Monday, January 29, 2007

Why would anyone embrace heresy?

You would think that someone would have to be out of their right mind to believe heresy. Who, after all, wants to believe something that isn't true? But, to quote Lucifer in Milton's Paradise Lost, the anthem of heresy is that “it is better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” Every heresy appeals to our sinful wishes and desires, the “way that we want things to be” and not the way that God has provided in the gospel, “which is infinitely better for us” as Bishop Allison put it. Consider all the major heresies and you will find that they appeal, directly or indirectly, to our sinful reason, affections and will. Heresy appears to be beneficial, posing as good news and proclaiming Jesus (2 Cor. 11:4), but in reality like gangrene it destroys spiritual life (2 Tim. 2:17).

Heresy always presents itself as an improvement on the biblical gospel. For the Colossians it promised to overcome their struggle with sin and bring them closer to God. For the Galatians it would keep them from persecution and fuel their desire to justify themselves before God by their works.

Heresy never appears in its true colours. In his monumental work Against Heresies Irenaeus wrote that “error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced (ridiculous as the expression may seem) more true than the truth itself.”

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Where do heresies come from?

It is vitally important to realise that heresies do not originate in the minds of men and women. Ultimately heresy originates with the devil. When the apostle Paul takes the Corinthian church to task for tolerating false teachers he compares their approach to the deception of Eve by the serpent (2 Cor. 11:3). But the deception in the Garden is more than a useful illustration. The super-apostles at Corinth are the servants of the devil disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.

Similarly Paul warned Timothy about “deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1), and of false teachers who are caught in the snare of the devil (2 Tim. 2:24-25). After all the devil is the father of lies (John 8:44). The connection between other gospels and the demonic, which is integral to a biblical world view, has been largely lost. If it were regained it would keep us from ever thinking that heresies are interesting, intellectually stimulating, tolerable, or in any way benign. Cyprian of Carthage, in the third century, made this insightful comment about heresy and the devil:

“There is more need to fear and beware of the Enemy when he creeps up secretly, when he beguiles us by a show of peace and steals forward by those hidden approaches which have earned him the name of the 'Serpent'...He invented heresies and schisms so as to undermine the faith, to corrupt the truth, to sunder our unity. Those whom he failed to keep in the blindness of their old ways he beguiles, and leads them up a new road of illusion.

Or as one writer put it “renouncing the devil means denouncing heresy.”

Secondly, it is vitally important to understand that heresy is the takeover of Christianity by an alien worldview. Paul warned the Colossians about “plausible arguments” and those who were trying to take them captive by “philosophy and empty deceit according to human tradition,” (Col. 2:4, 8). Heretics often use the words of the Bible, change their meaning, and hide false ideas under them. The label may still say “Christ,” “salvation,” or “atonement” but the meaning of these words have been radically altered. The early church fathers were alert to this danger. They wrote books to expose the fact that heretics were really saying the same thing as pagan philosophers, only the heretics were dressing up these ideas in Christian language. This deceitfulness makes heresy morally as well as doctrinally wrong.

Friday, January 26, 2007

What is Heresy?


What do you associate that word with?
Torches and pitchforks? Burning someone at the stake? The incessant barking of theological watchdogs? “Health and wealth” preachers? Unbelieving bishops who deny the gospel but stay on the payroll of the church?

What is heresy?

One writer defines it as “any teaching that directly contradicts the clear and direct witness of the Scriptures on a point of salvific importance.” Heresy is the kind of doctrinal error that is so serious that it redefines the gospel. Error is always costly. It dishonours God and damages the Church. But not all errors are heresies. A heretic is not someone who fails to explain adequately the doctrine of the Trinity, or that Jesus is both fully God and fully man, the nature of the atonement, or justification by faith alone. No, a heretic denies these truths and is fundamentally unsubmissive to apostolic doctrine and authority as it is given in Scripture.

