Saturday, June 30, 2007

Heretics have done something wrong

...or maybe not.

God's truth has an inextricable moral dimension to it. Those who choose not to believe it are not merely mistaken, have not merely made an intellectual error: they have done something wrong. That is why the apostles treated heresy as both a departure from true belief and a moral offense.

David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland, p. 42

Monday, June 25, 2007

Luther on style and substance

A few extracts from Luther's dismantling of Erasmus on free will:

...your book is, in my estimation, so mean and vile, that I greatly feel for you having defiled your most beautiful and ingenious language with such vile trash; and I feel an indignation against the matter also, that such unworthy stuff should be borne about in ornaments of eloquence so rare; which is as if rubbish, or dung, should be carried in vessels of gold and silver.

In the mean time, I admonish you to correct your tongue, and your pen, and to refrain henceforth from using such expressions. For, how upright and honest soever your heart may be, your words, which are the index of the heart, are not so.

These statements of yours are without Christ, without the Spirit, and more cold than ice: so that, the beauty of your eloquence is really deformed by them.

...and so worthless a book on "Free-will" I never saw, excepting the elegance of the language.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Culture and the Story of God

There is a long trail of contextualized theologies, written over the last half century, in which the external dimension virtually replaces the internal, cultural aspects eclipse biblical norms, and the result has been the kind of compromise, trendiness, and manipulation which ends up promoting worldly agendas, be they political, social, ideological, or personal, in place of biblical truth. This has been a sorry tale. And somewhere in the making of each of its works the fatal step was taken to allow the culture to say what God's story should sound like rather than insisting that theology is not theology if it is not listening to God telling his own story in his own way.

David F. Wells, Above All Earthly Pow'rs: Christ in a Postmodern World, p. 6-7

Friday, June 22, 2007

Christless Christianity

There surely ought to be little difficulty in determining what Christianity is...Unquestionably, Christianity is a redemptive religion, having as its fundamental presupposition the fact of sin, felt both as guilt and as pollution, and offering as its central good, from which all other goods proceed, salvation from sin through an historical expiation wrought by the God-man Jesus Christ. The essence of Christianity has always been to its adherents the sinner's experience of reconciliation with God through the propitiatory sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Certainly his first followers with single-hearted unanimity proclaimed the great fact of redemption in the blood of Christ as the heart of their gospel: to them Jesus is the propitiation for sin, a sacrificial lamb without blemish, and all their message is summed up in the simple formula "Jesus Christ and him crucified."

No doubt parties have from time to time arisen who have wished to construe Christianity otherwise. But they have always occupied a place on the periphery of the Christian movement, and have never constituted its main stream.

A Christianity without redemption--redemption in the blood of Jesus Christ as a sacrifice for sin--is nothing less than a contradiction in terms.

We may fairly contend that the germ of Christless Christianity is present wherever a proper doctrine of redemption has fallen away or even has only been permitted to pass out of sight. Of course in the meantime some other function than proper redemption may be found for Jesus.

B. B. Warfield, "Christless Christianity," in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield vol. III: Christology and Criticism, p. 355-8

It's the same old story

Here are two extracts from Bavinck on objections to penal substitution:

...Satisfaction is not necessary. God's righteousness and mercy are not opposed to each other, and these attributes are not characteristic of God's nature but the effects of his will and dependent on his will. Whether or not God wants to punish or forgive sins is determined not in any way by his nature but his will. God can just as well--and better than a human being--forgive sins without satisfaction. In fact, his justice is nullified by satisfaction, because it punishes the innocent and acquits the guilty; and his mercy loses its value if it can only manifest itself after satisfaction. God, accordingly, has always promised forgiveness to the penitent and wants us to follow him in that respect.

...the doctrine of satisfaction is also harmful because it elevates Christ with his mercy above God with his demand for satisfaction. It obligates us to be more grateful to Christ than to God...

Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ, p. 348-9

Now the question I have is whether these objections are more likely to find a hearing, or sympathy, in mainstream evangelicalism or whether they would be exposed and refuted. What do you think?

