Monday, April 30, 2007

Fight the Good Fight of Faith

Here is a snapshot from the end of the life of Charles Hodge. Hodge died in the June of 1878, having taught for over fifty years at Princeton Seminary. In the April of that year Hodge had addressed the Sabbath Afternoon Conference on "fighting the good fight of faith" from the words of the Apostle Paul to Timothy (1 Timothy 6:12). David Calhoun summarises Hodge's address:

"The first necessary condition of contention for the the firm conviction that the Bible is the infallible rule of faith." The second condition is "a firm conviction of the importance of these things" revealed in the Scriptures. The third is "an inward experience of the power of the truth." The "way to contend for the truth," Hodge said, is, first, "to confess it, to proclaim it"; second, "to answer misrepresentations"; and, third to do this "with meekness, speaking the truth in love, remembering that Paul may plant and Apollos may water, but it is God who gives the increase."

David Calhoun, Princeton Seminary: The Majestic Testimony 1869-1929, p. 55

Friday, April 27, 2007

On sin, grace, gratitude, and controversy

One of the things that you are taught on your first driving lesson is that there is a blindspot over your right shoulder. No matter how often you check your mirrors there is an area that is hidden from view. Ignorance of that blindspot has the potential for causing accidents. It is like that with sin. We can deceive ourselves that our actions are acceptable in one area, and our consciences are clear, but lurking in the blindspot are thoughts, attitudes and even actions that are dishonouring to the Lord. This may well be the case in our zeal for the truth in the context of controversy. Engaging in polemics can blind us to our own sins. That we can sin in this way should come as no surprise to us. After all there is no other situation that we experience where we are free from temptation. And when engaging in controversy there are particular sins that we will face.

Before getting to the main part of the argument there are some preliminary matters to bear in mind. Those who vocalise concern over false doctrine are of course an easy target. There is a consistent, and quite inaccurate, typology at work in these debates. There is the stigma attached to those who seek to defend the truth of being branded unloving, ungracious, narrow, harsh, and even schismatic. Strong words about error are not allowed in the contemporary Church. But that itself is a narrow-minded view, far narrower than the Bible. Rather ironically those who criticise a right concern about orthodoxy and heresy are themselves, at times, objectively guilty of the very thing they deplore. There is here a forest of rhetoric that needs cutting down so that intelligent debate about opposing positions can be dealt with fairly and without party spirit.

Then there has to be room for Paul's responses to the Galatian and Colossian false teachers, and Christ's words to the Pharisees and teachers of the law. I'm sure that it is possible for us to be strong on condemning error and yet to be humble at the point of assessing the reasons for our own right understanding--at the same time. Whether we are guilty of pride in our own orthodoxy is a matter to search our own hearts about. It isn't something that can be read off automatically and infallibly whenever we see someone become angry because of destructive heresies or raise their voice about winds of doctrine.

But although sinful attitudes are far from synonymous with condemning error they are not totally unavoidable. Consider Francis Schaeffer's description of the sins in the blindspot:

“Thus whenever it becomes necessary to draw a line in the defense of a central Christian truth it is so easy to be proud, to be hard. It is easy to be self-righteous and to self-righteously think that we are so right on this one point that anything else may be excused— this is very easy, a very easy thing to fall into. These mistakes were indeed made, and we have suffered from this and the cause of Christ has suffered from this through some fifty years.”

We can examine ourselves along these lines both positively and negatively:

1. What graces am I expected to display when I am dealing with theological opponents?

2. What attitudes and actions am I to avoid when dealing with those in error?

Paul takes this two-fold approach in 2 Timothy 2:23-26:

“Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.”

Opponents of the gospel are in a desperate spiritual situation. Is there any hope for them? Maybe the Lord will grant them repentance so that they will come to know and believe the truth. Until, or unless, that happens they are ensnared by the devil. Failure to think in these categories seems to be the cause of the ungodliness that can exist on the part of the defender of the gospel. We need an approach that takes in view the people we are dealing with, the doctrinal position that they hold, and the predicament that they are in. Toward the person in error we are to show kindness. Toward their doctrinal position we are to skillfully expose it as error and correct it. Toward their predicament we are to show compassionate understanding, prayerfully asking God to deliver them.