Heresy is not a matter of opinion. We have an objective standard when we want to find out which theological view is correct or orthodox (meaning “right belief”), as Paul shows in 1 Corinthians 15, and which ones are wrong . In the end the fight against heresy is always won by the clear, patient, and thorough exposition of Scripture. Perversely, successful heretics themselves often claim to be truly orthodox and biblical.

Heresy is a matter of choice. It is the choice to believe a different gospel. Augustine said that heretics are men who were altogether broken off and alienated in matters relating to the actual faith.”

A heretic chooses to tell lies about the God of the Bible because he doesn't want to tell the truth. And a heretic is someone who refuses admonition and is divisive (Titus 3:10-11). Putting it mathematically, heretics take away from the truth of the gospel (and adding to the truth always takes away from it), they divide true churches and aim to multiply new disciples.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Against False Foundations

Johann Friedrich Stapfer dealt with several kinds of error in his Institutiones theologiae polemicae. In identifying the basic ideas of each heresy he sought to delineate its proton pseudos or false fundamental. He then could direct the force of his argument against this primary hypothesis of each heresy.

"When he turns to heretics, Stapfer recognises...fundamental errors that mirror, like a 'bad eminence,' the fundamental articles of the true faith. Thus, papists accept revelation and reason but hold as proton pseudos the supremacy of the pope which leads to the founding of doctrine on an infallible church rather than on the Lordship of Christ. The Pelagian proton pseudos, that fallen man can adequately obey the Law, stands over against the church's insistence on the necesssity of grace."

Richard Muller, PRRD vol. 1 Prolegmena to Theology, p. 423-4

Monday, January 22, 2007

On Assessing Doctrinal Errors

"The Reformed orthodox generally also note, in connection with the idea of fundamental articles, three kinds of doctrinal error:

(1) errors directly against a fundamental article (contra fundamentum)

(2) errors
around a fundamental or in indirect contradiction to it (circa fundamentum)

(3) errors
beyond a fundamental article (praeter fundamentum)

The first kind of error is a direct attack--such as those launched by the Socinians--against the divinity of Christ or the Trinity. The second is not a direct negation or an antithesis but rather an indirect or secondary error ultimately subversive of a fundamental--such as a belief in God that refuses to acknowledge his providence. The third category of error does not address fundamental articles directly or indirectly but rather involves faith in problematic and curious questions (quaestiones problematicas et curiosas) that do not arise out of the revealed Word--hay and stubble!--and that, because of their curiosity and vanity, constitute diversions from and impediments to salvation."

Richard Muller, PRRD vol. 1:Prolegomena to Theology, p. 422-3

Friday, January 19, 2007

Maximus and Minimus

Evangelical statements of faith are intentionally minimalistic because they are a means of expressing unity on essential beliefs. They function for churches, individuals and organisations as a point of agreement on the things of first importance. They exist so that evangelicals can unite and make a common cause in evangelism and in society. So far so good.

But these statements are like a door on a double hinge opening in two directions.

Some evangelicals, usually Reformed ones, come at that door from the direction of valuing doctrine, theology and confessionalism.

To this group of people a minimal definition is a paring down of a larger body of doctrine that they hold to. This larger framework historically deals with:

  • Theology (as expressed in the WCF, 1689 Baptist Confession, the HC, the BC, the Savoy Declaration, the 39 articles etc.)
  • Piety (the Lord's prayer)
  • Ethics (the Ten Commandments)

Even in a shrunk down version, the evangelical basis of faith that they are asked to agree to makes sense to them. It does not appear to them as an abstract set of statements. They can see, to borrow a phrase from a friend of mine, the "bonding glue" that holds the minimal evangelical statement together.

To another group of people a minimal evangelical basis of faith is in fact a maximal statement. These people are approaching the door from a different direction. They are not coming to it as a condensed form of a larger confession since they have no larger confession to condense. To them there is no bonding glue between the doctrines that holds them together. And that is why from this direction minimal evangelical statements of faith are often approached with suspicion, indifference, a causal air, hostility, and convenience. There is no heritage of confessionalism that they bring with them. They are starting with an experience of Christ in the life of believers, often mediated through songs, and not a confession of Christ and his saving work that is interpreted and mediated by the Word.

