Wednesday, February 28, 2007

How to protect yourself from error

Paul's approach to false teaching in Colossians appears to be a little different to that found in some of his other letters (Galatians, Titus). This may well be because the false teachers were yet to infiltrate the church. But, since they have dogged his steps wherever he has gone, Paul gets his retaliation in first. And in doing so he presents the Colossians with an awesome description of the person of Christ and his cross-work. By making much of Christ Paul aims to show up these errors for what they really are.

Now, let us be clear, compared to Christ this alternative teaching and practice appears hollow, shallow, and pretentious. It makes much of religious behaviour, ritual and mysticism. Or in other words it makes much of human performance and appearance. And it is put back into the shadows by the majesty of Christ made fully known in the apostolic gospel.

Dick Lucas captures Paul's pastoral method in dealing with the error that threatened the Colossian church:

"This positive instruction, once its implications have been grasped in terms of the sufficiency of Christ, will be the Colossians' best protection against error."

So, how can you protect yourself against error? By following Paul's prescription in 2:6-7:

"Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving."

James Buchanan summed up this pastoral approach in his classic work on justification:

"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."

James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification, p. 15

See to it that no one takes you captive

On Sunday evenings I am preaching through Colossians. Following a section thick with metaphor (2:6-7) Paul issues this warning in verse 8:

"See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ".

So the metaphors continue. The Colossians must be wary of false teaching since the alternative teaching, which is a deceptive and empty Christ-less philosophy, will enslave and imprison them. It will take them captive.

Peter O'Brien in his commentary writes that:

"...the word is used figuratively of carrying someone away from the truth into the slavery of error. The term is a vivid one and shows how seriously Paul regarded the evil designs of those trying to influence the congregation."

O' Brien, Word Biblical Commentary: Colossians, Philemon, p. 109

But whilst Paul considers this philosophy to be hollow and deceptive that is certainly not how it is going to be presented to the church. From the standpoint of the apostolic gospel concerning the person and work of Christ it is empty deceit and human tradition. But from the perspective of how it will seek to gain entry and acceptance among the Colossians it will appear as "plausible arguments" that have the capacity to delude believers (2:4).

This is worth reflecting on. Dick Lucas makes a helpful observation on the plausibility of error in his Bible Speaks Today commentary on Colossians:

"We do not learn from error if we are content merely to expose its follies. The new teaching had an immediate appeal just because it spoke to a real need."

R. C. Lucas, The Message of Colossians & Philemon, p. 86

This is the reason why error gains entry. Part of the process is the appeal that it makes. It is plausible and attractive, not necessarily obviously wrong and harmful. With a spoon full of sugar the heresy goes down.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Evangelicalism & Liberalism

"I shall never forget reading nearly forty years ago the opening sentence in a book on the subject of Protestantism. The first sentence reads thus: 'Every institution tends to produce its opposite.'"

So wrote Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones in the opening address on "What is an evangelical?" that he gave at IFES conference at Schloss Mittersill, Austria, in 1971.

That quotation has left me with two thought provoking questions:

1. Will the 20th century form of evangelicalism give way in content, but not in name, to a new 21st century form of liberalism?

The relationship of church to culture, the doctrine of the atonement, and the doctrine of Scripture seem to indicate that this is happening. New advances among evangelicals are really "back to liberalism" (but of course without capitulating to the anti-supernaturalism of modernism).

2. Once a change of nature, but not name, has taken place is recovery impossible?

Will there always be a need to start over again with, for example, a new Westminster seminary? Will the testimony of reformers always be "we will keep the faith, you can keep the furniture."

If you recognise the picture you will see the point I'm making.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Errors have pastoral consequences

The following quotation is taken from Hywel Jones' chapter "Preaching sola fide Better," in Covenant, Justification and Pastoral Ministry (ed. R. Scott Clark).

"Only a fraction of the present body of confessing Christians are solidly appropriating the justifying work of Christ in their lives. Many have so light an apprehension of God's holiness and of the extent and guilt for their sin that consciously they see little need for justification, although below the surface they are deeply guilt ridden and insecure.

Many others have a theoretical commitment to this doctrine, but in their day to day existence they rely on their sanctification for justification drawing their assurance of acceptance with God from their sincerity, their past experience of conversion, their recent religious performance or the relative infrequency of their conscious, willful disobedience.

Few know enough to start each day with a thoroughgoing stand on Luther's platform; you are accepted, looking outward in faith and claiming the wholly alien righteousness of Christ as the only ground for acceptance, relaxing in the quality of trust which will produce increasing sanctification as faith is active in love and gratitude."

