Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Incomprehensibility of God and our Knowledge of Him

When teaching theology proper, I always start with God's incomprehensibility, because humility demands that we understand at the outset that we are like infants struggling to understand a genius who is speaking to us in our own terms.

To whatever degree it is possible for his creatures to apprehand him, God has made himself known.

Theology distinguishes between a comprehensive (exhaustive) knowledge of God, which we cannot have, and and an apprehensive knowledge, which is the limited, finite, creaturely knowledge that we can have. Apprehensive knowledge admits to degrees, so we can know God, more or less, in this human framework.

Even if we master every iota of information given by Scripture and nature about the character of God, and fully understand all that has been revealed, our knowledge will still be far from comprehensive.

In this world, because of the weakness of our flesh, our slothfulness, our slowness of mind, we do not even begin to master what he has revealed. Thus our apprehensive knowledge is weak and frequently attended by error.

R. C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: Vol. 1, p. 41-2

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Wales lost to Fiji

So Wales are out of the Rugby World Cup.

Note to self, "don't go out of the house for a few days, and don't read the Ref 21 blog as Carl Trueman is bound to be one of Job's comforters on this one."

The rejection of biblical authority is a moral issue

Commenting on WCF 1:iv:
The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God
R. C. Sproul notes that:
The confession asserts that the Bible's authority is so strong, so supreme, that it imposes on us a moral obligation to believe it. If we do not believe it, we have sinned. It is not so much an intellectual as a moral issue.
Throughout Church history, the supreme attack of the world, the flesh, and the devil against godliness has been an attack on the authority of God's Word. Fierce assaults on the authority of Scripture, which came out of the Enlightenment, made their way into the universities and seminaries. They also came from within the Church, in the name of biblical criticism or higher criticism.
At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, Abraham Kuyper...observed that biblical criticism had become biblical vandalism. Once, when I was in the old city of Athens, I observed people spray-painting graffiti on two-thousand-year-old ruins. "Is nothing sacred today?" I thought. No treasure has been more subject to malicious attack than Scripture itself.
R. C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: Vol. 1 The Triune God, p. 12-13

Friday, September 28, 2007

The "Social Gospel" Summarised

Here is a helpful summary by Sean Michael Lucas (who blogs here) in his book On Being Presbyterian:

...three progressive intellectual trends became prominent at the PCUS seminaries. The first, and most important, was the "Social Gospel." The phrase described the effort to relate biblical principles to social needs and challenges raised by the industrialization and urbanization of the early twentieth century.

But the Social Gospel came to represent a major shift in the way important theological categories were used. In short, the Social Gospel represented a movement away from individual to corporate categories for theology. Sin was defined in social and systemic terms--the oppressive social structures that kept people from achieving their potential. Salvation, likewise, was the removal of those structures in order to maximize human potentialities and make a more just world.

Also distinctive about the Social Gospel movement was a genuine embrace of the historical Jesus and his teaching as the norm for social action; "What would Jesus do?" was the question that Social Gospel promoters...desired Christians to ask themselves. In particular, the question was what Jesus would do in order to realize the kingdom of God as an earthly reality, bringing social harmony in its wake.

All natural and political processes that brought God's kingdom to closer fulfillment were seen as the work of God's Spirit.

Sean Michael Lucas, On Being Presbyterian: Our beliefs, practices, and stories, p. 227-8

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Scripture and Confession

Thoughts on the relationship between Scripture and Confessional statements from W. G. T. Shedd, quoted by D. G. Hart over at De Regno Christi:

Of course Scripture is the only infallible rule of faith. But this particular way of appealing to Scripture is specious and fallacious...this kind of appeal to Scripture is only an appeal to Scripture as the reviser understands it.

“Scripture” properly means the interpretation of Scripture; that is, the contents of Scripture as reached by human investigation and exegesis. Creeds, like commentaries, are Scripture studied and explained, and not the mere abstract and unexplained book as it lies on the counter of the Bible House.

The infallible Word of God is expounded by the fallible mind of man, and hence the variety of expositions embodied in the denominational creeds. But every interpreter claims to have understood the Scriptures correctly, and, consequently, claims that his creed is Scriptural, and if so, that it is the infallible truth of God.

The Arminian appeals to the Articles of Wesley as the rule of faith, because he believes them to be the true explanation of the inspired Bible. . . . The Calvinist appeals to the creeds of Heidelberg, Dort, and Westminster as the rule of faith, because he regards them as the accurate exegesis of the revealed Word of God. By the ‘Bible’ these parties, as well as all others who appeal to the Bible, mean their understanding of the Bible.

