Saturday, December 30, 2006

Against Metaphors

The Reformers sometimes, actually fairly regularly, used colourful language to describe their theological opponents. Take Calvin's sermons on Ephesians. The papists were not simply wrong in their doctrine they were "puffed up like swollen toads."

But think of how the New Testament typically describes false teachers:

They are wolves, blind guides, white washed tombs, dogs, uprooted trees, schemers, beasts, blots and blemishes, springs without water, pigs that have returned to the mud, dogs eating their own vomit, slaves, wild waves, and wandering stars.

Well you get the point from that sample don't you?

When we are told that false teaching is wrong the assertion is typically coupled with an image. And the image has a deeper effect on the imagination than a factual statement alone would make. This is the rule, it seems, and not the exception in the New Testament. Nevertheless it is a point that is so repeatedly made that we may well have missed the wood for the trees. It has been there all along, but not always being attentive and observant bible readers we may well have failed to notice something that has been literally staring us in the face.

There is something in this association of error with particular vivid imagery that alleviates the false dichotomy of the head vs. heart that
plagues (now that is an image for you) evangelical thinking. The apostles do not present false doctrine as if it were comparable to mathematical error. By using appropriate images they make clear that false doctrine is disease ridden, grotesque, and diabolical. And they do so by appealing to the imagination.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Wonderful Orthodoxy

Beware of those who would rob you of the deity of Christ, his full and perfect humanity, and the finality and perfection of his finished work.

From the Heidelberg Catechism

31. Why is He called “Christ,” that is, Anointed?

Because He is ordained of God the Father and anointed with the Holy Spirit to be our chief Prophet and Teacher, who has fully revealed to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our redemption; and our only High Priest, who by the one sacrifice of His body, has redeemed us, and ever lives to make intercession for us with the Father; and our eternal King, who governs us by His Word and Spirit, and defends and preserves us in the redemption obtained for us.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

On Honesty in Subscription to Creeds

"It is certainly a transaction which ought to be entered upon with much deep deliberation and humble prayer; and in which, if a man be bound to be sincere in anything, he is bound to be honest to his God, honest to himself, and honest to the church which he joins.

For myself, I know of no transaction in which insincerity is more justly chargeable with the dreadful sin of "lying to the Holy Ghost" than in this.

It is truly humiliating and distressing to know that in some churches it has gradually become customary to consider articles of faith as merely articles of peace: in other words, as articles which he who subscribes is not considered as professing to believe, but as merely engaging not to oppose at least in any public or offensive manner."

Samuel Miller

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Magnificent Orthodoxy

The Nicene Creed

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.

And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Council of Chalcedon

Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us.

Friday, December 22, 2006

The Revenge of the Socinians

Another re-run for the holiday season...

Medicine and theology have a lot in common. Just think of Paul's description of “sound words” and “sound doctrine”, sound in the sense of being healthy. Then there is false teaching. This can spread like “gangrene”. There are some forms of false teaching that recur throughout history. After an outbreak you would think that certain theological diseases have been eradicated from the life of the church. They appear to be consigned to the pages of theological tomes, case histories filed away in the archives. But some errors seem to come back again and again.

History names one such error as Socinianism. Does the name mean anything to you? The first time that I saw the word I thought nothing of it. My first introduction to Socinianism was through Jim Packer's naming of it, alongside Arminianism and Romanism, as an error opposed by John Owen. But after a while I started to wonder about this long forgotten movement. Who exactly were these Socinians? And what did they believe? You may think that it is just another one of those Latin names for medieval theological diseases. Of interest to archivists and researchers, but not for non-historians, and of no relevance in the 21st century.

But you would be wrong. Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish essayist who died in 1881, referred to the “dusthole of extinct Socinianism”. It would have been more accurate if he had called it dormant Socinianism. Socinianism was the old enemy of the Reformation churches, its distinctives remain opposed and hostile to contemporary evangelicals who remain in line with their Protestant past.

