Monday, November 30, 2009

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Heretics: 2. They use the right words but give them a new sense

An old series from the Against Heresies archives:

The strange thing about heresy is that it attempts to pass itself off as orthodoxy, even as good news. And often as thoroughly biblical good news. The key text here is 2 Corinthians 11:3-4:
But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough.
Or in other words, he who has ears to hear, let him listen to what the Serpent is saying to the churches, and that with great discernment.

The language is right (Jesus, Spirit and Gospel) but each term is qualified by Paul. This is "another" Jesus, and a "different" gospel. If you put your trust in this "Jesus" it will do you no good. He is not the authentic Son of God but a fake. Notice that the goal of the false teachers is to break the relationship that the Corinthian believers have with Christ (they are "betrothed to him" according to verse 1). Instead they will be brought into a new relationship with another "Jesus."

Would this be obvious to them? Of course not. It is achieved through deceit and cunning. This is the Garden of Eden all over again. The goal of the heretic is a broken engagement to Christ. It is that vital, loving relationship that they seek to end. Never think that switching from one doctrine to another is a purely intellectual matter.

The preservation of orthodox words with substitute meanings has been a constant feature of heresy throughout church history. In Against Heresies Irenaeus wrote that “their language resembles ours while their sentiments are very different.”

Augustine made the same observation in his work A Treatise on Faith and the Creed:
It is underneath these few words, therefore, which are thus set in order in the Creed, that most heretics have endeavored to conceal their poisons. (Chapter 1)
Vincent of Lerins also noted this behaviour:
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)
More recently Francis Schaeffer wrote that "liberal theology is only humanism in theological terms." And again, that:
The new theology is simply modern thought using religious words...Historic Christianity and either the old or the new liberal theology are two separate religions with nothing in common except certain terms which they use with totally different meanings.
Rather than going quietly and opposing the truth clearl,y heretics have gone about their work with different interpretations of biblical words and confessional terms. By doing so they loudly proclaim that they are the orthodox ones, they have the right interpretations, and it is their opponents who are the heretics.

Alister McGrath has made this point in his recent book on heresy:
Every major heresy within the Christian faith has presented itself as offering a legitimate interpretation of the Bible and has criticized its orthodox opponents as deficient in the art of biblical hermeneutics.
I have previously compared this to the movie The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The host humans appear to be the same friends and neighbours that we have always known, but in reality they have been taken over. In large measure this explains why it is difficult to detect and expose heretics. Their camoflage is authentic Christian vocabulary.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Heretics: 1. Deliberately choosing heresy is an immoral ungodly act

This is a re-post from a series in the Against Heresies archive:

The New Testament connects truth with godliness, and error with immorality.

Paul speaks in Titus 1:1 about the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness (cf. 1 Timothy 6:3), and in 2 Timothy 2:16 about irreverent babble that leads people into more and more ungodliness (cf. 1 Timothy 6:4-5).

Although we should never be glad about it, the truth is that we are not surprised when a false teacher is further compromised by immoral behaviour. As G. K. Chesterton once said "
heresy always affects morality, if it's heretical enough."

Heresy, however, not only leads to sin, it is sin. Believing in heresy is wrong not only mentally but also morally. Choosing to believe it is an act of the mind, heart and will that is against God and his Word. Of course there will always be some who believe error that have never been exposed to the biblical gospel. For others there will have been a choice exercised, rejecting one thing and embracing another. I have addressed some of the principle reasons why people embrace errors here.

Paul's reminder to the Corinthians about the gospel that he had preached to them, which they had believed, and on which they had taken their stand, also included the admonition to hold fast to the gospel (1 Cor. 15:1-2). This ongoing act was a vital and necessary part of Christian obedience. It was orthopraxy in action. Not to hold fast would be an act of disobedience. In the movie Master and Commander one of the weather beaten old sailors has the letters H-O-L-D F-A-S-T tattoed across his knuckles. A great motto for a sailor, but an even better one for a Christian.

In the pastoral epistles Paul warns of those who have swerved from love, a pure heart and a good conscience and have wandered away into vain discussion (1 Tim. 1:5-6). Hymenaeus and Alexander have rejected and not held to faith and a good conscience (1 Tim. 1:19).

Deacons must hold the mystery of the faith with a good conscience (1 Tim. 3:9), knowing that the Spirit has forewarned that some will depart from the faith (1 Tim. 4:1-2). Paul's closing admonition is that Timothy must "guard the deposit entrusted to him" and avoid what is falsely called knowledge. By professing this some have swerved from the faith (1 Tim. 6:20-21).

2 Timothy carries similar reminders about those who have "swerved from the truth" and now preach a different interpretation of the resurrection (2 Tim. 2:18). All these examples show an unwillingness on the part of heretics to continue in the faith, an aversion to the truth, and a preference for closely worded alternatives.

If we realise that the deliberate choice of heresy is itself an immoral act perhaps we will be less impressed by the apparent godliness of heretics. Heresy can come with all the trappings of spirituality, self-denial, humility, tolerance, and self-discipline. All these, however, can gloss over the presence of a carnal pride that refuses to submit to the truth, and the arrogance of an autonomous spirit that deliberately dismisses biblical doctrine.

