We commend Paul Carter for his direct and civil dialogue with Bruxy Cavey. Through the dialogue, we have come to appreciate certain aspects about the ministry being conducted at The Meeting House. In particular, we point to their efforts to reach unchurched Canadians. We agree that this is an urgent need in our generation, and we appreciate their attempts to reach younger Canadians in winsome ways.
While we appreciate these aspects of the Meeting House’s ministry, we nevertheless continue to hold to our distinctive beliefs and values as a community of reformed evangelical believers. Throughout this discussion, we have had a renewed opportunity to articulate our theological understanding, and we think there is deep wisdom in using certain time-tested language that was the subject of much conversation in the dialogue between Paul and Bruxy.
We particularly treasure the word inerrancy and continue to affirm our commitment to our confessional position believing that:
God has graciously disclosed his existence and power in the created order, and has supremely revealed himself to fallen human beings in the person of his Son, the incarnate Word. Moreover, this God is a speaking God who by his Spirit has graciously disclosed himself in human words: we believe that God has inspired the words preserved in the Scriptures, the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments, which are both record and means of his saving work in the world. These writings alone constitute the verbally inspired Word of God, which is utterly authoritative and without error in the original writings, complete in its revelation of his will for salvation, sufficient for all that God requires us to believe and do, and final in its authority over every domain of knowledge to which it speaks. (Article 2, TGC Canada Confessional Statement)
Scripture constitutes “the verbally inspired Word of God” and is “without error in the original writings.” Since God upholds all things by the word of his power (Heb 1:3), the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture are guaranteed by God’s comprehensive providence. As Jesus says, “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35).
Penal Substitutionary Atonement
Likewise, we continue to treasure and affirm the doctrine known as penal substitutionary atonement (Rom 3:25; Isa 53:5). It is not merely a possible theory but a clear teaching of Scripture. We believe that “on the cross [Jesus Christ] canceled sin, propitiated God, and, by bearing the full penalty of our sins, reconciled to God all those who believe.” In our fuller confession, we state:
We believe that by his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus Christ acted as our representative and substitute. He did this so that in him we might become the righteousness of God: on the cross he canceled sin, propitiated God, and, by bearing the full penalty of our sins, reconciled to God all those who believe. By his resurrection Christ Jesus was vindicated by his Father, broke the power of death and defeated Satan who once had power over it, and brought everlasting life to all his people; by his ascension he has been forever exalted as Lord and has prepared a place for us to be with him. (Article 7, TGC Canada Confessional Statement)
We joyfully point to J. I. Packer’s definition of penal substitution as a model of biblical clarity on this key doctrine of the faith:
The notion which the phrase ‘penal substitution’ expresses is that Jesus Christ our Lord, moved by a love that was determined to do everything necessary to save us, endured and exhausted the destructive divine judgment for which we were otherwise inescapably destined, and so won us forgiveness, adoption and glory. To affirm penal substitution is to say that believers are in debt to Christ specifically for this, and that this is the mainspring of all their joy, peace and praise both now and for eternity. (Packer, 1974: 25)
Therefore, we contend that anything less than a robust proclamation of the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ will diminish our joy, peace, and delight in our Lord and Saviour.
The Value of Terms
Over the years evangelical churches have struggled to understand and articulate the issues of penal substitutionary atonement and inerrancy. But through this struggle, evangelical churches have developed beneficial language that captures the Bible’s presentation of the atonement and its trustworthy nature. The term inerrancy and the phrase penal substitutionary atonement matter therefore because they represent what we understand Scripture to be and communicate.
At the same time, we recognize that not every Christian tradition has had the same history nor the same theological controversies that we have had. For this reason, we understand why words like inerrancy and penal substitutionary atonement may not be commonplace within some Anabaptist circles just as they are not commonplace in parts of the world in which the Reformation did not have a deep influence.
Bruxy Cavey explains:
Here is something worth helping our Protestant friends understand about us: most Anabaptists don’t just hold different theological [tenets] on some issues; we hold a different approach to theology all together than many Protestants. We don’t have a Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1647, or a Heidelberg Catechism of , or a London Baptist Confession of 1689. These are bounded sets of theology that hold Protestant movements to a specific understanding and expression of what is orthodox. The closest thing in Anabaptism would be The Schleitheim Confession of 1527, and that is just 7 brief articles that focus mostly on Christian ethics, including a firm refusal to bear the sword in any and every situation.
Given this divergent theological history and standard of orthodoxy, some Anabaptists may not use the same language to describe theology that we do and may not have worked through the same theological controversies that we have had in the past. So while we do not share the same history, we desire to share the resources of the evangelical and Reformed tradition with other Christian traditions as hard-won and useful boundaries for theological health and for fruitful ministry.
We hope and pray that the Meeting House will come to use the language of inerrancy to describe the Bible. It is a useful and clarifying term that will help ensure that the Word of God and not the opinions of people serves as the authority for what is trustworthy, beautiful, and true.
We also hope and pray for the day that the Meeting House comes into full agreement with the best explanations of penal substitutionary atonement just as Bruxy hopes and prays “for the day that the Evangelical Church modifies the way it preaches Penal Substitutionary Atonement.” To be clear, we do not think that the Meeting House ought to reject other aspects of the atonement such as Christus Victor and replace them with penal substitution. These models complement each other with the latter representing the root and doctrines such as Christus Victor representing the fruit of our full redemption in Jesus Christ.
Since neither side has yet to be convinced, we have to be realistic about the differences between our reformed theology and the Meeting House. To deny any aspect of penal substitutionary atonement is a grave problem. It is one thing to be ignorant of a doctrine; it is another to argue against it. Keeping in mind this different history we are eager to be sympathetic toward The Meeting House and other like-minded churches but must urge them to look at this matter more closely. These doctrines are not hidden nor inaccessible for they are clearly taught in the Bible. John Murray’s Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Leon Morris’ The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, or Steve Jeffery and Michael Ovey’s Pierced for Our Transgressions are three excellent works that explain this foundational teaching.
For those who are not used to a history of creeds and confessions, doctrinal affirmations and denials, strong theological statements can sound harsh. Too often that is because unkind people have used those good creeds to bite and to devour others without a genuine concern for speaking the truth in love (Eph 4:15). But doctrinal precision is what the Lord requires:
James 3:1: Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.
2 Timothy 2:15: Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.
Titus 1:9: [An elder] must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.
With all these matters in mind, our conclusion is that while we love and respect our neighbours at The Meeting House, we cannot in good conscience at this time endorse them nor follow the teaching of Bruxy Cavey on the above issues.
And this makes sense when we consider that The Meeting House itself would not be able to enroll their congregations in our church finder in good conscience because they can not affirm our foundation documents. Both of us genuinely disagree with the other on important theological matters.
We say this while recognizing too that the reformed evangelical world is not without sin. We have sometimes engaged in a hermeneutic of suspicion that responds to others by attacking rather than by listening. We have at times emphasized right belief at the expense of right behaviour despite the apostolic command to maintain a high standard “in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim 4:12). Both right belief and right behaviour are necessary (1 Tim 4:11–16).
We freely admit to these faults, and we greatly appreciate the opportunity to get to know our friends at the Meeting House. Nevertheless, we continue to maintain our own distinct identity – as indeed do they. We continue to affirm the doctrines of penal substitutionary atonement and inerrancy, and our hope is that the Meeting House will one day treasure and affirm them as we do.