For a true understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity three questions must be answered:Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics vol. 2 God and Creation, p. 298-300
What is the meaning of the word "essence"? What is meant by the word "person"? And what is the relation between "essence" and "person" and between the persons among themselves?
The divine nature cannot be conceived as an abstract generic concept, nor does it exist as a substance outside of, above, and behind the divine persons. It exists in the divine persons and it totally and quantitatively the same in each person. The persons, though distinct, are not separate. They are the same in essence, one in essence, and the same being. They are not separated by time or space or anything else. They all share in the same divine nature and perfections. It is one and the same divine nature that exists in each person individually and in all of them collectively. Consequently, there is in God but one eternal, omnipotent, and omniscient being, having one mind, one will, and one power.
Friday, November 30, 2007
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
He looked like a lamb but spoke like a dragon: Chalke, Mann and A. J. Ayer on original sin and substitutionary atonement
A.J. Ayer (later Sir Alfred Ayer), the Oxford University philosopher, whose Language, Truth and Logic was his exposition of logical positivism and who died in 1989, was scathing in his denunciation of Christianity. He was especially scornful of the cross. In an article in The Guardian, he wrote that of all the historic religions there is a strong case for regarding Christianity as the worst. Why? Because it rested on "the allied doctrines of original sin and vicarious atonement, which are intellectually contemptible and morally outrageous."Compare these words with the following two quotations from The Lost Message of Jesus. In the first one are some comments on original sin:
John Stott, Calling Christian Leaders, p. 48-49
Too often we fail to look at others through the eyes of Jesus. While we have spent centuries arguing over the doctrine of original sin, pouring over the Bible and huge theological tomes to prove the inherent sinfulness of all humankind, we have missed a startling point: Jesus believed in original goodness!...And it's this original goodness that Jesus seeks out in us.I will not dwell on the fact that Jesus referred to his own disciples as evil (Matt. 7:11), and that he saw the incurably corrupt heart of man as the source of that torrent of sins that we see every day (Mark 7:20-23).
To see humanity as inherently evil and steeped in original sin instead of inherently made in God's image and so bathed in original goodness, however hidden it may have become, is a serious mistake. It is a grave error that has dogged the Church in the West for centuries...from the seeds of Augustine's thinking, the doctrine of original sin was born.
Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus, p. 67 (emphasis original)
The book,of course, goes on to deal with that other object of Ayer's scorn, the substitutionary death of Jesus:
John's Gospel famously declares, "God loved the people of this world so much that he gave his only Son" (John 3:16). How then, have we come to believe that at the cross this God of love suddenly decides to vent his anger and wrath on his own Son?So Ayer, Chalke and Mann all repudiate original sin and substitutionary atonement. What is the difference between them? With Ayer the attack on the truth comes from outside, from overt unbelief; with Chalke and Mann it comes from the inside, from unbelief posing as authentic faith.
The fact is that the cross isn't a form of cosmic child abuse--a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offense he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the Church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith...If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus' own teaching to love your enemies and to refuse to repay evil with evil.
The Lost Message, p. 182-3 (emphasis added)
Ayer spoke like a dragon. Chalke and Mann look like lambs but speak like dragons (Rev. 13:11).
Richard Muller has a good observation on this point in relation to the doctrine of the Trinity:
Whereas there was much debate and much very heated polemic in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries over aspects of the doctrines of Scripture and the divine essence and attributes, the doctrines were not formulated in the context of a large-scale assault on their basic concepts, at least not until the mid-seventeenth century, after orthodox Protestant dogmatics had been fully formulated. Certainly after 1550, the opposite was the case with the doctrine of the Trinity.Richard Muller, PRRD: volume 4 The Triunity of God, p. 19
The seventeenth-century orthodox formulation of the doctrine was accomplished with constant polemic against antitrinitarian views--views that grew out of a highly biblicist antrinitarianism such as Christianity had not seen since the patristic period.
Monday, November 26, 2007
- The oppostion of Satan and his servants who masquerade as servants of righteousness. One of the Puritans said that the devil never lets the wind blow for too long in the same direction, and so it seems to be when we consider the variety of errors that confront churches.
- The imbalance and reactions of ministers and theologians as they see one truth to the detriment of the whole counsel of God, and who fall into opposing errors as they seek to avoid the contagious diseases of the contemporary church scene (a point that T. David Gordon makes about the Federal Vision and Auburn Avenue theology in By Faith Alone: Answering the challenges to the doctrine of justification).
- The presence of presuppositions that reconfigure and rule over the authority and content of Scripture (these would include the misuse of reason, wrong ideas about the extent of special revelation, and the collapsing of the Creator-creature distinction).
- The lurking influence of acceptable cultural thoughts forms and prejudices that either dress themselves up in Christian language and use this to mask changed meanings, or else exert intellectual and moral pressures that heresies and false teachings try to appease.
Internally because of our pride, finitude, folly, and desire to be like God, and externally because of the cultural ideas of unbelief that we breathe in every day and the insinuations of the devil, there will always be the challenge to not to shrink back from declaring the whole counsel of God.
David Wells has some insightful observations on this pressing issue:
It is important for us to discern why, at a particular time, certain issues come to the fore and engage the church's attention. Usually, the reason for this resolves itself into a choice between two options. Either the issue arises from within the church, as heretical deviations make their way through its life, leaving trouble and confusion in their wake, or the issue arises from without, as the surrounding culture intrudes worldly expectations and appetites upon the church, robbing it of its vision and conviction.