In the UK, mainstream evangelicalism is dominated by charismatic churches. It is interesting to note that many well known church leaders from this constituency had their roots in Brethren assemblies (where confessionalism is not valued but doctrinal distinctives are to be found in popular books and in an oral tradition).

Is it any wonder then that with such different approaches, predicated on such different mindsets, broad evangelical unity suffers from an inherent instability and constant tension?

Now let me add some important qualifiers to avoid being misunderstood.

1. Even though I am criticising the approach to minimalism from one direction I need to add that this is not a postmortem evaluation. There is a remedy. That remedy is to approach the great historic Reformed confessions with an open mind and a willingness to learn why they have been, and are, so important. If you want experiential theology with real substance then just sit down and read the Heidelberg Catechism. Being prejudiced against confessionalism is something that can , after all, be repented of. And I would also add that an appreciation for the Reformed confessions would help give solid foundations and solid joy to any and all Bible believing Christians. Read the Heidelberg Catechism and see.

2. I want, as much as I can, to make clear that young Christians who want a deeper grasp of the faith that they confess are to be treated not with disdain for a lack of knowledge but grace. We cannot help our backgrounds, and there are often things that we have to unlearn as we go along. Confessional minimalism is one of those things. I have no desire to attack people who are untaught, but who are teachable. When people ought to know better that is a different matter.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Against confessing the faith

It is never an option for evangelicals as to whether or not they will have a systematic theology. They have one. That theology is either good or bad, thought through or cobbled together without much in the way of reflection. But we ought not to think that we can lay our cards on the table and say that we don't have one. So it is with being confessional. We simply cannot be Christians at all with confessing the faith.

The following is taken from Richard Muller's address Confessing the Reformed Faith and can be found at Scott Clark's page at Westminster Seminary California. Muller is critiquing the approach of well meaning, and perhaps not so well meaning, evangelicals who contribute to confessional erosion:

"I am speaking here of the noncredal, non-confessional, and sometimes even anti-confessional and anti-traditional biblicism of conservative American religion. One recent evangelical systematic theology makes the point that confessional theology is a form of "indoctrination" that ought to be avoided-and, over the years, I have heard similar comments from students who were associated with the noncredal churches: Confessions are unnecessary at best when one has the Bible. At worst, they prevent their adherents from encountering the meaning of Scripture.

have usually asked such students whether they believe in the doctrine of the Trinity, specifically, the doctrine of one divine essence in three persons. When they nearly invariably respond positively, I point out to them that they are not really noncredal or non-confessional, but are in fact adherents to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed from the Second Ecumenical Council (A.D. 381).

I ask next whether, from their noncredal perspective, they view it as permissible to hold a doctrine of the Trinity according to which only the Father is truly God, and the Son, as "the firstborn of all creation" who himself confesses, "The Father is greater than I," might be viewed as an exalted creature of God. Of course, they deny such a possibility-but they have very great difficulty arguing against it in brief, without recourse to the Nicene formula: Arianism, after all, did have its scriptural proof texts.

The point is, then, quite simply made that we need creeds and confessions so that we, as individuals, can approach Scripture in the context of the community of belief. It is not that creeds and confessions stand above Scripture as norms. Not at all. They stand below, but also with Scripture as churchly statements concerning the meaning of Scripture. And therefore, they also stand above the potentially idiosyncratic individual and prevent him from becoming his own norm of doctrine even as they provide entry for him into a churchly perspective".

Saturday, January 13, 2007

We have a confession to make

Evangelicalism in the UK is confessionally minimalistic. There are several reasons for this.

As a rule evangelical para-church organisations are intentionally minimalistic in their doctrinal statements in order to unite as many individuals, churches and fellow organisations as possible around a common confession of faith. With some variety those statements are sufficient for the purpose that they are used for. They provide clear summaries of central doctrines using a minimum of words (with varying degrees of precision, faithfulness and clarity depending on the organisation). They can appear to be a lose collection of abstract statements, even though they are in fact shaped by the unfolding revelation of the gospel.

