Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A tale of two eschatologies: Horton and McLaren on the Kingdom

Here is a tale of two eschatologies concerning the future of the kingdom and its present advance.

First of all consider Brian McLaren's view on the first and second comings of Christ in his recent book Everything Must Change:

Simply put, if we believe that God will ultimately enforce his will by forceful domination, and will eternally torture all who resist that domination, then torture and domination not only become permissible but in some way godly. The implications for, say, military policy (not to mention church politics) are not hard to imagine.

If we believe that Jesus came in peace the first time, but that wasn't his "real" and decisive coming--it was just a kind of warm-up for the real thing--then we leave the door open to envisioning a second coming that will be characterized by violence, killing, domination, and eternal torture. This vision reflects a deconversion, a return to trust in the power of Pilate, not the unarmed truth that stood before Pilate, refusing to fight...This eschatological understanding of a violent second coming leads us to believe (as we've said before) that in the end, even God finds it impossible to fix the world apart from violence and coercion; no one should be surprised when those shaped by this theology behave accordingly.

This is why I believe that many of our current eschatologies, intoxicated by dubious interpretations of John's Apocalypse, are not only ignorant and wrong, but dangerous and immoral. (p. 144)

This section of the book raises a number of questions. One wonders if there is an implicit move away from any climactic second coming, or if the second coming is the climax of a version of the post-millennial global triumph of the kingdom. One also wonders, and this is seen elsewhere in the book, if the approach to Jesus and the God of the Old Testament resembles that taken so long ago by Marcion.

At the same time as reading McLaren I am also reading Mike Horton's book on worship, A Better Way. What is so interesting about these two authors is that they both comment on the conversation between Pilate and Jesus, and both probe the nature of the spreading kingdom in relation to the State. Here is Horton on over-realized eschatology:

In an over-realized eschatology...the believer is regarded not as a justified pilgrim under the cross, walking toward the Promised Land, but as a conqueror in glory, reigning over the Canaanites (unbelievers) in the New Jerusalem (often identified in history with one's own nation or group)...The mission of the church today, in that perspective, is to "redeem culture" and make it subservient to God's reign. In this perspective, Christ is forced to recant and to tell Pilate that his kingdom now is very much of this world. Christians are not to view themselves as pilgrims in a weary land but as kings in the Promised Land, judging the world and ushering in divine government. (p. 130)

Horton's perspective of the "now and not yet" kingdom is very important, as we will see, when the first and second comings are considered. Horton's approach does not issue in what McLaren fears will, or logically implies should, happen. Consider Horton's unpacking of this:

Jesus rules over a kingdom of grace, not yet a kingdom of glory. Just as he came in humiliation, suffering and weakness, the kingdom advances not through the noisy or violent clashes of guns and tanks, nor through legislating the transformation of an earthly nation into God's chosen people. It does not come to earth in such a way that people can say, "Here it is! There it is!" Jesus cautions (Matt. 24:23-28).

But when Jesus returns to earth, it will no longer be to offer his treaty of peace. The day of salvation will give way to the judgment. "Then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory" (Mark 13:26 NKJV), as the quiet kingdom of grace will become the ominous kingdom of glory, and the reign from heaven will be consummated upon the earth. God's will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven. (p. 129-30)

Horton's approach avoids McLaren's fear of the spreading of the kingdom by utilizing violence. Christ's return in glory which will involve his dispensing of retributive justice is not a ministry that is presently carried out by his people to advance his cause. Part of the reason for this difference in the spreading of the kingdom now is because Horton conceives of the purpose of Jesus in his first coming to be quite different to McLaren's version. From what I can see in this book, and in others, McLaren's soteriology as well as his eschatology is radically different to Horton's.

The logical implication of a final judgment by Christ and a present effecting of that judgment by his people is not one that we have to entertain as a possibility if we wish to hold on to the Day of the Lord being one of the revelation of his righteous wrath (Romans 2:2-11). In fact it is "hard to imagine" if your view of the kingdom is as nuanced and biblical as Horton's.

Beyond these comments it is worth mentioning that McLaren's view doesn't seem to have a place for the Creator/creature distinction in the way that Horton's does. Quite simply there are things that it is righteous and appropriate for God to do that are not appropriate for private individuals, or the church, to do. This is woven indelibly into the fabric of Romans 12-13. Retributive justice is a matter for God to dispense and not the church or the individual. The State (not the church) in Romans 13, however, is given a limited remit to enforce retributive justice in the present.

In order to overturn the classical biblical view of the Lord Jesus who will judge the living and the dead (whether that can be equated with McLaren's "conventional view" of eschatology), and to replace it with an emerging view that denies a different (judicial) dimension for the second coming of Christ, will in the end be a matter of superior exegesis. For that to take place there would have to be an entire recasting of the meaning of Biblical language and categories such as the Day of Lord, the wrath of God, the wrath of the Lamb, judgment, retributive justice, hell, vengeance etc. It would also require that the righteousness of retributive justice be shown to be unrighteous and immoral, and therefore wrong for God to be directly involved in either at the Cross or on the Last Day. But that very much appears to be the project that McLaren is working on.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Evangelicalism Today

Touchstone Magazine has an online forum discussing "Evangelicalism Today" here.

Contributors include Michael Horton, Russell Moore, Darryl Hart, Denny Burk, John Franke, and David Lyle Jeffrey.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Jesus and His Church

It has been spiritually refreshing and energising to preach from John 10 on Jesus as the Good Shepherd. What has particularly struck me is the sovereignty of Jesus as he calls his own sheep and as they respond to his call and follow him. He is still doing this today by his Word and Spirit.