And there is little doubt in my mind that in the case before us, the uniqueness of Christian faith and the reality of God's abiding judgment upon unbelief, it is our modernized and secularized culture that is principally unsettling the church.
...the awkward fact is that the church, for nineteen hundred years, has believed in the uniqueness of Christ, the truth of his Word, and the necessity of God's judgement of the impenitent; and we have to ask why, in the late twentieth century, some or all of these beliefs now seem to have become so unbelievable. Is it that new exegetical discoveries now cast doubt upon what the church has always believed?...Is it that the church has simply misread the Bible and done so consistently over so long a period of time?
No, these truths today have become awkward and disconcerting to hold not because of new light from the Bible but because of new darkness from the culture.
From the Foreword by David F. Wells in Robert A. Peterson, Hell on Trial: The case for eternal punishment, p. ix-x
Friday, November 23, 2007
On the best reading of it parachurch organisations make use of minimal statements of essential gospel truths in order to unite the maximum number of people for the purpose of achieving a specific and limited goal. It is also true to say that some churches who participate in parachurch enterprises share, or even have adopted, a statement of faith belonging to a parachurch organisation.
These two positions can be characterised in the following way:
1. Hold to fuller and longer statements and confessions (e.g. Westminster, Savoy, London Baptist). By a fuller, longer statement I mean one that covers more areas of biblical truth and church life, and one that covers each area in greater detail. These fuller statements not only incorporate doctrine, but also ethics (10 commandments) and piety (Lord's prayer).
2. Use confessional statements in the positive teaching of the church (especially among children and youth) as well as in the appointing, and when necessary, the discipline of ministers and church officers.
1. Hold to shorter statements of faith with less unpacking of the positive meaning of each subject.
For example, the Evangelical Alliance (UK) basis of faith states that "We believe in  The justification of sinners solely by the grace of God through faith in Christ." By comparison the Westminster Confession chapter 11 deals with justification under six headings and has a word count of 388.
2. Most likely use statements of faith in the appointing, and where necessary, disciplining of ministers and church officers. It is more likely that doctrine will be taught subject by subject, if at all, with little emphasis on the need for or importance of ecclesiastical confessional statements.
With widely divergent approaches to the idea of confessionalism it is no wonder that evangelical relationships are often fractured and tense. The tensions being caused not perhaps by individual doctrines so much as approaches to doctrine itself that are poles apart.
Even when doctrinal statements are treated with some reservation, it is in fact impossible to avoid making and acting on doctrinal convictions on areas covered by a minimal statement of faith, as well as in church practice, ethics and piety. When that happens we end up with both written and unwritten statements of belief and practice in operation. We may even have the strange situation where written statements are devalued and unwritten ones are used with significant authority (this situation is particularly noticeable in Brethren circles but applies more widely).
Some comments by Terry Virgo in his interview earlier this year with Adrian Warnock illustrate this point. Terry Virgo adopts a surprisingly negative view of the role of written statements of faith (not, however, of the importance of doctrine) but at the same time has a clear view of the essential nature of a number of other truths, that are unwritten, for New Frontiers churches:
"We don't in fact have a statement of faith, because I wouldn't want to be defining in a kind of way that can put people in a kind of prison. I have met many people who belong to movements which have clearly articulated statements of faith and practice but they don't personally embrace everything that the movement says. They say, 'I belong but I don't believe everything in it.'Followed by:
We happily embrace the classic creeds and statements of faith without getting into tight definitions of detail, which can put people into a prison.
I can't see that the early Church as described in the Bible had a systematic theology kind of statement of their faith. Obviously Apostolic doctrine was fundamental. The Apostle Paul taught doctrine, and they devoted themselves to the Apostles doctrine. But the very concept of a statement of faith seems somehow foreign to the atmosphere of the Bible and the early church."
"We would embrace the final authority of Scripture and that the Bible teaches, for instance, baptism of believers by immersion and we would say without that you could not be part of Newfrontiers. We would hold that as essential. Sometimes Anglican communities have asked if they could be part of Newfrontiers and I have said 'No' because we would hold that to be essential.In point of fact they do relate by doctrinal statements, but those statements are unwritten and rely on the relational commitment of church leaders to maintain them and enforce them.
It would also be essential to believe that there are apostles today and that local churches are autonomous and work within an apostolic sphere. We are a charismatic group, so believe that the gifts of the Holy Spirit continue. We believe in the centrality of worship, and would want to see the presence of God manifest in meetings of churches wanting to join...Though we are diligent for truth, we relate in and through churches rather than by doctrinal statements."
This opens up a number of questions. How do you determine what "the final authority of Scripture" is if you do not have a statement of faith that defines, explains and defends it? Do you take a straw poll of the churches? How would you know if that commitment to the "final authority of Scripture" carried the same meaning from church to church without a formal, written, voluntary agreement on what it meant? How could you adminster discipline on that matter if a church went into error even though they maintained that they were still upholding the "final authority of Scripture"? On what basis could you evaluate the beliefs of a church seeking to join the wider family of churches?
To do that relationally (and after all it is men who have to discuss and decide these things), still requires a standard by which to confirm and evaluate specific doctrinal convictions. If I want to know what the church down the road believes about the authority of Scripture and I can't find a statement of faith I will want the minister to tell me what he believes. When he does so I will be wondering if his views correspond to what I believe Scripture to teach about its own authority. Neither of us can escape definitions or statements of faith when we express what we believe about the final authority of Scripture. So it is not as if being confessional and relational are inherently opposed. Sharing a common confession is surely part and parcel of how churches relate. To oppose them is to confuse categories.
