Saturday, September 30, 2006
Here are two extracts from a review article by Tom Ascol of Founders Ministries. The first, by Mike Horton, is as good a definition of heresy as one will find. The second is an honest, logical, necessary, and, above all, biblical conclusion on the matter.
Heresy has been succinctly defined by Michael Horton as:
"any teaching that directly contradicts the clear and direct witness of the Scriptures on a point of salvific importance."
Ascol concludes with this appeal:
"When we talk about heresy, let's be honest. The refusal to acknowledge its existence and to renounce it in clear terms is a denial of the faith once delivered to the saints. Genuine confession of faith always consists of both an affirmation of saving truth and a denial of that which opposes saving truth. Thus in Galatians 1 Paul not only commends the gospel which he had preached and which his readers had received, but he also renounces any other gospel and pronounces anathema on anyone who would dare to preach another gospel. Even if we shudder to announce it, this apostolic curse remains in place."
Friday, September 29, 2006
The quote is from Samuel Miller, one of the early professors at Princeton Theological Seminary:
"Whenever a group of men begin to slide, with respect to orthodoxy, they generally attempted to break, if not conceal, their fall, by declaiming against creeds and confessions."
Who in their right mind could be against creeds and confessions?
To confess the faith is the natural outworking of the Christian mind, heart and will.
But perhaps that is the point. A strong aversion shows quite a different mind to be at work.
It is different not in regard to peripheral matters, but at the very point of what is most important. Heresy is a different gospel.
Whatever words or phrases that it may use, which sound and look the same as the orthodox ones, this cannot compensate for the fact that the thing itself is another gospel. And this makes heresy, for all its similarities, no gospel at all. It carries a different meaning and value beneath the common currency of God's words.
Honesty, integrity and truthfulness, demand that this be pointed out. Heresy simply is different, even if it seeks to pass itself off as the same. Out of loyalty to the truth this must be shown to be the case. Heresy must be named.
It exists as something distinguishable from the biblical gospel. Failure to name it will not alter its nature, or its difference from the truth, or its effects.
As the Bible commentator B. H. Carroll put it:
"Definitive truth does not create heresy--it only exposes and corrects. Shut off the creed and the Christian world would fill up with heresy unsuspected and uncorrected, but none the less deadly."
Quotation from Robert Martin "The legitimacy and use of confessions", in Sam Waldron,
1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: A Modern Exposition, p. 16
Thursday, September 28, 2006
When dealing with error it is essential to define our terms carefully. Not every error is worthy of an anathema. But some errors will be. Every error though carries within it the capacity to distort faith and life, and to leave our souls impoverished. In 17th Century England being an Arminian was theologically linked with the "usual suspects" of Roman Catholicism and Socinianism. William Ames' comment below is thought provoking in this regard. Even though Ames still considered the Arminian position to be a serious error he recognized that there were variations among this group. They were not to be lumped in the same category.
"The view of the Remonstrants, as it is taken by the mass of their supporters, is not strictly a heresy that is, a major lapse from the gospel, but a dangerous error tending toward heresy. As maintained by some of them, however, its is the Pelagian heresy, because they deny that the effective operation of inward grace is necessary for conversion."
William Ames (From J. I. Packer, "Arminianisms", in Collected Shorter Writings Volume 4, p. 303).
Of course, tending toward heresy is not the not the same thing as being guilty of heresy, and it doesn't mean that it will and must lead to heresy. There are several reasons for that. Even if it is a logical slippery slope, as Packer puts it, the stopping points along the way are quite arbitrary. We are sometimes saved by our inconsistencies. But then someone else comes along and pushes the logic of our position.
And if you have never read it before, or if it has been a long time since the last one, open up Packer's classic Knowing God.
The historic creeds and confessions had several functions in their own day. Their purpose was not entirely negative, but the negative dimension was, and still is, very important. They are confessions of faith to the world of what the church believes. By clarifying the truth they must, by definition, if not also by specific intention, deny the validity of other confessions. And it is no use to the world, or to the churches, to have a form of words that can be interpreted in mutually exclusive ways by different parties.
We are not at liberty to choose whether we will have a confession of faith or not. Every church and Christian organisation has one, whether it is written or oral, whether it is of daily use or, in document form, suffers from long term neglect; whether it is a flag of convenience or a true statement of conviction.
The church is always confessing what it believes, what it holds dear, what is most valuable for this generation, what it will teach its children, and what it wants the world to believe. It cannot do so as a faithful confessing church unless it also excludes things that ought not to be believed, taught or confessed.
"The historic creeds were exclusive of error; they were intended to exclude error; they were intended to set forth the biblical teaching in sharp contrast with what was opposed to the biblical teaching, in order that the purity of the church might be preserved. These modern statements, on the contrary, are inclusive of error. They are designed to make room for just as many people and for just as many types of thought as possible."
J. Gresham Machen
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
It can cover over, and that in a bad way, sins such as self-righteousness, arrogance, and pride. I think it is true to say that critics of polemicists sometimes have a valid point about how harsh and unattractive a portrayal of Christianity they see. It doesn't have to be that way. Polemics can be done with humilty and godliness.