Richard Lovelace, cited in CJPM, p. 310-11

I suspect that this description, anecdotal and general rather than scientific, is pretty accurate. The cause of it may well be ignorance and lack of teaching, rather than willful resistance to the truth of justification by faith alone. Or it may be a failure of applying the truth of justification by faith alone (which in itself highlights a deficient grasp of the doctrine). Nonetheless there is always a price to pay when error fills the space that truth is meant to fill. And error is never a merely intellectual matter. Error does damage to our capacity to live before God and others as he wills that we should.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Pierced for our transgressions

I heard that this was coming and am very glad to see Dave Bish heralding its arrival.

Table of contents, endorsements, and foreword (by John Piper) can be found here

Here is the blurb from the home page:

"The doctrine of penal substitution states that God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin.

Although this is the historic Christian view, it has recently come under attack. Controversy has raged since 2003 when Steve Chalke, founder of the Oasis Trust, likened the doctrine to ‘a form of cosmic child abuse’.

Pierced for our Transgressions offers a fresh affirmation of penal substitution, engaging with exegetical, theological, pastoral and historical perspectives. It is designed to be useful for pastors, theological students, and all thinking Christians."

It is a sad fact that scholars and popular preachers within evangelicalism have in recent years breathed life into the dead, and deadening, theology of the 16th and 17th century Socinians. Claiming to be the authentic good news this denial of Christ's penal substitutionary work has been passing itself off as theologically acceptable. And of course it will do that if churches are ignorant of what the Bible teaches and what orthodox churches clearly rejected on biblical grounds in the past.

It is so good to see this book.

Monday, February 19, 2007

A Surgical Mentality

I did an interview with Guy Davies, the exiled preacher, that is available here

Guy's blog is well worth frequenting.

The title of this post is an allusion to Martyn Lloyd-Jones conversation with T. T. Shields (an Englishman who ministered in Toronto and became known as the "Canadian Spurgeon").

Lloyd-Jones met Shields during a summer visit to Toronto in the early 1930s. The incident is recorded by DML-J in his Preaching and Preachers, and also by Iain Murray in the first volume of his outstanding biography of the Doctor.

Lloyd-Jones felt that the older man had ruined his ministry by becoming excessively negative and obsessed with polemics. It would not be unkind to say that temperamentally it was T. T. Shields contra mundum.

The conversation was summed up by three incisive remarks by Lloyd-Jones. In reply to the comment that the circulation of his writings went up when he dealt with polemical matters Lloyd-Jones said that two dogs fighting in the street will always draw a crowd.

Shields responded with two remarks. There was biblical precedent for his actions in Paul's denouncing of Peter. Lloyd-Jones countered this by saying that the effect of Paul's rebuke was the winning of Peter. That could not necessarily be said by Shields in his attack on opponents. Shields appealed to Lloyd-Jones' medical background. As a doctor he would see the need for radical surgery. Of course, Lloyd-Jones agreed, but there is such a thing as a "surgical mentality."

In this exchange the Welshman made a telling remark that "you can make mincemeat of the liberals and still be in trouble in your own soul".

A few reflections:

1. How can you avoid a preoccupation with error? I mean the kind of preoccupation that leads to an excessively negative ministry. What are the warning signs? Or are such men so bound by their own perspective that they are happy to justify their calcified ministry. Lloyd-Jones discerned this kind of unhelpful development in Shields. So how can you keep yourself from a "surgical mentality"?

2. Why is it that older ministers generally go in two directions? Some seem to become hardened and increasingly negative. Others become increasingly soft and indulgent.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Cure and Keeping of Souls

This is an old post that I am putting up again for comment and consideration...

John "Rabbi" Duncan was a minister in Scotland and professor of Hebrew at New College, Edinburgh, in the 19th Century. There is an interesting anecdote about a conversation he had with Dr. Muir of Glasgow. They discussed the appropriateness of the title "Theotokos", Mother of God, for Mary. Duncan was in favour of it, Muir denounced it as "Popish blasphemy".

Moody Stuart comments that:

"Dr. Muir revered the Bible, but no authority besides, and he must have everything direct and clear, with no mystery about it".

After debating the matter for two hours Muir left. And John Duncan said:

"That man owes much to divine grace; except for grace Dr. Muir would have been a Socinian."

