Foundations: No.82 Spring 2022

The Corporate And The Individual, The Spirit And The Sacraments: Reply to Professor Robert Letham’s Response to Review Article on his Systematic Theology

Stephen Clark

Here Stephen Clark responds to Professor Robert Letham’s reflections in the previous article.

Professor Letham has done the great courtesy, both to readers of this journal and to me, of giving some explanatory comments for having written some of those things in his superb Systematic Theology with which I took issue in a review article that I wrote for this journal. He has also explained why he did not address certain matters in what many of us regard as his magnum opus. He generously acknowledges that my review article was in dialogue with his Systematic Theology. In so doing he has set a fine example of how theological discussion should be conducted. What I regard as the many, many positive features of one of the finest volumes of systematic theology which I have ever read far outweigh what I consider, by way of comparison, to be few and minor deficiencies. The Editor has also done me the courtesy of sending me Professor’s Letham Response before the publication of the current issue of this journal. I shall, therefore, make a few brief comments upon Professor Letham’s response. I do so in the same spirit in which he has written. It may help if I identify those areas in Professor Letham’s response where we are, in fact, in agreement.

To begin with, I agree entirely with the adoption of Oliver Crisp’s “methodological grid”. Furthermore, I fully accept that it is right to draw on the best resources of the “holy catholic church” and that this attitude was expressed by the Westminster Divines. It is one of the many features of the book which I commended in my review article.

Secondly, I commended the fact that although Systematic Theology covers so much ground, it does so with an economy of words and is characterised by enviable conciseness. This being so, I fully understand that to keep the book within manageable limits Professor Letham could hardly have been expected to have interacted extensively with New Testament commentaries.

In the third place, I fully accept that holding to the inspiration, infallibility, inerrancy and authority of Scripture does not necessarily place one within the evangelical tradition. What the Socinians and John Biddle were in their day, people like Jehovah’s Witnesses are in our day: professing formally a high view of the Bible while materially denying the doctrinal content of the same Holy Scripture, doctrinal content which was expressed and affirmed in the great Ecumenical Councils and Creeds of the first seven centuries AD.

Fourthly, I hope that a careful reading of my review would lead the reader to appreciate that not only do I believe in the importance of the corporate emphasis in Scripture, especially as this is expressed and worked out in the doctrine of the church (ecclesiology) but that this was one of the features which I commended in the book. The difference between Professor Letham and myself at this point touches on related but distinct aspects of this issue. I shall comment briefly on this a little later.

In the fifth place, Professor Letham’s explanatory comments in response to my review have largely helped to clear up the misgivings I expressed with respect to some of what he wrote concerning baptism. The fault may have been mine in having misread what he had originally written.

The final area where there is not much, if any, blue water between us at all concerns the Lord’s Supper. I went out of my way to stress that Robert Hall (an Independent with respect to church government and a credo-Baptist) wrote of the Lord’s Supper in terms which could have come straight from Calvin himself. And just for the record, I am largely in agreement with the doctrine of Christ’s bodily absence from and his spiritual presence in the Lord’s Supper. Although done in remembrance of Christ, it is much, much more than a remembrance and is a means of grace.

Wherein, then, lie our differences? First, I fear that Professor Letham’s genuine humility and modesty have overreached themselves when he says that he is not a professional New Testament scholar; although this may be so, his exegetical abilities are such that he would be able to gain easy access to that guild. I am not indulging in flattery for rhetorical effect. I freely acknowledge that the arguments he adduced in his excellent book The Holy Trinity (and which he reproduces in Systematic Theology) for translating monogenēs as “only-begotten” fully convinced me of the rightness of that rendering. Furthermore, they showed him to be a systematic theologian who was well aware of the best New Testament scholarship on both sides of that debate and who possessed the linguistic ability and exegetical ‘instinct’ which would be the envy of many New Testament scholars. This being so, I remain surprised that there really was no interaction with scholarly literature concerning the issue of cessationism. Let me explain.

Professor Letham quotes from Carson’s Commentary on John’s Gospel in support of belief in the doctrine of the procession of the Spirit; from C. John Collins’s exegetical treatment of Genesis 1-4, and E.J. Young’s Studies in Genesis 1 when dealing with the interpretation of the account of creation in Genesis. Strictly speaking, the doctrine of creation is distinct from the numerous accounts of creation found in different parts of the Old Testament; but aware, as he is, of the differences, not to say divisions, within the evangelical world over the interpretation of the Genesis account of creation, Professor Letham referenced numerous works of Old Testament exegesis concerning this. Why, therefore, the reticence to do likewise with respect to the issue of the gift of prophecy found in 1 Corinthians 12-14? I accept that limits have to be set to the length of a book. But an Appendix of 33 pages on the main interpretations of Genesis 1 but no interaction with scholarly literature on cessationism, not even for a page or two?