Faustus Socinus was born in Sienna, Italy, in 1539 and died in 1604 in Poland. His enduring legacy was the Racovian Catechism, first published in 1605.

And though Faustus Socinus be dead he yet speaketh. He casts a dark shadow over evangelicalism in the Western world and is far more influential than you might imagine. Shall I tell you briefly what he denied? God's exhaustive foreknowledge, penal substitutionary atonement, eternal conscious torment in Hell, original sin and depravity, the doctrine of the Trinity and the deity of Jesus Christ. Put it like that and you realise that he is one of the most influential theological figures in the evangelical world today. Views on the Godhead apart, he would be able to find a place under the broad umbrella of contemporary evangelicalism.

Faustus Socinus was an open theist centuries before Clark Pinnock and Greg Boyd. The best response to this theological aberration is not the recent excellent work of Bruce Ware, John Frame or John Piper, but the writings of the greatest theologian the British Isles has ever known, John Owen. His response to this heresy, Vindiciae Evangelicae (The Mystery of the Gospel Vindicated and Socinianism Examined, vol. 12 of the Banner of Truth edition) was even commissioned by the English Parliament.

Accustomed as we have become to “evangelical” denials of penal substitution, you must realise that anything that we have read in recent years pales into comparison with Socinus' De Jesu Christo Servatore (On Jesus Christ the Saviour). This work is the definitive assault on the doctrine of penal substitution. It is available in Latin and Dutch. Providentially there has never been an English translation. There is no comparison between this work and that of contemporary detractors to the doctrine. Once more it was John Owen whose magisterial labours dealt a withering blow to this error. Owen's Dissertation on Divine Justice deals with the necessity of God's punishing of sin (as opposed to his voluntary punishing of it). Owen had the Socinians in his cross-hairs, and also dealt with the unhelpful logical consequences of Samuel Rutherford's and William Twisse's views on the atonement.

So if a fresh coat of paint has been given to some old heresies in our generation (and by those from within our camp) is that because Socinus' writings are being reprinted and read by evangelicals? I very much doubt it. The Racovian Catechism is hard to come by. Suggest that open theists are in fact closet Socinians and they react with horror, understandably given the anti-trinitarian tag that comes with it. One would normally measure influential figures by their books and preaching. Well Socinus is clearly not influential in that sense. He is not personally influential. He is not directly influential. But the ideas that he espoused are like leaven, spreading and growing in the evangelical loaf. Why is that?

There is nothing new under the sun. We are reading and wrestling with the same biblical text as previous generations. There are cultural factors, not to mention blindspots, that are different. But in essence the main theological options and interpretative moves remain constant. The big question is why is this happening again now?

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Clear and Present Danger

The following was published in the August/September 2006 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine.

There is a book in my study that
is the spiritual equivalent of arsenic or cyanide. If it was in liquid form it would be in a bottle with an orange hazard label. It is the most dangerous book that I own. It is so dangerous that in 1618 it was publically burned by order of the English Parliament. It is called the Racovian Catechism. It contains teaching and reasoned arguments that contradict the gospel. It specifically denies and attacks the deity of Jesus Christ, his atoning death, and the doctrine of the Trinity. And a copy of it sits on my bookshelf in the church where I pastor. Can it do people any harm? No. Unless of course someone reads it, is persuaded by its arguments, and then seeks to convince others to accept them.

There were people like that in Ephesus. They, as well as their teaching, needed to be dealt with. Paul homes in on the teachers themselves because ideas shape lives, and these false teachers had corrupt characters to match their teaching. It is not just the teaching that concerned him. People were promoting these ideas. They must be stopped. These false teachers were a “clear and present danger” to the churches.

What were they teaching?