There is no such thing as that abstract Scripture to which the revisionist of whom we are speaking appeals; that is, Scripture apart from any and all interpretation of it. When, therefore, the advocate of revision demands that the Westminster Confession be “conformed to Scripture,” he means conformation to Scripture as he and those like him read and explain it.

It is impossible to make abstract Scripture the rule of faith for either an individual or a denomination. No Christian body has ever subscribed to the Bible merely as a printed book. A person who should write his name on the blank leaf of the Bible and say that his doctrinal belief was between the covers, would convey no definite information as to his creed.

Essential Reading

From the Banner of Truth Website:

Why should one be interested in and even purchase this old book, however attractive the new edition? The answer is not far to seek. As long as we had no access to Dickson’s commentary we could do without it: we had no alternative. Now that it is once again available I believe the volume to be virtually indispensable in any serious study of the Westminster Confession, the great document which Dickson so carefully and ably expounded.

Dickson was not a Scottish commissioner to the Westminster Assembly; but he was a senior colleague and friend to those remarkable Scotsmen who took such a leading part in the deliberations of that assembly: Alexander Henderson, Samuel Rutherford, George Gillespie, Robert Baillie, and Archibald Johnston. He knew them well, understood their thinking, and was in complete agreement with their theological convictions.

What this means, of course, is that Truth’s Victory over Error provides an extraordinarily significant window through which we can view the Westminster Confession in terms of the intent of those who composed it. In my judgment, no pastor, no serious student, can now claim to have studied that confession without taking account of the wise, gracious, clear-headed, uncompromising integrity and the profound learning of the great divine who provided us with this indispensable analysis of its teaching.

J. R. DeWitt

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

On approaching the study of justification

From James Buchanan's classic book:

The best preparation for the study of this doctrine is--neither great intellectual ability, nor much scholastic learning,--but a conscience impressed with a sense of our actual condition as sinners in the sight of God.

A deep conviction of sin is the one thing needful in such an inquiry,--a conviction of the fact of sin, as an awful reality in our own personal experience,--of the power of sin, as an inveterate evil cleaving to us continually, and having its roots deep in the innermost recesses of our hearts,--and of the guilt of sin, past as well as present, as an offence against God, which, once committed, can never cease to be true of us individually, and which, however He may be pleased to deal with it, has deserved His wrath and righteous condemnation.

Without some such conviction of sin, we may speculate on this, as on any other, part of the divine truth, and bring all the resources of our intellect and learning to bear upon it, but can have no suitable sense of our actual danger, and no serious desire for deliverance from it.

To study the subject with advantage, we must have a heartfelt interest in it, as one that bears directly on the salvation of our souls; and this interest can only be felt in proportion as we realise our guilt, and misery, and danger, as transgressors of God's Law.

...without some heartfelt conviction of sin, we could have no feeling of personal interest in the doctrine of Justification, such as is necessary to command our serious attention in the study of it, so we should be scarcely capable of understanding, in their full scriptural meaning the terms in which it is proposed to us, or the testimonies by which alone it can be established.

James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification, p. 222-3

Monday, September 24, 2007

A Few Good Men? No Not Even One: How to approach justification by faith alone

Whenever we approach a doctrine taught in Scripture it is important that we think about how we ought to approach it. And a weighty matter like justification is not something that we are at liberty to look upon in a detached way. After all, whether we like it or not, we are involved in it. The doctrine of justification sola fide presupposes the guilt of sin, and as we are sinners we are best off approaching it with a due recognition of our guilt coram Deo (before God).

With the kind of omnipresence that television has mediated to us we have far more access and insight into court proceedings than would ever normally have been the case. And we are accustomed, well at least most of us, to being passive onlookers in judicial matters. However, as we come to the doctrine of justification we are taught from the moment that this truth impresses itself on our consciousness that we are actively involved as those belonging to the guilty party before God's judgment throne.

Our connection with Adam, our actual sins for which we are culpable and without excuse, and "the story we find our selves in" which will end with an appearance on the day of judgment before the God who will repay us according to what we have done, are all intended to quicken our minds and consciences so that we will take justification to be the urgent and pressing matter for us that it really is.

