Saturday, July 21, 2007

It's time for a holiday

No more new posts here until mid August. We are leaving behind the wet summer here in Britain for warming climes. You can, however, expect some more interviews with senior ministers and seminary professors, on handling false teaching in the church, when I return.

Self deception

Deeply ironic don't you think?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Myth of Non-Doctrinal Christianity

A very penetrating thinker has observed, "When you hear anyone say 'Away with creeds,' you know that what he really means is 'take mine.'" Everyone has a creed. There is not a single exception. And we live according to what we really believe. How foolish then the prejudice against doctrine. Much of it is based upon ignorance.

Edward Roberts, quoted in Ligon Duncan (ed.), The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century, p. 24

Can you tell what it is yet? Reflections on Trinitarian inferences in the Old Testament

Is the Trinity revealed in the Old Testament? Is it revealed at all clearly in the Old Testament? Did the content of faith in the Old Testament include an awareness of distinct persons in the Godhead? Were Old Testament believers Unitarians with some dim perceptions of distinct divine persons?

One way of dealing with this issue is to claim that the Trinity could not have been revealed in the Old Testament because it would have hindered in some way the clear perception that God is One. This explanation is set against the backdrop of the rampant idolatry and polytheism of the Ancient Near East. Any clear disclosure of the Trinity would presumably have been distorted and corrupted by this theological context. But is this an altogether satisfying explanation?

We ought to remember that this is an inference that is being drawn from the presence of idolatry and polytheism in the Old Testament. As an inference, of course, this may well be acceptable. What I mean by that is simply that the creedal doctrine of the Trinity is itself an inference from the data of Scripture. But in the case of the denial of a clear disclosure of the Trinity in the Old Testament, is this a necessary inference? Can it be substantiated?

Perhaps one of the hidden assumptions of this inference is a devaluing of the content of faith in the Old Testament and even the capacity of Old Testament believers to conceive of plurality in the Godhead. This may be an acceptable working assumption for 19th Century liberalism and its offspring, but not for those whose anthropology is biblical. Are we to assume that conceiving of God in three persons was beyond them? Would Abraham and David have fallen headlong into polytheism if they knew, and believed, that the one true God existed as three distinct persons? Did they not scratch their heads when they met with the angel of God who is identified with God and yet somehow distinct from him? Should we say that this is an implicit Trinitarianism that needed to await the New Testament to be ratified as more than a theological puzzle? By calling it implicit what precisely do we mean?

A further concern with this inferential explanation is the unchanging presence and danger of idolatry and polytheism across the Testaments. Idolatry was just as pervasive in the world of the New Testament as it ever had been. What had really changed in the cultural setting by the time of the incarnation? And then of course we recognise that the apostles left their own record of warnings about the insidious danger of idolatry, warnings that we stand in need of today.

We ought also to remember that the doctrine of the Trinity was believed in the idolatrous polytheistic pagan world of the New Testament, and that largely by a people unschooled in centuries of exclusive monotheism. On the whole, although with the exceptions that Romans 11 points out, it was not monotheistic Jews that believed in the divine messiah but pagans. By joining themselves to the people of God they found that a new history was now theirs. But these Gentile converts had never been schooled in monotheism as Israel had been, and yet, as the pages of the New Testament confirm, they took up the doctrine of the Trinity in Unity with an unblinking certainty. Now if they could do it, how could we relegate the faith of the elect in the Old Testament, a priori, to have been incapable of holding to this high doctrine?

Doubtless a strong counter argument, held in wait mentally throughout the previous paragraphs, is to assert that the great redemptive facts of the New Testament, the incarnation of the Son and the outpouring of the Spirit, establish explicit faith in the Trinity to a level never found in the Old Testament. It is these redemptive facts and their revelatory significance that establish emphatically the doctrine of the Trinity.