Right belief of the gospel, true saving faith, is a work of grace. There is no room here for pride in our rightness but rather thankfulness for God's mercy. Who, after all, has made us to differ? What do we have that we did not receive? Patience, gentleness, kindness, and a refusal to be quarrelsome are the fruit of consciously knowing that there is a great spiritual battle going on. It is not only the doctrines of grace that we are to be thankful for but we must, in prayer and praise, thank God for his grace in giving us the knowledge of the truth. We ought to reflect on the Lord's goodness in giving us understanding. This is because of his grace alone. John Newton provided solid counsel from Paul's words here:

If, indeed, they who differ from us have a power of changing themselves, if they can open their own eyes, and soften their own hearts, then we might with less inconsistency be offended at their obstinacy; but if we believe the very contrary to this, our part is not to strive, but in meekness to instruct those who oppose.” (From John Newton's Works, Letter XIX, On Controversy).

They are culpable since they have chosen to embrace error, but they are also deceived. Now, what else but knowing that a change of heart is something solely God given can temper the approach of the polemicist? What other explanation is there for patience and gentleness as appropriate dispositions? Coming to a knowledge of the truth has never been self-generated. Calvin wrote in his commentary on these verses that “when we remember that repentance is God's gift and work, we shall hope the more earnestly and, encouraged by this assurance, will give more labour and care to the instruction of rebels”.

Such gentleness and patience should not be confused with moral weakness and softness. Paul's words here are consistent with those he wrote to Titus on silencing the false teachers, rebuking straying believers sharply, and after two warnings having nothing to do with divisive people (Titus 1:10-16; 3:9-11).

The following quotation from John Owen has been a treasured favourite of mine for many years. I first came across it in Packer's Among God's Giants (a must read in itself) and quoted it from Packer's work when I wrote a chapter on preaching for Keeping Your Balance (Apollos/IVP, 2001). But knowing the context of the quote makes its impact on my thinking even greater. It comes in the penultimate section of Owen's introduction to Vindicae Evangelicae, his massive refutation of the Socinians (Volume 12 in the Banner edition). That he should write like this in the introduction to a polemical book shows me all the more what must be at the heart of contending for the faith in a way that pleases God. The three questions that he asks give the game away as to the identity of his opponents. But they are great questions to ask whenever we may need to contend for the gospel. Owen has not only a weapon in his hand, for the pulling down of the Socinian anti-gospel stronghold, but a plea for grace in the heart of all those who fight for the glory of God:

"When the heart is cast indeed into the mould of the doctrine that the mind embraceth; when the evidence and necessity of the truth abides in us; when not the sense of the words only is in our heads, but the sense of the things abides in our hearts; when we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for, --then shall we be garrisoned, by the grace of God, against all the assaults of men. And without this all our contending is, as to ourselves, of no value.

What am I the better if I can dispute that Christ is God, but have no sense or sweetness in my heart from hence that he is a God in covenant with my soul?

What will it avail me to evince by testimonies and arguments, that he hath made satisfaction for sin if, through my unbelief, the wrath of God abideth on me, and I have no experience of my own being made the righteousness of God in him,--if I find not, in my standing before God, the excellency of having my sins imputed to him and his righteousness imputed to me?

Will it be any advantage to me, in the issue, to profess and dispute that God works the conversion of a sinner by the irresistible grace of his Spirit, if I was never acquainted experimentally with the deadness and utter impotency to good, that opposition to the law of God, which is in my own soul by nature, with the efficacy of the exceeding greatness of the power of God in quickening, enlightening, and bringing forth the fruits of obedience in me?

It is the power of truth in the heart alone that will make us cleave unto it indeed in an hour of temptation.

Let us, then, not think that we are any thing the better for our conviction of the truths of the great doctrines of the gospel, for which we contend with these men, unless we find the power of the truths abiding in out own hearts, and have a continual experience of their necessity and excellency in our standing before God and our communion with him." (
John Owen, Vindicae Evangelicae, p. 52).

Friday, April 20, 2007

Atonement: Godliness and Polemics

In light of recent events in British evangelicalism (see post below) here are some wise and helpful words from John Piper on the subject of controversy:

Some controversy is crucial for the sake of life-giving truth. Running from it is a sign of cowardice. But enjoying it is usually a sign of pride. Some necessary tasks are sad, and even victory is not without tears--unless there is pride. The reason enjoying controversy is a sign of pride is that humility loves truth-based unity more than truth-based victory.