As we consider this doctrine of justification recognizing that we are sinners JohnOwen wrote that the inquiry really is:
What that is upon the account of whereof God pardoneth all their sins, receiveth them into his favour, declareth or pronounceth them righteous and acquitted from all guilt, removes the curse, and turneth away all his wrath from them, giving them right and title unto a blessed immortality or eternal life?
Owen lays out in the introduction of his work on justification the basic issues and choices facing us:
Whether it be any thing in ourselves as our faith and repentance, the renovation of our natures, inherent habits of grace, and actual works of righteousness which we have done, or may do? Or whether it be the obedience, righteousness, satisfaction, and merit of the Son of God our mediator, and surety of the covenant, imputed unto us?
One of these it must be, --namely, something that is our own, which, whatever may be the influence of the grace of God unto it, or causality of it, because wrought in and by us, is inherently our own in a proper sense; or something which, being not our own, not inherent in us, nor wrought by us, is yet imputed unto us, for the pardon of our sins and the acceptation of our persons as righteous, or the making of us righteous in the sight of God.
Neither are these things capable of mixture or composition, Rom. xi. 6. Which of these it is the duty, wisdom, and safety of a convinced sinner to rely upon and trust unto, in his appearance before God is the sum of our present inquiry.
John Owen, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith, p. 8-9

With all the current interest in and controversy over justification in the academy and the Church, Owen's recently republished work (with an introductory essay by Carl R. Trueman) is well worth picking up and reading.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

False doctrines take God's name in vain

More from the Westminster Larger Catechism:

Question 111: Which is the third commandment?

Answer: The third commandment is, Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain: for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that takes his name in vain.

Question 113: What are the sins forbidden in the third commandment?

Answer: The sins forbidden in the third commandment are, the not using of God's name as is required; and the abuse of it in an ignorant, vain, irreverent, profane, superstitious, or wicked mentioning, or otherwise using his titles, attributes, ordinances, or works, by blasphemy, perjury; all sinful cursings, oaths, vows, and lots; violating of our oaths and vows, if lawful; and fulfilling them, if of things unlawful; murmuring and quarreling at, curious prying into, and misapplying of God's decrees and providences; misinterpreting, misapplying, or any way perverting the Word, or any part of it, to profane jests, curious or unprofitable questions, vain janglings, or the maintaining of false doctrines; abusing it, the creatures, or anything contained under the name of God, to charms, or sinful lusts and practices; the maligning, scorning, reviling, or anywise opposing of God's truth, grace, and ways; making profession of religion in hypocrisy, or for sinister ends; being ashamed of it, or a shame to it, by unconformable, unwise, unfruitful, and offensive walking, or backsliding from it.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Heresy is the breaking of the first commandment

Heresy is a moral and not just an intellectual problem. According to the Westminster Larger Catechism heresy is a sin forbidden by the first commandment.

Q. 102. Which is the first commandment?

A. The first commandment is, Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

Q 105. What are the sins forbidden in the first commandment?

A. The sins forbidden in the first commandment are, atheism, in denying or not having a God; idolatry, in having or worshiping more gods than one, or any with or instead of the true God; the not having and avouching him for God, and our God; the omission or neglect of anything due to him, required in this commandment; ignorance, forgetfulness, misapprehensions, false opinions, unworthy and wicked thoughts of him; bold and curious searching into his secrets; all profaneness, hatred of God; self-love, self-seeking, and all other inordinate and immoderate setting of our mind, will, or affections upon other things, and taking them off from him in whole or in part; vain credulity, unbelief, heresy, misbelief, distrust, despair, incorrigibleness, and insensibleness under judgments, hardness of heart, pride, presumption, carnal security, tempting of God; using unlawful means, and trusting in lawful means; carnal delights and joys; corrupt, blind, and indiscreet zeal; lukewarmness, and deadness in the things of God; estranging ourselves, and apostatizing from God; praying, or giving any religious worship, to saints, angels, or any other creatures; all compacts and consulting with the devil, and hearkening to his suggestions; making men the lords of our faith and conscience; slighting and despising God and his commands; resisting and grieving of his Spirit, discontent and impatience at his dispensations, charging him foolishly for the evils he inflicts on us; and ascribing the praise of any good we either are, have, or can do, to fortune, idols, ourselves, or any other creature.

The fresh breezes from the past can be a wonderful thing

The following quote is from James Bannerman. I came across it in a comment from John Muether at De Regno Christi:

“The Church may in all such cases [testing a doctrinal view; trying an officer] take directly the Word of God itself as the standard to rule its decision, or may take a human confession drawn up in explanation of the Word of God as the standard to rule its decision.

In both instances it is ultimately the Church’s judgment of what the Word of God says in the matter that guides and determines the decision,–that judgment in the one case being formed directly by an examination of the Word at the moment, and in the other case being formed by the help of its own previous examination of the same Word embodied in the confession.