Far from being a prison, confessional statements bring clarity, unity in the truth, and accountability to church relationships. The great fault of unwritten approaches to essential matters is that they undermine, intentionally or otherwise, clarity, unity and accountability. What someone considers to be essential may be unwritten but it still has to be verbalised. Whether it is in words written on a page, or spoken, it is still expressed in words. So why not write it down? Can you think of a good reason not to?
Fuller confessional statements do not place churches in error free zones, but they do make it easier to deal with problems when they arise because.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
However, I would love to hear from readers what you think those seven habits of highly effective heretics might be.
Comments are open.
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
For most of us our names were not chosen because of the significance of their meaning. That doesn't mean that our names are not significant, they may well be because of their connection to family members (we may be named after our grandfather, or grandmother). It may be that our parents deliberately limited their list of baby names to those found in Scripture. Of course first names are often chosen to fit appropriately with surnames (although in Wales you can have names like William Williams, David Davies, and Evan Evans). Then again our name may well have been chosen for it's phonetic resonance.
Let me tell you an amusing story about that. When we took our pet guinea pig to the vet (a journey, incidentally, he did not return from) there was an embarrassing moment when the vet asked for guinea pig's name. Never let a two and a half year old have the authority to choose a pet's name, you may live to regret it. His name? "oh...Father Christmas" we said. Now the guinea pig didn't have a little white beard, or a sack full of toys, or a red outfit, or a little sleigh. There was no link at all between the name and the guinea pig. The connection was totally arbitrary.
In Scripture God's names are far from being arbitrary, empty titles. God's names are full of significance and they tell us a great deal about him.
Consider the follow texts (adapted from Bavinck's discussion of the names of God). God's name is his glory (Ps. 8:1); his honour, and a name to be feared (Lev. 18:21; Ps. 86:10-11; 102:16); his name is connected with his redeeming power (Ex. 15:3; Isa. 47:4) and his holiness (1 Chron. 16:10; Ps. 105:3). That name being a revelation of God is great (Ezek. 36:23), holy (Ezek. 36:20), and awesome (Ps. 111:9).
In Ezekiel 36 God says that he will act for the sake of his name, not for the sake of his people who are guilty of profaning that name. God revealed himself to Israel by the angel of the Lord in whom the Lord's name was present (Ex. 23:20), and he put his name among his people to dwell there (Deut. 12:5; 14:23). This was true especially of the temple (2 Sam. 7:13). On account of his name he cannot abandon Israel (1 Sam. 12:22; Isa. 48:9, 11; Ps. 23:3; 31:3; 143:11-12).
There are many other significant passages that speak of God's name (Gen. 4:26; 12:8; Ex. 9:16; Deut. 28:58; 1 Kings 8:33) not to mention the variety of names given in Scripture (e.g. God almighty, the LORD, the LORD our righteousness).
Jesus is given his name because he will save his people (Matt. 1:21). It is by his name alone that we must be saved (Acts 4:12) and receive forgiveness (Acts 2:38; 10:43) and upon which we must call to be saved (Acts 2:21). The name of the Lord is a strong tower that the righteous man runs into and is safe (Prov. 18:10).
We must also bear in mind the dramatic significance of God revealing his name to Moses in Exodus 3:14-15. That name, “I AM,” signifying that he is the self-existent One, has great ramifications for the redemption of the people from Egypt. It is also the name that Jesus applies to himself in John 8:58, and that Paul says that we call on when we confess that Jesus is LORD (see the use of Joel 2:32 in Rom. 10:9-13).
Bavinck summarizes so well the important connection in Scripture between God and his name:
There is an intimate link between God and his name. According to Scripture, this link too is not accidental or arbitrary but forged by God himself. We do not name God; he names himself. In the foreground here is the name as a revelation on the part of God, in an active and objective sense, as revealed name. In this case God's name is identical with the attributes or perfections that he exhibits in and to the world...Summed up in his name, therefore, is his honour, his fame, his excellencies, his entire revelation, his very being.
Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: vol. 2 God and Creation, p. 98-9
Monday, November 19, 2007
The primary purpose of polemics was the assault on and demolition of error. That purpose was best served by the accurate statement of an opponent's position.Muller, PRRD: vol. 1 Prolegomena to Theology, p. 64
Even allowing for differences of time and place, and variances in sociological, philosophical and cultural influences, there is a remarkable consistency in the similarity of errors in Church history. I think that an obvious explanation for this is the presence of the same biblical text and the same theological truths that were the cause of reaction, aversion and innovation. If you don't like the truth you have got to go somewhere. As the late Harold O. J. Brown observed it really was the same truths producing the same reactions again and again.
This has happened with open theism and with the current attacks upon penal substitution within evangelicalism. My thesis is not that ideas from the past have been transfered directly from the seventeenth century writings of the Socinians but that the affinity between their views and the fresh contemporary attacks upon God's exhaustive foreknowledge and the atonement that one finds in open theist writings and in the emerging church movement, for example, have been indirectly produced by the same flight from orthodoxy.
Over the next few months I will be researching and writing a chapter for a book that Crossway will be publishing with the provisional title "Christless Christianity: The shadow of Socinianism falls on Western Evangelicalism." My contention is that the same hermeneutical and theological moves are afoot today, in the doctrinal aberrations that afflict the cause of the gospel, that troubled churches in the past.