Here is how the Heidelberg Catechism captures this truth:

Q 54. What do you believe concerning the “holy catholic Church?”

A. That out of the whole human race, from the beginning to the end of the world, the Son of God, by His Spirit and Word, gathers, defends, and preserves for Himself unto everlasting life a chosen communion in the unity of the true faith; and that I am and forever shall remain a living member of this communion.
If you would like to read the whole of the HC, which I strongly recommend that you do, then you can find it here. And by the way this online version has Bible references also. Not surprisingly there are five references to John 10 for this question.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Don't fence me in

Almost twenty years ago I appeared in our school production of Calamity Jane. One of the songs from that musical serves as an anthem for those who have an aversion, almost an allergic reaction, to confessional statements. That aversion is to regard confessional statements as inherently restrictive. As the song goes "Let me ride in the wide open country that I love/Don't fence me in."

Of course it shouldn't escape our notice that the rejection of confessionalism (or a particular confession) involves us making a confessional statement of a different kind. It is simply the exchanging of one kind of confession for another. To decry statements of faith as restrictive is at the same time to advance another statement of faith (complete with a theology and an epistemology).

To recognize, value, and insist on confessional statements should not be viewed as treating tham as necessarily exhaustive. It does, however, imply that certain truths can be articulated, described, agreed upon, distinguished from other theological ideas, defended, and communicated in an intelligible form.

It is a great shame to hear even well respected church leaders shying away from statements of faith in their church network out of a desire not to "put people into a kind of prison." That comment, in context, was not a flat out denial of the value of creeds and confessions. It is however a curiously chosen and deeply inappropriate metaphor to describe confessionalism.

Imagine a childrens' playground next to a minefield. Would you want a strong, tall fence, with no gaps in it, separating the two? Would you feel bad if your children complained that the park was a prison because of that big fence? Even though I can't imagine anyone being dumb enough to put a playground next to a minefield, you would not want for one second to tear down that fence and let the children explore the neighbouring wide open spaces unrestricted.

That of course is only to think of creeds and confessional statements in their function as boundaries to protect the Church from theological dangers, it doesn't begin to get at the way that confessions promote the truth of biblical teaching for the health, blessing, building up and comfort of the Church and the glorifying of the Triune God of grace.

Mike Horton, as he so often does, provides some helpful comments on anti-confessionalism:
Ever since the beginning of the last century, the democratizing influence has bred suspicion and outright hostility toward creeds, confessions and catechisms. "Don't Fence Me In" is the egalitarian spirit of Romantic individualism that so characterizes our age and our churches.

Occasionally I will hear the objection to creeds, confessions, and catechisms with the assertion "I just go directly to the Bible." The assumption here is that those who drafted these documents that have stood the test of time did not go directly to the Bible.

But our forbears did go directly to the Bible when they drafted their confessions of faith and catechisms. In fact, the Puritans carefully included texts for every statement in the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms. The minute one begins to explain what the Bible is saying in a particular place, he or she is doing precisely what these gifted pastors and teachers did: interpreting the Word of God. The only diference is that our own interpretations are limited by our own time, place, and circumstances, whereas these long-standing interpretations make available to us today the wisdom of centuries of biblical interpretation.
Mike Horton, "Recovering the Plumbline," in John Armstrong [ed.], The Coming Evangelical Crisis, p. 249

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Reformed orthodoxy and the art of propaganda

Dick Gaffin, in his essay in The Faith Once Delivered, warns of the "widespread but severely distorting model abroad today for reading the history of theology since the Reformation, especially its sweepingly negative assessment of seventeenth-century Protestant orthodoxy."

He follows this up with an illuminating footnote (which I have adapted). The model can be set out as follows:


the Reformation

The Fall:

seventeenth-century orthodoxy

The effects of the Fall:

eighteenth-century rationalism and nineteenth-century liberalism

[MD: you could also add twentieth century fundamentalism/conservative evangelicalism, in the eyes of some this is further evidence of the Fall]


primarily Karl Barth and the trends he initiated

Gaffin contin
On this view Reformed orthodoxy brings little other than the darkening clouds of medieval synthesis with its baleful dualisms, reappearing after the temporary respite brought by the bright sunshine of the Reformation. Characteristically, this theology is branded with the pejoratives "scholastic" and "scholasticism" (though it is remarkable how seldom an effort is made to define these labels; presumably they are self-evidently bad).

Under attack here, if we need reminding of what is obviously at stake, are the biblical integrity and continuing viability of major Reformed confessions such as the Canons of Dordt and the Westminster Standards, which stem from this "scholastic" mind-set.
The Faith Once Delivered, p. 7

Monday, October 22, 2007

Thieves and killers in shepherd's clothing

Here is my introduction from yesterday morning's sermon on John 10:1-21 plus some comments from Calvin that I found helpful in my preparation:

When are you likely to meet the most dangerous people in Deeside? The kind that you really wouldn't want to bump into in a dark alley. It will not be late on a Friday or Saturday night, after the pubs close, but on a Sunday morning.

The most dangerous people in Deeside probably don't have criminal records, the police are not keeping a watchful eye on them, they will never be seen on Crimewatch. And yet they are guilty of theft, murder and the willful destruction of human life. They are intruders intent on harm and they brutalize their victims.

They go by the titles of reverend, vicar, father, minister, elder and pastor. They are motivated by self interest, gain, and reputation. But they hate the truth, and oppose the Good Shepherd who has come to bring salvation and to call his sheep to follow him. Religious leaders whose job it is to teach the Bible, but who oppose Jesus, are the most dangerous people in Deeside.