This is a frank and honest comment from Ingrid Schlueter at Slice of Laodicea. It illustrates a point that I was trying to raise a little while back about the danger of blindspots.
"I have...removed several links to "discernment ministries" on my site. Recent incidents have pushed things to a point where it is evident that some "discernment" experts could use a little of their own. A good measure of your spirituality is not how many heretical doctrines you can spot in the shortest amount of time. A true measure of your spirituality is how you communicate with those of the household of faith on interpersonal matters that don't involve doctrine at all. If you prefer to fight, meddle and make pompous pronouncements more than you desire letting the Lord work in people's hearts and keeping out of personal issues that do not involve you, it's an indication that there's a problem. I have taken an unapologetic stand for truth on my blog and do not intend to change. But I want no part of what I see behind the scenes of some of these groups who specialize in pointing out the error of others while they can't even get along with their own fellow believers. We have nothing to say to the world at large if we as believers let petty disagreements turn into thermonuclear war."
The following quotation from Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones is both measured and convicting. It strikes the right tone for the necessity and nature of polemics.
"Do you agree with those who say that a spirit of love is incompatible with the negative and critical denunciation of blatant error, and that we must always be positive?
The simple answer to such an attitude is that the Lord Jesus Christ denounced evil and denounced false teachers...he denounced them as 'ravenous wolves' and 'whited sepulchres', and as 'blind guides.'...that is the language of the Scriptures.
It is not pleasant to be negative; it is not enjoyable to have to denounce and to expose error. But any pastor who feels in a little measure, and with humility, the responsibility which the Apostle Paul knew in an infinitely greater degree for the souls and well-being spiritually of his people is compelled to utter these warnings. It is not liked and appreciated in this modern flabby generation."
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, "Biblical Intolerance", Banner of Truth 371-2, p. 55
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
The test of our theology is whether we are willing to believe things that are mentally and emotionally hard to believe simply because they are clearly taught in the Word of God. If we fail that test it will be because we want to have things our own way rather than God's way.
Theology isn't only about reading, understanding, believing, teaching and confessing the great doctrines of the Bible. It is also about accepting our finitude, mental sinfulness, and the grace of God in giving the knowledge of the truth in the Gospel.
So will you have it God's way? Or will you have it your way?
Heresy and orthodoxy is about making that choice. Not just intellectually, but with the life and with the affections too.
The following lengthy quotation, from the chapter by Wayne Grudem in Beyond the Bounds, is an explanation of this point.
"Believing the Bible is not always the easiest or most popular thing to defend. There are many things that God asks us to believe that are not really logical contradictions but are mysteries and paradoxes, matters that we cannot fully explain. For example the doctrine of the Trinity, or the hypostatic union of Christ...or God's sovereignty and our responsibility, are doctrines that fall into this category.
Why can we not explain fully what the Trinity is like? It is because there is nothing in all creation that is exactly like the Trinity! There is no other being that consists of three distinct persons, with each person possessing the whole of that being in himself, and yet the three together are only one being, not three. How can this be? It is not a contradiction, but it is a mystery beyond our comprehension.
And then there are other doctrines in which God does not ask us to approve something that is evil or wrong, but asks us to believe things that are emotionally hard for us to receive, at least in this age. Such doctrines include the doctrine of hell (with the eternal conscious punishment of the wicked), and the doctrine of God's sovereignty in relationship to evil, for example.
In these matters that are not easy to defend, and in many more, the question is, will we believe them, not because we can explain them fully, and not because we enjoy them and take delight in them in our present state of understanding, but simply because God's Word teaches them and we submit to his Word?
Throughout our lives as Christians, from time to time God will test our hearts to see whether we will be faithful in believing all that he teaches in his Word."
Wayne Grudem, Beyond the Bounds, p. 356
This is a great book; pick up and read!
It is a world of pseudo-prophets and teachers, a world of wolves that appear to be sheep, of lies that appear to be truth, of workmen who are deceitful rather than approved, of clouds without rain, springs without water, trees with bad fruit, preachers of truth who tell lies about God and his Christ.
It is a world of contentious people who hinder the peace and growth of the church by their divisiveness. It is a world of secrets, of denials, of sensuality, of people pleasing.
It is a world where Jesus is not believed to be what, in reality, he most gloriously is. It is a world where churches make false confessions to the world, where young and old are taught things that are wrong.
It is the world, and not God, setting the agenda. It is a beast that looks like a lamb but has the voice of a dragon.
It is a world that is a continual grief to gospel loving churches.
And it is a world that ends in gloom, in the blackness of darkness forever.
Monday, September 25, 2006
Consider Paul's approach to the super-apostles in 2 Corinthians 11. They worked for "Deceitful Workman Ministries" a division of "The Angel of Light" Church movement. Paul questioned their integrity and motives, regarding them as duplicitous and fundamentally unholy. He went much further than calling them liars, he even attributed their deception to the infernal CEO of their organisation.
