Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Usefulness of Heretics to the Church

In chapter one of his book on Paul and the New Perspective, Stephen Westerholm argues the case for Augustine being included in the debate over the right interpretation of the apostle's writings:

Augustine had his own spectacles, to be sure, furnished in part by his struggles with heretics. The latter, like other perversions of the good in Augustine's universe, inevitably served useful purposes: they compelled the church to "investigate [its articles of faith] more accurately, to understand them more clearly, and to proclaim them more earnestly" (De civ. Dei 16.2.).

Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The "Lutheran" Paul and His Critics, p.3

Heretics are useful because:

1. They compel the Church to Investigate the faith more accurately

2. They compel the Church to Understand the faith more clearly

3. They compel the Church to Proclaim the faith more earnestly

Friday, May 25, 2007

Resisting and Receiving Justification by Faith Alone

Understanding and believing justification by faith alone is more than assenting to a doctrine. It is more than right conclusions from word studies, more than exegesis, more than hermeneutics, more than biblical and systematic theology. Believing it for oneself, teaching it to the church, and proclaiming it in the world are no mere intellectual matters. If we understand it aright we will feel ourselves as sinners in the presence of the Holy God with no covering for our sin, shame, and guilt. We will see that our only refuge is Jesus Christ, his blood and righteousness, freely offered to us in the gospel. Our free acceptance by God will not be in ourselves but in him alone.

Our hearts resist submitting to the righteousness of God in Christ. Justification by faith alone is not an easy doctrine to maintain. It never will be.

James Buchanan gave an good indication why this is the case:

Luther knew human nature too well to suppose that the truth could be preserved in its purity without a constant conflict with error; and he predicted more than once the gradual declension even of the Protestant Churches from this fundamental article of faith. He knew that men would grow indifferent to it, in proportion as they became less impressed with a sense of sin, and less alive to the claims of the Law and Justice of God.

He was soon taught by observation of what was passing around him, as well as by his own inward experience, that there are, in the heart of every fallen man, two great tendencies,--pointing apparently in opposite directions, but equally at variance with the doctrine which he taught,--the one, a tendency to Legalism, or self-righteous confidence; the other, a tendency to Licence, and Antinomian error.

Between these two extreme tendencies, the true doctrine of Justification has often been, as Tertullian said, 'like Christ crucified between two thieves:' and all the errors which have arisen on that subject in the Church, may be ascribed to the one or the other, more or less fully developed.

James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification, p. 153-4

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Gospel is worth fighting for

No-one should take pleasure in theological conflict for the sake of it. In a sense it is always to be regretted. But that is a far different thing to say than to claim it is unnecessary, or to suggest that engaging in it is ungodly.

One can understand the desire to shrink back from conflict. There is the fear that conflict is bad press for the church in the eyes of an onlooking world, a world it must be remembered that the church is seeking to win by its word and conduct.

Yet there is something amiss in what seems to be a right and proper motivation to avoid polemics, especially polemics that are open to public view. What is amiss is the absolute necessity of maintaining the truth of the gospel. This will always be worth fighting for. And this is exactly what animated Paul in his public exchanges and public write up of them in Galatia, "We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you" (Galatians 2:5).

Not to engage in this fight is unthinkable. For the glory of God, and the eternal good of souls, this battle must be fought.

Here are some extracts from the much maligned but steadfastly faithful J. Gresham Machen:

Tertullian fought a mighty battle against Marcion; Athanasius fought against the Arians; Augustine fought against Pelagius; and as for Luther, he fought a brave battle against kings and princes and popes for the liberty of the people of God.

Luther was a great fighter; and we love him for it. So was Calvin; so were John Knox and all the rest. It is impossible to be a good soldier of Jesus Christ and not fight.