Do you agree with me? Are my comments a little far fetched and implausible? Have I taken leave of my senses? Well that is exactly the kind of reaction that Jesus received when he said the same things to the religious leaders of Israel in John 10. Jesus is gathering his flock, including the blind man that he healed in the previous chapter who was harshly treated and cast out by the shepherd leaders of Israel. Jesus does not hold back on the gravity of their actions or the truth about their true identity. They are thieves and robbers (10:1, 8), and they come to steal, kill and destroy (10:10).

And here are some helpful words from Calvin on John 10:
The mark to distinguish lawful shepherds fom the reprobate, and true sheep from the false, is if He himself is the object and beginning and end of all. (p. 258)

Christ likens the Church to a sheepfold in which God assembles His people, and compares Himself to the door, since He is the only entrance into the Church. It follows from this that they alone are good shepherds who lead men straight to Christ; and that they are truly gathered into God's fold and reckoned His flock who give themselves up to Christ alone. (p. 259) is a great comfort and ground of confidence when we know that Christ has always guarded his sheep under his faithful protection, amid the manifold attacks and devices of wolves and robbers, so that none should leave Him. (p. 261)
Calvin's New Testament Commentaries: vol. 4, John 1-10

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Lost Grammar

There is no need to reinvent the wheel, there is no need to start from scratch, but there is a need to recover and to value the Reformed confessional heritage and to put it to work.

The long conflict between orthodoxy and modernity has left the corpus reformatum with some serious wounds. One of these wounds was the reimagination of our identity. Rather than identifying ourselves as Reformed and defining Reformed by the symbols, over time we identified ourselves as conservatives and came to regard our Reformed identity as a subset of a broader antimodern reaction.

Consequently, we have gradually tended to abandon our grammar (ways of speaking) and our categories (ways of thinking) so that now, when they are introduced, they appear to some as novelties.

R. Scott Clark, Covenant, Justification and Pastoral Ministry, p. 6

Friday, October 19, 2007

Some memories are not best forgotten

During the summer of 2005 when evangelicals in the UK were discussing the controversy over penal substitution I was busy reading up on the Reformed orthodox response to Socianism in the seventeenth century. The Socinians were of course actively opposed to the penal substitutionary nature of Christ's atoning death.

Socinus could affirm that "Christ died for our sins" but not in the sense of substitution and satisfaction. However (as then so it is now) his affirmation of believing that verse in 1 Corinthians 15 muddied the waters because the sense that he assigned to that statement could only be described as in effect "another gospel." The impression this gives of course is one of orthodoxy, the reality, however, is in fact a denial of orthodoxy. And the effect of this equivocation is to confuse the issue and to risk both confusion in the church and the facilitating of the spread of error.

Someone might comment 'Didn't he say that he believed that "Christ died for our sins?" Then why are you giving him such a hard time? He's not unsound if he believes that.' But it is not just what he says when he uses that phrase, it is what he means by those words that really matters ("Christ" and "for" being interpreted by Socinus in radically different ways).

The very same equivocation was made recently by one well known author who affirmed his belief that "Christ died for our sins" but who also consistently vilifies and undermines the doctrine of penal substitution. The impression is given is one of agreement because of the use of a critically important phrase in Scripture that defines the gospel, but it is only an impression. That is what you call an "empty orthodoxy."

What I soon found as I was reading about these seventeenth century debates was a striking continuity not only of the theological positions available but also of the arguments put forward by the protagonists on all sides. Arguably even the concessions made to opponents by those in favour of penal substitution were the same then and now. It was a further reminder, if I needed it, of the value and importance of historical theology when assessing contemporary controversies.

Carl Trueman has a superb recent essay on James Buchanan's The Doctrine of Justification where he makes this powerful plea not to ignore the history of debates on justification:

Karl Marx once commented that Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel had noted that all historical facts and personages occur twice; but, he added, Hegel failed to note that the first time this was as tragedy, the second as farce. His comment surely applies by way of analogy to great theological duscussions as well, and only by taking history seriously can such tragedy and farce be avoided.

Thus I offer in closing these final comments as a historian's passing shot across the bows of modern theologians--systematic, biblical, and all points in between--who pursue their calling with ne'er a glance at history: if they wish to avoid the tragi-farcical options of either reinventing the wheel or of privileging their own narrow interpretative horizons over those of the church throughout the centuries as reflected primarily in her creeds and confessions, they might do well to meditate on the fact that current controversies on justification are reminiscent in so many ways of the issues raised relative to this doctrine through the centuries, not least by the Tractarians of the nineteenth century.
Carl R. Trueman "A Tract for the Times: James Buchanan's The Doctrine of Justification in Historical and Theological Context," from Anthony T. Selvaggio [ed.], The Faith Once Delivered: Essays in honor of Wayne Spear, p. 61-2

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Remember, Remember

This awaited book will be released (according to the sponsor's ad in Tim Challies sidebar), on the 5th November. Kind of appropriate really.

Grief, hope and the comfort of doctrine

One of the soul impoverishing dangers of regarding doctrine as no more than "head knowledge" is that it denies Christians the comfort and encouragement they need in the face of death. In fact a lack of knowledge leaves us in a position where our grief finds no relief, and our thoughts are given no solid hope.