These men were heterodox; their gospel was different, and their Jesus was a fake.
Would they have agreed with Paul's assessment? Hardly. The only thing that they could have agreed on is Paul's description of the different content of the two gospels. Of course they would never concede that their gospel was a false one, that they were twisting Scripture, or that they were secretly introducing destructive heresies.
1. We do not lack an objective standard for assessing which "gospel" is true and which one is false. This point is critical to everything that follows. We need to establish exegetically that there is clear blue water between us and out opponents on the things of first importance. Whilst this will involve their denial of the biblical gospel, it may also come from the elevation of a "secondary" issue to the top table.
2. We should not expect those who preach another gospel to like being called heretics, or to agree with our designation of their views as heretical. As long as point (1.) is in place we can afford to be deaf to the howls of protest and not let the complaints of being offended influence our response.
3. We should not worry about offending false teachers with our rhetoric. We are not obligated not to offend them. We are not to confuse niceness with love. We may even tell them how to use knives in creative ways (Galatians 5:12).
4. We should defend the majority (the church) against the influence of the minority (the false teachers). Tolerating the minority is a misplaced priority. I'm sure that wolves have feelings but they still need a bullet in the head.
Heresy is a matter of perspective, it really is in the eye of the beholder. But there is a right perspective and that makes all the difference.
Sunday, September 24, 2006
It is amazing to think what contrasting images the Bible uses to impress upon us the reality and danger of false teachers.
In appearance they are angels of light, sheep and shepherds.
In reality they are fierce wolves who want to kill the flock.
It is strange that we are slow to believe Jesus' words, and those of his apostles, on this matter. We are far too easy on accepting the appearances and far to naive about the dangers.
I have my own concerns about the usefulness and wisdom of some discernment ministries. I know in my own experience how easy it is to be hard and self-righteous when condemning error. But I do find it somewhat out of place that crying "wolf!" is frowned upon so much.
Have evangelicals become complacent about these warnings? Have we lost the sense of the destructive nature of false teaching?
It has become something of a truism to say that evangelicals no longer see doctrine as important. Following in the wake of this antipathy is a loss of sensitivity to the reality and danger of heresy.
Saturday, September 23, 2006
He wore Spanish leather boots, had Welsh blood in his veins, went off to Ireland as Cromwell's chaplain, preached to Parliament, and still is the greatest theologian that the British Isles has ever produced.
And his magnificent work on justification has been reprinted.
Between Two Worlds: Owen on Justification
Friday, September 22, 2006
The words of Gresham Machen below illustrate the dynamics of gospel rejection. It is never a matter of bare intellectual decision making. Machen was dealing with enemies of the cross. The cross had been chosen against by the whole man and therefore the affections were involved and not only the mind. We should never think that these aspects can be divorced. Not to believe in Christ crucified was also not to love Christ crucified. But for those who do believe, witnessing such rejection ammounted to a violation of all that they held dear.
Amazing to think that there are "evangelicals" today who are making the same intellectual, moral, and emotional choices against the cross that the classic liberals made eighty years ago. And, as Calvin, put it, "if a dog barks to defend his master, should I not do the same when mine is attacked?"
“They (the liberal preachers) speak with disgust of those who believe 'that the blood of our Lord, shed in substitutionary death, placates an alienated deity and makes possible welcome for the returning sinner'. Against the doctrine of the cross they use every weapon of caricature and vilification. Thus they pour out their scorn upon a thing so holy and so precious that in the presence of it the Christian heart melts in gratitude too deep for words. It never seems to occur to modern liberals that in deriding the Christian doctrine of the cross, they are trampling on human hearts.”
J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p.120
Thursday, September 21, 2006
Heresies make the stars in the universe of God's glory go dark.
This vivid image from John Owen caught my imagination. Theology is not abstract. God's Word is not a series of cold propositions. When people speak disparagingly of propositional revelation then they have really missed the glory of God's revelation in his Word.
Metaphor is inescapable (just think about the metaphors that litter the sentences above).
Wrong theology is not just incorrect knowledge, it is also the darkening of glory and consequently the impoverishing of souls.
Owen's response to the darkening of the stars is to show by preaching and writing the galaxy of God's glory in his Word.
"For whereas they...hope to darken a single star, when they are gathered into a constellation they send out a glory and brightness which they cannot stand before. Being engaged myself once in a public dispute about the satisfaction of Christ, I took this course in a clear and evident coherence, producing very many testimonies to the confirmation of it; which together gave such an evidence to the truth, that one who stood by instantly affirmed that 'there was enough spoken to stop the mouth of the devil himself.' And this course in the business of the deity and satisfaction of Christ will certainly be triumphant. Let us, then, labour to have our senses abundantly exercised in the word, that we may be able to discern between good and evil; and that not by studying the places themselves [only] that are controverted, but by the diligent search into the whole mind and will of God as revealed in the word."
