09 September, 2018

The “TAIFIC”/Historicist Argument: “Are treatises indispensable for correctly interpreting and understanding the language of the confessions?”

David Hutchings

The following argument often appears in debates on “common grace” and “a desire of God for the salvation of the reprobate” (i.e. “the well-meant offer”) …

The Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity ‘do’ teach the well-meant offer (i.e. a desire of God to save the reprobate) and common grace, but this contention is sustained and supported not on the bare wording of the Standards all by themselves, but on the basis of the other writings of the men who were either members of or influential in the framing of those confessions.
Words and phrases in the creeds do not speak for themselves (they are not interpreted in a vacuum), but have a specific intended ‘meaning.’ We learn that intended meaning of those words and phrases in the creeds by investigating the original ‘usage’ of these words and phrases—usage which is contained in the treatises, commentaries, sermons and dogmatics of the original men that penned the confessions—and we must read that original usage into those words and phrases of the creeds/confessions.
And since it can be demonstrated (from thousands of quotes) that the usage of ‘offer’ or ‘freely offered’ in these treatises is not merely ‘to present’ etc., but in fact speak of ‘overtures of mercy’ and a ‘loving disposition of God/Christ towards sinners in general,’ then that general usage determines or tells us the ‘intended meaning’ of those words and phrases (such as “offer,” “freely offered” etc.) in the confessions. 
This is not to say that the works of those original authors are ‘binding’ upon the church, but rather that they are ‘indispensable’ when coming to a proper understanding of the creeds. For you dont seriously intend to interpret the confession they wrote in a way that they did not intend do you?! 
On this basis, those who deny common grace and the well-meant offer show themselves to be manifestly averse to and out of step with the Puritans and Magisterial Reformers and Covenanters on the free offer of the gospel—for the denial of such is a vastly divergent view from the historic Reformed view on this subject. 

I have decided to name this the “TAIFIC” argument (“TAIFIC” being the abbreviation for positing that “Treatises Are Indispensable for Interpreting the Creeds”). Another way to describe this prevalent ideology is that it is a form of “historicism”—for it would have us believe that the “historical” writings of individual theologians, or the “majority opinion” derived from them, provides us with the intended meaning of words and phrases in the confessions.

The response* to this argument is plain and simple:  the Reformed and Presbyterian churches have bound themselves to the creeds as written, not to the private opinions of those who were used to write them.  The Reformed churches at Dordt, for example, adopted the Canons as written, as carefully phrased.  They did not adopt the views of individual theologians at Dordt, who also joined in adopting the creed as it appeared at that time and as we have it today, whether the theologians were weaker or stronger—for example, Gomarus, who argued for a supralapsarian presentation of predestination. 

The creed that is the result of the work of a group of men is sound when the individual writings of the men are not as sound, and sometimes even erroneous.  There is a special guidance by the Spirit in the writing of a creed.  Individuals cooperated, for example, to formulate the Canons of Dordt whose individual writings were unsound, and Reformed churches are bound by the creed that these individuals helped to produce. A creed stands in judgment of personal doctrinal views, rather than personal doctrinal views judging the creed.

It is significant that defenders of the offer in the sense of a gracious invitation to all with the sincere desire that all be saved must go outside of the Reformed confessions and Westminster Standards in support of their theology. Does this not reveal that those confessions, as they are written, do not actually confess those views? ... views, which, in fact, contradict what the those confessions do confess? Instead, they should be allowing those confessions to judge as false the views outside of those confessions which are in contradiction to what those confessions plainly confess. 

The creeds have authority in the Reformed churches that individual views do not have.  The creeds are authoritative declarations of the Reformed churches of what is necessary to be believed by all Reformed churches and believers.  “Creed” is derived from ‘credo,’ expressing what the churches believe.  The creeds are not to be explained from the commentaries, but the commentaries are to be judged by the creeds.  If a theologian in the early church explained the Nicene Creed in such a way as to compromise the creed’s statement concerning the deity of Jesus, which is not far-fetched, the church must repudiate that theologian in light of that creed.

A man is judged rightly to be un-Reformed when he confesses a saving love of God for all humans, by embracing common grace’s well-meant offer—for the official, authoritative Canons confesses particular, saving grace in the doctrine of predestination. 

The same goes for the Westminster Standards, as does for the Reformed forms of unity: One may not interpret the Westminster Standards in light of the other works of the men that wrote it.  It has long been noted that many of the other works of the men who were at Westminster were weaker on the doctrines of grace than is the Confesssion.  

It is to be acknowledged that many of the extra-confessional treatises, commentaries, sermons, etc., demonstrate that there has been a controversy in Presbyterianism over the “offer” and that this controversy has a long tradition.  It is necessary that Presbyterianism settle this controversy in light of Scripture and the overall doctrine of Presbyterianism as contained in the Standards—that is, doing justice to predestination, limited atonement, and sovereign grace in the preaching.  If modern Presbyterians opt for the notion of universal, ineffectual grace in the preaching, they will be rejecting predestination, limited atonement, and salvation by sovereign grace, basically adopting Arminianism.  In this case, the massive witness of the Westminster Confession will be rejected for the offer of Arminian theology.  These are the high stakes in the controversy over the offer.