Once revived these ideas find their ways into books with shiny new covers, sermons, seminars, songs, prayers, minds and hearts. Like Socinianism they too become international movements that stray from the gospel and take more and more people with them.
As an example of this Robert Strimple, in his 1996 essay "What does God know?" noted that open theism is a direct descendent of Socinianism:
Against the Arminians, the Socinians insisted that logically the Calvinists were quite correct in insisting that the only real basis for believing that God knows what you are going to do next is to believe that he has foreordained what you are going to do next. How else could God know ahead of time what your decision will be?Rober Strimple, "What Does God Know?" in John H. Armstrong [ed.], The Coming Evangelical Crisis, p. 140-1
Like the Arminians, however, the Socinians insisted that it was a contradiction of human freedom to believe in the sovereign foreordination of God. So they went "all the way" (logically) and denied not only that God has foreordained the free decisions of free agents but also that God foreknows what those decisions will be.
That is precisely the teaching of the "free will theism" of Pinnock, Rice, and other like-minded "new model evangelicals." They want their doctrine of God to sound very "new," very modern...But it is just the old Socinian heresy rejected by the church centuries ago.
I'll take up this point over the next few days with examples from John Owen's critique of Socinian views in general, and John Biddle in particular. Biddle had written of God "not knowing the things that are future and which shall be done by the sons of men" (Owen, Vindicae Evangelicae, p. 86).
Sunday, November 18, 2007
I know of a minister who read from Psalm 23 at the graveside of a man who had lived an openly ungodly life. He read the psalm in the negative. "The Lord was not his shepherd, he will be in want, he will not lie down in green pastures, the Lord will not restore his soul." I'm not sure if I would have had the guts to do that. This is the force of Jesus' words in John 10. "You are not my sheep, I have not called you, I have not given you eternal life."
Calvin says of these verses:
Believers should...reckon that they are the more strongly bound to God because while others remain in blindness they are drawn to Christ by the enlightening of the Spirit. This is also a comfort to ministers of the gospel if their labour is not profitable to all.
It is is no small consolation to godly teachers that, although the larger part of the world does not listen to Christ, he has his sheep whom he knows and by whom he is also known. They must do their utmost to bring the whole world into Christ's fold, but when they do not succeed as they would wish, they must be satisfied with the single thought that those who are sheep will be collected together by their work.
Saturday, November 17, 2007
By way of introduction let me say that one of the positive responses and benefits that can come from dealing with heresy and false teaching is a renewed interest in particular doctrines. This can be true intellectually as we look at the exact teaching of Scripture and as we mine the great theological works of history. It can also impact the clarity and boldness of our proclamation. We may find that we have neglected to teach, or to teach well, or to declare, the very truths under assault. We may also find that some people just really don't like the truth that we teach.
Frame notes concerning the centrality of love among God's attributes that:
Rice wants to argue...that it is "more important than all of God's other attributes," even "more fundamental." He says, "Love is the essence of the divine reality, the basic source from which all of God's attributes arise." But never does he actually present any comparisons between love and any other divine attributes. Just to show the importance and centrality of love in Scripture does not justify that conclusion. (p. 53)
Ritschl is right to say that love is God's essence, but wrong to deny that holiness is. And that kind of error is sometimes linked to other theological errors. Often when a theologian makes God's love central, in contrast to other attributes, he intends, contrary to Scripture, to cast doubt on the reality and intensity of God's wrath and judgment. That was the case with Ritschl, and it is the case with some modern evangelicals. (p. 52)
Friday, November 16, 2007
“No parent would let their child suffer forever, so how can we believe that a God of love would allow people to suffer in hell forever?”How should we respond?
It is important that we place this objection into the right category. It is a moral objection of a particularly emotive kind. It is not an primarily an exegetical objection, although we could say that what it is permissible for God to do, or not do, as Judge, is possibly being logically deduced from the statement that "God is love" (1 John 4:16). (Incidentally if that is the case then other statements in 1 John, including the predication that "God is light," and John's teaching about the propitiatory death of Jesus lead us to a clearer understanding of God's love in relation to his other attributes and his redemptive work in Christ). It more likely to be an objection that bypasses the exegetical defense of hell. It is, therefore, an objection that moves the location of authority from the text of Scripture and places it firmly upon our own shoulders.
Consider the logic of the argument. If we would not do this ("No parent would...") then surely a loving God would not do it either. The direction of travel here is from us to God. This is to turn the purpose of analogies on their head. It is true that we are made in God's image. It is true that God speaks to us using analogies. These analogies, however, do not place humanity and God on the same level and apply to God and man in exactly the same way. God is King, Lord, and Father. We did not select these analogies, he did. We do not find their meaning in our world and then project them on to God. Instead we see a finite resemblance of them in our world.
God is king, but he is not like human kings because he is the infinite, eternal, unchanging Creator. We are like him, he is not like us. Someone recently told me of a church in the US where as a result of a discussion about "God as king" it was agreed to drop this image because no-one found it relevant to their experience (no longer I guess being a part of the British Empire!). It is not, however, our experience of human kings that is determinative of the acceptibility of knowing God as king. This is to get it the wrong way around. God names himself as King and Lord and we are not free to change his name by deed poll into something else (like Queen or Mother) or to drop his name from our vocabulary.
Van Til had a very helpful way of explaining this. He would draw two circles on a board, a large one above a smaller one. The larger one standing for God and the smaller one for the world. This stood for the Creator-creature distinction. At no point in Christian theology do these circles merge. In non-Christian thought, and also in corrupted Christian thought they do merge. It is easy to see how this applies to our thinking about God's ways (which Scripture affirms are themselves incomprehensible to us, Rom 11:36).
