Paul's Passing Thoughts

Gospel Sanctification and Sonship’s Gospel-Driven Genealogy, Part 8: The Brinsmead / Zens Affair Gives Birth To New Calvinism

Posted in Uncategorized by Paul M. Dohse Sr. on June 2, 2011

As I continue to absorb an astounding document written by Jon Zens, “Law And Ministry In The Church: An Informal Essay On Some Historical Developments (1972-1984),” the Zens/Brinsmead connection and its contribution to the birth of New Calvinism becomes evident. Zens’ essay covers the early years of the movement until the time when it took on a life of its own—1984.

Zens became a Calvinist in 1967 and joined Sovereign Grace Baptist Church in Prospectville, PA in 1972. During this time, according to him, he began his quest into the “law/gospel issue.” He became a teacher there and started preparing Sunday school lessons that refuted Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology. Apparently, these theologies contradicted where he wanted to go with the law/gospel issue. At least ten students from Westminster Seminary were in his class. In the same timeframe, he became a student at Westminster and was receiving Present Truth (hereafter PT), the theological journal of the Australian Forum. It seems that the journal had a wide readership there because it was “the largest English-speaking theological journal in the world at the time.” Hence, the father of New Covenant Theology (hereafter NCT) and the Australian Forum were impregnating Westminster with elements of New Calvinism from the very beginning. The infusion of other Reformed Baptist such as John Piper could have happened in a number of different ways as Zens was a Reformed Baptist and PT had a wide readership among Reformed Baptist as well.

Furthermore, Zens moved to Nashville in 1975 and  was writing articles for the Baptist Reformed Review (hereafter BRR) which was started by Norbert Ward in 1972. It is clear that Zens turned the magazine into a vessel for promoting a “Christ-centered approach to ethics.” In reading this historical account by Zens, it makes one’s head spin as it seems he was on a mission with a vengeance while living out of a suitcase—to create and spread some sort of new twist on “the centrality of Christ in obedience.” Nevertheless, the vessels at his disposal were very influential; and therefore, it is surprising that it has taken thirty-six years for this movement to arrive at its present zenith. BRR later became the official theological journal for the Continental Baptist who split from Reformed Baptist over NCT.

Meanwhile, the desire to synthesize justification and sanctification is nothing new. JC Ryle said: “ But the plain truth is, that men will persist in confounding two things that differ—that is, justification and sanctification.” Overemphasizing Christ to the exclusion of the Father and the Holy Spirit in order to do so is not that difficult. In fact, that’s exactly the error Ryle was contending with in his time. But in regard to eschatology, God’s emphasis on last things seems to bring up all kinds of pesky issues that eclipse the centrality of His Son, like Israel etc. What to do? Answer: invoke good ole’ fashioned Hagelian Historicism (pp. 67, 68, Tim Black: The Biblical Hermeneutics of Geerhardus Vos). It is clear that the Australian Forum (hereafter AF) was a think tank seeking to codify sanctification by justification alone into a unified theological system (with the primary motive of reforming Adventism). In doing this, law/gospel; obedience, and eschatology would have been key considerations. The Zens/Af connection filled the order.

Zens met with Brinsmead at length in 1979 and pointed out a contradiction in the AF’s view of law verses the centrality of Christ in evangelism. Zens said that the result was “brilliant” essays appearing in Verdict (formally PT). Zens wrote at least one article for the AF (when it was still PT) that apes the NC motif that any other consideration of Scripture apart from a redemptive-historical view is existentialism. This is also a major theme in Michael Horton’s writings. In 1981 and 1982, Zens spoke at “several” Verdict (AF seminars) seminars on the west coast, and admits that he changed the name of BRR to “Searching Together” in order to accommodate Adventist readers. Toward the end of the essay, Zens quotes Brinsmead from Judged by the Gospel in which Brinsmead states the AF’s affirmation that all of history must be seen through the gospel, a NCT staple.

It is clear that remnants of sanctification by justification alone were loosely about along with attempts to convert eschatology into a plenary gospel historicism, but there is little doubt that Zens and the AF were the ones who did the heavy lifting in regard to forming these ideas into a systematic theology. Without that systematic theology, the New Calvinism movement is not what it is today, if anything at all. In fact, Zens’ cohorts among Reformed Baptist (including John Reisinger, a longtime friend of Zens) sought to form their own association because they feared  the “movement” would end up being a “flash in the pan.”


Gospel Sanctification and Sonship’s Gospel-Driven Genealogy, Part 7: The Birth of New Covenant Theology

Posted in Uncategorized by Paul M. Dohse Sr. on May 28, 2011

“Apparently, this will be the legacy of New Covenant Theology—it was concocted by a Seventh-Day Adventist turned Reformed before he became apostate.”