Consider Paul's approach in 1 Thess 4:13-5:11. He doesn't want them to be ignorant or uninformed about those who have fallen asleep. If they are uninformed then they will grieve like those without hope. The remedy for this is knowledge, doctrine, truth. In the face of death, to those who grieve over believers that have died, Paul confesses the truth of Christ's resurrection. He says "We believe that Jesus died and rose again" and that he will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. In the face of death Christians confess the resurrection of the Son of God. In the midst of grief they hold that believers who have died will be woken from the sleep of death.

It is noteworthy that this confession of truth is the means by which the church is to be encouraged. Twice Paul tells them to encourage one another with these words (4:18; 5:11). They are to be a means of grace. Those who would reduce and relegate doctrine to the periphery of Christian life and experience are doing great damage to the pastoral needs of God's people. They are taking away the very means by which God ministers strength, hope and encouragement to his people in this valley of tears. Moreover, they are contradicting God's own command about the pastoral role of doctrine. Ignorance is not bliss but pain. The deliberate avoidance of teaching doctrine is a form of cruelty.

My practice at the funeral of a believer is to read, and explain, at the graveside Q. 37 from the Westminster Shorter Catechism. I want everyone to understand the reality of union with Christ. I want people to know how much Christ loves his people, how great a Saviour he really is, and that he is the Saviour of body and soul.

Q. 37. What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death?

A. The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united in Christ, do rest in their graves, till the resurrection.

Our only comfort in life and in death is that we are not our own but really do belong body and soul to our faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. On the basis of the Word of God that is what we believe, that is what we must teach, that is what we must confess:

For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.
(1 Thess. 5:9-11)

Monday, October 15, 2007

Mike Horton on Joel Osteen's Heresy (from 60 minutes)

Here is an eleven minute film clip from 60 minutes of the "motivational-prosperity-gospel-minus-the-God-of-the-Bible" of Joel Osteen. Scott Clark has a selection of posts related to it here including a punchy one by Michael Spencer.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Turn and face the strain: the process and product of doctrinal accommodation

Liberalism in theology, that devasting phenomena that "emptied pews and lives" (to quote Carl Trueman), was produced by the pressure brought on churches in the West by powerful intellectual and social changes.

There was an air of inevitability that Christianity must change and adapt as new ideas, new discoveries, new facts, and new inventions shaped not only the external world but also the interior world, the landscape of the mind. What was true of the acceptance of changes outside the church became a point of challenge for the church in its mission to the world.

For this reason we have to distinguish between the particular circumstances that led to the phenomenom that we know as modernism or liberalism in theology, and the way in which culture, social change, naturalistic science and philosophy were brought into conversation with special revelation in Scripture. The former were part of the challenge to confessional faith during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Some of those influences are weakened today, but they are yet to occupy spaces in the local cemetery for us visit. Yet we do recognise their limitations, and to a degree their influence has waned considerably. But liberalism was more than the product of a particular period. In a sense, and without wishing to be anachronistic, liberalism is also a mindset. It is a way of configuring culture and revelation so that the latter conforms to the ideas and dictates of the former. This means that the content of faith is consciously adapted, under the pressure of the culture it is seeking to reach, to the reigning thought forms and acceptable standards of the day.

The kind of liberalism that once dominated the church scene may well be in its final death throes. But the process of adaptation and accommodation to the culture continues, a process that inevitably reconfigures the content of Christian faith. It is this realisation that ought to make us pause as we assess the significance of postmodernism.

R. C. Sproul has a helpful brief summary of the effects of liberalism:
Nineteenth century liberal theology sought to reduce Christianity to a naturalized religion, stripped of everything supernatural. The Christian message was reduced to matters of ethics and values; the gospel was recast as a humanitarianism that attempts to alleviate pain and suffering in this world. Everything supernatural in Scripture was denied, including the deity of Christ. His substitutionary atonement, resurrection, and ascension were all rejected. Modern theology took hold of churches and educational institutions.
The second half of the twentieth century saw mainline churches in America lose members at the rate of a hundred thousand per year. In the 1970s the five largest seminaries in America were liberal. Today the five largest seminaries are conservative. People have left the liberal churches in droves because there is little substance in liberalism. Yet this liberalism has influenced evangelical churches, and evangelicalism has been seriously diluted during the last quarter century. This should motivate us to take steps to protect the church.
R. C. Sproul, Truths We Confess Vol. 1, p. 171-2

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Providence, maturity, and sanctification

As long as our doctrinal understanding is undeveloped we are ill equipped to face the intellectual, emotional, and practical challenges that meet us every day. Think of Paul's description in Ephesians 4:14-16 of immatury in knowledge and its effects:
So that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
Crucially, as long as we are like this, there is will be no stability in our Christian walk. Instead, tossed to and fro by the waves, immature believers are carried about by every wind of doctrine. The solution to this is for the church to be confessional, speaking the truth of the gospel in love. Not only were they troubled by instability but the young believers at Ephesus were also impressionable, fair game for the craft and cunning of false teachers.

The same means intended to deal with their instability would also deal with their vulnerability to error. What this of course means is that as we grow in knowledge so we are better able to discern and reject error, a deduction that is hardly rocket science.

And so it is when we come to the doctrine of providence.

Consider the following on providence and sanctification the Westminster Confession 3:5:

The most wise, righteous, and gracious God does oftentimes leave, for a season, His own children to manifold temptations, and the corruption of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins, or to discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled; and, to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon Himself, and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin, and for sundry other just and holy ends.

Is this how I view temptation? Do I discern it it God's design to work all this together for my good? What about those periods of emotional flatness? Or a felt sense of God's absence? (Even though by Word and Sacrament we see his pledge never to leave nor forsake his people).