My impression, and it is only an impression, is that this minimalist approach is not only a concession for the sake of a broader unity but it is also a fact of church life. Or to state it another way, the impression I have is that confessional minimalism is the rule not the exception.

And even where older, and fuller, confessional statements are adhered to, whether they ever get used in the way that they were intended to be used is another matter altogether.

Doubtless there are several contributing factors to this situation. It is stating the obvious even to mention the fact that some evangelicals need persuading that doctrine is good, true, wholesome, beneficial and necessary for the church as opposed to being dry, dusty, cerebral, and irrelevant to practical Christian living. My guess is that a neglect of the doctrine of the church has also played a part in this, and the unhelpful spin-off of regarding "secondary truths" to be of no intellectual and practical consequence for believers. But whatever the causes and contributing factors it is a situation of lowered immunity and poor health.

Richard Muller has some wise words to say on recovering this situation. You may find that his position is a world away from contemporary thought, practice and perceived wisdom in the church:

"We must do all that we can to assure the contemporary use of our confessions and catechisms in the life of the church. They must not be relegated to the status of dead standards that are brought to bear only when problems arise and are then put back on a shelf in a closed book when the crisis has passed.

It is well for us to remember that the confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were, first and foremost, declarations of faith. They were not (and, therefore, ought not to become) rules for belief imposed on the church from without: they are normative declarations spoken from within by the church itself, for the sake of pronouncing the church's biblical faith. We do justice to their contents only when we declare them—only when we confess them—as the expression of our corporate faith and corporate identity.

More confessions and varied patterns of subscription are not the solution to our problem. Only the regular use of our confessions as standards for the expression of biblical truth can render them effective and, indeed, contemporary in their significance.

Only by declaring the confessions, by using them in the contexts of preaching, of teaching, and of corporate worship, can they fulfill their intended role as positive guides, arising out of the faith of the church in its meditation on Scripture, to the ongoing work of the Reformed churches".

Friday, January 12, 2007

Against Confessional Neglect

The church has been called to speak the truth in love. Or, to put it another way, to confess the truth of the gospel, in love. When the church fails to do this she inevitably remains immature. Doctrinal immaturity leaves churches and Christians vulnerable to errors and to the influences of those who promote them. The neglect of soundness in the faith always brings unhelpful consequences.

The way to deal with this is not only to have teachers who can instruct in sound doctrine, but pastor-teachers who can both instruct in sound doctrine and oversee the flock so that it confesses the truth in love. The goal of sound doctrine is not merely the duplication of correct knowledge (a barren orthodoxy) but the outworking of the truth in all of life and in all that we are. Or as Paul says to Timothy "
The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith" (1 Tim. 1:5).

"...the church of Christ...has a certain task to fulfill with respect to dogma. To preserve, explain, understand, and defend the truth of God entrusted to her, the church is called to appropriate it mentally, to assimilate it internally, and to profess it in the midst of the world as the truth of God."

Herman Bavinck, Prolegomena, p. 30-1

"But if we are ignorant of the doctrine and glory of Christ, who from among us will be willing to suffer on their account? And how can it be otherwise but that we will be ignorant of these things, unless we are taught and instructed in them from our childhood? A neglect of the catechism is, therefore, one of the chief causes why there are so many at the present day tossed about by every wind of doctrine, and why so many fall from Christ to Anti-Christ."

Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 16

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Heresy always brings loss

Other gospels always promise benefits. They are after all alternatives to the apostolic good news. But since they will always be found wanting in their conformity to Scripture, and will always be rooted out and refuted by good exegesis and theology, whatever benefits they promise will in the end prove to be unreal. They will always leave untouched the deepest problems of sin. They will always fail to present God and his great salvation on his terms. And because they do that they leave us with empty alternatives. Heresy is "make believe" theology. It is the proclamation of a thin alternative God.

Now, it never presents itself in those terms. Far from it. Heresy is always decked out in fine clothes. It perpetually comes to us bearing gifts. The advocates of heresy want us to taste and see how good it is, how much better it is for us than orthodoxy.