And yet we do not have to search in vain in the Old Testament to find that Yahweh will send Yahweh (Zech. 2), and that God's omnipresent Spirit can be grieved (Isa. 63). Must we read these texts in such a way that excludes plurality within the Godhead on the assumption of cognitive incapability? Could it not be the case that the divine Messiah, the God-man, would come as promised? Could it not be the case that God's promised Spirit was conceived of in personal terms and not just as a personification of God's power? The great redemptive facts of the New Testament were first of all the great redemptive promises of the Old Testament. The theophanies of the Old Testament prepared the way for permanence of the incarnation.

Of course it could objected that this Old Testament evidence, even in prophetic form, is scattered and strewn across its pages. The doctrine is simply not presented in a coherent way in the Old Testament. Would that not be to confuse the presence of the doctrine with its systematic form? Is it not the case that the New Testament data of the Trinity also needs to be collated? Warfield spoke of the doctrine of the Trinity being revealed almost as a by-product of the way that God acted interpersonally in redemption. And from these great redemptive acts, interpreted and explained for us in Scripture, the doctrine was then formulated in a clearer creedal form. Not of course that it was unclear previously, scattered as the evidence was throughout the pages of the New Testament. It is hard to see how this criticism can be made absolute. Is there really a need, as one writer puts it to conceive of a "great leap" forward from personifications to persons as we move from the Old to the New Testament?

As a final caveat none of this is to deny the loftiness and mysteriousness of these matters in either Testament. I have not sought to make the case by marshalling all the relevant passages but to argue that it is possible for presuppositions to filter out doctrinal options unecessarily. All of this is simply to suggest that just maybe when David wrote of the LORD speaking to his Lord that he knew in a clearer way than we might have given him credit for just who he was talking about.

The Affirmation of the Truth

The existence of a Confession of Faith is ever a standing defense against the danger of any Church lapsing unawares into heresy...It contains the calm and settled judgment of these profound divines on all previous heresies and subjects of controversy which had in any age or country agitated the Church.

This it does without expressly naming even one of these heresies,--the great Anti-Christian system alone excepted, --or entering into mere controversy. Each error is condemned, not by a direct statement and refutation of it, but by a clear, definite, and strong statement of the converse truth.

There was, in this mode of exhibiting the truth, singular wisdom combined with equally singular modesty. Everything of an irritating nature is suppressed, and the pure and simple truth alone displayed.

William Hetherington, quoted in David W. Hall, "The History of Westminster Assembly Commemorations," in Ligon Duncan (ed.), The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century, p. 8-9

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Departed: Justification by faith alone and the Reformed tradition

Here is a helpful observation from footnote 11 of Sam Waldron's introduction in Faith, Obedience, and Justification: Current Evangelical Departures from Sola Fide:

Any claim to believe in justification by faith alone is a claim to believe it in the sense in which it was held by that tradition. To claim to believe this doctrine, and yet tacitly depart from its classical articulation, is historically and practically misleading. To claim to believe in justification by faith alone and teach contrary to its meaning in the Reformation tradition is like claiming to believe in the Trinity while teaching Arianism or some other doctrine than that articulated by Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, and Augustine.

Waldron articulates three distinctive features of justifying faith that define the doctrine in the Reformed tradition (as found in Luther, Calvin, and the Reformation confessions and catechisms). They are:

1. Justifying faith is defined as passive

2. A distinction (though not a separation) is maintained between justifying faith and obedience

3. A dichotomy, antithesis, or contrast is maintained between (the righteousness of) the law and (the righteousness of) the gospel

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Thinking about the Trinity

In no other subject is error more dangerous, or inquiry more laborious, or the discovery of truth more profitable.


De Trinitate 1.3.5

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Abuse of the Bible and the Use of Extrabiblical Language

Light is cast on the use of extrabiblical language in the creeds when we consider the behaviour of heretics.

Letham makes this helpful observation in his discussion of potential problems with Trinitarianism:

Part of the problem for the ordinary Christian may be that in its debates and struggles, the ancient church was forced to use extrabiblical terms to defend biblical concepts. This was necessary because heretics misused the Bible to support their erroneous ideas.