Humility delights to worship Christ in spirit and truth. If it must fight for worship-sustaining truth, it will, but that is not because the fight is pleasant. It's not even because victory id pleasant. It's because knowing and loving and proclaiming Christ for who he really is and what he did is pleasant.

John Piper, Contending for our all, p. 17

Thursday, April 19, 2007

And on the cross as Jesus died the wrath of God was satisified

One evening last October I was part of a 900 strong crowd at a Stuart Townend and Lou Fellingham concert in Wrexham, North Wales. As we sang song after song about the cross what struck me was just how clear those songs were on penal substitution. It was thrilling to sing them. I felt profoundly grateful that those unassuming singers had penned words so faithful to the gospel. Their efforts are a great gift to the church. They have put into song the profound theology of the cross.

But not everyone wants to sing this song.

Dean Inge once said that institutions tend to produce their opposite. If that is true then you could very well expect Evangelicalism to become Liberalism. And when it comes to the atonement this is happening. Adrian Warnock's post on this deserves to be read carefully and extensively. Here are two paragraphs from his post...

Word Alive and Spring Harvest to Separate After 15 Years Because of the Atonement

This Easter a clear line was drawn in the sand in British Evangelicalism. For years, whenever the word “evangelical” was mentioned, people in the UK would think almost immediately of Spring Harvest — easily the UK's largest Christian conference. Part of that package has been Word Alive, a distinct all-age event run by UCCF (who owns the UK-based Intervarsity Press) and the Keswick Convention in partnership with Spring Harvest. At the heart of Word Alive has been a separate student track with up to 2,000 students. Beginning in 2008, there will be no more Word Alive at Spring Harvest.

Towards the end of the whole event, in an open meeting for group organizers, Richard Cunningham was asked a direct question about why the partnership is coming to an end. He stated in his reply that Spring Harvest had been the one to take the initiative, and asked UCCF and Keswick to no longer be a part of Spring Harvest. This was because UCCF and Keswick were not willing for Steve Chalke to speak on either the student or all-age platforms at Word Alive.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Take away assertions and you take away Christianity

Here are some extracts from Luther in his exchange with Erasmus, taken of course from The Bondage of the Will:

For not to delight in assertions, is not the character of the Christian mind: nay, he must delight in assertions, or he is not a Christian. But (that we may not be mistaken in terms) by assertions, I mean a constant adhering, affirming, confessing, defending, and invincibly persevering.

And moreover, I speak concerning the asserting of those things, which are delivered to us from above in the Holy Scriptures.

But why should I dwell upon this; nothing is more known and more general among Christians than assertions. Take away assertions and you take away Christianity.

Whereas, the Christian will rather say this--I am so averse to the sentiments of the Sceptics, that wherever I am not hindered by the infirmity of the flesh, I will not only steadily adhere to the Sacred Writings everywhere, and in all parts of them, and assert them, but I wish also to be as certain as possible in things that are not necessary, and that lie without the Scripture: for what is more miserable than uncertainty.

The Holy Spirit is not a Sceptic, nor are what he has written on our own hearts doubts and opinions, but assertions more certain, and more firm, than life itself and all human experience.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Augustine, Pelagius, the Nicene Creed, and the Men from California

Over at Pyromaniacs there has been some discussion about the book Listening to the Beliefs of the Emerging Churches, and particularly Dan Kimball's contribution.

Below I have posted Jaroslav Pelikan's discussion of the trinitarian orthodoxy of some of the Pelagians and the sticking point for their position in the Nicene Creed. To begin with here is Pelikan's summary of the the doctrine of sin held by Celestius:

"Adam was created mortal and would have died whether he had sinned or not sinned; the sin of Adam injured only him, not the human race; the law leads to the kingdom [of heaven], just as the gospel does; even before the coming of Christ there were men without sin; newborn infants are in the same state which Adam was before his transgression; the whole human race does not die through the death and transgression of Adam, nor does it rise again through the resurrection of Christ."

Following this Pelikan comments:

Much of this could claim support from the tradition as well as from contemporary Eastern theologians. What is more, it was combined with an impeccable trinitarian orthodoxy. Pelagius confessed: "I believe in the Trinity of the one substance, and I hold all things in accordance with the teachings of the holy catholic church." Before the outbreak of the controversy on grace and sin he had written a treatise On the Faith of the Trinity. Pelagius had a reputation for teaching "the right faith." Celestius, too, could wholeheartedly recite the creed, "from the Trinity of the one Godhead all the way to the kind of resurrection of the dead that there is to be." If the touchstone of orthodoxy was adherence to the true faith concerning the Trinity and the person of Christ, it was incorrect to call this doctrine of sin and grace a "heresy." Those who held to erroneous doctrines in this area were to be anathematized "as fools, not as heretics, for there is no dogma."