Reflecting on the early Christian centuries Jaroslav Pelikan summarized this position well
Heresy was treated by the early church as the concern not only of doctrinal theology, but also of moral theology, of canon law, and finally of civil law as well.

This was not only because of the stock accusation that false doctrine led to "all those kinds of forbidden deeds of which the Scriptures assure us that 'they who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God,' " but because of the claim that the invention and especially the propagation of false doctrine were due to "a vainglory that has preoccupied their mind (Irenaeus)."
The antidote to all this was well expressed by the great Puritan theologian John Owen. Writing about the rise of Socinianism, Owen remarked:
This I am compelled to say, that unless the Lord, in his infinite mercy, lay an awe upon the hearts of men, to keep them in some captivity to the simplicity and mystery of the gospel who now strive every day to exceed one another in novel opinions and philosophical apprehensions of the things of God, I cannot but fear that this soul-destroying abomination will one day break in as a flood upon us.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Heresy of Orthodoxy, Kostenberger and Kruger

This looks important. The release date is 30th June 2010. The book weighs in at 224 pages. Details can be found here.

Here's the blurb:

Evaluating historical evidence, this book defends early Christian orthodoxy from the legacy of New Testament criticism: the modern "orthodoxy of diversity."

Beginning with Walter Bauer in 1934, the denial of clear orthodoxy in early Christianity has shaped and largely defined modern New Testament criticism, recently given new life through the work of spokesmen like Bart Ehrman. Spreading from academia into mainstream media, the suggestion that diversity of doctrine in the early church led to many competing orthodoxies is indicative of today's postmodern relativism. Authors Köstenberger and Kruger engage Ehrman and others in this polemic against a dogged adherence to popular ideals of diversity.

Köstenberger and Kruger's accessible and careful scholarship not only counters the "Bauer Thesis" using its own terms, but also engages overlooked evidence from the New Testament. Their conclusions are drawn from analysis of the evidence of unity in the New Testament, the formation and closing of the canon, and the methodology and integrity of the recording and distribution of religious texts within the early church.

Andreas J. Köstenberger is director of PhD Studies and professor of New Testament at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. He is a prolific author, distinguished evangelical scholar, and Editor of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. Dr. Köstenberger and his wife have four children.

Michael J. Kruger (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is associate professor of New Testament and academic dean at Reformed Theological Seminary, and the author of a number of articles and books on early Christianity.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Heretics

The following is from the Against Heresies archive and was taken from a paper I gave at a ministerial conference:

A word about the title of this series of posts. It is of course a twist on best-selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Given that heretics twist things I can't see any problem with my spin on the title.

We recognise that there are different types of error

Not all errors fall into the same category of seriousness, and they are not equal in the damage that they can do. For example, John Wesley's views on holiness (and of course the offshoots in the various forms of Higher Life teaching) were wrong, and because they were wrong they were pastorally damaging.

This defective version of holiness created false expectations about the nature of the Christian life. These expectations were of course never realised. However, even though this is an error it is not heresy. On account of this error, and we might add a few others, we would not regard Wesley as a heretic.

What then is heresy?

Michael Horton helpfully describes it as "any teaching that directly contradicts the clear and direct witness of the Scriptures on a point of salvific importance." The late Harold O. J. Brown said that heresy:
Designated either a doctrine or the party holding the doctrine, a doctrine that was sufficiently intolerable to destroy the unity of the Christian church. In the early church, heresy did not refer to simply any doctrinal disagreement, but to something that seemed to undercut the very basis for Christian existence. (Heresies, p. 2)
Heresy is the kind of doctrinal error that is so serious that it redefines the very nature of the Christian faith.

We also recognise that there are different types of people who fall into, or who embrace and propagate error.

In an unpublished paper given at a B.E.C. conference the late Rev. Robert Sheehan helpfully talked about how in the New Testament there are five kinds of people who are in error, and five different responses to those errors by the apostles. They are:

1. The sincerely ignorant
2. The sincere misinterpreter
3. The temporarily inconsistent
4. The deceived
5. The deceivers

There are those who are sincerely ignorant, as Apollos was in Acts 18:24-28. He was eloquent, competent in the Scriptures, and instructed in the way of the Lord. Luke says that he taught accurately the things concerning Jesus. But there was something missing, and when Priscilla and Aquila heard him they explained to him the way of God more accurately. Apollos was in error but not denounced for it. He was teachable and led into further usefulness in ministry.

Others sincerely misinterpret things. They don't want to be in error but they have misunderstood the teaching of the Bible on a particular point (we will come back to this later). Sheehan cites 1 Corinthians 5:9-11 as an example of this.

Then there are the temporarily inconsistent. This is Peter at Antioch whom Paul had to oppose. Peter was not regarded as unregenerate, but his conduct (not his teaching) was not in step with the truth of the gospel (Galatians 2:11-14).
So we recognise that there are different kinds of error, different people who are involved in them, and different ways of handling those errors and people.

What about handling truth and error in our ministries?