Athanasius provides a glimpse of what happened at the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325), when the assembled bishops rejected the claim of Arius that the Son was not eternal, but was created by God, who thereby became his Father. Originally, the statement was proposed to the Council that the Son came "from God." This meant that he was not from some other source, nor was he a creature. However, those who sympathized. with Arius agreed to the phrase, since in their eyes all creatures came forth from God. Consequently, the Council was forced to look for a word that excluded all possibility of an Arian interpretation. Biblical language could not resolve the issue, for the conflict was over the meaning of biblical language in the first place.

Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity, p. 1-2

This point was made quite powerfully by Vincent of Lerins:

Heretics appeal to Scripture that they may more easily succeed in deceiving.

Here, possibly, some one may ask, Do heretics also appeal to Scripture ? They do indeed, and with a vengeance; for you may see them scamper through every single book of Holy Scripture,--through the books of Moses, the books of Kings, the Psalms, the Epistles, the Gospels, the Prophets. Whether among their own people, or among strangers, in private or in public, in speaking or in writing, at convivial meetings, or in the streets, hardly ever do they bring forward anything of their own which they do not endeavour to shelter under words of Scripture. Read the works of Paul of Samosata, of Priscillian, of Eunomius, of Jovinian, and the rest of those pests, and you will see an infinite heap of instances, hardly a single page, which does not bristle with plausible quotations from the New Tesment or the Old.

But the more secretly they conceal themselves under shelter of the Divine Law, so much the more are they to be feared and guarded against. For they know that the evil stench of their doctrine will hardly find acceptance with any one if it be exhaled pure and simple. They sprinkle it over, therefore, with the perfume of heavenly language, in order that one who would be ready to despise human error, may hesitate to condemn divine words. They do, in fact, what nurses do when they would prepare some bitter draught for children; they smear the edge of the cup all round with honey, that the unsuspecting child, having first tasted the sweet, may have no fear of the bitter. So too do these act, who disguise poisonous herbs and noxious juices under the names of medicines, so that no one almost, when he reads the label, suspects the poison.

It was for this reason that the Saviour cried, "Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves." What is meant by "sheep's closing"? What but the words which prophets and apostles with the guilelessness of sheep wove beforehand as fleeces, for that immaculate Lamb which taketh away the sin of the world ? What are the ravening wolves? What but the savage and rabid glosses of heretics, who continually infest the Church's folds, and tear in pieces the flock of Christ wherever they are able ? But that they may with more successful guile steal upon the unsuspecting sheep, retaining the ferocity of the wolf, they put off his appearance, and wrap themselves, so to say, in the language of the Divine Law, as in a fleece, so that one, having felt the softness of wool, may have no dread of the wolf's fangs.

Commonitorium, Chapter XXV

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Dishonest heretics

But heresy is not so great a sin as dishonesty. A heretic who acknowledges that he is such, is a better man than he who pretends to be orthodox while subscribing to a creed which he dislikes, and which he saps under pretense of removing it and adapting it to the times.

W. G. T. Shedd

Quoted in Gary L. W. Johnson [ed.], B. B. Warfield: Essays on his life and thought, p. 240

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Which is it?

A brief extract from Tony Jones' paper delivered at Wheaton:

Orthodoxy is a
happening, an occurrence, not a state of being or a state of mind or a state-ment.

It's a move from the ontological--orthodoxy is--to the eschatological--orthodoxy will be.

Orthodoxy is an event because God is eschatological. God is the future, and God calls us into the future.

In order for us to know now that "God is eschatolgical" orthodoxy cannot be solely eschatological, it must also be ontological. It must be a statement, otherwise "God is eschatological" is meaningless nonsense. How do we know that God is eschatological? And why make such a claim when you are arguing that such claims are not for now but only for the eschaton?