As things become clearer, it seems the crux of New Calvinism is sanctification by objective justification. What’s that? Simply stated: all things relevant focus on Christ and His works outside of us (what they call the gospel). Any consideration of ourselves (subjective) in the mix, and anything else other than Christ and His works amounts to Existentialism. All reality must be interpreted through the gospel. In fact, truth can be truth until it is taught without being seen through the interpretive lens of Christ—then it becomes error. So, we aren’t really born again—that’s a subjective interpretation and insinuates that we can have a part in the sanctification process. The new birth must be seen “in its gospel context.” Hence, the Australian Forum said the following about the new birth, and even election: “Those who preach ‘Ye must be born again’ as the gospel are preaching a false gospel.” And, “A doctrine of election which takes as its starting point a philosophical concept instead of the gospel makes the Father the center and not Christ. A doctrine of election apart from Christ is inimical to sanctification and not its powerful source” (Present Truth Magazine Archives Vol. 24 #2).

This interpretive prism can be seen clearly in what is taught by contemporary New Calvinist. A predominant mantra among them is the idea that we are unable to approach the Scriptures without personal presuppositions (subjective). Therefore, ideas must not be drawn from the text (exegesis) because that’s subjective—the text must be interpreted through the gospel (eisegesis). This is why contemporary New Calvinist, as with the Australian Form, deny the new birth from our perspective: “But to whom are we introducing people, to Christ or to ourselves? Is the ‘Good News’ no longer Christ’s doing and dying, but our own ‘Spirit-filled’ life?” (Michael Horton, In The Face Of God).


Compare Horton’s quote with one of the Australian Three, G. Paxton:

“It robs Christ of His glory by putting the Spirit’s work in the believer above

and therefore against what Christ has done for the believer in His doing and dying” (Present Truth Archives Vol. 37 #4)

The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree, but let me now use this quote by Chad Bresson to further this point and lead us into our subject:

“New Covenant Theology presumes a Christocentricity to the understanding and meaning of all reality” (Vossed World, “What is New Covenant Theology?”).

Jon Zens, the father of New Covenant Theology, was totally onboard with sanctification by objective justification. He wrote an article for the Australian Forum entitled “Why Existential Theology Is Bankrupt” (Id Vol. 37 #4). Though sanctification by objective justification was probably not original with the Australian Forum (but the jury is still out on that), they definitely called for a systematic theology that would reconcile that doctrine to Scripture in all areas, and they specifically called for a “framework” in the areas of history, covenants, and eschatology (Ibid Volume XLVI). G. Goldsworthy, one of the AF3, would have been priceless in regard to a historical and eschatological framework, but it is my contention that Jon Zens answered the call for a covenantal framework.

Dennis M. Swanson of Master’s Seminary stated in his “Introduction to New Covenant Theology” that though Zens is not a focal person in the movement at this time—“he really started the movement” (p.152). Swanson further states that he believes Zens coined the phrase “New Covenant Theology” in 1981 (p.153).

In an unusual document by Zens entitled Law And Ministry In The Church: An Informal Essay On Some Historical Developments (1972-1984), by Jon Zens, 1984”—Zens writes the following:

“I started receiving Present Truth (now Verdict) at Westminster Seminary (1972). I didn’t read it much, however, until 1975. The emphasis on justification was helpful to me at this time [that would be sanctification by objective justification alone].

In August, 1979 — through a series of fluke circumstances — I heard about some unadvertised meetings at a Ramada Inn in Nashville. For three days the editor of Verdict, Robert D. Brinsmead [the editor of Present Truth and the primary leader of the Australian Forum, and one of the AF3], was addressing about 150 Adventist-oriented people. I came Friday night and spoke with RDB and Jack Zwemer in their motel room for about two hours. We also talked for another two hours on Sunday night.

I was impressed by Brinsmead’s teachable, open spirit. He obviously did not feel threatened by my pointed and probing questions. One area that I asked him about was the idea that the law had to do a “work” before the gospel could come to folks. His magazine had been permeated with this concept. I suggested that if all things are to be approached through Christ, why do we put the law ahead of Him in evangelism? Where in Acts were the Ten Commandments preached before the gospel? He said he thought I had some good points and that he would reflect upon them. On Sunday night I gave him Richard Gaffin’s The Centrality of the Resurrection, Meredith Kline’s The Structure of Biblical Authori­ty, and all of the back issues of BRR.

In January, 1980, Brinsmead called from California, just before he was to leave for Australia. He said that he had read the back issues, that he thought we [note: “WE”—] were on to something important [emphasis mine], and that he would study these matters closely in Australia. In 1981 some brilliant essays appeared in Verdict. “Sabbatarianism Re-examined,” “Jesus and the Law,” And “The Heart of N.T. Ethics” pre­sented a Christ-centered approach to ethics. It was certainly heartening to see this shift by the largest English-speaking theological journal in the world at that time (sadly, since mid-1984 RDB went markedly downhill [right, not only was he a Seventh-Day Adventist, but he is now openly apostate by all standards]).”