In the one way the Church, for the purpose of deciding each particular case, examines the Scriptures afresh, and according to the examination pronounces judgment; in the other way, the Church has recourse for aid to the result of its former examination of the Scriptures, and according to the record of that examination pronounces judgment.

In both instances the judgment rests on the same foundation,–on the footing of what, in the opinion of the Church, is the meaning of the Word of God as bearing upon the matter submitted to its decision.”

Friday, September 21, 2007

The weakened church

More from Machen to end the week:

The Church of today has been unfaithful to her Lord by admitting great companies of non-Christian persons, not only into her membership, but into her teaching agencies. It is inevitable that some persons who are not truly Christian shall find their way into the visible church; fallible men cannot discern the heart, and many a profession of faith which seems to be genuine may really be false.

But it is not this kind of error to which we now refer. What is now meant is not the admission of individuals whose confessions of faith may not be sincere, but the admission of great companies of persons who have never made any really adequate confession of faith at all and whose entire attitude toward the gospel is the very reverse of the Christian attitude.

Such persons, moreover, have been admitted not merely to the membership, but to the ministry of the Church, and to an increasing extent have been allowed to dominate its councils and determine its teaching.

The greatest menace to the Christian Church today comes not from the enemies outside, but from the enemies within; it comes from the presence within the Church of a type of faith and practice that is anti-Christian to the core.

Gresham Machen, Christianity & Liberalism, p. 159-60

Thursday, September 20, 2007

A further comment on Machen, McLaren and the gospel

As a follow up to yesterday's post consider Machen's assessment of the critics who spurned Protestant theology as individualistic:

It is only be a baseless caricature that Christian missionaries are represented as though they had no interest in education or in the maintenance of a social life in this world; it is not true that they are interested only in saving individual souls and when the souls are saved leave them to their own devices.

Christian service, it is true, is not limited to the household of faith; all men, whether Christians or not, are our neighbours if they be in need. But if we really love our fellow men we shall never be content with binding up their wounds or pouring on oil or wine or rending them any such lesser service. We shall indeed do such things for them. But the main business of our lives will be to bring them to the Saviour of their souls.

Gresham Machen, Christianity & Liberalism, p. 157-8

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Machen and Mclaren on gospels old and new

Yesterday Tim Challies posted some commentary and analysis on a chapter from Brian McLaren's forthcoming book Everything Must Change. It is well worth a read, so if you haven't seen you can find it here. According to Tim the chapter is a study of contrasts between the gospel as misunderstood by Protestant theology, or the "conventional view," and as understood and set forth by McLaren.

As you would expect this comparison places each view in sharp relief and invites mutual critique. Before doing this it is worth asking to what extent either view has been accurately described, and also whether the two views are totally antithetical at every point. Or, in other words, are we being presented with false alternatives? Must the affirmation of one view also entail the total denial of the other view? McLaren is not known for fair descriptions of the theological views that he rejects.

The "conventional view," as outlined in the post, is somewhat caricatured by its otherworldliness and overweening individualism. The other view on offer is kingdom focussed and world transforming right now. The upshot is that, according to McLaren, “Jesus in the conventional view has little or nothing to say regarding the world’s global crises.”

McLaren's summary of the message of Jesus appears strong on the appeal to change our view of the world and to follow him, but short on an explanation of a gracious act of God in Christ to redeem lost sinners who would otherwise be inescapably lost. This is Jesus the Prophet, maybe even Jesus the King, but not really Jesus the Priest.

But perhaps, more pointedly, his alternative gospel is itself thoroughly individualistic. It is after all still a message transmitted by teaching and example that individuals must embrace for themselves if they are to benefit from it. The major difference, and what a difference it is, concerns the content of the message addressed to individuals and the impact that it makes. And at this point what is needed appears to be a change of heart, of perspective, of direction on our part; what is not needed is a change of status before God that the cross of Christ alone could achieve.

The two gospels differ radically in their assessment of the need of individuals and their standing before God. The old gospel called men to repent and believe, to willingly submit to Jesus as Lord, to live for his glory now and for eternity. It promised a new heart, and a new birth. But the old gospel also brought men and women face to face with their need to be right before God, and pointed exlusively to the Lord who died in the place of sinners and rose from the grave.

The implied contrast between these old and new gospels reminded me of some words penned by Gresham Machen in the 1920s. They give weight to the concern that McLaren's theology bears more than a passing resemblance to the old liberal gospel:
But if Christianity be directed toward another world, if it be a way by which individuals can escape from the present evil age to some better country, what becomes of "the social gospel"?