Carson raised similar concerns about the late Stan Grenz's eschatological-truth proposals outlined in Renewing the Center:

And that leads him to his Pannenberg-inspired references to the eschatological world, leaving unanswered the question about whether we can say anything objective about this world. In any case, what, precisely is the relationship between our "statements" and this "world beyond our formulations"? If the expression "world beyond our formulations" is taken in an absolute sense, we cannot say anything about it, so we may as well stop trying.

D. A. Carson, "Domesticating the Gospel," in Erickson, Helseth, Taylor [eds.], Reclaiming the Center, p. 54

Monday, July 09, 2007

Steps on the way to the destruction of the church

To allow interpretations which reverse the meaning of a confession is exactly the same thing as to have no confession at all

J. Gresham Machen

No one will doubt that Christians of today must state their Christian belief in terms of modern thought. Every age has a language of its own and can speak no other. Mischief comes only when, instead of stating Christian belief in terms of modern thought, an effort is made, rather, to state modern thought in terms of Christian belief.

B. B. Warfield

Saturday, July 07, 2007

The Departed: Proponents die but theological deviations live on

Here are two snapshots of theological controversies from over a hundred years ago. Neither issue has passed from the scene even if the opponents on each side have. New ideas in theology are often as old as dirt:

In 1886 the faculty at Andover Seminary published a volume entitled Progressive Orthodoxy. It suggested that theology could no longer be viewed as a fixed body of eternally valid truths but should adjust to the standards and needs of modern culture. What once had been assumed as settled in American Calvinism--the doctrine of the inspiration and authority of the Bible--was now a matter of debate.

In January 1894 Dr. Warfield produced a review of the opinions of Henry Preserved Smith, professor at Lane Theological Seminary, who had espoused the views of Dr. Briggs and had been suspended from the ministry by the Presbytery of Cincinnati in 1892. Warfield showed that Smith's concept of "limited inspiration"--that the Scriptures are infallible only in matters of faith and practice--was opposed to the teaching of the Scripture and the Westminster Confession of Faith, both of which set forth the doctrine of a fully inspired and inerrant Bible. Dr. Warfield wrote that "the new critical theories are consciously inconsistent with the old doctrine of inspiration" and asserted that "it is clear that one or the other must go to the wall."

David Calhoun, Princeton Seminary: The Majestic Testimony, 1869-1929, p. 141-2

Friday, July 06, 2007

Sacking Heretics? Some reflections on institutions and confessions

Here is one of the questions from Dr. Schreiner's interview on penal substitution that provoked comment here and elsewhere.

What would be your pastoral approach to a minister in training who denied penal substitution and a professor at an evangelical college or seminary who held the same views?

I would be patient with a student and try to persuade them of the biblical standpoint. Patience is initially the right stance for a professor as well. But if a professor comes to a settled conviction against penal substitution, he should be removed from his position in my judgment.

Some brief comments.

1. Implicit in the question and answer is the fact that "evangelical" is a term being employed with some minimal confessional content. So by referring to an "evangelical college or seminary" that is taken as shorthand for an institution that has an evangelical statement of faith.

2. This minimal confessional content would include a clear affirmation of the doctrines of sin, judgment, wrath, atonement, and substitution. These words need not be joined together to form a phrase such as "penal substitutionary atonement," but the presence of the doctrines I have listed would be sufficient to articulate the doctrine. As an example the UCCF doctrinal basis affirms that:

Since the fall, the whole of humankind is sinful and guilty, so that everyone is subject to God's wrath and condemnation.


Sinful human beings are redeemed from the guilt, penalty and power of sin only through the sacrificial death once and for all time of their representative and substitute, Jesus Christ, the only mediator between them and God.