Zens elaborated on his interaction with Brinsmead and discussed several Australian Forum articles published in Present Truth (later, Verdict), in This is My Beloved Son, Hear Him (Searching Together. Summer-Winter 1997, Vol. 25:1,2,3. Pages 67-71) Zens attached the following footnote to the article: “I met Mr. Brinsmead in August 1979, asked him to consider the centrality of Christ in Christian obedience, and gave him some materials to read. In January 1980, Brinsmead called me and indicated that these redemptive-historical points were worthy of consideration and further study.”

Here, we perceive the very cradle of New Covenant Theology. While working through the issues himself, Zens confronted Brinsmead in regard to the AF’s view on the law’s relationship to justification—which Zens had been “helped” by (their view on justification) while at Westminster. Brinsmead then called Zens in 1980 to say, “We [are] onto something important.” Then Brinsmead, according to Zens, published a string of “brilliant” articles as a result in 1981—the same year  Swanson says Zens coined the phrase “New Covenant Theology.” Apparently, this will be the legacy of New Covenant Theology—it was concocted by a Seventh-Day Adventist turned Reformed before he became apostate.

Zens was a Reformed Baptist pastor at the time, so it is easy to see how the doctrine has spread in that camp. Present Truth also had a significant readership in Reformed Baptist circles. Zens’ leanings toward antinomian type doctrines had already caused trouble among Reformed Baptist which resulted in William J Chantry writing the book, God’s Righteous Kingdom. As far as the Johnny-come-lately names of NCT, one website is quoted as saying the following: “Since 1980 there has been a great resurgence of Reformed theology in Baptist circles. As a result, some have sought to develop a new, non-covenantal approach to theology distinct from the Second London Confession position. Leaders of this movement include such theologians as John Reisinger, Jon Zens, Fred Zaspel, Tom Wells, Gary Long, Geoff Volker, and Michael W. Adams.”

According to Richard C Barcellos in Defense Of The Decalogue, the doctrine was still in transition as late as 2001 when he wrote his book. Its proponents will have to let us know when they get it nailed down, or perhaps they can solicit some help from Robert Brinsmead. Robert–phone home.


Gospel Sanctification and Sonship’s Gospel-Driven Genealogy: Part 1, The Australian Forum and Seventh-Day Adventist Connection

Posted in Uncategorized by Paul M. Dohse Sr. on May 16, 2011

It’s always been a bit perplexing to me. When you survey the Gospel-Driven, Gospel Sanctification landscape of our day that includes the T4G, Gospel Coalition, and a massive network of churches, the author of choice for their interpretive prism seems to be Graeme Goldsworthy (hereafter “GG”), an obscure, Anglican theologian from Australia.

As I said, “perplexing.” Until yesterday. While researching, I stumbled across an article written by a Christopher Taylor entitled, “Who is Bill Blogsmith?” Taylor (who I am attempting to contact for an interview) wrote the following:

“In the 1970’s a pair of Australian professors and pastors in the Anglican Church toured the world as the Australian Forum. This touring group went everywhere they were invited and preached the Word as best they could, with a focus on the Gospel as central, supreme, and foremost in the Christian’s life and understanding. As weeks go by I’ll be repeating and expanding on themes of this group, but you can read their thoughts in Present Truth Magazine which is online for free.

Robert Brinsmead became apostate and is sadly teaching rank heresy and frankly non-Christian beliefs. Geoffrey Paxton, the better speaker of the two, has dropped out of sight and I have lost track of him. But when they were the Australian Forum, they spoke God’s honest truth with power, conviction, and a powerful drive. Their humble efforts have shaped the thoughts and ideas of a new generation of theologians such as Rod Rosenbladt and Michael Horton.”

First, does, “….with a focus on the Gospel as central, supreme, and foremost in the Christian’s life and understanding” sound familiar? Secondly, though these guys are from Australia and were preaching in the nineteen-seventies, Robert Brinsmead is often quoted by the super-hip, who’s who of the Gospel Sanctification movement (hereafter “GS” and also known as New Calvinism—has deep roots in Sonship Theology). That’s a very interesting connection: from Australia in the seventies, preaching a gospel-centered sanctification—to playing a part in the latest rendition. Third, the author claims that this forum “shaped the thoughts and ideas” of a major player in the GS movement: Michael Horton. Fourthly, Isn’t GG from Australia? And isn’t he also an Anglican? Hmmmm.

Now GG isn’t looking so obscure, but the plot thickens. Wikipedia has this to say about the Paxton / Brinsmead relationship:

“Paxton has had significant interaction with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and a ‘keen interest’ in its theology.This began through his acquaintance with Robert Brinsmead, as both were critical of the charismatic movement.One source described the pair as “anti-Charismatic crusaders” after one meeting.They held public meetings supporting belief in justification by faith alone. Paxton contributed to Brinsmead’s Present Truth Magazine.”