Problems with the “Historicist”/“TAIFIC” Argument:

There are a number of problems with the prevailing notion that commentaries and theological treatises by the authors of creeds (often termed “primary sources”) are not only indispensable, but are in fact the “lense” for properly understanding words and phrases in the Reformed confessions. A few of which are listed below.

(1) The officebearers of the church, who might not have read such volumes, would be unable to subscribe to those confessions—which would create a “tyranny of scholarship” in the church. The creeds are designed, however, to be clear, simple statements of faith for use in the church. 

(2) It creates a heavy yoke to bear. What about the early ecumenical creeds? (the Apostles’ Creed, the Athanasian Creed, the Nicene Creed ...) If we were to apply this argument there, where would you start? Does that not tell us that we cannot subscribe to those early Christian creeds, unless, for example, we have read the entire library of early church father writings? So much reading to do!
What about the Canons of Dordt? This argument would basically imply that we would need to read and properly understand all the works and dogmatics of every delegate who attended that synod before we can claim to understand the Canons. But many of these delegates had contradicting views—for example, it is well known that the English delegates at Dordt were weak on the doctrine of the atonement.

(3) It leads to skepticism, ignorance and agnosticism in the church. The idea leads us to believe that the creeds are not clear and therefore cannot be trusted as they stand—after all, we may have a wrong “interpretation” of a particular word of phrase. No wonder so many end up throwing away the creeds and confessions today!

(4) This ideology basically gets the church stuck in the past!
The church is meant to be “semper reformanda” (always reforming). But the “TAIFIC”/“historicist” view means that the church now lies stagnant, and is no longer able to continue growing and developing (i.e. “reforming”) in her knowledge of the word of God. The church, according to this false view, practically ends up ‘dead in the water’ with regards to doctrinal development. This is essentially what happened during the period before the Reformation: the church ended up in the Dark Ages! No doctrinal development whatsoever. Those who blindly follow this ideology are effectively getting us stuck in the past: they’ve gathered together a heap of ‘dung’ from the writings of men from the 16th/17th/18th centuries (and even prior to that age), and they say we’ve all got to just sit on that, and call anyone who disagrees with that view names. Instead, these people ought to be actually thinking through what those men of old actually said and taught, and thinking, “This may be a majority opinion alright, but is it really right to speak of God’s love in that way? … After all, history has shown that a majority opinion has been wrong … and this is *GOD* we are talking about! We don’t want to speak presumptuously about Him in any way, since that would be blasphemy (i.e. sin) … Maybe we really ought to revisit these texts and re-think these things … Maybe those anti-common-gracers and anti-free-offerers are right … and I could be wrong. I don’t want to be blinded by pride after all …”


The picture often presented in the “common grace/well-meant offer” debate by those who affirm and defend those false teachings gives the impression that it is “absolutely unanimous” that the historic position on those issues is for those doctrines, and that only “odd-balls” or “the fringe of humanity” contemplated ideas that were contrary to those teachings.

However, in the last two thousand years, we have (1) Augustine (354-450), who clearly opposed the theology underlying the “Free Offer” (i.e. a desire of God for the salvation of the reprobate) and there is nobody who can say that he didn’t. He clearly recognized the issue and wasn’t for it, and when he wrote that, he wasn’t alone either. (2) Fulgentius of Ruspe (468-533), who wrote on behalf of the orthodox bishops of Northern Africa. (3) Gottschalk of Orbais in the ninth century, who clearly opposed the Free Offer. (4) John Knox (1514-1572). (5) Pierre du Moulin (1568-1658). And when you get into the more modern period, you’ve got Francis Turretin (1623-1687). There are two or three statements from his writings where he is a bit unclear on, and sounds a bit like the “Free-Offer” stuff. But then again, he, as well as us, refers to the will of God as being “approval” (what God “approves” of, and not what God “desires”). The vast majority of Turretin’s writings agrees with us, and, in fact, he is in more agreement with us than Calvin. Then you have the Geneva Theses of 1649—there you have a creed! And when you come to the Puritans, there are some guys who believe in the Free Offer who say that John Owen is a hyper-Calvinist!

Theologians in the 20th Century would include John Gerstner (1914-1996), a Presbyterian theologian who even wrote a positive foreword to Prof. David J. Engelsma’s book, Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel. We also have Drs. Raymond Blacketer and John Bolt of the Christian Reformed Churches and even Dr. James White of “Alpha & Omega Ministries” who also holds our view too.

For quotes against the well-meant offer position see the following link: http://www.cprf.co.uk/quotes/againstwellmeantoffer.html

Also regarding “common grace”:

Additionally, it needs not be emphasized that this whole issue over the “Free Offer” and “Common Grace” wasn’t as directly faced until today.


As a conclusion, it must be stated: The language of the creeds is binding upon the church. For example, the Heidelberg Catechism is binding upon the church, not the commentary of Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism (although the commentary of Ursinus is certainly interesting and useful). Individual words and phrases in the confessions are not to be understood from studying the voluminous works of men who wrote those creeds, but rather from the Scriptures and from the actual creed/confession as an organic whole.

The following challenge confronts us: “Choose you this day what theology you will have”!


* Acknowledgements to Prof. David J. Engelsma, and Revs. Angus Stewart and Martyn McGeown for their kind help and advice in these matters.

DH (09/09/2018)

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