Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Simple Pastor reviews Risking the Truth

I'm grateful to Phil Whittall, a New Frontiers pastor in Shrewsbury, and proprietor of The Simple Pastor blog, for reviewing Risking the Truth. You can read the review here.

Given that the book is dominated by senior pastors and seminary professors who would self-identify with the historic Reformed and Baptist Confessions it is helpful to have the book reviewed by someone who is not part of that world.

Phil commends some aspects of the collected interviews and expresses some criticisms. I would like to respond to some of those concerns in an irenic spirit as there are one or two matters that I think may require a little clarification. Before doing that let me offer an important caveat for the book, and one that I sometimes make for the blog.

Thinking about the subject of heresy bids us to enter a dark, gloomy, dingy world of sin, pride and folly that has remained uncorrected, and has hardened into soul destroying error. This is the world that Paul describes to Timothy in the following words (1 Timothy 6:3-5):
If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.
I take no pleasure in this world. I want to be a doctor knowledgeable about diseases not because he has an unhealthy interest in them, but because he loves patients and wants to cure them, to build up their immunity against infections, and to promote the things that will make for health.

Part of the reason for the blog, and the book, is to promote a better understanding of these issues and to promote responsible ways of handling them. In order to do that we have to take error with apostolic seriousness. In some circles there is a lack of seriousness about error, in others this seriousness can tip over into pre-occupation. We have to safeguard ourselves from both of these dangers.

I want to sing in tune with the notes that Paul sounds in Colossians. There is the note of warning as Paul speaks in solemn tones about the subtle errors of the false teachers, and there is the note of adoration as he sings about the supremacy and sufficiency of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Now, with regard to Phil's concerns, he says that the "whole tone of the book is somewhat defensive" and that "if this volume is anything to go by" the Reformed revival "is defensive and rather fearful."

The defensiveness is bound up with the nature of the book. I set out to ask questions about the errors that we are facing and how we should respond to them. Defending the faith is commanded in Scripture (Jude 3, 2 Timothy 1:14, Titus 1:9; Rev. 2:2, contrast that with 2:20). So being defensive is not, in and of itself, something negative that we should shy away from or feel bad about. Every day as a parent I protect my children from harm. So, the adjective is appropriate, and to be expected. In fact the apostle Paul uses militaristic language on several occasions to describe the Christian life in general and the work of pastoral ministry in particular.

What about being fearful? I couldn't tell what the adjective was related to. I asked Ligon Duncan about his hopes and fears for the future evangelicalism and confessionally Reformed churches, to which he replied "I do not fear and I am deeply concerned. I do not fear. the Lord will build his church..." He's right. God's truth will triumph.

Phil's other concerns are found in four paragraphs which are below, in blue, with my comments in black.

Here are a few observations from the various interviews, firstly it would be a mistake to view ‘reformed’ as a uniform block. There are narrow, very narrow and extremely narrow views as to who is acceptable and who might be saved. I find myself excluded by many.

"Reformed" is a definable label like Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox or Socinian. I'm not sure that a clearly defined position can be described as narrow, and given that Reformed theology found historic expression in churchly confessional statements that have living subscribers across the world it isn't left to individuals to define the term. But I know that not everyone will agree with me on that. On who might be saved or not then we must be as broad and narrow as Paul is in 1 Corinthians 15:1-10.

One view put forward is that anyone who claims ‘the gift of miracles and healing is a crook and a liar’, while ‘tongues speaking is gibberish’ and the main theological dangers confronting us today include the introduction of drums into worship, the use of humour, powerpoint and women reading the Bible in church.

I requested interviews from Mark Driscoll and Wayne Grudem but neither were available at the time of asking. Had they done so then I would have been quite prepared to include them. Not all of the contributors would agree with each other, in fact some would have massive disagreements on who should be baptised and when, and over who should be admitted to the Lord's table. I couldn't agree with everything in the book, but things are there to reflect the views of individual contributors and to retain the book's journalistic feel.

Secondly, all claim that the Westminster Confession and others like it are not Scripture but equally it is true that you won’t find anything in Scripture that contradicts these confessions either!

This is par for the course. Whether you hold to a fairly minimalist evangelical statement of faith or a more maximalist Reformed confession, you only want things in there that you believe Scripture teaches. If it's not in Scripture then you don't want it in your confessional statement.

Lastly, it seems that being ‘reformed’ remains a very serious business indeed, being a Christian remains a serious undertaking, teaching in a seminary more serious still while leading a church is such a serious business that one wonders where joy is to be found among those who love the ‘doctrines of grace’.

I'm not sure what to make of that. Psalm 2:11 tells us to "Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling." Seriousness and joy are not antithetical affections, in fact the psalm says that they can co-exist. John Piper has a brilliant chapter on the "Gravity and Gladness" of preaching in his fine book, which I must read again, The Supremacy of God in Preaching. The seriousness is there in Galatians 1, and part of Paul's beef with the false gospel of works and grace is that it extinguishes joy (Gal. 4:15).

That the accent in the book should be on seriousness does not mean that there is an agenda to suppress or neglect joy. To even suggest otherwise would be to cast aspersions on these men and their ministries.

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