Brandon Adams has written an article that is among the more reasonable, sensible sorts in the recent, what shall we call it, discourse on whether anyone from Moscow, Idaho should be welcomed to any respectable Reformed event. CrossPolitic and myself were honored guests at the Founders Conference last January, and then again at the recent ReformCon sponsored by Apologia Church, and we will also be doing a live show at G3 in January. And the various self-appointed gatekeepers of the “true reformed flame” — defined as, shadow-banning, cancelling, and generally prohibiting admitting any public appreciation for He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named (but it rhymes with Shmouglas Shmilson).
Now to be clear, I really do appreciate this guy’s attempt to be fair, objective, and not a screecher. This is hard to do in these conversations, and he will no doubt take flak for going easy on us. So props there, but I still think he draws a number of wrong conclusions. He says that he has attempted to do careful reading and research and is willing to be corrected if he is wrong, so taking him at his word, here are a few scattershot thoughts in return.
First, just for the record, CrossPolitic is not the “media arm” of Doug Wilson or his ministry or Christ Church. Anyone who says that doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Please pass the word along. Doug Wilson is my good friend, a fellow elder, our esteemed pastor, and an occasional guest on our show, but apart from an occasional request for input or counsel (the way, you know, you do with pastors), Doug Wilson has no formal connection to CrossPolitic. CrossPolitic is an independent Christian business. Neither does CrossPolitic have any formal connection to Founders, nor are we producing their new documentary By What Standard. If we are, nobody told me, and I have made no decisions about its production along the way, which is a really poor way to produce a film. One member of CrossPolitic is an independent film maker, and he is contracted with Founders directly. It’s true that we are all friends, but it’s simply poor reporting to state that Founders is “cooperating” with CrossPolitic on their documentary.
In the interest of not allowing this post to sprawl like the Palouse hills of my homeland, I will leave specific questions for Andrew Sandlin and Joe Boot and Douglas Wilson to their able care. Neither will I answer the questions about whether Baptists can be FV. I will leave that to the competent baptists in the crowd. And rather than going through the whole article point by point, I want to make a general point about doing theology and evaluating theologians with a few examples and then offer one substantive point that seems to be at least one significant hangup in Brandon’s evaluation.
So the first general point is that theology and theologians are not made out of titanium. This may seem obvious, but I think Brandon’s analysis suffers from assuming that theology comes in large, prefabricated slabs of metal on their way to Boeing. It is simply not true that someone who quibbles with the language of “Covenant of Works” has necessarily redefined what Justification by Faith Alone (JBFA) means. Now, is that *possible*? Sure, it’s possible, but a lot of careful work needs to be done before arriving at that conclusion, especially when a particular man is insisting that he has not denied JBFA, much less redefined it. While it has been a long time since I’ve read Shepherd, based on the quotes, he listed, I would want to make various and sundry clarifications/qualifications to the Shepherd quotes, and I don’t recall if Shepherd made those clarifications/qualifications in other places. But my point here is simply that I don’t think it’s helpful to think in terms of a stainless steel “system.” I certainly agree that faithful systematic theology is working towards a thoroughly consistent, biblical system of thought, but even a cursory read of church history ought to give us a bit of patience and humility in that project. Count me among those who are very concerned to preserve the doctrine of JBFA. And I’m not talking about some kind of Neonomian redefinition of those terms. I mean the straight whiskey kind of JBFA that Luther would have been pouring during his Table Talks.
And while we’re at it, I’m not sure how he arrives at the conclusion that I am a “proponent” of Federal Vision but I’ve only recently criticized some FV men. What I wrote recently was, “please consider this a retraction of my public and published work that has participated in the Biblical Horizons and Federal Vision muddle… I repent…” I’m honestly not sure how to say it more clearly than that. And for the record, I don’t hold to any of Clark’s five points of FV, although I do believe that John 15 and Romans 11 and Hebrews 6 and 10 are talking about something “real” but no one can ever lose a true, saving union with Christ because Christ is the one who holds us, and He will not lose any of His own. That “real” thing is membership in the New Covenant (someone can be really baptized or really take the Lord’s Supper but not really love Jesus), but I don’t believe anyone can fall from the Covenant of Grace. More on that in a minute.
