Thursday, March 31, 2011

A full cup of blessing put to my lips

"It is not great talents God blesses 
so much as great likeness to Jesus.
A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God."
Robert Murray M'Cheyne

Poignant words from the 19th Century Scottish preacher Andrew Bonar written on the 29th May 1869:
Three pictures in my study often rebuke me -- [those] of Robert M'Cheyne , William Burns, and John Milne; and at times the photograph of Samuel Rutherford's tomb suggests to me what coldness of love is in my heart compared with such a man.  And the little I have learned from affliction is a constant grief to me. 
I got a very awful view of my long life's sinfulness in the evening.  I seemed to myself to be one standing amid mercies of every kind, but specially divine grace.  The Spirit has been, since my conversion forty years ago, continually putting to my lips full cups of blessing, and I have done little else than just take a few drops and then let the cup pass by! 
The Bible day by day; precious sermons; great books of truth; the lives of holy and happy saints; events of providence; all, all these, and my own preaching and the ordinances in which I take part; these, these have each been a full cup of blessing put to my lips; but scarcely ever have I done more than merely taken a sip. 
O what have I lost! O what have I lost! My heart sinks within me.  I can only once again put my hand on the head of the slain Lamb, and look up.
Andrew A. Bonar, Diary & Letters, p. 279

Friday, March 25, 2011

It's the Exegesis Stupid: Heresy and the Interpretation of Scripture

"When it is said that Christ died for our sins, 
it means that He bore their punishment."
George Smeaton

If we are to think clearly about heresies we must come to terms with that fact that although some movements explicitly place a rival locus of authority alongside or above Scripture (e.g. Tradition, The Book of Mormon, reason, mystical experiences and revelations) many heresies simply involve the incorrect handling of Scripture. 

In doing so these rival authorities may well arbitrate on what Scripture can and cannot teach.  The interpretation of Scripture is thereby harmonized with Tradition (written or unwritten), reason, the teaching of The Book of Mormon, or with new revelations from God.

Rather than arising from a true interpretation of Scripture, many heresies impose upon the text of Scripture artificial and unwarranted explanations.  At times this problem is exacerbated by the presence of translations that exclude historic orthodox doctrines on dogmatic grounds (e.g. the New World Translation used by Jehovah's Witnesses). 

This kind of sleight of hand by translators is, however, a minority report in the story of heresies.  It is far more common for the words of Scripture to be given novel interpretations that radically diverge from their actual meaning. 

This use of sound words to support unsound ideas is not an exclusively post-canonical phenomenon.  One encounters this semantic confusion in 2 Timothy 2:17-18 where Hymenaeus and Alexander believe, teach and confess the doctrine of the resurrection, but not the same resurrection that the Apostle Paul believes, teaches and confesses.  The same holds true in the Johannine letters where faith in the real Christ (God incarnate, man divine) is insisted upon by John, and where the false Christs, who retain the right title but not the reality, are exposed and rejected.

The stable nature of the text of Scripture and its individual units (e.g. God, Christ, the Spirit, sin, justification and so on) do not need to be deleted by heretics and other false teachers in order to legitimise their claims.  The verses and words of Scripture become carriers of doctrines imposed upon them. 

This is why the conflict between truth and error will primarily focus on the exegesis and interpretation of Scripture, dealing with the individual words of Scripture and their location within the units of thought where they are found, the books that they are a part of, the type of literature that they belong to, wider matters of their canonical place, and finally of their harmony with the whole counsel of God.  It's the exegesis stupid.

As an example of this it is a plain fact of history that the seventeenth century Socinians who violently denied the penal substitutionary atoning work of Christ did not argue on textual grounds that the phrase 'Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures' in 1 Cor. 15:3 was an interpolation (n.b. in the debates between gender egalitarians and complementarians one of the key texts, 1 Corinthians 15:34-35, is not considered to be part of the original by NT scholar Gordon Fee ). 

The Socinians ascribed to this verse a meaning totally at odds with the interpretation that understands its plain meaning to be that as a substitute, the sinless Christ bore the penalty due to his sinful people.  In place of this explanation the Socinians claimed that the preposition used by Paul denoted the final and not the meritorious cause of Christ's death.  That is to say, 'Christ died for our sins' means that Christ died to remove future sin.  The aim of his death was to abolish our future sins, and not to suffer vicariously the punishment for the guilt of our sins.

The Socinian and evangelical interpretations of this text are so widely different as to put before us radically incompatible explanations of the nature of Christ's death, and perceptions of the relationship between his death and our sin.  When we think of what it means for Christ to be the Saviour from sin we are no longer on the same page. 