John Owen, Vindicae Evangelicae, p. 51
Wednesday, September 20, 2006
But the context of the quote makes its impact on my thinking even greater. It comes in the penultimate section of Owen's introduction to Vindicae Evangelicae, his massive refutation of the Socinians. That he should write like this in the introduction to a polemical book shows me all the more what must be at the heart of contending for the faith in a way that pleases God.
The three questions that he asks give the game away as to the identity of his opponents. But they are great questions to ask whenever we may need to contend for the gospel.
Owen has not only a weapon in his hand, for the pulling down of the Socinian anti-gospel stronghold, but a plea for grace in the heart of all those who fight for the glory of God.
"When the heart is cast indeed into the mould of the doctrine that the mind embraceth; when the evidence and necessity of the truth abides in us; when not the sense of the words only is in our heads, but the sense of the things abides in our hearts; when we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for, --then shall we be garrisoned, by the grace of God, againist all the assaults of men. And without this all our contending is, as to ourselves, of no value.
What am I the better if I can dispute that Christ is God, but have no sense or sweetness in my heart from hence that he is a God in covenant with my soul?
What will it avail me to evince by testimonies and arguments, that he hath made satisfaction for sin if, through my unbelief, the wrath of God abideth on me, and I have no experience of my own being made the righteousness of God in him,--if I find not, in my standing before God, the excellency of having my sins imputed to him and his righteousness imputed to me?
Will it be any advantage to me, in the issue, to profess and dispute that God works the conversion of a sinner by the irresistible grace of his Spirit, if I was never acquainted experimentally with the deadness and utter impotency to good, that opposition to the law of God, which is in my own soul by nature, with the efficacy of the exceeding greatness of the power of God in quickening, enlightening, and bringing forth the fruits of obedience in me?
It is the power of truth in the heart alone that will make us cleave unto it indeed in an hour of temptation.
Let us, then, not think that we are any thing the better for our conviction of the truths of the great doctrines of the gospel, for which we contend with these men, unless we find the power of the truths abiding in out own hearts, and have a continual experience of their necessity and excellency in our standing before God and our communion with him."
John Owen, Vindicae Evangelicae, p. 52
Our calling is to preach good news; and when we deal with error in the Church it is the effect of that good news in our own hearts that will preserve and protect us from sin.
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
Here is Augustine refuting heretics. The depiction of the heretic fits with Paul's reference to the origin of false teaching in 1 Timothy 4:1.
Pelagianism is a further example of the dressing up of an alien worldview in the theological clothes of Christianity. It is another instance of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the takeover of Christianity from within by an externally originating philosophy.
Pelagius taught not only that men had free will, but he also denied the ruin of the human race and the necessity of grace. Jerome said at the time that Pelagianism was the heresy of "Pythagoras and Zeno". Dean Milman, almost 1 500 years later noted that "the greater part" of Pelagius' letter to Demetrius "might have been written by an ancient academic". Another writer said that Pelagianism seemed to him to be "a rehabilitation of the general heathen view of the world."
Augustine took up his pen against the Pelagian doctrine of salvation. He wanted to contend against the erroneous teaching but to keep silence on the teachers so that "the men might rather be brought to see and acknowledge their error through fear of ecclesiastical judgement than be punished by the actual judgement."
As it was, at the end of April 418 AD, Pelagius and Coelestius were banished from Rome.
Concerning the diverse response of the Church to paganism "pure and simple", as over against paganism "passing itself off as Christianity" Harold Brown wrote:
"Corruptio optimi pessimum est, says the proverb: 'the corruption of the best is the worst'. The early Christians felt a measure of tolerance for the pagans, even though they were persecuted by them, for the pagans were ignorant. 'This ignorance', Paul told the Athenians, 'God winked at' (Acts 17:30). But Paul did not wink at him who brought 'any other Gospel' within the context of the Christian community. 'Let him be accursed' he told the Galatian church (Gal. 1:8). Honorable enemies are regarded with less hostility than the traitor from within one's own camp. The Christian life is often presented as spiritual warfare; if the pagans are the enemies, the heretics are the traitors."
Brown, Heresies, p. 3
Monday, September 18, 2006
What is Christian doctrine?
It is “What the church of Jesus Christ believes, teaches, and confesses on the basis of the word of God”.
Jaroslav Pelikan, Credo, p. xii
“Underlying the creedal and conciliar definition of orthodoxy from the beginning have been three shared presuppositions: first that there is a straight line...from the Gospels to the creed; consequently, second, that the true doctrine being confessed by the councils and creeds of the church is identical with what the NT calls 'the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints'; and therefore, third, that continuity with that faith is the essence of orthodoxy, and discontinuity with it the essence of heresy”.
Jaroslav Pelikan, Credo, p. 9
Sunday, September 17, 2006
Dan Phillips of Pyromaniacs poses the question on his blog. Here's the link:
Biblical Christianity: Does ANY false teaching EVER die?.
The general answer must be no for several reasons:
1. There are a limited number of logical options in theology after orthodoxy has been rejected.
2. False teachings that wish to pass themselves off as Christian generally distort the biblical text and react against it.