J. Gresham Machen, an extract from his last sermon at Princeton Seminary Chapel, March 10th 1929

Let us not fear the opposition of men; every great movement in the Church from Paul down to modern times has been criticized on the ground that it promoted censoriousness and intolerance and disputing. Of course the gospel of Christ, in a world of sin and doubt, will cause disputing; and if it does not cause disputing and arouse bitter opposition, that is a fairly sure sign that it is not being faithfully proclaimed.

J. Gresham Machen

Quoted in David Calhoun, Princeton Seminary: The Majestic Testimony 1869-1929, p.364

Friday, May 18, 2007

Coming Soon: Sin in High Places, an interview with Carl Trueman

Starting from Monday I will be posting an interview with Carl R. Trueman, professor of Historical Theology and Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia.

Atonement: Lost Words, Lost Meaning, Lost Salvation

Below is a quote from B. B. Warfield worthy of deep reflection:

You see, that what we are doing today as we look out upon our current religious modes of speech, is assisting at the death bed of a word. It is sad to witness the death of any worthy thing,--even of a worthy word. And worthy words do die, like any other worthy thing--if we do not take good care of them.

And these good words are still dying all around us. There is that good word "Evangelical." It is certainly moribund, if not already dead. Nobody any longer seems to know what it means.

I think that you will agree with me that it is a sad thing to see words like these [redeemer and redemption] die like this. And I hope you will determine that, God helping you, you will not let them die thus, if any care on your part can preserve them in life and vigor.

But the dying of the words is not the saddest thing which we see here. The saddest thing is the dying out of the hearts of men of the things for which the words stand.

The real thing for you to settle in your minds, therefore, is whether Christ is truly a Redeemer to you, and whether you find an actual Redemption in Him,--or are you ready to deny the Master who bought you, and to count His blood an unholy thing?

B. B. Warfield, from the opening address delivered in Miller Chapel, Princeton Theological Seminary, September 17th 1915

Thursday, May 17, 2007

An "A" for orthodoxy and a "D" for orthopraxy?

Here is a short extract from a forthcoming chapter:

G. K. Chesterton once wrote that “heresy always affects morality, if it is heretical enough.” It is true to say that any form of error, and not just heresy, will show itself in some form of deficiency or delinquency in the life of the church and the Christian. If we follow the logic of Paul in the pastoral epistles we should expect false theologies to produce ungodly behavior. But there is a subtle danger with Chesterton's observation. The danger is that we will form in our minds a narrow and set idea of what that immorality could look like. And, based on that assumption, we will then expect those who are theologically compromised to be immoral only in that particular way. Yet in the history of the church there have been those who clearly and definitely embraced and taught error who were known for their personal moral integrity. In fact men as notorious as Pelagius and Faustus Socinus were respected in just this way. You would expect the opposite to be true wouldn't you? But there is more to it than a simple, straightforward, personal moral failure.

In recent writing on orthopraxy there has been a stress on the outworking of orthodoxy in terms of changed Christian behavior along the lines of the fruit of the Spirit. Sometimes this has been married with an affirmation that this kind of orthopraxy is in fact what orthodoxy is really all about. What has been neglected, in my estimation, is the stress on orthopraxy at the very point where it connects to orthodoxy. This is the kind of orthopraxy that values guarding the good deposit, of being found trustworthy with the mysteries of God, of rightly handling the word of truth, of keeping the faith, of holding firm to the trustworthy word as taught. These things are also included in biblical orthopraxy. So much so that a failure here may have eternal consequences for preacher and listener alike. It is a failure that is exacerbated when those guilty of it continue to exhibit this kind of ungodliness. A refusal to be corrected, and to hold on to views that deviate from the gospel, is itself a form of immorality and ungodliness. If we do not hold firmly to the gospel then we will have a chronically misshaped orthopraxy at a vital point. And, it should be said, it is a failure that will only be corrected by repentance.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Atonement: God's nature, will, and penal substitution

Debates about the atonement are never far removed from theology proper. Penal substitution is not only exegetically founded but is also doctrinally intelligible within a particular set of beliefs. These beliefs include the attributes of the justice and holiness of God, their relationship to the divine nature and will, and the existence and of sins committed by rational creatures.