Saturday, June 16, 2007

From every error keep us free let none but Christ our Master be

Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord!
Be all Thy graces now outpoured
On each believer’s mind and heart;
Thy fervent love to them impart.
Lord, by the brightness of Thy light
Thou in the faith dost men unite
Of every land and every tongue;
This to Thy praise, O Lord, our God, be sung.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Thou holy Light, Guide divine,
Oh, cause the Word of Life to shine!
Teach us to know our God aright
And call Him Father with delight.
From every error keep us free;
Let none but Christ our Master be
That we in living faith abide,
In Him, our Lord, with all our might confide.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Thou holy Fire, Comfort true,
Grant us the will Thy work to do
And in Thy service to abide;
Let trials turn us not aside.
Lord, by Thy power prepare each heart
And to our weakness strength impart
That bravely here we may contend,
Through life and death to Thee, our Lord, ascend.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Martin Luther

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Triumph of a Dictatorship: Reflections on the cultural subversion of the gospel

It is said that the triumph of a dictatorship is not when it has to censor its subjects, but when its subjects are willing to censor themselves. This happens to the church when it accepts the ideology of a dictatorship above its confession of Jesus as Lord. But the form of the dictatorship need not be represented by a nation state. It can also be found in the way that the thought forms of the age exert control over their subjects. When this happens the gospel becomes a lost message. It no longer sounds distinctive but resonates with the sound of the culture. This does not necessarily mean that people are kept from hearing about Jesus, the good news, the Bible, or the cross. The words themselves may remain, but their content is altered by, and adapted to, the dominant cultural world-view. And the frightening thing is that this can be done willingly and with the best of motives. In seeking to communicate the gospel to the culture it is possible for the church to be assimilated by the mindset of that culture.

The first priority of the church is not mission but confession. Any emphasis on being missional that is not already clear on what it means to be confessional will misrepresent the person and work of Christ and hinder the work of the church. And without a true confession there is no authentic mission. The liberal theologians and preachers of the 19th and early 20th centuries did not intend to destroy the church. Many of them felt compelled to adopt new theological positions because of the impact of new scientific knowledge. And many of them were seeking to reach their generation with the gospel, or what they considered to be the gospel.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Not just a theory: Reflections on Christ, culture and the gospel

One writer has argued that there are facets or layers to the gospel that deal with sin and guilt and others that deal with hope, the future, justice, compassion, individuals, humanity and politics, and that we should select appropriate facets suited to and depending on our particular culture. How are these facets and layers related to Jesus? He goes on to say:

All of these versions, facets, and layers center in Jesus Christ. If Christianity has anything to say at all, if it has a message worth repeating at all, then at the core is Christ. And not just a facet of Christ or an idea about Christ, not just a theory about Christ's birth or death or resurrection or teaching or deity, but Christ himself, Christ the person, Christ the figure who came to us in the story we call the gospel.

How can we speak of Christ apart from what we know about him? The Christ we are meant to know and who saves us is never an “uninterpreted Christ.” He is either rightly interpreted or wrongly interpreted. How can he be the object of saving faith unless we know things about who he is and what he accomplished? A false faith would be faith placed in a wrongly interpreted Christ. Isn't that Paul's point about the super apostles in 2 Corinthians 11? They preached “another Jesus.”

By a rightly “interpreted Christ” I mean that the Christ of the Bible and the apostles' proclamation is never separated for faith from what God has said about him (his person and his work). Take away God's interpretation of Christ from our experience of him and you are left with either a mystical Christ, of whom we know nothing and whose name serves merely as a religious word, or a false Christ (and there are many in history who have fitted this description). Detach right ideas from Christ and his work and you are left either with nothing, or with a false Christ. There is no uninterpreted Christ. We need God's explanation of him in order for us to call on him.

Precisely because the story in the canonical gospels explain and interpret Christ it makes no sense to speak of Christ himself apart from “facets,” “ideas,” or “theories.” Not that these are interpretations that we are free to create, evaluate, or embrace as we see fit according to our culture or location in history. When the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 records the apostolic testimony about the gospel that was universally proclaimed and believed, he stresses that this is the authorized interpretation of Christ. He gives the facts. That Christ died, was buried and was raised on the third day. He gives the meaning of those facts. That Christ died for our sins, and that without his resurrection from the dead we would still be in our sins. And he tells us where that meaning is authoritatively interpreted for us . Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.