The argument that says that because we would not think of eternal punishment as an appropriate moral response to sin therefore a loving God would not either has merged the two circles and treated God as if he was on our level of thinking. In effect he is being pulled down out of heaven and made to behave in accordance with our finite and fallen standards. The thought that God's love, goodness, holiness and justice is infinitely greater than our creaturely (and therefore derivative) goodness, justice and love is not even on the table as an option. The creation was declared by God as "good," nevertheless it was still a creaturely goodness. Ought we not say that the goodness of a self-existent, self-sufficient, infinite, eternal God is qualitatively not just quantitatively different to that found in his creatures?
And if that were not enough remember the way that Scripture cautions us to remember just whose ways we are seeking to scrutinize (Rom. 9:19-21). We are not God. We are not loving, good, holy, and righteous in exactly the same way as God is.
We are faced with the choice of either submitting to his Word or continuing along the path trodden by Adam and Eve where we will not let God determine good and evil but will choose ourselves as the acceptable reference point for moral decisions and their criteria.
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Clark Pinnock wrote this in 1994:
Omniscience need not mean exhaustive foreknowledge of all future events. If that were its meaning, the future would be fixed and determined, much as is the past. Total knowledge of the future would imply a fixity of events. Nothing in the future would need to be decided. It would also imply that human freedom is an illusion, that we make no difference and are not responsible.A. A. Hodge, however, wrote these words in 1860:
How can the certainty of the foreknowledge of God be reconciled with the freedom of moral agents in their acts?A. A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology, p. 146-7
The difficulty here presented is of this nature. God's foreknowledge is certain; the event, therefore, must be certainly future; if certainly future, how can the agent be free in enacting it.
In order to avoid this difficulty some theologians, on the one hand, have denied the reality of man's moral freedom, while others, on the other hand, have maintained that, God's knowledge being free, he voluntarily abstains from knowing what his creatures endowed with free agency will do.
Libertarian freedom is a non-negotiable item on the open theist agenda. There is a willingness to lay the very omniscience of Almighty God as a sacrifice upon this altar. As Frame says, libertarian freedom is so "important to the open theist position that without it, the entire position lacks credibility" (No Other God, p. 193).
Making this wrong turn for an answer to the tension between sovereignty and responsibility goes back beyond 1994, beyond 1860, and all the way to the Socinians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. At different times and in different places the same texts and the same theological issues were being faced. Sadly the same errors are heralded today as new discoveries and groundbreaking theological insights.
Historical theology is, quite simply, a subject that pastors must take a deep interest in.
Scott Clark has a very helpful post on this here. Carl Trueman had a very stimulating review here.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance? Who has measured the Spirit of the LORD, or what man shows him his counsel? Whom did he consult, and who made him understand? Who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?
Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales; behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust. Lebanon would not suffice for fuel, nor are its beasts enough for a burnt offering. All the nations are as nothing before him, they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness...To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One...Have you not known? Have you not heard?The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. (Isaiah 40:12-17, 25, 28)
Over the course of our four sessions on the doctrine of God we are going to cultivate a deep appreciation for paracetamol and ibuprofen. We are going to feel incredibly small and ignorant, shallow and sinful. At the same time that we are shrinking in our own eyes we are going to have a growing understanding and awareness of the sheer greatness of God. We are going to think great thoughts about God, humbling thoughts. Those thoughts will lead us to reverent praise as we magnify Father, Son and Spirit.
Where should we begin in our thinking about God?
We could start with God as he is in himself, with God as he exists in his independence from creation, in his self-sufficiency, in his inner eternal Trinitarian life. From this starting point we could consider his being, nature, and attributes (again thinking of God in himself). From here we could go on to think about God as our Creator and of his wise and holy providence. Once we have grasped something of these matters we could then logically turn to the knowledge of God as our Redeemer in Christ. That would be a logical and helpful method to follow. There is however an important caveat to be added before we set off. Even if we started out in our thinking with God's eternal existence “in himself” we have to remember that even our knowledge of God in himself is our knowledge of God as creatures. It is a knowledge that is dependent on God's disclosure to us of that inner eternal Trinitarian life that he has as God.
Even when we consider God as he exists in himself we do so as recipients of revelation suited to our capacities as finite creatures made in God's image and as beneficiaries of God's goodness in so revealing himself. This truth can be stated as follows:
We can never know God as God knows himself. We will always know God in a way suited to and limited by our creature-hood.
Recognizing this at the outset of our thinking about God, and as we consider what knowledge of him we do possess, and are able to possess, is of critical importance. Much theological mischief is done when we fail to understand the difference between ourselves as creatures and God as Creator in the realm of knowledge. Turretin stated the Creator-creature distinction as follows:
Thus although theology treats of the same things as metaphysics, physics and ethics, yet the mode of considering them is far different. It treats of God not like metaphysics as a being or as he can be known from the light of nature, but as the Creator and Redeemer made known by revelation...For theology treats of God and his infinite perfections, not as knowing them in an infinite but in a finite manner; nor absolutely as much as they can be known in themselves, but as much as he has been pleased to reveal them.
Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1:17
Secondly, we must take into account that we begin in our thinking about God not as those with the “primal and simple knowledge of God to which the very order of nature would have led us if Adam had remained upright,” (as Calvin puts it in Institutes 1:2:1), but as those ruined by the fall, who did not see fit to acknowledge God (Rom. 1:28). An illustration may help here. There is some graffiti scrawled on a wall in mid-Wales that says “Cofiwch Dryweryn” (Remember Tryweryn, pron. tre-ware-in...and don't forget to roll those "r"s). Tryweryn is a village in North Wales. You can find it on a map, there are houses there and a church. But you won't be able to drive though the village, talk to the residents, or attend a Sunday service. No one lives there anymore. In the 1960s Tryweryn was flooded to create a reservoir was to supply water for homes in Liverpool. In our thinking about God we must take into account where we stand in redemptive history. No one lives in the Garden anymore. We no longer know God as Adam and Eve did. If we fail to account for this ethical change in our knowledge of God, in addition to remembering our finitude and creature-hood before God's majesty, we will go badly astray in our evangelism and apologetics.
Whilst we can think logically of the knowledge of God in himself (his inner eternal Trinitarian life), and of God as Creator, we do not know him truly until we are acquainted with the gospel. It is through the gospel that we attain to the knowledge of God in a profitable way. Turretin expresses this with admirable clarity:
But when God is set forth as the object of theology, he is not to be regarded simply as God in himself...but as revealed...Nor is he to be considered exclusively under the relation of deity...for in this manner the knowledge of him could not be saving but deadly to sinners), but as he is our God (i.e., covenanted in Christ as he has revealed himself to us in his word).
Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1:16
Monday, November 12, 2007
In Scripture God's name is his self-revelation...God's revealed names do not reveal his being as such but his accommodation to human language. Scripture is accommodated language; it is anthropomorphic through and through. God himself is described in human terms via human faculties, body parts, emotions, sensations and actions. In Scripture all creation, the theatre of God's glory, is mined for the description of the knowledge of God.
We rightly use anthropomorphic language because God accommodated himself to creatures by revealing his name in and through creatures. We cannot see God in himself; we can only see him in his works. To deny this is to deny the possibility of knowing God at all.Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: vol. 2 God and Creation, p. 95
Of course, all our knowledge of God is ectypal or derived from Scripture. Only God's self-knowledge is adequate, undervied, or archetypal. Yet our finite inadequate knowledge is still true, pure, and sufficient. Ectypal knowledge must not be seen as merely symbolic, a product of poetic imagination. God then becomes mere projection and religion mere subjective art. Christian theology teaches the opposite. We are God's creation; he is not ours. While our knowledge of him is accommodated and limited, it is no less real, true, and trustworthy. As God reveals himself, so he trule is. His revealed attributes truly reveal his nature.
Friday, November 09, 2007
I came across this today at the Banner of Truth Trust website. It is well worth reading, and mulling over, and living out. The author is the Rev. Ian Hamilton:
When Augustine found himself in controversy with fellow believers, he remarked on more than one occasion to his friend Alypius, 'Remember, we are washed in the same blood.' The great Church Father was not downplaying the importance of accurate doctrine. Rather, he was highlighting the foundational truth that, whatever their differences, believers are one in Christ. There is, as Paul reminds the Christians in Ephesus, but 'one Lord, one faith, one baptism.'
Why mention this? For this reason: It is only too easy to so prize accurate doctrine that we lose sight of our unity in Christ with all believers everywhere. I am very conscious that this is easy to say and harder to put into practice. We, at least I, instinctively think in terms of theological, even denominational, distinctives. We become suspicious of professing Christians who are not 'one of us' (read Mark 9:38-41).
I have been wonderfully privileged, as I truly believe, to have been embraced by the Reformed Faith. Like many of you, I am persuaded it is the most accurate and enriching explication of the teaching of God’s holy Word. But precisely here lies a danger: the Reformed Faith is not the Christian Faith - unless you believe that everyone who is not a Calvinistic Presbyterian is not a Christian at all! Sadly, some give the impression (and more than the impression) that if you are not wholly committed to the Westminster Confession of Faith, you are deeply suspect. I would guess that an incipient sectarianism is more widespread in our circles than we would imagine. In some places there is almost the mentality that says, the smaller your church is, the purer and more orthodox it must be. How can we counter this profoundly unbiblical and un-Christian attitude?
John Calvin has a wonderful passage in Book 4.10.30 of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, that points us in a wholesome and deeply Christian direction for an answer. While acknowledging that in the ordering of our worship 'we ought not to charge into innovation rashly, suddenly,' he also tells us, 'it will be fitting (as the advantage of the church will require) to change and abrogate traditional practices and to establish new ones.' No doubt conscious that what he has just written could be misunderstood, Calvin concludes, 'but love will best judge what may hurt or edify; and if we let love be our guide, all will be safe.' Calvin is implicitly acknowledging that Christians will not always see things the same way or do things the same way. When we differ, 'let love be our guide and all will be safe.' How you react and respond to those words will say a lot about you.
Of course they are 'dangerous'. Often Christians have used 'love' as a pretext for not publicly opposing error in the church and for glossing over doctrinal aberrations. But - and it is a BIG ‘but' - didn’t our Lord Jesus say, 'By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another'? Our Saviour was not advocating that his disciples ignore differences, turn a benign eye to heresy, and embrace everything and anyone who says they are Christians. He surely, however, was saying that his disciples, imitating him, were to embrace everyone born again of his Spirit and loved by his Father. If a Christian is someone who trusts in Christ alone for salvation (John 3:16; 3:36, Acts 16:31, etc.), then we are duty bound to treat as brothers and sisters all who have been 'brothered' by Christ - 'we are washed in the same blood.'