And, perhaps it is unnecessary to say this, but the God who has revealed truths to us about his justice, holiness, nature, and will, has also revealed truth about the nature and extent of our depravity (which we see and feel the effects of every day but need revelation from God to rightly comprehend) and the remedy for that sin in the cross of Christ.

This is one reason why those who wanted to play down Steve Chalke & Alan Mann's aversion to penal substitution in The Lost Message of Jesus missed the point when they said that a) this wasn't even a book about penal substitution, and/or b) that debates about penal substitution are not really big issues for Christians today. But there is much more at stake in these debates than a particular view of substitutionary atonement. What is also at stake is our understanding of the doctrine of God. And in this regard, for the record, evangelicals should be as concerned with where The Lost Message of Jesus positioned itself on God's attributes and the doctrine of sin as they are about the book's presentation of penal substitutionary atonement.

Back in the 1650s many of these issues were undergoing discussion and debate in England. The chief detractors of penal substitution were the Socinians (who incidentally were also open theists and anti-trinitarians). John Owen made a telling contribution to this debate with his A Dissertation on Divine Justice (1652). He understood full well that objections to "penal satisfaction" were connected to particular views of God's justice and will in relation to sin and its punishment. Owen considered that the Socinians placed all their hopes of "overturning the doctrine of the satisfaction of Christ in opposing this justice."

The issue at hand in this debate was summed up in the following question (read it out loud if the first reading of it is heavy going):

Whether it be natural to God, or an essential attribute of the divine nature, --that is to say, such that, the existence of sin being admitted, God must necessarily exercise it, because it supposes in him a constant and immutable will to punish sin, so that while he acts consistently with his nature he cannot do otherwise than punish and avenge it,--or whether it be a free act of the divine will, which he may exercise at pleasure?

Owen said that his opponents denied:

That there is any such attribute in God as requires satisfaction for sins, which he is willing to forgive, but maintain that he is entirely free to "yield up his claim of right," as they phrase it, at pleasure; that divine justice ought, by no means, to be reckoned among the causes of Christ's death.

This issue hasn't gone away. For example consider the following from a contemporary Christian author:

The traditional understanding says that God asks of us something that God is incapable of Himself. God asks us to forgive people. But God is incapable of forgiving. God can’t forgive unless He punishes somebody in place of the person He was going to forgive. God doesn’t say things to you—Forgive your wife, and then go kick the dog to vent your anger. God asks you to actually forgive. And there’s a certain sense that, a common understanding of the atonement presents a God who is incapable of forgiving. Unless He kicks somebody else.”

Now aside of the fact that the quotation above obliterates the Creator/creature distinction by confusing what is appropriate for God as God to do with what he requires of his creatures (an argument that will not pass Paul's reasoning about these matters in Romans 12:14-13:4) what view of God's nature is being presented here? Must God punish sin or does he merely choose to do so?

If there is no necessity on God's part to punish sin, since he is free to forgive sins by an act of the will, why was Jesus Christ his beloved Son crucified at all? Why didn't God merely forgive sins by his word on the basis of the response of faith and repentance? If you grant that he could have done that, what view of the cross would you then hold to?

Is God "incapable of forgiving" without the sin-bearing death of a substitute because being bound by his own divine nature he must punish sin, or not ? When God speaks we presume that he must speak the truth (being bound by his nature as the God who cannot lie) but when he exercises justice is there is no necessity that he must punish sin (there being nothing in his nature that necessitates that he must punish sin)?

Owen drew out the implications of these two positions:

Between their sentiments and ours on this point there is the widest difference; for we affirm the justice by which God punishes sin to be the very essential rectitude of deity itself, exercised in the punishment of sins, according to the rule of wisdom, and which is in itself no more free than the divine essence.