James Buchanan wrote some very wise words about truth and error:

It has long been my firm conviction, that the only effective refutation of error is the establishment of truth. Truth is one, error is multiform; and truth, once firmly established, overthrows all the errors that either have been, or may yet be, opposed to it. He who exposes and expels an error, does well; but it will only return in another form, unless the truth has been so lodged in the heart as to shut it out for ever. (Doctrine of Justification, p. 15).

Errors are specific. Timothy has to deal with specific distortions, denials and differences in doctrine that we will probably not be dealing with in an identical way today. That said, there are some generic features of the false teaching found here that every age has to deal with. Paul refers to these errors as “different” doctrine. Different from what? From the apostolic gospel, from “the faith”, from the “sound words of the Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness” (6:3). So this teaching is different in its nature, content, and effects, to the apostolic gospel. Like the Galatians they were being presented with a different gospel (Gal. 1:6).

This choice of different doctrine, this heretical imperative, involved two things. It denied the true gospel and promoted a different one. It was of sufficient seriousness to change the content of saving Christian truth and to overturn the unity and peace of the church.

All errors are not equal. Every error in doctrine leads to undesirable pastoral consequences because we will then think, live and worship in a distorted way. The last two hundred years give ample evidence of this concerning the doctrine of sanctification. Well meaning Christians have tried to live holy lives based on ideas that are not biblical (Higher Life, “let Go and let God”, and various forms of perfectionism). Here are errors that call for correction and clear teaching. These ideas were at times promoted by preachers who were unsaved. They were also promoted by preachers who were saved but badly mistaken. But Timothy here is called here to deal with errors that change the very nature and content of the gospel message.

There are two generic features of the false teaching in 1 Timothy:

i. There are errors connected with revelation.

There are “myths”and “genealogies”. By myths he means an unreal tale that only the gullible believe. Extra-biblical revelation is in view. Whatever these myths were about, the issue at stake is plain. Where does the authority lie? Where does the buck stop in the realm of ideas? Made up stories and human imagination or the Word of God? They stand in direct contrast to the knowledge of the truth in the apostolic gospel (2:4-7).

It is clear that the Word is not sufficient for these teachers, they have turned away from it in preference for legends. There is rejection of the truth and error fills the gap that is left. As one man put it our response to revelation is either the “bowed head or turned back”.

ii. There are errors of interpretation.

They are ignorant about the relationship of the law and the gospel. They don't understand that the law's primary function is to expose sin and not to produce speculative legalists.

Perhaps errors in interpretation will be the kind of thing that we will be more familiar with. Is it true that at the micro level our exegesis is always 100% correct? No preacher would claim that. Paul has in mind here the macro level, the very structure of redemptive revelation. These enthusiatic teachers of the law are devoid of understanding (1:8), they don't know what they are talking about. The lawful use of the law is to expose sin. In this the law and the gospel agree. The Socinians held to sola scriptura but they were in gross error when it came to interpreting the Bible. The false teachers in Ephesus were guilty of both errors.

What is Paul's approach to it?

Paul's concern was not so much to describe the false teaching but to charge Timothy to stop the false teachers teaching it. His language shows his mind on it. Paul is scornful. The genealogies are endless! Gallons of ink has been spilt on working out what these heresies were. Paul is content with minimum reportage for either Timothy is very familiar with them or else his attention is being directed elsewhere. Titus received similar advise, these things were foolish, unprofitable and worthless (Titus 3:9).

The Directory of Public Worship has a striking comment, in the section on preaching, about dealing with false doctrine:

In confutation of false doctrines, he (the preacher) is neither to raise an old heresy from the grave, nor to mention a blasphemous opinion unnecessarily: but, if the people be in danger of an error, he is to confute it soundly, and endeavour to satisfy their judgements and consciences against all objections (p. 380).

Timothy's ministry is to be essentially positive. He is to ensure right doctrine and conduct in God's household (3:14-16), devoting himself to the public reading of Scripture, teaching and exhortation (4:13). He must deal with the clear and present danger that the people are in. But when they are not in danger why trouble them with things that are unprofitable? Buchanan, and the Directory, caution us to concentrate on the positive truths of the gospel.