This is our Christian starting point. Of course we will seek to challenge our less-than-Reformed brothers and sisters to embrace the riches of God’s sovereign grace in the gospel. Of course, if you are anything like me, you will want to help and challenge fellow believers to see the rich biblical truth of God’s covenant grace to families. But our starting point will always be, 'These are my people; we have been washed in the same blood, sanctified by the same Spirit, and loved by the same Father.' Such a view may strike you as uncommonly naive. You are probably right. However, it is the naiveté of God’s Word. It makes the Christian life less clinical and more 'messy' and certainly more demanding. But it also expresses something of the Father’s love for all his children.
I have no easy solutions. But our Saviour prayed for the unity of his family. If he prayed for it, we should labour to realise it. If it was worth his blood, it is worthy of our effort. 'Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God' (Ephesians 5:1-2).
A fellow blood-washed sinner, IAN HAMILTON
Ian Hamilton is Pastor of the Cambridge Presbyterian Church.
Thursday, November 08, 2007
God has his own independent intra-trinitarian life apart from the creation, and this life is hidden from view and unknowable to creatures. Yet God has condescended not only to create and enter into a personal relationship with creatures, but to reveal his character insofar as it pleases him and benefits us.
Michael Horton, “Hellenistic or Hebrew? Open Theism and Reformed Theological Method,” in Beyond the Bounds, p. 207
He has done so in a way suited to our limitations and capacities as creatures. As Bavinck expressed it:
Moreover, whereas God's revelation in nature and Scripture is definitely directed to man, God uses human language to reveal himself and manifests himself in human forms. It follows that that Scripture does not merely contain a few anthropomorphisms; on the contrary, all Scripture is anthropomorphic. From beginning to end Scripture testifies a condescending approach of God to man.
Bavinck, The Doctrine of God, p. 85-6
Later today I have the privilege of teaching the doctrine of God to the second year students at the North West Partnership Training Course.
Wednesday, November 07, 2007
But God proclaims to us from his own word that there is a righteousness from him that we receive by faith and not by works. This righteousness is not our own but is outside of us. This righteousness that we so desperately need is found in Christ alone. It is not here on earth but in heaven at God's right hand.
No wonder that Gresham Machen expressed his thoughts on it in this way, "I'm so thankful for the active obedience of Christ; no hope without it." No wonder that Zinzendorf looked to the Jesus' blood and righteousness as his refuge on the last day in these words:
When from the dust of death I riseAnd Venantius Fortunatus could write:
To claim my mansion in the skies,
E'en then shall this be all my plea,
Jesus hath lived, hath died for me!
Man's work faileth, Christ availeth,This righteousness by which we are justified in God's sight, involving both his active and passive obedience, was articulated by A. A. Hodge as follows:
He is all our righteousness;
He, our Saviour, has for ever
Set us free from dire distress.
Through his merit we inherit
Life and peace and happiness.
Christ, although a man, was a divine person. As such he voluntarily "was made under the law," and all his earthly obedience to the law under human conditions was as vicarious as his sufferings. His "active" obedience embraces his entire life and death viewed as vicarious obedience. His "passive" obedience embraces his entire life, and especially his sacrificial death, viewed as vicarious suffering.A. A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology, p. 405
Adam represented the race under the original gracious covenant of works. He fell, forfeiting the "eternal life" conditioned on obedience, and incurring the penalty of death conditioned upon disobedience.
Christ, the second Adam assumes the covenant in behalf of his elect just as Adam left it. He:
(a) discharges the penalty--"the soul that sinneth shall die,"
(b) earns the reward--"he that doth these things shall live by them."
His whole vicarious suffering obedience, or obedient suffering is one righteousness. As "passive" obedience it "satisfies" the penal demand of the law. As "active" obedience it merits for us eternal life from regeneration to glorification.
The imputation of this righteousness to us is our justification.
Tuesday, November 06, 2007
Sometimes mistakes are made through being careless, at other times there can be a deliberate attempt to tamper with goods and not to declare that information when the product is sold. Either way there can be a difference between the claims of the familiar label and the reality of the product itself. When that happens, being wise consumers, we don't take deep reassurance from the label that all things must be well because the wording is right. Instead we dispose of the faulty product, and rightly so. It is, after all, not what it claims to be. And not necessarily having all the knowledge or expertise that we need we are grateful for those who monitor and regulate these matters (like the Food Standards Agency who recently pulled some Welsh lamb packed with veterinary drugs off the supermarket shelves).
Well if this is true in everyday mundane matters like shopping and eating how much more so it it true in matters of doctrine. Our assumption is often to treat claims at face value and to gain reassurance from the use of familiar biblical and theological phrases. But heresies and false doctrines involve the preservation of orthodox words and phrases whilst at the same time replacing the intended meaning of those words. 2 Corinthians 11 is a case study in this kind of deception.
This is what makes error plausible and dangerous. It is able to make inroads because the labels it carries all appear perfectly normal. At this point the intellectual and moral dimensions of error are both involved. It is one thing to sincerely misrespresent the truth through a lack of understanding, it is quite another to misrepresent the truth by this misuse of language.
Two obvious ways in which this occurs is in the use of biblical terms (e.g. God, Jesus, Spirit, gospel, hell etc.) and the use of more theological and confessional language (e.g. Trinity, substitutionary atonement, infallibility, covenant of grace). There is of course an overlap where biblical terms have been understood within a certain theological tradition where their meaning has been well established (justification, election). I have no strong assurance that someone suspected of theological mischief is orthodox just because they are able to role out phrases like "I believe that Christ died for our sins" or that we are "justified by faith alone." It is what they mean by those words that matters.