But this assessment of the controversy was not to last, as Pelikan further notes:

But the standard of trinitarian orthodoxy, the Nicene Creed, also contained the statement: "We baptism for the forgiveness of sins." And by the first part of the fifth century this meant, as a rule, the baptism of infants.

And the Pelagians held to doctrines that were inconsistent with this understanding of the need for forgiveness, original sin, and the subsequent necessity of infant baptism. Pelikan finally observes that:

In the person of Celestius, Pelagianism was condemned by the Council of Ephesus in 431 as a heresy.

Now the point of all this is to show that the Nicene Creed was an insufficient test to deal with the issues of sin and grace in salvation. It did, to be sure, not leave those issues completely untouched. But even when it touched upon them it did not clarify the crucial relationship of grace and faith. In fact we should go further and say with Warfield that "the problem which Augustine bequeathed to the Church for solution, the Church required a thousand years to solve," since it was "Augustine who gave us the Reformation."

For a fuller discussion of these matters see Pelikan, The Christian Tradition volume 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), and B. B. Warfield, "Augustine and the Pelagian Controversy," in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield vol. IV: Studies in Tertullian and Augustine

Friday, April 13, 2007

Orthodoxy, Orthopraxy, and the Gospel

G. K. Chesterton once said that “heresy always affects morality, if it is heretical enough.” It is true to say that any form of error, and not just heresy, will show itself in some form of deficiency or delinquency in the life of the church and the Christian.

But there is a danger with Chesterton's statement. The danger is that we will form in our minds a narrow and set idea of what that immorality will be. And, based on that assumption, we will expect those moving into theological compromise to be immoral only in that particular way. If we follow the logic of Paul in the pastoral epistles we will expect false theologies to produce ungodly behaviour.

Yet in the history of the church there have been those who clearly and definitely embraced and taught error who were known for their personal moral integrity. In fact men as notorious as Pelagius and Faustus Socinus we respected in just this way. You would expect the opposite to be true wouldn't you? But there is more to it than a simple, straightforward, personal moral failure.

In recent writing on orthopraxy there has been a stress on the outworking of orthodoxy in terms of changed Christian behaviour along the lines of the fruit of the Spirit. Sometimes this has been married with an affirmation that this kind of orthopraxy is in fact what orthodoxy is really all about. What has been neglected, in my estimation, is the stress on orthopraxy at the very point where it connects to orthodoxy. This is the kind of orthopraxy that values guarding the good deposit, of being found trustworthy with the mysteries of God, of rightly handling the word of truth, of keeping the faith, of holding firm to the trustworthy word as taught. This also is included in biblical orthopraxy.

Holding to orthodoxy involves more than affirming certain things to be true. Holding to the gospel includes being found faithful and trustworthy is receiving and passing on the gospel as revealed in Scripture. This is genuine orthopraxy.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

On Breathing in a Poisoned Atmosphere

In 1826, Hodge's growing sense of his own linguistic deficiencies "became more intense" and he made application to the Board of the Seminary to study for two years in Europe. Leaving his wife and two small children with his mother, he set off to study French, Arabic and Syriac and become acquainted with the developing discipline of biblical criticism.

In one of his early letters to Hodge, Dr. Alexander warned him, "Remember that you breathe a poisoned atmosphere. If you lose the lively and deep impression of Divine truth if you fall into scepticism or even into coldness - you will lose more than you gain from all the German professors and libraries.. "

Hodge would later reflect on the unbelief that covered much of the theology he encountered during his time in Europe. As he sought to understand how the birthplace of the Reformation could become a citadel for unbelief, he remarked that the Reformation was followed by "a period of cold orthodoxy brought about principally by perpetual controversy on unimportant subjects."

Ian Hamilton, extract from a paper on the life of Charles Hodge given at the Westminster Conference 2003.