How easy it is to be troubled by our circumstances because we have not developed a robust biblical, and essentially comforting (read "soul strengthening") view of the providence of a good and faithful God.

Our culture has taught us that the world operates by chance, that our lives are ultimately unguided. In this atmosphere we appear to live and move and have our being. And then there are versions of providence that encourage to view God as frustrated, limited, and thwarted. This is the God who is almost sovereign.

The Heidelberg Catechism (Questions 26-28) not only affirms, summarises, and explains the doctrine of God's providence, it also takes us by the hand and shows us the application of it. A Christian instructed about God's providence should know that it teaches us to be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and for the future to have good confidence in our faithful God and Father.

Knowing and applying this gracious teaching about God's providence gives strong consolation in times of trial, adversity and grief. Consider the words of Sarah Edwards as she wrote to her daughter Esther on 3rd April 1758 to break the news of her husband's death:
"What shall I say: A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. O that we may kiss the rod, and lay our hands on our mouths! The Lord has done it. He has made me adore his goodness that we had him so long. But my God lives; and he has my heart. O what a legacy my husband, and your father, has left to us! We are all given to God: and there I am and love to be."
We cannot respond like this without knowing about God's providence from his Word. This is precisely the point that Paul underlines in Romans 8:28. "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose."
We know this! We know it because God has revealed it.

And consider also the words from Ryland's hymn (which to me personally when I read them a few years ago on the back of a Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth magazine in the library of Gordon Conwell Seminary were a timely help). What confidence we can have in a God who is Almighty and a Father who is Faithful:

Sovereign Ruler of the skies
Ever gracious, ever wise
All my times are in Thy hand
All events at thy command

He that formed me in the womb
He shall guide me to the tomb
All my times shall ever be
Ordered by his wise decree

Times of sickness, times of health
Times of poverty and wealth
Times of trial and of grief
Times of triumph and relief

Times the tempters power to prove
Times to taste a Saviours love
All must come, and last, and end.
As shall please my heavenly Friend.

Plagues and deaths around me fly.
Till he bids I cannot die:
Not a single shaft can hit
Til the God of love thinks fit.

O Thou gracious, wise and just
In They hands my life I trust
Thee, at all times, will I bless
Having Thee, I all possess

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The difference mattered

How much weight should you put on similarities in doctrine when you have got this kind of difference as well?
The sum and substance of the great charge which the Reformers adduced against the Church of Rome was, that while she proclaimed to men with a considerable measure of accuracy who Christ was, and what it was that He had done for the salvation of sinners, she yet perverted the gospel of the grace of God, and endangered the salvation of men's souls, by setting before them erroneous and unscriptural views of the grounds on which, and the process through which, the blessings that Christ had procured for mankind at large were actually bestowed upon men individually, and of the way and manner in which men individually became possessed of them, and attained ultimately to the full and permanent enjoyment of them.
William Cunningham, Historical Theology Vol. 2, p. 3

The waxing and waning of justification

The following words were first published 145 years ago. They may just as well have been written in the last thirteen years:
When more lax and unsound views of doctrine began to prevail in the Protestant churches, some of their divines lost their sense of the magnitude of the Romish errors upon the subject of justification, and began to make admissions, that the differences between them and the Romanists upon this point were not so vital as the Reformers had supposed them to be; and the Romanists, ever on the watch to take advantage of anything that seems fitted to promote the interests of their church, were not slow to avail themselves of these concessions.
William Cunningham, Historical Theology Vol. 2, p. 4

Monday, October 08, 2007

Latest News? Open theism is as old as dirt

The following quotation from William Cunningham about the 17th Century Socinian denial of God's exhaustive foreknowledge, written in the 19th Century, could just as easily have been written about 21st Century open theists. In fact I would go as far as to say that verbally it is very close to descriptions of open theism by contemporary authors. When it comes to error there is often nothing new under the sun.

Cunningham was also sensitive to the positive spin placed on the denial of exhaustive foreknowledge. This is often accompanied, in the writings of advocates of limited divine knowledge, by a parading of the pastoral benefits of open theism.

What appears as great theological insight for today is often found to be the empty soul destroying errors of the past. And that is why good historical theology is an essential part of keeping 21st Century confessional churches healthy.

That they may seem, indeed, not to derogate from God's omniscience, they admit indeed that God knows all things that are knowable; but then they contend that future contingent events, such as the future actions of responsible agents, are not knowable,--do not come within the scope of what may be known, even by an infinite Being; and upon this ground they allege that it is no derogation from the omniscience of God, that He does not, and cannot, know what is not not knowable.

William Cunningham, Historical Theology Vol. 2, p. 173

Saturday, October 06, 2007

When safeguarding justification led to unjustifiable error

The gospel suffers at the hands of its friends and not just its enemies. With the best of motives, as far as we are able to read them, attempts to safeguard doctrines from perceived error can have the effect of producing further, if opposite, errors. And so it has proved to be with the doctrine of justification by faith alone. It is open to abuse, no question about that, but the danger of abuse can produce a safer version that eclipses the glory of God's free grace in the gospel.

Here is J. I. Packer on Richard Baxter's innovative improvement on justification:

Baxter's view sprang from natural theology; he thought Bible teaching about God's kingdom and rule should be assimilated to contemporary political ideas, or, as he put it, that theology should follow a 'political method'...Our salvation requires a double righteousness: Christ's, which led to the enacting of God's new law, and our own, in obeying that new law by genuine faith and repentance. Faith is imputed for righteousness because it is real obedience to the gospel, which is God's new law.
Packer notes that in putting forward this view Baxter was seeking to avoid a perceived error connected with the Reformed view of the imputation of Christ's righteousness to the believer:
Baxter was convinced that those who held the ground and formal cause of our justification to be the imputing to us of Christ's own righteousness (i.e. his fulfilment of the precept and penalty of the moral law) were logically committed to Antinominianism, on the 'payment-God-cannot-twice-demand' principle.