What does it lead to?

Nothing good. Sound doctrine leads to sound living, the gospel promotes godliness. Ungodly behaviour is the natural outworking of doctrines that are not true. They promote speculations and vain discussion not love that issues in a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith (1:5-6). Let go of faith and a good conscience and you will be shipwrecked like Hymenaeus and Alexander (1:19-20). Depart from the “faith” and you will end up with deceitful spirits and demonic doctrines, and the insincerity of liars with seared consciences whose moral teaching contradicts the Word of God (4:1-5).

What a ghastly portrait of those who believe this different teaching Paul paints at the close of the letter. “He is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth” (6:4-5). Their teaching is shown to be false by its practical outcome. G. K. Chesterton wrote that “heresy always affects morality, if it's heretical enough”.

The end result interests Paul. It is speculation and dispute. The very content and nature of this teaching fails to promote what the apostolic gospel promotes. Shame on us when we tolerate sins and attitudes that we know are not consistent with the gospel. Calvin's letter to Laelio Socinus (the uncle of Faustus, the heretical genius behind the Racovian Catechism) is worth pondering:

I am very greatly grieved that the fine talents with which God has endowed you, should be so occupied not only with what is vain and fruitless, but that they should also be injured by pernicious figments...I should be cruel towards you did I treat with a show of indulgence what I believe to be a very dangerous error. I should prefer, accordingly, offending you a little at present by my severity, rather than allow you to indulge unchecked in the fascinating allurements of curiosity. (Letter 30, p. 129)

But Laelio's ears were deaf as well as itching.

Can we draw some conclusions?

1. Ministers must be polemical in their public teaching when they need to be, but not otherwise. In the course of expounding passages dealing with these matters, and when there is real threat. In their private study there is of course need to be aware of men and movements that are dangerous. This is not an appeal for ignorance or dropping our guard.

2. Congregations should be spared from hearing about the specific details of false teaching unless it is absolutely necessary. There are winds of doctrine in the evangelical world, but are they affecting us? Should we not concentrate on things that are? If false teaching is unprofitable and worthless what good can come from considering it? Should we not look at our own sins and situations and address those issues instead?

3. Concentrate on the positive upbuilding of the church. There is work enough here. The rest of 1 Timothy expands on this. Buchanan says that truth is one, more is gained by the positive exposition of the truth than by detailing the forms of error which are multiple. Don't waste time on matters that are not a threat to your situation. The time is short. Is that not how Nehemiah treated his opponents? Put good things before the church and have nothing to do with silly, irreverent myths (4:6-7).

4. Guard your heart and your ministry. As Francis Schaeffer once wrote, reflecting on the battle for the gospel in the 1930s, “be careful what habits you pick up in controversy”. Dr. Lloyd-Jones made the same point in his discussion with T. T. Shields. A polemical ministry is necessary, we must contend for the faith, but we must guard against a contentious spirit. Preoccupation with error is not good for the minister or the church. This is Paul's charge to Titus. The gospel of salvation is excellent for people, the root of faith promotes the fruit of good works. This is profitable. But these other teachings are unprofitable and useless. Avoid them, they thrive in an atmosphere of contention (Titus 3:9-11).

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Against Plausibility

One of the great privileges that I knew during the time that I was involved in student ministry with UCCF: the Christian Unions was being able to spend time with the General Secretary Bob Horn. Bob fell asleep in Jesus just over a year ago after a long struggle with cancer. He was an evangelical statesman, a baptist minister who edited firstly Evangelical Times and then Evangelicals Now.

Bob was humble, gracious, kind, generous, and resolute on gospel truth. One of the things that he learned as a theology student was that the alleged strengths of an opposing theological position could very well be its fundamental weakness. I found that tremendously insightful and helpful when evaluating arguments. Rather than be bowled over by a position it makes you pause, reflect and ask questions.