On Definitions, Descriptions, and the Subverting of Terms

If you had asked someone who lived in the first half of the 20th century for a description of modernist theology they would have talked about something that you could also easily have described as liberal Protestantism. This is exactly what J. Gresham Machen did in Christianity & Liberalism. Ask for a modernist preacher and the first name on the list may well have been Harry Emerson Fosdick.

If you ask someone now for a description of modernist theology and they may well talk about something that you could also easily describe as historic, orthodox, confessional Protestantism. Ask for a modernist theologian and the list could include Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, and I guess even J. Gresham Machen.

Back in the 20th century modernist theology was synonymous with an outlook that shrunk, exchanged, and reduced orthodoxy. In the 21st century it is confused with an outlook that pronounces certainty in areas of theology that are now regarded as overly confident, with that confidence extending to matters of considerable detail.

Now it has to be said that deploying the term modernism in this way second way is historical nonsense. But it is becoming something of a factoid (a piece of nonsense repeated so often that people start believing it as fact). It is lining itself up with the Calvin vs. the Calvinists position as the prime contender for historical revisionism in the contemporary church. Which would be less of a problem if the conversation was going on in academic circles. Which leads me to a second concern.

It is a misuse of language that serves a current theological agenda. At the intellectual end of the emerging conversation, and in post-conservative evangelicalism, is a push to make the very men who distinguished themselves as defenders of the gospel secret collaborators with modernism. The very ideas that they were opposing were in fact shaping their own theology to the detriment of the truth, or at least that is how the theory goes.

It seems quite obvious that dealing with wrong ideas extends beyond exegesis and theology and includes the need for a right view of historic theology as well.

Now what is disturbing in all this is the proclivity in our day for taking these matters as read. And that is no help to the cause of the gospel and the extension and upbuilding of the church.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Pelagianism: We know where you got your ideas from

Recently I have been reading through Listening to the Beliefs of the Emerging Churches. Doug Pagitt has a very curious explanation for the tension between Augustine and Pelagius. In his estimation Pelagius' Celtic spirituality, the product of a Druidic northern culture, was always going to clash with Augustine's Greco-Roman view of God. Now aside of the fact that their respective theologies are explained solely in cultural terms (and I think quite inaccurately by Pagitt) and not in terms of their differing exegesis Scripture, Pagitt has got the wrong culture in mind. Jerome said at the time that Pelagianism was the heresy of "Pythagoras and Zeno." Dean Milman, noted that "the greater part" of Pelagius' letter to Demetrius "might have been written by an ancient academic." Pelagianism seems to him to be "a rehabilitation of the general heathen view of the world."

And it ought to be pointed out that explaining orthodoxy and heresy in such a way that culture accounts for both is itself the product of an unorthodox presupposition.

Here is Bavinck on Pelagius:

"According to Pelagius, the image of God consisted solely in free personality, not in positive holiness, immortality, and so on. Adam's trespass, according to him, did not deprive humans of the image of God and in fact had no adverse consequences whatsoever. There is no such thing as original sin. Adam's trespass negatively affected his descendants only in that it left them a bad example, which, followed by others, made sin a power among humankind...Sin, accordingly, is propagated not by generation but by imitation. Humans, whose souls were created pure by God, are still today born in the same state as Adam was before the fall...Human beings are still completely free and can of themselves know and do the good: they have no need of grace. It is indeed possible for them to abstain from all sins, and a few have in fact attained this ideal.

In voicing these ideas, Pelagius did little more than take over the views that had been promulgated long before by Greek and Roman philosophers and had found acceptance in popular philosophy."

Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics vol. 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, (Baker: 2006), p. 86

Monday, April 09, 2007

On Christian Doctrine, Heresy, and Culture

Heresy bends the confession of Christian truth to the norms of the culture and away from the Word of God. As such it is a spirit of accommodation.

Christian doctrine is then no longer what is believed, taught, and confessed on the basis of the Word of God. Christian doctrine when it is infiltrated by heresy conforms to human thought, very often the spirit of the age, and always to the desires, expectations and limits of fallen reason and affection. It is wise then for teachers in the church to be familiar with the form and content of unbelief in their day. These ideas may well surface in the church as new light on the Bible and the way forward theologically. But teachers in the church must also be aware of the deep currents of unbelief that swirl around in the fallen imagination and hearts of men and women.

Both of these sources of heresy could be found in Socinianism:

"Faustus Socinus (1539-1604) was something of a Renaissance prophet whose rationalism eventually led him to deny almost every cardinal Christian doctrine, including the deity of Christ, predestination, original sin, total depravity, vicarious atonement and justification by faith.