At this point is detected one of the most obvious lines of cleavage between Christianity and the liberal Church. The older evangelism, says the modern liberal preacher, sought to rescue individuals, while the newer evangelism seeks to transform the whole organism of society: the older evangelism was individual; the newer evangelism is social.

This formulation of the issue is not entirely correct, but it contains an element of truth...It rejects altogether any means of salvation which deals with men in a mass; it brings the individual face to face with his God. In that sense, it is true that Christianity is individualistic and not social.

But although Christianity is individualistic, it is not only individualistic. It provides fully for the social needs of man.

...the Christian man believes that there can be no applied Christianity unless there be "a Christianity to apply." That is where the Christian man differs from the modern liberal. The liberal believes that applied Christianity is all there is of Christianity, Christianity being merely a way of life; the Christian man believes that applied Christianity is the result of an initial act of God.

Thus there is an enormous difference between the modern liberal and the Christian man with reference to human institutions like the community and the state, and with reference to human efforts at applying the Golden Rule in industrial relationships.

The modern liberal believes that human nature as at present constituted can be molded by the principles of Jesus; the Christian man believes that evil can only be held in check and not destroyed by human institutions, and that there must be a transformation of human materials before any new building can be produced.
Gresham Machen, Christianity & Liberalism, p. 152, 154-6

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

What the serpent is saying to the churches

Here is a short extract from the 17th Century Puritan Samuel Bolton (minister and at one time Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University):
It is well known that, just as God has communicated many truths to man, so has Satan endeavoured to bring in many errors, his hope being to prejudice and weaken the reception of the truth even though he failed to induce men to entertain his lies. Indeed he finds that his best time for selling his wares is when pedlars are most busy, and when, in the busy market, men are buying truth. It is then that he offers his merchandise.
To make it more vendible he represents it as highly respectable and as spiritual in character as truth itself. For long he has walked as a prince of darkness, but because he has lost hope of deceiving men any longer as such, he now transforms himself as an angel of light. Successful in past ages as a bare-faced deceiver, he put on a mask when men discovered his real character, and thus disguised he carried on his designs for generations. But the mask is now taken off, and he operates as one wearing the very face of truth.
Samuel Bolton, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom, p. 13

Two observations

1. What Bolton took for granted, that Satan stands behind destructive theological error as its prime instigator, is largely a lost perspective today. It would prfoundly change the that Christians thought of encounters with the demonic if they connected them with heresies and false teaching. The NT evidence is not lacking in this regard.

2. The devil of course appeared from the beginning as an angel of light as he offered
an alternative revelation to Adam and Eve. He is most dangerous when he appears most benign, and his theological lies are sold to us as even better than truth itself.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Gospel unhinged

Calvin, who had the highest regard for Luther's rediscovery of the gospel of free justification, insisted that this doctrine was "the main hinge of the Christian religion." The implication of Calvin's use of this metaphor is that, if we should become unhinged at this point, then the whole of the Christian faith is in danger of collapsing. Since justification addresses the most basic religious question, namely, how offending sinners can find favour and acceptance with God, it lies at the heart of the saving message of the gospel.

Cornelis Venema, The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ, p. 12

And by implication with the gospel unhinged the doorway is wide open for other gospels to enter the church. Which of course is precisely what happens.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Keep your friends close but your enemies closer

Whilst books dealing with malevolent theological trends and movements are helpful there is no substitute for personal reading of the primary texts. Naturally a minister seeks to read for the good of his own soul for the sake of his people. In pursuing that aim it is again understandable that a minister chooses books that he agrees with. There is real value in having an author explain and unfold the very same truths that you love and need to know.

Yet if this is all that a minister reads he will be neglecting his own need to maintain theological sharpness, and his ability to defend truth against error. First hand aquaintance here, alongside some helpful secondary literature, has several benefits. It will mean taking false teaching seriously on its own terms. This forces you to grapple directly with the issues and arguments. It helps to prevent laziness and a dulling of the critical faculties. On the positive side this can only be good for that ongoing discipline of spiritual discernment. There is a degree of credibility in doing this that a reliance on secondary literature cannot supply.

Of course there is an important caveat here. As Phil Johnson once commented, some people only seem to a hold to a view for about eighteen months before they change there mind and embrace something else. In order to responsibly critique an opposing position you need to have a worked out theological framework to begin with. That takes time, reflection, reading (of doctrine, exegesis and history), discussion, debate, prayer, meditation, and suffering. From this, a position of real strength can emerge. And from this framework false teaching can be read, probed, and responsibly critiqued.