Since we are committed to the exposition of God's Word we will be dealing with teaching on error as it arises in the text. If we are preaching through Colossians we will explain the features of the type of error troubling the church there, and how to respond to it. This commitment to exposition should prevent the pulpit from being preoccupied with error, or to shy away from confronting it. As Gresham Machen noted, the New Testament books are filled with conflicts with error and the need for churches to go on holding to the truth.

We will also need to deal with error when it becomes a clear and present danger to our churches. At times we will need the courage to name and shame heretics, as Paul did in 2 Timothy 2:17, and not be content with general descriptions of their errors. Calvin said that ministers have two voices, one for the sheep and one for the wolves. We need to wisely discern how to do this in pastoral ministry today.

Having said all this by way of introduction, in these posts I want to deal with the highly effective habits of heretics. There are plenty of books, ancient and modern, that deal with heresies in an A-Z fashion. I want to look at the practices, the behaviour, the habits of heretics.

What are they doing in relation to the truth? How do they behave in and among churches? Think of the way that Paul describes them as swerving from the truth (2 Tim. 2:18), and of wandering into vain discussion (1 Tim. 1:6). Peter describes false teachers secretly, as opposed to openly, introducing destructive heresies. In Galatians the false teachers fawn over the believers. Paul says "They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them" (Gal. 4:17).

As we go through the seven habits (and there could be many more) please excuse me if I do not state the obvious. Of course heretics will be manipulative and authoritarian. I want to press beyond the general description of that manipulation and look at some specific habits where this is

Sunday, November 22, 2009

He has always been the Father

One of the blasphemies of fourth century Arianism, and every theology that has mimicked it ever since, involved the denial of the eternal existence of the person of the Son. They regarded him as the greatest of creatures, but finite, and therefore liable to change and to sin.

As a super exalted creature the Son's knowledge of the Father is greater than ours, but it is not the knowledge of an infinite Father known and rejoiced in by an infinite Son. The Father remained ineffable to the Son. The maxim that "the finite cannot comprehend the infinite" is true not only for ourselves, for the saints in heaven, and for angels and archangels, but also for the Son.

On the Arian view the Son of God was made, and not self-existent as God. "There was when he was not" was a differentiating article that separated Arian heresy from Christian orthodoxy. Of the eternal existence of the Son the Nicene Creed affirmed that the Son was "begotten, not made."

Indeed the Nicene Creed set out the following statement on the errors to be rejected and the consequence of holding to them:
But as for those who say, There was when he was not, and, Before being born he was not, and that he came into existence out of nothing, or who assert that the Son of God is from a different hypostasis or substance, or is created, or is subject to alteration or change--these the Catholic Church anathematizes.
If the Arian view held true then not only would the deity of the Son be a mistaken idea but the very Fatherhood of God would also disappear. That is the logical consequence of denying the eternal Sonship of the Son. When did the Father become the Father? When he had a Son.

When the Arians pulled back the curtain and peered into eternity they wanted to say that God was a Father, but their claim wouldn't hold true when you peered all the way back into the very deepest recesses of eternity. When you looked that far back there was no ultimate personalism about God, no eternal Fatherhood, for there was no eternal Son.

Was there love and relationship at the very heart of the universe? Not at all. For the Arians there was an impersonal God, all dressed up in attributes, but with no one to love. When he created a Son, he then became the Father, but this was not the deepest truth about him. The personal nature of God needed an act of creation in order to flourish. Before there was a Son, what can be said of the personal nature of God is so thin and diminished as to be of no real worth.

Arianism was not only found wanting as an inadequate explanation of the being of God, a failure to explain the truth as it is in Scripture, it was also found to be chilling as a faith to live by.

Hilary of Poitiers set this out as follows (I will also include his prefatory remarks that touch on matters raised in the previous post):

But the errors of heretics and blasphemers force us to deal with unlawful matters, to scale perilous heights, to speak unutterable words, to trespass on forbidden ground. Faith ought in silence to fulfil the commandments, worshipping the Father, reverencing with Him the Son, abounding in the Holy Ghost, but we must strain the poor resources of our language to express thoughts too great for words. The error of others compels us to err in daring to embody in human terms truths which ought to be hidden in the silent veneration of the heart.

For there have risen many who have given to the plain words of Holy Writ some arbitrary interpretation of their own, instead of its true and only sense, and this in defiance of the clear meaning of words. Heresy lies in the sense assigned, not in the word written; the guilt is that of the expositor, not of the text.

Is not truth indestructible? When we hear the name Father, is not sonship involved in that Name? The Holy Ghost is mentioned by name; must He not exist? We can no more separate fatherhood from the Father or sonship from the Son than we can deny the existence in the Holy Ghost of that gift which we receive.

Yet men of distorted mind plunge the whole matter in doubt and difficulty, fatuously reversing the clear meaning of words, and depriving the Father of His fatherhood because they wish to strip the Son of His sonship. They take away the fatherhood by asserting that the Son is not a Son by nature.