Socinianism, which had its roots in older heresies such as Arianism and Pelagianism, struck a responsive chord in a generation influenced by Renaissance humanism's optimistic view of humanity. Like the Remonstrants, Socinians tried to interpret Christianity to accommodate the views of the Renaissance.

In the eighteenth century, Socinianism influenced English Baptists and Presbyterians and, in New England, Congregationalists, eventually culminating in Unitarianism on both sides of the Atlantic. In the nineteenth century, Socinianism gained adherents among Quakers in the United States. In form and content Socinianism can hardly be distinguished from the modernism of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries."
Joel Beeke, "The Atonement in Herman Bavinck's Theology," in Hill & James (eds), The Glory of the Atonement, p. 340-1

Friday, April 06, 2007

Atonement: The Glory of Penal Substitution

What else could have filled Christ with such dread than the knowledge that in his suffering he would endure in the place of sinners the wrath of God? This is what the "cup" that he spoke of stood for. I read the following from Jonathan Edwards a few years back and found it helped me tremendously to reflect on the atonement:

"The strength of Christ's love more especially appears in this, that when he had such a full view of the dreadfulness of the cup that he was to drink, that so amazed him, he would notwithstanding even then take it up, and drink it. Then seems to have been the greatest and most peculiar trial of the strength of the love of Christ, when God set down the bitter portion before him, and let him see what he had to drink, if he persisted in his love to sinners; and brought him to the mouth of the furnace that he might see its fierceness, and have a full view of it, and have time then to consider whether he would go in and suffer the flames of this furnace for such unworthy creatures, or not.

This was as it were proposing it to Christ's last consideration what he would do; as much as if it had then been said to him, 'Here is the cup that you are to drink, unless you will give up your undertaking for sinners, and even leave them to perish as they deserve. Will you take this cup, and drink it for them, or not? There is the furnace into which you are to be cast, if they are to be saved; either they must perish, or you must endure this for them. There you see how terrible the heat of the furnace is; you see what pain and anguish you must endure on the morrow, unless you give up the cause of sinners. What will you do? is your love such that you will go on? Will you cast yourself into this dreadful furnace of wrath?' Christ's soul was overwhelmed with the thought; his feeble human nature shrunk at the dismal sight. It put him into this dreadful agony which you have heard described; but his love to sinners held out.

Christ would not undergo these sufferings needlessly, if sinners could be saved without. If there was not an absolute necessity of his suffering them in order to their salvation, he desired that the cup might pass from him. But if sinners, on whom he had set his love, could not, agreeably to the will of God, be saved without his drinking it, he chose that the will of God should be done. He chose to go on and endure the suffering, awful as it appeared to him. And this was his final conclusion, after the dismal conflict of his poor feeble human nature, after he had had the cup in view, and for at least the space of one hour, had seen how amazing it was. Still he finally resolved that he would bear it, rather than those poor sinners whom he had loved from all eternity should perish.

When the dreadful cup was before him, he did not say within himself, why should I, who am so great and glorious a person, infinitely more honourable than all the angels of heaven, Why should I go to plunge myself into such dreadful, amazing torments for worthless wretched worms that cannot be profitable to God, or me, and that deserve to be hated by me, and not to be loved? Why should I, who have been living from all eternity in the enjoyment of the Father's love, go to cast myself into such a furnace for them that never can requite me for it? Why should I yield myself to be thus crushed by the weight of divine wrath, for them who have no love to me, and are my enemies? they do not deserve any union with me, and never did, and never will do, any thing to recommend themselves to me. What shall I be the richer for having saved a number of miserable haters of God and me, who deserve to have divine justice glorified in their destruction?

Such, however, was not the language of Christ's heart, in these circumstances; but on the contrary, his love held out, and he resolved even then, in the midst of his agony, to yield himself up to the will of God, and to take the cup and drink it."

From Jonathan Edwards sermon on Christ's Agony (Luke 22)

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Atonement: Interpretations, Implications and Polemics

Although written more than eighty years ago J. Gresham Machen's opening words in his classic work Christianity & Liberalism still have a freshness and relevance about them. He wrote:

The purpose of this book is not to decide the religious issue of the present day, but merely to present the issue as sharply and clearly as possible, in order that the reader may be aided in deciding it for himself.