There simply is no other Jesus than this one. And since that is the case what we may say about him in the gospel is non-negotiable. It cannot and must not change. It is certainly not amenable to the whims of human thought and cultural change.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Perennial Danger for the Church: Reflections on Heresy, Culture and the Gospel

The entrapment of the gospel by the culture is not a relatively new phenomena in the history of the church. It is much older than the capitulation of confessional churches that went on during the Enlightenment. In one form or another it has been a perennial problem.

When the church faces the pressure of open, external persecution it is something like the unsubtle attack made in The War of the Worlds. There is the direct contrast of the world and the church, and the active destruction of the church by physical attack. But the church also faces an internal pressure that is often hidden. This is the pressure of theological compromise. The attack upon the church from within, by heretics who reconfigure and redefine the faith, is like The Invasion of the Body-Snatchers.

This point was made by Tertullian, Heresies, at the present time, will no less rend the church by their perversion of doctrine, than will Antichrist persecute her at that day by the cruelty of his attacks, except that persecution makes martyrs, (but) heresy only apostates.”1 Heresy is the takeover of the gospel by an alien world-view. A foreign element subverts, regulates, and determines a new shape to Christian belief. But this does not happen openly, it happens under the guise of orthodoxy. As G. P. Fisher put it:

When Christianity is brought into contact with modes of thought and tenets originating elsewhere, either of two effects may follow. It may assimilate them, discarding whatever is at variance with the gospel, or the tables may be turned and the foreign elements may prevail. In the latter case there ensues a perversion of Christianity, an amalgamation with it of ideas discordant with its nature. The product then is a heresy. But to fill out the conception, it seems necessary that error should be aggressive and should give rise to an effort to build up a party, and thus to divide the Church. In the Apostles' use of the term, “heresy” contains a factious element.2

We see this impulse at work within the New Testament. It is the root cause of the Corinthian error about the resurrection. Paul counters this local manifestation of error by showing its implications for the resurrection of Christ, the integrity of gospel proclamation, and the future judgment of believers. Interestingly he also counters it by asserting the catholicity of belief in the resurrection. We are led to infer from this that the fact and explanation of the resurrection of Christ and his people was under duress from an interpretation of the resurrection that had not originated from the apostolic preaching. It was, therefore, attributable to an alien world-view. And as long as some in the Corinthian church viewed the resurrection through the framework of this alien world-view they would not believe, confess, or teach it truthfully.

Another example from the Corinthian church is the preaching of the super apostles. Paul makes it quite clear that although their vocabulary was orthodox, after all they spoke of Jesus, the gospel, and the Spirit, the content of those words had been radically changed. Paul writes “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” (2 Corinthians 1:4). The signs remained (Jesus, Spirit, gospel) but the things signified were not the same as in the apostolic gospel.

Irenaeus, in his monumental work Against Heresies, warned about the danger of being “carried off” by false teachers because their language resembles ours while their sentiments are very different.”3 And Tertullian, again, attributes this subversion of Christian doctrine to the influence of pagan philosophy, “The same subject-matter is discussed over and over again by the heretics and the philosophers; the same arguments are involved.” 4

Furthermore we find the same connection between heresy and pagan philosophy being made by Hippolytus of Rome:

For from philosophers the heresiarchs deriving starting-points, (and) like cobblers patching together, according to their own particular interpretation, the blunders of the ancients, have advanced them as novelties to those that are capable of being deceived.5

It now seems to us that the tenets of both all the Greeks and barbarians have been sufficiently explained by us, and that nothing has remained unrefuted either of the points about which philosophy has been busied, or of the allegations advanced by the heretics. And from these very explanations the condemnation of the heretics is obvious, for having either purloined their doctrines, or derived contributions to them from some of those tenets elaborately worked out by the Greeks, and for having advanced (these opinions) as if they originated from God.6

From Paul's warning about being taken captive by “philosophy and empty deceit” (Colossians 2:8), through Tertullian's argument that “heresies are themselves instigated by philosophy,”7and the words of Hippolytus, it is fair to say that Christianity has had a desperately uneasy relationship with philosophy.