On the Trinity, Book 2, sections 2-3

Friday, November 20, 2009

Defending the deity of Christ

I'm currently reading through, for my own edification, On the Trinity (De Trinitate) by Hilary of Poitiers (315-367 AD). Alongside Athanasius, Hilary was one of the great defenders of the deity of Christ in that period following the composition of the Nicene Creed.

There are several striking features about this work that I will write about in due course. Let me mention two that made an impression on me as a reader.

1. Again and again Hilary chides the Arian heretics for their fear of God's infinitude and their wicked attempt to reduce the sheer greatness of God to more intellectually manageable proportions. In other words his opponents were reductionists and rationalists when it came to their doctrine of God.

2. Furthermore he exposes them as bad expositors of Scripture and unmasks their false doctrine by demonstrating from the Word of God that God is eternally and necessarily one in being and three in person. He does not hold back from pointing out to the reader how poor and perverted the approach to Scripture offered by the heretics proved to be.

On this latter point he is insistent that even the Old Testament knows of no solitary divine person who alone is God, but that the One God is Father, Son and Spirit. In fact it is this insistence that is so strikingly odd to modern readers. I mean, who on earth would set out to defend the deity of Christ from the Old Testament? The answer? Hilary of Poitiers did. And he did so in order that the bogus claims of the Arians would be refuted from one end of the Bible to the other.

Take a look at some of the highlights. He may not convince you by his use of every single text, but there are many that are so irreducibly Trinitarian in scope that it is hard to evade their meaning without either slipping into a stubborn perversity or by reaching for a priori reasoning about how they could not possibly have known about distinct persons in the Godhead in the Old Testament.
Book 4, section 15

Let us see whether Moses, who announced to Israel, The Lord thy God is One, has also proclaimed the Godhead of the Son. To make good our confession of the Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ we must employ the evidence of that same witness on whom the heretics rely for the confession of One Only God, which they imagine to involve the denial of the Godhead of the Son.

Book 4, section 22

We do not forget that the assertion is true in the sense that there is One God, from Whom are all things; but neither do we forget that this truth is no excuse for denying the Godhead of the Son, since Moses throughout the course of his writings clearly indicates the existence of God and God. We must examine how the history of God’s choice, and of the giving of the Law, proclaims God co-ordinate with God.

Book 4, section 24

In this passage [Gen. 16] the one Deity is first the Angel of God, and then, successively, Lord and God. But to Abraham He is God only [Gen. 17]. For when the distinction of Persons had first been made, as a safeguard against the delusion that God is a solitary Being, then His true and unqualified name could safely be uttered. And so it is written. And God said to Abraham, Behold Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name Isaac; and I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him. And as far Ishmael, behold. I have heard thee and have blessed him, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve nations shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation. [Gen. 17:19-20]

Is it possible to doubt that He Who was previously called the Angel of God is here, in the sequel, spoken of as God? In both instances He is speaking of Ishmael; in both it is the same Person Who shall multiply him. To save us from supposing that this was a different Speaker from Him who had addressed Hagar, the Divine words expressly attest the identity, saying, And I have blessed him, and will multiply him. The blessing is repeated from a former occasion, for Hagar had already been addressed; the multiplication is promised for a future day, for this is God’s first word to Abraham concerning Ishmael.

Now it is God Who speaks to Abraham; to Hagar the Angel of God had spoken. Thus God and the Angel of God are One; He Who is the Angel of God is also God the Son of God. He is called the Angel because He is the Angel of great counsel; but afterwards He is spoken of as God, lest we should suppose that He Who is God is only an angel. Let us now repeat the facts in order. The Angel of the Lord spoke to Hagar; He spoke also to Abraham as God. One Speaker addressed both. The blessing was given to Ishmael, and the promise that he should grow into a great people.

Book 4, section 26

What blind faithlessness it is, what dulness of an unbelieving heart, what headstrong impiety, to abide in ignorance of all this, or else to know and yet neglect it! Assuredly it is written for the very purpose that error or oblivion may not hinder the recognition of the truth. If, as we shall prove, it is impossible to escape knowledge of the facts, then it must be nothing less than blasphemy to deny them.

This record begins with the speech of the Angel to Hagar, His promise to multiply Ishmael into a great nation and to give him a countless offspring. She listens, and by her confession reveals that He is Lord and God. The story begins with His appearance as the Angel of God; at its termination He stands confessed as God Himself. Thus He Who, while He executes the ministry of declaring the great counsel is God’s Angel, is Himself in name and nature God. The name corresponds to the nature; the nature is not falsified to make it conform to the name.

Again, God speaks to Abraham of this same matter; he is told that Ishmael has already received a blessing, and shall be increased into a nation; I have blessed him, God says. This is no change from the Person indicated before; He shews that it was He Who had already given the blessing. The Scripture has obviously been consistent throughout in its progress from mystery to clear revelation; it began with the Angel of God, and proceeds to reveal that it was God Himself Who had spoken in this same matter.

Book 4, sections 29-32

And now there falls on Sodom and Gomorrah the vengeance of a righteous judgment. What can we learn from it for the purposes of our enquiry? The Lord rained brimstone and fire from the Lord. It is The Lord from the Lord; Scripture makes no distinction, by difference of name, between Their natures, but discriminates between Themselves. For we read in the Gospel, The Father judgeth no man, but hath given all judgment to the Son. Thus what the Lord gave, the Lord had received from the Lord.