To quote from Michael Corleone, that unlikely source of theological wisdom, "keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer."

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Classifying objections to penal substitution

Here is a short extract from Charles Hodge:

The only legitimate method of controverting a doctrine which purports to be founded on the Scriptures is the exegetical. If its advocates undertake to show that it is taught in the Bible, its opponents are bound to prove that the Bible, understood agreeably to the recognized laws of interpretation, does not teach it.

This method, comparatively speaking, is little relied upon, or resorted to by the adversaries of the Church doctrine concerning the satisfaction of Christ. Their main reliance is on objections of two classes: the one drawn from speculative or philosophical principles; the other from the sentiments or feelings.

Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology Vol. II, p. 527

Perhaps we could include under "speculative or philosophical" the claim that penal substitution is the product of a particular culture (in terms of doctrinal reflection) and is most appropriate to preach as part of the evangel if it resonates with that kind of culture today. Presumably if it doesn't resonate and speak to the culture you are trying to reach then it becomes a dormant idea.

We are approaching the atonement, on this understanding, not primarily exegetically but by selecting which aspect of the atonement we think best fits with the culture. Although it must be said that people who make this general argument are also known for their opposition to penal substitution.

However, you can be sure that if we approached the atonement asking "what has God said about it in his Word?" this situation would never arise. Try and select an appropriate "image," "model," or "metaphor" from Romans 3:21-26 for the culture you are seeking to bring good news to. It is impossible to do so since justification, redemption and propitiation (and hence penal substitution) are all present in the text and are bound up together.

If you preach the cross by expositing the text you will have to preach penal substitution.

The Good, the Bad, and Indifferent

The Presbyterian Controversy of the 1920s and 30s could have unfolded like a classic Western movie. The liberals who denied the Westminster Confession by their reinterpretations, like Henry Sloane Coffin, and the orthodox who really believed it, like Gresham Machen, were headed for a showdown. The denomination (read "town") wasn't big enough for the both of them. Well how could it be with antithetical views on the very doctrines that were essential to the gospel and the very life of the church?

What seemed to be a straight forward showdown was exacerbated by the "moderates." Epitomized by Charles Erdman, who taught practical theology at Princeton and who became Moderator at the 1925 General Assembly, this approach was orthodox enough in affirming the truth but was willing to accommodate the liberals. From the best of motives, unity and the evangelistic mission of the church, great damage was done by the "moderates."

It is possible for men to hold to orthodox beliefs, but in actual practice to hold to them in quite different ways. This difference was not lost on Machen. His description of it has real value since the same parties and approaches seem to recur in doctrinal controversies:

There is between Dr. Erdman and myself a very serious doctrinal difference indeed. It concerns the question not of this doctrine or that, but of the importance which is to be attributed to doctrine as such...
Dr. Erdman does not indeed reject the doctrinal system of our church, but he is perfectly willing to make common cause with those who reject it, and he is perfectly willing to keep it in the background. I on the other hand can never consent to keep it in the background. Christian doctrine, I hold, is not merely connected with the gospel, but it is identical with the gospel, and if I did not preach it at all times, and especially in those places where it subjects me to personal abuse, I should regard myself as guilty of sheer unfaithfulness to Christ. (p. 131-2)
Make no mistake, mere assent to orthodoxy without the practical consequence of dealing with error in the church is inevitably a gross compromise. Orthodox doctrine is devalued when this mindset is at work.

As Longfield notes, there had to be a showdown, and the "moderates" would have to choose where their loyalty would lie:
Though the liberal threat to bolt the church was apparently sincere, it also served the strategic purpose of demanding a choice from the moderate conservatives. Strict doctrinal orthodoxy and a united church were no longer an option; one or other, the liberals implied, would have to go. (p. 152)
In the end the choice came down not to "strict doctrinal orthodoxy" or a united church but to the very survival of the marks of the church. Someone was going to end up in the cemetery on the outskirts of the town. Machen saw it coming:
A policy of palliation and of compromise will in a few years lead to the control of our church as has already happened in the case of many churches, by agnostic Modernism. (p. 149)
What do we learn from this?

Men will always applaud an irenic spirit over against a polemical approach. But the sound of such approval can quite easily mask the noise of the destruction of confessional orthodoxy. Choices must be made and it will do no good to cry "peace! peace!" when there is no peace.