I think that this resonates with Packer's assessment of the Keswick view of holiness. What promised to be the means of victory over sin and the key to holiness in the Christian life was found to be wanting in exegetical rigour, deficient in realism, and pastorally destructive. The promised victory never came to those who imbibed this teaching.

It also holds good for the positive spin that is put on open theism. Here we no longer have the aloof God, the distant sovereign despot. Instead we have a much more compassionate, close, involved God. But all these alleged pastoral benefits that come with an open theistic view are defective and destructive. They are presented as strengths, in reality they are the gravest weakness of the whole system.

This is another tool for evaluating arguments. It can be used alongside the discarding of rhetoric, which is sometimes no more than the shiny wrapping paper, that also disguises bad arguments and makes them more plausible than they really are.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

On the Necessity of Polemics

Defending the faith once for all delivered to the saints is not an option for those who love and serve the Lord Jesus Christ.

It is impossible for a faithful minister to pursue a purely positive ministry free from any negative features. That kind of pristine ministry is a monstrous oddity in New Testament terms. The apostles and the churches that they planted were in the thick of a battle for the true identity of God and the gospel of his grace. Beyond the human face of false teaching they knew that they were locked in combat with the enemy of souls, the father of lies. It is appalling naivety to suppose that authentic Christian ministry can be exclusively positive and never has to engage with and oppose error, and
those who promote it.

On that note here is another extract from Basil of Caesarea work
On the Holy Spirit. It is prefaced by a comment from Michael Haykin who notes that:

"His great Trinitarian achievement, though, lay in the realm of pneumatology. While there are a number of books on the person and work of Christ in the early centuries of the Church, it was not until Basil wrote his On the Holy Spirit in 375 that there was a book specifically devoted to the person of the Spirit of God".

I've been reading through this work at the recommendation of Haykin. He has an insightful short biographical post on Basil that can be found here

Basil contends that the Spirit's detractors have taken their interpretative method from pagan philosophy and have imposed it as a grid on Scripture. The inevitable consequence of this is that Scripture no longer speaks for itself but becomes a ventriloquist's dummy for an alien world view (see previous posts on the
Invasion of the Body Snatchers and What Lies Beneath).

Basil also makes clear that the goal of heresy is a new allegiance. This is achieved by the overthrow of orthodox doctrine. There can be no truce with heresy since heresy is pressing for an all out victory.

"But all the apparatus of war has been got ready against us; every intellectual missile is aimed at us; and now blasphemers' tongues shoot and hit and hit again, yet harder than Stephen of old was smitten by the killers of the Christ. And do not let them succeed in concealing the fact that, while an attack on us serves for a pretext for the war, the real aim of these proceedings is higher.

It is against us, they say, that they are preparing their engines and their snares; against us that they are shouting to one another, according to each one's strength or cunning, to come on. But the object of attack is faith. The one aim of the whole band of opponents and enemies of "sound doctrine" is to shake down the foundation of the faith of Christ by levelling apostolic tradition to the ground, and utterly destroying it.

So like the debtors,--of course bona fide debtors.--they clamour for written proof, and reject as worthless the unwritten tradition of the Fathers. But we will not slacken in our defence of the truth. We will not cowardly abandon the cause. The Lord has delivered to us as a necessary and saving doctrine that the Holy Spirit is to be ranked with the Father.

Our opponents think differently, and see fit to divide and rend asunder, and relegate Him to the nature of a ministering spirit. Is it not then indisputable that they make their own blasphemy more authoritative than the law prescribed by the Lord?"

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The End of Heresy

The following is taken from Basil of Caesarea, On the Holy Spirit (375 A.D.):

"Who hath woe? Who bath sorrow?" For whom is distress and darkness? For whom eternal doom? Is it not for the transgressors? For them that deny the faith? And what is the proof of their denial? Is it not that they have set at naught their own confessions?