You have now had evidence of God the Judge as Lord and Lord; learn next that there is the same joint ownership of name in the case of God and God. Jacob, when he fled through fear of his brother, saw in his dream a ladder resting upon the earth and reaching to heaven, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon it, and the Lord resting above it, Who gave him all the blessings which He had bestowed upon Abraham and Isaac.

At a later time God spoke to him thus: And God said unto Jacob, Arise, go up to the place Bethel, and dwell there, and make there an altar unto God, that appeared unto thee when thou fleddest from the face of thy brother[Gen. 35:1]. God demands honour for God, and makes it clear that demand is on behalf of Another than Himself. He who appeared to thee when thou fleddest are His words: He guards carefully against any confusion of the Persons. It is God Who speaks, and God of Whom He speaks. Their majesty is asserted by the combination of Both under Their true Name of God, while the words plainly declare Their several existence.

Here again there occur to me considerations which must be taken into account in a complete treatment of the subject. But the order of defence must adapt itself to the order of attack, and I reserve these outstanding questions for discussion in the next book. For the present, in regard to God Who demanded honour for God, it will suffice for me to point out that He Who was the Angel of God, when He spoke with Hagar, was God and Lord when He spoke of the same matter with Abraham; that the Man Who spoke with Abraham was also God and Lord, while the two angels, who were seen with the Lord and whom He sent to Lot, are described by the prophet as angels, and nothing more.

Nor was it to Abraham only that God appeared in human guise; He appeared as Man to Jacob also. And not only did He appear, but, so we are told, He wrestled; and not only did He wrestle, but He was vanquished by His adversary. Neither the time at my disposal, nor the subject, will allow me to discuss the typical meaning of this wrestling. It was certainly God Who wrestled, for Jacob prevailed against God, and Israel saw God.

And now let us enquire whether elsewhere than in the case of Hagar the Angel of God has been discovered to be God Himself. He has been so discovered, and found to be not only God, but the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob. For the Angel of the Lord appeared to Moses from the bush; and Whose voice, think you, are we to suppose was heard? The voice of Him Who was seen, or of Another?

There is no room for deception; the words of Scripture are clear: And the Angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire from a bush, and again, The Lord called unto him from the bush, Moses, Moses, and he answered, What is it? And the Lord said, Draw not nigh hither, put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground. And He said unto him, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob [Exodus 3:2-6].

He who appeared in the bush speaks from the bush; the place of the vision and of the voice is one; He Who speaks is none other than He Who was seen. He Who is the Angel of God when the eye beholds Him is the Lord when the ear hears Him, and the Lord Whose voice is heard is recognised as the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob. When He is styled the Angel of God, the fact is revealed that He is no self-contained and solitary Being: for He is the Angel of God. When He is designated Lord and God, He receives the full title which is due to His nature and His name. You have, then, in the Angel Who appeared from the bush, Him Who is Lord and God.

Book 5, section 11

Thus the Law, or rather God through the Law, wishing to indicate God the Son as a Person, yet as bearing the same name with the Father, calls Him the Angel, that is, the Messenger, of God. The title Messenger proves that He has an office of His own; that His nature is truly Divine is proved when He is called God. But this sequence, first Angel, then God, is in the order of revelation, not in Himself. For we confess Them Father and Son in the strictest sense, in such equality that the Only-begotten Son, by virtue of His birth, possesses true Divinity from the Unbegotten Father. This revelation of Them as Sender and as Sent is but another expression for Father and Son.

Dearly, We're bought

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"Thus every whisper of blasphemy is silenced": Hilary of Poitiers

Here are some great words from Hilary of Poitiers (d. 367) found in Book One of his work On the Trinity:

For he is the best student who does not read his thoughts into the book, but lets it reveal its own; who draws from it its sense, and does not import his own into it, nor force upon its words a meaning which he had determined was the right one before he opened its pages.

Since then we are to discourse of the things of God, let us assume that God has full knowledge of Himself, and bow with humble reverence to His words. For He Whom we can only know through His own utterances is the fitting witness concerning Himself.

At the close of Book One, Hilary offers the following prayer:

I know, O Lord God Almighty, that I owe Thee, as the chief duty of my life, the devotion of all my words and thoughts to Thyself. The gift of speech which Thou hast bestowed can bring me no higher reward than the opportunity of service in preaching Thee and displaying Thee as Thou art, as Father and Father of God the Only-begotten, to the world in its blindness and the heretic in his rebellion.

But this is the mere expression of my own desire; I must pray also for the gift of Thy help and compassion, that the breath of Thy Spirit may fill the sails of faith and confession which I have spread, and a favouring wind be sent to forward me on my voyage of instruction.

We can trust the promise of Him Who said, Ask, and it shall be given you, seek, and ye shall find, knock, and it shall be opened unto you and we in our want shall pray for the things we need.