3. As Harold Brown has noted heresy is remarkably stable across different cultures and centuries, and even under the influence of different philosophies precisely because "The persistence of the same stimulus, so to speak, repeatedly produces the same or similar reactions".
But these heresies have been refuted before. Many of them were buried in their day under the weight of the greatest writings in the history ofn the church. Why was that? Were the orthodox responses inadequate?
Heresy is never a matter of the intellect alone, but of the heart, the whole orientation of life.
Friday, September 15, 2006
This is a picture of the mausoleum of Faustus Socinus. Socinianism is such an old word that you almost feel the need to blow the dust off it. In the 19th century Thomas Carlyle referred to the "dusthole of extinct Socinianism". But like any other form of false teaching it can never be extinct, only dormant. Like Dracula, even after a stake in the heart, it never seems to die.
I am persuaded that this is because it is the position one turns to after rejecting some of the things of first importance while still wanting to remain evangelical or Christian.
What is notable, and disturbing, is that Fautus Socinus is inadvertently the most influential figure in broad evangelical circles in the Western world today. This is not because the Racovian Catechism is being read, or the Bibliotheca Fratrum Polonorum tops the book charts. But Socinus' doctrinal conclusions are being drawn today. Well more than drawn, his old ideas are getting a fresh coat of paint and even being passed of as new, exciting and more faithful to the text of Scripture than what we have come to accept as the classical evangelical heritage.
Open theists and "evangelical" opponents of penal substitution are drawing the same doctrinal conclusions as Socinus did. Sometimes they are even using the same arguments.
Another remarkable thing about 17th century Socinianism is that it revised Reformed and Catholic theology right across the board. It was, in the end, a total re-write. The trinity, justification by faith, penal substitution, exhaustive divine foreknowledge, creatio ex nihilo, eternal punishment, and salvation by grace alone were all jettisoned.
Why was this revision so thorough? Why did it affect so many doctrines?
1. Socinianism was definitely forged out of a reactionary mood
As the historian Thomas Lindsay notes, it "had its distinct and definite beginning in a criticism of doctrines, and this must never be forgotten if its true character is to be understood". Laelio Sozzini, the uncle of Fautus, was known to discuss and cast doubt on such doctrines as the satisfaction of Christ and the Trinity. Calvin wrote to him to correct this restless questioning and urged him to be content with the truth.
Eventually the anti-trinitarians found a "safe place" to do theology in Poland. There they were able to establish a church, school and printing press. John Owen, in the historical prologue to Vindicae Evangelicae (his State commissioned refutation of Socinianism), also noted the reactionary element in Socinianism. But Owen wondered whether this reaction was, in part, to erroneous Roman Catholic representations of the Trinity. Reacting to a distortion of the truth they headed off in the direction of an opposite error. There may well be some merit in Owen's suggestion, but even after rejecting a straw man people do go on to reject the true explanation of the same doctrines.
Doubtless there are some affinities between Thomas Lindsay's comment and contemporary movements like, among others, the Emergent church.
2. The dominant explanation is that Socinianism was thoroughly rationalistic
Harnack referred to it as "supernatural rationalism". Francis Turretin considered the use of reason in Socianism as "despotic". This is also Phil Johnson's (http://teampyro.blogspot.com/) explanation in his helpful 5 part audio series on heresies. You certainly can find in the Racovian Catechism a stress on the use of "right reason". But you also find a complementary stress on revealed religion.
Socinianism is alleged to have been built on the foundation of the rationalists and skeptics. With reason playing king and Scripture being hoisted off the cognitive throne, every revealed doctrine was subject to critique and change. There is no doubt that the story of theology in the West over the last few hunded years tells this sorry tale. Reason has played the despot, assumed the crown, and cut the legs off its own throne in the process.
But that cannot be the total explanation for the Socinian revision of the gospel. I recently listened to Alan Gomes' ETS lecture on Socinianism. He argues that blaming incipient rationalism for full-blown Socinian heresy does not do justice to the writings of Socinus. Another explanation must be sought out.
3. Early Socinianism was committed to sola scriptura
Gomes argues that Socinus wasn't a rationalist at all but was firmly committed to the truths of special revelation (as a concept). He was not an inerrantist, holding to a view of Scripture not dissimilar to the modified infallibalism that many evangelicals hold today. For Socinus, Scripture did contain errors on matters of history and geography but not on doctrine. And, furthermore, those errors did not affect any of the Bible's teachings. This is an accurate summary of the opening sections of the Racovian Catechism. Indeed the inscription on Faustus' tomb speaks of him as finishing the work that Calvin and Luther began.
Now, admittedly, Gomes' explanation may seem hard to believe. After all if early Socinianism held to sola scriptura how is it possible that reading and exegeting the same Bible they arrived at diametrically opposed views on central doctrines to those of the Reformers?
I'll take that up in part 2.
Thursday, September 14, 2006
"In practical terms, once a church or Christian organisation allows some vocal advocates of false teaching (or even one) to have a position of influence, then those people become precedents by which others can be allowed in."