He knew that light is not always a welcome intruder in the church:

Clear cut definition of terms in religious matters, bold facing of the logical implications of religious views, is by many persons regarded as an impious proceeding.

In this regard it is quite clear that penal substitution has become a doctrine over which self-identifying evangelicals have quarreled. Not that calling yourself an evangelical gives you the right to jettison doctrines that are, and have always been, recognizably evangelical. But that has not deterred the attacks being made from within evangelicalism from academics and well known leaders, as well as those from the label-overlapping emerging church conversation.

And it is a great irony that many of the arguments leveled against penal substitution were those made a few centuries back by the Socinians. Faustus Socinus revised the doctrines of classic Western Christianity, and Reformed orthodoxy, right across the board. And he virulently opposed penal substitution. Perhaps the rehabilitation of his views under the evangelical banner, not through his writings or personal influence but by a corresponding orientation of the heart to the truths that he opposed, illustrates just how anti-reformational the movement has become.

And so let me give you a lengthy quotation from Pierced for our Transgressions that sets out the logical implications of the debate over penal substitution. Over a third of the book is given over to polemics. The authors have listed every objection to penal substitution that they could find, have supported these objections with quotations from contemporary authors (Green, Baker, Chalke, Mann, Fiddes, McLaren etc.), and have written a response to each one.

The bottom line: If you love the truth you will not be able to avoid fighting for it. Theological pacifism is not an option.

"It seems that opponents of penal substitution are agreed on the magnitude of the issue. They contend that penal substitution is an unbiblical view of the cross without support in the historic church. They claim that penal substitution undermines the doctrine of the Trinity, without which Christianity would not be Christianity at all. More than that, they insist that penal substitution portrays God as an unjust tyrant, a vindictive child abuser, and a hypocrite who pays no regard to Jesus' foundational teaching about love. Finally, they have argued that penal substitution has disastrous pastoral consequences, that it has been used to justify violence against women and children, and that it is stifling the mission of the church in the world. All of these accusations have been made in recent years...

These charges are extremely serious. We cannot pretend that critics of penal substitution are raising a minor point of dispute: they are accusing us of propagating a theological novelty, imposing our twisted modern world views on God's holy word, unwittingly encouraging and justifying sadistic acts of violence, and worshipping a malevolent, hypocritical deity who bears no resemblance whatsoever to the loving God of the Bible. Disagreements over penal substitution are fundamental; they cannot be ignored.

Of course, this does not mean Christian churches and organisations ought to divide at the first of disagreement on this issue. On the contrary, Christian love requires patient listening and discussion. However, if those who impugn penal substitution refuse to reconsider their position, there comes a time when we have no alternative but to part company. For the critics are right in this: differences over penal substitution ultimately lead us to worship a different God and to believe a different gospel."

Jeffrey, Ovey, Sach, Pierced for our transgressions, p. 216-7

Thinking Blogger Award

I found out yesterday that I have been awarded one of these by Rebecca Stark of Rebecca Writes. It would be rude of me not to say thank you. Rebecca's blog is not well known to me but it must be good since she is in Tim Challies' top ten blogs list. And I suspect that Rebecca lives in a part of the world that is much colder than North Wales.

I set myself certain aims and limits when I started this blog. The subjects that I deal with don't vary all that much. That was intentional. And the blog is not about me and what I am doing. I am very, very privileged to be the minister of Christ Church Deeside (North East Wales). My blog is not an aspect of that work but a collection of items (notes, reflections, quotes and articles) on an area of theology that got me hooked because I had lots of questions but couldn't find much in print that helped me to get answers. As a family we love the international aspect of blogging. The Lord has been very kind in this and I am grateful for the contact that I have had with ministers, and even a seminary professor, in North America.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

In an age of theological change

Have you ever been waiting at a train station, sat patiently at your seat, whilst next to you another train is likewise waiting to leave? And then, as the train starts to move, for a few seconds you are not sure if your train is the one moving or if it is the next train that is starting to pull off. The way to be sure is to look at the platform. The platform after all doesn't move.

So it is in an age of theological change when definitions and doctrines are in motion. Our ultimate authority here is Scripture. This is exactly where Paul directs Timothy as he seeks to be faithful in an age of impostors and deceivers (2 Tim. 3:10-17). This is the fixed point for doctrine.