Not only did Brinsmead and Paxton share a distaste for Charismatic theology, but they worked together, along with GG, in an endeavor to reform the Seventh-Day Adventist denomination (hereafter SDA) by primarily arguing the following along with other SDA theologians (like Desmond Ford): the SDA theologians of old held to the Reformed view of sanctification, and the SDA needed to return to their reformation roots. Hence, Brinsmead, Paxton, and GG were hyper-enamored by Reformed confessions and creeds. At times, to some, it seemed like the threesome gave those documents more credence than Scripture. Sound familiar? I have no idea what compelled these three to enter the SDA fray—perhaps my continued research will offer a theory on that. But the primary purpose of Present Truth magazine was to aid the threesome in the aforementioned endeavor. Another writer stated it this way in the comment section of a forum:

“Most, if not all, the magazine articles available on that site in pdf  form date from the 1970s and 1980s and appeared in the printed editions that were available free of charge to anyone who asked, thanks to the generous financial support of Robert Brinsmead, who was a successful Californian avocado grower and was seeking to reform Adventism. Brinsmead himself wrote many of the articles, but many others were written by Rev. Geoffrey Paxton, a ‘conservative’ Anglican priest who taught at Queensland Bible Institute in Australia. Listed as a Consulting Editor was another ‘conservative’ Anglican priest, Rev. Dr. Graeme Goldsworthy, who also taught at QBI and later taught at Moore
Theological College in Sydney (the official theological institution of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney); I do not recall whether Goldsworthy wrote for the magazine or was merely a consultant. (Paxton wrote The Shaking of Adventism, and Goldsworthy is the author of several books.) I do not recall any pro-Adventist views being promoted in the magazines.

Their purpose was to promote what they saw as the truly Protestant view of salvation, which had been corrupted not merely by Adventists but by many other “Protestants” – even so-called ‘evangelical’ ones.”

GG, in fact, did write many of the articles. Furthermore, the very close kinship of beliefs between GG, Paxton, and Brinsmead can be seen by the fact that they reference each other in Present Truth articles. In particular, GG referenced (for agreement purposes) an article written by Paxton in which he wrote that Christians are NOT “born again.” Sound familiar? By the way, Paxton was dismissed from a teaching position for, as Desmond Ford puts it, “his refusal to lay aside his interest in the Adventist ‘cult’” (“The Truth of Paxton’s Thesis” by Desmond Ford. Spectrum 9:3 July 1978).

Now, in regard to the articles in Present Truth and their agreement with Gospel Sanctification—I would like to say that there are no words to describe the uncanny dittolarities, so I will use examples: it would be like distinguishing between two twin penguins; it would be like distinguishing between two capital Ts; It would be like distinguishing between John Piper’s opinions and Justin Taylor’s opinions. It’s the same stuff, and in mass volumes.

Moreover, I was surprised to see that Jon Zens, a primary figure in the development of New Covenant Theology (a GS tenet), also wrote at least one article for Present Truth as well.

A lot more research needs to done which will be reflected in part 2 and other articles following, but it would appear that the Australian Forum preceded Jack Miller’s Sonship Theology. The Australian Forum may, or may not be, the cradle of GS theology. So far, we see a road; some parts wide and well paved, and other parts narrow, from  the Forum Trio in Australia, to Michael Horton and others at Westminster (probably one being Edmund Clowney). Then to others at Westminster as well; namely, Jack Miller, and Tim Keller. From them, to David Powlison, Paul Tripp, and Timothy Lane. How Sonship then became Gospel Sanctification is sketchy, but should be easy to figure out in time. Let me further bolster this a little bit by quoting a pastor who graduated from Westminster with a MDiv:

Sonship, as far as I understand it, arose from the ecclesiology of Edmund Clowney at Westminster Theological seminary, came to maturity in pastoral theology in the life and preaching of C. John Miller, rejuvenated Christian counseling at CCEF, entered the world of oversees missions through World Harvest Ministries, and finally made its home in both the city (through Tim Keller’s preaching at Redeemer in NYC) and in the country (through the personal testimony of change in Ray Cortese’s life and teaching as senior pastor at Seven Rivers in Lecanto, FL).

If you want a taste of Sonship theology you can find it in Gospel Transformation put out by World Harvest Ministries; Ministries of Mercy by Tim Keller; or A Faith Worth Sharing by C. John Miller.”

In the forthcoming parts, I will compare the Australian Forum’s theology with GS/ Sonship. Is it the cradle of GS, or just another stop along the way? Did this trio create a doctrine designed to refute Charismaticism and Adventism without properly regarding the truth? What does the rest of the family tree look like? Lord willing, we will find out.