And when and what did they confess? Belief in the Father and in the Son and in the Holy Ghost, when they renounced the devil and his angels, and uttered those saving words.

What fit title then for them has been discovered, for the children of light to use? Are they not addressed as transgressors, as having violated the covenant of their salvation? What am I to call the denial of God? What the denial of Christ? What but transgressions? And to him who denies the Spirit, what title do you wish me to apply? Must it not be the same, inasmuch as he has broken his covenant with God?

And when the confession of faith in Him secures the blessing of true religion, and its denial subjects men to the doom of godlessness, is it not a fearful thing for them to set the confession at naught, not through fear of fire, or sword, or cross, or scourge, or wheel, or rack, but merely led astray by the sophistry and seductions of the pneumatomachi?

I testify to every man who is confessing Christ and denying God, that Christ will profit him nothing; to every man that calls upon God but rejects the Son, that his faith is vain; to every man that sets aside the Spirit, that his faith in the Father and the Son will be useless, for he cannot even hold it without the presence of the Spirit. For he who does not believe the Spirit does not believe in the Son, and he who has not believed in the Son does not believe in the Father. For none 'can say that Jesus is the Lord but by the Holy Ghost,' and 'No man hath seen God at any time, but the only begotten God which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.'
Such an one hath neither part nor lot in the true worship; for it is impossible to worship the Son, save by the Holy Ghost; impossible to call upon the Father, save by the Spirit of adoption".

Chapter XI

Friday, December 15, 2006

Against separation and substitution

"Dear children, keep yourselves from idols".

This is the concluding command of John's first epistle. On the surface of things John has not said anything about the danger of idolatry. But implicitly he has been dealing with it all throughout his letter. This idolatry is presented in two forms. The "world" is a rival god, vying for the affections of the believer. And then there is the seduction of false teaching. This too aims to lure the children of God away from their Father.

Bruce Ellis Benson, in his book
Graven Ideologies, refers to the separation from God that is entailed by idolatry. The idol is not God, and therefore it has come between us and the Father.

This separation from the true and living God is because the idol has become a
substitute. Like a solar eclipse, the light has been covered. We are left without sight of the Father because a substitute has caused this separation. The chilling cause of this, according to John, is the proclamation of a false Christ. "No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also" (1 John 2:23). What is being denied of course is not the Son's existence but his true identity as the God-Man, God's own testimony concerning him.

This is how he puts it in his second epistle (2 John 9-11):

"Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works".

We should never underestimate the destructive nature of heresy. Idolatry always, and inevitably, takes us away from eternal life. This truly is the
agony of deceit.

Without the Son, without the Father, without hope, without life, without comfort. The affirmation of the following question from the Heidelberg Catechism is taken away:

Question 26. What do you believe when you say: "I believe in God the Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth"?

That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth with all that is in them, who also upholds and governs them by his eternal counsel and providence, is for the sake of Christ his Son my God and my Father.

I trust in him so completely that I have no doubt that he will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul. Moreover, whatever evil he sends upon me in this troubled life he will turn to my good, for he is able to do it, being almighty God, and is determined to do it, being a faithful Father.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The tyrannous noon of revelation is our solid hope

Salvation is entirely suited to our need and to the situation that we are in as a result of the Fall.

Included in this recovery is the restoration of knowledge and authority. By the work of the Spirit we are made receptive and submissive to God's voice in the gospel. We were created to relate to God through his Word (it should not be lost on us that God relates to the entire creation by his Word, a point that Genesis 1 makes emphatically).

The Fall was the rejection of the words of God in favour of a new form of verbal revelation. Adam and Eve submitted themselves to the wisdom and explanatory power of the words of the Serpent. But this was a lying revelation and a false authority. It promised a better interpretation of God's world, but it could not deliver. Such has been the story of heresy ever since.

