Sunday, September 03, 2006

Wolves in evangelical clothing

The fear of being thought negative, and associating the discernment of error with an unloving attitude, opens us up to soul destroying influences. It actually prevents us from hearing the voice of Jesus as he warns us about wolves in sheep's clothing. We cannot afford to be complacent or naive on these matters.

Church history, that long extended memory of God's dealings with his people, is full of tragedies, triumphs and warnings. Here is a warning worth listening to.

"I dare boldly say, that if ever he [Satan] settle to a stated opposition to the gospel it will be in Socinianism" (John Owen, Vindiciae Evangelicae, p. 53)

Socinianism brought together a pelagian view of human nature, the denial of God's exhaustive foreknowledge (what we know today as open theism), the denial of the Trinity, the denial of eternal punishment, and the denial of penal substitutionary atonement.

Several of these views are in the process of taking up residence in evangelicalism as members of the household. Obviously the Trinity is not being questioned, well not just yet.

Which leads on to a conundrum. Why would anyone identify themselves as evangelical when historically their position is in fact an attack on evangelical distinctives? It makes much more sense to call yourself what you are instead of what you are not.

One can only conclude that there is a benefit in doing so. When teachers change their views and no longer preach what they once did, and when those changes have moved them away from evangelical theology, it is a matter of honesty to give up the name. What seems to happen is that instead of a turning away from evangelicalism there is a turning upon evangelical theology. It is the best representatives of the heritage who are then treated as aberrants instead of the current defectors.

But giving up the name would mean giving up the funds, the public profile, the book contracts, the salary, the home, the conference invitations, the professorship, the pension, the pastorate etc. In terms of this world there is a cost to honest dealings. But then heresy has always been a moral matter as well as an intellectual one. Since 1945 evangelicalism has been a surprise success story. And that success, in terms of numbers and influence, is hard to give up on.

When confronted over errors (in the specific case I have in mind an attack on the atonement) I have heard someone reply that in fact their view is the gospel. But that gospel was not the gospel which, by their own admission, they used to preach. Doubtless it was a sincerely meant statement. But what is morally questionable is the failure to move on to another constituency altogether. Evangelicalism's low doctrinal immune system makes it an inviting host for "different" theologies to thrive on.

In fairness to the Socinianians, as anti gospel as they undoubtedly were, many of them did suffer in the 17th century for their convictions. And in fairness to John Owen he made it crystal clear that behind the "woolly" talk of believing only "what the Bible taught" there was a pelt and a mouth with sharp teeth. Socinianism is "another gospel". The fact that key elements of it are being passed off as viable 21st centuy options for evangelicals won't turn wolves into sheep.

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