At this point in his thinking (though not elsewhere) Baxter assumed, with his Roman and Socinian contemporaries, that law-keeping has no relevance for God or man save as a work done to earn acceptance and salvation, so that if the law has been kept once in our name no basis remains for requiring us to keep it a second time in our own persons. It is an odd mistake to find him making; but he never got this streak of legalism out of his theological system.
Knowing that theological ideas have pastoral consequences Packer then goes on to say that:
The scheme is so artificial as to be spiritually unreal; for a sinner pressed in conscience by the burden of uncleanness and guilt finds relief, not by reminding himself that is faith is evangelical righteousness according to the new law, but by looking to the cross of Christ. 'My Saviour's obedience and blood/Hides all my transgressions from view.' Talk of one's faith as one's righteouness at such a time is at best a frivolity and at worst a snare.
Baxter's approach was methodologically flawed, rationalistic and 'theologically vicious.' It had 'bad effects all along the line.' But if only these bad effects were limited to one generation. That was not to be the case. Packer's solemn observation on the impact of error across time is worth reflecting on:
Thus Baxter, by the initial rationalism of his 'political method,' which forced Scripture into an a priori mould, actually sowed the seeds of moralism with regard to sin, Arianism with regard to Christ, legalism with regard to faith and salvation, and liberalism with regard to God. In his own teaching, steeped as it was in the older affectionate 'practical' Puritan tradition, these seeds lay largely dormant, but later Presbyterianism in both England and Scotland reaped the bitter crop.

It is sadly fitting that the Richard Baxter Church in Kidderminster today should be--Unitarian. What we see in Baxter is an early stage in the decline, not simply of the doctrine of justification among the Puritans, but of the Puritan insight into the nature of Christianity as a whole.
J. I. Packer, Among God's Giants (UK)/A Quest For Godliness (US): The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, p. 207-8, 209-10

Friday, October 05, 2007

Just Love?

What is the relationship between the doctrine of God and the atonement? How should we think of God's attributes in connection to the cross? Does the former have a controlling effect on our understanding of the latter?

The Socinians thought so, and their approach to it is relevant to understanding some contemporary improvements on orthodoxy. In his discussion of Socinianism William Cunningham noted that:

Socinianism,--and indeed, this may be said of most other systems of false religion,--represents God as a Being whose moral character is composed exclusively of goodness and mercy; of a mere desire to promote the happiness of his creatures, and a perfect readiness at once to forgive and to bless all who have transgressed against him. They thus virtually exclude from the divine character that immaculate holiness which is represented in Scripture as leading God to hate sin.
Historical Theology Volume 2, p. 172

Cunningham points out that this dispute over God's being and attributes has a direct bearing on how the atonement is understood since it touches on the issue of the necessary or voluntary punishment of sin. Either God punishes sin because of his holy nature or else he punishes it, or overlooks it, as a mere act of his will. Of course if he doesn't need to punish it then he can freely forgive it merely by speaking a word. But if sin must be punished then he will freely forgive it only at great cost to himself in the penal substitutionary death of his Son.

It is interesting to note that Cunningham's description of the Socinian recasting of God's attributes is seen in some contemporary authors:

love is the most important quality we attribute to God.
Richard Rice in The Openness of God, p. 15
The tragedy is that over the centuries the Church has time and again failed to communicate, even to understand, this greatest and deepest of all truths. Perhaps some of the most disastrous examples of this are, paradoxically, the Church's historic creeds...the fact that the God of the universe is the God who claims, not only that he loves, but also that he chooses to define himself as love has become one of the world's best kept secrets.
People still believe that the Christian God is a God of power, law, judgement, hell-fire and damnation. A God whose strapline is probably, "Get in line fast or I'll squash you!"

The Bible never defines God as anger, power or judgement--in fact it never defines him as anything other than love.
Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus, P. 55-6, 63

William Cunningham has a striking observation about the doctrine of God, Socinian or orthodox, and the implications of this for other doctrines:
It is true of all systems of theology,--taking that word in its wide and common sense, as implying a knowledge of all matters bearing upon our relation to God and our eternal destinies,--that they are materially influenced, in their general character and complexion, by the views which they embody about the divine attributes, character, and government,--that is, about theology in the restricted meaning of the word, or the doctrine concerning God.

Hence we find that, in many systems of theology, there are introduced, under the head "De Deo," and in the exposition of the divine attributes, discussions more or less complete, of many topics that are afterwards taken up and illustrated more fully under their own proper heads,--such as providence, predestination, and grace.
Historical Theology Vol 2, p. 171-2

Conclusion: It is possible to remove all necessity for a penal substitutiony atonement because of decisions made when dealing with the doctrine of God, particularly his being and attributes. Although the doctrine of atonement should be arrived at and established exegetically, presumptions that militate against it can be factored in ever before the exegesis proper begins.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Being against heresies is not enough

In Revelation 2 Jesus commends the church at Ephesus for their willingness to act in the face of error. They have shown discernment over the difference between true and false apostles, and having tested them they have actively rejected the false. Because of this they receive approving words from the glorified Son of God.