The following extract from John Owen's Communion With God was posted by Dan Phillips at the Pyromaniacs blog. From the time that I first read this work by Owen I was struck by the grandeur of the gospel when it is properly viewed through a Covenantal Trinitarian lens. I have an allergic reaction to superficiality. Owen's work is so solid, substantial and real, it really comes as no surprise that his writings are nurturing souls centuries after his death.

Anything else is not only wrong, it is robbery. Beware imitations, they are always sub-standard.

"And on this ground it is that if all the world should (if I may so say) set themselves to drink free grace, mercy, and pardon, drawing [Cant. v. 1; Isa. lv. 1; Rev. xxii. 17; John vii. 37, 38] water continually from the wells of salvation; if they should set themselves to draw from one single promise, an angel standing by and crying, “Drink, O my friends, yea, drink abundantly, take so much grace and pardon as shall be abundantly sufficient for the world of sin which is in every one of you;” — they would not be able to sink the grace of the promise one hair’s breadth. There is enough for millions of worlds, if they were; because it flows into it from an infinite, bottomless fountain. “Fear not, O worm Jacob, I am God, and not man,” is the bottom of sinners’ consolation.

This infiniteness of grace, in respect of its spring and fountain, will answer all objections that might hinder our souls from drawing nigh to communion with him, and from a free embracing of him. Will not this suit us in all our distresses? What is our finite guilt before it? Show me the sinner that can spread his iniquities to the dimensions (if I may so say) of this grace. Here is mercy enough for the greatest, the oldest, the stubbornest transgressor, — “Why will ye die, O house of Israel?”

Take heed of them who would rob you of the Deity of Christ. If there were no more grace for me than what can be treasured up in a mere man, I should rejoice [if] my portion might be under rocks and mountains".

Monday, January 08, 2007

Is it Living Heresy or Dead Unorthodoxy?

The following is from today's Washington Post. Rev. John Yates and Os Guinness give their reasons for leaving the episcopal church. The full article can be found here:

"First, Episcopal revisionism abandons the fidelity of faith. The Hebrew scriptures link matters of truth to a relationship with God. They speak of apostasy as adultery -- a form of betrayal as treacherous as a husband cheating on his wife.

Second, Episcopal revisionism negates the authority of faith. The "sola scriptura" ("by the scriptures alone") doctrine of the Reformation church has been abandoned for the "sola cultura" (by the culture alone) way of the modern church. No longer under authority, the Episcopal Church today is either its own authority or finds its authority in the shifting winds of intellectual and social fashion -- which is to say it has no authority.

Third, Episcopal revisionism severs the continuity of faith. Cutting itself off from the universal faith that spans the centuries and the continents, it becomes culturally captive to one culture and one time. While professing tolerance and inclusiveness, certain Episcopal attitudes toward fellow believers around the world, who make up a majority of the Anglican family, have been arrogant and even racist.

Fourth, Episcopal revisionism destroys the credibility of faith. There is so little that is distinctively Christian left in the theology of some Episcopal leaders, such as the former bishop of Newark, that a skeptic can say, as Oscar Wilde said to a cleric of his time, "I not only follow you, I precede you." It is no accident that orthodox churches are growing and that almost all the great converts to the Christian faith in the past century, such as G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, have been attracted to full-blooded orthodoxy, not to revisionism. The prospect for the Episcopal Church, already evident in many dioceses, is inevitable withering and decline.

Fifth, Episcopal revisionism obliterates the very identity of faith. When the great truths of the Bible and the creeds are abandoned and there is no limit to what can be believed in their place, then the point is reached when there is little identifiably Christian in Episcopal revisionism. Would that Episcopal leaders showed the same zeal for their faith that they do for their property. If the present decline continues, all that will remain of a once strong church will be empty buildings, kept going by the finances, though not the faith, of the fathers.