Doubtless it is the case that the language of the ecumenical creeds is indebted to language borrowed from Greek culture. For the sake of clarity and precision this was done. However, that is far different from the approach that took concepts derived from pagan philosophy and dressed them up in biblical language. Philosophy terminology has been made into a servant in expressing biblical doctrines, but it has always become a tyrannical master when it has intruded upon the content of Christian faith.8 Leithart has made some valuable observations on this point: would be a distortion to say that classical theism is Hellenism in Christian garb...The simple fact that the Church fathers formulated the doctrine of the Trinity shows that Greek philosophy did not function as a straight-jacket that theologians were unable to escape. If Greek philosophy had exercised veto power, we would be Arians.9

When the presuppositions of the culture control the embodiment of the gospel the decision has already been made to reconfigure what the gospel really means. This is the perennial danger for the church.

1Tertullian, Prescription Against Heresies, Chapter IV.

2Quoted in B. B. Warfield, “Heresy & Concession,” The Presbyterian Messenger, May 7, 1896, p. 672

3Alexander Roberts & W. H. Rambaut (trans.), Ante-Nicene Christian Library, vol. 5: The Writings of Irenaeus, (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1868), p. 2.

4Ibid., Chapter VII.

5Hippolytus, Refutation of all Heresies, Book 5 Chapter 1.

6Ibid., Book 9 Chapter 26.

7Ibid., Chapter VII.

8This is perhaps particularly misunderstood in the Post-Reformation period. For the distinction of “scholasticism” as a method and not a way of determining theological content see Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: vol. 1, Prolegomena to Theology, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), pp. 34-7.

9Peter J. Leithart, “Trinity, Time and Open Theism,” in Douglas Wilson (ed.), Bound Only Once: The Failure of Open Theism, (Moscow: Canon Press, 2001), p. 126.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Against starting from scratch

Men must interpret to the best of their ability each particular part of Scripture separately, and then combine all that the Scriptures teach upon every subject into a consistent whole, and then adjust their teachings upon different subjects in mutual consistency as parts of a harmonious system.

Every student of the Bible must do this; and all make it obvious that they do it, by the terms they use in their prayers and religious discourse, whether they admit or deny the propriety of human creeds and confessions. If they refuse the assistance afforded by the statements of doctrine slowly elaborated and defined by the Church, they must make out their own creed by their own unaided wisdom.

The real question is not, as often pretended, between the Word of God and the creed of man, but between the tried and proved faith of the collective body of God's people, and the private judgment and the unassisted wisdom of the repudiator of creeds.

A. A. Hodge,
The Westminster Confession: A Commentary, p.2-3

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Don't take the gospel for granted

How does bad theology spread? Why do once gospel believing people, churches, organisations, and movements move away from the truth?

John Owen pondered this as he observed the spread of the "leprosy of Socinianism" (that historic collection of errors, some of which have resurfaced in contemporary evangelicalism. See this earlier post on the subject):

The vanity of the minds of men, their weariness of sound doctrine, which they will endure no longer, whatever they embrace, have given it admission, either in part or in whole, among multitudes who once professed the faith of the gospel.

And this was the case even though Owen knew that these errors had appeared, and been dealt with, on the earlier pages of church history. Owen places these errors under two heads:

1. The denial of the Trinity

2. Pelagianism

Here is what he says about the second head:

But as to the latter branch of their hath diffused itself among multitudes of persons who were some time of another persuasion, and have yet engagements on them so to be.

All that unreasonable advancement of reason in matters of religion which we have amongst us; the new notions men have of the satisfaction of Christ, pretending to the acknowledgment of it, indeed destructive unto it; the noisome conception of the little use of the person of Christ in religion beyond the revelation and confirmation of the gospel; doctrines of the possibility, yea, facility of yielding acceptable obedience unto all evangelical commands without the aids of effectual grace, of the powers and incorruption of our nature, of justification by and upon our own obedience, of the suitableness of all gospel mysteries to unrenewed reason or an unsanctified mind, of regeneration as consisting only in the reformation of our lives; with a rejection of all internal real efficacy in converting grace; with the denial of any influences of grace from Jesus Christ unto the holiness of truth.

And many other opinions wherewith men even pride themselves, to the contempt of the doctrine received and established in the reformed churches of old,--are borrowed out of the storehouses of their imaginations, shall I say, or raked out of their dunghill.