Whether or not churches today think this kind of discernment is a good thing is besides the point. Doubtless there is far too much confusion about the godliness, or not, of discernment, and far too much latitude when it comes to tolerating malevolent theologies. It is possible to find ourselves clashing with Jesus because we weakly accept what he wants to be tested and rejected by churches. And of course the fact ought not to be lost on us that there are no false teachings, that are a clear and present danger to the churches, without there also being false teachers promoting them. Therefore there can be no exercise of discernment by churches without actively opposing those in error.

It is worth bearing in mind that there will be those who accept false teaching because they are sincerely ignorant, or guilty of sincere misinterpretation of what Scripture actually teaches. Damage is still inflicted on the church's health when this happens. The treatment for this is the persuasive power of the Word of God rightly understood. After all, isn't one of the functions of Scripture to correct as well as to teach?

Nonetheless not everyone proves responsive. Which is why Scripture specifies a fair hearing, a fair warning, and a fair rejection of a man who embraces error as spiritually aberrant in his message and his character. By testing, the church at Ephesus had found those who were rejects in the eyes of Jesus because they were "false apostles." This surely is good orthopraxy.

Whatever impression we have of these things among ourselves, which at times is as unsettling as watching the wind and the waves, we are called here to look upward to the assessment of Jesus. There may not be a place in our contemporary church culture and publications for the "top 50 discerning churches," but these things do matter to the Son of God. We may not have peer approval, we may be frowned upon for an unloving stance, what does it matter though if He approves of us?

Jesus commends discernment. That is of great worth to churches seeking to honour his truth. If you find yourself in this situation it will put strength and heart into you to know that you have his approval. As Bonar put it:
Men heed thee, love thee, praise thee not;
The Master praises: what are men?
Not only is this so, but the church at Ephesus is also found to be persevering, hard working, willing to endure for Christ's name, and all without weariness. In a culture of ease and compromise here are dimensions of church life the very existence of which we ought to be deeply thankful for.

But it is not enough. Being discerning is not enough. Being against heresies is not enough. Being hardworking, persevering, and enduring is not enough. Even such commendable churches can be doomed. Even they can find that Jesus is going to bring them to an end. Such churches can have lost their first love.

Don Carson summarises this so well:
If this church does not repent, it is doomed. The destruction might take two or three generations; it might take longer. But sooner or later the candlestick is removed; sooner or later the church that church no longer finds obedience to the first and second great commandments a delight is sinking into the mire of idolatry and self-love--regardless of how orthodox, active, and zealous it is.
Here is our first duty, our fundamental privilege, our basic worship: to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength, and our neighbour as ourselves. In the midst of suffering, persecution, disability, disappointment, infirmity, tiredness, duty, discipline, work, witness, discernment--in short in the midst of everything--that love remains our first duty, our fundamental privilege, our basic worship still.
When we grow old and calamitously weak, we must love God still; when we look after the chronically ill and think that our horizons are shriveling up, we must love God still; when we are bereaved, we must love God still; when we study and work and build and witness, we must love God still; when we exercise theological discernment, we must love God still. And still, too, must we love our neighbour as ourselves.
So we have returned to love in hard places, the first of the hard places--the hard places of our own hearts, our own souls.
D. A. Carson, Love in Hard Places, p. 185-6

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Evangelicals Now Article

This month Evangelicals Now published four reports on churches in the UK and how they are dealing with the challenge of evangelism in post-Christian Britain. Our church here in Deeside (North East Wales) was one of the four featured. The article gives some idea of mission in our local context.

If you would like to learn a little bit more about our situation and what I do for a day and night job read on...

Since September 2005 I have been greatly privileged to be the pastor of Christ Church, Deeside (incidentally we changed our name last year from Deeside Evangelical Christian Church). We are situated in a Welsh border town not too far from Chester.

The church was planted in 1975. I am the third pastor in the life of the church, following in the footsteps and building on the work of Peter Milsom (now director of UFM) and Alan Davey (now a UFM missionary in Bordeaux). I have come to Deeside full of ambition for the gospel and grateful that my family can be part of the church here. As I reflect on the local area I often think of the words of the missionary Henry Martyn, ‘I could not bear it if Jesus Christ were not glorified.’ That must be our heartbeat as a congregation.

Meeting together

Each Sunday, around 100 people, with a good mix of backgrounds and ages, meet together in the morning, and around 60 in the evening. Numbers and activities can only tell you a small part about the life of a church, but one area does stand out. For over 20 years the church has been committed to working with adults with learning difficulties. As part of this work, there is a monthly service and a weekly friendship group (Busy Buddies). There is also a monthly meeting for carers.


God has surprised us. Over this last year we have seen several adults with no previous connection to the church come to faith and be baptised. Instrumental in this has been Christianity Explored (used fruitfully for a number of years in the church). It has been thrilling to see a good number of local people come along to the courses. Not all have come to faith, not all have stayed, but several now regularly attend Sunday by Sunday. What has been really striking is that, as we have taken risks for the gospel, we have seen God sovereignly at work in the lives of people even before we have had opportunity to speak to them. And they have come to the church, or to Christianity Explored, already prepared for the gospel. What has also impressed us is the appetite for the truth found in these new people. The Lord has also been gracious in restoring some who have been in a spiritual wilderness.

We have made the Christmas services an evangelistic priority. Last year we saw almost 400 local people come to our Saturday night service (compared to 100 the year before). This has been very much part of our vision. Even with political correctness, our culture still has the residual memory of Christmas and we have been determined to use this opportunity for the gospel. So we took a risk, hired the Civic Hall, made this a priority in prayer, and took seriously the responsibility to invite local people.