I take it that there was no complaint about having no authority beside the Bible. The problem is with the hidden assumption about how to read and interpret the Bible. In which case it is not really a commitment to sola scriptura at all. The appeal to sola scriptura is masking a mindset that doesn't really take God at his Word but assumes that he must speak and reveal himself in a particular way.

A few years back I gave some seminars on the Trinity at Word Alive. I chatted one afternoon with a student who believed that the Father and Son were both God, and distinct persons, but that the Spirit had no distinct personal nature. When we talked it over it became clear that he expected the Bible to explain God's triune nature in a set way (a bit like the creeds do). When he couldn't find those sorts of statements he wasn't convinced that the doctrine was really there. But he was mistaken. The Bible is a two part covenant book about the effected rescue plan of the triune God. He reveals his identity as he saves us, and in that rescue plan each person works together and distinctly as God in his infinite wisdom has seen fit.

It makes all the difference not only to submit to God's Word but to submit to it as God has given it to us without smuggling in our own assumptions about how he must reveal himself.

Or as the Westminster Confession I:vi puts it:

"The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture"

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Evangelicals and Confessionalism

This is a short follow up post to my one entitled Minimus and Maximus on the differing approaches to statements of faith in among the subgroups that make up evangelicalism. Two extracts from Darryl Hart.

"Of course, the aim of evangelicalism was to find a lowest common denominator faith that would take members from diverse denominations and independent congregations and stitch them together in a recognizable quilt."

"...for mere Christianity to survive, wise and constant diligence needs to be directed to as complete a reflection on biblical truth as possible. In other words, to preserve the minimum, you need to defend the maximum. This is logic that those who call themselves evangelical have instinctively avoided."

D. G. Hart, Deconstructing Evangelicalism, p. 30-1

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Heresy in the eye of the beholder

Everyone thinks that they are orthodox. No one really thinks that their theology is heretical (unless of course they are seeking to be provocative and attention seeking, but then that is a rhetorical ploy). But there is more to this than simply saying that we all think that our theology is right. Unorthodox theology has every intention of pushing orthodoxy out of its own home as if orthodoxy was the intruder. When it does so it it wages a verbal campaign against true orthodoxy by portraying it as backward, negative, defensive, critical, suspicious, unloving, harsh etc. (in point of fact plenty of this mud, in the 1920s and 30s, was flung in the direction of J. Gresham Machen).

As the following extract shows, open theism presented itself not only as a valid option for evangelicals to hold to, but also as affirming and upholding the doctrine of God's omniscience. The problem with that claim was simply that the open theist doctrine of God's omniscience had never, ever, in two thousand years of church history, ever been an acceptable version of what Christians have meant by omniscience.

"At what point...does an interpreter have a right to say, "I know you SAY you believe in omnipotence and omniscience, and you may even really BELIEVE that you do hold to these attributes, but in fact you do not. You regularly defend positions that directly challenge these terms as they have been understood and used (and isn't meaning in the use?). Even on an etymological rendering, your stated commitments to these divine attributes die the death of a thousand qualifications"?

Mike Horton

From The Nature of Evangelicalism, a dialogue between Michael Horton and Roger Olson, available online here

Monday, February 05, 2007

Why do heresies persist?

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.”

Friday, February 02, 2007

What are the effects of heresy?

Heresy brings confusion for unbelievers since they hear several different and contradictory voices all claiming to be telling them the authentic good news.

Heresy also brings trouble for the Church. Unless false teachers are silenced, as Paul tells Titus that they should be, they will ruin households and upset the faith of some (Titus 1:11). Genuine believers can be unsettled by the teaching of these men (2 Tim. 2:18). In addition to this damage, false teachers also drain the time, energy, and resources of churches when they are not dealt with. Drawn out conflicts with false teachers can divert and distract gospel churches from evangelism and the planting and nurturing of new congregations.

Heresy places those who embrace it, and refuse to be corrected, in danger of eternal condemnation. At the very least the salvation of those who are deceived by gospel denying error cannot be affirmed. There is hope that God may grant such people repentance. But the apostles did not shrink back from spelling out the danger of turning to a “different gospel.” Paul makes it clear that whether the “false brothers,” an angel from heaven, or even the apostles themselves preached another gospel than the one that Paul had preached then they should be accursed (Gal. 1:6-9).

Harold Brown summed up the consequences of truth and error by saying that “just as there are doctrines that are true, and that can bring salvation, there are those that are false, so false that they can spell eternal damnation for those who have the misfortune to be entrapped by them.”