It is hardly a response to say that Thiselton observes that New Testament scholars differ as to the nature of certain spiritual gifts and that the Pentecostal commentator Gordon Fee professes a measure of ignorance concerning the nature of some of these gifts. Why the Appendix on Genesis 1? Precisely because of the varied interpretations. Does not the same hold for differences concerning baptism and eschatology? As for the reference to Donald MacLeod’s comments on the Lewis revival of 1950, I was hardly endorsing all that took place (nor were MacLeod’s criticisms levelled against that which I mentioned) and referred to only one incident in that revival, alongside similar incidents amongst the Scottish Covenanters, in the ministry of Spurgeon, and references to teaching found in Calvin and John Owen.

The second area of difference relates to the fact that I remain unconvinced by Professor Letham’s explanatory comment as to why he did not interact with so-called ‘new covenant theology’, and that for numerous reasons. In my review, I referenced the fact that in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day Professor (as he now is) Richard Bauckham quoted extensively from major figures in the Patristic, Medieval, Reformation and post Reformation eras who, quite simply, did not accept the view of the Mosaic Law which, for example, the Westminster Confession of Faith espouses. Indeed, blessed with the good, almost eidetic, memory that he has, Professor Letham surely remembers the answer given by Professor Douglas Moo to a question put to him by a former Administrator of Affinity (though he was not in this position at the time) in the final ‘Panel Session’ at the 2009 Affinity Study Conference on ‘The End of the Law?’. Asked if he would preach on and through the Ten Commandments, Moo replied that of course he would but that he would now preach them Christologically and through the lens of the New Testament. In his explanatory Response to my review, Professor Letham cites both the Heidelberg Catechism and some of the various Westminster Standards in support of his statement that the Decalogue is the rule of the Christian life. But even a cursory comparison of the answer to Question 103 of the Heidelberg Catechism with the answers to Questions 57 – 62 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism would demonstrate that in practice what Professor Moo said could easily sit within the former catechism though not within the latter.

With respect to the corporate nature of salvation, the differences between Professor Letham and me may have as much to do with the fact that he tells us that he spent much of his life from his mid-twenties in the USA, whereas until 2020 I spent the bulk of mine in Wales, with a number of years in England. I was at pains to stress in my review the emphasis placed by eighteenth-century evangelical leaders in England and Wales upon the church and the fact that they were not only churchmen with a strong doctrine of the Lord’s Supper (after all, they were Anglicans) but, in the case of Daniel Rowland for example, were steeped in the Church Fathers, as well as Reformation and Puritan writings.

I did not disagree with Professor Letham over the fact that the church and the corporate nature of salvation are crucially important; rather, my concern was that in his laudable aim to redress the balance towards the corporate and communal from the individualism found in some quarters, he laid the blame for individualism on the eighteenth century and its revivals and was not giving sufficient attention to the danger of losing sight of the individual. I did not deny that Cranmer was a churchman (only a historical ignoramus could do that) and I stressed the churchmanship of William Whittaker. I referenced statements by these men to challenge Professor Letham’s assertion that the Reformers did not believe in private interpretation. I stressed that they did not believe in individualistic interpretation but the quotations I gave from Cranmer and Whittaker abundantly demonstrated their belief in private interpretation. Nor am I alone. I first came across Whittaker’s words in an article by Professor Paul Helm on the right of private judgement. Both emphases – being a church person and exercising one’s duty and right of private judgment – are needed and I am sure that Professor Letham and I are agreed upon this, though I still differ from him in his negative assessment of the eighteenth-century revivals. I fully accept that one cannot have God as one’s Father if one does not have the Church as one’s mother. It is what those words mean which are the crucial issue. I submit that Galatians 4:26-27 are definitive for understanding aright what this means.

Which brings me to baptism. I find myself in agreement with what Professor Letham has said in his explanatory comments in response to my review. In my review, my concern was that he appeared to suggest that anyone who did not understand verses such as Romans 6:3-4 or Col. 2:12 as referring to water baptism was in effect perpetuating one of the errors of Gnosticism. Furthermore, given that circumcision was an Old Testament sign and seal and that water baptism is a New Testament sign and seal, I was concerned that insufficient emphasis was placed by Professor Letham on the dangers of formalism. I was not, however, in any way wishing to downplay the importance of water baptism as a covenant sign and seal and as the means of entrance into the visible church. I fully accept that Professor Letham subscribes to the Westminster Confession of Faith. The section on baptism is deeply instructive. Chapter XXVII deals in general with the sacraments. Paragraph III of that chapter states, inter alia: “The grace … exhibited in or by the sacraments rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them” (my italics). It goes on to state that the efficacy of a sacrament depends “upon the work of the Spirit, and the word of institution, which contains, together with the precept authorizing the use thereof, a promise of benefit to worthy receiver” (my italics). It is clear that one must be a worthy receiver for a sacrament to be efficacious.

