Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

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A response to the Lamb’s Reign hit piece

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8 minutes to read In which I explain some rather critical errors in John Reasnor’s analysis of my views on faith and justification.

John Reasnor of Lamb’s Reign thinks I’m a heretic, and explains why in this article:

Bnonn Tennant, Justification by Works, and the Culture War »

Since several people have asked me about this piece, I’ll comment briefly on what Reasnor has written.

Isolate and contain!

Reasnor thinks I have contracted a deadly theological contagion called Federal Vision, which I affectionately call the Febola Virus. I really haven’t. I’ve never been FV. But more importantly, you should know that FV is like theological covid: it was never the kind of threat that the experts pretended, and it’s basically petered out. Even at its height, it was never deadly; to my knowledge it was not condemned as heresy by any of the formal groups convened to investigate it. And these days, no one has a version of it that can be distinguished from minor ailments like Lutheranism or the common cold. I’d tend to wonder about any self-appointed expert who continues to play FV containment theater.

Word games

I’ve noticed that people who see themselves as gatekeepers of orthodoxy often use terms of art from systematic theology like incantations to ward away the supposed FV contagion.

The problem is, they are interacting at the level of semantics only. They show no serious understanding of the concepts in play.

For instance, Reasnor gets stuck on how I argue that the good works God created for us to walk in must, by logical necessity, be considered part of faith. He interprets this as works-righteousness (i.e., that our works earn us righteousness before God). But this is just a word-concept fallacy. I’m obviously not arguing that if you just read my article, Faith Across Time.

It’s certainly true that talking about works as parts of faith is not standard language in historical Reformed systematics. And it’s true that if you read me carelessly, assuming that I am using the language of Reformed systematics, you could easily conclude that I am a heretic. But I am not trying to use the language of Reformed systematics. I’m trying to use the language of Scripture. As R.L. Dabney put it, “in examining this subject…the resort must be to the Bible alone, to learn what it means by pistis [faith]. And this Bible was not written for metaphysicians, but for the popular mind; and its statements about exercises of the soul are not intended to be analytical, but practical.”

Hence James 2:22–23 explicitly describes Genesis 22 as a fulfillment of Genesis 15:6, such that Abraham’s sacrificing of Isaac was an example of “faithing” God unto justification. The Greek term for faith is a verb (pisteo) in James’ vocabulary, as well as a noun—so insisting that we must separate works and faith makes nonsense of this text, along with many others (e.g. Luke 10:28; 13:23–24; 19:8–9; Mark 10:20-21; Matthew 7:13–14, 21; Romans 2:6). Why can we not rather reform our understanding of the English term faith, to be more like biblical pistis? Reasnor simply doesn’t deal with this argument at all. Why can we not agree with Dabney that faith has first a receptive and second an obediential element?

The older divines, with the confession, evidently make it a complex act of soul, consisting of an intellectual, and a voluntary element… True faith is obediential, it involves the will; it has moral quality, but its receptive nature is what fits it to be the organ of our justification. Hence it does not follow that we introduce justification by our own moral merit.

Dabney was arguably one of the top 5 greatest American theologians ever to live. By the same token, John Owen was arguably one of the top 5 greatest English theologians—and here is what he has to say (emphasis mine):

And we should always consider how we ought to act faith on Christ with respect unto this end…let none divide in the work of faith, and exercise themselves but in the one half of it. To believe in Christ for redemption, for justification, for sanctification, is but one half of the duty of faith;—it respects Christ only as he died and suffered for us… Unto these ends, indeed, is he firstly and principally proposed unto us in the gospel, and with respect unto them are we exhorted to receive him and to believe in him; but this is not all that is required of us. Christ in the gospel is proposed unto us as our pattern and example of holiness…so to neglect his so being our example, in considering him by faith to that end, and labouring after conformity to him, is evil and pernicious.

Reasnor ignores these quotes, despite that I emphasize them in the Reformed Pedigree document he is supposedly interacting with. He claims that I say these heretical things, and that none of the theologians I quote actually back me up. But why not actually, you know, quote them as I do, so everyone can see for themselves?

Where’s the argument?

Reasnor writes like he is faithfully engaging my argument, but he actually completely avoids it. He doesn’t engage with any of my foundational reasoning. For instance, it is fundamental to my approach that since faith is diachronic (across time), not synchronic (one-time), and since it is the instrument by which God declares us righteous, therefore justification in some important sense is not a synchronic, one-time act. Reasnor doesn’t even hint at dealing with this. Why would he ignore a point so foundational and critical to his disagreement with me?

Similarly, he ignores whether I think faith is meritorious. He claims that I teach works-righteousness—but for this to hold in light of my own description of works as parts of faith, I would have to teach that faith is meritorious. I.e., if our works earn us something with God, then part of our faith earns us something with God. But I teach the opposite—as he should know if he has read the material he claims to be interacting with! Every part of faith, both receptive and obediential, is itself an undeserved gift (Eph 2:8–10). How can I teach works-righteousness when my view specifically entails that our works do not merit us righteousness?

My theory is that Reasnor doesn’t understand why faith is the instrument of our justification in the first place. He doesn’t see faith as our part of the spiritual work of covenantal incorporation into Christ, which God works in us. He instead sees it as an arbitrary token for identifying who God declares righteous, like putting your hand up in a crowd. If that’s the paradigm he’s working from, it’s not surprising that we can’t get along—but is that really a respectable interpretation of the deep Reformed doctrine of faith?