Grudem, Beyond The Bounds, p. 344
This is true of institutions (colleges and seminaries), denominations and publishers. Once they are in, and are tolerated, how do you get them out? Once a book has questioned or contradicted a doctrine what prevents the publisher from saying "well, we have made this decision before to publish these views"?
Shouldn't there be repentance for allowing error to enter instead of a "hey we crossed that bondary before so I guess we can carry on doing so"?
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
The relationship between certain doctrines is such that a deliberate denial of one doctrine does not take long to alter others and to re-orientate the gospel. This is not an unfounded accusation, the attributing of a series of unforeseen consequences stemming from a faulty premise (although that situation can exist). Rather it is the explicit effect of a determined act of unfaithfulness.
Here is an extract from Wayne Grudem's chapter, "Why, When and for What Should We Draw New Boundaries?" in Beyond The Bounds.
"Some doctrines are absolutely important to maintain because of their effect on other doctrines. Examples would include doctrines such as the Trinity, or the deity and humanity of Christ in one person, or the inerrancy of Scripture, or justification by faith alone. If we abandon one of those doctrines, many other doctrines will be lost as well.
In the early part of the twentieth century, Protestant liberals began to emphasise the love of God so much (and who could object to that?) that they came to deny the wrath of God. They denied that God exercised personal wrath toward his sinful creatures.
At that point someone might have said, "So what? This is just one attribute of God, and I can't see that it's that important." But the result was highly destructive, because once they denied the wrath of God, then they had to deny that Jesus bore God's wrath against our sins when he was on the cross. They had to deny the substitutionary atonement of Christ. And once that happens, then the whole Christian gospel is lost."
Beyond the Bounds, p. 363
You see they had to do it. Their choice to deny the wrath of God was also a choice to deny the atonement. God's righteous personal anger against sin, a function of his attribute of holiness, is an integral part of the framework of doctrines that explain what it means that "Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures". Deny the wrath of God and you must change your doctrine of the atonement as well.
2. A biblical ministry of teaching and shepherding is both positive and negative. The work of the leaders of the local church is to feed (the positive) and guard (the negative) the flock of God entrusted to their care (Acts 20). There are external and internal dangers to congregations from false teachers and their teaching. The ministry of the Word involves "War and Peace". But it is the Word of his grace that is the ultimate safeguard for the church since it is able to build up and give an inheritance.
That the local church is the primary context where discernment must be exercised is the heart of the position that I want to unfold. Discernment, and dealing with error, is to be an aspect of the work of leaders in the local church, and the congregational life of the church. Depending on the situation faced locally, or denominationally, dealing with error may be a time consuming part of the ministry. This is as the need arises.
What is there beyond this?
It is a certainly a great help to churches when books and articles are produced dealing with particular errors. These resources save time and provide needed expertise. They keep church leaders informed and equipped and are a valuable help to the Church. Without them we would be left dealing with errors from scratch. The same argument can be made for apologetics.
But can we justify the existence of ministries whose sole purpose is negative? Or whose discernible purpose and daily work is predominantly negative?
On the surface the case for such ministries seems obvious. Testimonies could be cited where Christians are grateful for error being pointed out to them. Perhaps these are errors of which they would otherwise be unaware of. Nonetheless a ministry whose sole purpose is negative and polemical is out of step with New Testament priorities for the Church. The elder/overseer "must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it" (Titus 1:9).
When dealing with the Corinthians Paul stresses that his ministry does involve pulling down strongholds (2 Cor. 10:4-6). He was waging war against pretentious arguments that not only were setting themselves up against the knowledge of God but were also to be found in the minds of the Corinthian church members. Paul is laying siege here not to the philosophic position of unbelievers (in debate with them) but the incomplete obedience of the church to the Lordship of Christ (wordly thinking in the church). Paul has a "building up" ministry that at times also requires pulling down (10:8). At the close of the letter he repeats this concern, "This is why I write these things when I am absent, that when I come I may not have to be harsh in my use of authority—the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down" (2 Cor. 13:10).
Paul's method in dealing with the Colossians is also instructive. His major focus in combating the incipient mood of error is to magnify the glory of Christ and his sufficiency. Compared to Christ, and compared to the riches that believers have in him, the false teaching on offer looks cheap and shallow. Christ's glory makes the false teaching look utterly deficient. Paul's polemic in this letter does not leave us with the negative but champions the positive by outlining the riches of the knowledge that is in Jesus Christ.
We do need discerning congregations and discerning ministers. We need to see such efforts worked out in the context of a properly ordered church life so that they do not themselves become distorted in emphasis and use of resources. And we need to learn from the apostles how to conduct a ministry of building up and tearing down.
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
This is a follow up post to "What Lies Beneath". Paul's point in 2 Cornthians 11 about the same signs (Jesus, gospel, Spirit) signifying different things for the false teachers was made by Irenaeus in the opening section of Against Heresies. Here we have two consistent features of heresy.
1. The use of Christian vocabulary with unbiblical content
2. The smuggling of an alien worldview under the guise of Christian words and thinking
"Lest, therefore, through my neglect, some should be carried off, even as sheep are by wolves, while they perceive not the true character of these men--because they outwardly are covered with sheep's clothing (against whom the Lord has enjoined us to be on our guard), and because their language resembles ours, while their sentiments are very different".