Chapter XXVIII deals specifically with baptism. Paragraph I stresses that it is a sign and seal of the covenant of grace and of the recipient’s ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God to walk in newness of life. This accords with what Chapter XXVII paragraph I says, which states that sacraments ‘confirm our interest in’ Christ’. Something is confirmed that is already present. A sign and a seal are not, in the strict sense of the word, to be identified with that signified and sealed by the outward sacrament. This is borne out in paragraph 5 of Chapter XXVIII. This states that although it is a great sin to neglect or contemn the ordinance of baptism, “yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it; or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated”.

These words are important for a proper understanding of the words from paragraph VI of this chapter, which Professor Letham has quoted towards the end of his response to my review. Having stated that the efficacy of baptism is not tied to the moment in time when it is administered (and it is important for credo-Baptists [such as myself] to appreciate this point, which vitiates much of the unfounded criticism levelled by credo-Baptists at the paedo-Baptist position), it goes on to state that 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” (my italics). The italicised words are all important: the grace is only conferred to such as that grace belongs to and this is according to the counsel of God’s own will. This, of course, accords with the answer to Question 91 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “The sacraments become effectual means of salvation … only by the blessing of Christ, and the working of the Spirit in them that by faith receive them” (my italics).

Pulling all of the above together, one may say the following. Grace and salvation are signified and sealed by sacraments and confirmed by them. Faith is necessary to be a possessor of the grace of salvation which is signified, sealed, exhibited and conferred by the sacrament. The efficacy of the sacrament is not tied to the time of its administration, which is why it is perfectly possible to believe that the child of a believer who later becomes a believer has had that grace of salvation conferred upon him/her by baptism precisely because the efficacy of the sacrament is not tied to the time of its administration and the promise of its benefit is to worthy receivers. Since, in line with Reformation teaching that the sacraments are meaningless apart from the Word of God, the Westminster Shorter Catechism states that the outward means of conveying the benefits of redemption are conveyed to us by Christ, especially by the Word, sacraments, and prayer and it is to the elect that these are made effectual for salvation (Answer to Question 88). These things being so, although the sacraments are of great importance, they are not essential to salvation, whereas the hearing of the Word and prayer are; the signs and seals may be received without salvation being received. I wrote as I did in my review article because I feared that Professor Letham had not expressed himself as clearly on these points as did the Westminster standards. I am, however, fully willing and prepared to admit that the fault may well have been my misunderstanding rather than Professor Letham having failed to communicate things clearly.

Finally, although I agree wholeheartedly that one should benefit from the treasures of the “holy catholic church” (and commended Professor Letham’s Systematic Theology as an outstanding example of this) and treat with great respect the “tradition” of that church, it may well be that the deepest difference between our approaches to systematic theology is to be found here. The late Professor John Murray believed that systematic theology begins with painstaking exegesis of Scripture in the original languages; such exegesis is to be followed by biblical theology, whereby one traces matters historically through the Bible; only then does one systematise things, the chief difference between biblical theology and systematic theology being that whereas the former is organised historically, the organising principle of the latter is to be logical. It is at that point that one consults historical theology, and this includes the great Ecumenical Councils and Creeds, as well as the confessions of different branches of the church. And it is at this point that one may discover that one has gone astray. Equally, however, one may then conclude that others in the past have gone astray.

It is a debatable point whether Calvin differed in any way from the Nicene Creed. Certainly, Professor John Murray believed this to be the case. I know from a personal conversation with Professor Letham that he believes that Murray was mistaken in this judgment. Be that as it may, Murray’s point was that unless the church is to ossify in its theology, it is essential for its tradition always to be judged by Scripture. Professor Lethan would, no doubt, agree: he places Scripture above the great Ecumenical Councils and Creeds. But it seems to me that by dismissing new covenant theology as peremptorily – as he does because of his belief that such a theology is out of step with the historic church position (a belief which I believe is not supported by unanimous patristic, medieval, Reformation and post Reformation works) – I fear that he is, in practice, in danger of muzzling Scripture rather than being prepared to consider whether large swathes of the historic church were mistaken. This does not mean that we must be forever inventing the wheel and forever re-examining every position we hold. But when a considerable body of evangelical New Testament scholars, who are abreast of both historical and systematic theology, put forward compelling arguments for a position, it ill behoves one of the world’s leading systematic theologians in his magnum opus to fail to interact with this teaching. This is not to say that that teaching is right and it certainly does not mean that I agree with it; it does mean that there are foemen who were worthy of Professor Letham’s steel.

I must conclude. Not, as Professor Letham suggests, by emerging from the waters of the Mediterranean onto a sunbed to read his book, for we are experiencing the wettest and coldest January in living memory. And within the last two weeks before writing these lines the island of Cyprus where I live experienced an earthquake of 6.6 magnitude on the Richter scale. This means, of course, that the theology of the Bible which Professor Letham so wonderfully distils and articulates, while appropriate reading both for the armchair in the evening and for the sunbed on a hot day, is supremely that which needs to be the heartbeat of needy sinners throughout life and that which, through faith in Jesus Christ, holds us when the Lord either calls or comes for us. Soli Deo Gloria.

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