That God should then speak words of promise was an act of free grace. And it was necessary that having rejected and rebelled against the voice of God that the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve should find no return to their Maker without once more receiving his words and submitting to their truthfulness, goodness and authority.

"Redemption includes liberation from falsehood and discovery of the truth. Objective religion is not the product of subjective religion but is given in divine revelation; dogma is not a symbolic interpretation of spiritual experience but an expression of truth given by God in his Word."

Prolegomena, p. 501

New look, same old blog

Hearty thanks to Dave Bish for the timely makeover. Dave is doing a grand job of improving the look of Christian blogs.

And here is a nice picture of Westminster Abbey to conjure up thoughts of Reforming confessional statements...

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

On Devilish Doctrine

The New Testament link between heresy and the demonic was not lost in the post-apostolic period, even if such language sounds strange to our ears today.

Certainly, for Paul, the instability caused by the deceitful schemes of men, that the maturing Ephesian Church needed to grow out of, were not unrelated to the schemes of the devil (Eph. 4:14; 6:11). He is even more explicit about the connection in 1 Timothy 4 and 2 Corinthians 11.

Jaroslav Pelikan saw this as an implication of the renouncing of the devil by candidates for baptism.

" is evident already from such New Testament terminology as 'deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons' that 'the devil, and his pomp, and his angels,' disowned by the candidate for baptism as part of the sacramental ritual of initiation, are seen as the instigators not simply of the worship of the false gods of paganism outside the church but of the false teachings and 'the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge' within professedly Christian ranks.

nouncing the devil means denouncing heresy--not only one's own, if any, but anyone else's, past, present or future."

Pelikan, Credo, p. 191-2

On Creeds and Heretics

"Wherever there is a creed, there is a heretic round the corner or in his grave."

Alfred North Whitehead

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Beautiful Orthodoxy

Orthodoxy isn't just true, it is also beautiful.

True doctrine enables us to receive and recognise the Triune God; and what this Father, Son and Spirit have done, are doing, and will do for the Church. To be robbed of the deity of Christ, the deity of the Spirit, the penal substitutionary atonement, justification by faith alone, and the sovereign grace of God is to be stripped of comfort in life and death.

One of the tragedies of a reductionistic approach to doctrine among evangelicals is corrupting of the very things that link us to God's supply of strength, stability and comfort. I have never understood why people who profess to believe in the full authority of the Bible should have a negative attitude to the very riches of doctrinal truth that it contains.

The Heidelberg Catechism

Question 1.
What is your only comfort, in life and in death?

That I belong--body and soul, in life and in death--not to myself but to my faithful Saviour, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Against a better orthodoxy

Sometimes the turn from truth to error is slow.

It is possible to stand back and survey this in the history of a local church, Christian organisation, denomination, or movement. The original confessional foundations become increasingly marginalised. What the founding generation thinks will guarantee long term fidelity to the gospel is eventually displaced by the decisions of future ones. It need not happen with the direct denial of particular doctrines (although that does occur) it can also happen by the relativising and reinterpreting of the very concept of confessionalism.

Sometimes the turn from truth to error can be very rapid.

In fact this is the speed at which error works in the New Testament. Consider the mess at Ephesus that Timothy has to sort out, the trouble on Crete that Titus is sent to deal with, the doctrinal confusion at Corinth, the secession of false prophets that John addresses in his letters, and the necessary warnings given in 2 Peter and Jude.

Why did error take hold so soon?

There are several reasons for this. One is Satanic activity, another is God's providential testing of his Church, a third is immaturity. But there is one reason given that ought to make us think very hard. False teaching of the highest level makes inroads into gospel churches because it is just so

Paul makes this point in Galatians 1:6-9. The Galatians have fallen for a better orthodoxy:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel--not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

Why would you want to believe a lie? You wouldn't would you if you knew that it was a lie. But the lie has come to you dressed as "a different gospel." It presents itself as good news. In fact as better news than the apostolic gospel. That, at a human level, is why error is preferred to the truth.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

On Preaching the Truth

Sometimes the "right" truth gets preached from the wrong text. Instead of exposition listeners are given sermons on truths that are part of the framework of Christian doctrine. They then go away without knowing the intended meaning and application of the text that has been read but not expounded. They can still benefit from that but it isn't the best.