Monday, September 11, 2006
Life in the church would be so much easier if the distinction between truth and error was always obvious and clear. That state of affairs will never arrive. The church militant, as the hymn puts it, will be "by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed". Ever since the Garden of Eden the infiltration of error has gone hand in hand with the art of deception. With a turn of phrase that he will later use of the schemes of the devil, Paul warns of the cunning of false teachers with their craftiness in deceitful schemes (Ephesians 4:14-15). Bad theology is unorthodox in its methods as well as its ideas.
Here's an example of a mind trick. What lies beneath bible words are bible meanings. But for false teachers bible words are used to cover over a different set of meanings. In other words what lies beneath them is a totally different view of God, Christ, sin and salvation. We should never take words at face value and assure ourselves that the same set of words carries the same, orthodox, set of meanings.
The prime NT example of this is in 2 Corinthians 11:4. The super-apostles, themselves masquerading as servants of Christ, preach Jesus, the gospel and the Spirit. Paul says that what lies beneath these bible words in super-apostolic preaching is "another Jesus than the one we proclaimed...a different spirit from the one you received...a different gospel from the one you accepted".
Same words, different meanings; another Jesus, a different gospel. Not the real one but the fake one that cannot save and whose gospel is not good news at all.
What lies beneath? A sign that has been detached from the person and truth signified. What we are left with is an empty shell. What lies beneath? Well lies, deception, fraud, and theological theft on a grand scale.
Heresy cheats you out of salvation.
Sunday, September 10, 2006
As the saying goes "if all you have is a hammer everything starts to look like a nail".
Without a nuanced approach to different kinds of errors and different kinds of people who are influenced by them you'll wind up smashing the church to bits.
A sincerely ignorant Apollos, needed Priscilla and Aquila to teach him the way of God more accurately. They didn't smash him or oppose him. For his part Apollos was teachable and willing to be corrected. On the other hand Paul distinguishes between the Cretan believers who need rebuking and the false teachers who are unregenerate and must be silenced.
But without clear definitions and an attempt to understand others it is easy to treat all errors equally and to handle people who hold to them as if they came out of the same box of nails.
And there are great models for doing this. John Owen wrote strong polemical works and priceless pastoral theology.
The following quotation is taken from Iain Murray's five point summary of principles found in the ministry of Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones in the 1970s:
"...the negative should never be allowed to displace the positive. This principle implies no criticism of the negative. As we know, he believed that much of the existing confusion had arisen because ministers had declined to be forthright in opposing the wrong and the erroneous. But it is possible for the negative and the denunciatory to begin to take the chief place in a man's thinking and message, and when that happens the result is never profitable".
Iain Murray, D. M. Lloyd-Jones: the Fight of Faith, 1939-1981, p. 680
Friday, September 08, 2006
There are lots of reasons why we stumble into error.
1. We are lazy
2. We are sinful, proud and stubborn
3. Even if we are in the process of reconstruction we are growing in grace and knowledge
4. Parts of our theological framework may be skewed in such a way that we filter out Bible passages that would correct our faulty interpretations
We should aim to believe the truth and to progressively eliminate error from our thinking. And that is a process that we are not always serious enough about. To quote R. C. Sproul "I have never applied myself totally to the careful mastery of the Bible". Some questions:
Q 1. Why is the concept of heresy so unacceptable today?
Here's a response along those lines from a blog comment " I am truly shocked that the men that I mentioned above are being accused of attempting to destroy the Christian faith. Is that the kind of discourse that is accepted in your part of… sorry I have no idea where this is".
Q 2. So what's the difference between this admission of culpable error (points 1-4) and being so badly in error that we are heretical?
Q 3. If someone believes a heresy does that also make them a heretic?
Q. 4 Can someone be a genuine believer but say, believe and maybe even teach things that are heretical?
Here is a good quote from Chris Green's excellent guide to preaching and teaching from Acts:
"Please do not underestimate the danger of false teaching. False teaching may teach many different things, fake many different things, and take numerous cultural and social forms, but in one aspect it is always identical: it leads to hell. And the flock follows the wolf in sheep's clothing all the way. False teaching is perilous, deadly, poisonous stuff".
Chris Green, The Word of His Grace, p. 162
Thursday, September 07, 2006
We should not be surprised that God's revelation of himself dwarfs our capacity to take it in. God's Word is filled with infinities and immensities. This is no more so than with the revelation of God's being and Triune nature. Revelation sets the boundaries of orthodoxy and sets the framework and limits to our abilities to comprehend the Triune God and his works.
"When men approach God's truth with a haughty attitude, they often decide that particular elements of that truth are not "suitable" to them, so they "modify" the message of the faith to fit their own notions. Since the Trinity is the highest of God's revelations concerning himself, it is hardly surprising to discover that many groups deny it...An unwillingness to worship God as God has revealed himself lies behind every denial of the Trinity that appears down through history. We want a God we can fit in a box, and the eternal, Triune God does not fit that mold".