Not only do we have divergent and incompatible views of Christ's work but we also have markedly differing views of what it means to have faith in Christ crucified.  You cannot alter the doctrine of his cross work without at the same time changing the nature of the subjective response on our part to him.

The Socinians denied the deity of Christ as well as his atoning work.  Even if they had affirmed it, as some do who also deny penal substitution, there would still be such a difference between the two conceptions of the saving work of Christ that they would be as alike as night and day.

Driving this Socinian exegesis, as the nineteenth century NT scholar George Smeaton noted, was not an impartial handling of Greek prepositions but a hermeneutic that was fundamentally unwilling to accept that any text in Scripture taught the satisfaction doctrine of the atonement:
To show, however, that it is not simply a matter of interpretation with them, but a forgone conclusion, it may be mentioned that Socinus explicity declared, that were the doctrine of vicarious sin-bearing, and the punishment of one for the sins of another, mentioned not once, but many times in Scripture, he would not believe it; because it could not be.
The open declaration is candid at least; but it is an appeal to reason, not to revelation, and an admission that Scripture is not made the ultimate judge, but only to be interpreted as seems best suited to confirm or dress out a preconceived hypothesis.
The Apostles' Doctrine of the Atonement, p. 208

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Dear Church, imagine there's no Hell, it's easy if you try...

What the Church believes, teaches and confesses on the basis of the Word of God is constantly under pressure from forces that would alter the substance of that confession.

The external pressure comes from a world that finds Christian truth claims morally and intellectually unpalatable and coercive.

The internal pressure comes from heretics speaking twisted things.  These disfigured beliefs, misshapen orthodoxies, sometimes stem from an attempt to Christianize ideas borrowed from elsewhere.  So often this baptizing of human wisdom is then coupled with a faulty exegesis of particular texts and an inadequate synthesis of the entire teaching of Scripture on that particular point.

Faulty but plausible exposition and theologizing helps error gain traction, but we will never come to grips with it unless we ask serious questions about the rectitude of the heart.

And so it is when we come to the doctrine of Hell.

The following is taken from the foreword by David F. Wells to Robert Peterson's excellent work Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment:
It is always 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 judgement upon unbelief, it is our modernized and secularized culture that is principally unsettling the church. 
It is, admittedly, difficult to show beyond a shadow of a doubt that the blurring of the edges of faith that is happening within the church today is being fed by these cultural attitudes.  But the awkward fact is that the church, for nineteen hundred years, has believed in the uniqueness of Christ, the truth of the Word, and the necessity of God's judgement on 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? Are there new archaeological finds?  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.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Call it a Comeback: Evangelicals, Liberals, and the Problem of Hell

In his 1971 IFES addresses on "What is an Evangelical?" Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones referred to the tendency of denominations to so lose their way that they end up becoming institutions whose beliefs, values, and practices run counter to the convictions and vision of their founders.  Lloyd-Jones summed it up in the epigrammatical words of Dean Inge, "institutions tend to produce their opposite."

At first blush the thought that evangelicalism could prove itself capable of reproducing, under different circumstances, the virulant strains of liberal theology seems, frankly, implausible.  How could those committed to the authority of Scripture and the supernatural Christ of the Bible descend into a world where long held dogmas were routinely thrown overboard?

Part of the answer is in understanding liberalism as a mood, and a mindset, as well as a particular set of denials.  Another part of the answer lies in the tension evangelicals constantly feel when they relate the "scandal of particularlity," all those non-negotiable hard edged truths of the Christian faith, to the desires, aspirations, and intellectual and moral boundaries of contemporary culture.

Liberals tried to advance the Christian faith by cutting themselves loose from the offensive doctrines of historic orthodoxy.  They put forward an evangelistic strategy that attempted to assuage the emerging intellectual and moral rebellion of Europeans and Anglo-Americans on the run from God, a strategy that was doomed from the start.

They felt the same fears that haunt evangelicals every day: the fear of rejection, irrelevance, loss of influence, being pilloried as intellectual pygmies and dismissed as intolerant cranks.  You cannot embrace the doctrines of original sin, judgement, the holiness of God, the authority of Scripture, the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ for salvation, and the eternal misery of the finally impenitent, without getting into trouble with the intelligentsia who act as guardians of morality in the modern world.  They don't like and don't want the God of the Bible unless he accommodates himself to their ways and accepts their terms and conditions concerning what is true, good and beautiful.