These are the outrages we protest. These are the infidelities that drive us to separate. These are the real issues to be debated. We remain Anglicans but leave the Episcopal Church because the Episcopal Church first left the historic faith. Like our spiritual forebears in the Reformation, "Here we stand. So help us God. We can do no other."

Friday, January 05, 2007

The Heidelberg Catechism & Project

This is from the Resurgence blog:

"Resurgence is starting its second podcast feed. In this second podcast feed we are going to spend the year on what we are calling the Resurgence Heidelberg Project...Each week Resurgence will podcast one of the sections typically titled as, 'Lord’s Day 1, Lord’s Day 2 and so on' for the rest of 2007, being read by professors, pastors and other godly men and women in the church. The Heidelberg Catechism has been translated into many languages and is the most influential and the most generally accepted of the several catechisms during the Reformation. This Catechism has been noted by many theologians and pastors up to our present day as one of the more practical Catechisms".

An explanation of the project can be found here and the entry for Lord's Day 1 can be found here

On the Antidote to Confessional Amnesia

The following is from Scott Clark's article "Why we memorise the catechism" (originally published in the Presyterian Banner, 2003, and available here).

"Both children and parents in Reformed congregations often ask, 'Why must we (or our children) memorize the catechism? If they must memorize anything at all, should they not memorize Holy Scripture instead?' These are fair questions, but they rest on dubious premises.

The first premise is that memorization is somehow out of date or a backward practice. Quite to the contrary, in most circumstances (there not being any significant developmental disabilities) memorization is a most valuable skill to teach our children and further, contrary to much modern educational theory it is exactly what they want at a certain stage of their development.

The second premise sounds pious but contains within it a sort of sugarcoated poison since it juxtaposes implicitly the theology and teaching of the church against Scripture. As a matter of fact, we understand our catechism to be a good, sound and accurate summary of the whole teaching of Scripture. As a matter of history, all heretics quote Scripture. What makes us Reformed is how we understand Scripture and this understanding is summarized in the catechism. This is, -why we have a catechism".

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Against Amnesia

For good or ill every generation leaves a doctrinal legacy. By observing public worship, family devotions, popular books and public confessions, the next generation has a feel for what is considered authentic and valuable. Whether this is done thoughtfully and deliberately, or casually and randomly, a legacy will inevitably be passed on.

The treasures of former generations become ours to prize. We can believe, teach and confess the same truths that nurtured and comforted believers in the past. We can embrace the same truths that former generations fought for and handed on to us.

Or we can see these riches squandered. We can read only the books that our contemporaries have written. We can post doctrinal statements on our church websites but never peruse them, or teach them or live them like we ought to. We can fail to confess the truth wholeheartedly out of fear of what our culture will think of us. If we do these things we will send a signal about what really matters to us, and what by implication should matter to the rising generation. It is possible to neglect doctrines to such an extent that they become a forgotten thing.

"Like the gnostics of old, many Christians today regard the history of Christ's body and its doctrinal consensus as little more than the prison house of the soul."

Michael Horton,
A Better Way, p. 167

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The End of Controversies?

Toward the end of his life Richard Baxter wrote a book on the end of controversies. It was, to say the least, a somewhat premature assessment of the state of the doctrinal life of the Christian Church.

One doesn't have to look around the Christian world for long to know that not only are so called "secondary issues" as vigorously contested as they have ever been, but every major Christian doctrine is disputed, denied and debated. Gresham Machen wrote at the start of his classic Christianity and Liberalism
that the things that men will fight over are usually the things worth believing.

Controversy has the capacity to bring out the best and the worst in us. Some shy away from it for personal reasons (they simply don't like confrontation), whilst others seem to thrive on exposing errors and are quick to draw strong condemnatory conclusions.

Handling controversy is a test of our godliness, a test that all too often, when we come to pray, we realise that we have failed. Defending orthodoxy and attacking error demands more from us than the use of reason and knowledge. It also demands the exercise of patience, prayerfulness, humility, compassion, faithfulness, truthfulness, fairness and so on.

Tests like these are unavoidable. But evading controversy to keep the peace when the truth demands that there be conflict is moral and spiritual failure.