And whither the infection may diffuse itself I know not. The resurrection of the same bodies substantially, the subsistence and acting of the soul in its separate state and condition, the eternity of hell torments, the nature of Christ's sacerdotal office as distinguished from his regal, begin to be either questioned or very faintly defended amongst many.

John Owen, Works Volume VII, The Nature and Causes of Apostasy, p. 77-8

It seems to me that in Owen's analysis the infection of Socinianism was spreading because the immune system among the churches was weak. There was a weakened view of the necessity of grace, or the comprehensive need of grace. This was true of the great objective work of Christ, his satisfaction for sin, and the great subjective work of God in regeneration.

Behind the diminishing of God's grace in the gospel emerged the inflation and reassertion of human ability.

Evangelicalism without the theology of the reformation churches will always revert to Pelagianism. Only the grace of God in the gospel can suppress and kill this tendency.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The beloved Son cursed for sinners

You sometimes hear the accusation that there is a version of penal substitution around today that is somewhat extreme. The implication being that this is an ultra-conservative departure from a more historic understanding of substitutionary atonement. John Knox would have raised his eyebrows at such a notion.

Scots Confession (1560), chapter 9

That our Lord Jesus offered himself a voluntary sacrifice unto his Father for us, that he suffered contradiction of sinners, that he was wounded and plagued for our transgressions, that he, the clean innocent Lamb of God, was condemned in the presence of an earthly judge, that we should be absolved before the judgment seat of our God; that he suffered not only the cruel death of the cross, which was accursed by the sentence of God; but also that he suffered for a season the wrath of his Father which sinners had deserved. But yet we avow that he remained the only, well beloved, and blessed Son of his Father even in the midst of his anguish and torment which he suffered in body and soul to make full atonement for the sins of his people. From this we confess and avow that there remains no other sacrifice for sin; if any affirm so, we do not hesitate to say that they are blasphemers against Christ's death and the everlasting atonement thereby purchased for us.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The Non-Negotiable Demands of God

Cleave, serve, worship, trust...

From the first article of the Scots Confession (1560):

We confess and acknowledge one God alone, to whom alone we must cleave, whom alone we must serve, whom only we must worship, and in whom alone we put our trust. Who is eternal, infinite, immeasurable, incomprehensible, omnipotent, invisible; one in substance and yet distinct in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. By whom we confess and believe all things in heaven and earth, visible and invisible to have been created, to be retained in their being, and to be ruled and guided by his inscrutable providence for such end as his eternal wisdom, goodness, and justice have appointed, and to the manifestation of his own glory.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Watch your life and doctrine closely: my rationale for interviews

There will be more interviews to come in the next few weeks on handling truth and error in the ministry. My thanks to Geoff Thomas, Derek Thomas, Scott Clark, Carl Trueman and Michael Horton for their insights and wisdom.

I personally find interviews very stimulating. They give you a feel for the person behind the pulpit and the books. They are also able to flesh out "right" answers with experience. The latter can show us something of the trials and costliness of pastoral ministry.

Here is something of my rationale for conducting these interviews:

I hope that these interviews will serve three aims for three groups of people.

The first group consists of those considering, training for, and actually engaged in pastoral ministry.

The second group consists of those who weekly hear, reflect on, and seek to put into practice the teaching ministry of the first group. It is the Church that supplies men for the ministry, and (not to be neglected) financially sustains this work.

The third, and smallest group, consists of those entrusted with teaching, training, mentoring, pastoring, and correcting the first group for the sake of the life and health of the second group. This third group consists of those who teach the teachers at seminaries and theological colleges.

My aims for this series of interviews are:

1. To provide a window on the personal context of dealing with theological error.

2. To encourage serious biblical thinking on the nature and danger of heresy in the context of proclaiming and teaching the whole counsel of God.

3. To learn lessons from the Bible, the creeds, the Reformed confessions, and Church history to help foster reflection and action on the challenges, threats, and opportunities of our own times.

I hope then that the interviews will do far more than inform. My hope is that they will promote a personal watchfulness, humility, love for the truth, discernment, wisdom, historical awareness and steadfastness.