If Kant baulked at the idea of substitionary atonement because it was an unthinkable idea for rational thoughtful people when he said that:
It is totally inconceivable, however, how a rational human being who knows himself to deserve punishment could seriously believe that he only has to believe the news of a satisfaction having been rendered for him, and (as the jurists say) accept it utiliter [for one's advantage], in order to regard his guilt as done away with...No thoughtful person can bring himself to this faith. (From Religion and Rational Theology, quoted in Michael Horton, The Christian Faith, p. 64, n. 81)
Whoever then will believe in eternal hell without submitting their reasoning and moral calculus to the authority of God as he has spoken in Scripture?  Who will hold fast to these truths without the gracious regenerating, illuminating and teaching work of the Holy Spirit?  The answer to both questions is no-one.

We will either revise the Scriptural doctrine of hell to make it more palatable and plausible, or else we will selectively dismiss it as a culture-bound primitive belief that we have grown out of.  Both are live options for contemporary evangelicals who wish to revive the theological options set out by the older liberals.  Either way you can call it a comeback.

For an in depth take on this as it relates to the doctrine of hell you should read the following posts by Al Mohler:

We have seen all this before: Rob Bell and the (Re) Emergence of Liberal Theology

Air Conditioning Hell: How Liberalism Happens

It is also well worth watching Martin Bashir's interview with Rob Bell


For more on evanglicals following the path of Protestant liberals see:

"Liberalism: A warning from history" (Banner of Truth online article) 

"The Emerging Church and the Cultural Captivity of the Gospel" (Affinity online article adapted from the chapter in Reforming or Conforming? Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Are you sure that you want to be a theologian?

It is all too easy for our interest in theology to be little more than a love of intellectualism applied to the being of God.

It is all too easy for that interest to show itself in a display of knowledge and argument about the relationship between various doctrines and ideas.

It is all too easy to play the part of the learned philosophic thinker even when using the grammar naturally suited to the humbled believer.

It is all too easy to transplant theology from the rich soil of thinking and living before God, alongside his people and under Christ's cross, and to try and make it grow in an environment free not only from sunshine and rain, but also from storms, and darkness and frost.

This crucial point is well made by Mike Horton:
Luther wrote, "It is by living, no--more--by dying and being damned to hell that one becomes a theologian, not by knowing, reading or speculating."  We learn on the road, as pilgrims making our way to the City of God through the trials, burdens, questions and fears of our own hearts as well as the world around us.
We learn truly of God's providence as we suffer, of God's forgiveness in our sins, of the resurrection of the dead as we lie dying.  
Luther's poignant but hyperbolic statement does not mean that we do not need to read or study, but that even as we do this, it is more like looking for urgently needed rescue than contemplating urgent truths.
We do theology on our knees, calling on the name of our Redeemer.  Yet precisely because our God is so great, our situation so dire, and our salvation so full and free, theology is indispensable to piety.
The Christian Faith, p. 111

Friday, March 11, 2011

The heart of sophisticated unbelief

I'm reading through Mike Horton's stimulating new tome The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way (a mere 990 pages if one chops off the glossary and indices).  There is a fascinating footnote (p. 64, n.81, to be precise) with some representative extracts from Immanuel Kant. 

Note the following from Religion and Rational Theology:
It is totally inconceivable, however, how a rational human being who knows himself to deserve punishment could seriously believe that he only has to believe the news of a satisfaction having been rendered for him, and (as the jurists say) accept it utiliter [for one's advantage], in order to regard his guilt as done away with...No thoughtful person can bring himself to this faith.
That is Enlightenment man showing incredulity toward the atonement.

What lays at the very heart of sophisticated unbelief?

An attempt to deny the claims of God.  The exclusion of God's assessment of our condition by nature and as a result of sin, the silencing of the voice from heaven in favour of our own meditations on our nature, identity and capacities.  The declaration that man and not the living God will have the final say as to what is right, true and good. 

At the epistemic level Kant located himself on the side of the serpent.  The thoughtful and rational person, in Kant's vision, is too good to need saving, and certainly too thoughtful to flee to Christ and his cross for refuge, even if he is deserving of punishment.  Instead of bowing his head before the claims of the Heavenly King we are confronted with a resistance at every turn against the external pressure of God's revelation.

Horton sums it up perfectly:
Kant, therefore, saw with great clarity the correlation between one's presuppositions about the human predicament and religious epistemology.  None of the Enlightenment figures wanted knowledge for invoking the name of God (i.e., the gospel), because they did not believe they needed to be saved. (p. 110)

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The truth of hell should fill us with traumatic awe

 Twenty years ago the veteran evangelical theologian J. I. Packer gave an address on "Hell and Human Destiny" in Cardiff.  Packer set out the biblical teaching on hell and responded to the annihilationist teaching of John Stott as well as several other prominent evangelical Anglicans.  I heartily recommend that you listen to it.

