Thursday, April 10, 2008

Swept away by the tide of unbelief

Theological decline can be traced by following the interwoven threads of scholarship and spirituality.

Scholarship is indispensible in the defense of the gospel, but scholarship is not enough and cannot be relied upon. Men of great learning and ability have often been the gateway of error into the pulpits and pews of confessional churches. It is possible to have a misplaced confidence in scholarship, the kind that tolerates unbelief because it comes clothed in academic recognition. Yet when such unbelief begins to make inroads into gospel believing churches it must be met and refuted by being outthought. To do anything less than this would be to foolishly capitulate ground to error. The next generation is then made to count the cost. Piety is no refuge from the remorseless arguments that seek to take up residence in the Christian mind and drive out the knowledge of God in the gospel.

In my own country of Wales in the 1850s no less than 50% of the population attended churches, and the dominant influence was biblical, prayerful, evangelistic Reformed theology. By the turn of the twentieth century the majority of ministers in Wales were considered to have become liberal in their theology. Today 0.8% of the Welsh population attend churches where a recognisably biblical gospel is preached. Things today would have been far, far worse were it no for the influence of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and the post-war Calvinistic renaissance in Welsh churches. Something of this story is told by Iain Murray in his second volume on the life of Lloyd-Jones.

The bottom line is that the church needs scholars who are found to be faithful in bending the knee before the authority of the Word of God, who count faithfulness to God of more value than the admiration of the academy, men who know that they are sinners and that Jesus Christ is a great Saviour. In short, men who know and feel themselves to be debtors to grace alone, and in whose hearts, minds, prayers, church life, home life, and academic work the glory of God in the gospel of his grace is paramount. Only then will their scholarship be of service to the church and a blessing rather than a curse. We need men like Warfield, Machen, and Owen. Men not prepared to be blown about by winds of doctrine because they are anchored to the rock. Men who will refute error in their writings but whose confidence is not in their God given intelligence, skills or wisdom, but in God himself.

Here is a brief explanation of how Welsh Calvinistic Methodism (the Presbyterian Church of Wales) was drawn to liberal scholarship like a moth to a flame:
Another factor in the decline of Calvinism, ironically and sadly, was the effect of the work of Lewis Edwards in setting up colleges from 1837 onwards, for the ministerial students of the Calvinistic Methodists. In this, of course, he was supported by...all the denominational leaders of the day.

The sense of the need for the highest education possible for these young men was right and good; the sadness was that the necessary establishments were being set up exactly when the prevailing tide in theology was the German spirit of Higher Criticism.

The enthusiasm of the times for education resulted in the embracing of modern developments all too uncritically. Wales had no native tradition of Reformed teaching, education and writing to stand as a bulwark against the Higher Critical invasion of the late nineteenth century and as the new ideas arrived they were accepted and propagated with very little consciousness of their novelty and their insidious nature. If, on occasion, they were viewed with suspicion, the likelihood is that there was no awareness of, nor any expertise in, the scholarly means by which they might be combatted.
From John Aaron's introduction to Owen Thomas, The Atonement Controversy in Welsh Theological Literature and Debate, 1707-1841 (Banner of Truth), p. xxxiv

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