Shady witness

Given how Reasnor represents my position, it’s pretty hard to believe he is arguing in good faith at all. Take these examples:

Yet note that Hodge explicitly says that he is not speaking of justification but rather salvation, yet Bnonn’s commentary on Hodge would suggest that Hodge is talking about justification.

If Reasnor had provided full context, you would see that this equivocation is actually introduced by the antinomian preacher I am responding to, not myself.

In this case, Bnonn leans on Turretin to show that faith includes our works; note that Turretin does not say this.

I don’t lean on Turretin to show this at all. The context is my argument that “we cannot work to receive Jesus (Phil 3:9), but we must work to abide in Jesus (Phil 3:12).” My reasoning is that, essentially, since faith is the sole instrument of our justification, and without good works we will not be justified, therefore to preserve the major premise, good works are a proper part of faith. Turretin supports me by saying, not that works are part of faith, but that (normatively) if your faith doesn’t work, you will not be declared righteous on the last day. Note again there’s no interaction with my argument. Why not just show where my logic fails instead of claiming that I’m abusing Turretin?

No one he quotes does as Bnonn does. No one he quotes adds works to faith…

Well, Reasnor is simply lying about this. Both Dabney and Owen fold works into faith, as I have shown—and as John’s readers would know if he had quoted them as I do, instead of just smoothly assuring us that they don’t say what I quoted them saying.

Though Lusk does not go nearly as far as Bnonn, his quote is still concerning.

Rich is a friend, and one of the most helpful theologians of our day on this topic. I am not precious about defending myself; it’s all water off a duck’s back to me. But I think very little of men who don’t defend their friends, so let me say at this point that John’s slander of Rich is a disgusting violation of both the fifth and ninth commandments. See for yourself if you think what Rich says is “concerning”:

Justification is best understood in terms of comprehensive union with Christ: God decreed our justification when he chose us in Christ, from before the foundation of the world. Our justification was accomplished and declared in history in the resurrection of Christ. We actually come to share in Christ’s justification when the Spirit works faith in us, uniting us to Christ. And our justification is consummated and concluded at the final judgment, when our whole lives in Christ receive God’s righteous verdict. Justification for the Christian must be viewed in terms of ongoing participation in the life of the justified Christ, through faith and the work of the Spirit. In this sense, we can follow Calvin and speak of our continual reception of justification as we abide in Christ. Justification is not a stand-alone doctrine, but an aspect of our union with Christ. (Rich Lusk, Did Jesus Earn Our Salvation? Merit, Imputation, and the Resurrection of Christ in Lecture notes for Christ Church Ministerial Conference 2005: Justification: the Great Deliverance, 22.)

Which is more concerning? Seeing justification holistically in terms of our ongoing covenantal participation in the risen Christ, or seeing this glorious Reformed doctrine as something from which you must “protect” people by writing libelous skubalon about the faithful men who are trying to guard the deposit of truth?

in respect to the authority of the Church of Jesus Christ given to the local churches involved in the excommunication, I maintain that Bnonn Tennant is a heretic and is publicly teaching heresy.

I don’t think you should trust someone who considers ex­communi­cation by show trial a valid exercise of Christ’s authority. But, you know, I’m touchy on this subject because of the unbelievably cruel treatment my wife received at the hands of the men of TRBC, headed by Lyin’ Ryan—who followed exactly Reasnor’s methodology of pretendedly urbane dismissal without argument. I’d invite you to examine my statement at the link above, and email me for other witnesses so you can decide the biblical legitimacy of my excommunication for yourself. In fact, given the extremely serious charges I level against that false church, Scripture requires it of you in order to be able to form a judgement (Dt 19:16–19).

In summary, I think Reasnor writes to convey an impression of theological integrity, as if he were a concerned third party, carefully dissecting my arguments and impartially assessing them for your benefit—but he never actually does this. He instead uses smooth words (cf. Psalm 55:21; Romans 16:18) to spin what A.D. Robles has drolly called a wizard’s spell. His article is an exercise in rhetorical distraction.

 3 comments

Timothy J. Hammons

I grow really tired of men labeling others they are jealous of as FV so they can earn their Orthodox merit badge. There are so many opinions on what FV is, and even more on whether or not its actually a problem, that it has become a baseless charge. Kind of like calling someone a racist.

I got labeled FV simply because I had sympathies for those who held to paedo communion. This is why I still had a professional relationship with the OPC. My sympathies were supported because of their study committee. But instead of asking me about it, it was easier just to label me FV.

It’s a Shibboleth.

Led by the Shepherd

Thanks for the article Dominic, the attitude by Reasnor is quite disturbing. I find that I see the same thing in the cavalier way that some online reformed will call John Piper a heretic. They’re basing this on his notion of ‘final judgment,’ but from what I’ve seen thus far, he isn’t saying anything that isn’t in texts like Matthew 25 – that at the Last Day, we will be judged by our works. This hasn’t stopped people, however, from bounding over the top and accusing him of teaching works-righteousness. Hopefully I’m not missing something, but it’s not good in either case for people calling themselves disciples of Christ to be so undiscerning.