But back to my objection to titanium theology: I think some of the questions raised in Brandon’s article are fair questions (for Shepherd in particular), but it’s entirely unfair to conclude that since there are some similarities between Doug Wilson’s articulations and Shepherd’s articulations this necessarily means that Wilson is “thoroughly confused” about the gospel or a wolf. This is especially uncharitable given the fact that Wilson has repeatedly, over decades, explained the true, biblical doctrine of JBFA in countless blog posts, interviews, and sermons. This is what I mean about trying to do theology with stainless steel beams. Insisting that Wilson’s parallel concerns/language with Shepherd require him to be confused or duplicitous is just poor analysis. Brandon says he has attempted to do careful research and welcomes correction, and so this is me insisting that Brandon has significantly misunderstood and misrepresented Wilson on this point. I can say with confidence that Doug Wilson and I would both go to the stake happily to affirm that God accepts us by faith in Jesus plus nothing. We supply the corpse. Jesus is our everything. Everything is a gift, including the faith, so that no one can boast. Maybe there’s a reason why Brandon can’t figure out how the imputation of Christ’s active obedience fits into DW’s “theology.” The answer I would submit is that theology is not made out of blocks of concrete.
An important distinction that I would make (and DW would agree with) that might help Brandon is that Adam and Christ were utterly unique as covenant heads/representatives. And as covenant heads, they represented *two different* covenants. Did you catch that? I’m going to write it again just for fun: Adam and Christ were the covenant heads of two. different. covenants. Spread the word. And at bare minimum this means that none of us are in the same position as Adam or Christ. We are all members of Adam (by birth) or members of Christ (by faith). It seems to me that Brandon collapses our faith/obedience onto the same plane as Adam/Christ, but that isn’t true. I’m not keeping covenant on the same terms as Adam or Christ. As the Westminster Confession labors to put it, regenerate believers do not keep the law as a covenant of works to either condemn or justify us. Period. Full stop. God required perfect obedience for Adam and Christ. He damns me for my guilt in Adam, but He accepts me by faith alone for the sake of Christ alone.
To be restored to do what Adam was originally called to do in the Creation Mandate does not insinuate that we are somehow trying to fulfill the requirements of the Adamic Covenant or trying to keep the Covenant of Grace to get to heaven. Adam’s covenant was broken and resulted in damnation for all, and Christ perfectly kept the Covenant of Grace and won salvation for all who believe. When I talk about us getting back to doing what Adam was called to do, all I mean is that we are now freed from the curse of sin to be what God created us for, taking dominion, obeying His law by the working of His Spirit, doing the good works we were created in Christ Jesus to do (the ones prepared beforehand for us to walk in, Eph. 2:10). And these uses of the law are not contrary to the gospel but do “sweetly comply with it” (WCF 19.7).
There are New Covenant blessings and curses (e.g. Eph. 6:2-3, 1 Cor. 10:1-12), just as there were Old Covenant blessings and curses under the various dispensations (Noah, Moses, David, Ezra), but the New Covenant is the final dispensation of the Covenant of Grace. And all of these were not different covenants, differing in substance, but different dispensations of one and the same Covenant of Grace. Those who are truly regenerated are members of the Covenant of Grace and can never fall away from that covenant because the terms of that covenant were perfectly and entirely kept by Jesus alone, and therefore it is entirely by grace, a gift from first to last. But the historical administration of that eternal and unbreakable Covenant of Grace is through the ordinances and historic community of the New Covenant.
All this to say, while there are no doubt some secondary theological differences between Moscow and the Apologia guys, Brandon’s proposed debate topic between James White and Douglas Wilson would be rather short and boring. I think Brandon’s articulation of the two different ways of obtaining salvation confuses the distinction between covenant heads and covenant members, but I still don’t think it would be the revealing thunderbolt that he seems to think.