3. An evangelical college or seminary with a statement of faith would work on a voluntary association principle. If this is what you believe then you may teach here. If your views change then you are morally obligated to teach elsewhere. If you are agreeing to the statement of faith but interpreting it in a way that contradicts what it affirms (and it should be added, if your interpretation subverts the meaning attributed to it by the founders of the institution or compilers of the statement) then you are agreeing to it under false pretenses. There is real integrity is someone saying "I don't believe this, therefore I shouldn't teach here anymore," or "my views have changed and I can in all honesty no longer uphold this statement." But there is no moral integrity in verbally assenting to a statement whilst in actual fact undermining it.

4. There is no curb placed on academic freedom in the voluntary association principle that has not been self chosen. Teaching at an evangelical institution is a choice. The choice has been made to teach what is in accordance with the institution's basis of faith. There are other places where one can teach that do not require an agreement to a confessional statement, or a confessional statement that is inclusive enough to accommodate views that would be ruled out by evangelical institutions.

5. Even if you teach in areas not directly covered by the evangelical basis of faith of that particular institution, or if you teach in an area covered by part of the statement, teaching at that evangelical institution still requires a full affirmation of the statement of faith. You are morally obligated to be faithful to the agreement that you have made. When I taught a first year module in apologetics at WEST I was required to uphold and not contradict the school's doctrinal basis. For me to denigrate in any shape or form that doctrinal basis would be sin. Even if I privately denied one or more points of the doctrinal basis, having come to a "settled conviction" against those points, I would still be morally obligated to withdraw from teaching.

6. Not to uphold voluntary association in this way, with its requirement of confessional agreement and subscription, is a sure way to create "doctrinal indifferentism." It is to treat binding theological agreements as if they were of no consequence. Not only is this intellectually dishonest it is also morally reprehensible.

Against letting standards slip

Fathers and brothers: It is without doubt a very wise provision by which, in institutions such as this, an inaugural address is made a part of the ceremony of induction into the professorship. Only by the adoption of some such method could it be possible for you, as the guardians of this institution, responsible for the principles here inculcated, to give each newly called teacher an opportunity to publicly declare the sense in which he accepts your faith and signs your standards.

Eminently desirable at all times, this seems particularly so now, when a certain looseness of belief (inevitable parent of looseness in practice) seems to have invaded portions of the Church of Christ--not leaving even its ministry unaffected--when there may be some reason to fear that "enlightened clerical gentlemen may sometimes fail to look upon subscription to creeds as our covenanting forefathers looked upon the act of putting their names to theological documents, and as mercantile gentlemen still look upon endorsements of bills."

I declare that I sign these standards not as a necessary form which must be submitted to, but gladly and willingly as the expression of a personal and cherished conviction; and, further, that the system taught in these symbols is the system which will be drawn out of the Scriptures in the prosecution of the teaching to which you have called me--not, indeed, because commencing with that system the Scriptures can be made to teach it, but because commencing with the Scriptures I cannot make them teach anything else.

B. B. Warfield, inaugural address at Western Theological Seminary 1879

Quoted in David Calhoun, Princeton Seminary: The Majestic Testimony 1869-1929, p. 118-9

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Departed: Reflections on changes in theology not institution

One of the most perplexing features of false teaching is the way that it clings to orthodox words and institutions. Whether knowingly or otherwise the charge has been made that this is dishonest. Not merely intellectually dishonest but morally so.

There is a long, and ugly, history in the church of confessional statements being retained but their meaning being subverted. There is a similarly tragic tale of once orthodox institutions departing from the vision and theology of their founders. Those in error are often left with the power and the property. They have departed from the truth but have at the same time entrenched themselves in the visible institution. This has been the story of churches, seminaries, and denominations.

Daryl Hart, in his fascinating and compelling biography of Gresham Machen, points out that in Christianity & Liberalism Machen:

...attempted to show under traditional theological headings that Christianity was a religion of grace and redemption, and that liberalism, while using traditional Christian phrases, was a religion of morality and human goodness.