[All extracts from Bradley J. Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy]

Scott Clark has a review of Longfield's book here, and a similar post here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Affirmations that amount to denials

Men will always find a way to interpret confessional statements in accordance with their own preferred views and not those of the document in question. It should always be borne in mind that the affirmations of orthodoxy that a man makes will only be as good as the actual correspondence between his beliefs and the confessional statement he voluntarily subscribes to.

The case of the liberal presbyterian minister, and at one time president of Union Theological Seminary, Henry Sloane Coffin is a case in point:

In subscribing to the Westminster Confession of Faith Coffin did not believe that he was accepting the doctrines stated in the Confession. Rather, as he later maintained:

"The formula [of subscription] means to me that under the supreme authority of Christ I receive the confession as setting forth in seventeenth century thought and language the principal doctrines which have grown out of and foster the religious experience of protestant evangelical Christians, and which it is my privilege to teach in the best thought and speech at my command for those to whom I minister."

This interpretation of the subscription vow gave Coffin a great deal of leeway in accepting the Confession...In any event, Coffin did not believe that creedal differences should bar one from ministry. There was no inconsistency, he maintained, "in worshipping and working, or even in occupying a position of leadership, in a communion with whose creed, or ritual, or methods one is not in full sympathy."

Bradley J. Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, & Moderates, p. 85-6

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The rhetoric of unbelief and the impersonal mechanics of penal substitution

Some people cannot stand the doctrine of penal substitution.

Edward Irving referred to it as "stock-exchange divinity." The relationship between the doctrines of the holiness, justice, and grace of God, the nature of sin and its deserved punishment, the person of the God-man Jesus Christ, and his substitution in the place of his people, are at times regarded quite pejoratively as implying an impersonal and mechanical view of the atonement.

As Letham notes:

Talk of penal substitution as "stock-exchange divinity" is simply a coded message; its author means "I do not like it."

The Work of Christ, p.138

Granted, Irving's description is somewhat tame compared to the epithets "cosmic" or "divine" child abuse. Contrast this with Garry Williams' eloquent, moving, and powerful description:

...Jesus did bear the punishment for bearing it he made atonement, and...he bore it from the hand of God himself. Penal substitution is consonant with the language of reconciliation used elsewhere in Scripture. It does not entail a mechanistic view of the atonement, because in bearing the punishment of sin on the cross, the divine Word as a man endured the consequences of the personal confrontation between God and sinful men and women.

This punishment involved the very being of God himself, since it was punishment on the basis of his holy law executed by the presence of his holy being, the punishment of exclusion from the relationship of love with God expressed by Jesus in his cry of dereliction, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mt. 27:46).

So it was that the one who will himself be the acting subject in the Last Judgment became its object in the place of sinners. But as he stood in their place he exhausted the punishment due to them, and the presence of God to Jesus turned from curse to blessing. As the human life of Jesus was spent on the cross, so he rested in the grave only to be raised again under the blessing of God.

Throughout, the Trinitarian God had been there, personally involved in the work of atonement, both as the Judge pouring out his cup of wrath, and in the one judged drinking that same cup. Here indeed is the glorious hope of our salvation which we must proclaim, that the punishment that brought us peace was upon God himself in his incarnate Son.

"The Cross and the Punishment of Sin," in Peterson (ed.), Where Wrath and Mercy Meet: Proclaiming the Atonement Today, p. 97-8

There is a world of difference between these perceptions of penal substitution not only in their value as objective descriptions but also in what they reveal about the subjective appropriation of the truth.

Monday, September 03, 2007

The defense against speculations

Heretics are not only deviating from biblical orthodoxy they are also deviating from biblical orthopraxy at the same time. Calvin's letter to Laelius Socinus illustrates this well:

Certainly no one can be more averse to paradox than I am, and in subtleties I find no delight at all. Yet nothing shall ever hinder me from openly avowing what I have learned from the Word of God; for nothing but what is useful is taught in the school of this master. It is my only guide, and to acquiesce in its plain doctrines shall be my constant rule of wisdom.

Would that you also, my dear Laelius, would learn to regulate your powers with the same moderation! You have no reason to expect a reply from me so long as you bring forward those monstrous questions. If you are gratified by floating among those airy speculations, permit me, I beseech you, an humble disciple of Christ, to meditate on those things which tend towards the building up of my faith.

...And in truth I am very greatly grieved that the fine talents with which God has endowed you, should be occupied not only with what is vain and fruitless, but that they should also be injured by pernicious figments.

What I warned you of long ago, I must again seriously repeat, that unless you correct in time this itching after investigation, it is to be feared you will bring upon yourself severe suffering.

