Saturday, December 15, 2007

Keep watch for the Invasion of the Body Snatchers

The classic fifties movie The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a very apt illustration for the way that heresies infiltrate orthodox, bible believing, gospel proclaiming churches and denominations. If you are unfamiliar with the film here's a plot summary from The Internet Movie Database:
Dr Miles Bennel returns to his small town practice to find several of his patients suffering the paranoid delusion that their friends or relatives are impostors. He is initially sceptical, especially when the alleged dopplegangers are able to answer detailed questions about their victim's life, but he is eventually persuaded that something odd has happened...someone close to them is acting strangely as if they had been replaced.
With a little editorial licence let me adapt a line from the film:
There's no honesty. None. Just the pretense of it. The words, the gesture, the tone of voice, everything else is the same, but not the reality.
Churches are always combating error. There are blatant errors that announce themselves upfront. Invariably these come from outside of the church, one thinks of the arguments of a Richard Dawkins or a Sam Harris, and even though they may pick off a straggler here or there, their impact is negligible.

Within the church there are, at times, periodic flare-ups of aggressive errors. Even so their effect can be halted because the nature of the errors are just too blatant, at least provided that the church constituency that holds such teachers accountable has not itself already drifted. Of course this doesn't mean that considerable harm is not done, but it can mean that the gap between truth and error is much clearer and more obvious. This problem, however, is exacerbated when previously well known and well respected teachers begin to alter their theology in harmful ways.

The overt denial of significant Christian doctrines is never a matter that should be welcomed. Nevertheless, honesty when a man no longer holds to the truths that he once believed and preached is a good thing. Sadly this is not often the way that things turn out. False teachers are rarely willing, in the words of Dylan Thomas, to go "gentle into that good night."

Instead of there being a clear distinction between truth and error there is often a deliberate blurring of the two. As Paul warned the Ephesian elders, even from their own number men would arise speaking twisted things to draw disciples after them (Acts 20:30). The right response to this cloaking of error in the guise of truth is mental alertness. Error will not always be as obvious as we would like it to be. It will hide beneath orthodox words and phrases slowly reconfiguring their meaning and truth conveying reality.

False teachers, amazingly, can cling to the form of words set down in creeds and confessions even when they have departed from the original intended meaning of those words, and as they have been understood and received by churches down through the years. In this they may well be self-deceived as well as deceiving. We wish that it were not so, but we cannot say that we were not warned that we would face error in this way.

Don't expect the danger of an all out attack, like The War of the Worlds, to do the most damage to the church. The blood of the martyrs can still be the seed of the church. Expect the insidious threat of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers to do great harm to the cause of the gospel.

One way to safeguard the church is to use confessions of faith that don't just state the truth in minimalist terms but explain the truth in detail (as long as we remember that confessions of faith are not only there to serve a defensive role). Nevertheless, even elaborate defenses require men who love the truth to maintain them and to take great care that the gospel they love is believed, taught and confessed.

Hart and Muether, in their recent and very fine book Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Presbyterianism, have an excellent example of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers:
The minister called to assist Andrews in Philadelphia was a recent immigrant from Northern Ireland, Samuel Hemphill, a man educated at the University of Glasgow and ordained by the Presbytery of Strabane, Ireland, specifically for pastoral work in America. Soon after his arrival in 1734, Andrews and other members of presbytery began to object to Hemphill's preaching. Not only had the influence of Enlightenment philosophy led him to express notions that were clearly Arian and Socinian, but ministers also discovered that Hemphill was plagiarizing his sermons.

The Synod of Philadelphia appointed a commission to investigate the matter, consisting of nine ministers, which included John Thomson and Jonathan Dickinson. Andrews, Hemphill's senior colleague at the Philadelphia congregation, led the charge by bringing six objections against the assistant pastor, which included denials of conversion, the merits of Christ, faith as a work of the Holy Spirit, and justification by faith. For all intents and purposes, Hemphill had been preaching Christianity as the culmination of the religion of nature, something accessible to all people with the exception of the sacraments and Christ's work.

Despite unanimity on Hemphill's errors, the case did raise questions about the effectiveness of creedal subscription as a means of maintaining the purity of the church. After all, the wayward pastor had subscribed to the Westminster Standards when ordained in Northern Ireland. Then when admitted to the Synod of Philadelphia he reassured his future pastoral colleagues that he had no reservations about the Westminster Confession and Catechisms.
D. G. Hart & John R. Muether, Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Presbyterianism, p. 53

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