D. G. Hart, Defending the Faith, p. 69

This phenomena exacerbates the problem of dealing with heresy. It is a phenomena often bolstered by an attempted philosophic, theological, and even historical justification of their position by those in error. At times it boils down to a battle over exactly who are the rightful heirs of "Evangelicalism," "Anglicanism," or "Presbyterianism." In such situations appeals can be made to the breadth of interpretation in a movement's history, as well as to the extremism of those who insist on particular doctrinal matters. Amazingly attention can be switched from intellectual arguments to the character traits of purists.

Having departed from the faith there is no guarantee that there will be a willing departure from the institution.

Having noted the same problem observed by Machen, Warfield in his article "The Essence of Christianity and the Cross of Christ," (written some nine years before Machen's volume appeared), made this intriguing point:

It may be, as Troeltsch seems to suggest, that "Liberal Christianity" lacks the power to originate a church and can live only as a kind of parasitical growth upon some sturdier stock. It may be that it is not driven by internal necessity to separate itself off from other faiths, on which it rather depends for support.

The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield Vol. III: Christology and Criticism, p. 444

This could be one reason why, having altered their theology, some preachers seek to hold on to their orthodox credentials and the constituency they belong to. Perhaps it is a tell tale sign when their books and conferences make a direct appeal to the disillusioned and disaffected followers of the host movement.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Packer on penal substitution and 'divine child abuse'

Update: the full text of Packer's article is available by kind permission of Uccf at the Reformation21 blog.

NB: news
, the magazine for supporters produced by uccf:thechristianunions has a three page feature article by Jim Packer on "Penal Substitution Revisited." Unless it appears on the uccf website I suggest you go here to obtain a copy and to receive regular updates on student work. The full text of Packer's classic lecture What did the Cross Achieve? the Logic of Penal Substitution (Tyndale Biblical Theology Lecture, 1973) is available online here.

Here are a few quotes from the uccf article to give you a taster:

Throughout my 63 years as an evangelical believer, the penal substitutionary understanding of the cross has been a flashpoint of controversy and division among Protestants. It was so before my time, in the bitter parting of ways between conservative and liberal evangelicals in the Church of England, and between the Inter-Varsity Fellowship (now UCCF) and Student Christian Movement (SCM) in the student world. It remains so, as liberalism keeps reinventing itself and luring evangelicals away from their heritage.

Since one's belief about the atonement is bound up with one's belief about the character of God, the terms of the gospel and the Christian's inner life, the intensity of the debate is understandable. If one view is right, others are more or less wrong, and the definition of Christianity itself comes to be at stake.

As I grow old, I want to tell everyone who will listen: 'I am so thankful for the penal substitutionary death of Christ. No hope without it.'

It was with his own will and his own love mirroring the Father's, therefore, that he took the place of human sinners exposed to divine judgment and laid down his life as a sacrifice for them, entering fully into the state and experience of death that was due to them.

Since all this [the work of the Triune God in salvation] was planned by the holy Three in their eternal solidarity of mutual love, and since the Father's central purpose in it all was and is to glorify and exalt the Son as Saviour and Head of a new humanity, smartypants notions like 'divine child abuse,' as a comment on the cross, are supremely silly, and as irrelevant and wrong as they could possibly be.

Both testaments...confirm that judicial retribution from God awaits those whose sins are not covered by a substitutionary sacrifice.

I, having surveyed the penal substitutionary sacrifice of Christ afresh, now reaffirm that here I rest my hope. So, I believe, will all truly faithful believers.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Probably the most insightful comment on contemporary evangelical drift?

The following quotation from Neibuhr appears on a few occasions in David Wells' books. It is the gospel story of choice once you have become disaffected with the redemptive one that focuses on Christ's substitutionary sacrifice.

It is not difficult to see how the marketeer's evangelicalism might begin to resemble the old liberalism, the gospel H. Richard Neibuhr once described as consisting in:

A God without wrath

bringing people without sin

into a kingdom without judgment

through a Christ without a cross.

David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland, p. 82