We shall bring an untiring energy to the study of Thy Prophets and Apostles, and we shall knock for entrance at every gate of hidden knowledge, but it is Thine to answer the prayer, to grant the thing we seek, to open the door on which we beat.

Our minds are born with dull and clouded vision, our feeble intellect is penned within the barriers of an impassable ignorance concerning things Divine; but the study of Thy revelation elevates our soul to the comprehension of sacred truth, and submission to the faith is the path to a certainty beyond the reach of unassisted reason.

And therefore we look to Thy support for the first trembling steps of this undertaking, to Thy aid that it may gain strength and prosper. We look to Thee to give us the fellowship of that Spirit Who guided the Prophets and the Apostles, that we may take their words in the sense in which they spoke and assign its right shade of meaning to every utterance.

For we shall speak of things which they preached in a mystery; of Thee, O God Eternal, Father of the Eternal and Only-begotten God, Who alone art without birth, and of the One Lord Jesus Christ, born of Thee from everlasting. We may not sever Him from Thee, or make Him one of a plurality of Gods, on any plea of difference of nature.

We may not say that He is not begotten of Thee, because Thou art One. We must not fail to confess Him as true God, seeing that He is born of Thee, true God, His Father. Grant us, therefore, precision of language, soundness of argument, grace of style, loyalty to truth.

Enable us to utter the things that we believe, that so we may confess, as Prophets and Apostles have taught us, Thee, One God our Father, and One Lord Jesus Christ, and put to silence the gainsaying of heretics, proclaiming Thee as God, yet not solitary, and Him as God, in no unreal sense.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Knowing the Truth & Risking the Truth

Earlier this evening I was a guest on pastor Kevin Boling's program Knowing the Truth. As well as talking about my book Risking the Truth there was also a live call in. You can have a listen to the broadcast here.

The book is available in the UK here

And in the US here, here, here and here

And in Australia here

Horton's review of N. T. Wright

If you happened to miss the multi part review of N. T. Wright's most recent book on justification by Mike Horton then you can download the whole thing as a pdf document here

There is also a review in the latest edition of Themelios here

Whatever happened to the Angel of the Lord? (1)

This week I will be posting some extracts from an address that I gave at the "Trinity Day" at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, Swansea:

I am going to focus on the identity of “the Angel of the Lord” who is none other than the pre-incarnate Son of God.

We need to keep in mind that in the Old Testament there are many different titles given to the Son of God. He is the Commander of the Lord’s army who appears as a man but is worshipped as God (Joshua 5:13-15), the Messiah and Son of God (Psalm 2), the Son of Man (Daniel 7:13), God (Psalm 45:6-7), the Messenger of the Covenant (Malachi 3:1), Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14), David’s Lord (Psalm 11:1), the LORD (Yahweh) sent by LORD of hosts (Zechariah 2:10-11), the Mighty God and the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). Many of these titles are repeated in the New Testament and applied to the incarnate Christ.

But one of the rich titles that belongs to him is the Angel of the Lord. This is not only an important title that belongs to Jesus, but it is used of him in several Old Testament passages where we see him in action as the One sent by God, as the One who reveals God, and as the One who redeems and protects God's people.

But as we do that, we encounter a problem. My title for this session is “Whatever happened to the Angel of the Lord?” In a day when Christians are more and more used to hearing Bible overviews the Angel of the Lord has been largely forgotten and too often explained away.

But throughout church history many Christians believed that the Angel of the Lord in the Old Testament was none other than the pre-incarnate revelation of Christ. In fact when some of the early church fathers who met at the Synod of Antioch (268 AD) wrote a letter to the heretic Paul of Samosata they said that the “Angel of the Father being himself Lord and God...appeared to Abraham, and to Jacob, and to Moses in the burning bush.”

H. P. Liddon in his Bampton lectures on the divinity of Christ said that:

The earliest Fathers answer with general unanimity that he was the Word or Son of God himself. (p. 56)

The great Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck also wrote that:

The church fathers before Augustine were unanimous in explaining this Angel of Jehovah as a theophany of the Logos (cited by Douglas Kelly, ST: Vol. 1, p. 465)

John Currid in his commentary on Exodus writes:

Some commentators argue that the Angel of the LORD is the Second Person of the Trinity, a pre-incarnate Christ. As John Calvin remarks, 'But let us enquire who this Angel was?...The ancient teachers of the Church have rightly understood [it to be] the Eternal Son of God in respect to his office as Mediator'.

That view, which as I will show you, can be found in church history has been largely left behind.

Helm on J.I. Packer and Evangelical Anglican comprehensiveness

If you have not spotted this yet you may be interested in reading Paul Helm's recent post on J. I. Packer's Evangelical Anglican comprehensiveness and it's relevance to the rupture in his working relationship with Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

It should also be noted, because you will miss it in all the printed assessments of these matters, that Packer continued to have very warm personal relationships with those in the so-called "Lloyd-Jones circle."

Here is an extract:
One reason for putting together this piece is to redress the present imbalance that may arise as a result of the state of the of evidence. Dr Lloyd-Jones is dead, and his several defenders have access to the full range of his correspondence.