Like most churches outside of university towns and cities, we face the challenge of losing a lot of young people, not just for three years, but permanently, as they settle down after graduation in new places. But, to be honest, this is hardly an insurmountable challenge. Our greatest challenge will always be the battle against sin, unbelief, apathy, lukewarmness, and the way we can justify all these things. We constantly need reminding that the task of the church is to proclaim the whole counsel of God and to live up to our high calling together.

But then there are positive challenges too. When I walk down the street in Shotton or Connahs Quay, I hear more and more Eastern European accents. How will we reach these people that are now our neighbours? And then there are all the people for whom perception is reality. Mention church and they think of a small elderly congregation and that Christianity is pretty much finished. How do we engage this unbelief? Last year we held a public meeting on The Da Vinci Code. Around 15 people came just from our advertisement in the local paper (incidentally, we put an ad in for Christianity Explored also; the paper, after all, reaches 30,000 homes). The evening gave an opportunity to prosecute bad history and theology and to present the authentic gospel. We want the gospel to be in the eyes and ears of local people.

Hopes for the future

We would love to see gospel growth in the Deeside area and beyond. Doors of opportunity are opening in the local community with schools and other groups. From this September we are appointing an apprentice and are looking for an assistant pastor. We are also seeking to develop the use of our bookshop.

Vast areas of North Wales lack gospel churches. For many years a small group of Welsh-speaking Christians from churches in North East Wales have met for prayer and Bible study in a home just outside the town of Ruthin (20 miles from Deeside). Over the last 18 months, as they have been studying the book of Acts, steps have been taken to hold evangelistic services in Welsh in the town at Christmas and Easter. We would love to see this work develop and eventually for a church to be planted.

Only God makes things grow, and true growth can only ever be gospel growth; of this we are certain.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Defense Against the Dark Arts: The Human Factor

Almost ten years ago I picked up a copy of The Cruelty of Heresy by FitzSimons Allison. I came across it, first of all, as a footnote in Don Carson's The Gagging of God, and to my surprise, a few months later, there it was at one of the local Christian bookshops. I have never seen the book for sale since then (well apart from on Amazon of course). And somewhat ironically it was in the reduced section, along with a number of other fine books, because this particular book shop specialised in "health and wealth" literature.

This book has provoked me to much thought and further reading on heresies. Not that I especially wanted to become an expert on ancient and modern theological diseases. There are plenty of books that focus on describing and categorising heresies, but The Cruelty of Heresy is different. What really stimulated my thinking was the insight this book offered on the pastoral dimensions of heresy, the appeal factor in heresies, and their unremmitting cruelty to men and women who stand in need of the grace of the triune God in the gospel.

The following extract calls for the inclusion of the pastoral dimensions of heresy in our thinking:

The ultimate cruelty of heresy can be shown by approaching the Councils from the concern over what happens to someone who follows teachings outside the limits set by the creeds. A human factor needs to be added to the traditional way in which these Councils are approached. Historical, theological, and philosophical questions are always, and of necessity, diligently treated by studies of these Councils.

The question of the fidelity of a given teaching to the data of Scripture also is traditionally treated with great rigor. However, the condition of the human heart that receives and conveys the gospel is almost everywhere ignored as a factor in consideration of teachings, whether they be heretical or orthodox.

That the human heart is a "veritable factory of idols" is a truth attributed to various Reformers. The heart is certainly "far gone from original righteousness," and it is a filter through which the gospel must pass in its hearing and telling. Each heresy in its own way encourages some flaw in our human nature.

Without appreciating this human factor one could be led to believe that othodoxy is a relatively simple matter: the results of proper research and scholarship. The human factor makes us acknowledge that research and scholarship itself must pass through the heart of the researcher and scholar.

C. FitzSimons Allison, The Cruelty of Heresy, p. 22-23

I know where I would like to be next January... the Westminster Seminary California Conference.

Here's the blurb:
The claim of the emergent/emerging churches to represent a truly "missional" approach to ministry, witness, and evangelism is generating much interest and ink. This conference considers what it means to be Reformed and missional. We start with the conviction that Christ the Lord has established an institution (the church) and has given to it a mission to make disciples of all the nations. Without the church there can be no mission and where there is no mission, there is no church. Tough questions remain and this conference doesn't promise to have all the answers, but we hope to ask right questions about mission and ministry in our pluralistic age.
You can register here, and read about the schedule and speakers here and here.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Heresy never dies

Church history tells the story of the battle between truth and error. Heresies arise, gain a following, are opposed and refuted from Scripture, and then the Church moves on and advances in the truth. Because of this we have great statements like the Nicene Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon. But if these errors have been dealt with in the past why do they come back again and again? Why do people today believe old heresies? There are three reasons:

1. The devil still deceives people into believing heresies by using human instruments to promote attractive and plausible teaching. He will continue to do this until Christ returns in glory.

2. The warnings and lessons from history are ignored or unknown. If we are ignorant of the past we will fail to see that heresies that today appear new, innovative and interesting are as old as dirt. Many of the errors finding a home in evangelicalism today were tried and found wanting by our great-great-grandfathers in the faith at the bar of Scripture.

3. Throughout history those who deny the truth and choose a different gospel are limited in the options available to them. In his study of heresies Harold Brown concluded that “over and over again, in widely separated cultures, in different centuries, the same basic misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the person and work of Christ and his message reappear. The persistence of the same stimulus, so to speak, repeatedly produces the same or similar reactions.”