In the end the view we take of atonement cannot be divorced from our doctrine of the divine nature and attributes.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Word Association: Doctrine

I need some responses to these two questions:

1. What does your average evangelical church member think of when they hear the word "doctrine"?

2. What do you think of when you hear the word "doctrine"?

Thursday, May 03, 2007

On Adaptation

D. G. Hart has this interesting comment in his biography of J. Gresham Machen:

The hallmark of liberalism was a conscious adaptation of religious ideas to modern culture and the affirmation that God was immanent in human history and was establishing a righteous kingdom through social progress.

D. G. Hart, Defending the Faith, p. 103

When you hear the call today to change the message of the gospel because the culture has changed it makes you wonder how this can be different to what the liberal theologians proposed. I guess it isn't all that different at all.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Evangelicalism: We don't confess the faith like they used to

The thought that evangelicalism could through time resemble liberalism once seemed far fetched to me. How could a movement so opposed to the rise of unbelief that settled in the churches as liberal theology, ever embrace methods and ideas that it once stood against.

My incredulity toward this possibility was due to a confusion between the particular expression of unbelief (anti-supernaturalism) and the general inclination of heart and mind that gives deference to the mood and mindset of the culture above that of Scripture.

This is a situation that is faced by every generation in the Church. The battle over liberalism was not fought once and the results confined to the pages of history. No it is a battle that is fought over and over again. And it is being fought today as we choose whether to accommodate the gospel according to Scripture to the culture, or whether we will count the cost and be faithful to the Word of God.

Speaking of the doctrinal crisis in evangelicalism Sinclair Ferguson has recently written that:

The knowledge of the person and work of Christ, clear thinking about the nature of justification and its grounds, and its relationship to and differences from sanctification--the issues to which earlier generations had given so much attention--were now regarded as of marginal practical relevance...Somewhat unnervingly, the results in every recent poll of what evangelicals believe (or don't believe) suggest that a turning to the self and a de-centering of the Trinity has become pervasive in the subculture that was thought to be immune to liberalism.

When this is the ethos of the evangelical church, it is in no fit state to deal with any new wind of teaching.

Sinclair B. Ferguson, "Introduction: the Justification Crisis," in K. Scot Oliphint (ed.) Justified in Christ: God's Plan for us in Justification, p. 4

Sinclair Ferguson's eighteen page introduction is available as a pdf. file download, and the book to buy, at the Westminster Bookstore.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The "rare bird" of Pelagianism and the begging of the question by the new perspective

Rather than appearing in its pure and simple form, Pelagianism has been far more prevalent in church history when it has been mixed in with a bit of grace.

Cornelis Venema, of Mid-America Reformed Seminary, in his recent book dealing with the New Perspective, argues that E. P. Sanders portrayal of Second-Temple Judaism has strong affinities with semi-Pelagianism:

The glaring weakness of Sanders' that he does not consider whether 'covenantal nomism' could accommodate a form of religious teaching that regards salvation and acceptance with God as being based on grace plus good works.

Covenantal nomism is a sufficiently elastic pattern for the religion of Second-Temple Judaism that it could express a kind of a semi-Pelagian view of the relation between God and his people.

That Second-Temple Judaism was not full-blown Pelagianism is not surprising. In the course of history, Pelagianism is a 'rare bird' in the aviary of Jewish and Christian theology. Few have argued that salvation does not require the initiative of God's grace but is simply based on human moral achievement.

Where Pelagianism has appeared, therefore, it has commonly been condemned by the major branches of the Christian church. Semi-Pelagian views, however, are quite often found in the history of Christian theology. Though these views may speak of God's gracious initiative in salvation, they also insist that human salvation does not end with a good beginning.

According to semi-Pelagianism, those who find favour and acceptance with God are those who freely co-operate with his grace and complement it by a life of good works that merits further grace and final salvation.

Cornelis Venema, The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ: An assessment of the Reformation and the New Perspective on Paul, p. 156-7