an individualist in the sense we have discussed and is sympathetic to Reformed theology, in which covenant is at the heart. In fact, I was merely expounding the Westminster Confession of Faith, 28.

Baptism is a sacrament of the new testament … a sign and seal of … ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration… 28:1

The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of the 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. 28:6

I explain this in more detail in my book on the Westminster Assembly.[6] Belief in the efficacy of baptism, of the Spirit conveying grace through the sacraments, was not peculiar to that body; the Leiden Synopsis, an earlier and representative compendium of thought in the Reformed church, published in 1625 in the wake of the Synod of Dort, also expressed that the grace signified, sealed and exhibited in baptism is conferred by the Holy Spirit to the elect in God’s own time, and ultimately received through faith.[7] Indeed, in his recent work on baptism, lauded as seminal, Lyle Bierma has established that this was the common commitment of Calvin and the classic Reformed confessions.[8] The reality is that many today if they got into the Tardis and showed up at the Westminster Assembly, the Synod of Dort or any of the classic Reformed synods would be shown the door. I trust their dismissal would be done most kindly and with regret,[9] although – given Westminster’s view that antinomianism was the major presenting threat at the time – this would be unlikely in the case of the ‘new covenant theologians.’ Yet the Westminster Assembly represented the quintessence of Puritan theology; many today who claim allegiance to such theology do so to aspects of it that appeal to them, often refracted through the selective lens of various approved publishers.

I anticipate that Stephen might suggest that the example of Zwingli negates my argument, as he espoused a different view of the sacraments. However, his views were largely his own; no major Reformed confession adopted them. Indeed, it is not entirely clear that he held the position that has often been ascribed to him. Elsewhere, following the consensus on his views, I have written that “Zwingli’s attachment to neo-Platonic forms of thought had bequeathed a legacy of ontological dualism by which material objects were no longer considered to be suitable for God to convey spiritual grace.”[10]

Having spent most of my life since my mid-twenties in the USA, I sometimes see things from the angle of American church history. These matters are reminiscent of the differences between old school and new school in American Presbyterianism. In our day it is good to discuss them, recognise them, treat them with perspective and not repeat the divisive mistakes made back then. I am thankful to Stephen, not only for his warm commendation of the book but for some stimulating points that encourage further discussion.

Read Stephen Clark’s reply in the next article.


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