Dr Packer is alive, and quite naturally his personal correspondence, and maybe other documents, are not available in the same way, even though as we shall see there are published fragments of letters and addresses.

The second reason is that somewhat surprisingly, as far as I know, Packer has never published an account of his own outlook specifically addressed to those who were and are pained by his stance.

I believe it is possible to offer a perfectly understandable explanation of this failure to be convinced, one that is in line with full Christian integrity, but it rests on grounds that are somewhat unfamiliar to the people who level the charge of compromise: How can a man organise a Puritan conference and not himself be a Puritan?

What follows is very largely a defence of J.I. Packer’s position vis-à-vis Anglicanism to the extent that it attempts to convey the coherence and strength of that position as (I believe) he sees it, and the bearing that these reasons have on ‘principles of co-operation’. In the next post I shall make some remarks on these reasons.
You can read the whole thing here

Monday, November 16, 2009


I'm grateful to God for:

Safety in travel

The weather in Wales has been horrendous this weekend and I spent thirteen hours on the road from North to South, back to the North, and then across and back again to the West coast of Wales.

A loving family

One of God's greatest gifts. In my case I have the wonderful Mrs Downes and two daughters who missed me over the weekend. I praise Him for his kindness to me.

A day conference on the Trinity

What a privilege to be one of the speakers. The sight of 150 others on a wet and windy Saturday in Swansea eagerly listening to the doctrine of the Trinity being taught from Scripture and Church history was brilliant. The glory of the triune God is the fuel of worship.

Saints who persevere

In many cases this meant bumping into old students of mine now into their careers, serving God in their churches, and raising families. I can hardly put into words how grateful I am for their faith and love.

Generous giving

I'm involved in the organising of a small conference for new pastors that will kick off one week from today. I'm deeply grateful for the publishers and individuals who have given generously so that these pastors will have good books and audio resources for free. I won't quote the figures, but when we started adding them up it was quite humbling. All of which communicates the highest regard for the work of the ministry.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Heresy: a history of defending the truth

Guy Davies draws my attention to the soon to be released Heresy: a history of defending the truth by Alister McGrath and published by SPCK (with a foreword by Rick Warren). I will look forward to reading it.

But here's a curious line from the Amazonian blurb:
McGrath's provocative thesis is that the categories of heresy and orthodoxy must be preserved by the church today.
Go on, read it again, only this time slowly. Provocative? Would that not have received a blank stare, or a furrowed brow, from the apostles, early church fathers, medieval schoolmen, reformers, and the puritans?

The disappearance of the categories of orthodoxy and heresy is something of a litmus test for churches. It indicates the presence, or absence, of seriousness about the living God. It discloses whether we are humble pupils being schooled by Scripture, or whether the locus of authority has shifted from the Word of God to the subject, or the community. As one writer expressed it "A church that cannot experience heresy probably doesn't have any commitments, any identity, any character. The possibility of heresy is simply the negative expression of a church's having a confession of faith."

I suppose that it is a provocative thesis if you have allowed the church to be overrun by theological relativism, but not if you take the New Testament seriously. What else are you supposed to do with Galatians 1 or 1 John? Who knows, perhaps the book is intended to be a persuasive tract for those who have abandoned the very categories of orthodoxy and heresy. If that is so it is much needed.

Thomas C. Oden made the following helpful remarks about the categories of orthodoxy and heresy in his article "Can we talk about heresy?" (April 1995 edition of the Christian Century):
An interloper who steals property must be caught and charged. Thinly disguised atheism and neopaganism are interlopers in liberated church circles. They have engaged in the theft of church property. The stolen property must be reclaimed and the thieves brought to justice.

To point this out means raising the issue of heresy. But in the "liberated" church circles of oldline denominations heresy simply does not exist. After centuries of struggle against recurrent heresies, Christians have found a quick way of overcoming heresy: they have banished the concept altogether. With absolute relativism holding sway, there is not only no concept of heresy, but no way even to raise the question of where the boundaries of legitimate Christian belief lie.

This is like trying to have a baseball game with no rules, no umpire, and no connection with historic baseball. Only we continue to insist on calling it baseball because a game by the name of baseball is what most people still want to see played.

By "liberated" church circles I refer to the sexual experimenters, the compulsive planners of others' lives, the canonical text disfigurers, and ultrafeminists (as distinguished from the great company of godly Christian women who are found at many different points along the scale of feminist reflection). The liberated characteristically understand themselves to be free from oppressive, traditional constraints of all sorts and shapes. "Liberated" is not a term applied from outside, but a term they frequently apply to themselves. By liberated they usually imply: doctrinally imaginative, liturgically experimental, disciplinarily nonjudgmental, politically correct, muticulturally tolerant, morally broad-minded, ethically situationist, and above all sexually permissive.

The intellectual ethos I am describing is not liberal in the classic sense of that word, but intolerant and uncharitable when it comes to traditionalists of any sort, all of whom are capriciously bundled under the dismissive label of 'fundamentalists

Have a read of Gresham Machen's common sense thesis drawn from an observation of the New Testament and church history:
a large part of the New Testament is polemic; the enunciation of evangelical truth was occasioned by the errors which had arisen in the churches...At the present time, when the opponents of the gospel are almost in control of our churches, the slightest avoidance of the defense of the gospel is just sheer unfaithfulness to the Lord.