Gresham Machen was conscious of this issue during the Presbyterian conflicts of the 1920s and 30s:
Traditional terminology is constantly being used in a double sense. Plain people in the church are being told, for example, that this preacher or that believes that Jesus is God. They go away impressed; the preacher, they say, believes in the deity of Christ; what more could be desired?Gresham Machen, God Transcendent, p. 44-5
What is not being told them is that the word 'God' is being used in a pantheising or Ritschlian sense, so that the assertion, 'Jesus is God,' is not the most Christian, but the least Christian thing that the modernist preacher says. The modernist preacher affirms the deity of Jesus not because he thinks high of Jesus but because he thinks desperately low of God.
Formerly when men had brought to their attention perfectly plain documents like the Apostles' Creed or the Westminster Confession or the New Testament, they either accepted them or else they denied them. Now they no longer deny, but merely 'interpret.'
Monday, November 05, 2007
The truth of the matter is a little different.
The following is from Mike Horton's essay in Beyond the Bounds. Not only is this a very fine book, but it is even worth buying for the sake of this one essay.
Contrary to popular caricature, Reformed scholasticism championed an anti-speculative and anti-rationalistic theological method based on the Creator-creature distinction. Turretin, for example, speaks for the whole tradition when he states:
But when God is set forth as the object of theology, he is not to be regarded simply as God in himself...but as revealed...Nor is he to be considered exclusively under the relation of deity (according to the opinion of Thomas Aquinas and many Scholastics after him, for in this manner the knowledge of him could not be saving but deadly to sinners), but as he is our God (i.e., covenanted in Christ as he has revealed himself to us in his word).Even sola scriptura is not some abstract notion of authority imposed on theology from without, but is the recognition that, as the Reformers so clearly warned, the knowledge of God in his blinding majesty is deadly, while the knowledge of God in his condescending self-revelation is saving. Turretin elaborates on the contrasting approaches:
Thus although theology treats of the same things as metaphysics, physics and ethics, yet the mode of considering them is far different. It treats of God not like metaphysics as a being or as he can be known from the light of nature, but as the Creator and Redeemer made known by revelation...For theology treats of God and his infinite perfections, not as knowing them in an infinite but in a finite manner; nor absolutely as much as they can be known in themselves, but as much as he has been pleased to reveal them.Michael Horton "Hellenistic or Hebrew? Open Theism and Reformed Theological Method," in Piper, Taylor and Helseth, Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity, p. 205-6
Sunday, November 04, 2007
He recalls us to the eternal counsel of the Father, to teach us that He was so careful for our salvation that He gave over to us His only begotten Son, as great as He is. Christ Himself, who came into the world to be completely obedient to His Father, confirms that in everything His only aim is to think of us.
Saturday, November 03, 2007
McLaren, in marking this contrast between conventional and emerging gospels, freely uses language that was part of the theological debates and controversies of the early twentieth century. The following extract bears this out (the italics are original):
Personally, I am convinced that Jesus' good news was and is better news than we have been led to believe by the conventional view. In spite of the stress and anxiety associated with calls for radical rethinking and, where necessary, radical reformation, I believe we need to face the real possibility that the conventional view has in many ways been domesticated, watered down, and co-opted by the dominant framing story of our modern Western culture and, as a result, has become "a gospel about Jesus" but not "the gospel of Jesus." (p. 83)Earlier in the book he writes of the need to center our lives on the "essential message of Jesus" which is "not just a message about Jesus that focussed on the afterlife, but rather the core message of Jesus that focussed on personal, social, and global transformation in this life" (p. 22). Truth be told the book is very short on saying much about Jesus and his death in redemptive terms and strong on saying much about Jesus' words and message. It should also be noted that both "eternal life" and hell are consistently interpreted and presented in terms of this life and consequences of our choices in this world.
The similarity between this "emerging view" and an earlier version associated with Protestant liberalism is evident in more than the obvious verbal connection between "the gospel about Jesus" of historic Christianity and the "gospel of Jesus" of modernist theology. It is a similarity of content also. Machen emphasised this point in my grandparents day:
Modern unbelievers are in the habit of telling us that we ought not be very much interested in the gospel about Jesus but ought instead to devote our attention to the gospel of Jesus.J. Gresham Machen, God Transcendent, p. 169-70
They say, we are no longer interested in that gospel about Jesus. Instead we are interested in the gospel that he himself actually preached. We are interested in the way of living in which he walked and in which he called on his followers to walk. We are interested, in other words, not in a gospel that sets Jesus forth, but in the gospel that he set forth, the gospel that he preached when he walked by the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
If, then, you ask the people who talk in this fashion what the gospel of Jesus, which they cherish in place of the gospel about Jesus, actually was they will usually tell you, with more or less clearness, that it was a simple proclamation of the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, or a simple proclamation of a kingdom of God that is essentially just the realisation of a high social ideal. Let us stop disputing about the meaning of the cross of Christ, they say; let us stop disputing about any other doctrinal questions; and instead, let us just get up and obey Jesus' commands. That will honour Jesus more, they say, than all the theories of the atonement that have ever been proposed.
People who talk in this fashion seem to think that they are somehow glorifying Jesus more and are somehow getting closer to him than was done by the people who used to proclaim the old gospel.