It is a different matter when not only is there a failure in expository excellence but there is also an infusion of error.

A church that grows together in its knowledge of the Bible, and skill in reading and interpreting it, will be in a better place to evaluate the teaching that it hears.

Such an approach does not guarantee immunity from error, but it is an important safeguard against false teaching disguising itself as the truth. Sadly it is often very gifted and well respected men who are lead astray and take others along with them.

In the end, the difference between orthodoxy and heresy is decided by the exposition of the Word of God.

"Error, even when mingled with truth, is like poison in our food. It is a thing much to be dreaded and avoided, to preach what is not true; or what God has never commanded us to teach.

The pastor's of Christ's flock have the strongest motives to induce them to 'take heed to themselves and to their doctrine.' They should be exceedingly solicitous to know what the truth is, not only for their own sakes, but for the sake of the people; and when they do know the revealed will of God, woe be unto them, if they do not preach it faithfully."

Archibald Alexander, The Pastoral Office, p. 15

Monday, December 04, 2006

On Godliness and Polemics

Here are some wise words from Archibald Alexander:

"The truth has its best effect when it is proposed simply and unconnected with false opinions which may be entertained by some. It is but to hold forth the word of life as true and certain, as if it had never been controverted. Preachers who are forever brandishing the polemical sword may make their hearers skilful in controversy, and they will be sure to catch the spirit of polemics too. But what they gain in acuteness of intellect and keeness of temper, they will lose in improvement of heart.

Men may be forever considering the truth as it comes up in controversy, and never be affected with its beauty and force.

I do not mean to say that a minister of the gospel must never resort to controversy. I would say on this subject as on that of war; it is a necessary evil. We should never engage in it unless it is forced on us, and then kick it out of the pulpit if possible."

"When controversy is forced upon you by the perverseness, pride or obstinacy of others see that you contend only with gospel weapons...You are commanded to instruct those who oppose you with meekness. Severity may be used when the evil will not yield to mild admonition and gentle persuasion--but it should not be the severity of sinful resentment, but of holy zeal for the honour of God's truth."

Quoted in James M. Garretson,
Princeton and Preaching, p. 136-7

Friday, December 01, 2006

Against Salvation by Words

Is right doctrine an indispensible aspect of saving faith or not?

From time to time the knowledge of orthodox doctrine for salvation is criticised along the lines of
"we are not justified by knowing about justification," or "we are not saved by right ideas." We are saved by Christ not doctrine. And stated like that who could disagree?

But this is a criticism that should not get a free pass. It is not the trump card that it is alleged to be.

1. The Lord Jesus Christ is the
object of saving faith. But the Christ who saves us is never an "uninterpreted Christ." He is either rightly interpreted or wrongly interpreted. A false faith would be faith placed in a wrongly interpreteted Christ. Isn't that Paul's point about the super apostles in 2 Corinthians 11? They preached "another Jesus."

2. By a rightly "interpreted Christ" I mean that the Christ of the Bible and the apostles' proclamation is never separated for faith from what God has said about him (his person and his work).

3. Take away God's interpretation of Christ from our experience of him and you are left with either a mystical Christ, of whom we know nothing and whose name serves merely as a religious word, or a false Christ (and there are many in history who have fitted this description).

Detach right ideas from Christ and his work and you are left either with nothing, or with a false Christ. There is no uninterpreted Christ. We need God's explanation of him in order for us to call on him. And isn't that Paul's point in Romans 10?

Bavinck put it this way:

"Scripture does not give us data to interpret; it is itself the interpretation of reality, the shaper of a distinctive worldview."

Prolegomena, p. 354