James White, The Forgotten Trinity, p. 20-21
"Heresy is dangerous not because it is creative but because it is novel: theology is faith seeking creative understanding, but heresy is pride seeking clever grandstanding. Heresy develops not simply by employing new concepts but from making judgements that go against the canonical grain...heresy diverts our attention away from what God was doing in Christ. Heresy is dangerous because it proposes an alternative economy of salvation--not that there is one".
Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, p. 423-4
Wednesday, September 06, 2006
"Harmful teaching does not generally originate with people who are unqualified to teach and lead people to Christ...Serious and damaging error generally starts in the teaching of an otherwise sound and helpful leader".
John Piper, "Grounds for dismay: The Error and Injury of Open Theism" in Beyond the Bounds, p. 378
"One of the problems that surfaced in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy was the liberal's tendency to use old words with new meanings, without calling attention to the shift, which the humanist John Herman Randall said approached actual hypocrisy".
Millard Erickson, "Evangelical Theological Scholarship in the 21st Century", JETS (March 2003), p. 17
The infant churches of Crete were being infiltrated by false teachers. The effect of this was devastating. Entire households were being overthrown by error.
What was the apostle Paul's strategy for dealing with dangerous error in the churches?
1. Appoint sound teachers who can handle a fight
Titus is to appoint men to the office of elder/overseer of godly character and proven track record. These men must be unshakeable in the doctrine of the gospel and able to teach the truth so that the church is built up (1:5-9a).
Not only must they give instruction in sound doctrine, they must also be able to refute those who contradict it (1:9b). Calvin wrote that "a pastor needs two voices, one for gathering the sheep and the other for driving away wolves and thieves. The Scripture supplies him with the means for doing both". Godly teachers must oppose error. They must have the stomach for a fight and skill in theological combat.
2. Silence the false teachers
Paul's words read like a memo to a hitman, "They must be silenced" (1:11). Those who contradict the gospel must not be given a platform in the church, instead, they must be excluded. The gospel is the hope of eternal life, but their message is man made. Can you be saved through believing a false gospel? The love of souls compels us to silence false teachers. Let them go on the internet, write books, start up a "church" in the next street. But don't let them be recognised as valid teachers of the gospel.
3. Rebuke straying believers sharply
Paul knew the local temperament, he knew that this brand of false teaching was bringing the worst out of the Cretans (1:12-14). The goal of this rebuke was not their humilation but their soundness in the faith. Paul handles straying believers in different ways depending on their needs and situations. On Crete a firm hand was needed to stop the spread of this nonsense.
4. Teach and enforce the gospel of God's grace and its impact on holy living
Turning from the heretics Paul deals with the content and method of true teaching (2:1-15). It is doctrine and ethics, grace and commands. Different groups in the churches are addressed according to their age and sex. The motive for right living is the intelligent response to the work of Christ crucified, risen and returning. True doctrine is essential to the life of the church. And Titus is to "declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority" (2:15). Titus must keep on teaching the doctrine of the gospel because this is the way to wise godly living in the here and now (3:4-8).
5. Warn divise people twice and then exclude them
Patience has its limits. Titus is not to waste his breath on foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions and quarrels about the law. He can afford to be dismissive about them since they are a complete waste of time and don't build up the church. Then there are people that Titus is not to endlessly try to win over. A person who stirs up division must have two warnings. If that person is unrepentant they are to be kicked out of the church. Their actions show that they are warped, sinful and self-condemned (3:9-11).
Paul's objective standard for judging on these matters is the gospel, the apostolic teaching. The kind of false teaching that he is dealing with in this letter is a contradiction of the authentic gospel. This is the criteria for assessing factionalism and doctrinal divisiveness. Heresy is the cuckoo's egg laid in the church. Once it hatches, and grows, it will seek to takeover.
6. Keep world mission driving the agenda
False teaching is a obstruction to the work of the gospel. It takes up time and valuable resources. It is a distraction to the main work of the ministry, which is the preaching of the gospel and the planting and establishing of churches. Therefore false teachers and their influence must be dealt with decisively. Titus needed to follow Paul's instructions on this to the letter. Failure to do so would have increased his troubles and would not have curbed the damage being done to the churches.
The letter to Titus, dominated by the need to teach the truth and refute error, ends with a travel itinenary. A replacement will be dispatched and Titus will head further West with Paul to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth. That is the goal that must not be lost sight of when dealing with heresy.
Tuesday, September 05, 2006
The following is an extract from Thomas C. Oden's article "Can we talk about heresy?" in the April 1995 edition of the Christian Century. Three comments by way of introduction.
1. Oden's critique accords with the obervation that heresies are alien worldviews dressing themselves up in Christian language (see previous posts on "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers").
2. In the second paragraph, Oden has a remark about Christians being intentionally responsible for the disappearance of the concept of heresy. But doing that surely exposes that such people were Christians in name only. When the concept of heresy left it took the truth with it.