One of the most helpful aspects of the address, given Rob Bell's explanation of the meaning of aionos, is that Packer discusses the meaning of the word at length and comments on its use in several NT texts.

The audio is available for download here

One of the most frequently read posts on this blog is an article of mine published by the Evangelical Magazine, "Hell: Separation from God's Presence?"

A few years I interviewed Robert Peterson of Covenant Seminary, who has written so helpfully on the doctrine of hell.  Here is an extract from the interview:

Why has there been a willingness by some evangelicals in the last one hundred years or so to accept and embrace annihilationalism?
Though some annihilationists insist that the Bible alone has motivated their rejection of the historic doctrine, others admit that emotional considerations have played a part. Without judging the motives of individuals, my opinion is that the intellectual and emotional climate of our times has more to do with the move away from some historic doctrines, including that of hell, than many realize.

In an increasingly pluralistic culture, it is politically incorrect to hold that people who do not trust Christ as Lord and Savior, will suffer everlasting torment in body and soul. But that is exactly what the Bible teaches. (For a recent defense of exclusivism, the view that one must hear and believe the gospel of Christ in this life to be saved, see, C. W. Morgan and R. A. Peterson, Faith Comes by Hearing: A Response to Inclusivism (InterVarsity, 2008.)

Perhaps the candid response of one employee of an Evangelical publisher, when asked what she thought of a book featuring a debate between traditionalism and annihilationism, reflects the default mode of many: “I certainly hope that annihilationism is true!” It is not our place to hope that certain things are true with reference to the things of God. It is our place to humbly receive the Word that God has given. That means restraining our curiosity where the Word is silent. And that means believing and obeying God’s truth even if we don’t like it.

Two orthodox doctrines that became immediate targets for “liberated” human reason in the Enlightenment—original sin and eternal conscious punishment for the lost—are not my favorites. But the Word of God teaches them and so I am obligated to receive them as true and to live accordingly.

I am afraid that too many people today reach conclusions as to what they believe concerning the Christian faith on the basis of their feelings and desires rather than the teaching of Scripture. As J. I. Packer remarked some years ago, “If you want to see folk damned something is wrong with you!” Of course this is true, but Packer went on to say that some of God’s truth is hard and one such truth is the Bible’s teaching concerning eternal hell.

It seems to me that the hard words of D. A. Carson are correct: “Despite the sincerity of their motives, one wonders more than a little to what extent the growing popularity of various forms of annihilationism and conditional immortality are a reflection of this age of pluralism. It is getting harder and harder to be faithful to the ‘hard lines’ of Scripture” (The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism [Zondervan, 1996], 536.). But the Lord requires nothing less of us than, by his grace, to be faithful.

In your experience what has been the status of the doctrine of hell among church members and in the thinking of those training to be pastors?
I have been active in local evangelical churches for forty years and in the training of pastors for thirty. Unfortunately, in my experience, the doctrine of hell has been neglected among church members and even in the thinking of those training to be pastors.

The words of Lesslie Newbigin are truer today than when he penned them in 1994: “It is one of the weaknesses of a great deal of contemporary Christianity that we do not speak of the last judgment and of the possibility of being finally lost” (“Confessing Christ in a Multi-Religion Society,” Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 12 [1994]: 130–31, quoted in Carson, The Gagging of God, 536).

Part of the blame should be placed at the feet of evangelical pastors, whom surveys show have been slow to teach and preach what the Bible says about hell. My study of hell in the mid-1990’s brought me to repentance because I was personally guilty of such neglect.

My experience has been that if we can bring hell to evangelicals’ minds and hearts, if we can move it from being a passive to an active doctrine, then they will begin to pray about their lost friends and loved ones as never before. That in turn motivates them to share the gospel as the Holy Spirit leads. And that produces fruit in terms of spiritual growth in the lives of the evangelists and salvation for some of those evangelized. 

How should the doctrine of hell be preached?

It should be preached by pastors who have a deep sense of Christ’s redeeming them from hell (see Sinclair B. Ferguson, “Pastoral Theology: The Preacher and Hell,” in Hell under Fire, 219–37). Such pastors must prayerfully, lovingly, and faithfully share the message of Jesus, the Redeemer of the world, and his apostles that those who die in their sins will suffer “eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46), even “the punishment of eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thess. 1:9). 

At times I have found it impossible not to weep as I speak of Christ suffering the pains of hell, of drinking the cup of God’s wrath for us, so that we do not have to do so. The Bible’s message of hell is a topic worthy of study, but in addition, it has to be something that moves us to action—to repentance, when we consider what our sins deserve; to prayer, out of compassion for the lost; to worship, when we consider what Christ endured to redeem us; and certainly, to witness, when we desire for others to know our great God and Savior.

