Friday, April 04, 2008

Shepherd on The Vine and Covenant

One of the most helpful things I've read on how John 15 is approached paradigmatically is in Norman Shepherd's The Call of Grace, in the chapter on Covenant and Election. Shepherd recognises that often the first reaction to the Vine imagery is, 'How can this passage be squared with the doctrines of election and the perseverance of the saints?' The answer often given (as we've seen) is of inward branches and outward branches. However, as Shepherd points out, if inward branches are inevitably going to bear fruit and outward branches are inevitably unable to, then what is the point of Jesus' warning? Shepherd then writes this...

The words inward and outward are often used in Reformed theology to resolve problems that arise because biblical texts are approached from the perspective of election. Indeed the seeming indispensability of this formula indicates that the covenant is commonly viewed from the perspective of election, rather than election from the perspective of covenant. The distinction is necessary to account for the fact that the covenant community appears to include both elect and nonelect. The nonelect are then said to be only outwardly in the covenant. The elect are inwardly in the covenant. Covenant is virtually dissolved into the idea of election.

I wholeheartedly agree with Shepherd's analysis of covenantal theology being remoulded as dictated by ideas of election and reprobation. This is a similar thought to that in my systematics essay last year on the doctrine of perseverance...

It is my view that Reformed dogmatics has struggled to reflect the biblical data in failing to maintain the distinction between the experience of the believer and (i) the secret elements of the divine counsel; (ii) the salvific state of the soul. If these distinctions are maintained, the possibility of ‘falling away’ causes fewer doctrinal problems.

Attempts at systematising soteriology have falsely sanctioned the intrusion of the secret elements of the divine counsel into the experience of the individual. It is as a result of this that the division of assurance and faith has occurred in Reformed theology.