For evangelicals today there is also a desperate need to consider their own confessional history (assuming that they are the kind of evangelicals that have one). A failure to do this reduces doctrine to the whims of semantic card shuffling (as Francis Schaeffer called it). You may still have all the right words, names, and labels but the meaning of these words, their content and definition, has been radically altered. Or, to put it another way, there are theologies today that are pronounced evangelical and orthodox that our forefathers had no hesitation in calling error, false doctrine, and even heresy.

Here is a helpful comment by Al Mohler that pinpoints the change:

"Writing of theological and intellectual change...Charles Hodge once observed, 'When a drama is introduced in a theater and universally condemned, and a little while afterward, with a little change in the scenery, it is received with rapturous applause, the natural conclusion is, that the change is in the audience and not in the drama.'

This is a very important insight. Hodge's concern was the change in evangelical responses to Darwinian evolution. He was right--the change was in the audience. Similarly, we can detect that many of today's evangelicals now demand a new drama, a new theology. To some extent this is a reaction to a failure in evangelical demonstration. In other cases, it appears that a sense of theological fatigue has set in, prompting some to look for theological formulations that demand a lower level of defense in light of current controversies. Whatever the case, a new audience demands a different drama.

The drama of the gospel has not changed, but the audience for evangelical theology has changed--and not for the better."

Al Mohler, Afterword, in Gary L. W. Johnson & Guy P. Waters, By Faith Alone, p. 207-8

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Critics of penal substitution, it seems like they don't want to listen

"Scholarship for [Professor X] was to be pursued not for its own sake but for the sake of the church. His life was marked by commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ, but that commitment, rather than dulling his scholarship, sharpened it."

IVP Historical Handbook of Major Biblical Interpreters (ed. Donald K. McKim), p. 480

Who was Professor X? Well it was C. H. Dodd.

He was not exactly the kind of man that you would expect an evangelical publishing house to commend for his "commitment to the gospel." C. H. Dodd deliberately and intentionally opposed and undermined the doctrine of penal substitution. Whatever gospel he was committed to it was not the one recorded in the pages of the New Testament. His views were challenged by the notable evangelical scholars Leon Morris and Roger Nicole. Morris's book The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (1955) was a landmark study and a scholarly defense of penal substitution. It was the kind of book that should have ended the discussion.

But it didn't, and it still has not done so. In fact there are "evangelicals" today whose views of the cross are more like Dodd's than those of Roger Nicole and Leon Morris. Of course, you would think, this is because Morris' arguments and scholarship have been overturned...well not quite. I think that Jeffrey, Ovey, and Sach, in their recently published Pierced for our Transgressions have rightly interpreted what is going on:

"Unfortunately, Morris's writings have not had the impact they deserve, because critics of his position paid little attention. Indeed, one of the strangest things about modern challenges to penal substitution is the extent to which they continue to rely on interpretations of Scripture soundly refuted by Morris decades ago, without even attempting to reply to his case."

Pierced for our Transgressions, p. 26

They say that the same has been true of Where Wrath and Mercy Meet (2001), the collection of papers on penal substitution presented at a conference at Oak Hill Theological College:

"It makes a strong case for penal substitution, and responds to several recent challenges. Critics of penal substitution have received it in a similar vein to Leon Morris's work: its arguments have largely been ignored."

Ibid. p. 28

And the moral of the story is not...

That evangelical scholars did a bad job and are to be held responsible for the current rejection of penal substitution. The location of badness in this discussion lies elsewhere.

Monday, April 02, 2007

The enemy within the gate

"It has always been the case that the church has had to struggle with aberrant views in its midst. Indeed, the apostle Paul goes so far as to say that 'there must be factions [heresies] among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized' (1 Cor. 11:19).

What is so different, when compared with our more recent history, is that these aberrant views on matters so central and fundamental are not outside the evangelical church but inside it. Not only so, but today these views are masquerading as something they are not. They are offered in all innocence as Christian orthodoxy, whereas, in fact, they come out of a different universe.

What we have is church practice that obliterates the underlying understanding of truth, a methodology for success without too many references to any truth, and a sense that what was once so important in the life of the church can be left behind, unexplored, unappropriated, and without consequences."

David F. Wells, from the foreword in Gary L. W. Johnson & Guy P. Waters, By Faith Alone: Answering the Challenges to the Doctrine of Justification, p. 19