There have been previous great crises in the history of the Church, crises almost comparable to this. One appeared in the second century, when the very life of Christendom was threatened by the Gnostics. Another came in the Middle Ages when the gospel of God's grace seemed forgotten.

In such times of crisis, God has always saved the Church. But he has always saved it not by theological pacifists, but by sturdy contenders for the truth
J. Gresham Machen, Christianity & Liberalism, p. 174

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Knowing the Truth: Radio Interview

God willing I will be a guest on the Knowing the Truth Radio Progam on Tuesday 17th November.

The host Pastor Kevin Boling will be asking me about the issues raised in the book Risking the Truth: Handling Error in the Church. You can get more details here. The broadcast is at 1pm Eastern Time, so that's 6pm here in the UK. There is also a phone in during the show.

By all accounts it is the most listened to Christian Talk Radio Program in the South East US and recent guests have included R.C. Sproul, Albert Mohler, D.A. Carson, J.I. Packer, Jerry Bridges, Joel Beeke, Ligon Duncan, Steve Lawson, Russell Moore, Richard Phillips...

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Trinity Day Conference in Swansea this Saturday

Just a reminder about this. The church is very close to the train station and by visiting Swansea you can treat yourself to a Joe's ice cream too.

TrinityDay Conference

at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, Swansea

Saturday 14 November from 10am, £10 including lunch. Creche facilities available.

  • Paul Blackham will present two sessions on the Trinity in the Pentateuch.
  • Richard Bewes will speak on the pastoral implications of the Trinity.
  • I will be speaking on ‘Whatever happened to the Angel of the LORD?’

My friend Steve Levy, the pastor there and author of Bible Overview, says that they can provide accommodation for anyone travelling from a distance. You can contact Steve and the church here.

Why is the Trinity so important?

Here's what Martyn Lloyd-Jones said about the Trinity and the Christian life:

“For through Him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father” (Ephesians 2:18)

…. Our chief trouble, and the whole trouble with the church, is that we do not realise the meaning of the statement like this. Were we to do so the Christian church would be revolutionised. Were we to do so we would be lost in wonder, love and praise. We should realise that the most marvellous, wonderful thing that can ever happen to anybody in this world is simply his becoming a Christian.

This is Christianity, this is what makes one a Christian. The Christian church really consists of people who realise that this is the whole object and purpose of everything – access by one Spirit unto the Father. We must meditate upon this , we must pause with this, we must look into it and we must take time to do so; for , as I will try to show you, we find gathered together in this one verse the most stupendous things that we could ever be told or can ever realise about ourselves.

There are certain things that stand out on the very surface of this verse. For instance, we are brought at once by this verse face to face with the mystery of the blessed, holy Trinity. Through Him (the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ) we both have access by one Spirit (the Holy Spirit, spelt quite rightly with a capital S in all the versions because it is a reference to the Holy Spirit) unto the Father.

Here is one of the great Trinitarian verses of Scripture, and we pause for a moment before this ineffable mystery. Do we realise, I wonder, as we should, that the doctrine of the Trinity is in a sense the essence of the Christian faith? It is this doctrine, of all others, differentiates the Christian faith from every other faith whatsoever.

We believe in one God. And yet we assert that the one God is three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost. A great inscrutable mystery! We do not understand it, we assert it. It is taught here, it is taught in other places in the scripture. The bible teaches clearly that the Lord Jesus Christ is truly God, and likewise that the Holy Spirit is truly God and yet it says that there is but one God. God is one, and there is only one God, subsisting in three persons.

Do not ask me to explain it. But you do not begin to understand your bible, you cannot possibly understand the Christian faith, unless you accept it, believe it, and bow before it, and humble yourselves, and say, I worship, I adore, I praise thee great Jehovah, three in one.

It is vital, therefore, that we as Christian people should be constantly reminding ourselves of this. And as we do so, our services will be filled with reverence, with worship, with sense of awe, with a sense of glory, and with a sense of praise, true praise. Whenever we pray, whenever we come together to worship, we are worshipping the triune God.

We cannot conceive of the glory and of the majesty and of the greatness, but we must try to do so. We must prepare our spirits, we must meditate, we must ponder this matter, we must search the scriptures for it, we must see it; and having recognised it, like the men of whom we read in the scriptures, who have come near to God, we shall take our shoes from off our feet, we shall feel we are men of unclean lips, we shall be conscious of the ineffable glory

The three Persons in the blessed, holy Trinity are interested in us and are engaged together in our salvation. Now you see what I mean when I said that this is a staggering verse. That is exactly what it says, that the three Persons, eternal in their glory and their holiness and their might, the three Persons in the blessed holy Trinity are interested in you if you are a Christian, and are interested in your salvation.

The world talks about honours, and it is interested in honours and in privileges and in getting admission to clubs and positions and being introduced to great people. Here in fact: the three Persons in the Trinity are interested in you and have done something about your salvation! What if every Christian realised that!