Doomed to be Saved: The Problem of Universalism Today

From J. I. Packer:
If all people are, in the title of a 19th Century tract, 'Doomed to be Saved', then it follows that the decisiveness of decisions made in this life, and the urgency of evangelism here in this life, are undermined.  Other ways of loving your neighbour here in this life may now be considered as perhaps more important than seeking to win him or her to Christ.  And it is no accident that keenness on the social gospel, so-called, and universalist theology have gone hand in hand. (p. 171) 
This is a doctrine of salvation through, and out of, the state which the New Testament refers to in one place as 'perdition', in another place as 'eternal destruction', and in another as 'eternal punishment'.  It is an unqualified and unlimited optimism of grace.  Sin is a reality, hell is a reality: but God's grace is going to triumph in the end. (p. 176)
Collected Shorter Writings Vol. 1

Rob Bell, Hell, and the wisdom of Augustine

A couple of years ago I was chatting to a friend about the differences between online responses to theological debates and those found in print.  We were discussing the mud flung by N. T. Wright at the authors of Pierced For Our Transgressions.  By the time printed journals and evangelical newspapers had offered their comments and observations on that particular disturbance in the Force, the unrest about it in the blogosphere had well and truly come to an end.

Now it is Rob Bell's turn to trigger the sound of the air raid warning in much the same way as Steve Chalke did over penal substitution a few years back.  The doctrine under scrutiny has altered, but the reaction to it is very much along the same lines.  Whenever an article of orthodox Christian belief is questioned, challenged, or denied, whenever a well established biblical truth is "exposed" by a well known evangelical author or speaker as if all along we have been hoodwinked about what Jesus really meant, there is a twin response made by those seeking to defend the truth.

To begin with, aberrations from orthodoxy call for careful analysis, exposition and refutation.  The merits of an opposing position need to understood, fairly presented, and weighed.  Parts of an author's proposal need to be considered in the whole context of that work, or in other words, read in context.  This is all part and parcel of evaluation and refutation.  In the case of Rob Bell's Love Wins we have little to go on until the book has been published, read and digested.

Until then, despite all the noise, we will not have much to engage with.  What is he saying?  How is he interpreting Scripture?  What is he rejecting?  What conclusions has he drawn?  How will this affect the lives of those who embrace his teaching?  Provocative trailers aside, what is the substance of his position?  We will know much more when we have read the book.  I have read a few chapters of Love Wins, but I would like to read them in the context of the whole book.

Doubtless too there needs to be a frank look at the quality of the arguments, and the exposition of Scripture and logic that underpins them, aside from the personality and media image that accompanies them.  Bad and insubstantial arguments can travel a long way on the strength of the personality advocating them and not because of their inherent worth.

The second response offered when someone is moving away from orthodoxy and taking others with them, is the presentation of a clear statement, exposition, and defense of the particular truth under attack.  In addition to blog posts, articles, lectures and sermons appearing on the doctrine of hell it would not surprise me to see some new books and multi-author volumes too.  Not that we lack helpful resources.

For some time evangelicalism has adopted a culture of plausibility concerning the eternality and justice of hell, and has never come to terms with that fact that useful men can wreak havoc when they depart from sound doctrines.  However, we have not lacked men who have kept their nerve and refuted the arguments of the deniers of eternal punishment.

Fresh attacks on old truths, provided that they are of sufficient weight, do present us with an opportunity to look at the roots of a doctrine and our own precision and nuance in stating it.  We can always do a better job of articulating the truth, especially when our contemporary popular expositions of it are connected with the confessional and theological heritage of the church.

Finally, here is the wise counsel of Augustine on the benefits of heresies:
This predestination of the saints is certain and manifest; which necessity afterwards compelled me to defend more diligently and laboriously when I was discussing the subject in opposition to a certain new sect.  For I have learned that every separate heresy introduces into the Church its peculiar questions, which call for a more diligent defence of the Holy Scripture, than if no necessity of defence well and the e had arisen. 
For what was it that compelled me to defend, in that work of mine, with greater copiousness and fuller explanation those passages of the Scriptures in which predestination is set before us?  What, but the starting up of the Pelagians, who say that the grace of God is given to us according as we render ourselves deserving of it?
From On the Blessing of Perseverance, quoted by Calvin in De Aeterna Predestinatione Dei (1552).  The English translation by Henry Cole is found in Reformed Cofessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation Volume 1: 1523-1552 (compiled by James T. Dennison, Jr.), p. 706-7