I should be cruel towards you did I treat with a show of indulgence what I believe to be a very dangerous error. I should prefer, accordingly, offending you a little at present by my severity, rather than allow you to indulge unchecked in the fascinating allurements of curiosity.

Letters of John Calvin, No. 30 (Banner of Truth), p. 128-9

Are you content with God's Word?

Are you content with the limits this places on your knowledge and with how you gain it?

Saturday, September 01, 2007

How to teach the defense against the dark arts

"The Dark Arts are many, varied, ever changing...fighting them is like fighting a many-headed monster...your defences must therefore be as flexible and inventive as the Arts you seek to undo."

So said Severus Snape.

But there is much better advice on how to teach heresy from Carl "Mad-Eye Moody" Trueman over at Ref 21.

Here's the introduction:

Teaching heresy is surely one of the most important things that I have to do in my classes at Seminary. Friends will at this point throw up their hands in horror; enemies will smile smugly to themselves and mutter `I told you so!’; but it is true. Teaching heresy is, for me, a crucial part of my responsibility as a professor. The reason, of course, is simple: in order to know what orthodoxy is, one needs to know what heresy is. Indeed, a study of the creedal development of orthodoxy, particularly in the early church, demonstrates time and again that the defining of orthodoxy and the defining of heresy is something which the church does simultaneously. This is hardly surprising: creeds establish boundaries, and so the establishment of creedal orthodoxy is one and the same act as the establishment of heresy.

So far, so obvious. That is the "why" question answered. The "how" question is a little more complicated...

Well go and read the rest. The ending is good too:

...those called to be teachers in the church need a solid grasp of orthodoxy; and that demands by its very nature a solid grasp of heresy. That is why I teach heresy in my classes, and why I make sure I do justice to the legitimacy of the questions which underlie virtually every heresy of which I can think; for it is only then that I can truly explain orthodoxy to my students. And I also get a perverse pleasure from using heresy to do that which heretics most despise: promote sound, biblical, historic orthodoxy.

What if God is self-limiting? Reflections on Roger Olson's article

Here is a brief extract from a recent article by Dr. Roger Olson:

Many conservative Christians wince at the idea that God is limited. But what if God limits himself so that much of what happens in the world is due to human finitude and fallenness? What if God is in charge but not in control? What if God wishes that things could be otherwise and someday will make all things perfect?

That seems more like the God of the Bible than the all-determining deity of Calvinism.

The rest of the article is here (HT: Justin Taylor).

Some brief obervations on the coherence of Dr. Olson's presuppositions:

This view of God's self-limiting purposes in creation and providence do not change the fact that he is still really being thought of, in this quotation, as an "all-determining deity."

If he "limits himself" then his present relationship to the creation, and to the problem of evil and suffering, is one of choice and not of nature. God has chosen to limit himself as opposed to having inherent limitations in his being and attributes. He is still "in control" and "all-determining" having by his own volition limited his relationship to the creation.

If he did not choose to limit himself like this then what would the world now look like? That question is not addressed. But what happens in this world, although attributed by our author to human finitude and fallenness, must reckon with the fact that these are actualities because of God's self-limitation. He has determined this self-limitation and has therefore determined "what happens in the world" as a consequence of that choice.

The future hope that he will "someday make all things perfect" must imply that God is in some sense "all-determining" and that he does have "control" over creation. If he is able to determine this future reality, a perfect world, then his present relationship to the world (where we have been told he has self-limited his actions) must be one of control. Unless one is prepared to embrace open theism then it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that what is foreknown is determined and must happen. Thus if God has determined a future perfect world then we would be playing with words if we wanted to claim that he was "in charge" but not "in control" of the creation as it now is.

What guarantees this future perfect world? Will God limit himself in relationship to that world to preserve what he appears to want for the present world, on this analysis, namely libertarian freedom?

Toward the end of the article he writes:

It's a different picture of God than most conservative Christians grew up with, but it's the only one (so far as I can tell) that relieves God of responsibility for sin and evil and disaster and calamity. (emphasis added)

But it is at this point that his claims flounder. Dr. Olson's proposals do not get us very far. They certainly do not provide the kind of refuge that he is claiming. If he believed in a God of limited omniscience or omnipotence his claims would be more coherent. But then of course it would not be possible to hold out solid hope in a future perfect world.

We still have an all-determining God who is in control. Self-limitation is a choice determined by God with consequences for creation and providence. The issue here is not really Calvinism at all, but straightforward Christian theism.

Scott Clark also has a post on this article that is well worth reading.