Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Dividing Line: Prophet, Priest and King?

The departure into error can be charted at any number of points. Some of the more obvious ones concern the authority of Scripture, and the person and work of Christ. Moreover, the departure may involve the open denial of certain doctrines, the de facto denial of them by radically reinterpreting doctrines (i.e. "I know you say you believe in justification by faith but your version is radically different to the biblical one that has been historically confessed), or the marginalising of them by the addition of extra doctrines.

If we are wise, we will allow for human error and frailty in these matters as well as motives that are malignant. There can be a lack of balance, a carelessness of wording, an overemphasis in expression. These things can be kept in check by peer review and discussion, before we are ready to press the nuclear button and drop the "H" word.

Errors, of course, abound when we fail to present the person and work of Christ in their true biblical proportions. He is both God and man, Saviour and Lord, the Christ of the cross now gloriously raised and ruling over all things. How easy it is to present him as desperate for our response and not as the mighty Lord who deserves our total allegiance, or to preach the cross and neglect the resurrection.

I daresay that a snaphot of our views, captured from a few sermons or blog posts will not necessarily reveal the full picture everytime. The temptation can be to rush to criticise when we see imbalance and suspect error, instead of pausing to ask for clarification.

On the other hand it is possible to discern a pattern of thinking in the books and sermons of particular individuals, or movements, that do signal a departure from the truth and a move toward error.
What we emphasise most often surely reveals what is most important to us. What we omit, or treat in a cursory way, reveals, to our readers and listeners, that those subjects don't really matter at all.

Of course some authors will specialise in particular areas, and this will be reflected in their books and speaking schedules. But when they are talking about the Gospel, and essential Christian doctrines, what are they saying? What is being left out or skirted over?

William Cunningham made some straightforward observations about errors connected to the offices of Christ. The contrast, in the following extracts, is between the Reformers and their arch-enemies the Socinians. Even though their views were plainly antithetical when it came to the person of Christ, it was also clear that the way they stressed the work of Christ (what he came into the world to do) was also radically different. Or, to put it another way, if you listened to some sample preaching, what was said about the work of Christ in both cases would not match up.

Here is the Reformed view:

I have said that it has been the general practice of theologians since the Reformation, to expound the work of Christ as Mediator, in the way of ascribing to Him the three distinct offices of a Prophet, a Priest, and a King. (Historical Theology, p. 241)
And the Socinian:
It may be described in general, as the characteristic of the Socinian system of theology upon this subject, that it regards Christ merely as a Prophet,--that is, merely as revealing and establishing truths or doctrines concerning God and divine things, while it denies that He executed the office of a Priest or of a King. (Historical Theology, p. 242)
The Reformed view incorporates the work of Christ for us as our substitutionary sacrifice and interceding advocate (his Priestly work), his rule over us and for us (his Kingship), and his work in revealing truth to be believed and commands to be obeyed (his Prophetic ministry).

My contention is that those who deny and undermine penal substitution reduce the offices of Jesus largely to that of being a Prophet. The good news becomes what he tells us to do. This is not of course to deny that we are also offered the forgiveness of sins (the Socinians believed that), but it is to say that the connection between Christ's death and our redemption is radically different from the Reformed/Evangelical view.

A representative example of this reductionism can be found in Brian McLaren's views (although it would be fair to say that the questioning and outright rejection of penal substitution and the stress placed upon the message of, not about, Jesus is a distinctive of Emergent church thinking). For him the Kingship of Jesus is quite powerless and passive, working by exemplary moral persuasion. His Jesus is strong on the call to accept his teaching and follow his new way of life. All that traditionally has passed for an understanding of sin, wrath, and future judgment has been reinterpreted. I think this captures his emphasis neatly:
“The time has come! Rethink everything! A radically new kind of empire is available—the empire of God has arrived! Believe this good news, and defect from all human imperial narratives, counternarratives, dual narratives, and withdrawal narratives. Open your minds and hearts like children to see things freshly in this new way, follow me and my words, and enter this new way of living.” (from Everything Must Change)
This is Socinianism revived for a 21st Century audience.


Daniel Hames said...

Martin, very helpful and very interesting. Thank you for this very much.

So interesting to read it in parallel with Greg Gilbert's reviews of Rob Bell's NOOMA videos. Telling stuff.,,PTID314526%7CCHID598014%7CCIID2396222,00.html


Martin Downes said...

Thanks Dan

I haven't read Greg's reviews yet, but I had put them on my "to read" list.

Benjamin P. Glaser said...

Wow. At the Seminary I attend (Pitt Theo Sem) I see the Socinian Heresy on a daily basis. Great Post.

The Christian Heretic said...

the "H" word

You say that like it's a bad thing. :D